Like Lori in the previous blog post, Elsie Alonso also completed her first triathlon this past summer. What started as wanting to learn how to swim for fun turned into signing up for a triathlon after a year of swimming. Even after multiple obstacles along the way, like taking a bad fall during the bike leg of the triathlon, Elsie was determined to finish and earned the right to be called a triathlete.
It was January 2017 when I signed up to run the Honolulu Marathon in December of the same year. I had promised my friend Meredith who lived in Honolulu that I would pace her for her first marathon and I thought of no better time to do so than right after the New York City Marathon while my legs were still used to the mileage. At the time I signed up, I had already been to Hawaii a few times and the one restriction that kept me from enjoying the islands as much as I could was my inability to swim. I lived in Honolulu for 3 months in 2016 and while I watched Meredith swim, snorkel, and dive into water, I wished I could do the same. I promised myself that I would learn how to swim before the Honolulu Marathon.
That summer in 2017 I took a swimming class for adult beginners at the YMCA in Long Island City, Queens. On my first day I was surprised to learn I was the youngest of the group—not including the high school senior that was teaching the class. One man was in his 70s which, like running and any other sport, reminded me that it’s never too late to be involved, to challenge yourself, and to achieve a goal. At the beginning of June I was “swimming” with a kickboard and by August I was backstroking, freestyling, and moving around the pool comfortably even if that meant doggy paddling. I was so happy I went from being someone who was terrified of not being able to touch the sandy underwater floor at the beach, to being someone who could jump into a pool and not sink. I didn’t want to lose this momentum so I became a member of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Aquatic Center, where I still continue to regularly go.
While in Hawaii to run the Honolulu Marathon, I was definitely more comfortable in the water, but unfortunately was unable to do the ocean activities I wanted because of the rough waves during that time of the year. Bummed from those missed opportunities, I wanted to find something else to look forward to in swimming. My triathlete co-worker Emily mentioned a “sprint” triathlon to me that would be in June and I had no reason not to do it now that I knew how to swim. She talked me through everything I needed to know: the order of the triathlon (swimming, cycling, and running), what I should do during the transitions in between each sport, and she even trained with me on a few runs and a swim.
The Hempstead Harbor Tri was in the middle of June 2018. I was nervous as the days approached because I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and I was new to swimming in open water. Despite knowing how to stay afloat and swim, I didn’t feel as confident in the ocean as I did when I was in a pool. In a pool, I knew the depth, had the floor lines guide me, and had an entire lane to myself. At the triathlon, it was a different story. But, as I waited to lunge into the ocean I felt oddly calm—I wasn’t sure if it was because of Emily’s last pep talk on the beach, the fact that the way we were lined up reminded me of any NYRR race, or the fact that because I was going into unknown territory I didn’t know what to expect, thus I had nothing to fear.
This all changed once I was about 50 meters into the 500 meter swim. Like the start of any running race, people crowd at the start and the attempt to make it through becomes a challenge itself. It’s completely different doing the same in open water. I was in the middle of the pod when another swimmer pushed my head underwater as I was taking a breath and I took a huge gulp of water instead. I treaded water for a few seconds and was quickly aware of how far away I was from the beach and that I couldn’t touch or see the bottom of the bay. To stay calm I floated on my back and let everyone pass me before the next wave of swimmers started. I saw how far I was from the shore and instead of freaking out, I decided to float on my back and backstroke the rest of the way. This way, my head was above water at all times, but unfortunately had less of a sense of my direction.
I had to take a few breaks on the paddleboards of lifeguards to wipe my fogged-up goggles and check how far I had left to go. One of the lifeguards I latched onto saw how scared and upset I was and told me to take as much time as I needed. In a daze, I found myself telling her what led me to that point—how I just began swimming, that it was my first triathlon, and how I wanted to be done already. In the middle of my rant she interrupted me and said, “Girl, you got this.” With that, I thanked her, left her, and kept backstroking. With about 100 meters to go I latched onto another paddleboard and the lifeguard told me he would take me to shore if I was struggling. Tired, I agreed. Before he began paddling I asked, “Will I be disqualified if you take me in?” He answered, “Yes, your race won’t count.” That said, I instantly let go of the board and kept backstroking all the way to the shore. The toughest part was over and I was glad to finally be on land and finish. Little did I know that the swim portion wasn’t the only challenge.
In the transition area I grabbed my bike and peddled off. This portion of the tri was composed of two five-mile loops. I felt great, my legs were moving fine and I was conserving my energy for the run. I was following another cyclist for the final mile and during a turn in the last few meters she slipped and I followed her fall with my left side hitting the floor. My next memory was me sitting in an ambulance with an EMT flashing a light in my eye and noting down the identification number on my arm tattooed in Sharpie ink. He asked me my name, where I was, and my birthday. I answered his questions, but at that moment I had no idea why I was in the back of the ambulance. I used context clues (my triathlon suit, sneakers, and helmet) to realize I was in the middle of the triathlon. It was only after he began to bandage up my arm because of my bleeding elbow that I knew I fell. I looked at my Garmin to check my time and the screen was cracked. I refused to quit on land instead of in the water, which was where the real struggle should have been. I asked if I could continue and the EMT told me it wasn’t the best idea. I told him I was a marathoner and he finally obliged.
The next thing I knew, I was on the bike with tears in my eyes because my entire left side was throbbing, I didn’t know how much time I lost, and because at that point my last memory was driving to Emily’s house that morning to pick her up. After I parked my bike in my transition area, I ran to the start of the 5K course. In the middle of the run I caught up to the girl who fell in front of me. Her face triggered my memory and I started to piece events together. I saw she also had a bandage on her elbow and I asked her if she was alright. She said, “I just want this to be over.” I responded, “Same.”
I was beyond thrilled when I saw Emily, her boyfriend Ben, and Danny cheering for me on the two-loop course. I hugged Emily as soon as I crossed the finish line and we walked to the awards section. I was one of the last participants and by that time, the limited amount of medals were already distributed, but I walked away with a pint glass instead and was assured I would receive a medal in the mail, which I eventually did. Emily, who worked her butt off all year, won first place in her age group. It was a day of victories: hers, mine, and everyone who put in work that day.
It was after the race that I realized I cracked my helmet when I fell and saw my bruised thigh and hip hidden under my triathlon suit. I took an MRI exam the following day as a precaution and was glad all was fine.
Hempstead Harbor Tri finish photo!
Reflecting back on that race, as tough as it was for me, I consider it my greatest physical accomplishment and one of my proudest moments. What was initially a goal for me to learn how to swim turned me into a triathlete. Am I the strongest swimmer? Absolutely not, I just learned how to swim last year. Am I a strong cyclist? Absolutely not, I don’t own a road bike and had to borrow one for the race. Am I the fastest runner? Absolutely not, but I get the job done.
My determination to complete this triathlon was mostly an emotional effort and I would not have overcome my doubts if it wasn’t for my support system: Emily for putting my irrational fears in perspective (there are no sharks in Hempstead and there would be an abundance of lifeguards along the swim); Ben for waking up at the crack of dawn to lather himself in sunscreen and cheer us on as a bike course marshall; and Danny for volunteering so I can participate, driving my car afterwards because I couldn’t, and signing me up for previous races that were near-death experiences and prepared me for that day.
I don’t know how I want to surprise myself next, but I do know I want to complete another triathlon without any falls and especially as a stronger swimmer. I hope my experience inspires others to challenge themselves in ways they never imagined.