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The Push

When a triathlete feels her energy waning in the middle of the Half Ironman competition, a heavenly push gets her across the finish line.

Heavenly angel helps triathlete

Sports have been part of my life ever since I was a little girl in Gloversville, New York. I was in the pool at the Y every chance I got. I begged my parents for a bike like the big kids, but I was five and had to start with training wheels. It was a great day when Daddy took those wheels off. “Here you go,” he said. He gave me a big push on my back. His hands were gentle, but strong. 

I knew he believed I could do it. There I was, holding on, holding on, wobbling on my bike—and then I was riding steady all on my own! 

That push was only the beginning for me. From then on I enjoyed testing my limits. I felt it when I dove into the pool, and when I rode my new 10-speed as fast as I could go. I did my best in school too, and graduated from college in Plattsburgh. But what was my challenge now? I wondered. I hoped my guardian angel would guide me. 

I picked the University of South Florida in Tampa, earned a master’s degree in library science and got a job. At 23, my life seemed balanced. I found a welcoming church, and took advantage of all Florida had to offer outdoors. I was either in the water, or running or biking up and down the shore. Testing my limits. I felt my guardian angel behind me, just like Daddy had been all those years ago, ready to catch me if I wobbled or give me a push if I needed it.

Joining a running club introduced me to people who liked what I liked. That’s where I heard about triathlons, the competition that combines swimming, biking and running in consecutive order. The most famous is the Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. “Too much for me,” I said to a friend at the club one day. 

“Why don’t you try a shorter race?” she said. “Start small.” Like with those training wheels! I thought. It was just the push I needed. I entered a sprint distance event: quarter-mile swim, 10-mile bike ride and three-mile run. With my friends cheering me on, the race was a breeze!

I did lots of biking, running and swimming over the next 20 years. My runner’s club became even more important to me. When my energy flagged, the guys were there to encourage me to keep going. We clocked a lot of time—and many more miles—together. My now-old bicycle and I participated in several short triathlons.

In 2002 a Half Ironman was announced for nearby Panama City. As the name implied, it was half the distance of the famous competition. A runner handed me a flyer. “Sign up, Claire,” she said. I was 46 years old. “You can do it,” she insisted. 

Maybe if I train enough. Maybe if I put my mind to it. The problem with the Half Ironman was the cut-off times. You had to be out of the water, off the bike and finished with the whole race within certain time limits. I got really serious about my training. I started biking 25 to 60 miles, three days a week. I ran several miles three times a week, and swam every couple of days. More hours of training than I’d ever put in before. I had no time for anything else besides my job. Everything went by the wayside. Even church. I relied on my runner’s club when I needed a push. 

Three of us from the club drove to Panama City on the night before the race. The starting gun would go off at 7 a.m. “I don’t know what I’d do without you girls,” I said before turning in. 

The next morning hundreds of athletes lined up by the seashore. Young, old, men and women from everywhere. We started in waves, five minutes apart. My friends would be nowhere in sight once we started. “See you at the finish line!” we promised each other before we separated for the swimming race. When it was my turn I jumped in the water and completed the 1.2-mile swim within the time limit. It took longer than I expected, but I sighed with relief. One part of the race is over.

My bike was waiting for me at the starting line, put there by the race crew the night before. It seemed especially heavy after my swim. It was especially heavy, compared to some of the newer models. But I was determined. 

“All 56 miles and no stopping,” I told myself. I’d make those cut-off times. The course wove through the city and then out into the country. People waved us on along the way. I was heady with excitement. The race! I was in the race!

After about 15 miles we rode up on an overpass, down the other side and then onto a long, straight road. Athletes passed me, but I was making progress. I glanced back and saw lots of people still behind me. I wished my friends were with me to encourage me on, but during a race you’re on your own. Keep it up, I told myself.

I followed the markers for the course, and finally we turned and headed back. We came to the overpass we’d crossed earlier. I went over it and down the other side. But this time it was harder to pedal. What’s wrong? I had no strength. I felt sick. My hands and feet were numb. I’m going to pass out. My bike seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. I stopped pedaling and coasted.

Athletes rode by me, and before long I was totally alone. I still had 15 miles to go, and then the 13-mile run. How could I make it? I can’t finish. All my effort. All my training. I’d tested my limits, and I’d lost. How I wished someone could give me the push I needed. But my friends were out of sight. The club, my training—what else did I have to rely on? It had been too long since I’d let my faith guide me. God, I thought shyly. Guardian angel? Are you still with me? 

Seconds passed. I felt better. I was stunned. Had my prayer been answered so quickly? I pedaled faster. But I still needed strength. Out of nowhere I felt hands touch my back, pushing me, urging me on. The touch was gentle but strong. Just like my dad giving me a push on my bike so many years ago. He had believed in me then. God believed in me now! I will finish this race!

For the rest of the ride I thought of nothing else but the angel’s touch. I had new energy when I started the 13-mile run. It was extremely hot, but it didn’t slow me down. The course wound through the city and then out along the shore, past sea grass and sand dunes. We reached a beachfront park. People handed us oranges and ice water. Everyone cheered. I completed the race in seven hours and 45 minutes—well under the cut-off times for each event. Friends, training, guardian angels—that’s the winning trio for this triathlete.

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