If at first you don't succeed ... tri, tri, triathlon!

Want to learn humility? First, wear a bathing suit that makes your body look like your Italian grandmother's. Next, cram your bushy hair into a silver swim cap. And lastly, throw yourself into a lake in Middle-of-Nowhere, VA, and watch your sink-or-swim options quickly dwindle to sink.

By 'sink,' of course, I mean 'experience abject terror and panic that sucks the breath out of you and makes you doggy-paddle for dear life.' Because that's what happened to me in Lake Anna last weekend during my first sprint triathlon.

I went in quite confident, if I do say so myself. I had trained for two months with a real triathlete coaching me. My friends were there. The water was even warm. Perfect conditions for an easy-peasy lap around the lake, right?


Problem was, I hadn't yet done an open water swim. So I was not prepared for choppy water slapping my face, other participants kicking all around me, and awkward sight lines. Yet there it was -- sheer pandemonium -- forcing my body to pick fight or flight.

It chose flight. Which is hard when you're in the middle of a lake where you can't see or touch the bottom and yes-sweet-jesus-a-fish-just-jumped-next-to-my-head.

I tried to get into a rhythm, calm my breathing. I dropped to the back of the pack so I could have some space. Screw being a hero, I just didn't want to get pulled from the water.

(Side note: In this instance, my solid Catholic upbringing served me well, because a) I could immediately launch into a Rosary decade to beg for salvation; and b) the imagined shame of being the one sputtering loser propelled me toward the finish line as all other bodily functions shut down.)

After what seemed like 8 years, the first buoy passed on my right. But I was only a quarter of the way there and I was already exhausted. I felt like I hadn't even bothered training -- I couldn't alternate my head, count my strokes, nothing. Surely this was a recipe for drowning. I couldn't continue safely.

That's when I heard it. The unmistakable sound of cheers coming from the shore. A familiar voice -- no, two familiar voices shouting my name.

"Julia, you're doing great! You're right there with the group! Look at you go! You look awesome! Woooooo! Keep it up, keep it up!"

My roommates. My teammates. Above all the cheers and splashes and megaphones, they sounded like they were right there in the water with me. They were tossing me an emotional lifeline. So I grabbed it and held tight, pulling myself through the rest of the run.

If this were a sports movie, I would have grown gills and raced toward the finish line, submersing others in my wake. This is not a sports movie. I struggled nearly as much for the remaining 3/4 as I did for 1/4. I was so tense that I got a Charley horse and pulled a muscle in my neck. I swallowed so much water I was mistaken for a pink buoy.

There was one key difference on the last legs, though: I stopped doing it for me and did it for my teammates instead. We were in this together. I couldn't let them down.

And wouldn't you know, the breathing did get (a little) easier. The heartrate (sorta) stopped mimicking a hummingbird's. I (barely) made it back to the holding area. But I made it. In 19:38, no less -- that same amount I'd been swimming in the calm, clear, and lined pool.

So what have we learned from this ultimately petrifying edifying experience? Several things:

* It's not worth panicking. Have faith in your abilities and preparation, and take your time. Your 19:38 will be much more enjoyable.

* That said, don't shoot yourself in the flipper. Try an open water swim before you are expected to complete an open water swim.

* I have no desire to do a full triathlon on my own. However, I would love to improve in the swim and be an excellent teammate should my roommates ever want to do this again (hint, hint).

* Then again, betcha I could do a full one on my own, given the diversity of ages, shapes, and fitness levels among all the participants. If the 74-year-old man can do it, I hope I could too.

* Then again, who would want to go it alone? Having my buddies there turned the day from an event into a lifelong memory. I can't imagine having any fun without them at my side.

* I hate running. I didn't even have to do it. Jacob did. But I still hate it.

* Do not -- I repeat, do NOT -- drink coffee before a race. Bad news. Very bad.

* Coming in 12 out of 15 is perfection, really. We're not discouraged from trying again, and we have something to aim for. Plus, we're spared the embarrassment of muttering under our hand that we came in dead last.

* Without a doubt, my strengths are mental rather than physical. Exhibit A: the fine piece of copy that was our team name (Team Bump That Ass Up). When Sus went to sign us in, the volunteer gasped and said, "I've been waiting for you guys to show up! I wanted to meet you." True story. I can't make stuff like that up. Maybe I should just be a designated namer.

So there you have it. One tri down, untold millions to go. Not bad for a girl who falls on the treadmill. Now when are YOU going to tri one on for size?