Last Mom Limping
I am a triathlete.
I don’t look like a triathlete.
I’m overweight and out of shape. I’m a middle-aged mother of 4 teenagers. I am not the image in my head of what a triathlete is supposed to look like. I’m not tan and svelte. I’m freckled and kind of frumpy. I don’t look good in a swimming suit, I wobble when riding a bike, and I can only walk a marathon-not run one. I’m one of those people who the medics keep checking on during a race just to make sure they aren’t going to keel over and die. I’m not one of the “beautiful people” with the great body, long legs, gorgeous hair, and sexy voice. I’ve got the body of a Dachshund: half a person tall and two people wide. I have short, stocky legs, thick arms, and the voice of a 20 year smoker…even though I’ve never smoked in my life.
I am not what I picture a triathlete to be.
Of course my problem, since I was a teenager, has always been that what I picture in my head and what I see in the mirror have never added up. No dress size on a tag, no matter how small, could ever change the image in the mirror. I’ve given up on mirrors. I use them now just to make sure I don’t have lipstick on my teeth. The age old question “how do I look?” is just so that I know I haven’t got something tucked in where it shouldn’t be or untucked where it should. I’ve given up on my reflection showing me what I hope for, but it has never stopped the want for that image in my head to be the image in my mirror. I’ve wanted a strong, beautiful, confident person to look back at me out of the silvered glass.
It’s been almost exactly a year since I looked in that mirror and got really mad at myself. I started talking to my husband one day and told him, “I’m sick of this. I’m sick of being fat. I’m sick of hurting every time I move. I’ve had it.”
So I went out and bought a pool membership. I thought that if I spent the money on it I’d feel guilty enough about wasting the money that I’d use it to go swimming.
Swimming is a great way to exercise if you’re fat.
The first day I showed up at the pool I was so self-conscious. I refused to go in the evenings when people were there with their kids. I went early in the morning when just about everyone in the pool is over 65 and I hoped they wouldn’t care that I looked like the saggy, baggy elephant.
I did six laps around the lazy river. That’s the pool where they install the jets that move you through the water. You could do nothing but lay on your back and the water would move you whether you used your muscles or not.
I was exhausted after 6 laps of floating my fat around the lazy river.
It felt pretty pathetic.
Well, let’s call a spade a spade here: it WAS pretty pathetic.
It was depressing and humiliating.
But I went back the next day and floated around the lazy river 8 times instead of 6.
After a week of floating the lazy river I decided that I was going to get serious about swimming as an exercise. I was going to try out the lap pool.
Here’s evidence of my neuroses about my body and exercise: I thought they might kick me out of the pool for being too out of shape. Seriously, I actually tiptoed over to the pool and kept looking at the lifeguard as I stepped down into it. I was waiting for him to blow on his whistle and yell “This pool is only for serious athletes! Go float in the lazy river!”
Shockingly, they didn’t kick me out. They said “Good morning!” and kept walking around the pool with their life preservers, hoping they wouldn’t have to use them.
I did four 25-yard laps that day.
It wore me out but I swore I would do it again the next day, and I did. I went back every weekday morning. After 2 weeks of swimming I discovered something.
I liked it. I was exercising and I liked it. I’ve avoided it for decades because I thought I hated it. I thought I didn’t like to get uncomfortable and sweaty. But there in that pool, with the cool water rushing past me, my breath laboring as I pulled myself through the water, I discovered that I liked the feel of pushing my limits. And for the first time in probably 30 years I felt an emotion I’d forgotten I was capable of: I felt love and affection for my body.
I was on my third week of consistent exercise when my husband and I made a three hour trip to visit family one weekend. I had a lot of emotions pushing at me that day. I don’t know if exercise does that to other people, but for me it has been a catalyst for emotional change.
As we drove north through the mountains and valleys of Utah I told William “I’ve got so much going on in my head, I need to work through it outloud. So, I may sound angry, but I’m not angry, I’ve just got to talk it out. So just listen and let me get it out, okay?” William just agreed, he’s amazing that way, and he let me dump a ton of emotional baggage on him. I talked for three hours on the way up. All my frustrations, anger, resentments, and hurt getting thrown out, aired out, pulled out of cold storage in my heart and mind. I’d stop every once in awhile and say “I’m not mad at YOU, I’m just mad. Okay?” He’d just nod and say “I’m fine, keep going.” He didn’t try to fix anything, he didn’t try to solve my problem, he didn’t tell me where my thinking was wrong, he just let me dump that boiling cauldron of emotion out in a safe place.
We spent two days with family and then we started driving back home again. We picked up where we’d left off on the trip up. I kept talking and talking, finding words for my frustrations. Finally, in the foothills just north of Beaver, Utah I made a breakthrough. I told William “I am so angry. My life is NOT what I want it to be, but I’m trying to come to terms with that. I’ve believed all my life that if you are truly good, if you are really trying to do the right things, then life will work out for you. If life is hard then you must be guilty of some kind of wrong-doing to deserve it. If you’re poor then you must have done something that kept you from being blessed with wealth. I’ve always tried to do the right thing in the situations I’ve been faced with but I feel like I’m being punished for making those choices. I’m poor because I don’t deserve to have enough money. I’m fat because I don’t deserve to be healthy. I’m trying to accept that, to learn to live with my punishment, but it makes me so MAD.”
It was one of only two times William stopped me. He just said “Hang on a minute. Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that if you do the right thing life will be perfect or that God is waiting to punish you for doing the wrong things?”
I thought about it for a few minutes.
“I have believed that,” I said, “But when you put it that way the answer is ‘No’, I believe God wants to help us, not hurt us. And I know that bad things happen, even when you’re doing everything ‘right’, problems are just a byproduct of being alive.”
That may seem like a small thing, that realization, but it was a HUGE change in my thinking.
I went from believing I’d earned all my pain, unhappiness, and difficulties, and needed to learn to accept it like a good girl, to suddenly believing that my problems were challenges to be overcome. That paradigm shift was life-altering.
The other time he stopped me was when I started to go on about how mad I was at being fat for so long. He asked me “But how do you feel now that you’ve been exercising? Now that your body is changing because of your efforts, how do you feel about your body?”
I thought about it and said “I can feel grateful for my body now. I can feel love for my body, even with how imperfect it is.” I started to cry and realized something new, “I can love my body and realize that my fat isn’t a punishment from God. My body is a gift from God, it’s something precious and meant to be loved, not a problem to be solved.”
My husband started calling that trip “The Day” because my thinking, my actions, and my happiness changed so radically after that realization. It was like “The Day” in the book Alas, Babylon. It was the day when everything in my life changed and nothing has been the same since.
Just Two More
The appreciation I’d been feeling for my body during my morning swim went into overdrive. I started to think all those positive affirmations you hear about from self-help gurus. I started thanking my muscles for their help. I started telling my arms they were awesome for working so well in spite of being neglected for so many years.
As I started to think it, I started to feel it.
Everyday when I began my swim I told myself “Just two more laps today” until I was up to 50 laps.
Then I hit my first real challenge. Swimmer’s Elbow. It really, really hurt. My mind wanted to go back to that “I must have done something to deserve this” way of thinking. But I didn’t. William showed me some stretches to help alleviate the pain I was experiencing and I changed my swim stroke for a few days to let my over-worked muscles and tendons rest just a bit. I wanted to stop, to let it heal through in-activity, but I didn’t. I’d made the promise to keep going, no matter what, and I got past that hurdle.
Because I didn’t want to overtax my hurting arm while still doing exercises I discovered that the aquatic center also had a gym. I peeked in and hoped no one was in there.
No one can really see you when you’re in the pool, but everyone can see you when you’re sweating on a treadmill. I didn’t want anyone to see my pathetic attempts at self-improvement.
I was lucky, no one was there and I could try to figure out how to work the machine without looking like too much of an idiot. I got it running, well, walking is more accurate, and I had my first day on the treadmill.
I lasted a whopping five minutes. The next day I made it to eight minutes. When my elbow stopped hurting and I was back to my regular swimming routine I kept the treadmill as part of my morning exercises and I kept my “Just Two More” promise.
I texted two of my friends to keep me going the day I made it to my first mile. They talked me through it when I made it to one and a half miles, then two, and finally three.
I tried the rowing machine but could never get the hang of it. The elliptical machine was invented by some kind of sadist and I refuse to support that kind of evil. But I found that I could handle the stationary bike so I began my triple event exercise routine: an hour on the treadmill, 30 minutes on the bike, an hour in the pool.
Then in October, after two months of exercising 5-6 days a week, I got an assignment from work to write about triathlons.
I’d always admired people who could do triathlons. It seemed like this incredible, epic, and amazing thing that only the fittest of the fit could accomplish. But as I researched for my work I found myself amazed that I was actually walking, swimming, and biking distances that were just shy of the numbers for a sprint distance triathlon almost every morning at the gym. I was so thrilled!
An idea formed in my head. Maybe…maybe I could do a triathlon. Maybe I could actually be one of those people who go those distances and live to tell the tale.
I started looking at triathlons in my home state and came across one that looked perfect for me.
The Triathamom is a non-competitive (thank goodness!) triathlon for women only, in Riverton, Utah. It is a sprint distance triathlon which includes a 300 meter swim, 12 mile bike ride, and 3 mile run. Suddenly, the idea of doing something amazing didn’t feel so impossible. Here was an event I could do.
I set it in my head as my goal. I didn’t sign up for it because I didn’t have any money to sign up with, but it was fixed in my brain. Every week I worked toward doing the full triathlon. Some weeks I went just a little further than the full triathlon. For six months I exercised almost daily, with the short exception of when I stayed with my mom for a couple weeks after my dad passed away. I kept getting a little faster and it kept getting a little easier. I told my sister about my goal and she signed us both up.
In May my mom passed away. We had 11 siblings to try to get together for mom’s funeral, which was no small task since we’re spread all over the globe, and we ended up not having her funeral service until the end of June.
Two days after coming home from the funeral in California, I developed a pain in my left foot. I woke up with pain in my foot every morning, which eased with exercise but never went away. I thought I could exercise my way through it, but too much exertion seemed to make it so much worse. I changed my shoes and that helped a little, but my training for the Triathamom had to change drastically so that I could still stand upright for my classes at Healing Mountain Massage School and the days I worked there in the clinic. Between the first of July and mid-August I was only able to go the full triathlon distance once. But I wasn’t too worried, even without the weekly training I’d set for myself I was still improving my time.
Two weeks before the race my sister contacted me to let me know that her plantar fasciitis had flared so badly that she wouldn’t be able to run the Triathamom. I was bummed that we wouldn’t be able to run together, but I knew she’d be thinking speedy thoughts in my general direction.
I drove up to Heber City on Friday night, figuring I’d stay the night with my niece, Michaela. My daughter came with me and I planned to leave her to play with her cousins.
I have to take a moment here to explain my husband’s absence from my race day. I simply didn’t know having him there would be a “thing”. We’re pretty much the antithesis of every sporting family in America. We don’t watch sports, we don’t play sports, we don’t really know anything about them. I attended one football game while I was in college, and the only reason I did was because I got in free. It was the year Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy, and the only reason I knew his name, or the name of the award, was because every other person on campus told me what a big deal it was. I was in the bleachers watching a game with some friends when our team scored a point. My friends were jumping up and down, yelling and clapping, and in my sports ignorance I said “Oh how awesome! We got a homerun!”
The yelling and clapping turned to peals of laughter, gasping for breath, and the universal declaration that I was kind of a dork when it came to sports. It was nothing less than pure truth. William isn’t much better. The only time he participated in sports was a half season of little league when he was six. I just never occurred to either one of us that I would need him to be there for the race. I have a tendency to do things on my own. I’m not sure why, and when I do figure it out I’ll probably write a blog post about it, but I always feel the need to prove myself. To take on tasks and do them on my own. So William kissed me goodbye when I drove away, wished me luck and said that he knew I’d do a good job.
I arrived in Heber and stopped to visit my friend, Quincy, and practice a pre-natal massage technique on her for my class I’d need to be present for the next evening, after the race and the three hour drive back to Cedar City. It made for a late night, with massaging, laughing and visiting. I finally made it to bed at 12:30 am in the morning with my alarm set to ring at 4:15 am so I could meet the 5:30 am sign in time in Riverton.
My alarm went off after I’d managed to get just shy of 4 hours of sleep and I jumped up, dressed and was out the door and on my way within 5 minutes. I texted where I’d be and what was happening to Quincy and Michaela so they’d know where to find me if they decided to come down and bring the kids to the family carnival that the race sponsors hold while the moms all swim, bike, and run. I kind of hoped they could make it because my daughter had wanted to attend.
I arrived at the check in, and wandered around with the other women who were trying to figure out where to go, where to park our bikes, where to change for the swim, and not look completely out of place amidst the many, many women who actually looked like they knew what they were doing.
I was sitting on the grass in the predawn dark, stretching and trying to psych myself up for the event when two women standing about 15 feet from me started talking about their goals for the race.
“I just don’t want to be last, that’s all I want,” said one woman to the other.
I don’t remember the rest of their conversation, but I really pondered her words because that thought wasn’t even in my brain. I never thought about what place I’d finish the race in, I didn’t feel like I was competing for anything against the other athletes, I was trying to conquer something in myself.
“I just want to cross the finish line,” was all I could think of.
The sun started inching higher and more people arrived. We got the bib numbers for our shirts, bikes, and body markings. I got the timing chip on my left ankle and we all gathered with our designated groups, defined by our experience with triathlon events.
A woman sang the national anthem, we cheered. A sports psychologist gave us a rousing pep talk and we cheered again. The presenter gave instructions to the families and cheer teams of the other triathlon participants and the more he talked about how important they were to the psychology of the athletes the more I realized what an error it had been to try to do this big race on my own.
I hadn’t felt lonely until I realized that I was the only person I could see with no one else there for them. Everyone had a team they were running with or a group cheering them on. I just didn’t know it mattered so much, I’d never been part of a sports team before. I made a last post on facebook and a request for good thoughts from my friends there and felt a little better seeing the positivity being sent my way.
The sun came up and they started putting us in the pool in groups. As the line got shorter and I drew closer to the pool the louder the cheering seemed from the sidelines. I started telling myself “you can do this, you can do this, you can do this.” I looked around at the smiling kids and husbands and started wishing desperately that I’d see a familiar face.
It got down to six people in front of me. The race director sent them into the pool and I stood on the edge with my toes in the water trying to believe that this wasn’t the stupidest thing I’d ever done in my life. Then from behind me I heard a familiar voice yell “Vernie Lynn DeMille!”
I turned and saw Quincy, Michaela, my daughter Esther, and a whole group of teenage girls smiling and waving at me from the cheering section. “You can do this Mom!” Esther yelled, beaming her beautiful smile at me. I wanted to break down in tears of joy, but I just waved like a lunatic and yelled “I love you guys!” at the top of my lungs.
Then it was my turn to jump in the pool.
Let me tell you friends, fat floats, but it doesn’t finish races. I’m not a spectacular swimmer, but it was the best part of my triathlon experience athletically. I’ve got strong legs and arms and it doesn’t hurt my foot to swim. I was in the last group to enter and exit the pool and I gave it my best effort. Then it was quick hugs for my daughter and friends, a huge thank you for coming to cheer me on, and a change into my bike and run clothes.
The bike portion of the triathlon was the part I was most worried about. I’m just not coordinated on a bike. I guess I’m not terrible, but I don’t have any real confidence with it. I don’t know how to shift the gears, I’ve never been able to figure it out, and the bike I rode is my son’s $40 Walmart special, so it’s not exactly the finest ride out there. But I managed to get on the bike, pedal out onto the road and follow the directions of the police who were helping to direct traffic around the athletes.
I made it just past halfway to halfway, a little over 3 miles into my ride, when my lungs started to close up.
I have asthma, but it usually only affects me during allergy season and I hadn’t had any symptoms for over two months, even with all my training, so I wasn’t thinking of it before the race. I don’t know whether there was something blooming in Riverton that wasn’t blooming in Cedar City, or the smoke from some burning that someone was doing in one of the neighborhoods we passed, or just the exertion at a different altitude than I usually train at, but I was having a full on asthma attack before I even made it halfway through the bike ride. I didn’t have my inhaler with me, and I knew that it would go from bad to worse if I didn’t adjust my speed. So I slowed down a little, walked my bike up the next hill, just traveled at the speed of gravity down the other side, and knew when I started up the next big hill that I had to make a tough decision.
If I tried to finish the entire bike ride I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to finish the 5K run/walk. But, I figured if I could at least make it halfway through the bike ride, traveling at a restrained speed (my lungs wouldn’t let me do anything else) I would still have enough energy to make those 3 miles and cross the finish line. I opted to ease up and save some strength for the run.
One of the race medics drove by and slowed down beside me to see how I was. I told him my strategy for finishing the race and he said he’d wait for me at the halfway turn around. With my lungs laboring and my left foot starting to ache like a bad tooth I made it to the halfway point at double the time it normally takes me to ride the same distance at home.
It was not an encouraging thought.
The medic, walked with me that last 50 yards and loaded my bike up into his car and we talked all the way back up to the transition area. I wish I could remember his name, he was a wonderful guy, but I’m not sure my brain was in complete working order because I can’t remember his name at all. Is there even such a thing as race induced brain fog? I told him I just wanted to cross the finish line and I’d be happy. He told me about his experience running the St. George Ironman last year and he gave me a mini pep talk before he dropped me off so I could transition to the 5K. Quincy and Michaela were there again, and it was so good to see them, hug them, to know I had someone there for me, and I set off for the last leg of the triathlon.
I was disappointed because I knew the asthma attack had already made it impossible to get anywhere near the time I normally do, which is just under 2 hours for all three events, and added to that was the pain in my foot that just kept getting worse and worse. I’d already walked my bike for at least 2 of the 6 miles I’d managed to get in on the bike route and as I set off on the last 3 miles of the day I was really doubting my ability to finish what I started. I walked the path, just following the arrows and the chalk drawn words of encouragement that some positive soul had written for the racers. “You can do it!”, “Just keep going!”, “You’re almost there!”
Racers passed me heading back to the top of the hill, they smiled and shouted words of encouragement. Racers passed me on their way to the 5K turnaround point, smiled and told me to just keep going. And then I was the only one on the track.
I discovered that there’s an interesting mindset that happens during an event like the triathlon. I need to study and try to understand it better, to see if it happens to anyone else, but for me it was as if nothing else existed except what was in front of me right then and there. If you ever want to experience what it really means to be “present” or to live “in the moment”, just participate in a long distance event like a triathlon or giving birth. I couldn’t think past the next step. I hurt, but I could take one more step. I had no idea how much further I had to go, but I could take one more step. I was struggling to breathe, but I had enough breath to take one more step. I was living to take that one more step, and hoping that I could keep taking one more until I got back to the top of the hill and the finish line.
I had no idea how emotional existing in that “moment” would be. Everything I am was right there with me in that space. I was wrapped up in wondering whether or not I could keep going, if I could keep my promise to myself to cross the finish line, to keep the unspoken promise I’d made to my mom to change my relationship with my body so that I wouldn’t pass on to my daughter the insecurities and self-loathing we’d both lived with for so long. I was crying out there on that track, all the years of feeling weak and worthless pouring out me in sweat and tears. I was praying out there on that path, asking for strength to do hard things, to not waste any more time living in fear of what I can’t do or who I believed I couldn’t be.
I hurt all over. My back and chest ached from trying so hard just to breathe. My foot was screaming in agony with every step I took. I had just reached the point where I wondered if I would have to beg the guy in the golf cart to carry me back up the hill when I saw a familiar face running down the path towards me.
Esther, my bright shining star, was skipping barefoot down the path towards me, cousins and friends behind her, with a bottle of water, a smile, and a hug to keep me going. I wrapped my arms around her and held on. She chatted about the carnival, told me about all they’d seen and done, and started walking back up the hill with me so I wouldn’t have to walk alone. Michaela and Quincy were up the path just a little further, feeding the babies in the shade.
You just have to love a race venue that makes it okay to be out nursing babies on the course while cheering your friends on.
I started limping up the hill. Esther rubbed her hand on my back and once or twice she may have pushed me a little bit on that last climb. “You can do it Mom, you’re almost there,” she said more than once.
And then, suddenly, I WAS there. There were three race directors waiting for me and I realized that I had become the one woman who the racer I’d overheard that morning didn’t want to be.
I was the last mom limping over that finish line.
Fear and shame welled up inside me. I didn’t want to cross the finish line in front of all those people waiting for me. I hadn’t cared about being last, I just wanted to cross the finish line for myself, but I looked up ahead of me at dozens of people clapping their hands and cheering and I just wanted to turn in my timing chip and hide. I wanted to skip by unseen because I felt so pathetic, so damnably incapable of running a triathlon that I came in last place. But the woman who greeted me kept her hand on my back, “You’re almost there! You’ve done it!” and pushed me across the line as the presenter yelled my name through the speaker and all those people started yelling to celebrate for me.
I did not understand it. I wondered why they couldn’t see that I was overweight and out of shape. I was so slow I didn’t even belong there. I didn’t feel like my step across that line was something to be celebrated, couldn’t they see that?
A woman handed me a paper that declared me a triathlete and said “I just have to hug you, I’m so proud of you.” I burst into tears in her arms. I didn’t even know why I was crying, I just knew I couldn’t stop. The medic who drove me and my bike up the hill materialized out of the crowd and wrapped his arms around me. “You did it, you crossed the line. I’m so proud of you.” I held on and sobbed harder. People I didn’t know grabbed me and hugged me. They took a picture with the last of us who finished the race. A man I didn’t know came up and wrapped his arms around me. He said he was the president of the Salt Lake Triathlon Club and he said “You are so inspiring. I just have to hug you.”
In my exhausted, emotional state I couldn’t see what they saw and I wanted to go to that “I suck” place in my head. I know that place really well, I’ve spent a lot of time there. I didn’t feel inspiring. I felt old, fat, and slow. I didn’t want to celebrate, I wanted to wallow in the failure of coming in as the last freaking athlete. But that wonderful group of people wouldn’t let me wallow in self-pity. I called them the “beautiful people” earlier. And they are, but it isn’t the fit bodies and great hair that make them beautiful. It was the honesty in their eyes when they looked at me and said “You won.” It was the understanding in their arms when they knew I just needed to be held onto for a few minutes because my body and emotions were used up and falling apart. It was the belief in their voices when they said “We can’t wait to see you next year.”
I will never again underestimate the power of having a team on my side or feel so surprised by the kindness people are capable of. I always expect people to point out my failures. I’ve had it happen a lot so it’s a knee jerk expectation. But they didn’t point out my failure, my lack of speed, my slowness, or my last place status. They looked at me and gave me a new mirror to see myself with. Someone who doesn’t quit, someone who can do hard things, someone who knows which limits to push and which ones to honor.
I walked to my car and one of the other medics drove by on his golf cart and stopped to talk to me. “I never imagined myself here,” I said. “This seems so unreal, I’m just not an athlete.”
He stared at me with a surprised look on his face. “Why do you say that?” he asked.
“I’m just not,” I said. “I’m slow, I’ve got asthma, I’m just not much of an athlete.”
He shook his head. “You’re a triathlete now, you need to remember that. You crossed the finish line and no one can take that away from you. Do you have any idea how many people never make it to this point? Who never even start the race? You’re an athlete, don’t ever say you’re not.”
I burst into tears again, it seemed to be my new normal, and I hugged and thanked him.
Quincy and Michaela took all of us out for chocolate milkshakes. It was the first real dose of carbs I’d had in almost 4 months. That was the best chocolate shake I think I’ve ever tasted. They let me talk and process what the race felt like, all the emotions that had rushed through me, and what a tremendous journey I’ve been on for the past 12 months.
Lost and Found
Since I got mad a year ago and started changing my life I’ve lost some things and I’ve found some others.
I lost my depression and found my hope.
I lost my endless waiting and found my action.
I lost my fear and found a faith that has moved me over mountains.
I lost both my parents…a harder loss than I imagined, but I’ve found a new me.
I’ve run further than I ever thought I could. I’ve hiked mountains, literal ones, that I thought I’d never have the strength to climb. I’ve faced old demons of self-doubt, self-image, and self-loathing and come out of the fight with a better view of who I really am.
I turned 44 last month and a whole new life has opened up before me. I don’t feel old or worn out anymore. I feel like a whole new life is beginning for me. I feel just like I did when I turned 24…only not as clueless and stupid as I was then. I’ve learned to see life as a classroom meant for learning, not a test with a pass/fail grade system.
I lost the woman who felt helpless as life was slowly passing her by when I jumped in and started participating in the race.
I crossed that finish line. Tired, limping, and in last place. But I crossed it.
I am a triathlete.
And my journey will never be the same again.