I am neck deep in a gray Connecticut lake and it is cold. I’m not alone. All around me 124 other triathletes are swimming. I mean, all in front of me. They were around me a minute ago! Now there’s just me and one other woman and one man.
How did this happen? I try to think. This never happens when I run!
I want to help them. I want to yell to the woman in front of me who’s talking to herself, “You can do it!” But of course I don’t, because then I’d swallow too much water. This is swimming, not running.
This isn’t a marathon, like I’m used to. This is a triathlon and it feels very different.
I got the idea to do this the day I went vegan. I’d been calling myself a “near vegan” for eight years—but what does that even mean? In my case, it meant my husband was vegan and did all of our cooking. So when I got lunch during the workday, I still ate tuna.
It happened at a family reunion. I found out a loved one still texted while he drove, which broke my heart because my dad was killed by a distracted driver. This loved one was at the funeral. I was only 25. For a few years before the reunion, I’d been an activist to help people drive safer, to save them from the senseless loss my family endured. It baffled me that someone who professed to love me could still do this.
When I came home from the reunion, I told my husband, “I don’t get it. I’ve been on TV. I’ve been in magazines. I’ve shared the science of what happens to your brain on the phone while driving. How could someone I love still do this?”
And he said, “Well I’ve given you the science behind what happens to animals, and you still eat them.”
I knew people would think I was strange. And I knew it might be hard to stick to. But I realized one crucial thing: Even if people DID know the science behind distracted driving, they would still do it. Even if they loved me, or anyone else who lost their dad that way, they would still do it. And even if people knew the science behind animal cruelty, they would still eat them—heck, I had a front-row seat to that info for eight years and I still did it.
Was it because I didn’t care about science? No, I’m a smart person. Was it because I didn’t care about animals? No, I love my cute cat.
It was because it’s really hard, once a behavior gets set in society, to actively go against it.
So I said, “OK, I’m going vegan. But I’m also doing an Ironman.
“I need to demonstrate that choosing compassion over convenience makes you stronger.”
My decision changed my activism. As an activist, I typically told people not to do things. Being the change myself was new.
But not that new—I was already on a mission to check off my late father’s bucket list in only five years. My brother found it tucked in a suede pouch six months after my wedding.
At the time, I was depressed. After getting married, I felt expected to do the popular thing (aka buy a house, have kids and settle down). My husband married me for who I am—not because he wanted me to be someone else. When my brother gave me my dad’s list, my depression lifted. I remembered what my dad was all about.
He never cared about popular opinion. He thought for himself.
When I started training for my first half-Ironman (my husband convinced me to do the shorter distance), I’d already checked off 41 list items.
I had this idea that if my husband and I trained together, it would help us re-enter society (we quarantined more than most in the pandemic). But then my husband got injured and dropped out. Maybe this is for the best, I thought. I can use a crew! By then, I’d made the Ironman a list item—”own a $200 suit” (a tri suit). Two people can’t own a suit. Only one person can do that.
So I trained, without my husband. But I wasn’t training alone.
It’s one of the greatest gifts of my dad’s list. I’m never alone.
From Day One, friends have shown up for me. Family members. Employers. Strangers.
I made a friend in a women’s tri-group on Facebook, one who’d been hit by a texting driver. She’d suffered her third concussion as a result. Despite being 16 years my junior, Danielle signed up to do the Ironman with me.
She got her first two concussions as a swimmer, but is still the strongest swimmer I know. When I get in that water, I think of Danielle.
And Danielle owns her tri suit. There’s no doubt.
That’s what my dad’s list has always been about—the courage to follow your passions.
But, back to that lake in Connecticut and the swim happening all around me.
I breaststroke to the first orange buoy. I look out over the next one, which seems eons away. Just keep swimming, I think. Like Nemo.
The night before was horrible. The unfamiliar, dangerous-seeming town, and how we couldn’t find the food I needed. I remember my husband’s great idea: “I’ll make you dairy-free quesadillas with an iron in our hotel room!” He was like Charlie Chaplin, ironing tortillas in tin foil. What neither of us realized in that moment was that refried beans are an IBS trigger.
When I went vegan, I was surprised to watch my digestion clear up. I’d had IBS attacks for 10 years. But now, never again.
At least not until I ate that quesadilla.
When I’d jumped in the water, it was with a Grimace belly and one hour’s sleep.
I swim out to the second orange buoy. I go for one more, despite my stomach. And then I hear it.
The groans and splashes. I know, just like my fear on the roads, that these 100 male swimmers will run me over.
I feverishly raise my arm to the men in the raft. They float over and yank me out of the water. “IBS,” I explain. “And one hour of sleep.”
As they wait for another DNF-er, I sit.
“Crohn’s disease,” he says when he’s lifted in.
I’ve never not finished a race. Finishing is kind of my thing. Granted, I do tend to do things slowly. But I do finish. I’m like the tortoise that way.
But my dad wasn’t a great finisher.
He left his marriage behind when I was six. He left every job, to my knowledge. And every girlfriend. And every apartment. And every car. He was like a magician—now you see it, now you don’t.
This was exciting when I was a kid. As a teenager, not so much.
It’s why not finishing scares me.
But I realize, after I walk the 1/2 mile back to the car, grabbing my bike from the transition on the way and handing in my chip, that maybe not finishing is OK.
“You did your best,” the chip attendant says as I turn to leave.
I want to hug her. When I post online to my fundraiser supporters (I’m raising money for Girls on the Run), they say it too. “After the night you had, at least you made it to the start!” “DNF is better than DNS!” And when I text Danielle, she also says it. And so does my husband. And my mom. And my brother. And my best friend.
“You did your best.”
They’re right. All of them.
And maybe, all along, that’s what my dad was doing, too.
As I train for my next practice tri, on August 7, the day before the anniversary of my dad’s death, I will remember this. How, for the most part, we are all doing our best.
We live in a judgmental world. Comments are taken the wrong way. Lives are compared. We put up a front to protect ourselves. We try to seem strong.
But the truth is, everyone’s running their own race. Sometimes they need more information to run better. We can show them kindness. We can show them compassion.
When I check off “own a $200 suit,” it won’t be because I’m swimming like someone else. It will be because I’m swimming like myself.
That’s how “owning” something works.
And I’ll finish that Ironman—not because I’m a great finisher, or, like my dad, a great starter.
It will be because I was humble enough to learn.
- Visit Laura’s site here: myfatherslist.com and read about her late father’s bucket list and what she’s doing to finish the list for him.
- Use code GOTRNJ and 20% of your subscription rate will be donated to Laura’s fundraising for Girls on the Run.