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Last June, at a moms night out to celebrate the end of the school year, I thought the toughest choice my girlfriends and I would have to make that evening was whether to split the flourless chocolate cake or the créme brÛlée. Much to my surprise, the big question was, "Who was going to sign up for a sprint triathlon, just 10 weeks away, on the Jersey Shore?" My immediate reaction: Not me. I'm many things, but a triathlete is hardly one of them. After hearing them chat, however, the challenge didn't seem so daunting -- a quarter-mile swim, a 10-mile bike ride and a 5K run. Not wanting to be left on a lounge chair while all my pals were swimming laps, I thought, "What the hell, I'll do it!"
Suzi and Susan would be the varsity team -- the "real" athletes who already owned a number of race ribbons. Erin, Jill and I would be the JV; even though we all worked out, we each had a weak spot. Erin could run and bike, but she was concerned about the swim. Jill and I could swim and bike but were worried about the run.
By the time my head hit the pillow that night, I was already wondering who among our rookie threesome would finish first. I figured myself for dead last in our group -- and maybe even the whole race. Truth be told, I have an on-again, off-again relationship with exercise. I'll try lots of things for a while, but I haven't found the one workout I can commit to. And yet the race made me feel a deep urge to prove to my friends that I was just as good as they were and perhaps better than anyone expected.
We started training the very next morning. Jill was a natural swimmer, slicing through the water with her efficient crawl. Even though I was doing the breaststroke, I had momentum, but Erin was clearly struggling. When she came out of the water, she said to me, "How can you be so much faster than I am when you're shorter?" I shrugged and realized that Erin was also trying to figure out who would be the best. It was awkward, so I joked, "Let's make a deal: I'll be good at swimming, and you can be good at running." We laughed. But we both knew we had just made a tacit agreement about how we were going to manage the weird feelings the race was already stirring up between us.
From then on, Erin, Jill and I trained together regularly. If we couldn't meet up, we would text one another what we had done, like "33 min=40 laps! LOL!" We also began trading insider scoops. Erin was always telling us crazy who-knew secrets from a seasoned-triathlete friend -- for instance, spritz cooking spray on the inside of your wet suit so you can slip it off faster. I'd counter by reporting how a salesgirl at the running store told me to use gels for an energy boost and remember to smile for the photo finish. The longer distances, pro tips and superwicking running tops we bought made us think of ourselves less as underdogs and more as athletes.
Eight weeks into training I took a vacation with my family to Rockport, Massachusetts, where I bought a wet suit and practiced swimming in the ocean one mile every other day. The first time I did it, I emerged from the water wobbly, breathless and amazed that I was able to go the distance in rough waves. My husband, David, said, "You're going to blow all those girls away."
"That's not really what the race is about," I replied. David looked at me. "Um, yes it is," he said, knowing me all too well.
When I returned home, Jill told me she was running nine-minute miles, which meant that I really needed to up my pace. Running with her was a revelation. My breathing was panicked, as if I were going to have a heart attack by the time I reached the corner; hers was all yoga Zen. At the end of a particularly tough session, I asked, "How can you already run so quickly?"
She hesitated a minute and then said, "My mom was a runner. She loved it so much, but when she was diagnosed with cancer the doctors told her she couldn't run because it would be too jarring. She kept doing it, though. Until this race, I never understood what it meant to run for another person, but now I do. When I run, I run for her."
OK, I thought, I can't compete with that.
Instead, I tried to learn from her. Eventually my time improved greatly, so much so that late one night at a party a week before the race, Erin confessed, "When you guys started running I was bummed, and now that I see how fast you are, I'm even more bummed." It was clear she was feeling the same pressure that I was.
On the morning of the race, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. and drove to the start in total darkness. As the sun came up, we did a group hug in the water, just before the gun went off. I felt confident during the swim and was even able to keep up with Suzi. I jumped on my bike feeling strong and noticed I was right alongside Erin. We rode neck and neck until I accidentally exited the course on a wide turn and had to circle back. Erin shot way ahead. There was no way I could catch up.
But when I pulled into the transition area, Erin was still there. She had decided to hang back for me. I felt a wave of shame, because I cared only about my own finish, while she had spent her time waiting for me. We set off on the run together. She tried to help me establish a good pace but was too fast, and I told her to go ahead. I slowed down and watched her turn the corner.
And there it was. I was last in our group. I couldn't believe that after all my hard work, I still wasn't good enough. But as I ran alone, I suddenly realized this was it, and I needed to be OK with it. Not just in the race, but in everything. I needed to be OK with the kind of writer I am, with the size of my thighs, with the bedroom-to-bath ratio in my house, with having two sons and not three. I was in a triathlon, alone on a street thinking I might be last, and that had to be good enough, because it had taken a lot to get here. At that moment, I was so grateful for my friends. I felt only love and gratitude. I would never have done any of this without them.
I picked up the pace and kept going. As I hit the boardwalk, I heard a guy shout, "Way to finish strong!" My time was 1:35:15. I was last among my group of girlfriends except in one thing: I was the only one who remembered to smile when I crossed the finish line.
Originally published in FITNESS Magazine, March 2013