It wasn’t until I attempted my first stroke that it really hit me: I could die out here. True, the water was only five feet deep and there was never a point that I couldn’t touch, but Discovery Channel has those shows where people drown in an inch of water, right? I had no reason for being here, desperately trying to keep up with a sea of orange swim-capped heads. As I tried again to propel myself forward in some semblance of a swimming motion, three thoughts kept rotating in my head:

  1. I cannot swim.
  2. I am going to die.
  3. What the hell was I thinking trying to complete a triathlon?

The sad part is, it wasn’t even a real triathlon, which is called an International: .93-mile swim, 25-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run. It wasn’t even the next step down, the Sprint: .465-mile swim, 12.5-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run. It was the last-kid-picked-for-the-team version called the Super Sprint: .25-mile swim, 6-mile bike, and 1.5-mile run. Unlike the first two, which would take place the next day in downtown Chicago (all three events make up the Life Time Tri Chicago), the Super Sprint was held on a Saturday at beautiful Montrose Harbor. I had many assurances from friends and my husband that “everyone walked the swim part” and “I would be fine” and “I wouldn’t drown, leaving my 16-week-old daughter motherless so when she had her dance recital in the third grade and her friends asked where her mom was she would say that I drowned in a lake of hubris and the woman next to her dad was her stepmom, Debbie.”

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t train for the swim part. I did get in Lake Michigan once in July, and I played volleyball in my mom’s above-ground pool. Those two training sessions didn’t seem to help as I attempted to quickly perfect a “Swalk,” moving my arms in a bastardized breaststroke while taking big steps. By the time I got to the first buoy, the closest orange cap was several meters in front of me because, unlike my assurances, everyone else was swimming the swim portion. I could hear the cheery announcer counting down to the next wave’s start, so I knew people would soon be mowing me down from behind. And since when did Lake Michigan have tumultuous waves? The lifeguards standing in the water didn’t seem to be bothered by the rampaging water. They stared at me, arms crossed over floating devices, with looks that alternated between pity and disgust. I didn’t blame them.

Maybe I’ll swim on my back, I thought, as the waves had turned my turtle pace into a sloth’s. I saw Michael Phelps do it at the Olympics, (Ed. Note: We know. Backstoke is the only stroke Phelps doesn’t swim in the Olympics. Just let it go.) so it’s technically swimming, right? I flopped on my back and started off. This isn’t so bad. I’m not moving very quickly, but at least I’m . . . <wave crashing over me, swallowing huge gulps of Lake Michigan> . . . oh gross . . . it’s OK, our tap water comes from Lake Michigan . . . but this hasn’t been treated yet and they’re always closing beaches due to contamination . . . <another big gulp of water> . . . at least I’m swimming.

“Hey! You! You need to swim straight, toward the buoy!”

I didn’t bother to look around to see if the lifeguard was yelling at me. Everyone else was miles ahead of me and they all knew how to swim.

I got off my back and resumed my Swalking, at this point hoping to get out of the water before the kid’s Tri started in the afternoon. I saw the next buoy ahead through my fogged goggles just as I got walloped on the back by the first swimmer in the wave after mine. Nothing to do but get over as far as I could to the right and keep on Swalking.

I finally got to the last buoy and began to make the turn back toward land. It was then that I spotted a lone orange cap in front of me. If I could just run out of the water faster than this chick, I wouldn’t be the slowest person in the world. I kicked my knees up Hasselhoff style and inched past her onto the beach. How do you like that, Orange Cap? Maybe you should have trained better.

Surprisingly, my legs didn’t break off my body as I ran to the transition area. I shoved my sandy feet into Tri socks loaned from husband, threw on my clothes, shoes, and helmet, grabbed my bike, and headed toward the bike path. Finally! The swim part was over and I could focus on what I’m great at. Bike riding. I’ve done several Bike the Drives, and I just rode my bike to Marshall’s and back. This will be cake.

But here’s another mean thing about triathlons. They mark the back of your right calf with your wave number. I never really wondered why they did that, but now I get it. It’s so when someone chirps “On your left” and whizzes by you on her bike, you can see that she is from wave 12, three waves after you. The bike course was three laps, and by the second lap I wasn’t seeing many nines on the backs of legs. By the third, I’m pretty sure mine was the only single digit wave bike still puffing away.

As I was gearing down for a particularly awful hill, on my left came a dad on a BMX bike followed by his son. They were clearly not part of the Triathlon, as the dad wasn’t wearing a helmet (a Tri no-no, and pretty stupid in any situation) and neither had any numbers pinned or marked on them. Was I mad at them for sneaking onto the course and interrupting the riders? Or was I mad because they were riding so much faster than me? Both, I decided huffing up the hill. Both.

I finally finished the third loop and ran my bike back to the transition area. Now that the dumb bike part was over, I could really make up time, as running is my true passion. After all, I had done a half marathon, the Soldier Field 10 Mile, and countless Shamrock Shuffles. A mile and a half is nothing.

And it was easy for the first quarter mile. Sure, I was more speed-shuffling than running to begin with, but I was moving. Until my legs tricked me and all of a sudden I looked down and I was walking. When did that happen? OK, I’m walking now, but at that tree shaped like a wishbone I will start running again. Oh, but the water station is just past that. I’ll get water and start running again.

Side rant: A note to the hundreds of you readers who volunteer at water and Gatorade stations at races. Please, for the love of all things germaphobic, hold the cups you hand out at the bottom. Do not, I repeat, Do not put your thumb or finger inside the cup. For those of us who can’t eat from the office candy dish because one person didn’t use the scooper, we’d rather risk heat stroke than try to figure out which side of the cup’s mouth your fingers touched. Thank you.

Back to the race. I’m one of those runners who no matter how badly the race has gone has to run the last quarter mile, mainly because that’s where the highest concentration of spectators are and my ego is too big to let them see me walk. So I’m shuffling along when I see the finish line. I also see my husband, who was in the wave before me and probably had time to finish the race, put together a model airplane, and fly it into a tree before I got to the finish line. He was cheering manically as I trudged past him. My response to my loving husband: “I. Hate. This.”

Because I was so far behind, there weren’t a lot of people crossing the finish line when I did, so the announcer called my name as I crossed (our timing chips pop up on their screens with our name).

“Erin Davidson is crossing now. How do you feel?”

My answer was two exaggerated thumbs down.

“Oh Erin. Come on now, give us a big smile.”

I smiled.

And that’s what was emailed to me by the Tri people, hoping I would spend money on overpriced photos of myself during the event. Not me trying not to drown in the swim, not desperately shifting down my bike gears on each hill, or shuffling on the bike path. It’s me with a shit-eating grin as I crossed the finish line because I was trying to please the announcer.

What I’ve learned is this: Just because I lost my pregnancy weight does not mean I’m in shape. Just because I bought a Speedo doesn’t mean I can swim. And just because I can bike and I can run doesn’t mean I ever need to do them in succession ever again.