On a June morning in 2006, weighing in at what was fighting weight at the time, I woke up at 4 am, put on a one-piece swimsuit with a padded butt, ate a whole wheat muffin with peanut butter (and half of a banana), and drove myself to Decker Lake in Austin, Texas.
It was fighting weight because sixteen weeks of triathlon training (swimming, biking, and run-walking) had helped me to lose 8 lbs. On race day, I weighed 190 lbs. (I am 5’4″). My tri-suit was a very snug XL.
I had never ridden a bicycle on actual roads when I started tri training. I had never done laps in a pool. I hadn’t run a mile since junior high (and I’m not entirely sure I did, then). I was talked into tri-training by some very good friends.
I was sure (see above) that there was no way in hell I could finish the race, even with a training program, but I thought the workouts might be good for my health, and I had recently decided that I was going to have more faith in body. I was hoping to find the kind of confidence in my skin that I had in my head.
I survived training. Here I am on race day (it’s 5:30 am by now), with the two friends who helped me get through it. I hope they don’t kill me for posting this glamor shot.
The Danskin triathlons are women-only races. And at the time, one woman in particular was at every starting line for every race across the country. Her name is Sally Edwards, and ESPN profiled her involvement with Danskin/Trek races here. To me, one of the most important thing that Edwards does is cross every finish line last.
Her “final finisher” initiative meant that I could train for the race and not worry that the last person would be me. In my training group, there were women more overweight, older, and less healthy than I–and none of us had to worry about being last. It is bad enough being fat and knowing that just working out in public makes you a spectacle–but to have to imagine the “triumph” of crossing after most everyone else had gone home? Too much.
While I sucked in my guts and pulled up my suit zipper that morning, I told myself that the only thing I could not do, was chicken out and DNF (“did not finish,” in race parlance). I told myself I could take as long as I needed.
The second amazing thing that Edwards does at each Danskin is that she stations herself at the water start–in a boat or on the dock if there is one–and she gives a short motivational speech to each heat before the gun ushers them into the water in kicking flapping splashing waves.
If you’ve never done a triathlon before, the heats are small groups of racers, and they start in the water at 15 minute intervals over several hours. So rather than all 2-3,000 racers jumping in the lake at one time, they send in 20-30 at a time. In this way, the race route is full of people at all different speeds for most of the morning. The elite athletes go first (racers like me will never see them again, unless they finish the race before I’m even in the water), then they send groups by age, the very young, then the very old, then counting backwards.
Sally Edwards says a lot of things in her short speeches–she gives each heat their own mantra or power word to whisper to themselves for the duration of the race, for example. But there’s one thing she tells all of the back-of-the-packers (of which I am one), and I heard it for the first time that June morning.
“As of right now, as of today, you are a triathlete. You will always be a triathlete, and no one can ever take that away from you.”
Me. The kid who couldn’t even run around the track in junior high once without getting red faced and sweaty and itchy. The kid who never could do a single pull up, not even when the terrible gym teacher said, the disbelief sputtering out of her mouth, “Surely you can just do one?!”
I learned to ride a bike when I was 34. I ran my first whole mile when I was 36. And I finished my first triathlon that morning. Eventually, I finished 6 of them, plus 3 half-marathons (so far). I’m a triathlete. Even if I never get another triathlon medal, I’m still a triathlete.
Some people, when I would tell them I was training for a tri, would do this thing where they would stare at me for a moment, and then they would say something slowly and carefully like, “Do you want to actually win it?” or “You aren’t trying to win, though, right?” As though I might be delusional in a really sad way they were going to have to deal with, as though I didn’t realize I was a short, fat, not-young woman, as though having the assurance of winning should be the only reason to do anything. I never got angry at those people because I learned very quickly how many people won’t even try something at which they can’t immediately excel. I used to be that person, which is why I never rode a bike or tried to run for anything more than the bus.
But training for any kind of endurance race isn’t about winning, for me. It’s about re-training my brain to appreciate that all processes are slow, and that small, incremental changes added up over time equal transformation. You can’t cram the night before to swim a half mile, bike 20k, and then run 3k, like you can cram for an algebra test. Not if you’re me, you can’t.
Process is progress. Which is part of what this has to do with writing. If every time you sat down to write, you worried about “winning” instead of writing, it would be so much easier to quit. (I actually was last (for my age group) at my second race. But I still finished that fucker, and it ended up being a PR–personal record time–for the next two years.)
It would be so easy to beat myself up for the hundreds of rejections I’ve managed to amass in just five years of submissions. I have written millions of words that never made the final draft, and I have slogged hundreds of miles that earned me no medal. But I couldn’t have finished a damn thing without them.
The other way this is related to writing: I am a writer whether I wrote something today or not. I’m still a writer if I decide to take a year off and gain some perspective on the memoir I’ve been hammering at for ages. I am still a writer if I leave my MFA and decide to raise a family and I never publish another poem. I’m a writer if I get a high-paying IT gig and put that novel off “for now” while I pay off my student loans and buy a house and build up my retirement funds. I’m a writer if I’m getting a PhD. I’m a writer if I’m not getting a PhD. I’m a writer if no workshop has ever seen my notebooks.
Not everyone will agree with this, but that’s okay: I believe that we are writers because we write and because we have written. I do not subscribe to the notion that there’s some secret magic number of hours or words you have to put in each week to keep your union card. Publish or perish is for people who want to make a living at writing. There are racers like that, too–and not every racer can hold herself to their standards, either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to get that acceptance email. But it can’t be what makes me a writer.
I told a friend the other day that regular people take vacations, too, and writers should not feel guilty when they need time away from the Work. Even professional athletes don’t train every single day. Too many of us beat ourselves up about it, though. We call it “stuck” or “writer’s block.” Call it a vacation. Call it “recharging.” Call it what we called it during race training: a recovery week. Call it a part of your process. Your body tells you when you need a break, whether you’re an elite athlete or a 40 year old who has never biked 5 miles. I think your brain does, too.