Here’s an article I wrote for IMPACT magazine online a few years ago. I’m sharing it now because I am currently training for my first Olympic distance triathlon. I’m doing the Peach City Tri in Penticton on July 17, 2011. I am really looking forward to it but that has been a real journey from my “rock bottom” of fitness to being able to swim 1500m, bike 40K and run 10K – all in the same day.
If you are looking for inspiration to get moving my story might just help you realize that ANYONE can get fit. I’m living proof.
If you just start moving you might discover the joy it can bring you. Cheers, K
A middle-aged rookie demystifies and delivers the goods on the price of finishing a triathlon.
By Karen Anderson
Hitting Fitness Rock Bottom
Last year I hit my all-time fitness rock bottom. I had just had a long overdue surgery on my feet and started 2008 having been off them for six weeks.
I had gained twenty pounds over the previous two years when I switched from a long-standing career as a nurse to food tour operator/travel writer. Now I barely had the energy to stand and cook our New Year’s dinner. I decided it was time to make fitness a priority in my life again and that rock bottom was as good as any place to start. I had been warned to break my feet in gently, and so it was off to the pool.
Sink or Swim
The second week of January, 2008, I joined the “Powerfit Aquatics” swim club run out of the Talisman Centre in Calgary, Alberta, by professional coach Amanda Johnson ($15/session X 31 sessions over five months = $465.00). I hadn’t swum in years. For the first few weeks I couldn’t finish 25 metres without gasping for air and fighting the irrational sense that I was drowning. I was a little intimidated when one of the first people I met in the club asked me what I was training for. I said I was just trying to get fit and be gentle on my feet. It dawned on me that this question must be some sort of etiquette, so I asked in turn, and her answer shocked me: “I’m getting ready for the World Triathlon competition in Vancouver.” I began to look at my fellow swimmers differently. What were they really capable of?
February arrived and after just three weeks of twice weekly workouts, Coach Amanda said, “You just swam two kilometres.” I was amazed. My world-champion-level friend said, “If you can swim that far, you should do a tri!” She didn’t buy my I-can’t-run-because-of-my-feet excuse. She said she knew lots of people that power walk in triathlons, and she was sure I could do that. She began to tell me about upcoming mini-triathlons. I was amazed by her “you-can-do-it” attitude. Did she not see my limitations, my age, my weight?
The tiny seed of an idea began to germinate. Perhaps this triathlon thing could kick start my middle-aged metabolism. Perhaps I would try this run/walk idea. Maybe I would just pick up a “how-to” triathlon book.
I found “Triathlon for Women” by Sally Edwards (Velo Press, 2002). The first chord that struck me was the philosophy that triathletes are athletes in training. Edwards stresses that training is different than exercising. Exercise is “bodily or mental exertion … usually for the purpose of getting or staying in shape.” Training is “to make proficient by instruction and practice (with) … a great goal in mind….” Edwards coached that choosing a greater goal gives a sense of purpose and great motivation to train even when you don’t feel like it.
I spent the $26.95 for the book and decided it was time to make a commitment. I got on the Internet and signed up for the “Try This Triathlon” held each year at the University of Calgary. The race was scheduled for June 1 with a 500-metre swim, 16-kilometre bike, and three-kilometre run. It cost $84.00.
My friend Donna McElligott called just as I completed the transaction. Despite her busy life as a journalist for the CBC radio she has qualified for the Boston Marathon and completed many triathlons. I said, “You’ll never believe what I just did.” She said, “Well, of course you can do it, and if you want, I’ll do it with you.” There was no way I was going to turn down her offer. She began to gently ask questions that gave me the guidance of what to do next. Subtle things like, “Do you have runners?”
All the Right Stuff
I hadn’t owned sneakers in a decade, but I remembered another friend, Cathy, who had a husband named Gord, who had something to do with running shoes. I found Gord’s Running Store and wandered in at opening one morning. After describing my goal and fitness level I soon found myself surrounded by six pairs of high-tech runners. The term sneakers did not apply.
I decided on a pair of Brooks for $120.00. I also picked up a new running bra from the sale bin for the bargain basement price of $20.00, and that is when I began to realize that if I was really going to do this I would probably need special equipment in that department too. Biking and running in your bathing suit might be fine for the slim and sinewy athlete but for a buxom double D special artillery would be needed.
I put that thought on hold and began to drag myself out for run/walks around a four-kilometre loop in my neighbourhood. God bless the inventor of the iPOD, as it drowned out the sound of my lungs ripping oxygen from the environment. I started aiming for one run/walk a week, two one-hour-long swims, a 45-minute bike ride, and a little yoga throughout to help keep injuries at bay.
I was soon running my four-kilometre loop. Well, run might be an overstatement, but it was a steady jog, and it was certainly more than I ever thought I could do. I felt strong in the pool, and the bike riding on my second-hand old road bike was actually very enjoyable. I had just a few weeks left before the date my guru Donna had set for our “brick work” and “transitions practice” day—whatever that was. I hoped there really weren’t bricks involved and realized if I were going to do all three activities in one day it was time to face the burning bra issue.
On a cold and snowy morning post-pool workout I pulled into Tri-It, a Calgary store specializing in triathlete gear. I didn’t even look around. I just went straight to the man behind the counter and said I was doing my first triathlon and needed a bra—help! The man was Brian Del Castilho, the owner, and he put me at ease by assuring me that bras are like any other piece of sporting equipment: they need careful fitting and must suit the tasks at hand. In this case I would need something that could get wet, dry quickly, and hold the double dynamos in place during the run. He actually had choices for me.
I loved the CW-X Conditioning Wear Xtra Support Bra, and though it was easy to get into and held me firm, getting out of it was another story, and poor Brian was only mildly embarrassed when I had to ask him to undo me in the back. He was totally professional, again reminding me that it was a piece of sporting equipment. The bra was $79.99 and I bought a pair of Zoot tri shorts for another $79.99 and left the store feeling much lighter.
It must have been all the gut-sucking-in Lycra because in reality I hadn’t lost a single pound in the three months I had been exercising, even though my clothes fit better. I hadn’t changed my eating habits and thought it was time to look at that.
I don’t believe in dieting, but I knew I needed to be portion savvy, choose nutrient-dense foods, eat more vegetables and drink way more water. I decided that I needed to transition from my indulgent habit of eating whatever, whenever to being accountable by keeping a food journal for the last five weeks before my event.
That lasted three days. I did find myself five pounds down the day before the race, though, and I think it was making better choices, planning more meals, eating lots more fish and greens, snacking on fruits and veggies, never leaving home without a water bottle, and satisfying cravings as they occurred with a little of the best of whatever the craving involved.
The day of the race came and so did my period. Oh, the joys of being peri-menopausal. Surprises abound. More highly technical equipment needed: a super tampon and a few pain relievers, and off I went to pick up Donna.
From Nerves to Nirvanna
We got all our gear in a rack. We had our participant numbers, so when we got in line to get our race chips the volunteers wrote the number on both arms and legs in permanent marker. I had sudden flashes of prison camp movies, felt a nervous pang in my tummy, and ran off to the port-a-potty. Guardian angel Donna held my place in line, and we were soon getting our chips, which turned out to be small discs worn around the left ankle with a Velcro band and not the small salty potatoes I had envisioned.
Feeling a bit like Martha Stewart on probation we stripped down to our swimwear and entered the pool building to await our “wave.” The water was too warm, the pool was very crowded, and passing people was best done at the end of a lap, but, hey, all that training meant that I actually could pass people.
I was so happy the swim was over I was actually giddy as we switched to our bikes. Donna saw me taking time to towel off and said, “Triathletes air dry!” The biking was delightful: a gorgeous spring morning, rolling hills, cute policemen guarding the streets, volunteers and families cheering us on. I loved it.
It went by too fast, and it was time to run. Mercifully it was only three kilometres, and after working out the bike-leg wobbles I began to see the end in sight. Donna was easily chatting at my side (the woman makes it look easy), and before I knew it we were crossing the finish line and—bonus of all bonuses!—the free ten-minute massage tables were empty.
I had done it. I had spent $875.93 but like the commercial says, the feeling of being a “finisher” was priceless. Once Donna was sure I had loved it she said, “Great! Let’s do Arbour Lake in two weeks.” And do you know what? I did. This year we’re doing a sprint distance in Vulcan together, and next year I want to do the Olympic length. I now have the greatest benefit that doing a triathlon gives a person: I believe that I can.