The start of this tri season felt like the opposite of trying. In fact, I almost quit. There was a moment, back in May, when I was struggling in various aspects of my life, that I briefly considered dropping out of my triathlons. The thing is, I wasn’t prepared, and I didn’t seem to have it in me to get prepared. I had started training back in February, but my Camino had thrown off my rhythm, and then I returned in May to a lot of sudden and unexpected stress in my life. Fortunately, I had plans to do my first triathlon of the year with my cousin Nicole, which sort of ensured that I wouldn’t drop out unless she did, and she is not the quitting type.
The Chill Triathletes
Like me, Nicole had also been unable to train to her usual level, and I think we were both comforted that we were not alone in our casual approach to race season. The morning of the Gravenhurst tri, we kept laughing and called ourselves ‘the chill triathletes’. We were far less nervous than we had been in previous years, because ironically, our lack of preparation had taken the pressure off. I set two goals, to finish, and to not get injured, and I had a secret time goal, to finish in under two hours.
The Gravenhurst triathlon is a unique and fun race. Unlike other races, you are taken out to the start line on a Muskoka steamship, and then you take turns jumping into the water. Nicole and I decided before the race that if we were near each other at the end, we would match our pace so that we could finish together. This race wasn’t about time, it was about completion.
(Nicole and I, circa 1983)
As you might imagine, this wasn’t my best tri ever. My swim and bike were strong, but my back really hurt during the run. I managed to finish just shy of my goal time at 2:00:32, and Nicole crossed the finish line a few minutes later. The highlight of the race was when I approached the finish line and saw my sister with five of my nieces and nephews. They jumped up and down and cheered for me and then yelled ‘let’s meet her at the finish line!’ and then ran across the field. The greatest gift of the Gravenhurst tri was that for days afterwards, my little loves were talking about wanting to do a kids’ triathlon.
Light a Fire
The Toronto Triathlon Festival was the following week, and I thought I would be racing alone. However, a few days before the race, I received a text from Nicole. She had taken her bike into the shop and learned that she’d raced with her rear break bent in Gravenhurst. She checked the registration at the TTF, and it turned out that it was still open. She decided that she needed a do-over where her equipment wasn’t working against her.
(Nicole and I circa 1993)
I’m not typically a competitive person, but Nicole and I have always had a bit of friendly competition. She did triathlons before me, and was always a natural athlete, unlike me. Growing up, Nic was a year older than me, and we could not have been more different. She was very high achieving and high performing, and I always felt like I could never really measure up. As we got older, I grew out of my envy of Nicole, but when we started doing triathlon together, she brought out a healthy competition in me that pushed me harder. When she signed up for the Toronto tri, I felt like maybe part of the reason, deep down, was that she didn’t like losing, at least not as a result of a mechanical failure. At the Gravehurst tri, I didn’t really care about winning, but for some reason, Nicole’s decision to race in the TTF lit a fire in me.
The next race day, Nicole and I met up in the morning, and she said that all she really wanted was to be able to finish the race hand-in-hand, like we had talked about for Gravenhurst. I knew that the only way that would be possible would be for me to stay ahead of her on the swim and the bike, which would be harder that day. She’d rented a full size technical wet suit and had her bike in good working order this time, and her run is always faster than mine.
We came out of the water thirty seconds apart, but I killed it on the bike. As it turned out, I was far enough ahead off the bike that in the run that Nicole couldn’t close the gap. I saw her after the half-way turn, and encouraged her to come catch me. A few times I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see her, but she wasn’t there. Then, in the last kilometer, when I was pretty much dying, I heard Nicole yell ‘Go Ashley!’ She was about twenty meters behind me. She wasn’t yelling at me to wait so we could cross together; she was cheering me on to finish. In that moment I knew that finishing together was worth so much more than an extra thirty seconds on my time. So, I turned around and ran back for my cousin.
It’s amazing to me now that there was a moment when I wanted to quit. If I had given in to my fear, I would have missed out on these incredible experiences. I would have missed out on all of the amazing supportive friendly strangers cheering us on, I would have missed out on inspiring the adorable children in my life and seeing their joyful faces at the finish line, I would have missed out on the satisfaction of shaving 13 minutes off my time in the course of a week, and most of all, I would have missed out on that magical moment when my cousin and I joined hands to cross the finish line, hands held high in celebration, together as equals.