by Jen Keith
I’ve always told my friends there’s no smiling in triathlon. It’s a race. It’s you against the clock. I’ve always had my “game face” on. I set the goal to complete an Ironman in 2014 years ago. When Ironman posted that the inaugural Ironman Chattanooga would take place in September of 2014 I knew it was the race for me. Of course, without smiling.
I grew up a serious swimmer. I trained over 20 hours a week during high school and was lucky enough to swim for the University of North Carolina. When I got to college I started swimming a lot more breaststroke as it was my speciality. The increased load wreaked havoc on my knee. During my freshman year of college I had an unsuccessful knee surgery. Going into my sophomore year I was faced with having surgery again. The doctor finally told me if I didn’t want to have surgery on my other knee that my swimming career was over. I had always been an athlete so the thought of not competing was foreign to me. Years later I was able to find a way to compete again in the sport of triathlon. I felt like me again with my game face on.
Going into my Ironman I was prepared to race with my game face on. I knew no other way to compete. When I got into an unfortunate bike accident at the beginning of August I changed my approach going into the Ironman. I decided I wanted to enjoy the experience. Was I going to race? Yes. Was I going to give it my all? Yes. But, was I going to have fun doing it? ABSOLUTELY.
I was in a great place mentally the week leading up to the race. The nerves hadn’t set in, I was confident in my race plan, and felt Kelly had set me up for success. I was having a blast walking around the Ironman Village and doing pre-race workouts with Kelly and Theoden, completely soaking up the atmosphere. I was more excited than anything to get to race day.
When race day arrived there was still a smile on my face. I was relaxed setting up my transitions and laughed and joked around with Crystal, Theoden and Dug while waiting two hours in the swim start line. At the start of the race put my game face on. As I walked down the dock to jump into the water I knew I was prepared. I smiled one more time and off I went.
When I got out of the swim I was overwhelmed with the crowd support and cheering. The volunteers practically dressed me and I was off on the bike. As I crossed through intersections I thanked volunteers. At the aid stations I smiled and said thank you for the bottles of PowerBar Perform and water. I cheered for my friends volunteering at aid station 4 and gave a fist pump to other friends out cheering on the course. Riding my bike through the town of Chickamauga was incredible. The streets were lined with people yelling and cheering. Funny posters on the side of the road made me laugh. Before I knew it the 116 mile ride was already over.
The running leg has always been my weakness in triathlon. I’m certain I’m one of the few people who would love to double the swim distance and cut the run distance in half. I go into the runs of triathlons in fear of being passed, never confident enough in my own ability. As I approached the run Sunday, I told myself to smile, but knew that the run would be the ultimate test for myself. I gave a thumbs up to my mom as I left transition and was off to run only my second 26.2 mile run. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I felt Sunday was different than anything else. I had some pretty serious foot pain during the first mile of the run. I kept on trucking, hoping the foot would loosen up, and started compensating with my other foot.
Before long the blisters and tight quads were setting in. My toes were completely crunched up in my shoes trying to avoid making the blisters worse. At that point I decided it was time to smile. Little kids sat on the side of the roads with their hands reached out wanting high fives. I watched way too many runners go by them without acknowledging those children. Those children high fived me and cheered for me like I was racing for the first place professional female, not 6th place in my age group. In the past, I would have been that athlete, too caught up in my own race to experience the energy from the sidelines. What I realized Sunday was that smiling got me through that run. Yes my foot hurt, yes I was tired, and yes I knew there would be faster runners to pass me. But, I decided to sneak out a little smile, say thank you to people cheering, high five children, and give the thumbs up to people who yelled out “Go Team Zoot” as I ran by.
From about mile 25 on the run course was completely lined with people. I was completely emotional and cried like a baby as I crossed the finish line. Not only had I completed the biggest race of my life, but I had had fun doing it. As soon as I crossed the finish line I realized my foot hurt so bad I couldn’t even walk. I relied on friends to practically carry me back to my car. I think I slept 30 minutes Sunday night because my foot was throbbing so badly.
I told my dear friend Laura Haid earlier during the season that I wanted to “get back to my roots” in triathlon. Yes, I wanted to race and be competitive. But more than anything I wanted to enjoy and give back to the sport that has given me a second chance at being an athlete. On Sunday, I realized that perhaps smiling in triathlon isn’t all that bad. When times get tough and the pain sets in, a smile can get you through that next mile or across that finish line.
When race season starts in 2015 I’ll still have my game face on. But, hiding under that game face will be a smile.