From Disappointment to Triumph

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-by Matt Leedham
Before we begin, I have one note:
This post was difficult for me to write as I tend to smooth over the rough edges in my life in an effort to make everything look perfect. My triathlon experience was not perfect, and swallowing my pride to tell you about it wasn’t easy. But I hope you gain some knowledge or inspiration from my story. If you do, then it was all worth it.

Yesterday, Jaime outlined her experience at the Luray Sprint Triathlon. I’m very proud of her accomplishments. She did great and finished strong. Very impressive!

Going into the race, I think we’d both admit that I was the more confident one about our abilities. I was just eager to get out there and enjoy the experience.

Everything leading up to the start of the race further confirmed my excitement. The town was buzzing with excitement the night before the race when we picked up our race packets and had dinner. The next morning, I was awake at 5:00AM running around to get ready. Pulling up to Arrowhead Lake in Luray, I felt energetic seeing all the people, the tents, the lake, the mountains, the finish line, etc.

I couldn’t wait!

I racked my bike in the transition area, completely unsure of what I was doing. I had to look around to see how others set up their stations, and then I just copied them. I met up with Jaime and Brian and headed down to the lake, barefoot and shirtless. I had my swim cap on, which I’ve never worn before, and started stretching.

I saw my wife up on an embankment and waved to her as she took pictures. I gave Brian and Jaime high-fives and fist-pounds and waded out into the water. I took a few short practice strokes to warm up and then lined up with the other swimmers in wave 1; the youngest, fasted wave. I waved to my wife one more time and then the air horn sounded. Everyone took off, including me!

Then, what happened next is almost indescribable…

Total meltdown.

You see, I had never practiced swimming in open water before. I could swim 20-25 laps in the pool comfortably, but had never found the time or opportunity to swim in a lake. As you might imagine, things are a little different in a lake.

For one, there is a wind. This creates mild choppiness in the water. Not normally an issue if you are just enjoying a leisurely swim or lounging around in shallow water, but quite different than the glass-like water of your local swimming pool. So, when turning my head for a breath of air, sometimes I would be met by a small swell of water, which then filled my mouth. When you receive water instead of air, it’s a little alarming.

Secondly, there are hundreds of people all around you kicking and stroking, splashing and causing a commotion. It’s not uncommon to be kicked in the face or the chest. Again, alarming and concerning.

Thirdly, and this is not unique to open water swimming, but it was race day and as I mentioned before, the energy was high. My adrenaline was pumping and I took off. I swam the first 200 meters quickly and then realized I was completely fatigued. I was huffing and puffing and couldn’t catch my breath. I was almost hyper-ventilating (I’ve come to learn that this is normal for rookies). I looked around. The shore was not close. I was only 1/3 of the way toward the finish and in deep water, struggling for air.

I’m in the middle of the lake, completely exhausted and starting to panic. Facing one of two options here (1 – to live, 2 – to not live), I did what I had to do. I looked for help.

As any good event would, there were plenty of safety personnel around. There were lifeguards and volunteers in boats every 200 meters or so. I struggled my way to the closest boat and grabbed on, breathing heavily.

The lifeguard in the boat was very calm and said, “Is this your first open water swim?” I said, “Yep.” He replied, “Take your time, man. You’ll be alright.”

His demeanor was appropriate, but his estimation was incorrect.

After a minute of catching my breath, I thought to myself, “I better get going again or I’ll be the last one in the lake.” I knew that after 40 minutes they would be calling it quits, pulling people out of the water, so I decided to go for it, knowing that another boat was only 200 meters away.

I went for it again, but ran into the same issue. Hyper-ventilating. I flipped on my back and tried to paddle slowly, hoping to catch my breath. It didn’t happen. I looked for the next boat and grabbed on.

By now I was frustrated and dejected. How could this be happening? What the heck is wrong with me?

After a minute, I tried again. Same issue. I grabbed a kayak.

After a minute, I tried again. This time noticing that the last wave of swimmers was catching up to me. I couldn’t make it, and grabbed onto a 4th boat.

Almost sad now, I didn’t think I had it in me to finish. There were no more boats between me and the finish of the swim. I told the woman in the boat that I didn’t think I could do it. She told me that I could and that they’d keep an eye on me.

I let go and went for it. Side stroking with everything I had, taking mouthfuls of water every third stroke. I tried not to keep looking at where I was going. “Just go!” I said to myself. “Just keep moving.”

I finally looked ahead and saw that people were standing up in the water and running out of the lake…they were just 100 meters away. I gave it everything I had.

I can’t describe the feeling I had when my feet hit the first stones at the bottom of the lake. I reached down to check, and sure enough, it was solid ground. I stood up, exhausted. I couldn’t believe I had made it.

I tried to run out of the water, but could barely do it. When I reached the beach, I was able to pick up a slight jog. My wife was right there cheering for me. Well, if I’m being honest, she looked concerned and asked if I was alright. I just shook my head and tried to carry on.

Ahead of me was a wooden staircase that went up a steep hill toward the transition area. I started running up the stairs and then disaster struck again.

Like a bolt of lightening, my right calf muscle seized up, spasming with such force that I halted half way up the stairs. I couldn’t believe it. “This never happens to me!”

I rarely have muscle cramps, but I was having one at a very inopportune time. I grabbed the railing and tried to hyperextend my ankle, stretching my calf.

Meanwhile, there was a crowd of people at the top of the stairs cheering their heads off with vuvuzelas and cow bells. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “These people must think I’m crazy for stopping half way up the stairs.”

The cramp calmed down and I jogged into the transition area, confused and disoriented. I downed a GU, and chugged some water. I dried my feet and put my socks on, this time my glutes (butt) started cramping. Argh!

I finally got geared up, grabbed my bike, and started jogging out of the transition area. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling.

To both of our surprise, I saw Jaime. She was also just starting to bike. Believe it or not, she completed the swim and transition in the same time, even though she started over 9 minutes after me. She was killing it!

I said, “J, everything fell apart in the lake. I was grabbin’ on boats!” She said, “Just go!”

I did what she said and took off. I had been training for the bike portion for some time and felt comfortable. I started to cruise and then hit the first hill.

Like a snail, I made it to the top.

Then I flew downhill for some time. This was the first opportunity I had to not exert myself. What I did next still makes me smile.

I laughed.

And I laughed hard. Almost hysterically! For the first time, my mind had slowed down enough that I was able to think about my experience in the lake. I literally let out a bellow…a laugh to be heard for miles. I shouted out, “What the heck was that!?!” I just shook my head, kept laughing, and pedaled on.

Cruising through the farmlands of western Virginia, I began to appreciate the scenery. Absolutely gorgeous! Rolling hills, dilapidated barns, livestock, and distant mountains made the ride memorable.

There were some steep hills. Every time I passed someone, I said, “good morning!” They replied excitedly and we both got a burst of energy.

On mile 3 of the 17 mile ride, I was headed up a nice hill and switched into a higher gear. What happened next was unexpected, but given all of my mishaps so far, perhaps should have been expected.

The chain came off the gears and wrapped around the pedal crank.

Going up a steep hill without the chain on the gears means that my pedaling gave me no forward momentum. I was already going so slow that I almost started to roll backward down the hill.

I quickly hopped off and examined the situation. The chain was off and was tight. I said out loud, “How the heck am I going to get this back on?” At that moment, a biker that I had said ‘good morning’ to earlier shouted, “C’mon, you can do it! Get back on the road!”

Luckily, a week before, I saw a bike mechanic deliberately disengage and reengage the chain onto the gears. I moved some things around and was able to finagle the chain back on. More people passed asking if I was okay.

I was okay. And from there on out, I killed the bike course. In fact, I was so grateful for making it this far, that I started to cheer everyone else on. Anytime I passed someone, I would say, “Good morning! You’re doing great!”

Shockingly, they were shocked. They seemed genuinely happy that I would offer such encouragement. I don’t know, but it seemed obvious to me. We were all in this together.

The only moment of real weakness on the bike was on mile 16 when they introduced the last hill. It was VERY steep. Two girls were walking their bike up the hill. Everyone else was swerving and struggling as they pumped away. I put my bike into the highest gear, stood up, and cranked away.

Each rotation took me a couple of feet and then I almost came to a stop. That’s how steep it was. I would not give up. I refused to get off my bike, even though I thought about it every moment. I would NOT get off this bike even if I fell over for lack of forward momentum.

Thankfully, there were fans there at the top of the hill cheering us on. They had cowbells and horns and were hooting and hollering. They would not let me quit and I love them for it.

I made it over that last hill and cruised down the other side toward the transition area. I was so happy to see my wife there again, cheering me on. She looked so proud of me.

My transition time was much quicker and I started to run. I saw my wife again, this time taking a picture. She reached out her hand for a high-five and I told her, “I will finish this race, even if it cripples me!”

I ran up and down some hills refusing to walk. After my 2nd marathon, I adopted a life philosophy and mantra that has served me well – “just keep moving.” I don’t care how slow I’m moving, I refused to stop.

After turning around, and crossing mile 2 on the run course, I saw Jaime bounding down a hill looking lively! We fist-pounded and cheered each other on.

I refused to let anyone pass me. I carried on, completely exhausted. I began to hear the crowd at the lake, waiting for me to finish. Yes, ME! At least that’s what I told myself.

I rounded the final corner, into the park, and I could see the finish line. With a burst of super-natural energy, I sprinted to the finish line. My arms raised, my wife cheering me on, Brian handing me a bottle of water, and the race now over, I had the biggest grin on my face.

After all of the struggles, all of the setbacks, all of the disappointments…I made it. I finished.

10 Lessons Learned:

  1. Adapt to change. My entire expectation of the event changed after the swim. I had to carry on.
  2. Carry on. Adversity is natural. Carrying on is not…it’s super-natural.
  3. Beam positivity. It’s contagious and will carry others on. Unbeknownst to you, this will come full circle. Guaranteed!
  4. Appreciate the experience. The beginning of my experience was awful and frightening. But it has made me stronger and I can’t FREAKIN’ wait for the next triathlon to increase my skills.
  5. Move forward. “Just keep moving.” Slow down if you need to, but don’t stop.
  6. Support is necessary. Having people in your corner to push you forward is critical.
  7. Don’t underestimate powers beyond your control. Water, for example, is a powerful, uncompromising force. I can’t control it…I can only respect it.
  8. Regardless of how much you train and prepare, you can’t always prepare for the unexpected.
  9. Disappointment is a personal issue. Get over your ego and preconceived expectations of the way things “should” be. The sooner you face the reality of the situation, the sooner you’ll find a solution.
  10. Believe in yourself. You are powerful and important. You will persevere!

8 thoughts on “From Disappointment to Triumph

  1. Good stuff bro! Glad to hear that positive energy gave you strength… the physical training helps, but being positive keeps you moving on :)

  2. It sounds like you got a crash course in triathlon at Luray. It'll serve you well in the future and I'm guessing your next race will be much much smoother!! Keep it up, thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks Cort – appreciate the encouragement! I'm already making plans to be better next time. And that's the whole point of this (for me, at least).

  4. Wow! What a great story! I did this triathlon also, and I think I was probably one of the girls pushing the bike up that last darn hill. This is the second time I've done this tri, second triathlon in general actually, and I have never made it up that last hill (it's really a mountain if you ask me). However, that is my goal – to complete the Luray Sprint without having to get off my bike and walk it up the last hill. :)

    I wrote a post about this event in my personal blog too, but you really put into words just how challenging this course is, especially for a first timer (my first tri was the Luray Sprint back in 2008 and I did that one on my mountain bike! I learned from that mistake!). I’m happy you pushed through all the craziness that happened long the way – this post made me laugh and I definitely empathize with all the experiences you went through.

    Thanks for sharing! Maybe I’ll see you at this event next year!

  5. Thanks for the comment and support, Lori! Us rookies have to stick together. :-)

    I've since heard that this course is VERY challenging for first-timers. I'm looking forward to trying my hand at a flatter course next time.

    However, I despite the setbacks, I really did enjoy my experience at Luray. David Glover and his team did a phenomenal job with the event and I will definitely be back next year. Let's be sure to meet up!

  6. Truly amazing. You are truly the Iron "Willed" Man. Great read and really inspirational. However, I now have a unexpected fear of swimming in lakes.

  7. Haha! No need to fear lake swimming, Kyong. I'm sure you'd do just fine with some proper training. Thanks for the kind words and support. Hope to see you on the road sometime soon.

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