At my first triathlon, in 2012, squads of wetsuit-clad swimmers, 100 or so at a time, lined up for their turn at the starting line for four hours straight. Sorted by gender and age group – each wave flagged by a different color swim cap – my yellow-capped cohort shuffled along the cement shore in Chicago, and the collective force of 7,000 athletes swept me along in their slipstream. “Into the water, yellow caps!” barked the announcer over a blaring Black-Eyed Peas remix. “Looking good!”
We slipped en masse into Monroe Harbor and tread water, some chattering about the cold water and the godawful early hour, others focused, silent. And when the air horn blew and we started swimming it was everything I hadn’t prepared for. My goggles fogged; a wave hit my face. I kicked and felt the solid mass of another swimmer meet my foot, and then, as the half-mile course stretched ahead and what had been one thrashing, kicking clump of yellow swim caps stretched out and found a rhythm, I swallowed wave after wave of water and panicked. I couldn’t catch my breath and I gasped and flailed and swam and choked and kicked and, halfway there, I slammed headfirst into one of the lifeboats that bobbed in 20-foot increments along the length of the swim course.
“You all right?” asked the lifeguard peering over the bow.
I nodded and shook Lake Michigan from my ears, clutching the prow of the dinghy as I caught my breath. I could see down the shore to the swim out and, wait, it wasn’t THAT far away. After another minute I thanked the lifeguard and pushed off from her boat towards the next. And when I made it to the next I swam to the next, and then the next, each one offering a silent, solid handhold — legal by race rules — until I could make the final push on my own again.
Once I got out of the water, I was so grateful to be on land that I barely noticed how badly my heavy mountain bike held me back on the 13-mile pedal up and down Lake Shore Drive. And after I’d racked my bike in transition and grabbed my race belt and hat, my leaden legs ran the final 5 kilometers at a pace that increased incrementally until the last curve of the run spat me out onto Columbus Drive and my legs carried me across the finish line, another godawful top-40 anthem blaring from the PA and endorphins choking my throat.
I burst into tears. And I immediately vowed to do it again.
The world of endurance sports is full of late-bloomers – middle-aged men and women driven to run, to bike, to swim after divorce or after cancer; after getting sober or getting laid off. I did that first triathlon at 44, six weeks after an accidental pregnancy ended in a messy miscarriage. It doesn’t take a degree in armchair psychology to connect the dots between this moment in which my body spun so wildly out of control and the arduous, sweaty project to put it back in its place that followed.
I’d actually been training since May — the result of an uncommon fit of goal-setting brought on by a family reunion in Tucson – but swimming, biking, and running had been abandoned in the shock of pregnancy and then miscarriage. Once the confusion had cleared, the hormones had leached from my body, and the physical trauma of expelling the seven-week-old embryo had abated, I resumed the regimen with a ferocity as surprising to me as it might have been predictable to others.
Because, if there’s anything more vulnerable to cliché than the inspirational sports narrative, it’s the narrative of middle-aged discovery. Put the two together and you’ve got a full complement of storytelling tropes: The flush of early promise; the optimism of effort; the humbling moment when it all falls apart — the ACL snaps, the baby is lost, the center does not hold. And then, and then. Adversity is overcome, arrogance is abrogated. Wisdom is won and rivals embrace on the field, united in the thrill of victory.
Whether you’re trying to motivate an athlete or kick a friend out of a rut, sports – and aging – offer up a convenient vocabulary of clichés to be deployed. You can do it! Looking good! Almost there! Finish strong! These boilerplate phrases get the job done. When you’re at a loss, you can count on them. They will move your story along from here, to there. Until the words come, you reach into your pocket for a handy phrase and toss it out, because to withhold just feels cheap, and besides, you don’t need that extra weight dragging you down anyway.
Because it’s hard to tease individual meaning from a story so common. As so many have discovered, when bodies fail you, boring routine can keep you moving forward, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. “Looking good!” “Almost there!” I’ve found myself saying them so often when training that they become rote, the effort to deliver each catchphrase with sincerity and intent almost too much in the face of my own physical struggle.
If you want to get out of your comfort zone, I recommend triathlon training. It is nothing if not uncomfortable. If you sign up for a formal program – as I did the following year – you will get up Saturdays at dawn to swim, bike, and run with your group. You will be introduced to awkward swim drills that leave you gasping, eyes red from chlorine; you will run speed intervals that make no sense – 45 seconds here, three minutes there, run, walk, rest, repeat. You will ride your bike until your ass is numb, and then when you get off the bike you will, well, go for a run, talking to your quads the whole way — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — because, having been cycling for an hour, your legs are confounded by this whole running thing and just want to crumple under you and sit down in the shade.
You will eat five meals a day, and be unable to stay awake past 9:30. Your back will ache and your calves will knot and you will wake – once you’ve fallen asleep face-down and fully clothed yet again – with a charley horse shooting up your right ankle to meet the one screaming down your hamstring.
You’ll chafe at the sport’s ridiculous overhead – the Garmins and the wetsuits and the bike, oh god, the goddamn bike – and the gels and creams and body lube. But you will also learn to take care of your gear, and yourself. You’ll learn to swim in a (vaguely) straight line in open water and how to change the tube on your bike if – god forbid – you get a flat. And you will also be pleasantly surprised by the experience of being coached, because you have for all your conscious life shied away from anything involving team effort, gym shoes, or a whistle. But these coaches will buoy you with their relentless positivity; their general good cheer and frank acceptance of your right to be on the field.
You will spend all sorts of oddly intimate time with people you would probably never meet in your day to day. You will see the sunrise over Lake Michigan and it’ll be beautiful – so much more so than when you used to catch it on your way home from a hard night out.
And against your generally contrary nature, you’ll find yourself changing — left foot, right foot. And while the new muscles are nice, it’s the ineffable connection between them and some elusive core of selfhood – still enfeebled by confusion and loss – that imperceptibly gains strength.
By the time the 2013 race rolled around I was feeling good. I was logging 20 miles of running a week and had hours of open water swimming under my suit. Even though I had an only marginally less shitty bike than the year before, I felt ready.
And, I was. My cycling time was still embarrassing, but I shot straight through the swim without a stop: stroking, and sighting, and alternate-side-breathing, not a lifeboat in sight. On the run, when I tried to sneak past a young para-athlete charging along on one carbonite stem, she tossed me such a heartfelt “Looking good!” that my guilt at passing her slipped away like so much spilled Gatorade.
All in all, I shaved 18 minutes off my previous time — and still had enough left in the tank to get home, shower, and hop on a flight to visit my parents that same afternoon.
That summer had been rough. Their house had been on the market for months, but solidly refused to sell even as the asking price slipped down, and down again, and my father’s multiple health problems landed him in the emergency room twice in a ten-day span. I couldn’t do much, but it seemed worth it to at least try and make my mother’s birthday.
And it was worth it, for all the reasons such things are and then some. My father was on the mend and the anxious gloom that had threaded through so many phone calls that summer seemed, for the moment, to have receded.
One evening, in the back room of the house I’d called home for 45 years, staged for sale and at once familiar and not, I rubbed some cream into my father’s back. His broad back, equally familiar and yet not, stretched taut and dry, spotted with a constellation of moles and raw to the touch. As I did so I felt my own body, itself lived in for 45 years, still tender from the race, familiar and yet not, ever-strange and changing, and it felt like mine again, for the first time, really, since it had tried to make a baby, and then spit it out.
We talked about the house, what to do with the family furniture, my grandfather’s books, how much I could reasonably claim as my own and incorporate into my apartment-sized life … and something lifted. The evening slipped into night and it was calm. Moving on, I remember thinking, just means absorbing the past into the present, until you contain the world.
Back in the Midwest, cocky with adrenaline, I decided it would be fun to get in one more race before the fall. The Lake Geneva triathlon takes place in southern Wisconsin in September and comes in two distances: the sprint, the distance I’d done in Chicago, and the international, or Olympic, distance, which is twice as long.
I registered for the international. I was feeling so strong three weeks earlier. I’d mastered the sprint distance, this was no time to rest.
Race morning the air was cool but the water was a warm 70 degrees, and so crystal clear you could see the rocks on the lake bed 300 meters from shore. It was smaller and less chaotic than the Chicago race, and though I’d never done a full mile in open water, I easily fell into a rhythm, stroking, breathing, sighting. I came out of the swim in the middle of the pack and was feeling good by the time I hiked on my shorts and jumped on the bike. A little dizzy – dehydrated, maybe – but good.
That lasted about one mile. The remaining 25 were a grinding, humbling chore, as one rider after another passed me – some with a wave, and some with a whoosh – until, suddenly, it was quiet. There was no one left to pass me, because I was at the back of the pack. Embarrassed, sore, and cursing my shitty bike, I completed the course in 2 hours and 10 minutes. By the time I returned to transition to start the run, the post-race party was in full swing, and athletes were packing up gear left and right.
“Look out!” one called, “Runner on the course!” And they moved out of the way as I trotted past, sweating humiliation.
The last leg of the race was a 10K run, the first mile or so of which went straight up a hill. My thighs were by then in full revolt, and as I shuffled up that first torturous mile, sports bra chafing at my armpits, I cursed my own ambition, and licked my wounded pride.
“You can do it,” I said, out loud. “Keep it up. Almost there.”
The road flattened out. A weary course marshal waved me around a bend. Two little girls handed me some Gatorade and as I drained the cup one of the coaches passed me, headed the other way, back toward the finish line. “Looking good!” she chirped. “Keep it up! Almost there!”
The route wound through a residential neighborhood and around the grounds of Yerkes Observatory and then dipped down along a rural road to the turnaround that marked the halfway point – five kilometers down; five to go. I slapped a course marshal’s hand and slugged back another shot of warm Gatorade before turning around for the final stretch. And I headed back up that same road toward the observatory, and the residential neighborhood, and the final mile that gleamed before me, blessedly downhill, I passed the few runners trailing me, themselves headed for the halfway marker around the bend.
“Keep it up! Almost there! You can do it!” I called, again and again.
And they replied in kind, volleying back the handholds on lifeboats that would carry us together to the finish line.