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Tri-ing to be fit to fight

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Lauren Johnson
  • 1st SOW Public Affairs
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a fitness fanatic. 

At the same time, anyone who knows me knows that if they come between me and my three daily desserts, there will be hell to pay. 

I like to think these two aspects of my personality counteract each other nicely. 

Recently, Eglin Air Force Base hosted My First Tri -- a "short" 200 meter swim, eight-mile bike and two-and-a-half mile run triathlon tailored for the rookies of the sport. Being the fitness fanatic I am - and having the opportunity to carb-load for a week (or three) ahead of time - I signed up. 

But I was an imposter; it was actually my third triathlon. 

It was nice not being one of the shell-shocked newcomers. For those of you who haven't experienced a triathlon environment, it's something else. It's a parallel universe, inhabited by strange muscle-bound creatures in brightly colored lycra ensembles and goofy footwear that looks like the offspring of sneakers and aqua sox. The creatures slap their muscles, exhale deep, serious breaths and strut between rows of towels aligned with clothing and energy gels, and high-tech, shiny bicycles, balanced precariously on metal racks. 

I swear I saw two members of the Olympic team comparing biceps. A row over were two nervous newcomers in faded Speedos and flip flops. 

That's the great thing about the sport. Weather you're an amateur or a seasoned veteran, you're welcome here. 

Eglin welcomed people of all skill levels, ranging from 10 to 76 years old. 

In our own anxious ways, we prepared for what I've affectionately come to call the "Three Stages of Physical Torture." 

Stage one, the swim. 

Having spent half my adolescence in a pool, the swim was the least of my worries. In high school I could cut a clean line down the center of the lane and cover 200 meters in a little more than two minutes. The only problem is there are no clean lines in a triathlon. Once your 50-person heat hits the water it's every man (or woman) for himself. It's like swimming in a washing machine. It's like bumper boats . . . only with no boats, and no bumpers. 

It's chaotic, but I quickly learned to find the humor in the situation: Here are 300 people who voluntarily woke up before dawn on a weekend, stripped down to practically nothing and jumped into the ocean, pummeling each other out of the way because they're so anxious to get to the next stage of physical torture: the bike. 

My nemesis. 

The bike is the longest chunk of a triathlon, so I'm at a serious disadvantage in that it's my weakest event. For my first triathlon last October, I rode a hand-me-down mountain bike with two flat tires, and I'm not exaggerating at all when I say I almost died. 

I've since upgraded to a snazzy triathlon-specific road bike, complete with aerodynamic handlebars. I may still suck, but at least I look cool. 

I've spent the last few months training, but a mile in, it was very apparent that I do still suck. The competitors I so proudly passed during the swimming leg started passing me. We came to a hill, or at least the Florida equivalent of one, and I tried to remember why I paid to do this. 

My helmet strap was pressing itchy and uncomfortably against my throat, and I briefly considered taking it off and sacrificing myself to an Eglin Parkway sedan. 

What would they say in my eulogy? "Here lies 2nd Lt. Lauren Johnson, triathlete wannabe. Perished tragically at bike mile three." 

We turned around at mile four, near Eglin's scenic All-Veterans Memorial, and the way back didn't seem nearly as bad. 

Some of the most difficult parts of a triathlon are the transitions. After I racked my bike, my legs didn't quite register change and kept moving in a circular motion as I peddle-jogged out of the transition area. So much for looking cool. 

Stage three, the run. 

Somehow in the two months since my last triathlon I had forgotten how painful it is.
My legs were screaming. They're used to still being asleep at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. 

We looped through base housing where a few residents had gathered in their driveways to cheer on the competitors. I appreciated the thought, but I really just wanted to borrow someone's kitchen and make myself a waffle. 

At the half-way point it dawned on me, as it does in every race, how truly obscene this is. After all the pre-dawn waking, half-naked ocean swimming, pummeling neighbors and physical torture, you end up in the exact same place you started. 

It's one of life's great mysteries. Why do humans get such fulfillment from physical pain? Is it that we can't truly appreciate pleasure until we've experienced pain? Does it prove to us we're capable of accomplishing greater feats than our simple minds could comprehend? Is it for the glory? The pride? The free T-shirts and post-race food? 

There were many out there with more inspiring stories than mine - like the woman who decided to compete in her first triathlon . . . at age 70. Or the eight family members who thought it would be a fun, bonding experience to swim, bike and run themselves ragged together on a humid Saturday morning. Or the slew of youngsters who finished the triathlon, then left before the award ceremony to compete in a swim meet. 

But no matter where we were coming from or if we ever go back, we were united by two things - our pride in our country and commitment to serve, and the fact that, old or young, rookie or veteran, we are all now, officially triathletes.