It's 36 degrees as we pull into Potato Creek State Park near South Bend. Steam's rising off Worster Lake, which has plunged 5 degrees in three days to a chilly 67.
This triathlon is my early birthday present to my little sister, to help her hit 40 in the best shape of her life. I never dreamed it would be so cold. Traci didn't know she'd get her age scrawled on her leg in thick black Sharpie — or that race rules dictate her 30-something days are over, despite the fact that she's still technically 39.
She's taking all this pretty well. Or maybe her teeth are chattering too much to complain as the announcer orders us into the water.
“Splash around, get your face wet!” he commands. “You want to avoid a shock to the system!”
Most of us are in wetsuits, except for a few bare-chested brave hearts and a joker in jockey shorts. We laugh so we don't cry. But the Olympic-distance swimmers take off, so we know it's doable.
It's almost a relief when our countdown starts — sprint-distance women will race half as far, a 500-meter swim, 20K bike and 5K run — because the sooner we go the sooner we can get out.
If it weren't for Traci, I'd be sticking to sidestroke again for my second triathlon. But just two weeks ago — impulsive and stubborn as usual, typical youngest child — she vowed to do freestyle, plugging away with her head out of water.
Three days ago, she finally managed a full 500 meters, which made me regret not pushing harder. Typical oldest child, fretting too much about taking risks. Sigh.
The most freestyle I've done is 100 meters or so. But now, desperate to get out of this water as soon as possible, I decide I'm going freestyle to the first buoy. And I do.
I switch to sidestroke, but then, unhappy with my slow pace, switch back. I flail away like that right up to the finish, where I lose my timing bracelet in the drink.
I touch bottom and turn around to look for it, only to go reeling.
“Steady now,” says one of the sprint-distance guys who started behind us but has since caught up. He pulls me to my feet. I hate to waste time searching, but there it is, floating a few feet behind me. I hit the beach, nearly wipe out again, then stagger through the chute.
Traci's already on her way out of the transition area when I arrive. Too numb to deal with layers, I pull on shirt, shorts and helmet and aim feet toward shoes, grateful for laces that don't need tying.
I expect to catch Traci, since she's on a mountain bike and I've upgraded to an old but functional road bike. It's nice to have gears that actually shift. I know I'm faster than last time. But I don't see her on the course. She's not at the transition area when I get back, either.
Great. Now I'll need to go harder than expected to catch her on the 5K. This trail has more uphill grades than advertised. My lungs feel like they might explode. (Probably my legs do, too, if I could feel them.)
“Push through it,“ I tell myself. “It will get easier.” After all, this is my favorite part. Right?
I am, finally, starting to pass people. Then I spot my baby sister up ahead.
Funny to think that when we started running a couple of years ago, when I was still carrying an extra 50 pounds or so, I thought I was too old to keep up with her. Who knew at 47 I'd turn out to be the faster runner?
Nothing like a triathlon to make you feel ageless. We don't know it yet, but we're both getting smoked by a 65-year-old.
“Go on,” Traci wheezes. “It's fine.”
No way. Now I can relax, pretend we're on a trail run back home. We remind each other to calm our breathing, tell ourselves that if we can just hold it together we should beat our 2-hour goal.
Looping back toward the beach, we pick it up a little, like we always do. Rounding the bend toward the finish we can't believe our time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Seventeen minutes faster than my first triathlon.
This already felt like a “win” because of my foray into freestyle swimming. Enduring the cold feels like more of an adventure, now that it's done.
But the best part is I got to do it with my little sister. Now she's hooked, just like I knew she would be.
Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.