Sunday, July 18, 2010

Donner Lake Triathlon: A Success

I read the following quote today after competing in my first Olympic distance triathlon. But before I cite it, I have to say its oddness struck me with the same force my presence reading at the finish line of a race must have struck my fellow competitors. Reading and triathloning-- do the two really go together?
Or rather, a more poignant question might be: what’s with the girl sitting alone reading while we are all drinking beer and celebrating our success, together?

But there I was, regardless, sitting alone, staring at the body of water I’d conquered after two years of fear that kept me from even trying this sort of athletic venue. I should have felt elated, period. Instead, I felt a strange mixture of things. Elation was one, yes, but so was regret and, even, sadness. Are finish lines always bittersweet, I wonder?

The line I read came from Samuel Beckett, who claimed: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” and those words strike me particularly hard, so hard it’s like a punch to the gut.

I relive the previous hours in my mind again: the 4am alarm which sounds like crickets calling to one another on Steve’s ipod. The rushed drive to Donner Lake as the sky turned from black to baby blue with a tinge of jaundice cresting at the mountain tops. We parked near the finish line and in the near-dawn chill, Steve helped me carry the mountain of requisite gear to the transition area. There, I had my body “marked” with my age on my left calf muscle and my race number (85) on my left arm. I ran, visited the Johnny-on-the-spots more times than I’d care to admit (a lot more than three) and hoisted myself into the wetsuit so that I could swim warm up laps before my time-- 7:50-- came and I’d have to do it for real.

The rest passes too quickly through my mind to recount. I swam; I remember seeing sunlight and bubbles, a murky green color and from time to time, someone’s foot or stomach. I recall imagining little minnows around me like faeries and I said to them: hold me up darlings, and I’ll be on my way soon.

I remember the approach of the beach and the way my wetsuit wouldn’t zip off like I imagined it would before I left the water, but how that didn’t worry me. It will, I remember thinking, when it is time.

I remember the half-jog to transition area and my bike where I stripped myself down to a tri suit and outfitted myself as a cyclist ,though still dripping wet. I recall someone calling my name in friendly tones, but I was too disoriented to look to see who it was. I remember the climb up as though I was floating my way up Donner Summit like a passing cloud with no business here or there. I remember the descent, the feeling of flying or freedom or perhaps both.


I remember I smiled in that moment to no one in particular-- perhaps the evergreen trees which line the old highway, perhaps to memory. I recall speeding down Donner Summit the way I was told to by the local bike-shop owner, like the way I skied when I was four or five and my dad had constantly told me to slow down. I called out to those I passed and pedaled by them, wondering briefly if I was still that little girl, or part of her.

I remember running, feeling as though I moved two frames too slow in a film that fast-forwarded by me, yet, bodies came into view and I passed them, all. I felt heavy yet light, ethereal yet forever concrete, solid, me. The hill I knew would come did and I climbed it, not stopping. I used its other side to gain speed and time, promising myself I would never stop.

I finished strong, I think, but when the haze lifted, I wondered if I could have gone faster, swam harder, pedaled with more vigor and ran like I remember running in my dreams when I think about myself two years ago.

Don’t misunderstand me: finishing this event is a huge success for me. If I had come in last place, I think I still would have been proud. But there are two sides to every accomplishment, two sides for each success. Just as the day is light and the night is dark, perhaps each accomplishment brings with it its failures. After all, what athlete doesn’t sit back and wonder-- even after a good day-- could I have done better? I remember, specifically, my response to breaking the ominous three-hour mark in the marathon in 2008.
Of course I’d been happy, but that happiness had been tempered by the question: How much faster can I go?

Perhaps I’m just a wet blanket, but it seems Beckett was onto something. There is a certain nobility in his statement, a Stoic or Buddhist detachment: he urges his reader to try again regardless of the inevitable failure. But what is remarkable to me is not that he guarantees success by repeated attempts, but quite the contrary: by trying we become better at failure, or in other words, we become better at our humanity and it’s lack of perfection.

And so, what I mean to say is that I didn’t feel so odd to be so odd: I read on a beach where I’d just competed in a triathlon. I finished first in my age group while still leaving time to imagine creatures that don’t exist and to wonder as I descended Donner Summit at 40mph, what happened to all those childhood years when I yearned for perfection?

I’ve decided she’s still in there, that Rebecca who wanted to wear black-patent leather Mary Janes and a floral-print dress and play soccer in the mud with the boys-- to be athletic and picture-perfect, always--but she’s getting better at failing.

Perhaps it is a sort of failure to not-win a triathlon. But it’s also a huge success to get over a thing you’ve feared for years: not being perfect. In the end, I suppose my path diverges from Beckett’s: I’ll keep trying and that alone is not a failure, it’s a step in the right direction for this life that involves messy first drafts and frequent falls because, to quote many a wiser-person than me, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.


Place overall women: 7

Place age group: 1


Chrissy (The New Me) said...

Congratulations! I'm supposed to do a triathlon in September and I'm a little bit terrified. I'll have to reread this post when the time comes. :)

Chrissy (The New Me) said...

Congrats! I'm supposed to do a triathlon in September and I'm a little bit terrified. I'll definitely be re-reading this post!

Calabj said...

I like your reading of Beckett, of getting better at failing. Even so, I'll say "Congratulations." Tahoe is sooo cold, pretty too but really cold. What a fine entry, in the triathlon and here in words.