#AthlinksIgnited ambassador Alex Millstrom recently competed in the Boston Triathlon. She walks us through her mindset as the race is about to start, and how some mid-race adversity showed her that Triathlon is greater than the sum of its distances. 

There are three events that occur in my mind when lining up in the chute.

The first is sizing up the competition. Some will deny taking part, but I think we triathletes wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that innate tiny burning desire for rivalry and victory. I glanced over my age group – the first time this season NOT looking like a pod of orcas contoured in black neoprene. Anyone who has raced with me knows I’m a huge fan of non-wetsuit swims, but this time, no swim cap or goggles either. Mother nature threw us a curveball and the choppy Boston harbor called for a run-bike-run. I recognized many faces in my wave and tried to recall their performances from my two years of racing as if rewriting their Athlinks bios from memory. I also saw many new athletes and could only guess their strengths based on branded uniforms and ripped quads. With the last minute change and knowing that the run is always my strong suit, I was sure that the cards were in my favor that day.

The second thing that happens in the chute is reciting my race strategy – particularly, visualizing transitions. I formed a precise image in my mind of my equipment laid out by my assigned rack. With the swim cancelled, my recipe was slightly altered, but – as always – helmet on first. The rest of my strategy for the sprint that day was simple – hang with the front pack in the first run, pedal hard and fast, then send it in the 5K.

The third event that occurs in the chute is a rush of excitement. As I toe the line, I remember my passion for the sport and how much joy it brings to my life. I feel the anticipation of achieving more than I ever have before and even a touch of fear – the fear of crossing the finish line feeling like I could have done more. This internal fear is what makes me push each stroke just a little bit harder, pick up my knees just a little bit higher, and make the gap between me and the runner ahead just a little bit tighter. That day, I felt confident in my training, prepared to execute, and excited to prove it to my competition.

The beep sent us off on our 2K run from the beach. The quick start was blur, but, just as planned, I finished up the first leg in the third place spot. “Helmet, shoes, shades, go.” But when I arrived at my rack in T1 – no helmet. My eyes frantically scanned the rows while seconds ticked away on my Garmin. I watched the two front women chase each other out of T1, shortly followed by the rest of the athletes close behind me. As I dodged bikes and half-empty Gu packets, I spotted a man returning to the transition area after his Olympic distance race. In a moment of desperate boldness, I pleaded:

“Can I borrow your helmet to stay in the race?!”

The man looked unsure, but could sense my passion and hobbled as quickly as he could on post-race legs back to his rack. He handed me his helmet and we both paused to take a look into each other’s eyes. This moment made me realize that this race was no longer just for me. This stranger offered me the privilege to stay in the race and I owed him 100% effort in return. I took off out of T1 with the drive to earn this helmet and climb my way back to the top.

I learned from this race is that triathlon is bigger than the name suggests. For me, it’s not really about swimming, biking, or running at all. Triathlon is an outlet for me to challenge my limits, to feel the satisfaction of hard work, and to motivate my teammates, my competitors, and my audience to do the same. Ending the race was never a choice that crossed my mind. When unforeseen circumstances occur, it’s about quick, creative thinking, adaptation, and finding the extra gear to push harder than you thought you were capable. A soccer game does not end when your team concedes a goal. A gymnastics routine does not end when you fall off the beam. A triathlete’s season doesn’t end with a 4th place finish – and you better bet I’m going out harder than ever in my next race.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

In the wake of my collegiate track and field career at Bates College as a thrower, I wanted to get back on the road after graduation. I challenged myself in the summer of 2016 to race a 5k every weekend. During this constant pursuit of 3.1 miles, I found a local sprint distance triathlon and thought, “If I can survive the swim and bike, I get to run a 5k.” The literal and figurative dipping my toe in the water of triathlons sparked my newest endurance obsession. Weeks later, in my second triathlon, I qualified for the 2017 USAT Age Group National Championships.

To me, nothing is better than race day. Between working at a hospital and preparing for graduate school, I dedicate any free time to training for and competing in as many races as possible. I like to think of my goals as a tree that keeps growing the higher I climb. Some of my major branches to tackle include running my first half and full marathons this fall, knocking a minute off of my 5K time, improving my freestyle stroke, crushing some trail races, and (someday) becoming an Ironman.

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