Head tucked between my outstretched arms, I dolphin-dive my way through the blue shallows of Lake Tahoe, one of the oldest lakes in the world, sitting 6,250 feet above sea level. On this ice-crusted September morning, the sun has not yet cleared the tree line in the Sierra Nevada.
Hundreds of spectators line the shores of the lake, cheering us. But the fog seems to muffle the cheering for us, 2,650 triathletes. I cannot hear them. Instead, I hear myself breathing and gasping and the water splashing and gurgling.
We are racing in the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe Triathlon, a 2.4-mile swim, then 112 miles on the bike, then a 26.2-mile run, (a marathon,) in 17 hours. These distances are hard to conjure, so I often use Manhattan in comparison: It would be like swimming the width of Manhattan, then biking six times around the perimeter of Manhattan, then running back and forth, the entire length of Manhattan.
If anything breaks or any equipment fails, we athletes must fix it. Flat tire? Fix it. Gears go out? Fix it. Icy water filling your wetsuit and pulling you down? Deal with it.
Aid stations are strategically placed along the race course to supply essential nutrition and hydration: What we need is salt, so there are bags and bowls of salty chips, salty pretzels; what we need is sugar, so there are bananas and candy-like energy gels, and then there are the direct hits – salt tablets, plain water – and for this race, in place of sponges soaked in ice, we will be offered steaming salty broth.
The challenge in most races is to keep our core temperature down, but today is about preventing the opposite, hypothermia. The body does not like to be in cold water, and it redirects blood to the brain. This complicates an already complex metabolic and vascular situation. Yet all we wear is a synthetic fabric called Lycra to cover this journey of 140.6 miles in near-freezing and freezing temperatures.
What am I doing here?
Training for this race helped me drill away the rotten cavity called him, the one who abused and controlled me. Because he was devoid of actual kindness and true empathy, and because he was older and seemingly filled with lessons on everything about the world and I was young and impossibly in love with him, when I finally escaped, I faced a formidable void. In this void, I had to face, alone, the horror that comes with realizing I had been living in a parallel dimension; that what once felt like love was actually little more than the scripted emotions of the malignant narcissist. As the memories of that year with him coursed through my mind, I had to fight from slipping into the blackness of this void. Training for my extreme races was the path away from so much, the body memories, the trauma, the deep existential crisis about my own ability to exist in the world – how had he fooled me? I was a smart woman, was I not? Training for this extreme race was my path back to me.
With a coach guiding me, I learned the building blocks of triathlon training, the brick session – each session, or brick, varied in length. Bricks may be either swim/bike in sequence or bike/run. Through training, I unknowingly started a new dialogue with my body – one that also pointed towards self-care and self-respect.
Thus, by chance, I found myself with an intense, daily commitment that was entirely centered on me, a daily commitment to me, a commitment that left me utterly exhausted and pleased with myself. In the early days, after each brick, I’d fall into a deep sleep almost immediately after arriving home. I would stretch out on the couch and be lost in sleep.
Sleep. It is never a big deal until it becomes elusive. In my year with him, it was elusive. I had become exhausted through his constant demands for attention, his endless appetite for never-ending arguments even in the middle of the night, distorting my sense of reality followed by forced make-up sex and begging for forgiveness. These brick training sessions offered me sleep, again. I could exert my body, then rest and replenish with sleep. As each day passed, I slept and trained and slowly regained myself. Brick by brick, I recovered who I once was and remade myself, as though from the inside out, tearing down the very fiber of my muscles, forcing out all the memories of him that might lurk there.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing for me about emerging from the gaze and brutality of that malignant, predatory lover was how hard it was to stop casting my mind back over the memories of those weird times. I had to mindfully tell myself not to think about him, such was his grip on my psyche. Tri-training became an extreme form of self-love I had to grab onto – and I mean extreme, from the physical training to the mental training. I had to actively put me in the present ahead of any thoughts of me in that past.
And that is how I wound up shivering on the beach that morning at Lake Tahoe.
I’m at the end of the first loop of the two-loop swim course. I pull my body out of the water. I am 6’1” tall and 155 pounds, which is about eight inches and thirty pounds above the average for females in this sport. My heart rate climbs straining against the additional weight of the water-laden wetsuit. I monitor my heart rate on my GPS watch, which connects to the heart rate strap around my rib cage. It helps me to understand my body when my mind becomes too ambitious. It also helps me to not feel lonely when the minutes and hours pass.
My watch reports my heart rate, 152 beats per minute.
“Komm...noch ein Stückchen weiter, Anna, gleich hast du es geschafft!”
When I am training, my first language, German, flows into the front of my mind. The German voice is sterner, commanding and reassuring in its certainty, C’mon Anna! A little bit farther. Soon you will have achieved your goal. I focus on taking little steps forward. I work to not look at the miles ahead.
My watch reads 158 beats per minute.
Diving is taxing on the body. I use all my muscles to generate enough momentum to push out of the water and fly forward, taking even more oxygen. And because we are at altitude, there is even less oxygen in the air.
My watch reads 163 beats per minute.
I glide between the surface and the sand in the space between chaos and serenity, away from the past but near hyperventilation through crystal water. For a moment I don’t breathe. I am a fish. For a moment I do not move. I am stoic and calm. For a moment all is calm. Then the sledgehammer inside my chest awakens once more, banging first against the sternum, then my lungs and then my skull.
“Ich kann nicht mehr…”
I can’t go any farther. The lack of air gets the best of me.
My heart rate strap and sports bra feel tighter now, everything feels tight, everything is squeezing me.
“Ich brauche Luft...”
I need air.
Then I feel sand. My toes curl upon impact with sand in the shallow water of the shore, gripping sand, claw-like. Almost on the shore. This is where the bricks of my training take over. My mind might be losing its grip, but my body knows what to do. My legs know what to do.
Knees pulled up under my body, in between water and sand, to explode out and forward once more. But the water is too shallow now, and I don’t displace enough to gain any lift and instead, flop face-first forward, tripping, belly flopping, splashing, like a gangly child at the beach for the first time. But my right arm catches me before I fall. I can trust my body. I feel the sand between my fingers and push up to straighten myself so I can hop.
I also trust my feet will catch me even though they are so cold I can’t feel them. My heart continues to pound. An ever-increasing rhythm. I gasp for air. But so little comes in.
My watch now reads 165 beats per minute.
“Weiter! Noch ein paar mehr!”
Keep going! Just a few more! The German voice is loud now.
I have three more hops before I can run through the ankle-deep water. The shores of Tahoe are longer than I ever could have imagined. I skip and pull my knees to my chest to clear the surface of the water. My legs burn.
My watch reads 172.
I can’t hold this pace. I want to bend in half like exhausted runners do at the end of a grueling race, bent and gasping for air. And I want to stop. But the first loop is somehow complete – so I go on. I run out of the water. I turn left to the swim entry to begin the second loop. I have no idea how my mind is able to push me through this, but it does. It is strong. With my feet numb and a pounding heart, I slow down to a walking pace.
My heart rate has dipped towards 162.
Two young women, wearing puffer coats, beanies, gloves, and scarves yell towards me, their words of encouragement a cloud of warm breath unraveling in the cold air.
“Go, Go, Go Number 333. Don’t stop running. You got this!!!”
I want to yell back, “Easy for you to say. You’re warm, dry, and getting ready to go to lunch somewhere. While you are in some snug café, I will be running 26.2 miles after biking 112 miles.”
But instead, I smile, wave, and thank them.
I will get to the finish line, to my family, and in particular to my older brother, Bastian. He had the horrible role of being my protector not just in grade school from bullies, but also when it came time to physically stand up to my ex. He was my voice on that final, dramatic day when I finally got away; a mere four hours before I was going to marry him. I shake my mind back to the race. I want to get to my brother so I can thank him for yelling for me: “You heard her! She doesn’t want to marry you! Now get out. Get out.”
I look at my watch: 151.
My heart rate has dropped, and my field of vision expands. My chest loosens, tightness dissolving. I can breathe and the strap no longer feels like a tourniquet. I pick up the pace again, running towards the flag marking a left-hand turn, past but not through the inflated red-squared arc that reads Swim Exit. This will have to wait. We run, walk, and hobble towards the white-squared arc labeled Swim Start, printed with the race major sponsors, such as Powerbar and Lava Triathlon Magazine (which has since gone out of business), marking the beginning of this race; where we started 40 minutes ago. Between the two arcs is the Kings Beach dock, where many spectators and race officials stand cheering us on. But I only know this from videos after the race. Right now I focus on each step and watch the steam coming off our bodies as we dip our feet into the 56-degree water once more. I skip and hop towards my first dolphin-dive to begin the second loop of the 2.4-mile swim course. With the water above my knees, I take in my last, relaxed breath, tuck my head between my stretched arms, lower my head into streamline position and dive into the water once more.
A thousand needles strike my face and rush into my wetsuit. My ribs tighten. I can’t seem to exhale or inhale. My thoughts stall.
Swimmers are all around me now.
I force a scream into the water to release my tight ribs. Screaming helps to breathe, just as we scream to take our first breath when we are born.
Panicked, anxious, ambitious athletes like me splashing, kicking all around: Whitewater washes out Tahoe’s crystal-clear water; we see nothing but white water. There is chaos and everyone is gasping for air. Everything disappears for those moments. I find myself in a tank of piranhas attacking a piece of meat again. Any triathlon swim begins like this, or at least the six triathlons I completed in preparation for this one, all began this way.
“Ich will endlich ruhiges Wasser..”
I want calm water.
You irritate me.
Swimmers are all around. To my right, to my left, on top of me, in front of me. I kick harder to signal the swimmer behind me to stop touching my feet, as body language takes a new form in the water. He gets the point. The swimmer next to me keeps swimming to her left. I am on her left! Maybe she is a he. It doesn’t matter. We are all swimmers. I turn to breathe on my right side hoping we make eye contact. I gasp for air but swallow water instead.
Yuck! I cough.
Surely someone just peed. I hate breathing on my right side.
Then my watch vibrates.
Number five. It is now 50 minutes into the swim. My head bobs up from breathing to my right. My hips drop. I lose speed. I increase my stroke rate and lower my head.
I focus on rhythm to release the anger I am feeling towards the swimmers that surround me. I am being pushed, kicked and controlled away from my straight line to the next buoy.
“Nein! Du wirst mich nie wieder unterdrücken!”
Never again will you suppress me.
Then the swimmer’s left arm strikes my head from atop.
Oh no, you will not push me again, I repeat.
Whack! A massive Garmin watch slams against my temple.
“Es reicht mir!”
I had enough.
I swim to my right and dunk the swimmer’s head under water.
I hold my line and sight for the next buoy. Free. All of us, each swimmer, have found their place in this massive body of water. Each of us earned their calm water. Now we must swim another half mile to the swim exit so we can get to our bikes.
But the calm water tricks me to believe this is just another morning swim. I sight for the next buoy again, but I see nothing. I slow my stroke down to gain perspective. But I don’t see the next buoy.
I look to my left.
I look to my right.
The fog is thicker than during the first loop or maybe I didn’t realize it as I followed the swimmers ahead of me to stay on course. I stare into a wall of chromium white. I don’t see another swimmer. And where is the next buoy?
White fog is rolling in irrational fears. I wanted love. I was willing to do anything to find a love in which I didn’t feel alone and instead seen and understood. But what did that even mean?
I took off searching and latched on to next host willing to provide an answer; this was easier than understanding myself, and so I began spinning like a compass without its north.
The past is now my present. I turn my head left and right to see if I can see anyone. No one. Not a swimmer in sight. I shouldn’t have followed those other swimmers.
Is this like the time I ran away to India, bulldozing over my existing life, crushing the heart of the man I had actually adored, and felt convinced this was the right path for me?
My chest tightens again. Look where that got me. The reins around my mind loosen. Feeding off the carcass of that time like a vulture, I then met him.
I turn over on my back, inhale, exhale, stare into the white blanket above me. I remind myself the past is in the past. But my memories are still too clear.
Is this just like the time I looked up the dynamics of an abusive relationship? Out of fear of his discovery, I erased all history and decided to ignore what I read and what had confirmed my worst fear. I was stuck in the cycle of violence, I just couldn’t find a way out.
Is this just like that time I ignored my pain because I could no longer trust my perception of reality?
Is this just like the time I was forced to sever all connections to my friends and family and despairingly agreed to marry him hoping this would reset reality?
I turn back around to make a couple of strokes that resemble more my grandmother's careful breaststroke.
“Nie Wieder.” Just like the tattoo on my right shoulder blade written in Gujarati, I scream “Never Again.” But the harness I built so carefully around my mind continues to flap.
I am not sure how this will end if the lifeguards didn’t catch me before I swam out of the group. I have been at sea before, terrified, feeling alone, despite the guidance of my loving family, despite the research I did, and despite the marks on my wrists and nights of endless mind games. But in the spirit of triathlon, anything is possible, and this too, I have to solve now.
“Glaub an dich selbst. Jetzt ist der Zeitpunkt gekommen.”
Believe in yourself. Rely on yourself. Now is the time.
I remind myself to trust in my ability to swim straight-ish. To trust my intuition. To keep composure and regain control.
And so I swim alone in the cold water. I place one arm in front of the next and push away the memories, reset myself and repeat my mantra to tighten the reigns once more and reset my north:
“I am capable.”
I reach farther, lengthen my body more, stretch longer and push the water back stronger.
“I have trained for this.”
My kick wakes from flashes of training memories, memories of the times he held me down even though I said “stop.” I found a way to turn the vastness of emotions I feel to this day into the fuel for my tomorrow.
“I survived him.”
In retrospect, I understand now, after the discovery of his criminal past, the kind of future I escaped. I push and kick harder. I kick the past behind me. “In the spirit of Ironman triathlon, I approach this with one step at a time. I focus on what I can control.”
After another minute of blind swimming, out of the wall of grey-white, a little dot appears. In bright canary yellow, I see the path forward. It is the buoy.
My vision clears.
I see the red swim exit arc.
I pick up my pace.
I was never lost. I just couldn’t see my North.