“What the hell was I thinking?”
Those were the words running through my brain as I stood poised on the edge of a lake with about 600 other people, about to compete in my first triathlon just one week shy of my 47th birthday.
I am what you might call a late bloomer when it comes to athletic endeavors. As a kid, I tried basketball, but after I made my first basket in the other team’s goal, I realized it probably wasn’t for me. As a preteen I took up figure skating, competing in local and regional events, but I hung up my skates in favor of more important pursuits (read: driving and dating) around the age of 16. In college, I donned Spandex and leotards a la Olivia Newton John and got physical in every trendy class that my gym had to offer. But even though I’ve always been active, the term “athletic” has never really applied.
Until I hit 40. And then something changed.
First, I found myself about 15 pounds heavier than I wanted to be. I could blame hormones or decreasing metabolism, but the truth was I had gotten a little lazy. I had two kids, had been renovating a new home, and my daily fitness routine had fallen by the wayside.
Second, I was depressed — or so I thought. As it turns out, I was in the throes of early menopause, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Finally, I saw a big-as-life photo of myself and my husband as chairs of a local fundraiser splashed across the front page of our newspaper, and I didn’t recognize myself.
That was the turning point.
I started walking 3 miles a day. Then 6. I joined a gym and hired a trainer. The weight came down and the muscle mass came up. I discovered that the stronger I got physically, the more empowered I became. I took up running and completed two half marathons. I bought a road bike and completed three 100-mile rides. It seemed that the only logical thing left to do was tackle a triathlon.
The thing I soon discovered was that in a triathlon, as in life, there will always be something unexpected.
Only there was one small problem: I was a 46-year-old woman who didn’t know how to swim. I could paddle enough to stay afloat, but that was as far as it went.
Being the go-big-or-go-home type, I didn’t let that detail get in my way. I skipped over a sprint-distance tri (1/2-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, 3-mile run) and signed up for the Olympic-length (1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, 6-mile run). To paraphrase President Theodore Roosevelt, if I was going to fail, I would at least fail while daring greatly.
My first step was to hire a swim coach. The second step was to literally sink or swim. For six months I trained. I got up at 4 a.m. to swim. I went to the pool after work to swim. I went to the lake on weekends to swim. I worked out two and three times a day. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, with more focus and determination than I knew I possessed.
People said I inspired them. People didn’t understand why I wanted to do it, especially at my age. I had days when I felt like an unstoppable powerhouse and days when I felt exhausted and much older than my 46 years. I also had a super-supportive husband and kids who thought it was cool to see their mom working so hard for something she felt passionate about.
And when the day of the race finally came, I was in the best shape of my life. I knew I was physically ready, and I had two goals: (1) Finish in the top 10 for my age group and (2) Never stop moving forward.
The thing I soon discovered was that in a triathlon, as in life, there will always be something unexpected — curveballs you weren’t anticipating that require you to call on mental strength as much or more than physical ability.
For example, I wasn’t prepared for a misunderstanding the night before that affected my mood and my sleep. I wasn’t prepared for the anxiety attack that took hold of me five minutes before the start of the race and caused me to burst into tears. I wasn’t prepared for the proximity of the other swimmers or for the underwater weeds that wrapped around my feet and legs. I wasn’t prepared for the headwinds that nearly blew me off my bike. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the intense hunger pangs that lasted throughout the last 2 miles of my run.
But with each challenge that arose, I focused on my goal of “keep moving forward,” which I did until I crossed the finish line — sixth in my age group and a 46-year-old first-time triathlete.
The experience taught me a lot of truths.
Completing a triathlon started as a bucket-list item to check off and ended as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
It taught me that it is never too late to take on something new and that the only failure comes from not trying. It taught me a lot about who my friends are and whom I can count on for support and encouragement. It taught me that I am stronger and more capable than I thought. It taught me that I can show up for myself and do difficult things on my own.
Completing a triathlon started as a bucket-list item to check off and ended as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. For me, it’s not about body image, chasing youth, or trying to outrun my own mortality. It’s about how alive it makes me feel to continually challenge myself — not to mention society’s idea of what a 40-something woman can or should do.
In the end, I don’t want to ever look back and regret not trying something because I was scared of looking foolish or of what people would think. So I will continue to approach my life as I approached that tri — with a mantra of “keep moving forward” — and see what new adventures lie ahead.
Bonny Osterhage is co-founder and small-group trainer at BodyArchitecture Personal Training and Fitness in San Antonio, Texas. You can learn more about her at bodyarchitecturesa.com, where you can also read about how she overcame mom guilt when training for her first triathlon.