I spend the hour and a half it takes for my group to be called chugging water and Gatorade, reapplying SPF 55+ and getting myself acquainted with the Port-o-Potties. My adrenaline kicks in as my group is called to the shoreline.
The waves are huge this morning as I swim out with a few dozen other swimmers to the start buoy. Treading water, I try to slow my breath the best I can, knowing I need to be as calm as possible for a strong swim.
The cannon goes off. I duck my head underwater and throw my arms forward. I make my way to the far left of the swim pack: The extra yards will take me longer to finish, but at least I am not in the middle of the crowd. A more experienced triathlete friend once warned me the open-water swim can be daunting: “Get used to being pushed around!” Her words ring true again this morning. It’s not just the waves tossing me around; it’s the other swimmers. However inadvertently, getting pushed and kicked is unavoidable in triathlon waters. I embrace the suck, give it up to Mother Nature and swim forward as best I can without swallowing too much salt water.
Once the swim is complete, I pull myself up and begin to run towards shore. I run barefoot over the concrete for what seems like forever before I reach the bike racks. Though this race has thousands of participants, it is extremely well-organized. I don’t feel crowded and easily find my way to my bike.
I grab one of my spare water bottles and rinse the sand off of my feet. Swishing the salt water out of my mouth with Gatorade, I pull on my socks and shoes. I swallow an energy gel and take another few slugs of water.
The bike mount station is nearby, and I try to wake my legs up as I jog my bike forward and hop on. Once I collect my bearings, I am able to look around: The bike course is absolutely gorgeous. Passing St. Pete landmarks like the Vinoy Resort, the Salvador Dalí Museum and even Thrill Hill in one long, glorious ride is beautiful. I am reassured by police officers at street corners, volunteers at checkpoints, curves and turns gradual enough that even a rookie like me can handle it without a total meltdown.
Relief washes over me as I make it back to the transition area. I sling my bike back onto the rack and grab a few more sips of water and Gatorade before heading back out. I am officially in the last leg of the race.
My legs feel like jelly and my lungs are struggling, but someone behind me yells “You go, grrl! You’ve got this! Looking great!” and it speeds me up. The woman’s words echo through my head for the next several minutes, pushing me forward and reminding me we are all in this together — elites and novices alike.
Spectators cheer alongside our route with speakers, signs and kazoos. If I had enough oxygen left in my lungs I would tell them how much their presence means to us racers, though it may look as though we are too exhausted to notice.
After a scenic 12 miles on the bike, my next favorite portion of the race is the last half of the run. I used to live in Shore Acres, and am pleasantly surprised to be running through my old stomping grounds now. St. Pete really is a magical city: I look over the water for dolphins and manatees as I attempt to maintain a steady pace.
Keep going. Enjoy the ride.
Residents along Coffee Pot Boulevard crowd the sidewalks as I loop back towards North Shore Park. The race is almost over.My wife, neighbors and friends are standing along the sidelines cheering me on to finish. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for their support, and motivated to keep moving forward.
I keep pushing myself as I approach the finish line. I am already crying at all of it: My wife smiling at me, my neighbors cheering me on, my body and mind pushing through the pain and heat and exhaustion until I finally reach the finish line.
Months of blood, sweat and tears have all led up to this moment: I made it. I cross the finish line covered in sand, sweat and sunscreen, then accept the race completion medal from a volunteer girl who looks terrified I may throw up on her.
I choke back tears as the words repeat over and over in my head: You did it. You did it. You did it.
I search for my family and give silent gratitude for my body and its capabilities. Dirty, clumsy and crazy, this has been one of the best races yet.