The Bold Road

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-By Jaime Willis

Yesterday, I finished a triathlon. A half-mile swim, a seventeen mile bike ride, and a three mile run. I covered over 20 miles of land yesterday with my body as the only fuel.

I was afraid I wouldn’t finish.

Matt and I started this triathlon training business several months ago at the urging of one of our close friends. I already had (have!) a huge physical challenge goal for 2011 (50 10k runs), so I wasn’t initially too keen on signing up for another challenge, but decided to play along.

After we decided to “go all in” and do it, I was a flurry of planning & action. Just like many people who are excited to start out a big goal, I was geared up for this race. I bought a bike and bike gear, I found out where I could practice swimming, I changed my running lengths, I bought swim gear. I began practicing the swim distance, I started riding my bike to work.

Like many other people, though, this goal fell by the wayside as life got in the way. Matt and I talk about using your core values as your guide, and the other things I was occupied by during my days ranked higher in my core values than this race. We even had a discussion a few months before the race where we both acknowledged that we weren’t training as much as we should be and concluded that we were on the right track in life, if not on the “best” track for this triathlon.

In the month before the triathlon, I swam once. I rode my bike twice. I ran twice. That’s all the training I fit in. I was afraid I wouldn’t finish this race because I *know* what it takes to prepare for the race, and I didn’t do it.

Two weeks before the race started, one person, then another dropped out. I thought about doing the same. I didn’t need to do this triathlon. In the end, I decided that I needed to stick to my word more than I needed to buy into my fears.

My biggest fear was ‘being swept.’ The race director decides what the maximum time is for each leg of the race — and I knew I had to be out of the water in 40 minutes, and done with the bike within 2 hours of the race start. (Turns out I read wrong, and athletes had 2.5 hours to start the run). That was going to be a challenge for me — I knew I could do the distances, as I’d done them all before, but I wouldn’t be fast. Would I be fast enough to beat the sweeper?

The night before the race, Matt, his wife Yu Jin, and I drove the course. It was beautiful, but challenging. The entire course was hills. Steep hills. Rolling hills. No flat land — either you were cruising down a hill or working your way up a hill.

Added to that, thunderstorms were rolling through the Shenandoah Valley. The race director was rapidly responding to increasingly frantic messages from athletes wondering if the “race was still on.” He started out telling people it would be a “game time decision,” but when that didn’t suffice, he let athletes know that if thunderstorms prevented us from swimming (lightening and water don’t mix), we’d attempt a dualathlon (biking/running), even in the rain. Racing through the hills on a road bike in the rain made me a little anxious.

When I got back to my hotel room, I spent some time visualizing my whole race. What I was wearing, what I was doing, how I felt. I also spent a fair amount of time requesting the weather hold off until 11am so we could finish the race without rain. I tossed and turned all night, finally calling it quits to sleep at 5:00 am, and started packing and preparing for the race.

Matt and Jaime before the race

We arrived at 6:30am at the course — it was bustling with activity. Matt took a moment to pump up his tires and mine, and then we walked our bikes to the transition area. Right before entering the transition area, I heard a loud BANG. I was startled a bit, and looked around for the culprit — who was setting off fireworks this early in the morning? Then a fellow triathlete pointed to my front tire, which had just popped. Oh Boy.

This is where Matt’s colleague, Brian, saved the day. An early riser, Brian arrived at 5:50am and was completely ready to race before we even got there. When he saw my tire, he took my bike, told me to finish setting up and went over to the bike shop and began repairs.

I got marked for the race, got and put on my ID chip, and set up my gear, all the while wondering if my tire was fixable, and if I’d really be running this race today. After all, I think I held the record for the most inappropriate bike for racing — a 1976 Schwinn Varsity — the original 10-speed bike. The bike itself weighs 42 pounds, compared to a modern racing bike, which weighs around 20 pounds or less.

Luckily, Brian and the Bonzai bike team really hooked me up and my trusty steed was ready to go back to the transition area. I was the only racer that had a kickstand to use in my bike set up — both useful and comical, under the circumstances. Brian commented that maybe next time I do a tri, I would consider removing the kickstand and LIGHTS in order to reduce my bike’s weight.

Kickstand for the win!

Before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the beach for the swim. Matt was in wave 1, Brian in wave 2, and I was in wave 3. We chatted on the beach for a minute, being thankful that the weather was in our favor before we separated and lined up to start. I got to the back of my wave, because I knew swimming wasn’t my strong suit and didn’t want to be run over by my wave-mates.

The horn sounded. The race began.

The first twenty or so meters, I flat out sprinted in the water — coming up for air shortly down the course completely spent and nowhere near finished. “Wow,” I thought, “I really need to pace myself.” I used Sam’s tip and flipped onto my back and began backstroking through the water, alternating occasionally between that and the breast stroke to ensure I was headed in the right direction. After an eternity, I finally made it to the first buoy.

I flipped on my back, and began backstroking with a vengeance, surprised that no one was hitting me as I swam. Then I heard someone yell, “Where are you going?” I flipped around, and there was one of the lifeguards next to me on a surfboard. She asked again, “Where are you going?” I said, “I don’t know, where am I?” She said, “You are back at the first buoy. Turn around and you’ll see the second buoy.” My face must have displayed my defeat, because she said, “Hey, you’re fine. Just flip over every few strokes to make sure you are pointed in the right direction. You can do this.”

The only bonus to swimming the wrong way was that I was now in a “lane” in the lake almost to myself for most of the rest of the race. By this time, everyone in my wave had passed me, as well as many folks in the waves behind me. But I just kept swimming.

I looked at my watch and realized I would still make the cut off, if only by 10 minutes, so I kept swimming. As I switched from backstroke to breast stroke and back, I noticed one other light blue cap in the water slightly behind me. Someone else from my wave was still in the water! My mission for the rest of the swim was just to stay in front of that person. If I could get through the swim before them, I wouldn’t be dead last in my age group!

Twenty-seven long minutes after I started, I ran out of the lake and up onto the beach to the yelling and cheers of the crowd. I did a slow jog through the beach area, up the stairs and to my bike. My bike had no water bottle rack, and I never did anything about that before the race, so I was going into the seventeen mile bike ride with no access to water. I spent a minute in the transition area chugging a whole bottle of water so I wouldn’t get too dehydrated on the bike.

The first hill wasn’t so bad, and the first downhill was so fast, I braked a lot — I was nervous I’d wipe out and disqualify myself from the race. Much of the race I did by myself — I didn’t have a lot of racers near me. In the first half hour on the bike, I saw all the elite athletes whip by me in the opposite direction. It was funny, because they sounded different — their bikes whooshed by, while mine creaked through the course.

Without any navigation aids or mileage clocks, just a watch, I really didn’t know how far I was into the race. I did the first turn and then the second, and just plodded through the course. About a half hour into the bike, I thought to myself, I am actually going to finish this. This is hard, but doable, and I’ll finish this race. I passed a few people as I was riding, and to every one I said, “We’re doing this!”

A hour and thirty-two minutes after I started, I was back in the transition area, kick-standing my bike, throwing off my helmet and running on to the course. My legs were beat from the bike, but I kept plodding along at a slow and steady pace. A woman came up from behind and before passing me said, “You are my inspiration — you are a work horse — I know you’ll finish this race.” That comment literally got me through the next three miles.

I saw Brian heading into the finish line as I was heading out onto the course and shouted a “Great Job!” to him. A mile into the course, I saw Matt — we did our exploding fist pound, which made me smile like a loon for the next stretch of road. I yelled out “Great Job!” to everyone I passed and to those who passed me. I made a goal when I started the run to finish in forty minutes, and I kept track on my watch as I hit the 1 mile, the half way point, and the 2 mile to see if I was staying on target. The last mile was brutal — the sun had come out, so it was finally hot out. My legs were spent and the hills just didn’t stop. I alternated between a fast walk and a slow jog.

I looked down at my watch and saw that I had 4 minutes to make it to the finish line to make my time and started jogging again. As I hit the final stretch almost three hours before I began, the cowbells and shouts began.

Forty minutes after I started the run, and two hours and forty eight minutes after the starting horn went off, I crossed the finish line.

At a birthday dinner I was at last Friday, the guest of honor shared a story she learned from her father. His advice was, “If you are at a crossroads and can’t decide which option to take, go with the bolder one. You’ll never regret it.”

I am so glad that I overcame my fears and chose to run this race. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, how prepared, or even how good your gear is. We are all greater, stronger, better, and wiser than we think we are.

Take a chance. Take the bold road. You won’t regret it.

2 thoughts on “The Bold Road

  1. Jaime, you are so amazing! As I was reading your story I was just overcome with emotion. I have known you since birth and always knew you were unique. Despite inferior equipment and lack of training you kept to the course. You have gained alot more success in your personal life as a result of this race. I also know that you were a major cheerleader on the course and off.

  2. Jaime, you are so amazing! As I was reading your story I was just overcome with emotion. I have known you since birth and always knew you were unique. Despite inferior equipment and lack of training you kept to the course. You have gained alot more success in your personal life as a result of this race. I also know that you were a major cheerleader on the course and off.

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