Trained At The Gym
Fifteen Years Later
I woke up that Sunday morning like it was any other day, and prepared to go to work.
Except today wasn’t like any other day.
When I got out of the shower, the house smelled like fried eggs and bacon. Max was in the kitchen, his lean body hunched over the stove while he poked around with a spatula.
I hugged him from behind. “You’re up early.”
He sighed into my embrace. “Of course I am. Today, I’m your sherpa.”
“And that includes breakfast?”
“Hell yeah it does.”
Max had aged wonderfully in the last decade and a half. His brown hair grew lighter every year, to the point that it was a sandy color. The faintest hint of crow’s feet touched the corners of his shamrock eyes, but they were as intense and committed as they were when I met him years ago. But despite the wrinkles and hair change, he was as physically fit as ever.
We ate breakfast together quietly: fried egg sandwiches with bacon, which I wolfed down, plus a bowl of oatmeal. Then I grabbed my bag that was already packed by the door and followed Max into the garage. The suburban Denver neighborhood was still silent this early in the morning. I gazed at our house as we drive away: a three-story Craftsman that Brody had renovated over a decade ago as a project. Back then, the plan was to flip the house after a couple of years. Instead, it had become our home.
I missed being able to walk to the store, but living with my three amazing men more than made up for it.
Traffic intensified as we neared Magnolia Street. Several roads were closed, so we had to weave in and out of back streets before reaching the parking garage. It was already almost full; we had to circle around to the third level before finding a spot.
“Good crowd,” I commented.
“Almost twice as many as last year,” Max replied. “Can you believe it?”
Dozens of other athletes were filing out of the parking garage. Max and I fell into the stream of people and followed them down to Magnolia Street. The entire block was shut down to vehicle traffic, and was replaced with a mass of people milling around, preparing for the race. I beamed with pride as we approached my store. On the street out front was a huge inflatable archway with a huge sign:
VINYL HIGH RECORDS
Max put his arm around me and gestured. “Soak it in. This time, you’ll get to see it from the athlete’s perspective!”
“You’re not helping me relax,” I said dryly. “You’re just making me more nervous.”
“Just making sure you appreciate it. Soak it in, Kat.”
“I’ll soak it in when I finish.”
I dropped off my bag in the bike-to-run transition area, then went into Vinyl High, which was already open. Tables were set up with free bananas, bagels, Gatorade, and coffee. I grabbed a Gatorade to sip on and found Paul behind the check-out counter.
“Boss-lady!” he said when he saw me. “What are you doing here?”
“Where else would I be?” I asked. I saw with satisfaction that he was wearing his Manager nametag today. Sometimes he liked to conveniently forget it so he could mingle with the customers in a non-managerial way.
He shrugged. “Warming up, or something? I don’t know what you crazy triathletes do before your races.”
“I’m not a triathlete yet,” I corrected. “I still have to actually complete the race.”
“She’s being modest,” Max said as he joined us. He and Paul fist-bumped as a greeting. “Kat’s been training for this for fifteen years.”
“On and off, sure,” I replied. “But this is the first time I’ve had two straight years of uninterrupted training. I still feel like a noob.”
Max wrapped his arm around me and kissed me on the temple. “Just go out and enjoy it. Your first race is a guaranteed personal record.”
“Assuming I finish.”
Max shook his head, exasperated. “Was she this full of self-doubt before I bet her?” he asked Paul.
“Oh yeah. Big time.” Paul saw the angry look I was giving him, so he quickly said, “Where’s everyone else?”
“Sleeping in. They’ll be here later.”
Max tapped me on the back. “I think they’re calling the racers to the starting buses.”
I shimmied out of my shorts, revealing my triathlon jersey underneath. Paul gave me a final hug. “Break a leg, boss-lady. Or, uh, whatever you people say.”
Max gave me a huge hug, squeezing me so tight I thought he might break a rib. “Stick to your gameplan. Don’t go out too fast. Take the first five miles on the bike easy to let your heart settle down, then kick it into gear.”
I kissed him. “I love you.”
I left the store and walked two doors down to Rocky Mountain Fitness, where the athletes were all being funneled onto busses. That was a ten minute wait, then another twenty minutes to drive out to Cherry Creek Reservoir. The area here was bathed in a harsh white sheen from standing lights, since the sun had not yet come up. Up ahead was the still surface of the reservoir, calm compared to the chaos on the shore.
It was easy to find the swim-to-bike transition area near the water. I checked my bike, made sure all the gears were spinning smoothly, and then climbed into my wetsuit. The air temperature might not have been bad for April in Colorado, but the water was cold. Wetsuits were required.
I shuffled through the thousand-or-so athletes until I found the 41-45 age group. I winced at the sign, but only for a moment. Even though a lot of women hated entering their forties, I had never been happier. I was more physically fit than I had ever been in my life, and healthier, too. Since I had started going to RMF fifteen years ago it felt like every year was better than the last. How many people could say that?
To warm up while waiting, I did some jumping jacks in the starting corral. It wasn’t easy while wearing a wetsuit, but it succeeded in getting my blood pumping. I was already feeling nervous. I was ready to go. Standing around just gave me time to think about what I was going to do.
One mile swimming. Twenty-five miles on the bike. Then a six mile run to finish it off. An Olympic-distance triathlon.
After watching Max and Brody compete in so many of these, it shouldn’t have felt so weird. But it did. Being in the starting corral, a long line of athletes snaking toward the water, was nothing like watching from the sidelines.
A gunshot went off down by the water, indicating the start of one of the other age groups. Slowly, the line of athletes inched forward. Another starting gunshot sounded, then another after that.
Then the pavement changed to cold sand as the 41-45 age group stepped onto the beach. We were next.
“One minute!” the started announced. We walked out into the water until we were waist-deep. The water felt freezing, even though I knew it was sixty-two degrees. I ignored the cold and dipped my goggles into the water, then spat in them and rubbed it around with my thumbs. I no longer felt self-conscious about that the way I had when I started swimming at RMF. Lots of other racers around me did the same thing.
I pulled the goggles on over my swim cap, made sure they were tight, and took a deep breath.
Time to race my first official triathlon. No big deal. Just another Sunday.
The gunshot went off.
All thought left my mind as I lunged forward into the water. I started kicking and swimming freestyle, breathing rapidly with every stroke as I got into a groove. I was aware of fellow triathletes on either side of me, splashing in the water and creating waves around me. I tried to keep my distance from them and steadied my breathing.
Swimming in open water was a strange phenomenon when you were used to swimming in a pool. I quickly realized that I was used to staring at the tiles at the bottom of the RMF pool. Here in the reservoir, everything below me was pitch black. This made it surprisingly difficult to swim straight; I had to lift my head out of the water to take a peek every minute or so.
The other thing was that there were no swim lanes. One or two of the thirty women in our age group were already out in front, but the rest of us had clustered together like a school of fish. I was aware of the people on either side of me, and occasionally I felt hands brushing against my feet as I kicked, but aside from that we all found our own lanes.
I focused on my breathing, and on making each stroke smooth and efficient. Efficient was fast, Max always told me. Especially in an endurance race like a triathlon.
Before I knew it, we were approaching a huge yellow buoy in the middle of the reservoir that marked the half-way point. All the swimmers clumped together as we rounded the buoy, then spread out again on our way back to the shore where we had started. To my left I could see all the stragglers in my group still approaching the buoy, and the age group after us approaching in a giant mass of white splashing. I ignored them and focused on swimming straight ahead, following the rest of the people around me.
Soon we were passing stragglers from the age group ahead of us. That was a rush, knowing I was passing someone in a race. It made me feel strong and fast. It gave me confidence.
My arms were tired, but I felt surprisingly great as I reached the beach. Some of the swimmers around me tried to stand up too early, which left them slow-walking their way through the water. I remembered Max’s advice: keep swimming until your hands hit sand. As soon as that happened, I pushed up to my feet and was out of the water.
“Go go go!” the crowd screamed at us. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I jogged up the beach. I took several strides to get my legs under me; standing felt strange after being horizontal for half an hour. I followed the carpeted path up the sidewalk and into the transition area. Down the rows of bikes I went, turning at the fourth row toward my bike. Half the bikes on the rack were already gone, making mine easy to find.
I dropped to the ground, shimmied out of my wetsuit, dried my feet as best as I could, and then put my socks and cycling shoes on. My helmet went on after that, clipping underneath my chin. I unracked my bike and walked it out of the transition area, where a judge was waiting. They nodded at me when I crossed a big red line, and I quickly mounted my bike.
My legs were sluggish as I started pedaling. I took it easy while biking away from the reservoir, past the crowd of spectators that was cheering and ringing cowbells. Then we were out on the bike trail, and the only sound was the wind in my ears.
I pedaled easy for the first five miles. Once my heart rate was steady, I shifted my bike into a higher gear and started flying. I passed one cyclist, then another. After so many sessions with Max, the bike was my strongest leg of the three disciplines. I hunkered down into my triathlon grips, resting my elbows on the pads and putting myself in the most aerodynamic position.
The sun rose above the horizon as we biked north-east, spreading a beautiful purple-and-red sunrise across the sky. I was a machine as I kept shifting gears, higher and higher. I passed women with “41-45” written on their calves in sharpie, and I silently celebrated every one. Then I was passing women from the 36-40 age group. I even passed a few men. That really drove me forward, helping me ignore the ache in my quads.
I passed so many people that I was almost sad when I turned onto Magnolia Street and coasted into the bike-to-run transition. The crowds were thick here, full of Denver locals cheering and holding signs. I scanned them eagerly, looking for people who were there to cheer me on. I didn’t see any.
I dismounted and jogged my bike to my rack. Then I fell onto my butt and started changing from my cycling shoes to my running ones.
“Looking good, Kat!” Max shouted to my right. I grinned as I looked over… but he was alone. “How do you feel?”
“A little tired,” I said.
“That’s alright,” he said energetically. “Just an easy 10K from here. Dig deep until mile four, then empty the tank.”
I didn’t care about his coaching. “Where is everyone?” I asked.
He looked around and shrugged. “Must still be sleeping. Don’t forget your nutrition!”
I grabbed my water bottle and a gel pack and jogged out of transition, feeling deflated.
The run course zigged and zagged through the neighborhoods adjacent to Magnolia Street. Long residential streets lined with tall oak trees. There was a good crowd as I tried to get my running legs under me. Lots of people out on their porches, sipping coffee while waving. One little girl had a table set up with little cups of Gatorade, so I took one and thanked her for coming out.
My legs ached, so I lowered my stride until I was jogging in quick, short paces. Rather than getting loosened up, I felt more exhausted with every mile. My quads were devoid of energy. Soon I started getting passed by other racers. A man in the 25-29 age group. Then a woman in the 41-45 group. I cursed as she went by and tried to pick up my pace, but that made my knees hurt, so I slowed back down.
By mile five and a half, I started entertaining the idea of stopping to walk. Just for a minute, the devil of my shoulder whispered. Maybe two minutes. It would make me feel better, and then I would be rejuvenated to finish strong. Better to walk now than in the finish chute.
I was about to give in when I saw them.
Finn was a large, unmistakable mass of muscle up ahead, next to a fire hydrant. But behind him were two similar, though larger, shapes. His brothers and dad, I was shocked to see. They had come out for the race! Brody was next to them, fists raised to the sky as he saw me, and with a smile that split his face in half.
Then I saw our kids.
Julia, our fifteen year old, was next to Brody. She was at the age where she pretended not to care about anything, but she was jumping up and down and screaming with so much excitement that her blonde hair floated around her face like a curtain.
John, the twelve year old who was as lean and lanky as his father Max, was holding a sign:
YOU’RE MY HERO, MOM!
It took me a moment to find Sabella, our three-year-old. She was on Hristo’s shoulders—who she lovingly called Grandpa Hissy—in the back, waving at me as if she was afraid I would miss her.
Rounding out the group was Darryl, Ethan, and Nathan. The twins were the tallest of the group, and played basketball at Colorado State.
To top it all off, they were all wearing matching shirts that said, “TEAM KAT,” in big, blocky letters. My own little cheer group.
They screamed and went nuts as I approached them. It gave me an instant burst of energy, like someone had waved a magic wand over my aching quads and knees. I lengthened my stride and ran proudly until I reached them, stopping quickly to give John and Julia hugs.
“MOMMY KEEP GOING!” Sabella announced from atop her grandfather’s shoulders. “YOU CAN’T STOP MOMMY, IT’S A RACE!”
“There’s always time for hugs,” I said as I jogged away. John, Julia, Nathan, and Ethan all ran along the sidewalk next to me, waving their noisemakers and cheering louder.
I flew after that, like I was gliding on clouds.
Moments later, I turned onto Magnolia Street and entered the finisher’s chute. The crowds were two and three people deep, and there were so many voices cheering that I couldn’t hear any individual person.
I crossed underneath the inflatable archway and came to a stop, spent.
The next minute was a blur as volunteers draped the finisher’s medal around my neck and handed me food and drinks. When I came out on the other side in front of my store, Max was waiting to give me a huge hug.
“You were incredible,” he said. “Amazing first race.”
“Not sure you want to touch me right now. I probably smell like ass. And I’m all sweaty.”
“I’m too proud to care,” he said, holding me close.
I pulled away and glared at him. “The others slept in, huh?”
He flashed an evil smile. “I couldn’t ruin the surprise.”
Over time, it was tough to keep it a secret that I had three men in my life. Especially once we had children. Darryl was as supportive as could be, though he still liked to tease me about it, but the biggest surprise was Finn’s family. His father Hristo and his brothers Atanas and Dragan were totally unfazed by the fact that Finn was sharing me with Brody and Max. They probably saw how happy the four of us were together. Who could argue when we were happier and more satisfied than most traditional relationships?
It made me wonder what my parents would have thought about it all. Deep down, I suspected they would have reacted the same as Hristo. They would have seen how happy I was.
They would have been proud of me.
“Honestly,” Max said, “I’m shocked Sabella kept it to herself for so long. She learned last week that Grandpa Hissy was coming.”
I blinked. “Sabella kept a secret?”
“I know, right?”
I sighed. “She’s getting craftier every day."
The rest of our family came running up to greet me a moment later.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy!” Sabella squirmed on Hristo’s shoulders until he put her down, and then she practically tackled me in the legs. As a mom, I was long used to that by now, but in my weakened state it almost knocked me over.
“You were amazing!” Julia said, more excited than I’d ever seen her. “I can’t believe you just did that!”
“It was pretty cool,” John admitted. He had the same nonchalant attitude as his father Max. “Congrats, mom.”
Finn wrapped me in his massive embrace next. “Fifteen years in the making. I’m glad you finally got to do it.”
I had tried to train for several marathons over the years. After opening the new store location I started training for a sprint triathlon, then found out I was pregnant with Julia. Three years later she was old enough that I started getting my free time back, but two months into exercising again John came along. Life was crazy as the two of them grew up, then I had Sabella, and finally I was prioritizing it in my life again.
This time there was no pregnancy to stop me. At least, none that I was aware of.
Brody shouldered Finn out of the way and gave me a long kiss. A long kiss. “Dad, gross,” Julia complained, making a choking noise.
“I’m just being affectionate with your mother.”
“It’s disgusting,” she insisted.
Brody and I shared an evil look, then I turned to her and said, “It didn’t seem disgusting to you when you and Parker were watching TV last week on the couch.”
Julia’s eyes widened. “Mom!”
“Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it,” Brody said, giving me one last kiss to make a point. Then he said to me, “Your bike splits looked great, but you slowed down on the run.”
“I probably went too hard on the bike,” I admitted. “I was passing a lot of people, so I pushed more than I should have.”
Nathan and Ethan came over and high-fived me next. “Nice job, Aunt Kat,” they each said. “Triathlons are tough.”
“They are,” Julia said, sneering at her cousins. “Much tougher than playing a stupid game with a ball.”
“Basketball isn’t stupid!” Ethan replied. “It takes a lot of skill and endurance.”
“We’re running non-stop!” Ethan argued. “Back and forth. Plus defending the other team…”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Why’d you have to have kids, Aunt Kat? We never wanted cousins.”
Julia groaned, which made the rest of us laugh. Which, in turn, made her groan even louder. As much as I loved my eldest daughter, I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college.
“Mommy, mommy.” Sabella tugged on my triathlon jersey to get my attention. “Did you win?”
“It’s not about winning. It’s about completing the race.”
She looked up at me skeptically. “You’re avoiding the question.”
I laughed. She was as competitive as her father Finn. And determined, too. “No, I didn’t win.”
Max gasped. “Honey, I think you podium’d!”
I whipped my head toward him. “No way.”
He held out his cell phone. “Third place in your age group! You’re getting another medal during the award ceremony!”
“So you did win something,” Sabella said pointedly.
It sank in, and I began giggling and pumping my fist. “I podium’d!”
“I’ve never even done that,” Brody said with a laugh. “And I’ve been racing triathlons for fifteen years.”
“Dad, I think she’s faster than you,” John teased, nudging his father.
Max smirked. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“She’s so much faster,” Sabella announced in her high-pitched voice. “I saw you in the other race. Last month. You came in fifth.”
Obviously, Max’s fifth-overall place in the professional group was far more impressive than my third-place win today. But he didn’t argue the point. Instead, he lifted Sabella up and admitted, “I guess you’re right. She’s much faster than me. Your mother is one heck of a woman.”
“I’ll say,” Finn said with a wink.
“Um, how long is it until the award ceremony?” Darryl cut in. “Because Paul and I have a surprise for you waiting in the store, and it rhymes with schmocolate lake.”
I bit my lip. “I am starving for some real food. I want some of that cake right now, even if I’m late to the award ceremony.”
Darryl pushed his way over and wrapped an arm around my neck, and leaned in close to whisper.
“Mom and dad would be proud,” he said.
I beamed at him. “I know.”
My big family laughed and escorted me through the crowd toward Vinyl High Records, and I couldn’t stop smiling.