By Catherine Thomas
“Enjoy the experience and get to the finish line”
I have never been an athlete, I left that to my brothers growing up. The closest I ever got was a high school powder puff game and later in my 20’s becoming a scuba instructor, but neither required being an athlete. For years I abused my physical health with smoking and a couch potato attitude.
So how did I become a triathlete? It all started when I quit smoking. Was that after both parents and several relatives died from cancer, …. no. It should have been but with such a strong family history of cancer I figured I would get it anyway so why give up something I enjoyed. I also vowed to never “live sick”.
It was the death of a friend who had horrible COPD and spent the last years of her life coughing and hacking. She suffocated in her sleep from not being able to breath. That’s when I realized I was starting to cough too much. I would wake up with that heavy chest feeling, not being able to take a deep breath without causing a coughing spell. After so many failed attempts in the past, I knew I was on the verge of doing what I vowed I would not do, and that was “living sick”.
I woke up one morning and instead of coffee and cigarettes, I got on my old huffy bicycle and went for a little ride around the neighborhood. I knew I had to change my routine and this seemed like a fun way to do it. Everyday I went a little further and eventually found my way down to the Blvd de Bahia (a bayside road in Chetumal, Mexico). There are breaks in the four lane divided road for turning around, so I used those to gauge my progress. I would go “just one more” every few days. Pretty soon I was biking to downtown Chetumal. It was there I came into contact with serious cyclists. The ones that would whiz past me! I got a speedometer and every little progress was encouraging, but they still whizzed past me.
I knew I needed to be stronger, so I joined a gym. The great thing about Mexico is how affordable things are. My monthly fee for the gym $10USD and it came with a trainer who spoke English! Every morning I would ride my bike then go to the gym. I also came across an online fitness guru named Debra Akinson who specializes in women over 50. She was a Godsend: https://www.flippingfifty.com
One day on a bike ride one of the serious cyclists rode up along side and in Spanish proceeded to tell me to get a helmet. In what I could understand he was telling me the cars have no respect for cyclists and would I PLEASE get a helmet. So I did and that cyclist and his wife are what I consider good friends today and they both continue to encourage me athletically.
The following year a friend from Belize came to participate in a triathlon near where I lived. I went to cheer her on and thought, I wonder if I could do that? I pondered it as I made progress increasing my distance and speed, …….. on my old Huffy Bike! Still my health was improving. I could take a deep breath without triggering a cough. I was thinking more seriously about this triathlon thing. Hmmmm ok so I have been a swimmer and diver, but I never learned to swim the crawl effectively and that is the stroke of choice for triathlons. Need to learn that. I will need a better bike, ... put that on a Christmas list. Finally there is the run, … well that’s never going to happen, best I can do is a power walk. That I can do!
I watched video after video of triathlons. I observed the serious cyclists on the Bahia, two of which were women. I really admired how well they rode but I could never catch up to them. I did get a new bike for Christmas the following year. It had gears and I could go much faster, but still could not catch up with the girls.
Finally one day they were stopped having finished their ride. I got up the nerve and stopped to talk to them. First I apologized for not being able to speak very good Spanish to Josianny and Charis. Charis was kind and said, “I speak English”. I explained I wanted to compete in a triathlon and did she know of a coach to help me train? She said, “yes, he is right here” and proceeded to introduce me to Coach Joaquin. Another Godsend. We exchanged phone numbers and a few weeks later I got a message, “can you come to the pool to train?” That was April 2018. I registered to compete in a triathlon in the nearby town of Bacalar set for September 9, 2018. He said he could get me there. Five months, ... 20 +weeks, … 150 days, oh my what have I done?
I quickly realized I was not a strong swimmer, that I lacked stamina or skill set and wondered if Coach was going to politely bow out of training me. I guess he likes a challenge and pushed me, encouraged me, taught me until over time even I felt that I might pull this off after all. I went from hardly being able to swim one length (25 meters) to swimming continuously anywhere from 400 to 800 meters. The next concern was, can I swim 750 meters within the time limit required during the triathlon? Every afternoon 5-6 days a week I was at the pool, … it was worth it.
Mornings were spent either biking or running. The MTB bike I got for Christmas was not going to work for the triathlon. Too heavy. A friend sold me a road bike that indeed was faster but as it turned out was not built for road races where you might have to change a tire. When I found the bike I needed it was then a matter of selling the 2 bikes in order to afford what I really needed. We did finally sell both bikes and a generous donation from my brother Jetman made it possible to buy a Tricats Mojo (name I gave it), an Alumbike (brand name) that had previous triathlon experience! The distance was never a concern, doing it in the required time was. If my swim went long, I would need to make up for it on the bike AND gain a bit more time to cushion my run time. Sure I would be happy to just finish, and an early mantra was, “it’s not about the race, it’s about the finish” or “I’m not in it to win it, just finish” but neither of those were reality. Reality was if I want to finish there is a maximum time limit.
That brings me to training for the run. My thoughts of power walking went right out the window once coach got involved. Made me think of Tom Hanks in “A League Of Their Own”, THERE IS NO CRYING IN BASEBALL! As well, “ there is no walking in a triathlon.” I have come a long way from not being able to even jog 100 meters without panting for air to a continuous paced jog for up to 6 km without stopping or walking. Remember the couple I talked about earlier, well Adriadne has inspired me soooooo much, always offering tips to improve my running. She is an incredible athlete. She gave me the mantra I carried with me to the triathlon, “enjoy the experience and get to the finish line”.
Coach Joaquin has the patience of Job. I’ve seen the videos of me swimming, it’s painful to watch. He persistently has instructed me to improve my swimming, my bike my run and finally the day came to put it all together. I was so grateful my brother from Oregon traveled so far to support me, our friends from Belize came to cheer me on, still brings mist to my eyes their belief in me.
My husband who quietly in the background being my biggest supporter, managing logistics, always the arms that cradled me in victory and defeat. A couple weeks before the triathlon, I came home several days in a row in tears wondering what was I thinking. My times were off, my stroke off, my running a crawl, and he was always there to reassure me all would be fine. “You are just hitting a wall, everyone does.” Ok, time to hurdle that wall!
I was the first one in the transition zone to set up my bike. They painted my race number on my arm and legs. I was as ready as I could be. People asked, “are you ready”, my answer was “of course, there is no choice, it’s do or don’t and I plan to DO IT!” Enjoy the experience kept rolling through my head. The swim I started with a breast stroke, getting my bearings, controlling my breathing then into the crawl. As I rounded the first buoy and sighted for the second, there was the most beautiful rainbow straight ahead. Thank you Lord, I see your promise it’s all going to be ok! I made good progress on that stretch passing even some of the men that started ahead of me. I rounded the last large buoy and headed for the pier, only there were 3 piers, so into the breast stroke again until I had strong bearings and made it to the stairs.
Once I started running down the pier toward the transition zone some 300 meters away, I was amazed how good I felt. I checked my Garmin about the time I heard Coach and Colleen say “Good Time” and saw 22 mins, yahoo! On with helmet, socks shoes, bib belt, grab bike and trot to the start point. Once on the bike, I was in a comfort zone, … until I got to the highway. The road was pebbly and it had just rained, so instead of full speed I went with caution until I had good confidence, then waaahoo got some speed! Checked my watch, looking good, finishing strong. Back to transition zone, parked my bike, off with helmet, and hit the road running. Well, for the first kilometer I was busy getting my land legs back, after biking they feel heavy and stiff. I fell into my pace. It’s never a fast pace but it’s a consistent pace with a few spikes of pick up here and there. This is when I felt all the support of attendees. Strong with love of the sport, friends, team mates, even other athletes encouragement was heart warming. Cuau, a fellow that also trains on the Bahia has been so encouraging to me. He was running up the opposite side, I heard him yell, “I am so happy to see you!”
And we high fived. I did not realize it til long after the race but he had finished his 10 km (he was racing the Olympic distance) and was coming into the finish line right behind me, but held back a bit so I could have the finish photo all by myself. What a wonderful spirit!
It was an hour or so before I knew for sure I came in within the time limit making me an official finisher. It was a little sweeter that they gave me first place in my category. Hey, not my fault there were no other 60+ women in the race. I still accepted that medal with pride.
So what is next? Why another triathlon of course. In the meantime, more training to get stronger and improve my times. A few foot and bike races, and much more swimming! Wow, what an experience!!! I thank God everyday I wake up and am healthy enough and strong enough to do what I do!! I swim, I bike, I run, I TRI.