66 degrees water temperature. That's the only thing I kept thinking as I set up my bike and run shoes and equipment at the transition area of the Lake George triathlon. I did not bring a wetsuit. I do not own a wetsuit. Used to have one but I sold it on ebay in frustration after enduring friction burns to my neck during a swim event years ago. The lack of a wetsuit would not have bothered me if I had not heard that announcement: "The water temperature is 66 degrees. Bundle up." Almost every other other competitor - there were about 400 - schmooshed their bodies into tight neoprene wetsuits. I had bike/triathlon shorts and a sleeveless triathlon top plus a thin rashguard for whatever extra warmth it would give, and a whole lot of early-morning-in-the-Adirondacks goosebumps.
A woman with a pink breast cancer ribbon tattooed on her left arm was putting her legs into a wetsuit. She was flat chested, definitely post-mastectomy. I thought about how to approach her, immediately feeling drawn to talk to her. I didn't want her to think I noticed her chest, so I pointed to her tattoo. Turns out she finished treatment two years ago and was doing her first triathlon since treatment. She was nervous and excited. I told her I finished treatment on Thursday, suddenly feeling very green and fresh off the boat in terms of the whole "survivor" mentality.
The swim went off in waves. I was in the 40+ women wave - the middle aged and older women leaving the shore last, after everyone else. Fine with me, as getting kicked and punched and having people swim over me in the water is always nerve-wracking. You realize that drowning after a swift kick to the head is a distinct possibility. With that thought in mind, I heard the announcer call the neon green swim caps to the beach. That's me.
The water didn't feel as cold as I expected. No ice cubes or glaciers floating by. It felt almost balmy. I saw the turn around buoy half mile out in the lake and it didn't seem too intimidating. It was a 1-mile swim and the water looked pleasantly choppy but no major waves.
"On your mark, get set" then foghorn, and I jumped in. Kick, punch, elbow to my waist - man, these middle aged women are vicious! Finally we spread out in the water as the faster swimmers took off into the horizon. I got into a rhythm and focused on my form. The water was clear enough to see feet ahead of me and just follow them. The swim was fun and pleasant.
Next events were a 25 mile bike and a 10K run. Biking is my strongest event and, since we started in the last swim wave, I was already in back of the pack and had fun passing and passing and passing people. Parts of the bike course went on a paved bike trail, winding through scenic woods and wetlands. The last five miles followed the serene west shore of Lake George. It went fast and I felt my legs fatiguing from the sustained effort as we hit the 25-mile mark.
I jumped off the bike, got my running shoes on with my dorky pink ribbon laces, and headed out to the two-loop run. As I left transition and turned up the first hill I heard "mommy! mommy!" My two girls and husband were sitting on a rock watching the race and shouting. They probably had been waiting a very long time for me to pass, considering we all woke up at 5:30 and the race started at 7:00 and it was already 9:00. Do the math, and it amounts to a long time for a 7- and 8-year old to be waiting. Maybe some day they can race and I can cheer. Or we can race together. I thought all these thoughts as I ran to them, high-fived them all and then continued on the run.
In triathlons you always get your number magic-markered onto your arm since you can't wear the number in the swim, and also in this race your age was magic markered onto the back of the calf. Presumably this stirs competition; you know who to compete with for an age group prize. Most women I saw in the run were in their 20s and 30, according to their calves, but there was an occasional woman with a "46" or "48" on her calf. My legs felt heavy and I did my best to waddle over and pass if I could. But all in all, I was mainly competing with myself, not expecting any great times, and enjoying the challenge.
I finally finished in 2:50. Emily and Sami came over and gave me a bouquet of wild flowers that they picked. So sweet. Through some miracle of science, I came in 2nd in my age group (out of only about 25 women, but we'll keep that quiet..) We stuck around to wait for the prize, which turned out to be a pint glass.
I saw a woman with a baseball cap in Maryland a few weeks back with the simple yet meaningful words: "Fuck Cancer." That's exactly how I felt yesterday. Fuck cancer. Cancer did not kill me and did not slow me down. I know of women who are chronically fatigued, and have joint pains or neurological issues from chemotherapy -- and my heart goes out to them. Women with metastatic breast cancer who have a long road ahead of them in terms of years of treatments and surgeries.
So I am humbled to be able to finish treatments for stage II cancer with decent health and virtually unscathed - apart from some pretty gruesome scars and a few missing body parts. As for me, I think I can safely say that cancer is in my past; it's no longer part of my present. I am ready to move on and not have to focus any more energy at this point on getting through treatments. It has taken a back seat in this middle-aged lady's life
(Stay tuned for word about an upcoming fundraiser. Not that you're dying to part with your hard-earned cash, but there are a lot of breast-cancer oriented organizations and research institutions that are worthy causes. More to follow.)