As we traveled north on Route 95 from New York City to Cape Cod, I knew we were going to be late. All the cars around us were equipped with beach chairs and suitcases, and packed full of families ready to take advantage of this last summer weekend. I just wanted to do a triathlon. Regardless of our intentions,we were all moving at the same slow pace. And the slower we moved, the more I worried about getting to bed on time.
"Don't worry," my friend Jean said next to me, "We'll get there pretty soon." My other friend Doug just laughed from the back seat.
We made it to our grey shingled motel in Hyannis by 8 o'clock. Once we got our bags and my bike into our room and ordered the extra cot, I encouraged my two friends to go out to dinner without me. I assured them the cold pasta and spinach I had brought would be sufficient. Besides, I explained, I could get my pre-race chores done while they were out so we could get to bed on time. My friends, not understanding triathlons at all, shrugged and agreed to leave me to my preparation.
I ate my dinner while watching a rerun of "Three's Company" and for a while, the antics of Jack and Chrissy relaxed me and got mind off the race. By the time I finished setting up my breakfast, my friends came back from dinner. Jean raised an eyebrow at the bananas and Powerbars lined up neatly next to the T.V. and the water bottles that stood in a row.
The lights went out at ten o'clock as planned. I closed my eyes in the darkness only to find out two things. One, my bed was rather hard and, two, the walls were rather thin. I did my best to fall asleep but I tried too hard. The more I tried, the more I worried about how my sleep would affect my race. I tried everything from visualizing my muscles relaxing to counting backwards from 100. I'm not sure what eventually worked but I fell asleep somewhere around two in the morning.
My alarm clock rang all too soon. I popped out of bed only to realize that, in my anxious stupor, I had accidentally set the alarm for four-thirty instead of five-thirty. I apologized to my sleepy friends and we all closed our eyes for a bit longer. Not able to go back to sleep, I got out of bed around five and started stretching. By the time the alarm clock went off again, I was preparing my high energy breakfast. My two friends laughed in confusion as I stirred Metabolol into my water while chewing unenthusiastically on a Powerbar. I laughed with them, partly because I was so tired, and partly because I realized how quirky race day rituals must seem to a non-triathlete. But in a few minutes, as I was putting all my articles in my oversized Nike bag, I couldn't stop thinking about how little I had slept. I let my thoughts escape in a few worried mutters. Then Doug put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.
"Look, you got to stop thinking about how much you slept," he said to me. I shook my head and sighed. How could he say such a thing?
"But I think I only slept for a couple of hours," I explained.
"Well, first of all, there's nothing you can do about it now. You slept well two nights ago and that's important. You just have to tough it out. I had one of the best regattas in college my junior year when I slept only 3 hours the night before. It's gonna hurt when you're out there but you just have to suck it up. It's gonna be tough but you just have to be tougher."
I thought about what he said. At the same time the nervous feeling in my stomach calmed just a little, I think a small pout left my lips.
"O.K." I replied.
When we got to Craigville Beach, my body was still tired but my mind kept replaying my friend's words. By the time I was lined up on the shore, surrounded by men and women in my age group, I had convinced myself I was ready for this and I was psyched. We rushed into the water minutes later. I could tell my body would rather be doing anything but racing, but I ignored its whining. When I got to the run, I pushed myself, physically and mentally, more than I had in any other race. I ran as fast as I could. And I wanted to stop so much. My legs were burning. I felt like I couldn't get enough air for my body. But for the first time, I accepted the pain and ran with it instead of slowing down in order to avoid it. For most of my life, hard work had come in the form of academics, plays, musicals, and singing groups. I loved sports but saw the discomfort that came from pushing your physical self to the limit as something to be avoided. And if proper conditions of health or sleep were not as they should be, certainly I could not expect my body to be pushed.
After I sprinted across the finish line, I was finally able to stop. I wiped away tears of disbelief as I walked on the sand. Emotions swirled in confusion. My whole body panted for air in the hot sun. And I understood. I understood what had previously mystified me about my friends who college who continuously swam, rowed, and ran to the absolute extreme level their bodies could handle. I understood that I got to feel this intense high, this pride of truly performing to what I was capable of, because of the pain I had endured in the race.
As my friends and I drove back to New York, I propped up a pillow and sank into the back seat. I felt almost dizzy with fatigue and was already feeling a soreness in my legs that would be full blown by the next day. But there was no question it was worth it. I had gotten a taste of the incredible dance between pain and pleasure, one that came not from having all the right conditions in place, but from my own determination and perseverance. I closed my eyes and thoughts of my next race filled my mind as I faded off to sleep.