Blood, Sweat and Fears
When a workout-averse woman trains for a triathlon, she finds a whole new world of exhaustion, pain, humiliation—and elation.
It wasn’t yet 7 a.m. on a Sunday, and I was swimming as fast as I could down the Hudson River. Although it was the end of July, the brown, murky water felt ice-cold, even through my wetsuit, and I could smell the exhaust from a nearby boat. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I could feel dozens of feet kicking near my face and someone else’s hand digging into my side. As I lifted my head to take another spluttering breath—trying to avoid the bits of unidentifiable debris floating by me—all I could think was: What the hell am I doing here?
I was competing in the 2007 Nautica New York City Triathlon, an event I didn’t even know existed the year before. To be honest, when I signed up in November, I wasn’t completely sure what a triathlon entailed. A 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10- kilometer run? The metric numbers were so big, they meant nothing to me. At 28, I was more used to spending my nights on the town than sweating in a gym, and in fact, I secretly disdained the exercise-obsessed. Working out seemed narcissistic and, frankly, a waste of time.
But one day last fall my cousin, an experienced triathlete with five years of racing under her belt, called to tell me she was planning on doing the race. “It’s no big deal,” she claimed. “You could do a triathlon tomorrow—you should do it too.” While I didn’t quite believe her, I agreed to give it a go. The training would be an excuse to get into shape and get me off the treadmill of going out every night. And, I told myself, I could always back out.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was actually part of a national trend. In the past two years, the female membership of USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, has nearly doubled. And, as I discovered, these so-called tri girls aren’t all hard-core Ironwomen and muscle-bound jocks. New York social fixture Fabiola Beracasa, for instance, has been training for her first race this fall, a goal inspired by her personal trainer, himself a triathlete. “The first time I actually ran a mile, I was so impressed with myself, because a mile seemed like the distance between here and Long Island!” she says.
“More women are competing in triathlons because they’re aspirational but less stressful and take less time to complete than a marathon,” says John Korff, organizer of the annual New York event. “Once you get into it, it’s easy to stay into it, because the maintenance isn’t that high. It’s just the going from zero to 60 that takes a while.”
Because I was pretty much starting out at zero, I was going to need some guidance. I joined a nonprofit endurance sports-training organization, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, which raises funds for cancer research. TNT, as it’s known, assigned 10 coaches to the group of 310 New Yorkers who were to be my compatriots for the next six months. The coed group workouts occurred three times a week at pools and parks around the city and drew anywhere between 50 and 150 people at each session. But training with this crew, which included a good number of girls with wonder-bods in tiny, Lycra bumster shorts, was terrifying. The very first day we went on a group run, a teammate lapped me twice. I was prone to taking wrong turns in Central Park and one freezing night ended up on a seven-mile slog by myself through the notoriously steep hills at the northern end, visions of Into Thin Air flashing through my head.
I was also supposed to be doing three workouts a week on my own. My personal trainer, now engaged on a weekly basis, took one look at my crooked freestyle strokes and pulled me out of the pool to relearn how to “swim” on the pool deck. He tied my wrists to the second-floor balcony with long bungee cords and made me practice pulling my arms through the air while balancing on a rotating disk. My face matched my red bathing suit as I whirled around like a circus freak in front of the other gym members.
Needless to say, my body protested all the unexpected activity. And it went beyond the muscular aches and fatigue. My skin became a canvas of bruises and scrapes, and I developed an eczema-like rash on my thighs from my running tights. As the weather warmed up and I started running in tank tops, I got sores under my arms. (When I showed them to one of my coaches, she explained they were from chafing.) My hair was brittle from the pool, I had windburn on my cheeks, and the skin on my body was parched from the salty layer of sweat that dried after every session.
My social life was another casualty. Evening workouts trumped dinner dates, and 5 a.m. wake-up calls to go cycling meant no more late nights at the Beatrice Inn. And while my friends shopped for Thakoon tops, I was deep in the racks at JackRabbit Sports, looking for new sports bras. In fact, most of my money was sunk into buying new gear. Instead of splurging on the Yves Saint Laurent Downtown bag, my big spring purchase was a flashy $1,200 Giant aluminum and carbon road bike. It came with what I was told were the chicest accoutrements: Michelin Pro² racing tires and Look Keo professional bike clips. By the time I was done picking out water bottles, bike pumps and $300 SIDI racing shoes, the cash register showed $2,000.
On the whole, it was like what I imagined being pregnant would be like. I was constantly exhausted and craving foods like hot dogs and peanut butter. If it hadn’t been for my pride—I had told everyone I know I was doing the triathlon—and the fact that my family and friends had made donations to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society on my behalf, I would have quit after the first six weeks.
Fortunately, I met a bunch of tri girls who became my support network. At the TNT sessions I bumped into Anne Trott, an art gallery assistant I knew from my previous life as a night owl, who was also training for her first triathlon. She assured me we would both finish. “I did the marathon last year just to prove everyone wrong,” she said. Anne introduced me to Nicole Matusow, a beauty publicist and two-time triathlon veteran who told me about using Bodyglide as a guard against chafing. “If you like it, lube it,” she quipped.
And as the months passed, things began to click. I started having fun in the water, zooming through my laps pretending I could fly. Instead of watching the receding backs of others on group runs, I began to match their pace. And, still adjusting to my new bike, I managed to make it through the Five Boro Bike Tour in May, a 42-mile ride through New York City—though I did find out the hard way that you can tip over if you go too slowly up a steep hill.
It didn’t hurt that my stomach was starting to reveal baby ab muscles, my arms were firming up and my bum was diminishing. “You look great” was a common refrain from all the people I hadn’t seen in a while. I even did a “sprint” race—roughly a half triathlon—consisting of a quarter-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run for practice and didn’t die, much to my surprise. I also started to discover why people keep going back for more, after all the blood, sweat and tears: The sport is addictive, for many reasons beyond the body-shaping benefits.
“I was always the kid who was picked last for the team,” says Elizabeth Dee, a petite Chelsea art gallery owner who raced for the first time this summer. “It’s given me a lot. In my world, there are very few things that you have complete control over, and I needed an outlet.”
As Beracasa points out, “Training makes you feel accomplished. You can inherit all the money in the world, but if you don’t accomplish anything, you can never truly feel good about yourself.”
Training was like what I imagined being pregnant would be like. I was constantly exhausted and craving foods like hot dogs and peanut butter.
There’s truth to that. When the big day finally came around, I couldn’t get over my surprise that I was actually prepared. Sure, I had my moments. My dip in the river left behind the dreaded “Hudson mustache” of grime around my mouth, and even though I had slathered myself with Bodyglide, I almost couldn’t get my wetsuit off. On the cycling leg of the race, I was so distracted that I didn’t notice my front brake was unlatched—though I suspect that may account for my incredibly fast pace coming downhill. When I finally started the crosstown run toward Central Park, my legs were so numb that I had only one despairing thought: I’ll never make it.
But then I realized that the whole street was filled with people clapping and cheering—for me. “Go Elisa!” hollered total strangers, reading my name off my jersey. I felt my leg muscles coming back to life. And—most unbelievably—I realized that I could even call myself an athlete. As one father said to his two little girls, “Look at the lady running so fast.”