So here’s what I learned after completing my first-ever triathlon: In triathlons, as in life, too much time spent in transition can do more harm than good.
And, perhaps more importantly, along the way — which included a 10.25-mile bicycle course and a 5K run — I learned some things about inspiration.
Ninety-nine athletes had signed up for the first running of Tri-Aroostook, a U.S. Triathlon Association-sanctioned race held on the University of Maine at Presque Isle campus to benefit the breast cancer awareness organization Pink Aroostook.
The brainchild of local triathlete Jonathan Kelley, the event also was about introducing the sport, which combines swimming, cycling and running, to northern Maine and promoting the healthy, active lifestyle associated with it.
I first heard about Tri-Aroostook about three months ago and, despite the fact I’d never competitively swam, cycled or run, signing on seemed like a good idea. Ah Hubris, thy name is Triathlete-Newbie.
In the weeks leading up to the event I was cycling regularly and running — with house dog Corky the Shusky — the trails here on Rusty Metal Farm.
Of course, “trail” may be too generous a term. As the season wore on and the timothy grass, clover, ferns and assorted undergrowth on those paths grew from ankle to knee to waist deep. Then again, bushwhacking my way through all that vegetation provided some pretty good resistance training.
Swimming remained the wildcard with no readily available pool in which to train.
Luckily, Kelley had set Tri-Aroostook up so folks could enter individually or in two- or three-member relay teams.
One day while perusing the race Facebook page, I saw a post that a swimmer was looking to join a team.
A few emails back and forth later, and Terry Kelly of Mapleton was my new triathlon BFF, despite the fact we never met face-to-face until the day before the event.
Kelly regularly swims laps at UMPI’s Gentile pool and his anticipated race time of under 11 minutes for the 535 yards looked certain to give us a somewhat fighting chance.
And it would have if not for his teammate — yours truly — and what can only be described as entering my own transition twilight zone.
Since Tri-Aroostook was a U.S. Triathlon Association-sanctioned race, we were subject to their rules. The most important — measured by the amount of time it was stressed to us — went something like, “Thou shalt not touch thy bicycle until thine helmet is on and buckled.”
The penalty was instant disqualification.
I had carefully organized my gear so the first thing I had to touch would be that helmet.
Once it was on and secure, I figured, the rest would be easy-peasy.
Kelly came dripping and trotting out of the gym after his 10:30.4 swim and into the transition zone where we high-fived and the rest was up to me.
On went the helmet — but not before the cycling gloves I’d carefully placed inside it fell out and into a puddle.
It went downhill from there.
I’m chalking it up to nerves, but suddenly putting on gloves was a skill that had become completely foreign to me.
First, I put them on the wrong hands, then on the correct hands, but inside-out and then upside-down. Not to mention the fact that all the Velcro-padding that had been inside my helmet was now Velcroed to the gloves.
Glove frenzy over, I managed to get my cycling shoes on, the bike off the rack and down to the starting line.
Over the next 10.25 miles things improved. It was a glorious course that took racers south on Route 1, over Chapman Road past the Trans Atlantic Balloon monument and back into downtown Presque Isle to the UMPI campus.
The route was made more enjoyable thanks to the efforts of Tri-Aroostook volunteer Penny McHatten who had spent the week making “inspirational” signs she placed alongside the road. These messages included, “If you haven’t fainted, puked or died … TRI harder!” and “You can run with the big dogs or sit on the porch and bark.”
My two favorites were the one at the top of a long downhill on the cycling course which read, “Boobs to the tube … weeeeee …. Tuck and fly,” and the one near the finish on the 5k run reading, “You are incredible … you don’t look real pretty right now … but you are incredible.”
How could such words fail to inspire?
Back at UMPI I put my bike back in place, removed my helmet and promptly forgot everything I’d been told about timing vis-a-vis transition zones.
Basically, the clock does not stop running just because an athlete, say, has to run into the gym to find the ladies room because she’s really, really hydrated, or takes a moment for a snack or — and this was the worst — takes time to chat with relay team members waiting to take to the bike course.
One pit stop, an energy bar, a long-winded cycling discourse and about 20-minutes later I was finally trotting on to the UMPI running trails.
It was about this time when it hit me that, in all the training I had done, not once had I thought to bike, hop off and start running.
Since I had been doing both — on alternate days, I guess I just figured combining the two would be no big deal.
How wrong I was. It was much, much harder than I had anticipated.
It was at this point my fellow triathletes came to my rescue.
As I plodded along the grassy trails and the temperatures rose steadily through the upper 80s, runner after runner came up behind and soon passed me.
Every single one of them — from the top elite athletes to the casual weekend warriors — had something nice to say as they did.
“Looking good,” “Keep going, you got this,” “Great pace, don’t stop.”
They may never know what those words meant and for a brief moment, as they spoke, smiled and waved on their way by, I was one of them — an athlete.
Speaking of inspiration, there was Rollande Vaillancourt, a woman from Fort Kent who swam for her relay team.
Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and never once in all the time as she underwent radiation treatments and chemotherapy did I ever see her without a smile on her face or without a positive thing to say.
She is now cancer free, still smiling and was delighted with her 12-minute swim time.
Tom Zimmerman of Smyrna had never entered a Triathlon but signed on after being inspired — believe it or not — by one of my columns and ended up winning his 60-69 age division in a total time of 1:22:55.
Tom and Jane Zimmerman lost their son James in 2010 in Afghanistan where he was conducting a combat mission as a member of the United States Marine Corps.
I’d never met James Zimmerman, but the thought of his sacrifice helped propel me the final kilometers of Tri-Aroostook.
So, too, did thinking of the battles waged — and sometimes lost — against cancer and other diseases by people I know and love.
Turned out, inspiration, like the triathletes at Tri-Aroostook, came in all shapes and sizes.
I can’t wait to give it a go next year and maybe, if I promise to keep my mouth shut in the transition zone and practice putting my gloves on, Terry Kelly will swim that leg again.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.