Can’t Wipe This Smile Off My Face: Confessions of a First Time Triathlete!

All done!

It started the night before the race.  The smile.  My husband noticed it as we walked the path to the pre-race swim clinic.  As 30-50 people gathered to hear what Ironman triathlete Bryan Rhodes had to say about open water swimming (my most apprehensive area), my husband gave me a slight nudge and whispered in my ear. 

“You haven’t stopped smiling since we got here.” 

I laughed self-consciously and tried to look serious, I really did, but…  that smile stuck as I listened to Bryan’s New Zealand accent, wondering if he was that guy in the lane next to me a couple of days earlier; see my Day 57, Wednesday, July 13, 2011 journal entry.  (Later, I asked, and no, it wasn’t him.  Anyway.)

After registering, strategically positioning our bikes in the transition area, and confirming I was indeed the slowest person in the swim clinic as we splashed across the water getting comfortable with competing elbows, feet, and reaching hands, we headed home for our final preparations.  We even stopped at the local bike/running shop to pick up a “belt” to hold my race number so I wouldn’t put safety-pin holes in my new trisuit. 

After checking items off our lists, we ate a traditional carb-loaded dinner of pasta with a bit of chicken added.  My husband had a beer; I did not.  We went to bed and were up at the crack of dawn. 

Taking care of business.


In spite of dire heat warnings, the day stayed relatively bearable with cloud cover and a few sprinkles.  My body seemed to know something was up and kept sending me back to the bathroom to the point I was afraid to eat more than a whole-wheat roll.  Never mind the coffee.  Still I smiled with anticipation.  I was in a hurry to drive the twenty miles and get going.  My husband could not be prodded to move faster.

Finally we made it.  We were there!  A few familiar faces from the night before welcomed us and we were in high gear.  Well, except when I was waiting for the bathroom, which was about 90% of the time.  Even then, I smiled and joked with the other “tri-athletes” in line.  Welcome to the club; I was about to compete! 

First things first; we got our numbers marked on each arm, the front of each leg, and our age on the left back calf, and our event (I for individual) on the right back calf, and a microchip velcroed around our left ankle.  I wondered if Lindsay Lohan’s was this comfortable.

The different waves for the open water swim started to line up.  First all the Olympic athletes began and I ran back to the bathrooms.  I was in the third wave of the Sprint athletes and returned in time to greet some good friends who came to support us, and watch my husband’s wave take off in the white swim caps. 

Each wave had a different color swim cap or you could choose hot pink if you were a “nervous” swimmer.  The color for all women was purple, but I opted for pink, not because I was afraid of the water, but because I hoped other people would stay away from me…  However, a LOT of pink caps appeared in my wave!

THE SWIM (.31 miles in 15 min, 6.8 sec = 2 min, 45 sec per 100 yards): 

Bryan and his clinic the night before helped qualm my fears greatly; I was so glad I had attended as 40-50 women gathered for our wave. 

On your marks, get set, go, and we were off. 

I stayed in the back on the outside because I was petrified someone would knock off my goggles and I would choke in the water.  I figured I was safer with my face in the water, so I put my head down and pumped my arms.  I’m pretty slow, but I was moving.  The water was murky and as I neared the halfway buoy, I actually passed a couple of people.  My confidence began to rise as I tried to control my breathing and not swallow fish water. 

Into the home stretch, I started feeling body parts brush my calves and looked up to see yellow caps passing me.  Clydesdales.  The guys over 200 lbs. with the uber-strong strokes were all overtaking me.  Yikes.  I just tried to stay straight and let them swim around me.  They did.

Finally, I was at the ramp and running up to the transition area.  Totally out of breath; I grinned like a hyena as my friends clapped and called out my name.  I’d made it through the swim and I wasn’t last!   

Yeah, that’s me…

TRANSITION ONE (4 min, 13.4 sec; beat my hubby by 2 seconds!): 

I tore off my goggles and swimcap and hopped barefoot over a few pebbles to my bike.  It was farther than I remembered.  My hands were shaking as I tucked up my pony-tail under my baseball cap, then strapped on and buckled my helmet.  My hands were still wet as I pulled on gloves and sunglasses.  I strapped on my waist pouch (prepared with two granola bars, Chapstick, band-aids, and eye drops), and wiggled my feet into my baby-powdered VFF’s.  It took a couple of beats to get my toes into the right spaces, but as soon as I did, I attached my bike computer, snapped my water bottle into place, got my bike off the rack, and headed toward the bike exit. 

We had to walk the bikes until we crossed a certain line; then we could start pedaling.   I remembered how as a kid I used to run and sling my leg over the seat, but… no, I didn’t want to crash before I even got started.  My legs were still a bit wobbly from the swim. 

THE BIKE RIDE (24.9 miles in 1 hr. 47 min. 27.1 sec. = 13.88 mph): 

There were my friends again, cheering me on.  I grinned and laughed; I was on my way.  Who knew how fast I’d really been in the swim?  All those colored caps were confusing; I’d even passed a white one.  Maybe I was about to make history? 

The first mile was downhill and I felt so good.  The weather was just right and the water was evaporating from my trisuit as advertised (as I knew it would because I’d practiced in it).  I was pedaling as fast as I could and then noticed cyclist after cyclist was passing me at super high speeds.

I notched up my pace and began pushing the pedals.  Hammering, they call it.  Another couple of miles and I realized how thirsty I was; I had to slow a bit to find my water bottle and not wreck, but it was worth it.  All along the route, I noticed abandoned water bottles on the ground; so I slowed down even more when I put my bottle back in its cradle.  By mile five, I realized I’d been passed by at least thirty bikers and wondered if there was anyone left to pass me.  I thought I must’ve done really well in the swim!  Downhill I was going as fast as 19 mph, but tried to keep my pace around 14 mph (pretty fast for me). 

Per my plan, it was time for one of my granola bars to keep my strength up.  It took awhile to unwrap the foil (should’ve listened to my husband who pre-unwrapped his and stuffed them in his waist pouch, but I didn’t want to get foobies on mine or crumbs in my pouch…) and then when I stuffed one in my mouth, it was so dry I could hardly get it down in three bites.  I kept thinking of the first Survivor show when the contestants had to eat a horrible raw snake or something gross.  I decided not to use this kind of granola bar next time.  (Next time?  Did that mean…  yeah, I was smiling to myself.)  So, I drank some more water to wash it down.

Each time another biker passed, and there were many more, the rider called out “good job” or “nice race” or “keep it up”.  I would grin and say “thanks”.  The only time I passed someone, I told her I was going to try to pass her.  Then she passed me a mile later and asked me how much further it was.  We were at the halfway mark by then.  I passed her again and told her the mileage.  She overtook me one more time going up a hill and informed me her bike was killing her; her regular one was in the shop.  Okay.  Sorry about that. 

The route planners saved the best for last; there were a number of (in my opinion) very steep hills that had me using my easiest gear going about 6 mph, but finally I made it up.  Close to the last five mile point, I decided I better eat my last granola bar to prepare for my run.  I wasn’t looking forward to the dry mouth again, but stuffed it down during my last downhill rest.  As I turned into a straight away, I saw a lone rider and decided maybe I could pass someone else.  It was the girl who was jockeying back and forth with me and I passed her one last time and told her there was less than three miles to go. 

I pedaled as hard as I could and was amazed when a couple of much-older-than-me bikers whizzed past me into the park entrance, the home stretch.   

There they were, the crowd and my friends calling my name as I rode toward the transition area.  All along the route had been volunteers and as they each said “good luck” or “good job” I’d thanked them all with a smile.  Everyone was so happy.

Just couldn’t stop smiling.

TRANSITION TWO (3 min. 52.5 sec):

I got off my bike at the designated line and walked toward my space.  Or tried to walk; suddenly my legs had turned to jelly.  This hadn’t happened in practice.  I knew I’d set a new personal best time for myself because of my computer, but… not that fast.  I was using my bike for support as I steered toward my home base.  Drat; the girl next to me had totally thrown her bike in my area. 

It took a few moments as I moved her bike back; then placed my bike where it was supposed to be.  Took off my helmet, gloves, bike computer, and changed my waist pouch for my waist belt with my number attached.  Grabbed my banana, peeled it halfway, and took two bites; more water to wash it down and I was off. 

THE RUN (3.1 miles in 48 min, 14.7 sec = 15.31 mph): 

Walking long strides; power walking out of the transition area trying to stretch out my shaky legs.  Yowza.  Got on the running path and tried to start jogging; considered power walking the whole way as I honestly think it would’ve been faster; but… couldn’t give in.  Had to run because if I started walking I would have never run any further.

Out on the strip, volunteers offered water, so I gulped some down and asked what to do to with the cup.  Apparently you throw down the empty cups and volunteers pick them up.  Seemed decadent, but I quickly fell in. 

Lots and lots of runners were returning as I headed out.  Oh, my.  Three-point-one miles to go.  My friends were cheering me on and I heard my name being called by people I wasn’t sure I knew.  Someone said my husband had already returned.  Good for him.  (No, really.)  Still, I smiled.  It was almost over; my stomach hurt a bit.  Too much water?  I didn’t pass anyone on my run.  More people passed me.  I had been ahead of all these people? 

One tall lady I’d met before the swim passed me power-walking and there was no way I could match her stride (I’m nearly 5’1”.)  We talked for a moment in passing and once again when she turned around and we smiled face-to-face.  I smiled at everyone.  I was almost done with the event.  At the one mile marker, I wondered how I’d make it all the way back, but at the two mile marker, I knew I was over halfway, so I just kept putting one step in front of the other.  My sunglasses were all smudged but I had nowhere to wipe them off.  Everything was sweaty, sticky, and dripping.  That was okay.

A lot of people (especially on the run) noticed my shoes and commented.  Uh, huh.  Yep.  I was ahead of the curve with my VFF’s. 

When I finally got back into the home stretch, I wasn’t sure if my legs would make it.  There were my friends again, cheering me on.  I smiled.  Then I saw my husband and his grin matched mine.  He had out his camera and I flashed him the Richard Nixon “V” signs.  I couldn’t believe how heavy my arms were.  I finally crossed the finish line as the announcer called out my name (while a volunteer removed my microchip) and the crowd applauded. 

What could be better?

Wow, so that’s what it was like!  I felt like such a winner.  Even when someone handed me a bottle of water, I couldn’t stop smiling.  I gulped it down and reached for another.  Gulped it down too and walked around a bit and watched a few more people cross the finish line.  Wow, had I actually beat other people?  Really?

(To be clear, the Olympic runners were on the same path as the Sprints, only they did 6.2 miles –same bike, longer swim versions–so we were intermingled.)

THE RESULTS (total time = 2 hrs, 58 min, 54.5 sec): 

Someone asked if I’d gotten my times yet, so I went over to a tent and gave my number and got a computer printout. 

Imagine my surprise when I read I was tentatively in third place in my category (women 55-59).  I couldn’t believe it.  The night before I’d checked out my competition and there were six of us; I’d beaten three other women?  I was in the top half of my category?  Whoa baby ~ I was flying high.  I did the whole thing in under three hours and set personal best records for myself in each of the disciplines.  I’d even beaten my husband in one of the transition times.  Whoa!

I ran to the food tent and grabbed a submarine sandwich and some orange slices and chowed down. 

Then we waited for the awards ceremony.  I was going to get a cowbell for third place!  (Everyone got cowbells.) 

They called my name and I wobbled up to get my award.  The presenter looked at me earnestly and said, “Third place—you should be proud!”  I was.  I couldn’t believe it.  My first triathlon and I got an award!  I rang my cowbell and my husband took another picture.  I was smiling ear-to-ear.

It’s a Cow Bell!

We watched the rest of the awards and then went to get our stuff from the transition area.  People we didn’t realize were there kept coming up and offering congratulations.  One of the volunteers from the night before recognized me and said he told me so; he knew I would place.  What a nice guy.  (Everyone was super nice.)


It seemed like it was over too quick.  Suddenly we were driving home and it wasn’t even noon yet.  All the way home we talked about the race.

My husband got 7th in his category, but had more competition in his area and was kicking himself for not being more efficient in the transition areas.  He nailed it in the swim and the bike, but his ankle was bothering him in the run.  We were proud of each other and kept reiterating it over and over.  I told him I knew I wanted to do another triathlon because all during the event, I kept thinking what I would do different next time.  He agreed and we discussed plans for strength training and losing a few pounds.

(I think my husband is still in a state of shock because up until 8 weeks ago, he’d never seen me do more than an occasional racquetball game, long walk, leisurely bike ride… you get the picture.)

Honestly, I felt it was one of the best days of my life.  I actually did something.

I realized I hadn’t gotten any pictures on my camera, so when we got home, our waiting neighbors obliged us and took a few shots.  My day was complete. 

I took a shower and went to sleep for a four hour nap.  My husband had hopped on the computer to analyze race results, but they weren’t quite in.  He called his parents and bragged on me, showered, and napped too.


When I woke from my nap, I ate and ate and ate.  Leftover pasta, waffles with butter and syrup, cold watermelon.  Then I checked the computer and… wait a minute, excuse me?  In my category, it seemed only three people had competed after all.  So, that meant… I got third out of three?  I was LAST place?  Oh, boo.

What happened to the other people in my category?  Either they dropped out or didn’t show up?  I finally determined what happened; when I registered, the category was “Women, 55 and older”.  By race time, my category was “Women, 55-59”, and there was another category for “Women, 60 +”.

Okay.  My fingers flew to total results.  Had I beaten anyone?  Anyone?

When I decided to do the triathlon, my first goal was to finish.  My second goal (which is almost embarrassing) was to beat an elderly gentleman who had competed many years and to his credit, WOW, he was amazing.  Still, I would prefer not to be dead last.

My fingers trembled as I scrolled down to the absolute last page of the results.  I beat three people; I’m gleefully ashamed to admit.  If I hadn’t thought I did so well in the first place, I don’t think I would’ve cared at all.  But, darn it, I’d thought I’d really scorched my times.  And we TOLD people.  Sigh.


I am empowered by competing in this event.  I did it; I did the best I could, and I wasn’t just competing with other people, I was competing with myself.  I bested my own personal times and I can only do better. 

The feeling I had when I crossed the finish line brings a smile to my face every time I remember it.  Just finishing was an accomplishment. 

I feel like I can do anything! (Well, after I get done eating and sleeping, and eating and sleeping (repeat) for the next two days!) ~ JD here.

After my first triathlon!


This is the triathlon I competed in; the organizers and volunteers did a great job!  Thank you!

I was nervous for two straight days before I took Bryan Rhodes’ swim clinic.  I think this photo makes him look much scarier than he is. 


He’s very nice.

Thanks, Bryan!  And congrats for winning second place in the overall Olympic competition!

Much of the preparation and motivation came from Coach Suzanne’s website (THANK YOU!):

And last but not least, I extend a THANK YOU to some very dear friends (one in particular) and family who encouraged me from the start, my running partner who could not ultimately join me for the event, but had all the patience in the world during my very slow runs and bike rides, and my husband who got on board and never got off.  (I’d even like to thank the people who discouraged me a bit because they made me even more determined to go for it.)  And the kind words of strangers have sealed that smile reaching across my face!  

I am a smiling monkey!

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13 Responses to Can’t Wipe This Smile Off My Face: Confessions of a First Time Triathlete!

  1. Candace says:

    Congratulations! I am so proud of you! It’s inspiring!

  2. Sally Hershberger says:

    Wow! I am so proud of you. I couldn’t do any of those three things let alone ALL three. The fact you did a triathlon and you’ve not ever done any other type of race is just absolutely amazing!!! I would really have trouble with the swimming as I am afraid of swimming in anything but a swimming pool. You know….I could be eaten by a shark or a big catfish or something. I would love to see you because I’ll bet you look amazing after all that training. You are just one special person, so talented in so many things.

    • JD says:

      Hi Sally, YOU are an amazing person; I always love connecting with you!

      Swimming was the dicey part for me too. Ever since I was a “tadpole” at the YMCA many, many years ago in kindergarten, I’ve been afraid to get water up my nose. Laps in the pool historically were with a kickboard and when I “swam” it was a dogpaddle/head-above-water style. Once I committed to the triathlon, though, I bought some decent goggles, a swimcap, and noseplugs. I kept stopping in the lane, adjusting the noseplugs, and finally, one day… took off the noseplugs and started breathing OUT everytime my face hit H2O! It seemed to work, but if (when) I train for another, I’m going to find a swim coach.

      Some triathlons do the swim part in a pool, so I’m curious how that works; also connected with a lady who does triathlons off the Florida coast; now that seems a bit scary!

      It’s only been three days, but I’m already looking for a new event to keep my focus–maybe we’ll find one in your area; wouldn’t that be cool?

      You’re compliments make me blush, but thank you! All I can say is, if I can do it, anyone can do it! Much love, JD

  3. paula says:

    Fantastic Gayla – can’t wait for an even more blow by blow story. I’ve been on my own triathlon – involving local food specialties. See ya soon!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Isn’t finishing an awesome feeling? You’ll never forget your first finish–the subsequent finishes will be good, but they won’t match the feeling of that first. Congrats!

    • JD says:

      Thanks, Jennifer! You are so right! Hope I never lose that feeling; all I have to do is remember and my face is one big grin! Already looking forward to the next one! ~ JD 😉

  5. You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you with one of my homemade awards: Powerful Woman Writer Award for all the hard work you do!

    Go to and pick up your award.

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