Finishing My First Olympic Triathlon

Finishing My First Olympic Triathlon

Pat and Coach Suzy at Chicago Triby Pat C.

I’ve often wondered if I would write a blog for this space and if I did, what would I say and where would I start?

Start at the beginning, I guess. No, not that beginning as that’s a long time ago, but the beginning of my personal triathlon journey.

What I knew about triathlon was what I remembered from watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I would watch in awe as mostly male athletes swam in the ocean waves, rode their bikes over hot as coal roads and then ran a full marathon. They were amazing athletes, but were they nuts?

My journey with triathlon began about three years ago. At that point I was an over 50, overweight, once widowed grandma who could barely keep up with a very cute two year old grandson. I did not want to be that grandma. I was sick and tired of carrying around all the extra mourning weight. It was time to live as I had much to be grateful for and it was time to lose weight.

To do that, I started to swim. Back in the day I had been a lifeguard and swim instructor so it was (relatively) easy to get back in the pool – except for the bathing suit part. The weight slowly started to come off. New Year’s Eve 2012 I made a resolution to complete my weight loss battle by doing the Devil’s Challenge sprint triathlon in Baraboo, WI in September. Little did I know what I was getting into. I went to high school in Baraboo, so I was aware of the hills and gorgeous Devil’s Lake, one of my all- time favorite places, but I didn’t know triathlon. My sister still lives in Baraboo, so getting there was not an issue and she kept prodding me and telling me, “Oh sure, you can do it.” Swimming, check!

I started a spin class. It was fun and since my goal was really to lose weight, I loved the work-out it provided. Spring came early in 2013 and I tried riding my bike outside. It quickly became apparent I needed a new bike. Off I went and before I knew it, I had a road bike, complete with clip in shoes. I had been warned that a person could fall once or twice while getting used to clips. Since I was going to do the Devil’s Challenge in Baraboo, what better place to ride a new bike where the race is to take place, right? Well, sure, except trying to get used to shifting going uphill and wearing clip in shoes all for the first time… Well, let’s just say that I was an over-achiever in the falling category. If a place on my body didn’t have road rash, then it had a bruise quickly turning all shades of black and blue. Biking, check!

Running was another challenge. My knees are pretty well shot due to skiing accidents and many years of step-aerobics. I started running around my neighborhood early in the morning so no one would see me limping and sweating. It was at that point that my current routine of a “lube job” injected into my knees every six months began. Running, check… sort of.

September rolled around and I DID IT! I completed the Devil’s Challenge Sprint Triathlon. I was pumped. I was so excited. I accomplished what was, to me, a seemingly insurmountable feat. I had lost about 85 pounds and I was hooked on triathlon. The season was over and that high carried me through to the next spring.

I started to look for something, anything close to home. A Google search brought me to Experience Triathlon. Thank goodness. I signed up for the ET Tri Class and was lucky enough to have Coach Jim Riga & Coach Cathy Obordo as the instructors. They were both so positive and encouraging. I did the Naperville Triathlon presented by ET and watched the Racine half-Ironman as well as Ironman Wisconsin. Wow. There was a lot to learn. I needed more, but what?

ET Masters Swimming and ET Personal Coaching with Coach Suzy was what. I needed help with running as I had decided to do the Miami half-marathon in January. Coach Suzy got me there.

I registered to do three triathlons this summer: ET Batavia, Lake Zurich Olympic – a first at this distance for me – and the Naperville Triathlon presented by ET. Plans don’t always go as we hoped they would. A week or so before ET Batavia, I got sick. Too sick to walk the hall, let alone do a triathlon. No way, ET Batavia was off. Ok, then on to Lake Zurich – but I continued with pneumonia, quickly followed by strep throat. What?? Ridiculous!! I’m seldom sick and it’s summer and I have a triathlon scheduled. I was frustrated but also sick at heart and began quickly losing my motivation.

I went to Lake Zurich. I was extremely anxious. Nothing was going as planned and that voice in my head kept reminding me I wasn’t ready. It was a debacle. I didn’t even finish the race, which is the worst way to end the day. Lesson learned: at least walk, don’t ever quit. You are not a quitter.

Shortly after the Lake Zurich tri was ET Summer Camp. Coach Suzy convinced me that every level athlete would be present as I didn’t want to be the “old lady” surrounded by people preparing for Ironman Wisconsin. It ended up being the BEST THING EVER. It gave me the jump start I so desperately needed. Three days surrounded by truly awesome coaches and athletes put me back on track. Thank goodness.

By the time the Naperville Triathlon presented by ET came along I was finally beginning to feel stronger and more ready to participate. Thank goodness again!

I had just one more thing to accomplish before this season was over – an Olympic Tri. There had to be a way and there was and it was close to home, the Chicago Triathlon. I would finish this race come hell or high water.

Saturday night before the race was spent with that very same grandson, Finnegan, who inspired me a few years ago and who is now joined by a brother, Sullivan. You just can’t fail when a sweet five year old whispers to you, “Good luck, Grandma!”

Very early Sunday morning, my daughter, Kate, drove me to transition. It was dark, delivery trucks filled with countless bottles of water were inching their way forward and generators were coming to life to light the way. The line into transition wasn’t too long and soon enough I found my way through the mud to my bike rack. I could hear Coach Joe in my head saying, “Nothing new on race day,” as I set up my area. I was ready. It was 4:30AM. I wasn’t going to start my swim until 6:30, two hours away. As I watched more & more athletes arrive and get set it was a perfect time to send up a silent prayer of thanksgiving: for health, for a safe race and to let Bruce, my brother and my mom know I was actually doing this. All three would be proud. Coach Bob Hammond was doing this race too and it ended up he was just one rack over. It was nice to see a familiar face. I love being part of something so big, but it’s also great to see someone you know. The start of the swim is quite a distance from transition, so after pulling my wet-suit half on I started the trek through the mud, following the carpeted (thank you) walk-way to the swim start. More familiar faces materialized as Coach Suzy and Kathy F. made their way to Chicago in the pre-dawn hours. I was relieved to have someone to talk to. Thankfully, I was in wave six and before I knew it, it was swim time. Ordinarily, the adrenalin coursing through me prevents me from starting a race well. That didn’t happen and I was swimming full steam ahead through Lake Michigan. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being swum over and kicked and having my feet tickled by approaching swimmers, but so be it, it’s a triathlon. The last quarter of the swim, the water got more wavy and choppy and I admit I was glad when I got out. 1/3 complete.

My place in transition was close to bike out – lucky me. The bike portion is the most freeing part of a triathlon for me. Something about riding a bike makes me feel like a 10 year old. The course headed north along Lake Shore Drive and then turned around back towards Soldier Field and beyond. What fun it was to ride on lower Wacker, free of any traffic and little wind. There were mile markers throughout the course. I saw mile 3, 4, 5 and then 10. Either the markers stopped or I didn’t notice them as after a little while a pleasant surprise came to me. I figured I had to be at about mile 15, but the final marker I saw had a big 20 on it. Next thing I knew I had to slow down because dismount was right in front of me. 2/3 complete.

The run – ahh, the run. My Achilles heel, pun intended. I was starting to lose gas. The sun was out. It was hot. Soon after starting I saw my husband, Scott, and he had some ice. I grabbed that double zip locked bag and put it in my shirt. (I know you’re not supposed to get help from by-standers, but really, I’m not in contention for 1st place.) It was quick relief. A little further and there were Coach Suzy & Kathy again. Isn’t it a funny thing that just when you need a boost someone is there to boost you? There was a runner doubled over in pain and guess what, that ice became his life-saver. There’s a reason for everything. Runners were passing me left and right. My mantra was to just put one foot in front of the other while counting out 22 beats in my head. I saw mile marker 1, yikes, I’ve got a long way to go. Water and Gatorade, a giant fan and then Finn and Sully, Kate & Tim came into my view. “Keep going, Grandma” spurred me on just a little more. I walked much more than I wanted, and much more than I thought I would. My knees were screaming at me, but then other runners coming from behind started to give me some kind words of encouragement and by then I was beyond the curve at Shedd Aquarium. Not much further. GO! Again, I saw Scott, Coach Suzy and Kathy. Thank goodness once more. A voice I recognized was yelling over the crowd, “Yay, Mom!” and there stood one of my sons, Andrew. Suddenly, I saw the thing I was searching for, a beautiful six letter word, FINISH. I made it. My real goal of the summer was complete. Thank goodness AGAIN. 3/3 and done!

Not one of us does these races without the support of those who love us best, our family and friends. Thank you to all five of my kids, their spouses, my grandkids, and of course, Scott and my siblings and friends. Whether it’s through a spoken word, an email, a nod and in this case, a donation to St. Jude, I appreciate every piece of encouragement. It means more than you know.

I am grateful to all that I’ve learned from Coach Suzy and all the other coaches at Experience Triathlon. There has never been a more encouraging, upbeat team. Thank you for your suggestions, and much needed pats on the back. Sunny & 80 is a wonderful way to live.  🙂

There are so many emotions when you finish a race or complete any goal – joy, satisfaction, relief, gratefulness. At least once during every race I find myself praying, crying, laughing, and even talking to myself. Maybe I’m as nutty as those athletes I watched so long ago.

Enjoy all the Chicago Triathlon pictures on the ET Photo Gallery!

 

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  • Kelli Ward Zaremba

    Way to go, Pat! I really enjoyed reading your story. You should be so proud of yourself. What an amazing accomplishment!

  • Sharon Kirkland

    Pat, what an inspirational story! I, too, am starting on this Triathlon journey in my 50s and it’s so great to hear your enthusiasm, drive and accomplishments! Congratulations!

  • Awesome, Pat! Your story brought tears to my eyes. You, my friend, are an inspiration to us all! WTG!!!

  • Anne R.

    Congratulations Pat! You would have had me at “I lost 85 pounds” but you did even more! Your story is wonderfully inspirational. I will think of this story during the tougher parts of challenging workouts and say “If she did it then I can do it”. You are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story. 🙂

  • Jim Riga

    Congrats Pat on a fabulous story and a great finish. Starting triathlon in our 50’s will mean we can do it into our 80’s. Look forward to seeing where this journey will take you next but wherever that is the ET family will there to support you.

  • I’m so glad I could be there to share in your Chicago Tri experience, Pat! Seeing you smiling all the way through the race, EVEN when the going got tough on the run, was awesome! Congratulations on a great season, and on getting it DONE! It has been my pleasure to support your journey!

  • Julie

    Awesome awesome awesome story!! I love (well maybe thats the wrong word..but) that you just walked the last part of the Lake Zurich race and just came back strong. Very cool. I am thinking about joining the group after my broken foot heals. Stories like this make me think joining is the right choice. Thank you again for sharing your story.