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My first triathlon experience

With Nadia, my friend, we decided that we needed to wake up at 4:00am in order to be at the triathlon transition area – an area where you set up your gear in order to transition from swim to bike and then from bike to run – before 5:00am. We had been told that the transition area closed at 5:45am, and that then we would have to walk a mile to reach the swim start. My swim start was at 6:17am. I had prepped up my triathlon bag the night before and then, although I did my best to sleep through the night, I laid awake thinking of the craziness of the challenge ahead.

We arrived at the transition area a few minutes after 5am and started setting it all up. Different from the previous day when we had gone to drop off our bikes, there were now thousands of athletes in transition, running around trying to sort everything out and by now they all looked to be in a hurry. One of the main chores we had to do was pump air back into our tires, which we had deflated the day before as they could explode overnight due to expansion by heat. I pumped them up to 120 psi, a bit high for road tires but necessary for the race because the last thing you need that day is a flat tire. Then I ran back to my lane, number 17, and my number 1324, and started setting up my towel with the necessary gear. On the back part of the towel I placed my tennis shoes and cap as I would only need those for the run a couple of hours later, and on the front part I placed my cycling shoes, gloves, sunglasses, socks, and shot blocks (a chewable cube that you gobble down to replace carbs and electrolytes). Then I grabbed my wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles for the swim and headed to look for Nadia. I found her trying to pump air into her tires and saw that something was not working, Nadia kept pumping but the tire was still flat. I helped her setup the air pump again and then luckily, the tire started to inflate. Then we moved to the back tire and saw that it was inflating but not to the level that we would like. By this point, we were out of time, it was 5:45am, and we needed to leave transition. Nadia’s tire would hold, or so I hoped. By this point, my heart was pumping hard, I tried to control it, to no avail. Time flew by and we still needed to get our bodies marked, a timing chip, and to walk a mile to the swim start. We flew over to get marked and then started walking towards the swim alongside thousands of other participants and spectators. It felt like the longest mile walk ever. I was already sweating profusely thinking I was going to miss my swim wave. There were people everywhere so no way to rush it, and the worst part was that I knew how long it would take me to put my wetsuit on. I was late, very late. I quickly picked up the timing chip and strapped it to my ankle, then I ran to where it said ‘Woman 25-29’ and thankfully my very dependable dad was standing right there waiting for me. He saw me in a state of near panic and said some nice things to calm me down and then he helped me put on my wetsuit while walking to not lose my place in line.

When they called us up to the swim start, hundreds of women started jumping into the water and holding on to a rope. I found a tiny space in between loads of white swim cap heads and jumped in. I had been told that it would be best to start as far from the wall as possible to benefit from the current of the Hudson River but at that point in time all I could think was, I need to get in the water, asap. While holding on, I tried to calm myself once again but it didn’t work this time either, my heart was throbbing, I was sweating, and the race had not even started!! Then came the BOOOM of the start gun and our swim wave started. Before the race I had decided that I would do double sided breathing every three strokes in order to stay more balanced and swim in a straighter line – that too went out the window when the swim started as I immediately started doing right side only breathing every stroke. Suddenly I felt people all around me, there were feet right in front of me, a girl right beside me and I could feel someone creeping on behind me, I kept on trying to swim in a normal fashion although my technique had also gone out the window and then remembered the lessons that my cousin Richi had taught me in my only other open water swim in Miami, “take a breath looking forward every 8 strokes or so to see where you’re going” “people tend to swim to a side and you need to make sure you’re going in a straight line or you’ll get off course and your swim will be even longer”. I looked forward to see where I was and saw a kayak right in front of me, oops, I was too close to the wall and needed to bear more to the right. I started repositioning myself and then once again I felt the people all around me. This time around though I appreciated them; if there were people around me then I was probably heading in the right direction and I could sort of gauge how fast I was going. What I did not appreciate was my wetsuit, I felt like it was compressing my lungs and I wasn’t able to breathe properly. This is torture I thought, I even thought that I wasn’t going to be able to make it, then I thought shut up and swim!!! So I swam and I swam and I swam and then, through my foggy goggles I saw people, the end of the swim was near, oh happiness. I quickened my stroke and made it to the end of the swim, luckily there were volunteers there who helped me get to my feet. I heard one of them say in Spanish “mirala, se esta muriendo”, that’s definitely what I felt like but I got my bearings again and started running 700 yards, in pursuit of my bike, to the transition area while I once again tried to calm my heart.

I took off the top part of the wetsuit during the run and once I got to transition I disposed of the rest. I put my cycling gear on and off I went on my bicycle. I started pedaling non-stop to get my cadence between 85 and 95, where I wanted it to be during the whole ride. I drank some water ate a shot block and then took the first big breath of the whole morning. I was on my bike, a familiar feeling, and being that I’ve always loved bicycles and that I’m a pretty good rider I thought, I’m going to work this bike ride like nothing else to make up for whatever my time was in my swim (I had no idea) and to get extra time to run. I knew that I was not only a slow runner but that I also had bad knees and had only been able to run a maximum of 4 miles during training; the run that awaited me was 6.2 miles. Back to the bicycle, I started to switch gears to accommodate for the changing terrain and pushed forward. I realized that I beat most people around me in the hills and that if I got in a really aerodynamic position for the downhill and kept spinning, I would do alright. The ride through the West Side Highway to the Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx was nothing short of spectacular, we passed the Henry Hudson Bridge and saw dense forestation and the lovely colors of the sunrise beaming up ahead. By this point I was feeling good, I was happy and I had plenty of energy and so I pushed on. I wondered where Nadia was, I imagined she would pass me on the bike part as she was faster in both the bike and the swim parts but I still hadn’t seen her. I just hoped that her bike tires had held up and that she was doing ok. The last few miles of the bike were the toughest because my legs had had it and it was hard to keep my speed and my cadence up. I pushed through it though and then saw the exit into the transition area. I entered transition, lifted my bike, hung it up in the bars, changed my cycling shoes for running shoes, took off my helmet and sunglasses and put on my cap and a brace for my right knee and then…………. Ta……..da ……………I was a runner.

I already felt so depleted and my legs felt like jelly (a common feeling when transitioning from the bike to the run portion of the race) but I thought, I’m gonna give it a go, at least until I see my friends and family who were a mile away waiting at the entrance of Central Park. And so, although very slowly, I started to run. I ran at a slow but constant pace and little by little I started to feel my running legs coming back. I realized that I had forgotten to take off my cycling gloves and thought oh well, they will keep me company during the run. I was waiting anxiously to see my family and friends, as I knew that that would give me extra energy. Then, although he almost missed me by a split second, my dad spotted me with the corner of his eye and started screaming “Dale Nicooo Daleeee” and running alongside me through the pavement. Just the sight of seeing him so happy and pumped up made me smile. I continued running at my slow pace with a part of my mind telling me to stop and the other telling me to keep going. I started thinking about my mom and talking to her updating her on my life, as if she didn’t already know what was going on, and telling her that I missed her. Then I saw the marker for mile 2, I had 4 more miles to go. I saw all sorts of things during the run, lots of people walking, others who were desperately panting, and others who inspired me so much – these were the blind athletes and the athletes without a leg or without an arm. I would clap at them whenever I saw them pass and thought wow do these people have guts. Crossing over Harlem Hill, in the northern most part of Central Park was extremely difficult, these hills take quite some effort to climb and by that point your mind is definitely telling you to walk. But you have to keep going, you have to move your arms more and get up that hill because there is a sweet downhill waiting for you once you cross it. Every mile I tricked my mind into thinking that I would do one more and then I would decide if to walk or not. Then, with 3 miles left to go, I could feel my right knee starting to swell up, that common feeling that I had felt during the past three months of training and which had not allowed me to train properly for the running section of the race. Oh well, I thought, this knee (patella femoral and all) is going to have to hang in there. And so, I pushed on. The miles seemed long, but as soon as I saw the 4 mile sign I knew I would make it. I kept on going and was helped by the spectators each of whom said pretty much the same thing “You look great, you can do it”, I was sure I didn’t look great, but I was also sure that I could do it. I kept going and then saw the sign for the last mile, yayyyyyy I was almost done. I felt chills throughout my body and didn’t know if it was a sign of depletion, over exertion, or simple happiness. I could feel that the finish was near but I still couldn’t see it, then I entered a twisty curvy portion of the race that had been cornered off and I saw my dad again, running next to me and screaming “Daleeeeee you only have three more turns to go… and your time is great” thank god for him!! I continued, and then I heard Juani scream my name and I saw the finish line, oh what a lovely sight, after 3 hours 16 minutes and 28 seconds of non-stop activity, I was done!! I was doneee!! I couldn’t believe that I had actually been able run the whole way, the incentive to stop had been so strong. I ran past the finish line and stopped and felt like the whole world was crumbling and remembered it is never good to stop running so suddenly so I started walking while a volunteer asked me if I needed medical assistance “I don’t, I feel great” I told him, and smiled. Then I walked out to hug my family and friends, and Nadia who had met her goal of finishing her race in just under three hours.

As I write you this note, and although I have done both an ice bath and a hot bath with Epsom salt, I feel my legs aching and my knee as swollen as ever. Nevertheless, the feeling of accomplishment I have is so much stronger. I trained for this triathlon for 3 months and even though I was as beginner as they come when I started (I had never before swam a lap in a pool, I wasn’t a runner, and I had never ridden a road bike) I had done it. What’s more, I had done it for a cause that is dear to my heart and I had managed to raise $10,909 dollars for the MS Society because of all of you. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you! I will be forever grateful.