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Wilderness Sports > Danskin Triathlon

STEEL HEART, LEAD LEGS

True Account of the Danskin Women’s Triathlon at Seward Park

Sunday, August 28, 1994 C. W. Schurman, CSCS

"...The race is delayed ten minutes, folks..." the Danskin Women's Triathlon loudspeaker barked. Nervous groans and laughter rippled through the anxious swim-capped women. Several stared at the relatively calm surface of the inlet at Seattle's Seward Park, trying to imagine fighting through the cold water with dozens of other flailing women. To keep focused, I reviewed a few new race tips.

Since I had never attempted a triathlon before this one, what worried me most was completing quick transitions between each leg of the swim-bike-run race. At an informational clinic held in Bellevue the day before, I was astonished to discover that experienced triathletes complete both transitions in less than 50 seconds. So much for my goal of five minutes! With less than a day before the race, I knew I couldn't prepare my body to move any faster over the course, but I could certainly shave precious minutes from the transitions.

While I checked the air pressure in both tires, I glanced at what other women near me had brought: sunglasses, bike shoes, running shoes, change of clothing, socks, racing gloves, bandannas, water bottles. On my towel, naked compared to everyone else’s, were essentials: bike helmet (required), running shoes, and t-shirt with race number pinned to the front. The only clothing I had was what I was wearing: a unitard.

After preparing our gear, we were told to move to the swim area where volunteers inked racing numbers on our bodies. The excitement mounted as more and more participants arrived; we were summoned to the beach for a ten-minute group stretch. Imagine 791 healthy women in various stages of undress, doing aerobics in front of hundreds of jacketed spectators! I found myself smiling at all the marked legs kicking right or left in time to the music. Each woman seemed determined to cross the finish line no matter HOW long it took.

The announcer counted the final minutes a second time. I rubbed saliva around each eyepiece of my goggles before rinsing them in the lake to prevent them from fogging during the swim. Two more minutes. I inched to the left of the blue caps in my wave to avoid being kicked in the head by stronger swimmers fighting for the inside right lane. I took a few deep breaths in a futile effort to calm my nerves. What if the cold water gave me cramps? Would I panic if a fish slithered by me or I got caught in slimy seaweed? Would my bike still be where I left it when I finished the swim? I was jolted back to reality as the women around me burst into cheers for the professional athletes starting the first wave. The butterflies in my stomach turned into bats. I tried not to think about the Port-o-lets.

As the first professional triathlete butterfly-hopped towards us nine minutes later, the loudspeaker issued another “GO!” I plunged into the water running as far as I could before starting to swim. Breathe, lungs! It's not THAT cold! Stroke stroke gasp! Stroke stroke gasp! When I wasn't spitting out mouthfuls of lake water, I concentrated on keeping my shoulders level and rotating my arms. The murky green water made it impossible to see a yard in front of me. My fingers hit several strands of seaweed, making me wonder what drove so many of us to do such a crazy thing early on a chilly August morning.

A foot came within inches of my nose. Somehow I managed to maneuver around the impostor, unintentionally kicking her shoulder as I passed. The dodge put me too close to a volunteer lifeguard seated on a bodyboard. Forced to use the breast stroke until I got back on course, I decided to continue using it every tenth stroke so I could keep an eye on the buoys and swimmers in front of me. I finally reached the turn-around point: three rowboats anchored together where several green and yellow capped swimmers from previous wave starts hung onto the gunwales. I felt a renewed surge of adrenaline and shifted into passing gear. I finally reached the seaweed, then sandy bottom, and came to my feet at last, hopping through knee-deep water. Spectators cheered for all of us as we tried to rush to our bikes.

Rush? On numb legs? Easier said than done. Gasping, I stumbled through the shifting sand, tearing off my goggles and cap at the same time. I had a moment of panic: WHAT was my race number? I glanced quickly down to find 420 scrawled in large numbers across my thigh. I counted the eight racks from the water and located bike #420 right where I left it. Many women with bicycles near mine were still swimming, so I didn’t have to fight crowds. I grabbed pre-laced shoes and tugged them over cold, wet, sandy feet. My numb fingers managed to fasten my helmet strap on the second try. Dressed in loosely knotted running shoes, wet unitard, helmet and goose bumps, I jogged my bike to the starting line on Lake Washington Boulevard.

As the moisture on my body turned from lake water to sweat, I reviewed the rules of the course: stay to the right of the cones, avoid neon-painted dips and bumps, and alert bikers when passing on their left. This was my best event, and I knew that my confidence would grow with each woman I passed. It was exhilarating to race away on my new 21-speed touring bike equipped with gear-end shifters so my hands could remain on the handlebars during steep climbs. A definite improvement over my father’s old 10-speed with under-inflated tires on which I had been training for months. I shifted gears, all alone as I approached a sharp turn and prepared for the long straight-away around the bend.

The solitude didn’t last. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice yell “On your left!” and recognized a friend from the gym. We battled back and forth, daring the other to try to stay ahead. Soon we passed bikers marked with 400’s, from our blue wave of women aged 25-29, as well as younger women from previous green and yellow waves, with numbers in the 200’s and 300’s. Once we reached Madrona Park, we were half way and approaching THE HILL.

Most people hate hills. I used to, until I started lifting weights. Lunges, squats, and extensions gave me extra power for passing numerous bikers on THE HILL. Women on fat-tire dirtbikes or antiquated ten-speed touring bikes gasped for air as I shifted gears and continued muscling to the top of the hill overlooking the I-90 bridge, finally taking a few deep breaths at the top. The most challenging part of the course was next: down hill over a bumpy, tortuous road covered with neon paint and littered with crisp autumn leaves. I prayed that the bikers behind me would keep their distance and that I would stay in control so I wouldn't ruin my bike or body. I feared for my life as I approached the sharp turn at the bottom, my heart pounding harder than on the ascent. We resumed our game of leapfrog until we reached the second and final transition.

After a quick turn to the left, we were told to hop off our bikes and walk. The woman behind me must not have heard. My mind flashed back to the clinic spokesperson's warning that most accidents in triathlons occur during the transitions. At the last possible nanosecond I thrusted my bike forward, successfully avoiding a rear-end collision. I shoved my bike in slot 420, tossed my helmet over the handlebars, grabbed my pinned tank top, and threw it over my head as I stumbled toward the opposite end of the transition area, past my friend changing her shoes AND socks.

For the first three minutes of the run the nylon in my Nike Airs squished against my bare heels and the gritty sand made its way under the balls of my feet. I cursed my quivering quads and promised myself I would buy arch supports before I ran again. One woman I had passed on the bike made her way past me. I picked up my pace, determined not to waste any more energy wishing for dry socks. Step, step, breathe in, step, step, breathe out, pump the arms, use that upper body! Anticipating a harsh headwind on the other side of the peninsula, I tried to conserve my energy. Two volunteers in yellow shirts held out cups of water and called, “Only a mile from the finish line! You’re almost there!” Another mile? Grimacing, I gulped some water, glanced back to see if my friend was gaining on me, and forced my feet to move faster.

As I turned into the wind around the last corner, I could hear a faint voice in the distance. I had to be near the finish line. Orange cones directed me up a slight incline. The dogleg through the parking lot was the most mentally challenging part of the whole course. Why did the committee insist on making the run EXACTLY 3.1 miles? I turned back the way I had come to make a second pass through the parking lot--and spotted my friend behind me, still on the first lap. I refused to let my legs stop. With only one length of the parking lot remaining, I started to sprint. I could hear the names of finishers being announced over the loud speaker. At last, I spotted the runner’s chute and digital clock! Too breathless to shout, I gave my friend a thumbs-up as I passed her on the dogleg one last time.

A huge surge of adrenaline carried me across the final yards of my sprint. Someone on the sidelines yelled my number, and the announcer called out my name as I crossed the finish line. My lungs near bursting, my side in stitches, sweat pouring off my brow, I smiled as a woman placed a metal finisher's medallion over my head and a man handed me a large container of water. My first triathlon. Definitely not the last.



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