I took on the challenge of a triathlon as part of my continuing efforts to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. My husband, Rob, decided to join me in this endurance event. As many of you know, I have struggled mightily with the swim. I could not get the breathing down and kept hyperventilating and having panic attacks. My exercise induced asthma would kick in and I was history. I became very good at saying “I can’t!” I learned how to quit in practice.
One day I read something that talked about how the words you tell yourself determine how things go. All my joking about drowning and being a loser were not helping me get over my issues. I had to start giving myself positive messages or I was never going to make it. The next day, I went to the pool and told myself that I could do 100 yards. I had been exhausted at the end of 25 before, but wanted to do more. Low and behold, my positive thoughts worked and I made it. I was so excited, that I texted a few friends. Mark Walker wrote back and congratulated me, calling me Dolphin Girl. I embraced that name.
The next night, I swam 300 yards. Two nights later, I did 750. I began to believe in myself and the positive thoughts I told myself. Unfortunately, the panic returned in open water. I struggled to achieve any distance there. In the end, I was out of time and was headed to Hawaii, knowing I could make it in a pool, but terrified of trying the distance in the ocean.
My sweet team knew how scared I was. My local Coach Ryan Ellis, told John Whitaker that I was struggling with panic issues. John told the traveling coach, TriCoach Steve Blackmon. Steve called up the race organizers and convinced them that they should give me a swim escort. The race organizers had never done anything like this before. The day before the race, I went for a practice swim and went into total panic. I only went a short way out before I was back headed for shore. I tried again, but could not get very far from shore. I took some time later in the day to practice in a protected swimming area and felt much better, but as soon as I got into the waves again, I immediately tensed. I should probably note that I am not scared of much..spiders, heights, cancer…no biggie. This got me.
The night before the race, we had our inspirational pasta party for the Go Mitch Go team. GMG Foundation was formed by John and Tracy Whitaker to honor their son, Mitchell’s memory and to raise money to fight childhood leukemia.
Mitchell’s last words were “Keep Fighting”.The Go Mitch Go team had raised over $130,000 towards research grants to prevent and treat childhood leukemia. At the dinner, Tracy Whitaker told us about losing her son to leukemia and how a friend had told her that every penny she found was a hello from heaven. Her family began to collect the pennies. She gave us each a penny for luck on the course. I put mine in my bike bag, to carry with me on the race.
I then remembered that at the first restaurant I went to, I had found a penny on the table. At the second restaurant I went to, there was a penny on the table. As I walked to the beach to make friends with the ocean, I found a penny on the ground. It seemed that Mitchell was trying to get my attention.
The day of the race, I was busy at first learning how to set up transition and didn’t have time to worry. But we were there too early and I had time to start thinking about it. I began to get scared. Coach Steve said it was time to meet my swim angel. We met up with race volunteers and I met Carolyn, the sweetest, tiniest Hawaiian lady. She was going to be my escort. She is a lifeguard and excellent swimmer. I cried as Steve hugged me and told me I could do it, before he left.
Carolyn and her friend Muffet started asking me about my skill swimming, what my issues were and did their best to relax me. Every time I would tear up, they hugged me. When my wave went to the beach, I stood there and cried, the fear was overwhelming. About that time, another friend of Carolyn’s came up. Her name was Tootsie, but her real name was Ruth and she was another cancer survivor. She and I shared a huge hug and she told me I could beat the swim.
Into the water I went, tears running down my face. The gun went off and I started to swim. There were bodies touching, kicking, splashing me, even though I had tried to let most of the crowd go by. I began to worry. By the time I made it to the first buoy, the only thing I could think about was that I had to go in. I needed out of there. I told Carolyn I needed to quit. She said no. About that time, my surfboard angel arrived. Joshua was a spotter and would let you hold the surfboard to catch your breath. Joshua said he was going to follow me on the entire course. I now had two angels. I kept going, resting as I needed, but beating down the panic the further I made it.
Meanwhile, Rob’s wave was twelve minutes after mine. He had told me he would come find me in the water. I was determined to be so far ahead he couldn’t, but that didn’t happen. I looked up, and there he was. My third angel. Rob and Carolyn worked as a team, keeping me boxed between them so that I could spot better. Carolyn would swim ahead and have me swim to her. Joshua would pull up and I would catch my breath. It felt like I was going forever and, I was incredibly exhausted. I began struggling from sheer fatigue, when I glanced up and a rainbow appeared out of nowhere. It was exactly in my sight line and became my focus on the last 200 yards. I just knew it was meant to help me relax.
About an hour after getting in the water, with tears running down my face, I got out of the water with Rob. We were last ones to leave the swim course. My coach and friends had been screaming and cheering for me and the crowd went nuts as I got out. I saw Tracy Whitaker and she was crying she was so happy for me. I asked if she saw the rainbow. She said, “Mitchell sent it for you”. I hugged her and we cried together.
From there, Rob and I were so incredibly far behind the others that it was almost insane to continue. But we did. As we rode our bikes, we stopped at one point to rest and take nutrition. Rob laughed and had me look. We had two motorcycle cops, a race vehicle and two trucks picking up the cones as we passed each one. We led a parade! We walked most every hill, pushing our bikes that day, but that was the best we could do. Coach Steve had said to just keep moving forward.
When we put up our bikes, they asked if we were going to run, as people had already finished the race. Lots of people. But we said we were finishing. We headed out for the last six miles. There were supposed to be five water stops and people to direct you on the course, but since we were so late, the guides were gone. Paths were not marked. We were walking on the sidewalk with random tourists and had no idea which way to go. So we kept moving forward. We saw the ghosts of water stops past. We were so thirsty. We saw ice on the ground where they dumped it when they left and I thought Rob would cry, he was so hot. Along a fence, we saw a water bottle. I told him that if cancer couldn’t kill me, germs wouldn’t either. We got the bottle and started wetting the sponge I had been handed leaving the transition area. We cooled our bodies down and kept walking.
Our coaches found us on the course about a mile from the finish and shared their water and Gatorade with us. As we neared the finish, the team had spread out to greet us.
One by one we picked up members…another parade.
They cheered their hearts out for us as we crossed the finish line.
They had all waited two – two and a half hours after finishing their races, just to cheer us in. They treated us as though we were rock stars instead of the last folks to cross the finish line. And on that day, Rob and I became triathletes. It does not matter where you finish…the key is to finish. And to Keep Fighting.