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Like a Drowning Cat

I had a brief moment a few weeks ago, one of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes instances, where I was sure I'd feel pretty stupid for surviving cancer only to drown in my first triathlon.

Tombstone reads: “Drowned in her own stupidity.”

First off, I am not a weak swimmer, so drowning has never been something that I feared. I swam competitively in high school (a long, long time ago) and I have always been very comfortable in the water. I’ve been training in the pool for seven months, aside from my unfortunate pneumonia layoff, and I had become stronger and significantly faster.

Going into the sprint distance race, a warm up for my longer, Olympic-distance Vancouver triathlon this week, I felt like the bike leg was the only part that I needed to worry about. Every triathlete wishes they had more time to train, and I am no exception. I felt like I never had enough time on the bike. But it turns out that training for three sports, plus strength work, plus yoga, plus raising children and running three businesses is a little bit tricky.


But I decided long ago to just embrace the chaos. Because as much as we all talk about balance, is life with young children ever really that balanced? (Definitely not if you're crazy enough to toss in an endurance sport or two. Or three.)

So there I was on the riverbank, staring at little whitecaps frothing in the water, pulling nervously at the neck of a borrowed wetsuit (right side out this time). I wondered: are wetsuits supposed to feel like they are strangling you?

Then the gun went off and we hit the water in a mad frenzy. I may be a strong swimmer in the pool, but I had never, ever been swimming in rough, choppy water. (Because really, why would you?) I was completely unprepared for how much I was tossed around. Every time I turned for a breath, a wave crashed into my face and I inhaled the river. (I tried not to think about how often that particular river has dangerously high levels of E. coli.) Sputtering and choking, I tried to breathe more often, which only resulted in inhaling more river. Every time I raised my head to look where I was going, my wetsuit pressed down firmly on my larynx while I coughed and spat out water.

Ottawa river triathlon.jpg

“I can’t breathe!” I yelped, not really meaning to say it out loud. Very loud. A lifeguard on a paddleboard turned to me and yelled, “Do you need help?” Mortified that I might be pulled out of the water on my very first triathlon, I plunged back in and swam hard to the shore. (I heard later that it had been the roughest conditions ever for that race, and lots of people were pulled from the water.)

I have never been so relieved to be on solid ground. I almost kissed the sand. I didn’t know until after the race that what felt like the longest, most horrible swim of my life was actually only eight minutes and forty seconds. Not really that bad for five hundred(ish) metres of near-drowning.

Miraculously, my wetsuit came off easily and I was onto my bike in minutes, soaked and freezing (I hadn’t anticipated that very unpleasant aspect of triathlon). I settled into the aerobars, happily passing people left and right. Once I got to the run, I took off in relief. The transitions were over, I didn’t drown and I didn’t crash. I was elated.

Running, after all, is my thing.

I got to the finish simply ecstatic that I had survived. But when they posted results, and I started looking towards the bottom of the first list, I was dismayed that I couldn’t find myself. I knew I had a bad swim, but had it really been that bad?

I went back towards the top to look at the winning times and was shocked to see my name jump out. Second in my age group, tenth woman overall.


Maybe triathlon is my thing?

Later, when I lamented the fact that I had only missed first place in my category by ten seconds, the ten seconds that I likely lost while yelping like a drowning cat, my husband insisted it was good that I lost.

“You can’t win your very first triathlon,” he pointed out. “You’d be insufferable.”

To be fair, it was a small race and I’m sure I will be stomped on in Vancouver, where the race is longer and the competition fierce. But it was intensely fun (aside from the swim, which was really not). If I can figure a way around the wetsuit-choking-me-to-death problem, I think I will be just fine.

Anyone want to come cheer?

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