My Triathlon Uplift
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 14th, 2010

Sunday July 11 I watched the Musselman Triathlon in Geneva NY. I’m usually not much for spectating; I far prefer to be doing. And triathlons are ill-suited for spectating anyway. On the swim, the athletes are colorful dots and churning arms in the distance , except for the first and last 30 seconds. They flash by on bikes almost too quickly to even register who’s behind the helmets and sunglasses. Only on the run do you get a bit more opportunity. But my most uplifting spectator experience actually took place some 90 minutes after the race had officially ended.

I was there mainly to cheer daughter Betsy in her first triathlon — at the 70.3 distance. Betsy has taught TI for quite a few  years–to infants as well as octogenarians, to  nervous, even phobic, beginners as well as English Channel aspirants.  She’s also raced in open water several times a year, since her mid-20s. Her first triathlon was

True to form I never actually saw her take a single stroke, recognizing her only as she stood and peeled off her cap after 1.2 miles in Seneca Lake. I saw her flash by on the bike as  she left the transition to start 56 miles, and never again (I rode my own bike around Geneva to pass the time.). On the 13.1-mile run I found her by working backward from the finish to the 9-mile mark, then accompanied her for the last 4 miles, a stretch during which she passed dozens of competitors — and was passed by no one. Betsy improved her position by maintaining a relaxed smooth stride and walking only briefly at water stops, while others struggled with deteriorating form or walked for long stretches.  Though it was 85 degrees with an unforgiving sun, she looked remarkably fresh.

While I felt a father’s pride there, my memorable moment came over two hours after Betsy’s finish of 7 hrs 23 minutes. Indeed more than 90 minutes after the race was declared officially over at the 8 hour mark. Several minutes apart, at about 9 hours and 30 minutes — after the finish area had been broken down and taken away, the results trailer had been packed up, the spectators had departed and when all that remained of the post-race meal were some cold, glutinous squares of pizza — two final finishers came down the home stretch. One was a man in his 50s greeted by his wife and daughter and two volunteers who held up a length of discarded boundary tape for him to break, the other a woman wearing the green jersey of “Team Z,” who cheered her final steps lustily.

At least to me they’re anonymous–I realized belatedly I should have asked their names–because they don’t show up in the results. But I thought about the mental strength it takes to be  on the course alone, with the aid stations already closed, the cheering spectators departed, the hot sun beating and miles still to go, knowing your accomplishment will receive no official notice. But this–finishing what you started for your own satisfaction–seems to me, more than the fast times of elites that receive far more attention in the tri media, the true essence of this and all endurance sports.

I watched the race leaders during parts of the run and was impressed by their light. fluid, fast strides. But  they kind of made it look easy, and enjoyed support and encouragement  all along from aid station volunteers and spectators. They also tend to be the center of gravity and attention in the sport, particularly its media.

However, the great majority of the 1000 or so athletes I watched on Sunday appeared to be running to participate in a ‘healthful fellowship’ than to prove themselves athletically. But their keenest personal focus–in those hot, draining final miles–was to finish what they started. So this is a salute to those who traversed the hardest miles to do so.

I can’t help but add that persistence itself draws on particular brain circuits and the final finisher in an endurance event grows the persistence circuit more than anyone.

23 Responses to “My Triathlon Uplift”

  1. Heidi says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been freaking out about my time in an upcoming 5K swim (hoping I don’t come in in the bottom 3). It doesn’t matter though, does it? I will finish and that’s what will count. And I’ll do it with a smile on my face!

  2. Achim says:

    Thanks for that great race report!

  3. Heidi
    If I helped you overcome that misgiving, I’ve probably helped others as well. Valuable service rendered, and that makes my day. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. Dan says:

    Thanks for the article. Somehow your article is reminding me a favorite quote from John Wooden:

    “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming. ”
    John Wooden

    I am looking forward to my first triathlon. So i am training with TI and Chirunning technique.

  5. Sue says:

    Great post, Terry. I really like your observation, respect and compassion for *everyone* participating–not just the fasties. As someone who never has nor ever will come close to placing in anything, it’s really nice to hear this perspective.

  6. Elisabeth says:

    I’m only ten days away from my first Olympic distance and I so agree with what you say about those last finishers, Terry. They truly are heroes in their own right.

    Me, I’ll have to breaststroke for part of the swim because my TI freestyle, while making me happy, won’t last the distance yet. But as Heidi says, too: it’s finishing with a smile that counts.

    Good luck for your first tris, everyone! 🙂

  7. Laurie K. says:

    Terry, a wonderful post that captures so well the true meaning of endurance sport. At age 48, I’m starting my 6th season of triathlon. My TI practice has taught me so much about focus, intention, and the importance of quality over struggle for its own sake as a swim training method. I still get funny looks, and occasional questions, about my fist-gloves at the pool, but I take it “in stride”.
    To those preparing for their first triathlon…just know that although it won’t be easy, the feeling when you finish is incredible.
    As an aside, I have to say that I find it unconscionable that the Musselman Tri organizers allowed the event to close-up without accounting for all participants still on the course. If the race was sanctioned by USAT, this should be reported to them. Either they stay open until every last person finishes (or confirms they’re ready to give up), or they set cut-off times for starting the run segment (as they do in full IM races).

  8. Adelaide says:

    Great article,Terry. I am doing my first 70.3 in August, the last 6mi of the run is really the only thing I am fearing. But now, I am determined to be happy while I am there, no matter how long it takes me. Thanks!

  9. Barry says:

    As a relatively new Triathlete myself and having been one of the finishers you’ve described, I can only cheer and agree with your statements. Starting in my early 60’s, the concept has been to get & be healthy by participating in an activity who’s participants all help with the extra motivation and to get to the finish line.

  10. Adelaide My daughter Betsy’s blog on her Musselman Tri might give you further encouragement.

  11. Laurie There were cutoff times at the start of both bike and run. I believe anyone who continued on their own probably agreed they were on their own. Also I’m sure they still monitored the course, even after it was closed. All comments I heard, from all kinds of participants, were highly complimentary of the organizers.

  12. Jon says:

    Great column, Terry! Wonderful perspective on the TRUE meaning of endurance athletics, although people must be realistic. I’m no elite but pushing 9 1/2 hrs for 1/2 iron suggests those folks may be doing too much for their health/fitness. Laurie has a valid concern in that no support is there should they have a serious problem (e.g. no EMS). HOWEVER ….every USAT event I’ve done has made clear that missing a cutoff means you are no longer a valid participant. All a USAT event can legally do at that point is inform an athlete they have missed a cut off, they are no longer an official participant, & offer them a ride in. Those who insist on pressing on know they are (foolishly?) on their own.

  13. Jon
    This was the case at Musselman. Even as a spectator, I knew those cutoffs as they were announced repeatedly by the guy doing “color commentary” for the crowd – largely to create a sense of drama about whether those still swimming or biking would make it through. As you would expect, they got loud support. I’m also certain that the organizers maintained more than adequate vigilance for the health and safety of those who elected to continue after the cutoff.

  14. Doug Alt says:

    Thanks for the motivating and uplifting thoughts.
    For me, my challenge last September was being able to complete a 1-mile event. Having taken up swimming as a fitness activity in my mid-60’s, I was happy just to make it to the end, albeit with liberal stretches of backstroke and breaststroke. It was an evening event, and as I approached the end of the course the marker bouys had been pulled in, the sun had just dipped below the horizon (as viewed from beneath my armpit with each breath… talk about a “sinking feeling”) and I ultimately received a hearty applause for completing the course…LAST!
    I felt GREAT! I had done it!
    What added significantly to my satisfaction was that 2 separate spectators, who had been chowing down on barbeque and beer at the water-side festival where the swim was held, came up to me afterward and said that I had inspired them to get off their fat you-know-whats and start working on ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING also.

  15. Doug Thanks for sharing this great affirmation of the motivating effect a slow-but-stalwart athlete can have on others who’ve been on the fence, perhaps doubting they have the stuff to pursue an athletic/endurance accomplishment themselves. This is an example of what’s called Peer Modeling. We are far more likely to believe ourselves capable of doing something when we see someone we perceive to be much like ourselves doing it. When we see someone who’s clearly a superior athlete – because we don’t perceive ourselves to be like them – it serves less as an example or inspiration. I’ve previously viewed this in a teaching context. This gives it far more power.

  16. Neale says:

    I view race results and read race reports all the time. Thanks, Terry, for reminding us all that the true race winners are seldom those who stand on the podium.
    God bless all you guys who have the grit to continue competing solely motivated by your will to finish. I will draw upon your feats for inspiration

  17. […] recent post My Triathlon Uplift has proven to be my most popular ever, as measured by the number of positive comments. What I […]

  18. Andreas says:

    A short anecdote on coming in towards the bottom of the field. My proudest swimming moment of last year was a race I did not finish. Last years Aquarium Swim 5K at Coney Island presented a particular challenge to the slower swimmers (me), as the current on the return leg was unusually strong, sufficient for about a third of the field to quit. (I think you swam this event and finished comfortably).
    After making the turn after the far buoy and starting into the current I quickly became demoralized; I had swam a few minutes and was standing still. After 15 minutes the stone pier to my right continued to stare me in the face. At this point I realized I would not be able to finish, my cruising speed was equal to the current I was trying to master, no actually I was absolutely SURE I was done. At 30 minutes in the same spot I looked around, the same pier was mocking me from my right, a few other swimmers remained in the battle to keep going. I tried everything; increasing my stroke rate- no help, I tried to relax and focus on my stroke- again no measurable progress. And then a small miracle occurred; one of the support kayakers came over and casually encouraged me by saying: ” once you get past this pier you’ll be all right”. Somehow that turned the proverbial tide; I managed to inch forward, and indeed a couple of 100 yards ahead the current was more manageable, and I started making progress. I become increasingly up- beat and made it to the 2 mile buoy; at that moment I was told to turn in, the race only was permitted up to a certain hour, and swimmers remaining on the course were told to turn in. That day those tough 2 miles ended up taking me about 2 hours and 40 minutes, all that in a place where the 3 mile loop usually takes me 2 hours to complete! And yes I could have not been happier or more proud of my not so young body, and for discovering a trace of resilience I had not known.
    This was an unbelievable experience for me. I will be swimming the same race this Saturday, and even though I hope to finish with less of a struggle, I do not expect to duplicate the joy of last year’s swim. Here’s to the bottom 3rd!

  19. Tracey says:

    Hi Terry,
    Thank you so much for posting your experiences about the end of the race. I’m also on Team Z ( and know the last girl who finished. It was her first half. Your whole story was correct except for one missing detail. Despite everything shutting down, about 100 Team Zers stayed along the finish line to cheer ALL of the final people coming in. We went nuts when we saw our team colors coming into view. When you train with someone and have experienced their struggles, seeing them finish is almost better than finishing yourself.

    I personally have had similar experiences. My first half I was DEAD LAST after a mechanical issue on the bike (and my just general slowness.) The race organizer did not announce cutoff times for my race, so I just kept going. My husband was at the finish line waiting for me and had to insist that they not dismantle the finish line until the rest of the runners were back. (A more detailed report is here:

    In February, a teammate and I will be putting our back-of-the-pack determination to the test by hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity. We feel like we have some good mental training to draw upon when the going gets tough. One foot in front of the other, over and over again until you finish. Just keep going and don’t quit.

  20. Kerry says:

    Good after noon. My Name is Kerry and I am the “Team Z” girl who finished last at 9.5 hours. I was told that there probably would be support out there and so I prepared myself, I put my sneakers on and ran. I came there to finish and I wasn’t going to ‘GIVE UP’, and I’m not foolish, I am fit enough for this distance and I had FABULOUS support!! Sure there was things that were not there that I wish I had, like FOOD but I had what I needed and finished my first Half Ironman. Was it emotional, lonely, sad, hard, tiring, frustrating sure it was!!! Did it test my inner toughness, absolutely!! But I DO NOT quit, give up and I came to finish, I have the best team in the whole world, TEAM Z!!! There loud and wait until the LAST and cheer like they were the first. It’s not foolishness, it’s about mental toughness, physical conditioning and the WANT, desire to FINISH. I plan to FINISH

  21. Kerry says:

    …I plan to FINISH this race again (and on TIME) next year (2011). Feel free to follow me 🙂

    Kerry B

  22. Kerry I’m glad we found you – or you found us. Congratulations on what your teammate Tracy described as “back of the pack determination.” That phrase has a nice ring.

  23. Well done, Tracy. We’re honored to have determined pack-backers such as you and Kerry reading Swim Well Blog.

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