“An Unlikely Athlete” by Melanie Amadoro
It started out innocently enough. My husband Joe (then my boyfriend), asked me if I wanted to come watch him do a triathlon. He had been a swimmer through college and wanted to try something new by doing a sprint triathlon. So off I went to Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill, NJ one sunny July morning in 1996. After watching the race, and seeing all types of people complete it, the only way I can describe it is I was obsessed! All I could think and say for the rest of the day was “I am going to do a triathlon next year” – alternating with “do you think I can do that?”
Maybe that’s not such an unusual thing – I’ve heard of others who have gone to watch a tri and quickly got hooked. For me, a couple of problems quickly presented themselves – not the least of which was I did not know how to swim and had never run. Ever. My athletic experience growing up was pretty much nonexistent. I played softball for a few years for a rec team but that was about it. I was a heavy smoker through most of high school and ate terribly. In college, we were required to take 3 gym classes and that was when I first began to think about working out. By the time I went to watch the tri, I was working out consistently, mostly doing step aerobics classes. I had a mountain bike and the previous year had rode one way, 75 miles, in the MS City to Shore Ride, barely making it. But I was in no shape to do a triathlon. Joe promised to teach me to swim so we began lessons.
I think it began to dawn on him that he was in for more than he expected right about when I got in the pool gingerly from the edge holding my nose closed tightly. The first lesson went something like this. Joe: “Okay, put your face in the water and blow bubbles”. Me: “I have to put my face in the water?” Joe: “Yes”. Me: “No”. Joe: “Yes”. Me: “I don’t know how to blow bubbles”. And on and on. Joe had taught countless people to swim during his years as a lifeguard and coaching a summer swim team. To this day he swears I was the hardest person he ever taught. Sure, the fact that I was his girlfriend added a different dimension but it was rough! The fact that we made it through those lessons without killing each other is, in itself, a miracle. The fact that I actually learned how to swim was a bigger miracle. I still remember how ecstatic I was when I finally swam one lap without stopping. Even the lifeguard stood up and cheered!
Okay, so I was learning to swim, very slowly. I started to run, mostly on a treadmill and found that that came much more easily. I actually enjoyed it! Pretty soon I could run 2 miles without stopping at about a 10 minute per mile pace. I broke out the mountain bike and started to ride. After my first ride of about 10 miles, I got so nauseous I thought I was going to throw up. Even though I had been doing aerobics for some time, it didn’t always translate into making the triathlon training easier.
Next it was time to pick a race. I decided on the Marathon Sports Sprint Triathlon in Middleton, DE. The race would be on a Sunday in June. At the time, there was no restriction on wearing a wetsuit so that was my plan. I picked a race with only a quarter mile swim because I knew that was my weakest event. Race morning Joe and I arrived and I don’t remember being overly nervous until I went down to the lake for the start of the swim. Sheer terror came over me as I stood there in my wetsuit and surveyed the scene ahead of me. A quarter of a mile in a lake looks a lot different than the same distance in a pool. What had I gotten myself into? I got in the water by sheer force of will and off I went with my wave. I was simply not prepared for an open water swim with people jostling me around. I had no idea what it would really be like, even though I’m sure I had heard and read about it. Experiencing the open water was a totally different thing. At one point I just floated on my back, grateful for the wetsuit because I swore I would have drowned without it. Other waves of very fast swimmers were swimming over me, beside me, everywhere. One man stopped his race and asked me with a look of concern if I was really okay? But I kept on. After 16 minutes, I got out of the water. It had never taken me close to that long to swim a quarter mile in the pool, and I realized I should have done some open water swims beforehand. Joe cheered me on and off I went on my heavy, clunky mountain bike. One bike after another passed me on the two loop course. I averaged about 14.5 miles per hour for 16 miles and finally climbed off. The run was a 5K trail run and mostly I saw people headed back, almost finished. By the time I came back towards the finish line, cars were leaving – they were done and packed up! How humbling. Still I finished third. Third from last that is, but happy nonetheless.
In spite of my ups and downs in my first race, I was happy! I have a picture of me loading my bike back in the car after the race with a huge smile on my face. I simply couldn’t believe that I actually did it. That in the space of less than a year, someone who had never swam or ran, and didn’t really bike much either, could do a triathlon. In my second race, I took 5 minutes off my quarter mile swim time and that motivated me further.
I’ve now done 24 sprint triathlons, two ten mile road races, a half marathon, and too many 5Ks to count. I’ve also completed the MS City to Shore bike ride 6 times, this past year logging 179 miles in two days. All this is just to say that if you want to, you can do it too. It’s not about being the best, fastest, or fittest, but about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Truly, if I can become a triathlete in such a short period of time, anyone can! Go for it!