Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 14, 2010

Why Tri So Hard? Bad is the New Good.

In the locker room at the pool yesterday, I overheard references to someone qualifiying for Kona and someone having been to World’s.  I am pretty sure the Kona quote was “I qualified for Kona,” although it might have been “she qualified for Kona.” In either case, I thought “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?”

For the uninitiated, Kona is the Ironman Triathlon World Championships.  Kona is like the Boston Marathon, the queen of her sport, and you can’t simply go visit the queen. You have to qualify. You have to earn the right to go to Hawaii and swim 2.4 miles, then hop on a bike for 112 miles, and then top it off by running a marathon, all in one day. Hour after grueling hour. No stopping for a nap, no lunch break, no little side trip to get your nails done. Simply thinking about it makes my legs hurt.

So when I heard the Kona reference in the locker room, followed by the World’s reference (and really, that needs no explanation: Swimming World Championships, as in these people do not need water wings even in the deep end), I was quite intimidated.  Merely being in the presence of these women was outside my comfort zone.  As I stuffed my rather, shall we say, “soft” body into my Speedo, I heard the song from Sesame Street in my head: “One of these things is not like the other things. One of these things just doesnt belong.”  Who am I, how did I get here and can I leave now?

A few months ago, I decided it would be fun to do a triathlon.  Not only that, I decided I should do several triathlons: a sprint distance, an Olympic distance, and a Half-Ironman. Before I knew it, I found myself publicly declaring said goal on Twitter.  Unfortunately, I had overlooked the fact that triathlons have a swim component and I don’t swim. Yes, I can bike and run as far as the day is long, but the only time I get in the water is to hit the swim-up bar while on vacation. My favorite stroke is the kind that doesn’t get my hair wet.  Sure, I was a star in my Polliwog group at the local YMCA back in the day, but by the time I was 8, I had hit my peak. Quite simply, water is not my thing.  It is lovely to look at but not something into which I want to submerge myself. It is generally cold and it is best enjoyed from above, while in a chair, perhaps with a drink.

Yet a part of me really wanted to do a triathlon. I was ready to embrace a new challenge. What’s more, I had publicly declared my triathlon intention to all my friends and my 600 Twitter followers.  I had to go through with it or else, to borrow a phrase from Ricky Ricardo, I’d have a lot of ‘splaining to do. So in January, I started working with a fantastic tri coach (Nina) who assured me that yes, I could do this.  I neglected to mention to Nina that I hated swimming and hadn’t willingly swam more than 10 feet in about 30 years.  Ah, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I figured. Before I knew it, January was drawing to a close and Nina was asking me about doing swim workouts.  Fortunately, a friend of mine (Liza) recommended a great pool nearby.  I was out of excuses, the time had come to enter a foreign realm and get in the pool.

So, one cold January day, I hopped in my car and drove to the pool. I parked the car, then immediately chickened out, slammed that car into reverse and and high-tailed it the heck out of there. I drove for about 10 minutes, told myself I was being stupid, turned around and went back to the pool. I parked in the same spot and sat in the car for 20 minutes. What would I do if it was crowded? How do you share a lane? Do I really have to take a shower before entering the pool area, like all those signs say? It was overwhelming. Once again, the flight mechanism kicked in and I threw the car in reverse.  I pulled out of the parking lot again, although I immediately decided I was a complete idiot and did a u-turn right back into the lot. I parked in the same spot.  For the third time. It was starting to feel like home. Finally, after another 20 minutes, I mustered up the courage to get out of the car, mainly because it was getting late and the thought of explaining to both Nina and Liza why I hadn’t gone swimming as planned was too embarrassing to contemplate.  Also, I was worried security might start to get suspicious about the woman sitting in the parking lot talking to herself. As timid as a rabbit, I went in the building and asked for directions to the pool. Everyone was delightfully nice (and I didnt even have to drop Liza’s name once). No one laughed at me or pointed at me or called me a swimming loser. The pool was empty. It wasn’t that cold.  I swam. It was the least painful part of the entire day, by far. I may have looked like a cat flailing to get out of the bath, but at least I didn’t drown.

My friend Liza helped me get the name of a swim instructor and the next week I started lessons.  The day of the first lesson, I once again I found myself in the parking lot (different parking space) trying to talk myself into getting out of the car and going inside.  It was a bit easier this time because I had an appointment, although being a no-show certainly crossed my mind. More than once, in fact. But good manners and good sense prevailed and I finally got out of the car and into the building. Fortunately, it turns out my instructor, AJ, is a great coach and she has never made me feel as if I should just give up and go home.  She also has never suggested I wear water wings, although truthfully, I think they could help me immensely.

The challenge for me is that AJ swims with a group of incredibly athletic and talented women, and every now and then when I am on my way to my lesson, I encounter them in the locker room.  It happened yesterday, as mentioned above. They have never been anything less than kind to me and they seem like a fun group. Still, in my mind I hear Cookie Monster singing “one of these things is not like the other things” every time I find myself  with them. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is ok not to “be like the other things.” No, I will never get to Kona, or Worlds, but there is nothing wrong with that.  It is ok to be new, and most importantly, it is ok to be bad. After all, would American Idol be such a hit were it not for the bad people? No, I say. It is the bad people who make the world go round.  Bad is the new good.  Those of us who lack talent and experience are downright essential.  We make the competent people shine. We are like the chipped gilt frame around the masterpiece, our flaws highlight the perfection. My drowning-cat-like flailing makes their strong and beautiful gliding even more lovely.  Or at least that is what I tell myself to drown out Cookie Monster’s singing in my head. Hey, I’ve got an idea: maybe I should try out for American Idol. I know just what song I should sing and how badly to sing it.

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