Swim—bike—run—eat ice cream

It was 5:30 a.m., too early to be awake, let alone dressed head to toe in spandex. But there I was, walking in the dark toward a field of bicycles, wearing more skin-tight elastic than a cheap hooker.

I participated in the 2008 all-women SheROX triathlon a couple weekends ago at the Latta Plantation Park, a 19th Century cotton plantation near Charlotte, North Carolina that's now a living history farm and 1,343-acre nature preserve. The sprint-distance event included a 700-meter swim, a 17-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.

I'd competed in three triathlons before this one: one in North Georgia and two along the waterfront in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I love swimming and cycling and can tolerate running well enough, and the three sports back-to-back make for an exciting challenge.

The sun began to rise during the second half of my there-and-back swim through Mountain Island Lake. With every right-side breath, I could see the pinkish glow of the sky reflecting off the calm, dark water, and I would think to myself, “Am I there yet?"

Just over 14 minutes later, when the answer to that question was finally ‘yes,’ I ripped off my swim cap and ran barefoot up to the grassy transition area, where my bicycle awaited among 400 look-alikes. Fortunately, I had memorized its position and managed to locate it without too much trouble.

After clipping the strap on my helmet, fastening the velcro on my cycling shoes and wheeling my bike out the wrong exit, back into the transition area and out the right exit, I was off, pedaling the country roads at speeds not too hard to fathom.

At the end of the bike ride, my legs and my lungs (which tend toward asthmatic when heavily taxed) were ready to take a break in a chaise lounge by the lake. But I forced them to push through the run.

Ow. Legs.

It took me just over an hour and 37 minutes to finish, placing me third in my age group and 15th overall. I came home with the first trophy I've received since my high school swim banquet nine years ago — and celebrated it all with a tremendous waffle cone of Moose Tracks ice cream.

Glad to be sitting

Butt sweat art

Put down the goggles and step away from the cap

After months of carrying my swim cap and goggles around South America, I have accepted reality: I am not going to need them. I bought the two luxury items in Punta Arenas, Chile last November in preparation for free swim at the city’s public pool. That’s the only time during my eight months in the southern hemisphere I’ve actually been able to use them. With this — and my backpack’s ungodly weight — in mind, I decided to take drastic action: I left my swimming apparel in the room of my hostel in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world.

My sister Laura bidding farewell to my prized possessions

I swam competitively through high school and have continued regular trips to the pool in all the places I’ve landed since then. Though my 100-meter freestyle is nowhere as fast as it used to be, swimming continues to be very important in my life. Thus, I did not give up on the dream without a fight. I searched out public pools in every place I visited, but found myself foiled every time.

Here’s the collection of excuses that finally defeated me:

  • Sorry, the pool’s empty for its holiday cleaning. Try back in January!
  • The pool is only open on weekends. Sucks for you it’s Tuesday.
  • You cannot pass this gate. You are not a member of the club. Go back to your home.
  • You must pay $17 to use this pool for an hour. We need exact change.
  • The pool’s easy to find. Take the red line to the third stop, then the green line to the fourth stop. Walk four blocks north, two blocks east, and you’ll find it in an unmarked building.
  • The pool is five feet long and full of kids on foam noodles. Probably won’t need those goggles.

Alas, I hope someone in the dry, dry Chilean desert has found a use for my cap and goggles. Given their location, it probably won’t be lap swimming.

As a sidenote: We spent a lot of time exploring the arid terrain around the desert oasis town of San Pedro. It’s hard to believe this dry landscape can be found in the same country that boasts the glacier-covered Torres del Paine National Park.

We rode the twisty trail through Quebrada del Diablo, or Devil's Gorge, on mountain bikes on day. Such fun.