Friday, 4/12, 9 p.m.: My schedule for tomorrow is made, my bag is packed, and I'm checking the big email the triathlon director sent us to figure out exactly where we're supposed to meet tomorrow afternoon for the Mandatory First-Timer Meeting.
Which is when I see that I'm supposed to pick up my packet before 3 p.m. Before 3. No exceptions.
I work on Saturdays. I've already cancelled two lessons to get to Richmond by 3:30 for the mandatory meeting, something I only learned was mandatory a few days before.
Lesson that can carry over into the horse show world: Plan ahead, and have a Plan B, when it comes to transportation.
Saturday, 4/13, 1 p.m.: I'm on the road, and they've reassured me that I can pick up my packet at the crack o'dawn on race day. Phew.
Challenges of the morning: fitting my bike into my teeny Honda; planning what layers to pack as it's now predicted to be in the 40s as I'm running from the pool to Transition 1, where I'll hop on my bike, soaking wet; cherry or watermelon Sport Beans, my new favorite training snack. All solved, and I'm at the beginner meeting in plenty of time.
And this is really interesting because it's not just the obvious stuff. Yeah, don't push or shove. Yeah, keep your belongings neat and tidy in the transition area. Yeah, follow the signs and don't invent your own course. But I learn that there is a specific way to rack your bike, and that in the bike phase, you can't just hang out next to your buddy for the duration of the ride—it's called drafting or blocking, depending on what you're doing, and it'll earn you some major penalties. Apparently, there are rules. Whoops.
Lesson: Read the rules. Take nothing for granted. And if you don't know, ask, even if it feels like a dumb question.
9 p.m.: I've just returned from a fabulous dinner with my RIchmond-based student Amy, whose husband, Drew, is an avid triathlete. They are awesome folks who I love spending time with on any occasion, but this was a particularly helpful dinner, since it was a last chance to pick Drew's brain. Do you have a big towel for Transition 1 to dry off before hitting the bike, or just use a little towel, or no towel at all? Should I get a race belt to clip my number to so I'm not futzing with it with numb post-bike fingers? Is it worth it to go drive the bike course? He gives me a lot of confidence and a couple of good tips.
That last one, should I drive the bike course—Drew said only if I really wanted to, that it would be well marked, but I did it anyway because I know myself. I'm a detail person, and I take comfort from knowing what I'm getting into. And as I drove it, I got some great information: where the hills were, and how steep; where the sharp turns were; and where the halfway-or-so point was, so I knew when to evaluate my energy level and decide whether to continue at a conservative pace or open 'er up.
Lesson: Know thyself and the challenge ahead. Are you the personality type who does best knowing every detail ahead of time, or do you live for surprises?
I've also returned to my hotel with an epic slice from the Cheesecake Factory. And eating it crushes any thought I had of not following through with this race because now I need to run a tri to burn that sucker off.
Sunday, 4/14, 5:30 a.m.: I'm locked and loaded. Suit, Vibram FiveFingers, Rocktape for my calves. Swim cap, goggles. Shirt, jacket, backup jacket. Water bottle, with water. Chapstick. Sunglasses. Helmet. Sport Beans (watermelon). New race belt, picked up yesterday. No towel.
Everything fits, and everything works. I've trained in all this stuff, and I've played with some transition strategies. I've even experimented with different ways of putting up my substantial hair, such that it is easily contained under my swim cap but not scary and tangled and distracting under my helmet or on the run. I've got this sucker down, and that gives me confidence.
Lesson: Test everything. EVERYTHING. Your boot socks, your white breeches, your tailcoat, the way you put your hair up under your helmet, everything. And stick with what you know works on competition day.
6:30: I'm here! Oh boy! Oh boy!
One of the things that I was excited about last night at the first-timer's meeting was the huge variety in ages, shapes and sizes of people. I was 100 percent sure I was going to be the biggest, squishiest, clunkiest girl in the room, but I wasn't. Neat, right?
Yeah. Except that now that we're all here, gathering with our stuff, I'm starting to panic. I'm unusual amongst triathletes in that my strongest phase is the swim; it's most athletes' weakest phase. This race features a pool swim, with a seeded start such that the fastest swimmers go first, which means i'm up at the front. And as I rack my bike—a $300 hybrid bike, a fabulous choice for the person who'd like to dabble in tris as well as bike around town—with my Walmart bike helmet, generic goggles and swim cap, cheap suit, goofy shoes, no fancy clip or even clipless pedals… I look like the redneck country cousin. And I'm starting to panic.
I'm trying to keep it cool. I remember my goals for this:
2. Finish without walking in the run.
3. Finish without vomiting at any point.
But I must look like vomiting because the Referee comes over.
"Your first one?" I nod. He smiles. "You're going to be GREAT. And you're going to get hooked. I promise!"
I take a deep breath, and make my way to the pool.
Lesson: Keep your expectations realistic. Set a reasonable goal. It's totally OK to crawl before you walk—everyone does.
8:00: BOOM. Let 'er buck! I'm standing in line for the pool, and everyone is SO NICE. I can't get over it. These are some fit, fine looking young women, and I look like Jabba the Hut and Lurch from the Adams' Family's love child, and they couldn't be nicer to me.
And then I'm in the water, and I'm not to be messed with. I keep up with these lithe little girls, leap out of the pool only a few minutes after I leapt in, and make my way out to my bike. It is COLD. In Transition 1, I look at my clothing options: a t-shirt, or this awesome, awesome FITS  jacket with lots of ventilation. I LOVE this jacket, but every time I've worn it in training I've ended up chucking it, because I always end up warmer than I think I'll get. Decision made: t-shirt.
Lesson: Learn to roll with it. Expect the unexpected. And when given a choice between putting on a cotton t-shirt or a nice technical fabric jacket over your soaking wet person before getting on a bike in 40* weather, CHOOSE THE JACKET.
8:12: BRR! You idiot!
8:14: OK, OK, warming up. Plus, if you can't feel your fingers and toes, they can't hurt. Brilliant.
8:17: Look at me! This ain't so bad! All that time cursing the hills paid off, because that first hill was a speed bump compared to what I've been training on. This is all going to be OK!
8:18: Oh God. Just keep going. Remember the cheesecake!
8:19: REMEMBER THE CHEESECAKE!
8:20: And just like that, it really is going to be OK. My muscles warm up and let go. I get into a rhythm. I'm getting passed left, right and center, but I knew that was going to happen. Remember, I'm a great swimmer, crappy biker, mediocre runner. But I'm falling back into my training, and it's feeling pretty good.
And the best part? About 50 percent of the people who pass me give me some encouragement as they do so. Serious looking dudes, not-so-serious looking dudes; they're smoking my ass, but they're taking the time to tell me to keep rocking on. This is an AWESOME sport.
I also notice something interesting. Most of the people I'm passed by just go sailing on, but there are a few in a group that pass me, then I pass them, then they pass me again. So I get to do a little survey of equipment. It seems to me that the road bikes, with their teensy little tires, don't ultimately perform any differently up the hills. There, my big, powerful, warmblood-kicking legs do me fine in the climbs, in spite of my heavier, all-purpose tires. But in the coasting and the downhill parts, those road bikes have my number. Maybe the $700 upgrade to a road bike will be in my future someday, but certainly not now; I have no regrets.
Something I'm also not regretting: not spending a ton of money on a fancy get-up. I'm just as likely to get smoked by someone in a fancy racing suit as I am someone in shorts and a t-shirt.
Lesson: Equipment is important, but it's not everything. Bad equipment is bad, no questions asked. And good equipment can be worth its weight in gold! But at the end of the day, a piece of equipment is only as good as its operator.
9:02: Bike racked! Helmet off! Useless, dumbass wet t-shirt off! Legs numb, but whatever. LET'S DO THIS!
The first half mile, as predicted, feels like death on a Triscuit. In training I did something called a brick workout quite a bit, where you bike for X miles, then hop off your bike and immediately start running for Y. I'm pretty sure it's called a brick workout because your legs feel like bricks for the first couple minutes, and that's definitely true. But it's also a shock to the system to go from 15, 16, 17 miles an hour to 6 in the course of a few seconds, and you want to despair and hit yourself over the head with a solid object…. like a brick.
But as much as I cussed those brick workouts as I was doing them, I'm wicked grateful now. I'm not despairing, and sure enough, by mile marker 1 I'm up to my race pace. At the end, I'll learn I actually bested my best training workout by several minutes, which is awesome. And as I round the tight turns of this beautiful, windy, hilly course, I'm silently thanking every epic Marshall, Va., hill I trained on; and every session with my pilates instructor for all my strength training.
Lesson: cross-train, cross-train, cross-train!
I'm getting zoomed again, but not as bad as on the bike. I hold my own on the run, and because I followed my plan, I've got some left in my tank, which is not true for everyone. I recognize some of the people who went WHIPPING by me on the bike looking pretty wasted as I overtake them, but more often than not, they're looking at peace. There are great runners who suffer through the other two phases, there are strong bikers/runners who were crappy swimmers, super swim/bike but weak run… every permutation you could dream of.
Lesson: Jack of all trades, master of none. No one is brilliant at everything. It's easiest to see this in three-day horses, in that it's a rare beast that is equally exceptional at dressage, cross-country and show jumping. But it's true of dressage horses too: The one with the stellar piaffe-passage might have a normal walk, or the one with the stunning extended canter might be less exciting in collection.
9:31:25: One hour, 27 minutes and 54 seconds after I hopped in the pool, I cross the finish line. I realize that the only part of me that hurts is my left big toe (normal) and my cheeks. Why my cheeks? I've had an ear-to-ear grin the whole time.
And I'm thinking back to Sept. 24, 1994, when I got tackled playing flag football at school, and I broke my femur, and a doctor told me that I'd likely never walk the same way again. He tells me I'm in for years of physical therapy and probably a permanent limp. His predictions are true. It's this injury that got me into horses seriously, and as awful as it was for me and for my family, I'm grateful for it. But I never thought I could be an athlete—I was crippled. I was broken. I had no place on the sports field, in the locker room.
The ref was right: I'm hooked. And that crippled, broken little girl was nowhere to be seen today.
Lesson: Reasonable expectations are important, of course. But you, and only you, get to decide what dreams you will and won't pursue.
8:35 p.m.: I've just entered my next race, in June. Training starts tomorrow!