How My Rookie Failure Became My Greatest Success

Learning and growing at the 2002 Danskin Women’s Triathlon



photo by Brian Fitzsimmons

I'll never forget June 2, 2002. It was a typical blazing hot, post-Memorial Day, pre-first official day of summer in Austin—a day I anticipated with both dread and excitement. It was the day I was going to do my first triathlon, the Danskin Women's Triathlon.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky to buffer the sun as it made its ascent over Decker Lake in East Austin.  Not exactly the most Walt Whitman-esque setting; it was, however, another memorable turning point in my life, which had shifted direction when, only a few months before, I had decided to do the Motorola Austin Marathon. In the fall of 2001, I’d made a conscious decision to turn my life around before I went any further down the rabbit hole of early onset adulthood self-destruction. The events of September 11 that same year only solidified my resolve to live life with passion, health, and purpose.

Friends I met through run training had convinced me that a triathlon would give me purpose after the marathon. “If you can do a marathon, you can surely do a triathlon,” they chided.  In post-race bliss, I agreed and so there I was, sitting on the shore of the brown, murky lake next to a power plant, with 3,000 other people who also had the same feelings of trepidation and self-doubt.

I did train—as much as one can train with zero swimming and cycling experience. I watched a friend do a triathlon so that I could actually see how it worked. The whole “three sports with no costume change” had been a mystery to me until then. Trust me: I wasn't relieved much when I discovered that the costume (“race kit,” as I later learned to call it) was a bodysuit of spandex and Lycra. Ew. People pay for this self-mutilation? Apparently so.

That friend also helped me buy my first road bike, and I promptly loaded it up with 30 pounds of extra gear. I headed out to Decker with friends each weekend to ride the course. “Holy Moly,” I thought. “This is a beginner race?” Even now, those hills suck the life out of me. I even gave a couple of them names. The last two hills were (and always will be) “the B*tch and the B*st*rd,” as if somehow cursing them by name makes it just a little easier.

Swimming was a whole different beast. My roommate, a swimmer, took me to the YMCA to teach me what a proper stroke should look like—which was, evidently, not at all like a duck precociously flapping its wings to protect its territory. How was I supposed to have known? Until then, my swimming had mainly involved jumping off a diving board and somehow getting back to the ladder. Over three months, I trained myself to swim exactly the distance of the race: 17 laps in the pool, or 800 meters.

So, though I was super nervous (like everyone else on race morning), I knew I could do the distances. I just had no idea what I was really in for until my wave started and the trashing began. Somehow, I survived the less than 20 minutes of swimming. Of course, those who've been in an open water event understand that those minutes felt more like hours—of sheer torture. Still completely pumped up on adrenaline, I sped through transition, hopped on my two-wheeled aluminum tank, and proceeded to ride as fast as I could, as only 12 miles surely wouldn't be a big deal. Hence the big fat rookie mistake.

No one told me about pacing. No one told me about managing my effort level so that there would be gas in the tank for the run. No one told me that no water + heat = severe consequences. By mile eight, I was seeing the proverbial dead people. I remember feeling so dang hot, all while trying to figure out why I had goose bumps and chills. I pulled to the side of the road, got off my bike, and lay down in the grass, eight miles into a 12-mile bike ride, while that relentless clear blue sky spun above me. I was toast—burnt, dehydrated toast.

Many of the events of that day have faded, but the feelings I had while staring up at the sky haven't. I felt like a total failure, and this was only compounded when athletes would pass with some words of encouragement like, “You got this, sister,” or “Hang in there!” What I wouldn't have given to have traded places with them (or thrown some tacks in the road so they’d wallow in self-pity like me). I sat there trying to collect my thoughts and ego, which were melting along the pavement with my resolve, and pondered: “Do I quit? If so, who do I even tell? Where do I go?” Dang, I still had four miles to go, which seemed like an eternity. I had two choices: I could turn in my timing chip or get back on that bike and finish. Failure wasn't an option I had even considered, and so this experience had thrown me for a loop.  

I told myself that, if I just got back to the transition area, I could quit. Some bargaining technique, eh? So, after a bit of time and some generous water donations, I got back on my bike and, through tears of humiliation and determination, pedaled those last four miles.

Pride, encouragement, and hydration were apparently my magic elixirs because, by the time I made it back to transition, I was ready to dig through that run. “If I can run a marathon, surely I can make it through a 5K,” I rationalized. Cheers from volunteers, family members, friends, and other athletes carried me through those 32 minutes. I walked some, and I know I felt horrible for much of it but, when I crossed the finish line, I felt exactly like the medal said: “The woman who starts the race is not the same woman who finishes.” Man, they got that right. I had gone from zero to hero in less than two hours, and it changed me forever.

During those moments by the side of the road, I was stuck in the failure trap; I didn't think I could finish. That possibility of failure was a good thing because it meant that I was putting myself out there; I was challenging myself in ways I never dreamed possible. It also meant I was facing my fears. Instead of giving into them, I got my butt back on that bike and kept pedaling. And you know what? I finished.

The hard truth is, you can't have success without failures along the way. In fact, as my inaugural triathlon experience can attest, feeling like a flat-out failure can also mean success is just a few miles away. You just have to climb your versions of the B*tch and the B*st*rd to get there.

As you get close to your goal triathlon, embrace the failures you will inevitably have along the way. They will make the finish line that much sweeter. Because I had people rooting for me, I'll leave you with a cheer to remember when the going gets tough (because it will):

Give Me an “R”– Real!  Yep, when you sign up for a race, it means that it's REAL!

Give Me an “O” – Oomph! It takes a ton of guts and oomph to get out of your comfort zone and face your fears.

Give Me Another “O” – Oh, yeah! That’s the feeling you’ll have as you cross the finish line—“Oh, yeah! I did it!”

Give Me a “K”– Kick! Kick some butt and save some energy for your kick at the end!

Give Me an “I” – Ignite! Crossing the finish line will ignite your passion and drive because, once you've conquered this, anything feels possible!

Give Me an “E”– Elation! You may have had a few small bumps in the road along the road to the race, but elation (and success) always follows failure.

Congrats – You are a ROOKIE Triathlete!

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