Archive for September, 2009

Confronting Fears

Walking toward the crowd, I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotions that would overwhelm me. I felt the choking tears coming on, the kind that never fall unless you have to speak. You only feel them in your throat until you open your mouth and the emotions burst forward. For that reason I was glad I was alone in a sea of faces standing at the waters edge. However, I wondered if that was the very reason I wanted to cry, since he wasn’t standing by my side.

I was relieved I knew no one amidst the three thousand or so people surrounding me. I felt ridiculous in my tight yellow swim cap, goggles, and running clothes. I was self -conscious knowing I weighed at least 50 more pounds than every other girl there my age. It was too late to turn around. The chip was attached to my ankle, and the swimmers had already begun diving into the lake in waves of 100 at four-minute intervals. I was in the last wave, number 13. The first wave began at 7:00 a.m., and I needed all 45 minutes to psych myself into doing this without crying.

I had prepared physically, prepared mentally, but nothing could have prepared me emotionally. There are no words to describe the rush one feels as you stand at the starting point of your first triathlon and the count down begins. 5…4…3…2…1, and I stood there. I let the bulk of the women go in front of me, too intimidated to lead the pack. Normally I’m the strongest, most confident person in a room and lead others without even realizing it. Today, I abandoned all tendencies and waded into the water, through the seaweed, until the water was deep enough to swim. I began the freestyle stroke.

I had done infinite laps around my pool while training, taking about 20 minutes to complete the half-mile swim. Today was completely different. The water was much thicker, and each stroke took twice as much effort. Normally I would keep my head underwater for about five strokes, take a breath, and go back under water. This time, I couldn’t bare to take my eyes off my path. I had to keep my head above water.

Every ten feet the lifeguards in kayaks, boats and floating on noodles kept asking if we needed help. They offered us to rest before continuing on. I saw several women accept noodles and pass me with their newfound help. I refused. “You can do this Sophia. You don’t need any help. Just keep going,” I kept repeating to myself. It seemed too easy, and much like cheating to accept assistance.

Many women passed me, but when I looked behind there were still about 15 bobbing yellow caps holding up the rear. Again, I was all alone. There was a cluster of women about 20 feet in front of and behind me, but I was swimming at my own pace with no one by my side.

With each stroke those tears in my throat grew thicker and thicker. I couldn’t answer, “I’m okay,” to the lifeguards in fear I may cry. I just gave a thumbs up and kept swimming. When I was approaching the end, I dropped my knees and felt the sand. I stood up and starting running toward dry land. A crowd had gathered and was cheering for me as I came up out of the water, splashing with each step. I literally swallowed my fears as those tears broke into a smile. It was exciting to know I had completed the first phase.

I rushed over to the transition area, put my shoes and socks over my muddy feet, snapped on the helmet, and started on the bike race, soaking wet. This time it was sunglasses, not goggles hiding my fear. The smile had long since faded, and I was ready to cry again. Twelve miles of cycling. I could already see bikers coming back from the other direction finishing up this portion. Mine was just beginning.

Maybe I would have felt stronger if I knew Brandon was at the finish line waiting to congratulate me, but I knew he wasn’t. In fact, he was far away and probably still sleeping, completely unaware of how badly I needed his support. My husband was three hours behind me in California, and I was cycling through the Florida humidity.

I found the cycling to be easier than the swim. The emotions soon passed and were replaced with determination. Each biker in front of me became my immediate goal. If I could pass them one at a time, I could make up for lost time during the swim. However, over the course of twelve miles, I passed less than ten women. It probably didn’t help that I was riding a rusted ten year old bike my little sister used in middle school and everyone else had fancy racing bikes that went twice as fast with half the effort. But I just kept cycling.

As I turned the corner nearing my second finish line, I saw them waving saying “That’s her! There she is!” My mom and childhood friend, Kim, were on other side of the fence waving, cheering and snapping pictures as I rode past to drop off my bike.

It was exactly the boost I needed to get ready for the final leg of the race. I dropped the bike and replaced my helmet with a visor. I began with a mild jog, but had to resolve to walking when my heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t help but think of Kim on the other side of that fence realizing my life had truly come full circle.

Kim and I had reunited at 22 years old, having not seen each other since fifth grade. She was my elementary school best friend and knew me at my worst. At ten years old I was bossy and fat. My mom likes to say that you couldn’t tell if I was standing or sitting because I was as wide as I was tall. The same Kim who knew that Sophia was watching me race in my first triathlon.

Unfortunately, as I walked and jogged through the coned paths, I couldn’t help but see that old Sophia. Twelve years later and my self-image hadn’t changed much. That’s still the girl I see most mornings when I look in the mirror. The only difference is I don’t let it hold me down anymore. In fact, I had nothing but adoration for the many women out there racing with me who were twice my age and carrying 100 more pounds.

This time when I thought about Brandon, it didn’t make me want to cry. It gave me the strength I needed knowing he would be so proud of me to know I crossed the finish line. In the last quarter mile there were three women beside me. Though all strangers, we made a pact that when we came around the corner we would start jogging so the crowd would think we had been the entire time. I started my jog a little before them and the roar of applause I heard as I rounded that corner made me completely forget the pain my body was in. I saw my mom with the camera again, I threw both arms into the air. Crossing that finish line was exhilarating. I had done it, all by myself.

Racing in the triathlon was completely about proving it to myself. I would have been content with last place. I just needed to know I could do it. I came in 887 out of 936. The swim that normally took me 20 minutes took me 36 that day. The 12-mile bike took me just over an hour, and the 5k took me 45 minutes. My times were nothing to brag about, but those 2.5 hours were all I needed to prove to myself. I was never an athlete growing up, but that day I was.

This rat race I live in every day is in so many ways exactly the same. It’s overwhelming to think about the end knowing how far away it is. In reality, I just need to concentrate on the next step, and eventually the finish line will come. The moments I wanted to cry were always when I could only see how far away I was, not how much closer I was getting.

I’m at a point in my life where I’m approaching dry land. When I put my feet down I can feel the sand beneath my toes, but I’m still in the water. I’ve successfully completed the first phase of my life. I think I’m prepared for the next, but I’m certain it will challenge me in many unexpected ways. I so desperately want to know what it feels like to get back on dry land, but it’s not time yet. I’m still a few steps away. It’s transition time. I just wish I knew what I was transitioning into.


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