Recently I ventured outside of my comfort zone - and I mean way outside. With the encouragement of some folks I used to call my "friends," I decided make the switch from running to triathlons. "You can totally do this!" they convinced me. And I foolishly believed them. I joined the local triathlon club and signed up for my first race, a sprint. (For the mono-sportsters reading this, that's a five hundred yard swim, a 13 mile bike ride, and a five kilometer run.)
Training for a triathlon isn't so bad, as long as you have an exra thirty hours a week to spend pruning in cold, heavily chlorinated water and hanging out at the local high school track. I spent at least five hours a week at the pool with my swim coach timing me on the race distance, roughly twenty laps. Even though I could do that with no problem, she told me there would be swim angels - lifeguards in kayaks stationed every twenty yards or so along the course. Thanks, but no thanks. Not going to need that, I was certain.
As for the cycling, well, the trick to performing well in a triathlon is having lots of expensive cycling equipment. At the very least, you need a nice road bike and a pair of those shoes that clip onto the pedals. Only I couldn't figure out how to UNclip them. "It becomes second nature," my fellow cyclists insisted. "Soon you won't even have to think about it." I'm not sure how *soon* this instinct to unclip should have blossomed - after my third or fourth ride, after my tenth ride, after my first race - but for me, it was... never. Eventually I learned to stop by falling off my bike. Problem solved.
Lastly, the run. You would think that would be the easy part, but you would be wrong. Turns out its not so easy to run three miles after a swim and a bike ride. Most traithlon training programs call for what multi-sportsters call a "brick," running a few miles immediately after cycling a lot of miles. I'm not exactly sure what the benefit of these bricks was supposed to be, since the runs never got any easier. Perhaps it was so that you knew in advance that the run was going to be slow and painful on race day.
So after a few months of training in all three sports, I was ready for the New Jersey State triathlon. I showed up on race day looking spiffy in my tri club uniform, lugging about fifty pounds of the equipment necessary to compete in this event. Ah, the transition area, where literally hundreds of bikes, each worth in the neighborhood of a monthly mortgage payment, dangle precariously from a long metal rack. The air is thick with the smell of Ben Gay and trialthlon lingo. The participants, with race number and age marked on their bodies in thick indelible black marker, meticulously lay out the items they will need at various points in the race. This was hardcore, friends. Goggles and the lime green swim cap that designated me a "female, aged 45-49" in hand, I headed down to the dock for the start of the race.
That's where my day took an unexpectedly ugly turn. I don't know why I was surprised to see that the water was dark brown. I walked in up to my calves, and couldn't see my feet. There was no blue line down the center. There were no lane markers. How was I going to swim in...this? I pushed the thought aside, and lined up in my "wave." (That's tri talk for the group of people the same age as you with whom you enter the muck at the start of the race.)
The race director counted down...4, 3, 2...go! People on the shore were cheering. I reluctantly put my face in the dark water and started to swim. It was chaotic. The kicking and punching during the first few yards reminded me of players scrambling to recover a fumbled football. Completely disoriented, I drifted off of the course. The water was too deep for me to stop to catch my breath. Panicked, I made my way to the nearest kayak and hung on for a few minutes. I pried my fingers loose and tried again. My heart was pounding. It took every ounce of energy and courage I had to swim...twenty yards to the next kayak.
Well, you probably have a sense of where this story is going, so I'll cut right to the chase. About twenty minutes after the race started, I got fished out of Lake Mercer by some very nice lifeguards, and onto a rescue boat with some other folks who had also changed their minds halfway through the swim. (Not surprisingly, however, I was the only one sporting an official tri club uniform.) The race officials were very nice and sympathetic, but the boat might as well have had flashing lights and a siren on top as it carried us back to the safety of dry land, where I handed my velcro timing chip to a race volunteer, signed some paperwork, and called it a race day.
In the months that followed the "tri that wasn't" I made peace with the fact that it was my panic that kept me from finishing, not my ability to swim the course. I thought about Peter, when Jesus told him to step out of the boat and walk on water. He was fine, until he panicked. Mat 14:30. At that point, Peter sunk like a rock. "Yep, Peter, I can relate. Me, too."
Fast forward eight months, to my second triathlon. I sat on the dock and looked down at the ice cold muddy water I was about to descend into to start the race. This time, I imagined the fish God created to swim there, and the algae He created to keep the water fresh to sustain the fish. It was a perfectly thought out system and nothing to be afraid of, I told myself. I pushed off the dock singing to myself a song called, "Let The Waters Rise." These are some of the lyrics: "when I swim in the sea, You will be there with me." I finished that swim with no problem whatsoever.
Yes, I am constantly discovering new ways to put my faith in God, because He's there with me no matter what crazy sport I'm participating in. He was even in the murky waters of Lake Mercer - I just couldn't see Him. Or my feet. But whenever we step outside of our comfort zone, we can call upon the name of the Lord and He will deliver us from all our fears. Nothing else, and no one else, offers that kind of assurance.