Tunnel Of Love

The shrill starting horn squawked its goosed goose cry into the pre-dawn sky. In an unplanned but natural wave, the spectators lining the lake jumped, arms punctuating the air like startled waterbirds, before settling back to their perches. The first wave of swimmers -- depending on their level of confidence and expertise -- ran, dove or walked gingerly into the lake water. Moments later the water was roiling and boiling around the school of women.

Dry and standing on the beach, I was relieved to be a biker and not a swimmer on my three-woman triathlon team. I was even more relieved to be participating on a team and not as an individual in the event. As the name implies, a triathlon unfolds in three phases: a 1.5 mile swim, a 12 mile bike ride; and a 5k (3.2 miles) run. I reasoned that, given enough time, I could complete any of the three events. But all three back-to-back? No thanks.

Apparently others shared my sentiments. A couple of months earlier, a local group had managed to gather four teams of three women each to compete in the “Trek Women's Triathlon”: a swimmer, a biker and a runner. We were 12 of the nearly 1200 women who registered for the event. And we were a mixed bag.

One of the women was a champion high school swimmer; several of us ran, biked or swam regularly; others played in tennis leagues. One woman got on a bike for the first time in her life; another was less than a year post major surgery; fully half of us were working mothers. All had signed on the bottom line and had already put out a lot of trash talk where many of the women
worked. Not a day passed without a reference to the race.

The place buzzed with bantering; boasts came from the most unlikely of egos. Before the ink was dry on the application, backing out was out of the question. So with the triathlon over a month away, exuberance reigned. Regardless of age, job, or
ability to talk trash, we were committed.

Between regular exercise and remodeling houses to sell or rent, more often than not I’m in decent shape. For weeks at a time, I’ll have full days of hard physical labor. Walking, biking , and yoga round out my activities and how much I do of each is directly proportional to the state of my remodeling projects. With the triathlon nearly six weeks away, my confidence was high. I figured two focused weeks of stepped up training would get me ready to ride. This was, I had been assured, just for fun.

For the next month, my days were full of remodeling road blocks. I fell uncomfortably behind schedule at the rental house and spent long days pushing and pulling my worker through stripping and refinishing floors, installing plumbing fixtures and painting drywall, crown-moulding and trim.

“Two Guys in a Truck” were coming the first of the month and neither I or the house was ready. The triathlon became a vague concern for the future as I focused all of my waking hours on finishing the house. I had never missed a deadline and wasn’t about to start now.

One weary evening at the remodel, I rinsed my eyes and spit drywall dust toward an empty pizza box. Panning the unfinished space, I sighed deeply. My eyes glanced and then held to a paint-spattered calendar. From a wavering mirage of certainty, I picked it up to count, for the bazillionth time, how many
working days remained before two guys arrived in a delivery truck full of my new tenant's furniture. One week. Seven days.

Despite the bruises, scratches, dirty broken fingernails and body odor, I said aloud, “I’m gonna make it.” Briefly, I chuckled and bobbed my head -- the way I do when I’m amused at
myself and feeling smug. “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” the television commercial played in my head. The smile was still on my face when I realized the triathlon was three days after that.

“Shit!” Yes, I said it aloud.

I double checked the date, swore one more time and then broke into a perimenopausal sweat. My vague concern of a distant triathlon snapped into sharp focus.

For most of a month I had been absent at the yoga studio, missed core training, and had discounted any vehicle with fewer than four wheels as temporarily useless. Walking? Sure! From the truck to the house, up the ladder, down the ladder, down the steps to the truck. That all counted toward my lifetime score, but it couldn’t technically pass as cross-training for the tri.

My body was in no shape for a 12 mile bike ride. Covered with drywall dust and still holding the calendar, I calculated. Only ten days until the triathlon, I mused. Not long to get ready, but still there was time. I got busy and did nothing to get into shape.

Word on the street was that many of the women had taken a similar approach to mine, some even gaining weight in a strange passive-aggressive strategy. A good number of the budding athletes had done themselves proud by taking a methodical, measured approach, training several times a week for several
weeks . . . in a row! Alas, and you know who you are, several Type A’s charged out of the gate on Training Day One and were sidelined with injuries until the official race. The trash talk toned down and we continued to count the days.

Finally, race day arrived. With hundreds of other women, we meandered through the beach sand waiting for directions from the loudspeaker. The swimmers huddled under the palm trees at the starting line, ankle deep in water and shaking out their arms. With their multi-colored rubber caps and dark stick silhouettes in the faint light, they looked like a lolly-pop party. Our
four teams, though technically opponents, maintained our loosely formed circle near the starting line, near our swimmers. The anticipation was, as they say, palpable.

And then the starting horn sounded.

Moving bodies and shouting voices jostled me back to attention and pulled me along toward the bike staging area. Realizing our destination, I was suddenly alert. My body tingled and I couldn’t resist skipping along, sideways sometimes, toward my bright orange and black bike, even though it would be at least 50 minutes until any of our swimmers slapped up the gangplank to

At that point, my swimmer would pass the all-important timing chip to me. Then, in an impressive move -- too complicated to explain here -- I would velcro the chip to my ankle and grab my bike like the thoroughbred she is, my right foot just clearing her saddle before slipping seamlessly into its pedal stirrup like a hand in a glove. And then finally, my home-wrecking, floor
refinishing, surprisingly-strong-for-48 years old, left leg would propel us forward into the two-wheeled hunt. We would be one with the wind.

That was pretty much how it happened. With the exception of the fumble free exchange of the timing chip and the graceful move to the bike. And we didn’t ride with the wind; we rode into the wind. An eight mile struggle with my head low and my body folded over the bike.

I pushed ahead while my lungs burned, my eyes streamed water and my thighs screamed for mercy. Until the top of the overpass, in the last four miles of the biking leg. Utterly out of oxygen, I willed myself to the top of that arching bridge. Once over the crest, I raised my head for the first time in miles. I could see forever in every direction.

Spread before and behind me for miles were women on bikes. Little dots and dashes wiggling in the distance. Not like a trail of ants marching along. No. More like the dotted lines on a top secret map, the winding path to the hidden treasure. I stopped to study the image over my shoulder and up ahead. I began
again to ride.

The road ahead fell away. I coasted. I let go of my handlebars. I did that movie thing where you spread your arms out like a bird and flap them up and down. I whooped for joy while sucking for air! Then it occurred to me that I still had a couple of miles to ride. And I don’t mind telling you my cowgirl butt was
sore from the saddle.

“Gut check time,” the voice in my head said matter-of-factly. Back to the task at hand. This was a race.

“I am wasted,” I huffed and heaved, still winded. “ And I’m not 20 anymore.”
“And?” the voice nudged.
“And what?” I asked, knowing the answer but stalling for time to catch my breath.
“And are you gonna coast in these last few miles . . . just for fun?”

I swear I was sarcastic to myself.

So I rode hard. I gave my all, left it out there on the road. I was reckless on the walkways and took the corners too fast, my off-road tires momentarily becoming an advantage. Nobody got hurt but, in my defense and for the sake of the media, I want to say equivocally that I never left the bike path.

Stopping was a challenge. You just don’t want to hit those brakes before you have to. And it’s not necessarily your fault if your bike slides into the rear tire of another competitor, should her position on the track be questionable or should she be in your way. But stop I did in a galloping dismount toward my
team and the transition area.

I don’t remember passing the timing chip to my runner. The ground was whirling. Faces collided and high-pitched voices urged me to . . . what? Something tore at my ankle. I might have blacked out for a minute. What happened to my bike?

I brushed off the crowd and wobbled around under the trees, my mouth gaping, hands grasped and resting on my head in the universally recognized posture of the athlete who has nothing left to give. My chest was heaving and screaming for oxygen. Pudding bubbles of color expanded and melted behind my gaze. Hands now clutching my hips, I dared to stop moving.

Actually, I had to stop moving as only seconds later I bent over, hands now on my knees in the universally accepted posture of the mortal who might toss her cookies. A few feet away, several women mulled and paced, anticipating their 5k. One
of them was from our group of twelve. Nichol shouted over, “Way to go! Rock on!” And then, “Are you gonna puke? Do it! Do it! Do it!”

For a few seconds, she took up the chant! Lots of laughter tumbled out of the crowd. They, like all of us, were high on estrogen. It happens where two or more are gathered.

I didn’t puke but it was a full five minutes before I could manage to ask about my runner. More exuberant shouting: “She’s long gone.” “Raced out of here like a pro!” “How was it out there?”

My lungs had stopped screaming. Nichol was still laughing at herself. I reminded her that she still had to run. She was
unfazed, 15 years younger and had been training. All around me women were smiling and reveling in their bodies. All shapes
and sizes. All colors and voices. The tall and the small.

We, all.

We were as young as 15 and as old as 78, but even with those ages magic-markered conspicuously on the backs of our calves, we were so much more.

Blood, sweat and tears had faded the numbers both from skin and minds somewhere during the day. Now we were athletes: sweating, spitting, smiling athletes who felt everything but our differences.

Nichol’s biker arrived and their exchange looked practiced. In an instant Nichol was galloping down the race course, her long arms and legs gobbling up the air just ahead of her. The rest of us fell into the wave of women moving toward the finish line.

Along the final 30 or 40 yards, people lined both sides of the course to cheer. Men and women called out to each runner. “Go, girl, go!” “You’re almost there!” “Looking good!”

They call it the “Tunnel of Love.”

Music boomed from the speakers and the announcer called each finisher by name as she crossed the line, only to be swallowed up in the crowd on the other side. The exuberance of the crowd was itself an entity.

Leaving was the toughest part of the event. We all wore or carried our medals. We gathered for a team photo. We met significant others and children, parents, grandparents and friends.

Even after water and bananas, bagels and bear hugs, we were reluctant for it to end. But time eventually edged its way
into the party. Slowly at first and then with greater purpose, we began to separate.

Small groups trickled off toward parked cars. Others made their way to the shuttle with friends and family. Here and there a woman ambled alone or strolled hand-in-hand with a supporter. All of us moved toward what came next, relishing our personal victories and proud of these bodies that answered the call and carried the day.