One advantage of competing on a team is that when accounting for a mediocre performance you can always throw one of your comrades under the bus – sometimes literally!
Ha, ha! That’s a joke.
But it does help to spread the blame, however subtly:
“Well, we would have done better, except our swimmer developed a cramp.”
“Next time we’ll line up a runner who doesn’t crap out on the hills.”
“We were right up with the leaders when our bicyclist got a flat.” (Actually, that really happened to a teammates on a relay team I competed on years ago, but that’s a whole other story).
However, when going solo there’s nowhere to hide and you’re forced to offer sappy excuses to save face, including the lamest of all: “I was just using it as a training run.”
I’ve competed as both an individual and on teams in countless races in various sports, including running, kayaking, canoeing and cross-country skiing, and even have entered such oddball contests as wood-splitting and ax-throwing at a logging festival, but for one reason or another never got around to racing in a triathlon – until last Sunday.
My buddies Spy and Mary persuaded me to join them at the seventh annual Ocean State YMCA Triathlon in Westerly, R.I. which begins with a half-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean near Misquamicut State Beach, followed by a 16-mile bike ride and finishing with a 3-mile run. As far as triathlons go, this is fairly moderate; by contrast an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full 26.2-mile marathon.
For true masochists there are double-Ironmans and even quadruple Ironmans.
As my father used to say, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.” (Or was it the other way around?)
Anyway, there I was with more than 150 other wetsuit-clad swimmers, staring at 4-foot crashing waves while waiting for the start, and wondering if I hadn’t gotten in over my head – literally as well as figuratively.
“Blaaaat!” The horn sounded, and we were off.
In low tide we floundered like beached porpoises until finally punching through breaking surf, and then began thrashing toward the first of three orange buoys marking the course.
Someone kicked me in the face; another smacked me in the ribs. The start was more like a rugby scrum than a swimming race. Soon, though, I was stroking steadily and surged past the first buoy. Peering over my shoulder I was pleased to see I wasn’t in last place, but probably where I belonged in the middle of the pack.
A little more than a quarter-hour later I tumbled to shore and then tried to peel off the wetsuit while running, which is as clumsy a maneuver as it sounds.
If I ever compete in a triathlon again I’ll have to practice my transitions. Serious racers can switch from one event to another in seconds; I could have finished the first seven chapters of “War and Peace” in the time it took me to slip on my riding shorts, socks and shoes, and guzzle a liter or so of water.
I am not a fast bike rider – never have been, never will be – and let’s just say I managed to finish the second leg without resorting to training wheels. I kept pace with a guy in a tie-died T-shirt while men and women in Lycra whizzed past.
I managed to redeem myself marginally in the run and accomplished the same two goals I have in every race: 1) finish; and 2) have a smile on my face.
Spy and Mary were cheering at the finish line, and after refueling with bananas and bagels we grabbed boogie boards and headed toward the surf.
We made one short detour to the awards ceremony, where Spy’s team won first place, and Mary also copped a gold medal in her division.
I was about to leave when the announcer called my name. Somehow I had earned the bronze medal for a third-place finish in my division.
I’ve learned this much about competition: It always pays to enter a race with a lot of divisions. Next time I’ll try to find one with a kayaking-mandolinist-organic gardener division.
“Well, we all picked up some hardware!” I gushed as Spy, Mary and I loped through the sand. “Makes it all worthwhile.”