I never imagined I would commit to my first triathlon moments before the event began, while I was still groggy from sleep and wearing my pajamas. But that’s what happened when Morgan, the kids and I recently found ourselves on the edge of a lake in a eucalyptus forest north of Melbourne, in a community called Daylesford, to compete in a trail race.
We arrived at the Jubilee Lake Holiday Park and settled into a tiny rental cabin that was like a mobile home mounted on blocks. The park, on the edge of a state forest, was the site of a “Dirt Fest” February 20 – 21 put on by an outfit called In 2 Adventure.
The trail race was only a 10K, but it was a good enough excuse for us to go there — that, plus the fact the event promised a kids’ run and other family fun, all in a big recreational area where kids could run wild while us grown-ups sat around campervans and knocked back cold ones. (Our travel budget is all about cheap thrills these days.)
The day before the event, I went to the lake and tentatively waded up to my ankles while looking suspiciously at the reeds that clogged its shores. My head has been filled with visions of crocs, snakes and other Australian creatures that can kill with a single bite or sting, so I was a big chicken about getting near the murky water, even though we had been told it was safe. Morgan couldn’t stand my prissiness, so he dove in to prove to the kids and me there’s nothing to fear. Then I dove in, too, and swam just long enough to say, “There, I did it.”
The dip in the lake was the first of two fortuitous events that would shape the weekend. The second happened when Morgan mentioned to the super nice event manager, Robyn Lazenby, that he might like to do the Saturday morning mountain bike race if he had a bike. No problem, she said — she had one he could borrow, and even a helmet and clip-in shoes he could use, too.
Morgan has never raced on a bike, has never used the kind of shoes that clip in to pedals and hasn’t cycled for over four months. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Consequently, we woke early Saturday morning — which wasn’t hard to do, since a cacophony of cackling kookaburras, screeching cockatoos and barking owls wakes up the entire region at the first hint of dawn, sounding like the tape loop to Disney’s Jungle Boat ride — and we cheered on Morgan as he lined up with a few dozen cyclists for the 20K race. (More entrants were doing the longer 50K ride.) “Gotta try new things,” he said.
And then he was off for two laps on the rolling hills of the 10K course. He was flying when he came by after the first lap, and he said later that zooming on the bike made him feel 10 years old again. His chain came off only a few feet from the end, so he had to run his bike across the finish line, but far from placing last (as he assumed he would), he finished in the front half of the pack and was third in his category.
Later that day, as I watched the preparations for the next day’s main event — an off-road triathlon — the idea struck: What if we did the tri as a team? Since Morgan had a bike to use, I might be willing to swim. The plunge in the lake had given me a modicum of confidence. But would one or both of the kids run?
Kyle said, “I’ll do it!” The tri’s short, beginner-friendly course called for a 350 meter swim, 10K bike and 3K run. (There was also a longer course that the majority of competitors would do.) I began thinking, 350 meters — that’s about 14 lengths of the pool and I don’t know if I’ve ever swum that far without stopping … but Kyle’s enthusiasm made it tough to backpedal. “Mom, you’ve got to,” he said.
The next morning, I woke at 6:30 with a jolt, remembering my agreement to do the tri and realizing we’d have to hustle to get ready in time. I rolled out of bed and stumbled down to the registration tent still in my sleep clothes. A much larger crowd than the day before had gathered.
As I watched the horde of wetsuit-wearing buff athletes carefully rack their bikes in the transition area, my speck of confidence evaporated. I realized just how unprepared we were — we didn’t know how the transition areas worked, I’d look ridiculous in my mismatched running bra and bikini bottom, I didn’t have a swim cap, I barely had time to wake and feed the kids …
I had a litany of excuses as to why I should back out and go back to bed, but then I thought of how hypocritical I would seem to the kids if I gave up before even trying. So I got to the front of the line, and Robyn the race director gave me a one-minute rundown on how the triathlon works.
“What’s your team name?” she asked. I said the first phrase that came to mind: “Gotta Try New Things.”
A little while later, when I saw Kyle showing off his race number and Colly eager to fill her role as our team crew, I was so glad I hadn’t backed out. But then I had to get into the water and swim around the buoys that were way, way far across the lake.
I stepped in to get wet before our wave started and felt how cold the water was. Oh, Jesus, what had I done? But then I had no time to think, because the start was counting down and I was swimming before I even knew what hit me.
Morgan had made me promise to take it slow, because neither of us knew how far I could swim without resting. “Swim like those old ladies in the lap lanes who take forever but go forever,” he had told me, so I deliberately stayed calm and slow while dodging other competitors’ flapping feet. And then the most unexpected thing happened: I realized I was doing just fine, and the water felt quite nice. My doubts washed away as I warmed up and rounded the first buoy. Then I passed the second buoy and got the landing dock in sight for the final stretch. Suddenly I realized, “Oh yeah, I have feet, and they can kick!” When I focused on kicking as much as moving my arms, I accelerated and reached the dock with only two women ahead of me.
My family — my team — was waiting with an outstretched towel, and all four of us dashed together for about 200 meters to the bike transition area: me barefoot in a bathing suit, Morgan and Kyle in bike and run gear, Colly loaded down with a bag, all of us scrambling as we have through airports to catch a flight. It felt as if the past twelve months had been leading to this crazy moment, when we’d run laughing and shrieking across a field on the bottom of the world.
Morgan expertly hopped on the borrowed bike and zoomed off, and Kyle spent the next twenty or so minutes anxiously waiting to run.
I planned to follow Kyle, who’s only 8, on the 3K course for safety’s sake, since the route included tricky single-track trail, but he made me promise to stay behind at a distance and peel off when he approached the finish. No problem, I told him — this was his leg to run.
Here’s an excerpt of what Kyle wrote in his journal about the experience:
Finally Dad came. He high-fived me and I started running. Mom said, “Don’t go too fast.” I started going into the gum tree forest. I saw this steep rocky downhill and I had to climb down it. I went over a wooden bridge and kept running. I saw a big uphill that I had to hike. Then I saw a grassy part that I could run. But then it got rocky and I tripped! But I made a full recovery, and I saw the finish! I kept running. I was almost there, I was on the last hill. I felt like I was going to pass out. But I wanted to finish strong! I pushed myself. I was as red as a lobster but I crossed the finish. I said, “I’m not sure I would do that again, but I’m proud I did.”
Kyle keeps asking me if we can do another triathlon together. “I hope so,” I tell him.
Oh, yeah — and what about that 10K trail race on Saturday? It was challenging, hilly and hot, and I didn’t feel much zip in my legs until I raced to close the gap with another guy who managed to outkick me. I finished in around 51 minutes and Morgan finished a couple of minutes behind me — a stellar performance on his part, given that his legs were tired from the bike race. I placed second female overall and first in my age group, and Morgan came in second in his age group. All in all, a good 10K!
But the run ended up being a footnote to the story of the weekend. The mountain bike race and tri — so unexpected and exhilarating — go down as two unforgettable experiences on this round-the-world adventure.