‘You can swim, right?” he said casually, his face popped up between the spokes. We were bike shopping. I hadn’t ridden in years, but he was sexy, smart and strong of mind. And he wanted a bike. Actually, he wanted us both to bike, so here I was at the bike shop, ogling a “tri-bike,” something I’d never heard of before.
I looked at him, blinked, and did the only thing a completely smitten girl would do: “Of course I can swim,” I said, casually. The lie rolled off my tongue with surprising ease. Smitten was an understatement. His eyes lit up: “Fantastic,” he said. “because I have this idea …”
He wanted to do a triathlon together. “What’s that?” I tossed back, wandering around the shop. He poured forth details of the swim-bike-run endurance sport that now captivates my life. “Sounds fun, some day.” (But you can’t swim, remember?)
I figured I had lots of time. It could be a good idea. We were an athletic couple, we ran together and were highly competitive, especially with each other. Plus, newly in love, we were eager to do it all together. Right now, biking was the idea, but if this “we” thing worked out, I could figure out how to dip my toe in the water.
In truth, I hadn’t put my body, arms, face in water in 30 years, but I ignored the thought. We were here for a bike anyway, and I left the shop with a shiny new triathlon bike that captured my imagination. With its lollipop pedals and perpendicular handlebars, I was less intimidated than excited to learn how to ride it.
“Hey, I have a surprise,” he said, a few days later. I looked up, again lost in those sparkly eyes. “What’s that?” I said, distractedly.
“We’re going away …” My heart perked up.
“… and I’ve signed us up for a triathlon.” It crash landed.
(Calm down.) I decided I could negotiate my way out. We could picnic, bike and run all weekend. Be blissful lovers. Triathlon would take time. Of course, I recognized that I would have to tell him about my swim-fib, but all would work out.
“Are you okay?” I faintly heard him ask.
“Oh, sure,” I smiled. “All good.”
After packing and planning, I was looking forward to the weekend. I had a nagging need to fess up to my fib, but life was good. The drive held the promise of blissful happiness that new love wraps around you, and we arrived relaxed at a quaint outdoor town square for lunch. At last, I was ready to confess in the peaceful sunshine.
“Baby, I have something to tell you,” I said. “Shhhh,” he grinned, “I have a surprise for you.”
In his hands: a wetsuit. “Ta-da!” he wiggled it at me.
(Crap.) “Oh wow, thanks.”
I really had come close to confronting my sin, but my thick, rubbery penance taunted me from across the table, and I knew my fate was set.
The next morning I peppered him with questions. What is transition; what are “splits;” what do I wear under this thing? He loved it; I admit, I liked it – the newness, the teaching, the anticipation of what we’d do together.
We arrived at the starting point for the triathlon, eager to launch. I forgot I couldn’t swim.
The gun went off. The water flooded in; the eagerness flooded out. I don’t recall a thrill as much as fear, flailing and helplessness. I couldn’t breathe. So much water. My arms spun, but no pull followed; 150 people had entered the water, but here I was alone, desperate for air. I had to stop the panic; drowning in my own folly was not part of my exit plan. My mind spun. Maybe I could float in, like a beached walrus, or do the backstroke? I was pretty good at it when I was six. (You were six!) I dug deep and it was all I could find so I flipped over.
Eventually I hit the beachhead, stumbling out of the lake like a monster from a horror movie, choking and muttering incoherently, with weeds dripping off me as I fumbled for my back zipper. Now I was mad. And determined. I scanned the transition zone – it was empty of bikes save one
shiny steed, twinkling in the sunshine. Mine. I stumbled to it, wriggled out of the cloying wetsuit that had suctioned to my body, and sloppily mounted my bike. It was a perfect start to a long painful pedal.
Eventually I did pass him, although not in the way I would have liked. He was headed to the “Run finish,” sweat lighting up his perfect face, as I limped, exhausted, to the “Run start.”
“Way to go, baby,” he yelled. It was ridiculous. I had 10 kilometres ahead of me; he had 10 feet to finish. But it had long stopped being about a race against others; it was a race against me – my fears, my struggles – and with every step forward, those challenges fell, crushed under my feet. As I neared the finish, an hour after most others, my remarkable man did a remarkable thing. He gathered everyone remaining and asked them to cheer me across the finish line.
“I love this girl,” he said. “And I want more than anything for her to do this with me. She will hate to be last – could you come with me and cheer her on like she’s first?” So I crossed that finish line, dead last, to the cheers and applause of 30 people I had never met. And as I fell happily into the strong, warm arms of the man I loved, I took a deep breath, looked up into his sparkly eyes and said, “Baby, I have a confession to make …”
Liz Hamilton lives in Toronto.