Monday, June 14, 2010

The school at dawn

The night before the triathlon is almost festive. Like the night before Christmas, you go to bed early and put yourself to sleep thinking magic thoughts. I mulled the question, “What if the run is really hot again? How can I think my way through it?” The night was full of anticipation.

I dreamed about the children I helped raise, how I left them, how it wasn’t up to me. I woke up miserable. I thought, “I will tell myself, Feel how hot it is. Feel how my muscles work so well, so fast when it’s hot. Feel how my joints are loosest when it’s hot. I’m fast when it’s hot. I’m a well-oiled machine running hot.”

Amy woke beside me, restless because the hotel was noisy. I mumbled what our coaches had told us. “It doesn’t matter if we sleep badly tonight. Last night was what mattered, and we had a good night’s sleep.” She turned on the light to read for a while.

I dreamed I was outdoors before dawn barefoot, in a cotton negligee. I was on my way home, but there, suddenly, was a school of black and brown teenagers on the hillside as the first light was breaking, singing and clapping and chanting affirmations. I am somebody! I slipped between their rows.

I thought, It’s good for them to do affirmations. They probably benefit, but wouldn’t they benefit more from sleeping another hour and a half? I thought, I have to start swimming right away. None of this waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the crowd.

I woke earlier than necessary, listened to the hotel noises, felt the hotel sheets, thought, “I’ll say, Feel how hot it is! Feel how my muscles move so fast when it’s hot.”

It was 4 am. In the room next door, the people who had been up until 11, who had fiddled with the connecting door before going to bed, got a wake-up call. As one mind, Amy and I said, “Not fair! Our revenge was going to be to wake them up at 4:30!”

I felt the sheets. I reminded myself, “I have to limit my rests in the swim and in the run. I have to be disciplined. Only five short walk periods in the run. Maybe ten breaths. In the swim, turn over and kick, only the minimum, maybe ten breaths. Then back into the freestyle stroke.”

The phone rang. Our wake-up call. We made our preparations and were out of the hotel with our transition bags, a cup of hot coffee, and our bikes by 5:15. At the reservoir parking lot, people with blinking flashlights, women smiling at each other, getting their bikes off the back of their cars, riding down to the reservoir. First light was breaking.

We split up in the transition area, racked our bikes, got our things arranged on our towels. Found familiar faces, found the porta-potties. Snacked and drank. I stripped down, finally, in the cool dawn light, and walked down the hill to the swim start, barefoot and blind, to join the crowd, my orange swim cap in one hand, happily not clashing with my blue bathing suit, my disposable bottle of water in the other.

The familiar voice started in my head: I am NOT going to put this cap on, these goggles on, and get in THAT water and swim OUT THERE. (Where are the course markers?) The crowd chatted and assessed the water, the course, the weather, their goggles. I shared my bottled water with a woman who wore an orange cap. I swung my arms, jumped up and down, stretched my lower back. And the voice in my head kept on saying, I am NOT. I put on my orange cap and my goggles, moved forward with the other orange caps, watched the green caps before us splash away. I am NOT. You’ve gotta be kidding!

Officiating there on the dock was our jovial coach Dave yelling, “Get in the water, get wet all the way, ladies!” I squatted down in the gray water, gave a thought to all the women who were no doubt peeing in the water around me. I put my face in and blew out. Cold! I sputtered. Repeat. Still so cold. Again. Damn, no good. Again. Okay, better. Again. Better. . .

“. . .Three! Two! One!” Then with an awkward leap, the orange-capped crowd became a school, splashing silver like smelt, slipping evolutionary bounds, slipping through the water. I thought, “None of that waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the school.” And so I did.

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