Jason Keil

Jason Keil is a writer whose work has been published in the Phoenix New Times, AZCentral.com, Phoenix Magazine, and OnMilwaukee.com. He also co-hosts the podcast What The Fork.

Race Report: LifeTime Tempe Tri (Or How I Panicked & Backstroked In A Dirty Lake)

As prepared as I was Saturday night, Sunday morning was filled with panic.

This summer, I undertook some projects that yielded results with varying degrees of failure. When I signed up for the LifeTime Tempe Triathlon super-sprint course with no swimming experience, I was prepared for more disappointment. As my wife patiently coached me this summer as she was training for her half-Ironman distance triathlon, I found this frustrating experience turning into an enterprise that became the bright spot in my quest to get out of my comfort zone. I started losing some weight and felt in pretty good shape.

Yet all my hard work was becoming derailed by a broken zipper on my trisuit. 

My wife frantically looked up YouTube videos on how to fix it while I prepared for the race. The one item I wish I could bring with me was my wetsuit. It was becoming abundantly clear in the days leading up to September 20 that the water temperature was going to be too warm for me to wear the clingy floatation device. It was as if the rule makers at USA Triathlon were my father forcefully pulling away my security blanket. 

The zipper was quickly fixed and we headed to the race. I made my way to the transition area. My wave was scheduled to begin at 7:40, but I had to have my area ready at 6:15. This meant I was without my most recognizable feature, my glasses, for over an hour. My stomach, as it tends to do before racing events, was making it clear that I shouldn't be too far from the port-o-potties. Thinking I had plenty of time before I was supposed to be in the water, I went in. 

My phone lit up. My wife said my wave was jumping in the water 20 minutes early. I rushed out and hurriedly jumped in. I had swam in open water before, but I still panicked. I was trying to rush to the starting point but my wave went off well before my arrival. I began to hyperventilate. 

A paddleboarder noticed me frantically doggy paddling and came over to make sure I was ok. I held on and tried to catch my breath. This scene repeated itself a few more times, only to be interrupted by one of the lifeguards officiating the event. 

"You stay with him the whole time he's in the water," he screamed to her. She nodded and I felt even worse. 

My attempts to start a rhythm with a freestyle stroke failed me. Then my newly appointed chaperone asked, "Do you know how to backstroke?" I said yes. "You should do that," she replied. 

This was the trick. The last few months I had heard stories from experienced triathletes about how they finished their first open water swim through unconventional methods. As I looked up the Mill Street Bridge and passed my first buoy, my story was forming. When I felt relaxed, I would go back into freestyle, but the backstroke was always there when I got nervous.

I was the last in the water and last out of the lake. My stomach felt bloated from all the dirty water I swallowed swimming. I wondered how people manage to jump on their bikes after something like that. I was about to find out.

The cycle and the run were fun. My smile seemed permanently affixed on my face throughout the remaining eight miles of my race. I passed someone wearing a Stormtrooper trisuit, giving him one of the many compliments his nerdy attire earned him.

I booked it toward the finish. I was part of a scene that I once was convinced I would only play the role as spectator. Now I was a triathlete. My medal was put around my neck and feelings of joy and relief flowed outward as I heard the announcers mispronounce my last name, as people often do, to name me as a finisher. I hugged my lovely wife and tried to hold back some tears.

I was proud of myself. I was asked by my paddleboarding chaperone numerous times during my swim if I wanted to quit and I never did. Despite how unconventional the process, it yielded the result I wanted. This was the furthest thing from failure in my mind. I was eager to take what I learned from the experience and improve. If only the rest of life could work out that well.

My friend Al, who convinced me months ago to sign up for this race, greeted my wife and I. He asked, "You're done with this right? Sick and tired of triathlons?"

I replied no. I can't wait to do another. With some more training (and a wetsuit), I think I could easily complete a sprint distance. 

At least I know my backstroke doesn't need work.

Side note: The weirdest thing I find about races like this is what happens the rest of the day. I got home, took a nap, watched tv, and cleaned the house a bit. Is this what's supposed to happen?