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Cardio Grrrl Does a Triathlon

In an attempt to convince myself that I was physically fit, I participated in the December 14, 2008 Colony Days triathlon, which is held yearly in Palmer, Alaska, no matter what the weather conditions.

Today I did a triathlon. In the past, I have, before, during, and after like-events, asked myself why I’m doing this. I have stood at innumerable starting lines, overtired, on the verge of injury, and fearing the worst, finishing last or not finishing at all. The cold did have me a little concerned. At 8 am, when I went to tend to the horses, the shed thermometer read -1?F.

I fell in behind 100-or-so bicyclists when the starting gun was fired. I began in a very cautious fashion because I did not want to slip and fall on the ice. I soon realized that the pavement was too cold to be slippery. I let out a whoop, picked up my pace, passed a half-dozen other cyclists, and fell in to the niche that I was to occupy for the next four miles. I curbed the impulse to speed up by reminding myself that the event was young—after cycling six, I’d run three miles and then swim 500 yards.

I’d previously trained for endurance-related races by running, slowly upping the distance each day. It was no surprise to anyone but me that I became injury prone. I ran the 2002 Seattle Marathon with a torn calf muscle and was not able to again run for another six months. Then I tore the other calf muscle in yet another marathon.

I found myself tucked between two women who had reindeer antlers fastened to their helmets. I usually take a dim view of such things. Such people aren’t serious athletes, and so therefore, if I’m sandwiched between them, I’m not serious either. Today, it’s okay to be amongst them. I will, I think, pass them in the run. And so, I hold my place, drafting, staying close behind the one I dub Mother Reindeer, repeatedly moving my eyes from her rear wheel to my front wheel, to her rear wheel and back.

I let my mind wander. Why was I doing this? Last summer I vowed to get in better shape, so as to be a better rider. A hitch in Raudi’s trot indicated to me that it was I, and not she who was off-balance. A clinician, Mandy Pretty, verified that yes, I might have some imbalance issues. I reasoned that if I got in better shape, her trot would even out. I also had another motive for wanting to work out. I love Alaska winters, but I have a hard time with the darkness. I needed something to do that might give me energy and make the long evening hours go by more quickly.

I’d been the high bidder on a gift certificate for a one month membership at Peak Fitness. This was at the Alaska Equine Rescue Auction—I paid $5.00 for it. Last September, I cashed it in. Then in October, I plucked down a hefty fee for a six-month “deluxe” membership. It included classes, so I started attending Pilates, yoga, and cycle-spinning sessions. I also signed on with Paisley, a personal fitness trainer.

I returned to the present when I noticed that the riders that were ahead of me were turning right, in the direction of the rear of the Palmer High School. Next we’d transition to the run portion of this three-part event. How, I wondered, was this going to go?

My legs felt like two blocks of ice, so I presumed not very well. To run, you have to be able to move. I half-fell, half hopped off my bicycle handed it to Michael, one of the triathlon organizers. At this point, muscle memory took over. As in the past, my brain told my legs what to do, and they did it. Either, I thought, I’d warm up, or collapse. If I collapsed, someone would scoop me up, and take me someplace warm, like back to Peak Fitness.

I kept going because I really didn’t want to go back to the gym. While I work out there, I’m not a gym rat. Paisley is, but I hardly qualify. I enjoy being outside, even when it’s cold. I just wished I was wearing my Refrigerware suit. Paisley, 24, is a self-described warm weather person. Tall, thin, angular, she moves with the assuredness and grace of someone who is physically fit. Blonde, she wears glasses, which make her look like she’d be at home in a library, as does her no-nonsense, get-it-done-now attitude. Paisley loves gym life, loves working out, loves being busy, loves going shoeless. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, and in October she got her fitness certification. I met her when she was waiting for her results. She passed with flying colors, and then took me on.

My Wednesday schedule soon revolved around our hourly meetings. Our focus was on strength training. I did Pilates and yoga three-days-a-week, and cardio workouts three-days-a week. When I could, I fit in two more strength training sessions. Cardio consisted of spin cycling workouts, a long outdoor run, and treadmill time. I took Saturdays off.

My daily workout time was seldom more than an hour-and-a-half. I feared that I hadn’t been running enough to build up my endurance level. This concern fell by the wayside as feeling returned to my lower extremities. I began hoofing it, and caught up with my friend Wendy, who too has been working with a personal trainer, a wonderful woman named Carla.

“You cold?” I asked.

“My legs, I can’t feel them,” she gasped.

“So I’m not the only one who feels this way?”

“No, no,” Wendy said.

“I’ll run with you,” I replied.

“No, you keep going,” she replied.

And so I continued on, ignoring Paisley’s advice, which had been to find a running buddy, and stick with him or her. For the third time that day, I went downhill, past Carr’s Supermarket, and up the busy Palmer-Wasilla Highway, choosing to run on the road instead of the bike path because the footing was more even. I could now wiggle my toes and felt comfortably warm; however, I could run no faster. No matter, with a half-mile to go, it did not make that much difference.

I returned to the school again, this time, for the last time. I sprinted to the finish line, where Pete was waiting for me with my duffle bag. I was now done with the “fun” stuff, the bicycling and the run. I’m not a swimmer, never have been one, never will be one. I threw swimming into my workout mix with laughable results. Ever vigilant lifeguards kept their eyes on me as I thrashed about in the pool like a lobster with no claws. Then, when I was safely out of sight, they resumed talking to bystanders.

The swim portion of this triathlon was timed separately, so that everyone would get their turn to compete in a timely fashion. I watched the other competitors and thought about Paisley. If she were here, she’d be sitting in the bleachers, cheering me on. This was not to be. Two nights before this race, she called and said that she had quit working at Peak Fitness. She was taking off for Upstate New York where she’d visit friends. She’d return to Alaska in a week’s time, and then shortly thereafter she would move to Portland, Oregon.

“When are you going?” I asked.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, I got a plane ticket. I’m out of here!”

I didn’t ask why she was doing this. Instead, I told her she was a remarkable individual and that she’d made a difference in my life. And I meant it. I had, while working with her, gotten in good enough shape to do a triathlon, which given the fact that I was really out of shape, was quite impressive. But I was dismayed. I’d just started doing serious weight lifting, and was enjoying it. Now I’d either need to find another trainer, or do this on my own. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, so I regaled her with stories that centered around some of the things that I did when I was 24, like bicycle solo cross-country, and then, at the end of my trip, move in with a guy that I didn’t even know. “Getting out and doing things, that’s what being 24 is all about,” I said.

I sat on the pool edge, lowered myself into the chlorinated water, and began the final portion of this race. I moved my arms in long, slow strokes, which (of course) took me zigzagging from one side of the pool to the other. My endorphins kicked in on the third lap. I was no longer Alys, oh no, I was now Cardio Grrrrrrrrrl, the kick-butt athlete who was busting the chops of all the other swimmers. I returned to my senses as I veered into the far lane, and nearly collided with another swimmer. “Sorry,” I gasped. But by then, she was long gone.

The red square was placed in the water by the timer. It meant that I had one lap left. I poured on the steam and finally touched the pool wall. “Good job!” the time-keeper said.

I nodded dumbly, knowing she’d said this to all the swimmers.

“Your time is 13 minutes 6 seconds,” she added.

Not bad for a non-swimmer. But, I privately thought, if I knew how to do those fancy kick turns, I would have cut at least a half-minute off that time. But, I reminded myself, this wasn’t my objective. My goal was to finish injury-free, and as far as I knew, I’d done this. I just wished that Paisley had been around for me to thank. Her suggested way of training, which involves alternating cardio and strength workouts, works. I was proof positive of this.

I returned to the women’s locker room, dressed, and met Pete in the front area. On the way out the door, my thoughts turned in the direction of home. I had yet to do afternoon chores, and I hoped to take Siggi for a walk. Even though it was the dead of winter, I felt pretty good. And come spring, riding season, I’d feel even better.




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