How to Improve Your Fitness with Suffering & Grit
And not drown wearing a neoprene death-suit in your first Chicago triathlon
I know the voice that comes to talk to me when death is near.
“WAVE 39, YOUR NEXT! ARE YOU READYYYY?” the speakers roared.
I walk forward, the tension growing.
Had I trained enough? Am I going to survive this? No one would know if I was dying out here. No one is watching to make sure I make it. I am all alone out here.
My muscles tense.
I try to stop the thought:
There will be no dying here, just swim, Trevor.
Just swim and relax, this will be fun.
But it’s too late. My mind flashes to the spin cycle of salt water and pressure of 10-foot waves pummeling me and being stuck in the rip tide in Costa Rica; how I ended up a mile down the coast from where I started with my friend Cheyenne; how I got smashed in half by the monsters rumbling out deep. I had crawled back to see her crying looking out into the ocean.
The voice that comes to talk to me when death is near, is actually quiet, calm.
Life is short and precious, I knew that much.
I take a deep breath, and then another.
And then another.
Waiting for the race to start is like waiting for the 300-foot rollercoaster drop to happen at Cedar Point.
“WAVE 39! Please enter the water!”
My wave, the 35–40-year-old Chicago Triathlon all-male group moved into the water like floating specters. I step down the metal stairs into the green-blue liquid, the sun’s reflection partly blinding me.
I can do this.
Then I remembered Rob’s words at dinner time:
“How much did you train? Oh. Wow. You won’t make it in under two hours.”
I slide into the water. It’s cold. I open the neck on my wetsuit to allow some of the water in. I need to pee but forget. The nerves make you forget. Luckily, the sun was hot, bright, and the air muggy.
I make for the back of the group. Our take off time was 8:45 a.m. — two minutes and counting.
Grown men idled in the water, nervous, their arms fluttering, their heads covered with red caps and guppy-looking goggles. I go through my pool training sessions and strategy in my head:
Ten strokes on my back, eight on my stomach and five in freestyle. Just do this over and over.
Near the back of the swimmer pile, that is where the real fear and terror collects and festers. I reside in it now. The bad swimmers all congregate there, near the wall, their hopes and fears and lives simmering together like a pot of stew.
I wonder if they wonder if they didn’t train enough, just like me.
“Hey, you guys are back here because you aren’t good swimmers too right?” I said, mustering a laugh.
A stranger next to me smiled nervously, “You bet your ass. I’m not getting mauled up there.”
There were probably 100 red-capped men swimming in place, waiting for the horn to go.
Would I beat the man that helped me fill my bike tires at the transition area?
Would I beat the two-hour mark?
It motivated me that someone told me I couldn’t finish this in under two hours.
I was Goddamn pro athlete, for Christ’s sake, how hard could this be?
Suddenly, the horn sounds and the red mob starts moving like forward like a landslide.
Shit. Here we go.
The whitewater is churning, and I decide to start. I sink my head into the water and spring into my breaststroke as the line of heads bob forward, arms and legs kicking and paddling ahead of me. I feel tight. I had put in four training sessions of long swims, but this was my first real long one in the open water. The only thing that felt different was there is no bottom in sight. That and the hundreds of nervous men scrambling and fighting over one another in front of me.
In the pool, at least you can always see and touch the bottom, but not here.
The only bottom here is when you drown.
And I wasn’t a triathlete. I didn’t want to be one, either. I did this for my friend Charlie, Megan, and Cheryl, to face my fears, and do something that pushed me to grow.
To see if I could beat the battle of my mind and body.
Do you think you’ll make it?
This question hits my confidence like a dart hitting a balloon.
The crowd thins as the fast swimmers speed forward, like sharks, their red-capped fins making a wake down the middle of Lake Michigan. A minute goes by before I see my chance. A path opens.
It is time.
I put my face down into the darkness and start swimming.
I will finish this race in less than two hours, I said to myself before the race began. I made that pact with myself. It’s how I grow. I make my word law.
But now my chest is having a hard time expanding. I surge forward in feet and inches. Glide. Stroke. Glide. Stroke. I hate that there is nothing to see, only the dark murky green shroud of water and white foam bubbles and swirls from the swimmers ahead of me.
But I am making progress.
Then something happens.
A foot cracks me in the face.
What the hell?
Who the hell?
I pull my head up, but my goggles are white foggy windows to a chaotic world. I am in the middle of men slashing in the water, their arms moving like billy clubs and bats. Everything is moving too fast. One man ahead is lurching and gasping, pulling his head around for air, thrashing about violently like he is being eaten by a pack of piranhas.
I put my head back down and swim around him.
I’m sorry, I can’t help you out here.
I start to swim again.
Suddenly, I can’t get enough oxygen.
Something is wrong.
Panic hits me, closing my chest like a drawbridge. It is tightening my lungs inside a vice grip.
I try to breaststroke again, but even this doesn’t work.
My arms are too heavy. The wetsuit is too tight. My chest can’t expand with the cold temperature. My shoulders are heavy bricks, unable to paddle me forward.
I’m losing the fight to stay afloat.
Shit — shit, keep swimming.
My feet are too slow to keep me above water. I descend slowly and wonder if the lifeguards are watching me go down.
I inhale water and my mind flashes to the saltwater waves taking me, spinning me upside down, and I feel the rumble and pull of the ocean.
I am dying all over again.
I paddle hard again and my head pops back above the surface quickly.
I take a deep breath.
Slow down, Trevor. Slow down.
The voice is back. It is calming me.
But I can’t see.
The waves keep blocking my airways. Plus, I’m blind, just blinding murky images and then dark water again.
You need to see. Breathe. Count to three.
Then I remember:
I practiced this in the pool when I got really tired. I flip over on my back and move my goggles to my forehead and float, taking small semi-arm circles to keep moving.
The air comes in. The oxygen rushes back to me and the white vortex mixes with the light blue sky.
My chest opens.
A seagull is floating above me, it’s streak of yellow beak pointing into the wind. I see all the red-capped swimmers behind me. I can see everything now, the tall masts of cruisers, the Chicago Aquarium, and things slow down. I can look back over the swimmers behind me that I’ve passed; they are stopping, gasping, and gulping for air, just like me.
We aren’t even to the five minute mark.
Survival is paramount in the water, you can see it in their faces.
My heartbeat slows.
You are beautiful on your back. Just stay here for a while.
Yes, my biggest fear is quite possibly drowning. And worse, drowning in a race I chose to be in, or shouldn’t even be in, is even more embarrassing. Slowly, I regain my composure and as my breath slows, a moment of joy cracks inside me.
Your mind is your biggest ally.
For the next twenty minutes, I swim along watching the Chicago skyscrapers pass by, and a sense of serenity comes over me. I see a baby in a neon yellow shirt that reads, “Go Daddy!” waving while his mother carries him alongside the lakeshore bike path.
“Go honey, go!”
The swimmer stops, grins, blows her a kiss and waves back.
People are out here testing their mental fortitude and fitness.
I wonder where Charlie is. I wonder how Cheryl is feeling. I think about my younger brother. I smile, this isn’t so bad. I spit out a fountain of lake water as I slowly move down the lakeshore break wall towards the half-mile finish.
I should be good to go, I think to myself.
I start to relax and another horn goes off in the distance. I realize the next wave is starting behind me. The white-capped Wave 40, is now swimming and I see the churning water, and splashing, and flailing of arms as a mob of white-finned shark men move at me.
Don’t let them pass you.
But I notice I am passing red, orange, and even purple caps now and I remember everyone passes everyone in this race.
The real winners are just trying to get over their fears, which makes life just like this race.
The white caps sharks are getting closer. They are fast. Real fast. Yet, I’m amazed that there are all sorts of men out here thrashing towards the finish line, just like me. I see a man with no arms kicking ferociously next to me, white foam specks on his lips as he stares straight into the sky, his legs pumping like pistons.
Jesus, are you serious?
Suddenly, already one of the whitecap-men-sharks is nearly on top of me. As he gets to my feet, he veers to the right and swims over my legs. My hips lurch down, and I gulp water.
What the hell, man?
It’s too late, I turn, and he is already a body length ahead of me. I want to punch him right in the goddamn face, but the finish line is only 100-yards away.
I’ll have to catch him on the bike.
I pick up my on-the-back-swim-like-a-jelly-fish stroke.
Should I turn over and try freestyle again?
I decide to try. I want to be out of this water. I swim hard and I don’t stop until I run into a set of metal bleachers descending into the water. I pop my head up. Everyone is fighting each other, trying to be first, trying to get out of the water, to go where they all belong:
I make a move for the outside lane and see orange neon shirts (or were they yellow), and arms grab me up and pull my wetsuit cord and push me towards the red carpet. I feel like I’m being abducted by an alien.
Like rubber made in Pluto.
Run, my instincts tell me.
Now there is loud clapping, shouting, bells clanging, and more shouts, and I feel like I’m going to faint. I try to run, but my legs are noodles. This is embarrassing, a 450-yard sprint to the transition area is on a red carpet with thousands of onlookers spurring you, and I can’t move my rubber legs.
As I finally get my legs turn over, my right hamstring starts cramping. Maybe I shouldn’t have played five on five basketball yesterday.
Bad idea, bad idea.
Then I have a great idea. I take off my wetsuit. As I get it down to my ankles, I peel over and fall onto the red carpet. My feet are shoe-stringed together with neoprene leggings.
I’m in complete disarray, yet, this time I realize it’s funnier because I’m on land:
I can’t die on land!
I finally get my wetsuit off and start to walk, not run, down the red carpet. The 1968 (my stepfather Terry gave it to me kindly) Trek vintage road bike awaits me, sitting in a quarter-mile corral of 10,000 bikes. If I find it, I’ll be trying to finish a 15-mile pedal along Lakeshore Drive and catch that asshole that swam over me.
The worst is over.
Or so I thought.
THE RACE IS OVER.
I collapse. My entire body is wet and my hands are shaking. Throngs of people are there clamoring for a view of the finish line. Flashes of memories are already in my head. White scale limestone apartment buildings. I remember the man with no arms who passed me, who inspired me to not give up.
What about the man that swam over me?
The man that fell on his bike?
The man that was gasping for air?
I feel guilt. I should have helped him.
I remember the flavor of my bike gloves as I tried to pedal and put them on. That was a mistake. I remember my legs spinning faster than a cracked-out hamster, and still, the aero men with tri-colored cone helmets flying by me on their $15,000 bikes. I was pedaling as fast I possibly bloody hell could and they passed me like a Ferrari passing a Beetle on the Autobahn. I remember the long-haired homeless man (that I had befriended that had been shot five times) cussing at the runners while he was riding his fat tire bike playing a Lord of the Rings soundtrack from the boombox in a milk crate on his way to church.*
How he got on the Chicago Triathlon runner path with his bike is unbeknownst to me.
It’s so inspirational, to see the types of people that do this and finish this Chicago Triathlon race. There is so much love and support from the onlookers, from the volunteer staff, the supporters, even from the runners and competitors themselves while they race.
I was grateful to have friends there in the race, to have Charlie (and his wife Nicole), for Cheryl (and Megan), who I signed up to do it with, for the guy that helped me fill my road bike tires to 90psi (whatever that means), and mostly, to help me understand more about myself.
I even thanked myself for doing the race, for getting over my fear of swimming in the white water again, and all the piranha shark men all trying to eat me, all racing towards some made up finish line we all paid to cross.
*The reason he wasn’t racing was because he told me he had been shot which made it hard for him to run, but biking was okay on his body. I thanked him for his Lord of the Rings sound track and later believed it was the only thing that helped reach stick to my goal of arriving to the finish line under the two hour mark. My official time was: 1.50.51.