June 26, 2013 by Heather
Andrew & I blew outta here Friday after lunchtime and headed Northwest for a weekend of friends and triathlon-ing. I’d been nervous for two weeks and was so ready to just do the thing and have it behind me. I was also super duper excited to spend time with my gal pals and was so grateful that we’d managed to get everyone together for the weekend. My triathlon bag was packed separate from my other stuff, complete with a checklist of contents on top. My bike had been expertly strapped to the car by my
coach husband. We were ready.
Saturday afternoon around 4:00 we went to pick up my packet and buy a few energy gels for me to keep in my bike jersey. Of course I was eyeballing all the other people picking up their packets and feeling a wee bit intimidated by all of their triathlonishness. I tried to act very nonchalant though, like I did that kind of stuff every weekend. Because I do, obviously.
I was mostly excited about the t-shirt, because after all, isn’t that why people do these things? So you can wear your shirt that says I DID A TRIATHLON AND I AM AWESOME AND OH THIS OLD TSHIRT? HA, I FORGOT I EVEN HAD IT ON.
We drove the curvy road out to the state park on our way to a practice swim scheduled from 2pm-5pm for triathlon participants. At one point we rounded a corner and BOOM there was the lake in all her creepy glory. I was glad I had on sunglasses because my eyes started tearing up and I didn’t want Andrew to see. My fear of lakes isn’t just something I say to make people laugh. It is very real, and I was about to come face to face with it.
Around the next corner was an overflow parking lot, and since we’d never been there we thought that was where we should go. As we approached it, we saw that it was filled with emergency vehicles – firetrucks, ambulances, police cars, special boats. We slowed down enough for Andrew to ask the policeman at the entrance what was going on. “There’s been an accident.” We could tell he wasn’t going to offer any details, so we kept driving until we came to another entrance.
We paid our $5 park entry fee to a little guy working the gate who told us that he heard someone training for the race had “gone under” and they had been looking for him for a few hours. He was pretty sure the practice swim had been cancelled, but we were welcome to swim in the recreation part of the lake that was still open and full of families and kids enjoying their afternoon. This struck us as being very, very odd.
And it was indeed very, very odd. Perhaps one of the oddest things I’ve seen. The lake is fairly small – you can stand in one spot and see all of it. There was the recreation part sectioned off with buoys and filled with people splashing and playing – then 200 yards away there were police boats searching for a body. I’m not really sure why they didn’t get everyone out of the lake and shut it down. It’s weird, right?
Preparation for the race was still in full swing though. The transition area was all set up, as was the finish line. We kind of got the lay of the land and realized that the race was still happening, so I better swim at least a little bit to get used to it.
There was a good bit of space on one end of the recreation area (the end close to the police boats), so we decided that would be a good place to practice since the real practice area (aka the whole entire lake) was closed.
Let me give you the short version of Heather Swimming in a Lake. It took a good five minutes for Andrew to convince me to put my feet in. I shook the whole time I followed him out until it was about thigh-deep, when he dove in and started swimming and encouraged me to do the same. It was like I had forgotten how to swim correctly. I was breathing hard, my heart was going nuts, and then I put my face underwater to try to find my stroke and, well, I lost it. Because as soon as I looked up, all I could see were the search boats. And the water was a disturbing shade of green and the bottom felt like I imagine the floor of hell probably feels like.
My goggles filled up with tears until I couldn’t see, and before I knew it I was sobbing hard and just trying to stay afloat. Poor Andrew, he kept saying, “Heather, you’ve got to swim, you’ve got to swim, you’ve got to calm down.” There’s nothing like a panic attack in the middle of a lake with your husband to bring you closer together.
In my typical fight-or-flight style, I made a beeline for the shore, crying the whole way and probably scaring all the children. We sat on our towels and my sweet husband gave me a very gentle pep talk. Long story short, I did get back in the water and I eventually remembered how to swim and even did it by myself for a little while so Andrew could watch and tell me how I was doing. But it wasn’t easy. In fact, it sucked.
After leaving, we googled the local news stations and read about the search for the man who had drowned while practicing, and it was all so awful. There were rumors of the swim portion of the race being cancelled, but that was about it.
We learned later that night around 9:30pm that the body had been recovered. David Finley, 43, was a Highway Patrol Sergeant from Missouri. According to news reports, other swimmers saw him struggling around 2:25pm and tried, unsuccessfully, to help him. It’s such a horrible tragedy. Married with two kids. It breaks my heart.
So with the news of that on our minds, we managed to get up the next morning at the crack of dawn and load up everything and drive to the park. I was so mentally psyched up, you can’t even imagine. I knew that if I could maintain that same mental state for at least the next four hours, I’d be ok. Lord Jesus just get me out of that lake ASAP.
We kept passing other cars with bikes headed away from the park, but I just thought maybe they needed more coffee or something. We pulled into the same entrance as before, only to be met by a U.S. Forest Service officer who told us, “The event has been cancelled due to a drowning, you will be contacted in the next week about being refunded.” The race director was standing behind him mouthing “Sorry,” and I could tell he probably had not had a wink of sleep.
We drove in silence for a few minutes until I asked Andrew if it was ok for me to be disappointed, since the reason for the cancellation was so terrible. We agreed that it was, and between the two of us we probably said, “Well dang it” at least twenty times on the way back. Because even though it was a sad situation and I felt guilty for being disappointed, that was our triathlon. We had trained for it, sacrificed for it, prepared for it. Andrew was just as nervous and hyped up as I was. And it wasn’t happening. But we were alive and ok, so we were grateful and said a prayer for the Finley family on that sad morning.
There wasn’t much we could do, except go to Cracker Barrel and eat breakfast. So that’s what we did. There was a guy there with his family wearing the triathlon t-shirt and I told Andrew it seemed a little hypocritical to me. I’m not sure if I’ll wear mine.
After the scary practice swim that Saturday, I found a little action figure buried in the grass on the way to the parking lot. It’s this muscled up dude flexing and wearing a Speedo. I think I am going to turn it into a Christmas ornament.
Since I’d trained and everything, it seemed like a bit of a waste to just not do something. We were already planning a trip to St. Louis for a wedding this Friday, and what do you know, they have a triathlon scheduled for Saturday morning. It’s a sprint, so the distances are shorter, which is probably a good thing (500 yd swim, 18 mi bike, 3 mi run). Even though it’s not the one I trained for, I’ll still be able to check it off the bucket list. And yes, the swim is in a lake.
…In memory of Sgt. David D. Finley…