Because of the procedure I was forced to take a few days off from training for the New York City Marathon, and while it was only for three days, it seemed like a week. Earlier this summer I decided to start training for my first triathlon. Primarily it was a way for me to break up my sixteen weeks of marathon training and give my joints and back a rest from pounding the pavement. In the last year I've run over a thousand miles, mostly along the frost heaved rutty roads of Southern Maine. For the past four years as I’ve been charting my long Sunday runs in early September, leading up to half marathons and my first marathon, I’ve always noticed a local triathlon in progress. As I’m slowly pacing myself during the many hours of a training run, bikers zoom by me and I’m so jealous of their speed, and envy their lean bodies framed by their colorful outfits. Who wouldn’t want to try a tri?
Being new to triathlons, I didn’t understand or see it as one sport, rather I thought of it as three separate events. They’re not. The sprint-tri I was planning on participating in has a quarter mile swim, fifteen-mile bike ride, and then a 5k run. The first time I attempted to jump off my well-used all-purpose mountain bike after a long ride and start running, was laughable. I felt like I was made of tin and had rusted solid. It was not what I expected and couldn’t imagine running three miles. Then there’s swimming. It’s been a few years, twelve I think, since I swam laps with any regularity, trying to escape the sweltering summer heat in the outdoor pool at the Kemp Mill Swim Center in Silver Spring Maryland. There’s pool swimming and there’s open water ocean swimming. They’re not the same. While there’s the whole temperature distinction, pool temperatures are usually around eighty degrees and the ocean temperatures here in Maine average around sixty degrees in the summer, there are other striking differences too, like seaweed, fish, waves, paddle boards, boats, other unidentified debris, and sharks, so I’ve heard.
I started to swim for short amounts of time, early in the morning or in the evening, there are usually less people on the beach and I feel less self conscious wading into the Atlantic in my athletic two-piece suit and goggles. The first few weeks were difficult. It was challenging trying to find a rhythm that worked for me. For someone so used to being grounded and breathing like a runner, I had to work to find a comfortable approach to breathing; was it every stroke or every other? My head needs to turn just enough to avoid get splashed by a wave, I need to exhale underwater, and float-on with the swells that raised and lowered my body like a buoy. I was getting the hang of it.
That was until I went swimming without checking the water temperature before hand. I should have heeded the warning from the wearing vacationer leaving the beach that afternoon. How’s the water? I asked, noticing his disheveled hair and damp trunks as we passed alongside each other on the narrow path to the beach. He shivered, “it’s c-c-cold!” Arrogant, like a Mainer, I discarded his warning along with my sweatshirt and shorts and went swimming anyway. The water was cold, I remember, but I usually get acclimated. The sun was setting and the wind was whipping up the surf a bit. Goose Rocks Beach is unique for Maine’s rocky coast. It’s over two miles from end to end, with soft white sand that sings when you your feet walk over it. Because the beach is at an angle, you can watch the sunrise and sunset from one of the beach to the other.
I was in the water for about fifteen minutes when I noticed I hadn’t acclimated to the chilly temperatures, in fact my chest and head were teetering on the edge of a permanent brain-freeze. Persistent, or stupid, I soldered on. It wasn’t a pleasant swim. A few minutes later I emerged from the ocean and looked up and the down beach, and realized I was the only in the water. I headed to my bag and wrapped myself in the pastel stripped towel like it was the dead of winter. Oblivious to my trembling body, the people around me were faced towards the warm setting sun still wearing next to nothing. I started to shiver uncontrollably and noticed my skin was covered in goose bumps. That’s funny I thought, goose bumps on Goose Rocks Beach. I sat down on the sand and tried to sip some water, but my newly cleaned teeth were chattering like a nervous skeleton and very little made in past my cold lavender lips.
Slowly I warmed up enough to ride the three miles home on my bike, even stopping to pick up a few pounds of muscles from our friend’s roadside shop for dinner, as my roommate requested. Online I looked up water temperatures for coastal Maine and the data was not surprising. All summer the water has been consistently in the low sixties, but for some reason that afternoon, they dropped at least ten degrees. Hypothermia is the condition in which a person’s core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal body functions and being submerged in fifty-degree water for nine minutes can make a person incapacitated and/or unconsciousness without a life jacket. I guess I should get a wetsuit.
The next evening I returned to the very same beach, but not to swim. I was over-dressed for the warm summer evening and removed a few layers of clothing as a made myself comfortable in my aluminum folding chair which I pointed in the direction of the setting sun. With a drink resting on the arm of the chair and a zip lock bags of Cheez-Its on my lap, I turn my attention to the final pages of the book I’ve been sporadically reading for the past few weeks. Every time I’ve picked up this miraculous novel I’m overwhelmed with emotion and can only handle a little at a time. Jeanette Winterson’s haunting biography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, had been recommended to me at a writers workshop I attended earlier in the summer and I had been visiting her story in small bits each day. Her story is at the same time arresting and honest, but also bravely poetic. Born in Manchester England and raised my her adoptive Pentecostal parents, the author reads and writes her way through a journey that is filled with loneliness, survival, secrets, religion, sex, frustration, and unforeseen discoveries about her own identity.
This week marks the first birthday of Girl Afraid, the blog I started last August about what its like to live as a transgender woman in Maine. There have been over forty posts and nearly seven thousand views since it’s inception, including 171 from Latvia, thank you for reading wherever you are. I guess being unemployed has its benefits. While I’ve been out of work for just over a year and that has challenged my sense of self, as well as my bank account, I also celebrated my two-year anniversary on hormones and that feels wonderful. Everyday is like a new beginning. In the penultimate chapter of Why Be Happy …, the author touched a nerve by questioning her own identity and her place in this world as she searched for her birth mother. “I’ve tried to make a home for myself, but I’ve never felt home in myself. I’ve worked hard at being the hero my own life…but didn’t know how to belong.” Where does that leave me? For now, the water is cold and my bed is warm, but I’m still looking for the girl in the mirror.