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just tri it
how i put my gym class demons to rest
by katie morris

If I were to describe myself, "athletic" would not be among my list of adjectives. Fit? Yep. Graceful? Sure. But due to an appalling lack of hand-eye coordination, I have never been a team sport kind of girl. I took dance and gymnastics classes while growing up, but high school gym class was torture. I could never hit or catch the ball during softball games, and I always ducked whenever the volleyball came flying over the net at me.

I made peace long ago with the fact that I was never going to score the winning goal in soccer or make a three-point shot in basketball. Sports just weren't my thing. But I live in San Francisco, a city filled with beautiful architecture, liberal residents, and lots of hard-core athletes. It seems as if every other friend of mine is a rock climber/snowboarder/kayaker/ mountain biker. The weather is generally nice year-round and open space and parks are abundant, so you either have to resist the siren song of nature or join the masses.

As a result, I've done things I never imagined myself doing while growing up amidst the malls and turnpikes of New Jersey. I've been surfing. I've gone kayaking. I've hiked to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. I even bought a mountain bike. Of course, compared to the ultra fitness-crazed people that inhabit this city, I'm a mere amateur.

But last summer, I decided to up the ante and register for a sprint triathlon. Thankfully, "sprint triathlon" does not mean competing in a triathlon while sprinting. It's just a fancy name for a half-triathlon. A tri-half-lon, if you will. The standard distances are a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike, and a 3-mile run. Individually, it all sounded doable. Altogether, it sounded like a competitive event complete with corporate sponsors and "real" athletes. What was I thinking? The last athletic competition I had entered was a gymnastics meet when I was in the fifth grade. I came in third place. But many years have passed since then, and I can no longer do a back walkover or a cartwheel on the balance beam.

I entered this competition at the urging of a good friend. She had recently had a baby and is about as much of a non-athlete as I am. I figured, if she's willing to give it a go, I should be, too. Besides, my guiding principle for the past few years has been to face my fears. I was afraid of competing in a triathlon, because I was afraid I would fail. This made it all but mandatory for me to sign up, if only to prove to myself that I could finish the race.

There were a few factors I hadn't considered before I agreed to enter and train for this event. The first issue is that I hate routine. Training for this triathlon involved 14 weeks of going to the gym five days a week. Run, bike, swim. Run, bike, swim. Run, bike, swim. Unfortunately for me, routine is the cruel heart of endurance training.

I also forgot how much I hate getting up early in the morning. But unless I went to the gym before work, I knew I wouldn't have much of a social life. I had to get used to waking up at 6:00 AM, so I could fit in at least 45 minutes of exercise every morning. This meant that I was more exhausted than a new mother for three months straight. Good thing my performance review wasn't until after the race was over.

Despite all my griping and sleep-deprivation, my training was definitely an education. I learned how to do speed workouts, endurance workouts, and interval training. I learned the definition of bricks (doing a swim/run, bike/swim, or run/bike back-to-back) and tapering (working out less intensely the last few weeks before your race). I learned that my right knee and hip really hate it when I run. I learned that I had to go to my chiropractor more often than usual. I learned that Body Glide really does prevent chafing and blisters, and that every flavor of PowerGel tastes like shampoo.

After 14 weeks of training, race day finally arrived. When I got up at o'dark-thirty and drove with my friend to the race site, I wasn't nervous at all. Truthfully, I was eager for the event to be over so I could take a long break from the gym. Since I'm not a competitive person, I really didn't care how well I did, as long as I crossed the finish line.

What my jaded self hadn't imagined was how exhilarating the whole experience would be. As volunteers wrote my race number on my arms and legs and attached a timing chip to my ankle, I felt like a true athlete for the first time. When it was time to start the swim, I lined up with everyone on the shores of the lake, and dove in when the buzzer sounded. I could barely see where I was going through the murky water and the other swimmers were practically on top of me. But I bore down and stayed with the pack until I felt sand beneath my feet again. One leg down, two to go.

I ran past a blur of cheering onlookers to the transition area, where I threw on my shorts, shoes, and helmet, and took off on my bike. People were lined up all along the race route, clapping and cheering for us. I had signed up for a women-only event, so I wouldn't have to worry about hyper-competitive men trying to plow me down during the race. The camaraderie and support from the other participants was one of my favorite parts of the triathlon. If I passed someone on my bike, she would usually yell, "Good job!" or "You go, girl!" as I rode by. It may sound corny, but it felt good to know that even the people you were racing against were rooting for you.

The final leg of the race was the run, which seemed to go on forever. I have never been a big fan of running, and even the beautiful setting and the knowledge that the race was almost over did little to change this. But I made it to the end and had my own little Rocky moment at the finish line. My friend and I hugged and took lots of pictures to prove to all our friends and family that we were bona fide triathletes. Well, sprint triathletes at least.

After the race, we went to check our results. I was floored. "Non-athletic" me had come in 15th out of 80 women in my age group. I was fifth in the swim, 43rd in the bike (mountain bikes are good for trails, but not so good for racing), and 21st in the run. I was amazed and overwhelmingly proud of myself. Not only had I done what I set out to do, but I had done it well. I was also more muscular and in shape than I had ever been in my life. I may never be good at shooting hoops or hitting a home run, but at least I conquered one of my fears. And somewhere in the process, I think I became an athlete.


a dilettante who grew up back east, then came to her senses and moved to san francisco. loves: strong coffee, warm weather, and good books. loves not: cell phones, emoticons, and bad drivers.

more about katie morris


russ carr
1.11.06 @ 11:52p

Wow. "You go, girl," indeed! Thanks for sharing your athletic triumph, and for providing a good example (and motivation) for folks like me who need to recapture their inner sportsman...

jael mchenry
1.13.06 @ 9:20a

Heh. "Tri-half-lon."

Incredible! This is a great and inspiring story. As a non-athletic girl myself, it almost makes me want to try it.

But, like you said, that getting up early stuff really sucks.

Thanks for sharing this!

katie morris
1.13.06 @ 12:47p

If I can do it, anyone can. I swear. Early mornings used to be hard, but now I still go to the gym 3-4 times a week in the morning. Crazy talk, I know. But if I wait until after work, I just have too many excuses for not working out.

tracey kelley
1.13.06 @ 1:39p

Look out, everybody - Katie is more hot than ever!!

Congratulations and thanks for showing us that it's not really about the competition, but the achievement.

I'm so with you on the morning workout. If it's my "have to" workout, it has to be done in the morning or it's not getting done. After work, on a sunny day, I can go for a long walk or bike ride, easy. But the "have to?" Morning is the only way.

dathan wood
1.13.06 @ 5:21p

What is going on with all this triathlon/marathon stuff lately? It seems almost everyone I know from college has done one or the other within the past 12 months. Even the guys who thought playing Madden football was too much exercise.

katie morris
1.13.06 @ 5:21p

Thanks, Tracey. There were many mornings when I didn't want to get up, but the fear of collapsing during the race sure got me out of bed!

lisa r
1.13.06 @ 7:48p

I love going to the gym--but I'm not a morning person. I was greatly relieved that the only slots open for tomorrow's launch of the latest BodyStep release at the gym was at noon instead of 8:30!

michelle von euw
2.3.06 @ 9:20a

Amazing job, Katie -- on both the column and the race! I have secret dreams of being an athlete girl, but I'm not exactly anywhere near this goal. Your experience is extrodinarily inspiring, though.

...that every flavor of PowerGel tastes like shampoo.

So funny!

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