Completing triathlon is a feat in itself

Over 100 individuals took part in the 27th annual Whidbey Island Triathlon on July 22.

I’ve always thought that whoever comes in last in a race should win a medal.

Don’t misunderstand — the speed required to win first place is certainly impressive. But to come in last place? That takes endurance. The athlete who runs a 5K at a breakneck mile pace of five minutes only has to run for 15 minutes in total. But the runner at the back of the pack might be pounding the pavement for 45 minutes or longer.

This weekend, athletes from Whidbey Island and beyond came together in Langley to show off their prowess in speed and endurance alike. Over 100 individuals, including one brave Whidbey News Group reporter, and 16 relay teams took part in the 27th annual Whidbey Island Triathlon on July 22.

On the speedy end of the spectrum, Steven Crane, 41, took first place with a total time of one hour, 27 minutes and 19 seconds. The top female finisher was 50-year-old Tricia Davis with a race time of one hour, 49 minutes and 13 seconds.

As for the endurance performers — well, remember that one brave journalist who found herself among the triathletes Saturday morning? That was me.

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to contests of speed, I’m something of a straggler. The half-joke, half-disclaimer I made to my friends prior to the race that they should expect me to come in last place turned out not to be too far from the truth; of the 113 individual participants who completed the course, I was the 107th to cross the finish line, with a total time of three hours, two minutes and one second.

(Remember, of course, that if we’re all still agreed to look at the triathlon as a contest of endurance rather than speed, this placement is actually quite impressive.)

Race morning was mercifully overcast, sparing participants the added crucibles of heat exhaustion or sunburn. As suggested by its name, a triathlon is a three-part contest of athleticism (or masochism, depending on who you ask). Leg one: the half-mile swim.

The day started at Goss Lake, where swimmers were divided into four heats by age group. Each heat had its own color swim cap, which, besides helping race officials keep track of participants, bore the added benefit of making it easy to tell when you were getting passed by somebody who started eight minutes later than you.

The fastest male and female swimmers of the day were 61-year-old Eric Hagen and 29-year-old Amanda Winslow. Hagen completed the half-mile swim in an utterly baffling 11 minutes, six seconds, with Winslow close behind at 11 minutes, 26 seconds, earning them the top two swim times in the entire race.

The swim was my most successful event in terms of speed alone. With a swim time of 18 minutes and 43 seconds, I came in 88th overall in the event. Immediately after emerging from the lake, I had my first encounter with the triathlon’s little-discussed fourth event: the transition.

Besides being timed in swimming, cycling and running, a triathlete is also judged by her ability to rapidly complete tasks such as re-doing her ponytail so it fits under her bicycle helmet and getting socks on while her feet are still wet.

This being my first triathlon, it had not occurred to me to train in these particular skills, but in an amusing if not mildly infuriating twist of fate, my transitions still ended up being my highest-ranking events of the day. I had the 56th fastest swim-to-bike transition at three minutes and five seconds, and the 68th fastest bike-to-run transition at two minutes and 26 seconds. But I digress.

The second leg of the triathlon was a 19-mile bike ride through the greater Langley area. As a regular bike commuter, I’ve often remarked that Whidbey Island was meant to be experienced via bicycle, and I stand by that after Saturday’s ride.

The triathlon loop took riders through the rich verdancy of the Putney Woods and past stunning views of the Saratoga Passage that would have taken my breath away if I’d had any left after biking up all the hills.

As I was participating in the triathlon for the experience rather than to be competitive, I had only one rule for myself: during all legs of the race, I was allowed to go as slowly as I wanted, so long as I kept going. During the bike ride, that meant my trusty steed spent a lot of time in the lowest gear possible. The largest uphill stretches on the route ranged from gnarly to downright cruel — though the exhilaration of watching the road blur by under your tires as you zip downhill, eyes tearing up from the wind, more than makes up for the brutal climbs.

Crane and Davis, the top male and female racers overall, were also the winning cyclists. Crane completed the 19-mile course in 49 minutes and 52 seconds, and Davis came in at one hour and 40 seconds.

The ride took me one hour, 44 minutes and 53 seconds, making me the 105th fastest cyclist in the race. By the time I pulled into the second transition area and stumbled off my bike on jelly legs, I could already hear the sounds of cheers from across the park as other racers burst across the finish line.

The sun showed its face for the first time that morning shortly after I began the third leg, but most of the running course was in shade, so I managed to stay comfortable. Or, as comfortable as one can be when they’re battling to stay upright.

The beginning of the 3.75 mile run was the only part of the race when I genuinely feared I might not make it across the finish line. My legs were protesting most ardently against my making them run. After all, they had just completed nearly two hours of strenuous and largely uphill biking — didn’t they deserve a break?

As I staggered unsteadily through the first stretch of the run, I worried my legs were going to take that break whether I wanted to or not. But through the power of perseverance — or perhaps sheer spite, or even more likely, utter lunacy — I hit my stride.

That stride was, admittedly, a tad lethargic, but it was all in the spirit of my one triathlon rule — to go as slow as I needed to, as long as I kept going. Time lost meaning as all my brain power was absorbed by the enormous effort it cost to continuously put one foot in front of the other, and the finish line came into view before I knew it.

In one final burst of energy, I managed to take the finish line at a sprint. As to what fueled that last push, I might never know. Perhaps it was the knowledge that there were people watching me at the finish line, and I wanted to look impressive. Maybe it was remembering that after the triathlon was over, there was nothing else standing between me and the Taylor Swift concert I was attending the following evening. Most likely, my body understood instinctually that the sooner it got under that inflatable arch, the sooner it could stop moving, and boy, did it want to be motionless in that moment.

Whatever got me to the end of the race, I crossed the finish line to the cheers of my friends and wasted no time in indulging in the simple joy of sitting down. My once-angry legs were quite pleased with the decision.

Bernie Hagan, 31, had the best running time at 20 minutes, 27 seconds, and 36-year-old Jasmine Kelly-Pierce was the top female runner with a time of 28 minutes and 51 seconds. Cruising on through with a nearly 14-minute pace, I finished the run in 52 minutes and 56 seconds.

I even made it back in time for the awards ceremony, which I had been certain I would miss. Besides our overall winners, there were a number of impressive and interesting participants: a couple of racers who had come all the way from England; a man from Connecticut who performed the National Anthem at the commencement of the event; the youngest racer, 14-year-old Nicolas Mayoral Guevara, who finished in just over two hours and 24 minutes; and the oldest racer, 79-year-old Blake Willeford, who completed the course in two hours and 16 minutes.

I certainly wasn’t winning any medals on Saturday, but I was just happy to be there. After all, someone has to go nice and slowly to make all the speedsters look good. And if my slower pace gave me a little extra time to appreciate our beautiful island? Well, I’m certainly not going to complain about that.