After a few Toastmasters speeches, you've worked on getting over your nerves, organizing your thoughts, and focusing your point. The next project is "how to say it" - thinking beyond the basic structure of the speech to the specific word choices and organization within sentences and paragraphs. I immediately went to a topic with which I thought I could use lots of descriptions and sensory details. (This is basically an expanded/descriptive version of my triathlon race recap.)
Goal: Don’t Die
I am, by nature, an anxious person. I get a lump in my throat when I realize I’ll be 5 minutes late to the previews at a movie theater, and I’m sure I’ll end up on a dangerous walk along the freeway to a gas station if my tank drops below a quarter full. And yet, after signing up for a triathlon, as race day approached, I was still surprised how terribly scared I was of the whole thing.
I set a few goals before the race: I wanted to finish in under two hours. I wanted to not be dead last. But mostly, my goal was simply to not die. Seriously. Was there really a risk of that? Not really, but to my anxious brain, it was a definite possibility.
Triathlons begin with the swim leg, in this case in the Columbia River. My group, women in the shorter distance, went last, so I stood on the shore, watching the brightly colored swim caps bobbing in the distance. Eventually, the horn blew for us to start.
Wading into the river, sand squished between my toes, interrupted by the occasional rock. Looking forward, the first buoy looked so far away; looking back, the shore got farther and farther.
For a couple minutes, I continued to debate, whether I truly wanted to do this. I was still standing in the water, I could still turn around, walk back onto the sandy shore and quit.
As I got deep enough to start swimming, there was sea weed - riverweed? - popping up, swishing around my legs. Leaning forward into the water, the neck of my wetsuit pulled across my throat, making my anxiety manifest itself as a complete cutoff of fresh oxygen. I had to keep my head down, proper form. Oh, but looked down and saw that I couldn’t see the bottom of the river.
One buoy was down, one more to go. I wasn’t quite the last swimmer, but the kayaks were staying near the few of us in the back of the pack. One more buoy down, after making the turn the shore was back in sight. Finally, the water depth started to recede, riverweed giving way back to rocks and sand.
Jogging up the grassy river bank, I started pulling off the wetsuit, thrilled to have survived the first perilous phase, ready to move onto the next. Reaching my bike, I pulled on a bike jersey and shoes, and hopped on to roll onto the bike course.
The course started on a wide shoulder along a flat highway, heading east out of The Dalles. After a couple miles, though, it became a hilly, rural road; beautiful brown fields in sight but difficult to enjoy while riding up, up, up.
Halfway through, we turned around and headed back. But then. Then you have to turn around and go down those hills. Downhill, on gravely country roads, with speedsters from the longer race passing by. Particularly after a fall a few weeks earlier on a training ride (of which I still have evidence on my elbow and knee), this was not enjoyable. I had to brake, constantly. I stopped a few times to take a drink of water - I can’t just grab it while moving, and let go of the handlebars and controls, that’s how I got those elbow scars. Forget enjoying the freedom of speeding down a hill, I was trying to preserve the freedom of remaining alive.
Phew. Made it back to the race center in one piece, for the final leg! The sun had started to beat down in midday, but at last I was doing what I enjoy. My legs, my head, my whole body was fatigued by now, but at least I knew all I had to do was keep moving forward.
The run went out and back on a river path. Seeing the sunshine on the water was a nice distraction from the grunting pain of making my legs move, as was seeing the joy on other athletes’ faces passing the other way, knowing how close they were to the end. Sooner than I realized, though longer than I thought it’d take, I was also heading back.
A nice little downhill led us back into the park, towards the finish line. Lively music was blasting, people cheering, finish line flags waving in the wind. I heard the announcer say my name, Margaret from Portland, and finally, I was done, a triathlete, completed my first race.
I squeaked by in just under two hours, with an official time of 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 20 seconds; 6 of the 89 people in the shorter distance finished after me, and clearly, I didn’t die. The moments of fear in the river and on the bike were real, but now in the past.
Until, the next triathlon I do, of course! I’ve no doubt made this sound like a horrible, excruciating, miserable experience, but when I get myself out of my head, it’s actually a wonderful challenge, a privilege to be able to submit myself to overcoming my fears.