"And suddenly you just know it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of new beginnings." -- Unknown
Knowing that I was moderately interested in triathlons from my social media posts, Melissa Stockwell (Paralympian, veteran, and the co-founder of the organization Dare2Tri) kindly reached out to me and asked if I would want to take part in their Train2Race camp. My first triathlon was supposed to be the Mason Triumphant that was to take place at the end of July, 2021 near my hometown. I had been training diligently for nine months so that I could complete the distance of a 300 yard pool swim, 2 mile run, and 10 mile bike. However, when Melissa told me that the Train2Race camp would take place over a month before I had anticipated racing and that the distances were longer, I was skeptical. After talking to her a bit more and discussing it with my husband, I decided that it was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.
To say I'm a competitive person is an understatement. If I deem something worth doing, I invest 110% into it. I knew most of the campers had done a few triathlons already and had experience that I lacked. In fact, I had never worn a wetsuit before or swam in open water because, again, I was preparing for a pool swim for my first race. I didn't really know what a transition was or how to set up my equipment for race day. I hate feeling stupid or ill-prepared, so I was already coming into the camp with some added anxiety. Heck, if I'm being completely honest, traveling alone to Wisconsin, a 6.5 hour drive from Ohio, and staying in a hotel by myself for the first time put me on edge. But I wasn't going to let fear get in the way of learning from great mentors and having an experience of a lifetime. I kept thinking of a quote that often helps me take the plunge into new endeavors: "Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step." – Martin Luther King Jr. So, I took that dreaded first step, hoping/trusting that the people at camp would help me get the rest of the way up the staircase.
Friday morning's schedule said that we would start out by doing brick work. This is where I shamefully admit that I had to Google what that even was. Thankfully, when I got to the training site, I saw Melissa. That was the first time we met in person. My tension eased as she took me under her wing and thoroughly explained everything to me. Meanwhile, Keri Serota, another Dare2Tri co-founder, gave everyone a warm welcome speech and handed us a bag full of goodies as a thank you for coming to the camp.
As I looked around, I saw hand bikes and racing chairs, and all sorts of other adaptive equipment that I had only seen on TV prior to coming to camp. The participants all had different ability levels and degrees of physical impairments. Seeing what these competitors could do amazed me. The visually impaired athletes maneuvered tandem bikes with grace, and "wheelies" (as they called themselves) showed their powerful upper body strength as they powered their hand cycles. I soon forgot to be nervous, and my feelings of inadequacy started to diminish. Instead, I started to appreciate the camaraderie that I had started to develop with complete strangers, our "disabilities" acting as our great connector.
I had never competed with other people who had physical impairments before. I truly didn't know how I would stack up because I had always been just slightly above average in comparison to the able-bodied people I had competed against previously in softball, volleyball, and tennis. I can't even find the words to describe the feeling I had that day as I got to be around people who understood me and who looked like me.
The group of about 15-20 athletes started off pretending that we were coming out of open water. We were barefoot and had on no other equipment as we ran to transition. I was instructed to put on my helmet first so I wouldn't be disqualified or suffer a time penalty and then put my cleats and sunglasses on. I started walking my bike to the mounting line (no one can get on their bike in transition for safety purposes). I heard one of the coaches say, "Run your bike, Kendra!" I had no idea that I should be hurrying at that point because I ignorantly thought the time stopped during transition. I grabbed my handle bars and tried running beside my bike. However, it was awkward and slow. Another coach came to my side and showed me how to lead my bike by the seat like a pro. I died laughing as I tried over and over again to mimic his actions, my bike snaking every which way.
When I finally got on my bike, I rode the 3 mile course and then came back to transition to prepare for the mile run. I switched to my running blade, running shoe, and took off my helmet. After doing the same course 3 times, I started to get the hang of it. Melissa came up to me at the end and said, "You're good. I think you have a real shot at making it to Nationals." Again, I was naïve and didn't even know there was a national championship for triathlon, let alone the qualifying times that it took to get there. I was just happy that I seemed to be holding my own, and I wasn't looking like a complete idiot.
The next morning was the practice open water swim. I was terrified! First of all, I HATED the thought of animals touching me in the water. Second, I was unsure whether I could make it that far without having to stop. The 750 yards looked a lot farther than I had imagined. Before I got in the water, Keri called me over to the Dare2Tri trailer and offered me a free wetsuit. Someone had donated it to the organization after only having worn it a couple times. Thankfully, it was a perfect fit, and it became mine! Now, putting it on was a whole different issue, though. I put it on backwards at first (with the zipper in the front), and I had a hard time pulling it up because it's meant to be very tight. With the help of two other people, I finally got the darn thing on.
When I got into the water, my breath was taken away because of how cold the water was. I was used to swimming in 82 degree water at my local YMCA. This was almost 10 degrees colder than that and felt like ice! After I got used to it, I decided to go for it and get the swim over with. I swam about 50 yards when I felt something around my arm. To say I freaked out would be an understatement. I screamed and started thrashing about in the water. But, come to find out, it was only the string that was attached to the zipper on my wetsuit. I was able to calm myself and continue. Despite that pause, I had a PR! I couldn't believe it and thought my watch had to be wrong. I had completed the 750 yards at a 2 minute pace, which was about 7 seconds faster than normal. I found out that day just how much a wetsuit helps with buoyancy!
After we dried off, it was time for bike familiarization. I felt pretty confident going in to this portion of camp because I felt like biking was my strongest of the three disciplines. Little did I know that we would be doing tight turns. I had never practiced doing anything other than straight-aways and 90 degree turns. The coaches had us going in circles in both directions. I learned to have my knee up on the side that was closest to the turn and to push down with my straight leg. I got a little better, but it was something I would still have to practice.
I was pretty sore at the end of the day. Thankfully, Dare2Tri had a really nice carb-loaded dinner for us catered by Olive Garden and a bunch of recovery activities to get our bodies ready for the race the next day. After dinner, we listened to Keri speak about the next steps of triathlon. That's when I learned what time I would have to get in tomorrow's race in order to qualify for Nationals. I added up all my typical training times for running, biking, and swimming while building in extra time for the two transitions. It was at that point that I realized that Melissa might have been right. I did have a shot as long as I had a good race.
After the meeting, our group got together back at the hotel for some s'mores in the parking lot, a tradition that has formed over the years. I had a great time sharing stories with the other campers, but it was getting hard to focus as thoughts of the next day started to creep into my head. I had a heck of a time sleeping that night as my nerves got the best of me. What had I gotten myself into?!
I woke up at 3:00 am on Sunday in order to leave with the group to get to the race site. I set up all my equipment and had a light breakfast. I waited for my friend Jackie to show up. She had traveled from Lexington, KY to support me, knowing that no one else from my family could make it. However, when I saw Jackie walking up to the transition area, she wasn't alone. My husband Bob had surprised me! He drove through the night to make it, and then he left directly after the race to get back to his other obligations back in Ohio. Having the two of them there to support me meant the world to me. Even though I was nervous, I now felt like I had a show to put on. I had something to prove.
However, moments later, the weather took a turn for the worst. It started pouring out of nowhere. Being a newbie, I didn't know to cover my equipment in the off chance it would rain. My socks and shoes were soaked! Thankfully, the swim was first, so it didn't matter if we were wet. What I hadn't thought about was the water conditions. When I moved closer to the front of the line as my wave prepared to enter the water, I saw how choppy the water had become. I didn't make any mental adjustments because I just didn't know any better. When the horn sounded, I started swimming. Adrenaline helped me push forward and focus on the job at hand. However, my goggles started filling up with water almost instantly. I treaded water while I struggled to fix them. 20 yards more and it happened again! That's when I saw a safety boat come out of nowhere. It was heading straight for me. The current made it hard for the operator to avoid me. So, I plunged under the water and let it go over top of me. Things started to settle down until I reached the first buoy. When I changed directions, I was still breathing out of both sides. But the current had the water breaking over my head. Every time I breathed in one direction, I swallowed a bunch of water. I figured out pretty quickly that I would have to breathe out of only one side for the rest of the race. The current also made sighting the buoy harder. It pulled me off track, and I had to make more adjustments to stay on course.
I didn't track my time for the swim, but I knew it wasn't anywhere near the time I got the previous day during practice. I would have to make up time on the bike, but I knew that would be a difficult task because with the storm came 15 mph sustained winds and 30+ mph gusts. At one point, the wind almost knocked me off my bike. There was a man behind me that was getting ready to pass me with ease. As he did, he said, "Sucks to be little in these conditions, huh?" and gave a sympathetic laugh. My mediocre gravel bike coupled with my small frame and the rolling hills made the 12.5 mile course a struggle.
The run should have been easy because it was completely flat. However, I had overexerted myself to combat the elements during both the swim and bike. My legs had nothing left. I ran 1.5 miles until I felt that all too familiar feeling of having to vomit. I backed off the pace and willed myself to keep going. Not long after, my legs just stopped. My body was beating my mind no matter how hard I tried not to let it. I counted to 15, and I made myself begin running again. I was keeping a 9:10 pace until I got to the final leg of the race. I made a turn, and I was hit by the relentless wind once again. It felt like I was going backward. That's how hard it was blowing. I wanted to speed up at the end and finish strong, but it was all I could do to just keep moving forward. I crossed the finish line with my hands in the air, but I wasn't feeling like a champion. All I could think of was, Don't puke, Kendra. Not at the finish line! Not where everyone can see you! Bob and Jackie were cheering me on, but they could tell I wasn't in a great state. The person with the medals came to put it around my neck, but I avoided him and ran right to the trashcan. Andrew, a guy I met that was a volunteer for Dare2Tri, asked the man to give me some space because he was trying for a second time to put the medal around me. Thankfully, I didn't actually puke- only 2 dry heaves! haha
Once I started feeling better, it didn't take me long to feel the pride. I had done something incredibly hard, and it turns out that I had done rather well. Jackie had been following my times, and she informed me that I had gotten the time I needed to qualify for Nationals. It was close; I had only made it by a minute and 30 seconds, but none of that mattered. I was going to the National Championship in Long Beach, CA! Not only that, but I finished first in my division.
Every part of the experience was surreal. I came into the weekend not knowing much about triathlon at all, but I would be leaving with new friends, skills, information, support, experiences, and most importantly, a new beginning. None of this could have happened without Dare2Tri. They not only gave me this opportunity and showed me the ropes, but they also invested in me as a person and athlete. They brought me into the para/adaptive sports world, one that I had always longed for without even knowing it. They gave me a piece of myself that I didn't know was missing.
**Stay tuned for my next blog about my experience at the National Championship!
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