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Turning 40, my goal was to complete a triathlon

Like unicorns and Victoria's Secret models, triathletes were always elusive, almost mythical creatures to me. Then I became one. Sort of.

It was a surprise to all who knew me, and certainly to me, when I announced my intention to complete a triathlon the year I turned 40. Never mind that, at 39, I wasn't particularly buoyant, didn't own a bike and had last run more than two kids and 20 pounds ago.

Physical fitness had never been my forte. If I'd applied myself in high-school physics with the same fervour that I faked cramps to get out of gym class, I'd be the head of NASA.

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I decided to train with a friend from work, and she brought in some women from her gym. I soon realized that, as a team, we were doomed: They frequently met for 30-kilometre bike rides in bad weather (I still didn't have a bike); they regularly bragged of doing a double cardio pump class prior to our swim practice (I didn't belong to a gym and was still swimming with a flutter board); and they obsessively watched live feed from the Tour de France (I devoured Pringles during The Bachelorette). The last straw was seeing them have the same reaction to power shakes that I had to cheesecake. It was clearly time for me to go solo.

I scoured bookstores looking for the perfect training guide, passing quickly over covers with terrifyingly sculpted bodies until I found Jayne Williams's Slow, Fat Triathlete. It was the perfect how-to guide for normal people, offering such insightful chapters as Losing Your Tri Virginity and reassuring me that I would do just fine on my borrowed mountain bike. With less than two months until my race, I finally began to train in earnest.

The running came back to me easily. I wasn't the fastest runner out there (I referred to it as the old-man-going-to-the-bathroom-in-the-middle-of-the-night shuffle), but with the right music and my sassy new shoes, I could go forever (the real lure for the triathlete is, I believe, going shopping for racing gear).

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Cycling was trickier. No matter where or how hard I trained, I was bombarded with calls of "on your left" as people of all ages, shapes and bikes zoomed past me. It didn't help that I'd fallen off the stupid thing the first three times I rode it (once, memorably, while at a standstill).

I knew the most challenging part of the race would be the swim. Aside from occasional trips to the YMCA's waist-deep paddle pool with my kids, I didn't particularly enjoy the water. I certainly wasn't comfortable swimming in it for any length of time. Someone suggested a wetsuit might help, but after renting one for a tryout I determined that any benefit gained from buoyancy would be negated by the 20 minutes required to take the suit off.

I was getting discouraged and starting to panic. At best, I was barely competent in one of the three disciplines. At worst, I could die on the course from ineptitude and lack of preparation. Also, the only racing swimsuit I could find made me look like a Jimmy Dean sausage.

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But then something incredible happened. Something that altered the entire experience for me. I took private lessons from my son's swimming coach. Nicole was a nationally ranked swimmer and hard-core competitor who had done triathlons since high school. Not only did she teach me about strokes and breathing, she taught me how to race.

My whole game plan changed. I was no longer content to start at the back of the pack, hoping to simply get through the swim (nay, the entire race). I was now in it to win it.

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The day before the race, I took my mountain bike in for a tune-up and made an important discovery - I had been riding on semi-flat tires with the seat tilted at an ergonomically painful angle. The technician promised that my ride the next day would be faster and more comfortable than I could ever imagine (unfortunately, that was still a fairly low bar).

I was up before dawn on race day, having slept poorly for fear my alarm clock wouldn't be reliable, and set out in the darkness. I met my friend and her training buddies at the site where we set up our gear, collected our race numbers and had our bodies marked.

Seeing the large buoys in the lake marking our distance, I started to adjust my strategy, thinking that just finishing the race, maybe without coming in last place, would be an admirable goal.

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Before I could back out entirely, we were told to approach the shoreline, where we would start in staggered groups. The crowd shouted the countdown and I wondered if barfing in the lake would disqualify me.

The race itself was a blur. I alternated between euphoria (hollering "on your left" 26 times), despair (hyperventilating five seconds into the swim) and relief (finishing puke-free).

Huddled around the results board afterward, I gaped in amazement: not only had I placed 37th out of 172 female competitors of all ages, but my old-man shuffle had beaten my friend and her über-athletic training partners.

I realize now that doing a triathlon was about more than the actual event. I'm capable of much more than anyone predicted, I haven't been in such good shape since Mork & Mindy went off the air and I now swim for the fun of it.

The chances of me riding a unicorn down a Victoria's Secret runway are more plausible than ever doing an Ironman, but triathlons are definitely in my future. Along with all the cool race stuff that goes with them.

Lori Simeunovic lives in Oakville, Ont.

Illustration by Tara Hardy.

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