Races and Stories


I'm running out of them.

Reston Triathlon, Reston, Virginia, September 12, 1999

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One of my objectives for the year was to overcome my, um, swimming problem. To understand the problem, however, I have to remind you guys of my entry in the Metroplex Sprint Triathlon two years ago. If you know the words already, sing along.

I had done several sprint races with pool swims, and I had done a number of duathlons. On the goading of friends, however, I entered my first race with an open-water swim. You'd think that a half-mile would be no big deal, but halfway into the race, I packed it in and pulled myself into a police boat. I could not swim aerobically, and I could not swim in a straight line. I hung on to the first buoy. I swam to the second buoy, and hung on to it. I looked behind me, and saw what looked to me like a school of piranhas chasing me--the second wave. I decided to get out of their way by swimming across their path at right angles with the objective of clearing their path as quickly as possible. This was interpreted as derangement by the cute female high-school lifeguard who was standing on the deck of one of the boats. In she came to rescue me, but I refused assistance. I adopted a new strategy--swimming the short legs between the anchored rescue boats that were spaced along the course. I set out, and quickly and unintentionally veered out into the middle of the lake. I discovered this fact when suddenly a police boat loomed in front of me.

For the first time in my life, I was afraid to be in the water, though I would't admit it at th time, and I bailed.

The humiliation of such an experience falls in the same category as falling off the bike at a stop sign. When the well-intentioned passersby stop and ask "Are you all right?", the natural response is "I'm fine, dammit." For the rest of that day at Lake Joe Pool, I had to answer the same question over and over again. It exposes the truth in all it's naked hideousness. I am NOT a triathlete. I am a wannabe. Expert bike geek, Famous Sports Journalist--blah, blah, blah. A sham.

For those of you who remember my telling of this tale at the time (on RST), you'll remember the concluding sentence: "This shall not stand."

I swam with USMS in Dallas, and raced in a sprint where I turned in a solidly average swim time in a pool. Then, I moved to Virginia. I swam with a USMS program here. I swam in some anonymous lake all year with the DC crowd. I raced in Salisbury, which was a half-mile swim in liquid surprisingly similar, both in cloudiness and temperature, to stale iced tea. I was so disoriented coming out of the water there that I still felt the ghost of past swimming fiascos tapping on my shoulder. I swam more in real lakes--much more. I learned the difference between pool-length sprints, strung together, and real distance swimming.

Which brings us to today.

I have to confess that I've read many race reports where there seemed to be a lot of woo-hooing at the start. It's never that way with me. Instead, as Ruth Kazez puts it, our eyeballs are turned into our heads. Some might think I was visualizing my race. Others might have been impressed by the look of intensity on my face. In fact, I was praying, hard. "Please, God, don't let me have to climb into a boat." And, sure enough, the man said "GO!" and I went.

Most swimmers headed to the rope that divides the like and provides the line of buoys that mark the out-and-back route. The rope is attached to a drainage structure that must be circumnavigated on the return leg. But it's a good 200 yards out into the lake from the starting ramp. So, for most of the first half of the race, I was by myself, striking a straight line from the ramp to the turnaround. When I found the crowd, they had the same color caps as me. Others were blinded by the bright sun in our faces on the return. I used it for navigation. Others were disturbed by the weeds that had grown up from the bottom of the lake to just beneath the surface. I clawed my way through them without a care. And though I was ready for the swim to be over when it ended, I could, in a pinch, have done the whole thing again.

My goal was to exit the water safe, comfortable, and happy. I had stated that goal to my girlfriend, and she knew when I hammed for the camera as I was mounting the bike that it was a done deed. That the time was not noteworthy--37 minutes for the honest mile--means nothing.

I had boasted to friends last week that the bike leg was short and I could ride it one-legged. When will I learn to keep my mouth shut? Enough said about the bike leg. I rode it--I finished it. The time is not my best, and reflects my marathon priorities this year. I'd like to say that I held back for the run, or that I didn't want to injure myself six weeks before my target marathon. But you guys would know the truth.

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When I set out on the run, the shoes did not feel right. In fact, I actually looked down to be sure that the right shoe was on the right foot and so on. The first half of the run was a battle against cramping, and I thought that my electrolyte demons were still with me. But, no, I was suffering from overexertion on the bike. At the run turnaround, another fellow was right on my heels. As we came back, something snapped in me, and I just didn't want the guy to pass me. As the run progressed, I went faster and faster. I found, much to my amazement, that I was actually enjoying myself. The cramps disappeared, the stride smoothed out. The 54+-minute 10k is a good one for me.

There comes a moment in many races, especially those where a new distance is being tested, when you realize that you can do this. A little over a mile from the finish, it occurred to me that I had no more excuses. When the local folks goad each other into a middle-distance race, I can now say yes. If I can do this, I can do a half next year. And if I can do that, I can do an IM the year after that. For just a second, I got a foretaste of the emotion I will feel on that day.

And I thought, for someone who was always the last person in gym class to be picked for the team, for someone who was clearly the worst basket case in Freshman fitness testing (thus inspiring my entry into cycling), for someone who at age 36 tipped the scales at a blubbery 270, and for someone who deserved the disapproving frown from the doctor listening to the overburdened ticker, a miracle had occurred. Other miracles seem more profound, and others deservedly attract more attention, but this one is no less miraculous for all of that.

Epilogue: Last week, my girlfriend and I were in the grocery store. We saw one of those blood-pressure measuring machines. She challenged me to give it a go. Late in the day, the blood pressure was 100/50 and the resting heart rate was 46. A miracle, indeed.

Rick "No more excuses" Denney

P.S., for those who want times: These are unofficial.

Swim: 37:04 (1 actual mile) T1 (including a longish jog to the upper-deck slow-folk transition area): 4:09 Bike: 1:07:54 (22.8 miles) T2: 1:32 Run: 54:48 (10 K) Total: 2:45:28; 35/51 in 40-44.