Oh, Wildflower.

You know, even as I sit looking at the blinking cursor I don’t really know what to write. My feelings about last weekend are conflicted and confusing. I’ve asked deep, uncomfortable questions like, “What is success?” “Am I too hard on myself?” and “Do I see myself the way others see me?”

The "transition" area, where triathletes change from swimming
to cycling, or from cycling to running.
Triathlon is incredible. On any given Sunday, you can watch pros and waitresses suffer equally and accomplish an incredible feat. Nobody would deny that completing a triathlon is something amazing.

I just finished a triathlon. So why don’t I feel amazing?

The weekend began with a tickle in the back of my throat that I chose to disregard in the hopes it would disappear. I felt calm and confident. I’d trained really hard. I was stronger than I’d ever been. My singular goal was to beat my time from 2005, hopefully by a lot. In my mind, it was a foregone conclusion. I’d trained right and my mind was tougher. I’d worked through more distractions with more focus. The race was mine.

We arrived at Lake San Antonio and set up our camp, which I lovingly dubbed Camp Rock ‘n’ Thorn. Very rocky. Very thorny. After setting up and getting settled, we realized that our air mattress had a hole and we didn’t have a patch. Dave made a valiant attempt to shore it up with a bike patch, but it just didn’t hold. That night would be spent on the ground. The highlight of the day was finding my short story of returning to Wildflower published in the official program. It had to be a good omen.

That night, as the evening turned into early morning, the temperature dropped into the mid-30s. I lay awake in our tent with a freezing face unable to drift back into slumber. I woke up exhausted but confident we’d have a mattress solution the next night. Of course we would. The weekend was preordained to go perfectly.

On Saturday morning, Alexandria and I headed up the little dirt road to cheer for the Half-Ironman triathletes as they embarked on their 56 mile bike ride. We helped riders who lost water bottles and food, and cheered loudly! We spent all day at the Wildflower Festival talking with athletes, watching the long race, eating lunch, and enjoying the day.

Pro Triathlete Jesse Thomas was so
excited to get a picture with me!  Actually,
it was the other way around.
We met Jesse Thomas, the “mystery man” pro who won the Long Course! Turns out, he and Dave worked together over a summer! He gave me advice, “Race within yourself. You’re not racing anyone else. Just race within yourself.”

I ate a great dinner. I felt relaxed. But we couldn’t fix the mattress, and the low temp that night was supposed to be 33. Yikes!

Race morning. I’d woken up in the middle of the night with a freezing face and a stuffy nose. I didn’t get more than 4 hours of continuous sleep. My body would pull through, though. I just knew it.

Sparing the details of pre-race eating and the girls all talking about that girl who was going to *gasp* swim without a wetsuit and “I just don’t know how she expects that she’s going to have a good swim because it’s cold” and “HELLO! I’m standing right here and can hear you!”, I walked down to the start line and felt good. I felt good. I caught sight of Dave and Alexandria standing high on the wall of the boat ramp and felt more proud and excited than I thought I could. Seeing my child, my real inspiration for doing this, cheering for me was like a tonic. It was short-lived.

We lined up. The buzzer went. We plunged into the cold water.

I started out getting kicked in the face a few times and sucking down some water. I suddenly didn’t feel right. My stomach felt queasy and I thought I was going to throw up. The water was cold, but I’ve been in colder water and felt fine. I didn’t feel fine. Mere minutes into my race, I could feel my brain failing, refusing to let my body be as tough as I’d trained it to be.

I rolled over and did a few back strokes. I took deep breaths. I prayed. I marveled that the rays of bright sun didn’t make the water any warmer! I turned back over. I tried again. I couldn’t find a rhythm. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. And that would be it. I couldn’t do any more without taking in big mouthfuls of lake water. Heinous. I know.

I thought about swimming over to one of the race attendants and giving up. My chest felt tight with phlegm and my throat constricted with a possible onslaught of tears. “Jesus, please help me I just want to give up!” I thought. “This wasn’t the race I was supposed to have!” I watched the pack of 30-34 year olds get further and further away from me. I began to suspect that my race goals were finished. The race attendant was tantalizingly close.

Then I thought of Alexandria. I thought about her needing to see her mom finish a hard-won challenge. I pressed on.

About ¾ of the way through, still struggling, I rolled over on my back again. I felt completely alone in the water. Nobody was really around me. I let the sun warm my body and I prayed again. “Please help me through this. Just please help me finish this.” I took a few deep breaths, and turned over. I found a rhythm for a few strokes, and again had stop and catch my breath. Then I bore down and found that rhythm again. Again, I stopped and took a breath.

When I finally touched the boat ramp, my swim was 8 minutes longer than I’d expected. I walked a few steps, and then jogged up the ramp to get ready for my 25 mile bike ride through rolling hills.

Leaving camp for the starting line.
I never fully recovered. I pushed my exhausted body for the next three hours and 27 minutes. The brutality of the rolling hills of Wildflower further broke me. I got off my bike three times to walk up the hills, and once to retrieve a dropped water bottle. Halfway through my ride, I began to think, “I don’t care anymore. I’m not going to win or even beat my old time. But I must finish. I just really don’t care anymore.” The only hill I felt good on was the last one, the steepest one. A fellow rider explained as she rode by, “This one’s the hardest.” In pure fury at myself, and her for telling me that as I obviously struggled with my machine, I pushed up hard and ignored the lactic acid sizzling through my legs. I channeled the chant my kids scream at me during the tough parts of my rides, “Go Mommy Go!” I reached the top and felt scant satisfaction.

During my run, I walked up every hill. I’ve never done that. I thought I was going to have an asthma attack. When I could, I ran with a group of ladies and at one point explained, “I’m struggling.” A woman replied, “We all are.”

In the end, I finished my race half an hour slower than I did in 2005. I crossed the line terribly unhappy. I felt no pride in what I’d just done. In the hours that followed, I questioned whether the sacrifices of time and money to which I’d subjected myself and my family were worth my valiant-but-fruitless effort. Dave told me I was crazy. I couldn’t help it. My body failed me. My mind failed me. I wasn’t tough enough to pull through my struggle.

Though my friends congratulated me and used the words “rocked” and “proud to know you,” I couldn’t help but think, “They just don’t know what a good time is.” I knew what I could do, and I didn’t do it. Nobody seemed to acknowledge that. I began to feel like my frustration and disappointment were wholly unjustified.

The past week has provided insight that I’ve never before needed. I realized that I’ve never had a bad race. Sure, I’ve had races where I probably missed my goal by a minute or something, but when I told that group of ladies “I’m struggling,” it was out of pure confusion. “Struggling” had never happened to me before. I didn’t know what “struggling” in sports really was.

I’ve thought of the great athletes who famously struggled and finished. Greta Waitz ran the 1984 Olympic marathon with the flu, and crossed the line crooked, limping, and delirious. There was that Ironman guy on the Gatorade commercial who limped across the finish line. Floyd Landis practically collapsed on Stage 15 of the Tour in 2006 (just forget the scandal that followed). Eric Harr, champion Ironman triathlete (and author of my training book), tells of a personal account of a race that boiled down to the following words, “At this point, it’s not about winning. It’s about finishing.”

Well, as a reluctant middle-of-the-packer, I take comfort in knowing I stand in the company of greats. My brain knows I didn’t fail. I actually succeeded. I finished. And for what it took to get to the finish line, I should be, and am, proud. I trained with two little kids and a husband who travels. I didn’t get to run very much because I have a hard time focusing when two small people perpetually need snacks, waters, throw things out of the stroller, and are generally antsy. I learned to enjoy riding my bike in the company of children. I learned to go faster when the kids chanted, “Go Mommy Go!” I learned not to dilly-dally at the gym, and that I can get a 45 minute swim workout in when the Kidz Club is only open for another 50 minutes. I learned to change my clothes fast.

Oddly, emotional closure came after talking with my sister. I explained all that I’d felt through the week. She understood. My brother in law, an incredible athlete, had a similar experience a few years ago. She told me that on race day, he’d looked up my time and upon seeing my finish, he said to her, “Your sister had a rough day today. But she finished.”

Somehow, the simple acknowledgement that someone knew my body didn’t do what it could have done, and didn’t try to sugar coat it as some sort of amazing accomplishment, felt good. He legitimized my disappointment.

I did not rock the course, although I loved reading that. I didn’t glide or fly. I was in a lot of pain. I suffered, and I get that now. I know what that is.

The amazing accomplishment of Sunday’s race was not that I did it. The amazing thing is that, through that race, I finished it. I didn’t give up.
A fuel more powerful than carbohydrates - my kids!


  1. Such an amazing post Nat!!! The best one yet.

  2. I love your honesty in this article Nat. I have also known the misery of a bad race which I experienced 2 years ago during my last full marathon in Victoria. Mine was the result of an injury rather than the illness, poor weather and lack of comfort leading up to race day that you experienced. Injury or illness, I understand fully the devastation after months of dedication and training when your motivation goes from doing as well as you had hoped, to simply getting across the finish line at any cost. In my case, having had a stellar start and feeling fabulous I developed severe knee pain beginning at mile 16 which I had experienced on occassion late in my training. I ran through the pain until mile 24. With 2.2 miles left, I finally went from my slowing run to a slower walk and ultimately a tearful limp to eventually cross the finish line with my worst finish time ever. I watched many people who I had passed early in the race run by and finish ahead of me. I saw WALKERS finish ahead of me! I was in Canada, tears streaming down my face with more than a mile to go when I texted my husband looking for encouragement. Instead he begged me to give up and get a ride to the finish, telling me that my knee was more important than my pride, but at mile 25 I simply couldn't give up. After that race, it was months before I could run again and coming back to full speed was a slow and scary process. At times, I thought my running days were behind me for good and in the end I wonder if I should have quit long before I did so that the injury didn't get as bad as it did. That being said, I applaud your willingness to continue your race til the end knowing that it was going to be an uncomfortable struggle the whole way - that makes for a very long race. I also applaud your dedication and discipline training with 2 small children the months leading up to the race. You deserve a separate medal for that alone. So sorry it wasn't the race you had hoped for, but proud of you for seeing it through. No doubt you will put the bad memories behind you and tackle another tri - another day. Endurance events are difficult under the best of circumstances, and you finished under the worst. I'm still aghast and agog at the no wet suit revelation! You are made of steel!

  3. Kevin and I both love this post. So awesome.

  4. You sucked. How is that for validation. Jesus is your rock. He sustains us in every race, especially life. You are an inspiration to me in so many ways. I know this was a long training process that felt like it did not pay off, but it's more than I can say I've ever began to imagine that I would or could do. Although you felt defeated, you are a champion in my mind. I love you! Thank you for inspiring me with your dreams, life, and faith. I appreciate you.


I like people who say nice things.