by Shelly Preszler

“Slow and steady wins the race.” This mantra may have worked for the Tortoise, but in a triathlon it will just help you finish, perhaps close to last.

I have wanted to “compete,” a term I use loosely, in a triathlon for the past 15 years. I still remember it like yesterday when I asked my friend, Cathy, “Should I attempt the triathlon in Eureka, South Dakota next month?” “What is it? She asked. “Oh you know, swim ¼ mile, bike 12 miles and finish it by running three miles.” I replied casually, as if it were as simple as slapping together a PB&J. I had just given birth to our fourth child and thought it would be fun, like cliff diving or hang gliding. She looked at me and shook her head no, then passed the platter of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, and that was that.

Looking back on that scene I now realize she was truly my guardian angel. At that time I was a poor swimmer and a little weak on both biking and running. I can only imagine me clinging to a dingy in Lake Eureka. With four young children in tow, training would have been next to impossible.

Training partner Karin (L) with Shelly (R)

Training partner Karin (L) with Shelly (R)

Fast forward 15 years, two more kids and fifteen extra pounds and enter in my new neighbor, Karin. I remember meeting her and realizing we were the same age. I wondered out loud, “Wow, how do you stay so slim and trim?” I couldn’t help but compare her sleek body to mine, secretly wondering how my body could have looked had I taken the road less traveled. One without the many detours of glazed donuts; half eaten Happy Meals and the remaining candy in my kids Halloween buckets. How could one overlook my hail-dented thighs associated with a steady stream of cheeseburgers and fries? She mentioned she was an avid swimmer, who liked to compete in triathlons. Could this be a new guardian angel sent directly from Heaven to look after this gal with a goal who needed a ton of guidance?

The Swim
She suggested we meet at the Aquatic Center the following Thursday morning at 5:30am. Not being one to take any chances with her new recruit, she offered to pick me up at 5:20. She casually added, “Hey Shell, make sure and have a one piece suit, goggles, and a swim cap.” Now, here lies the challenge for all women: the suit. In talking to women about triathlons most say it’s the swim that keeps them from trying. But, I beg to differ. It’s putting on the swimsuit. Seriously, pulling the shoulder straps up and over in the morning is truly the hardest part of the workout for me and then backing into the pool so no one is able to see what lies behind me.

Karin is a true cheerleader. Although I struggled and coughed up most of the pool the first day, she said she was encouraged by my efforts. By the end of the month, I was able to swim one lap without taking a break. Great! Now I only needed about eight more for Eureka. I secretly wondered if I would ever make it. We cut our practice short one day, when I spotted my daughter’s high school track team across the pool. I bribed Karin with all the spare change in the bottom of my workout bag if she would bring me my towel. She looked at me confused and asked, “Ending so early?” “Yes, I gulped as I made a speedy back- ended retreat to the locker room.

I remember being warned over and over again prior to the triathlon, about the flailing around that takes place during the swim. “Hey, Shell, there will be lots of commotion, but don’t panic, just float on your back if you get flustered.” Nothing, I tell you, nothing, could have prepared me for the full-grown, furry man who swam over me and then, kicked me in the head! My friend, Lori, also a newbie, heard me gasp out a few choice words and encouraged me through her frightened and furious paddle to continue on with the race.

The Ride
I often joke that I’m built for comfort and not endurance, but 12 windy miles on a bike proved otherwise. For you ladies out there willing to give this a whirl, a mountain bike can be great for training, but leave them at home on race day. I was fortunate to borrow a road bike from Karin and it truly was much appreciated! The bike ride went well until I turned a corner and began veering uphill in a 28 mile an hour wind, only to be blown off my bike and roll down the hill like Jill. It was quite humorous, as three male volunteers were at the corner. I managed to get on the bike again but was unable to peddle. “Hey miss, you may want to shift to a lower gear.” As I made my way past them I heard one remark, “Don’t worry ma’am we didn’t see a thing!”

In the last triathlon of the summer I actually gained some speed and started cruising by other bikers. Wow, I’m actually passing people, I thought to myself. I sat up a little straighter. All of sudden I heard a clanking sound and looked down to see that my chain had come off! Pride goes before a fall, I remember my mom saying and with that I stooped down to try to put my chain back on. My husband’s term of endearment for me is “mechanical genius,” and with that I prayed, “Dear Jesus help me get this chain back on.” Three minutes and 10 bikers later I was back in the race!

The Run
I was also blessed to have a running partner. My friend Sarah and I trained for a half-marathon, another crazy goal of mine. The Mickelson trail in South Dakota is still riddled with my blood, sweat, and tears, as well as part of a goo energy pack that exploded all over my body during the race. I joked I would have ran much faster had there been bears chasing me to lick the honey-like goo from my body. When I crossed the finish line that day, I looked and felt like I had given birth to all six kids at once! Never, is the next time I have scheduled to run a 1/2 marathon. Sarah, on the other hand, is a gal who can literally run for miles or perhaps days. She never let me quit during training, even when I begged her and moaned that I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. She would just smile and say, “My house is just around the corner. I promise.” There were days, I swear, she had moved her house to Cleveland. She was also a born encourager. A high point for me was cheering for her in the Bismarck Half- Marathon this fall, cowbell and all.

Whenever I feel I’m running too slowly I recall the old men sitting on the back of a tailgate in Eureka yelling at me when I asked for directions. “Hey lady, the turn’s up there and you better pick up the pace!” It took everything for me not to yell back. I was too tuckered out, as I had just swam a ¼ mile, biked 12, and had just begun the three-mile run, which was an uphill climb, literally!

I learned a lot about myself this past summer. What had started out as a physical goal, ended up being a spiritual journey. By the end of the summer I had competed in three triathlons, one even with my husband, Todd and Jonathan, our son. Hoping one day to make this a family affair. I also ran my one and only ½ marathon with my good friend, Ann. When the runs and rides were long, it became a peaceful and quiet time where I was able to pray for family, friends and myself. I also thanked God I was healthy enough to compete in the races. I found out I just might have a healthy dose of perseverance after all. I was also encouraged by the bible verse, “ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

I’m often asked about training equipment. The basics are simple: swimsuit, cap, and goggles for the swim. I also purchased a triathlon suit, which is not only comfy but it also covers a multitude of sins. The biking requires a road bike, which can be borrowed or rented for race day. Good running shoes are a must. Friends to train with and encourage you, priceless!

Shelly Preszler resides in Mandan with her family where fresh chocolate chip cookies trump a triathlon any day!