In March 2010, I began to lose sight in my left eye. After going to a plethora of doctors, it was discovered I had left, acute, retro-bulbar optical neuritis which is usually the first symptom of multiple sclerosis. 56%-88% of sufferers who also have white lesions on their MRI brain scan—which I did—are diagnosed with MS. When I received the diagnosis of MS, I felt my options were limited on what I could and couldn’t do.
I’m not sure when I got it into my mind that I wanted to compete in a triathlon. I know triathlons scare me. They are intimidating. People began to tell me that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) perform, which is precisely why I decided I needed to participate in one. I was going to prove everyone, including the doctors, wrong. I believe everyone should pick a fear and look it straight in the eyes. My fear was competing in three sports against people I assumed were in much better shape and healthier than I.
I bought books and began training; sometimes I felt strong, sometimes I didn’t. I argued with the spouse, doctors, and the parental units over whether I could compete or if I was just hurting myself. With the stubbornness of ignorance, I continued and worked through some injuries and arrived at the day. The goal: finish. I had 3 hours and 15 minutes to use.
I deliberately picked a race in September because the weather would be cooler. It was 59 degrees when I arrived at Beaver Fork. I wanted cooler temperatures, not cold. And I dreaded the swimming—the water would be warm from the summer heat but getting out would be horrendous. However, I gathered all my things and put on my best warrior face to face the day.
The night before and up until the walk to the beach, I was nauseated and sick from nerves. Waiting for the race to begin, my stomach settled and my nerves calmed while my toes began to freeze in the morning dew. When the first wave of men started and the second lined up, I kissed my husband, who wished me luck, and went ankle deep into the water. I was amused to find my toes were warming up in the water.
I watched the men to see how they began the race, and I mimicked them as I ran into the water waist deep before hurling myself forward promptly getting a mouthful of lake water and immediately coming back up coughing and sputtering. Drowning would not be the best way to begin my first triathlon. I began to breast stroke out to the first buoy and became dismayed I was not making as much headway as I had in training. My goggles were not clear, and I couldn’t see, but in front of me, not 5 minutes into the race, two women raised their hands and cried for help. I could see the medics didn’t hear them, and having always had the distinction of being loud, I raised my hands and yelled for help too in order to draw attention to the struggling women. Suddenly there were two boats surrounding the three of us.
Amy was the one who first cried for help. Jeannette and I swam around her. It was our first triathlon. Amy and I were weak swimmers who became disoriented and frightened by the water; Jeannette was a strong swimmer experiencing the same emotions. We decided we were OK, just very scared, and we would swim with each other. I flipped on my back to the first buoy. The spousal unit told me others would make fun of me if I didn’t swim freestyle. Having not listened to him about whether or not I am well enough to participate, I decided not to listen to him about this issue either. I looked around and saw other women using the back stroke to catch their breath.
As the books warned, I got off course and had to hussle to reach the second buoy. It felt like forever before I could touch the bottom and begin to exit the water. I was already exhausted, feeling like I drank most of the lake, and I couldn’t run to my bike, which was easy to find. It was the last one left in my rack. I was pleased with my transition time as I laid everything out per the books’ recommendations.
I can bike all day, and have done it before when the spousal unit and I rode RAGBRAI in Iowa, so I felt confident in this matter. I also had ridden the course once before to check it out, which I am glad to have done, and would recommend to any first timer. It calmed my nerves a great deal to know what hills were coming up.
I learned a great deal on that bike ride which continued over into the 5k. The triathlon is truly a competition against yourself, not against the other participants. As I was biking up hills or walking the 5k, the others on the return leg kept yelling encouragements, “Way to go!” “You look great!” “Only a little more to go!” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of camaraderie in a race before, but it’s the same kind of caring Jeannette, Amy, and I showed each other since we were frightened having just jumped in the water.
I moved on into transition 2 for the 5k aspect and as I was walking my bike to the rack, I saw a guy wearing a shirt which said, “Running sucks.” How appropriate I thought, because I completely agree with the sentiment. I abhor running, and I actually thought this would be the weakest leg of my race. I had long been unable to run after completing the Couch to 5k due to a back and IT Band injury. I knew I could walk the 5k in 45 minutes, and that was my plan, but I still wanted to push myself.
I attempted a very slow jog—a jog in which I could actually walk faster, but my calf muscles immediately began to protest. My mind was strong and had been properly trained in the months leading up to the triathlon, but my calves weren’t having any of it. So I began “crushing it” as a fellow competitor remarked of my power walk. I felt ridiculous and weak for walking when “everyone” can run a 5k, and I use to jog for 30 minutes. I observed others and found there was a man walking slowly in front of me. Other competitors were also jogging and walking. I began to realize I was wrong in my assumptions and fears about this race.
About mile two of the 5k, my left foot went numb, yet I continued to walk as I could no longer feel my foot or my calf muscles. I thought, “The neurologist is not going to like this outcome.” I pushed further as the 10k participants began their first leg and shouted encouragement to me. I moved around the transition stages to the finish line. I picked up pace and jogged across the line.
I finished my first triathlon in approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes according to the spousal unit. I was the last one to cross the line, but that no longer mattered to me. They were making the announcements of the winners of my age group in the CAT Sprint and the first Olympic competitor crossed the finish line by the time I pushed my bike out of the transition area. I reflected that the fear I thought was there, was, as in most cases, all in my mind.
Chantal Roberts is a 39 year-old, very stubborn red-head, who doesn’t listen to her doctors (or her husband) telling her to take it easy. She works for a local company that works claims for Lloyd’s of London. She would also like you to know that she beat everyone who was in bed or sitting on the couch Saturday morning.