19 Stinking Seconds

My younger sister had beaten me in four consecutive triathlons as we stood on the sand waiting for the start of  yesterday’s Dottie’s House triathlon at  Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. The closest I’d ever come to catching her in a triathlon was at this race a year ago, when she bested me by nearly six minutes.

I wanted victory this year. And bad.

Michelle is a much faster swimmer than I am, so I intentionally let her take the lead off the beach and into the ocean. I have learned during previous triathlons that if I just let the faster swimmers go first, I endure far fewer accidental kicks and slaps as I make my way around the buoys at my own pace. Hanging back for 10 or 15 seconds sounds like a backwards strategy, I know, but it really does work for a slower swimmer like me, because then I don’t have to keep stopping to let the faster swimmers ram past me throughout the course.

A quarter-mile of swimming later, I ran up onto the beach and into the transition area. I tore out of my wetsuit and realized Michelle’s bicycle was already gone. I clipped my bike shoes into my racing pedals and listened carefully as I rode past my husband. “She’s about four minutes ahead!” he shouted. “Pedal! You can catch her!”

Last year on this 10-mile bike course, I averaged 15.2 mph, which was about the same as Michelle. This year, I did not let the odometer drop below 16 mph. According to the official race stats, I ended up averaging 16.6 mph—a serious improvement on a personal level—but when I got back to the transition area to put on my sneakers for the run, Michelle’s bicycle was already racked and her Nikes were gone. I’d been faster, but not quite fast enough to catch her during the bicycle leg. My only hope was that I’d see her on the pavement, and that she was somehow still close. That had never once been the case before in our events.

As I set out on the 5K run, I was winded. There’s no other way to put it. I had given my all to the bicycle leg, figuring that since Michelle and I run at about the same pace, my best chance to make up the four minutes between us was on the bike. So I took about a quarter-mile to settle into my run, catching my breath and wondering when I would see Michelle go jogging past me in the other direction, having already gotten to the turnaround point well ahead of me, waving at me with a smile, victorious once again.

I kept running.

And I kept running.

And I didn’t see her among the returning runners across the road.

It wasn’t until I was about an eighth of a mile from the 5K’s turnaround that I spotted her. She was barely a quarter-mile ahead of me. She looked shocked as she saw me approach, and she picked up her pace a little bit. For the first time in our two years of doing triathlons, I thought, “I can actually catch her. I’m close enough, with a mile and a half to go, that I can actually catch her.”

Now, with my brain melting just as much as my muscles from exhaustion, I had to strategize. I do practice sprint finishes when I train, but I’ve never sprinted for more than a quarter-mile at the end of a big run. There was no way that I could sprint the next mile and a half in its entirety. I’d lose so much oxygen that I might actually black out.

So I did small sprints. For the next mile, I picked up the pace every two or so minutes, just enough to close the gap between us a little bit more, and a little bit more, and then I dropped my speed to let my lungs and legs recover. Michelle looked back a few times, with the concern in her eyes growing, but she kept her pace and made me work for every last inch.

When we reached the quarter-mile mark from the finish line, I went full steam. For me, that’s only a pathetic 12-minute mile, but I felt like I was moving at light speed.

This was my day. This was finally my day.

We turned the final corner into the parking lot and toward the finish line, and I was about 10 paces behind her. If she just kept her pace and I continued sprinting, I was going to overtake her during the last few steps of the race. It was a mathematical certainty.

We made the turn toward the finish line, with Michelle just barely out in front. Our family saw her first, and I heard them cheer her on. Then, about five seconds later, I made the turn—and our family went wild. They could see me running with every ounce of strength I had left, struggling with all my might to beat her in those last few seconds, after an hour and a half of giving chase. It was our own personal photo finish, the one I’d been working toward for the past two years.

The last thing I remember hearing after that was my husband. He yelled, “Go, Kim! You can catch her! You can catch her!”

Michelle heard him, too. She turned her head and saw me, realized just how close I was, saw that I was sprinting with everything I had, and gunned her legs at full blast. I fired my own internal afterburners for that last bit of kick I still needed—but there was no more gas in my tank. I’d already burned my engines far longer than the manufacturer recommends, and I didn’t have another gear left. As the crowd screamed and our family cheered louder than everyone else, Michelle crossed the finish line.

Nineteen stinking seconds ahead of me.

Yesterday’s race, by the numbers:

  • 1/4-mile ocean swim, 10-mile bike, 5K run
  • My overall time: 1:35, which is nine minutes faster than last year on the same course
  • My overall finish: 244 out of 274
  • My finish among Athenas (women who weigh more than 150 pounds): 8 of 12
  • My time during the swim: 15:52, a full five minutes faster than last year
  • Number of seconds by which Michelle beat me: 19
  • Number of times yesterday that Michelle worked the phrase “19 seconds” into random conversation: At least a half-dozen
  • Number of times I am going to have to hear the phrase “19 seconds” between now and my retirement: At least a thousand
  • Number of people my husband and nephews beat while competing in yesterday’s men’s relay, which was their first: All of them. Way to go, Sean, Shane, and Thomas! First place in the men’s relay division!
  • Number of family members who got up at dawn to cheer us on: 2 (Thanks Suzanne and Brittany! We love you!)
  • Number of pizzas that Sean, Michelle, and I ate yesterday afternoon and evening: 2
  • Number of Advil I have taken since yesterday afternoon: 8
  • Number of days left that I have to train before next year’s Dottie’s House triathlon: 364. And oh yes, I am on it.

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