Forge Triathlon

At this point, we’d already been through a tornado + severe thunderstorm warning. Triathlon? No prob!

by Pam Fickenscher

On Saturday, July 23, a group of about 20 mother runners from around the country gathered at The Forge Off Road Triathlon in Lemont, IL for the culmination of their 12-week Race Like a Mother Sprint Triathlon program. Triathletes often say that nutrition is the fourth element in their swim/bike/run event, but in this adventure of a race, Mother Nature definitely was #4.

When I—Dimity—arrived home on Saturday evening, I found this post by Pam (in middle front row in royal blue) in my inbox, and had to share. She captured both the race—and all the unknowns both before and during—perfectly. Enjoy.

Every time I sign up for a race, there’s that mix of excitement and fear. I’m so excited to have something on the calendar, a goal and a reason to structure my workouts.

And there’s also the fear of all the things that could get in the way. Most of the possible speed bumps are ones we all share: injuries, life stresses, and, oh yeah, Covid. For me, there’s the additional wrinkle that I’m the senior minister of a large church, so I work most weekends. Choosing a race (almost always a Saturday) and scheduling to be there (hardly ever far from home) isn’t easy.

When I signed up for Race Like a Mother training group that Another Mother Runner was putting together, it felt almost perfect. I’ve had some nagging pains with running, so the cross training was right for me now. I’ve always wanted to do a tri, but the swim intimidated me, and this program and this race seemed designed to get me through that. My colleague at work was going on sabbatical, but I’d have the bulk of training done before he left, and the race was only two weeks into that 3-month time when I’d be working solo.

For the most part, I was right. Training went well. The plan was just the right amount of challenge. I even managed to dodge Covid when both my husband and daughter got it in June. Whenever someone asked me if I felt prepared for either the sabbatical or for the tri, I just answered, “I feel really well prepared; it’s just the things I can’t expect that could get in the way.”


Pam (right) + Stephanie. “Are you ready to give it a tri?” (Heh.)

Race day minus 3 days: I have a full couple work days planned to wrap things up before I hit the road to Chicago.  I’m feeling pretty relaxed in my office, checking things off my list, when one of my staff members comes racing in. She lives across the street, and had just found her husband, age 52, dead. The details are not mine to share here, but suffice to say my to-do list evaporated in that moment and I was reminded why, as a minister, my work is never really about a to-do list. I spent the rest of the day with her and her family, and sharing the news with the rest of our staff, and reconciling myself to the fact that I might not race on Saturday after all.

Race day minus 2 days:  The original plan was to start my drive to Chicago late in the day, stay in Madison and then complete the trip. My 20-year-old daughter was going to meet me after the race so I’d be able to get home Saturday without driving the whole eight hours alone. Thursday morning I figured I’d just see how the day went, and if my presence was still essential, I would stay home.  By mid-afternoon so many people had stepped into the breach, and the community was doing such an amazing job responding, that I thought I could probably still go, as long as I carved out space to respond to calls and emails along the drive.

And then, literally as I got in the car to go home and do my final pack, a different member of the church called with the news that his spouse was being airlifted to Mayo Clinic for emergency heart surgery.

Forge Triathlon

Cece happily—and finally—setting up transition.

Deep breaths. Mayo Clinic is along my drive to Chicago. I can stop and see them in the hospital on my way there, or on my way home.  Maybe I can still go to this race without abandoning my duties.

So I did. I hit the road, stopped frequently to answer calls and emails, and made it to Madison, and then to our hotel in Bolingbrook. I met the amazing tribe of mother runners from all over the country, many of us doing our first triathlons. Some of them felt like old acquaintances since we’d been posting on Facebook for 12 weeks beforehand.

Forge Triathlon

Swim. Check and check.

Race Day minus one: At dinner, Coach Liz asked us, “What’s your biggest fear?”  I answered that before the plan it would have been the swim, but now my main worry was the weather.  We were all checking our weather apps furiously, but race directors, coaches, and, well, triathletes must be optimists by nature. Everyone agreed that rain wouldn’t be the end of the world, and the storms seemed likely to blow over by morning.

Race Day: At 4:30 a.m., as I drove to the The Forge, lightning was in the dark sky. Racking our bikes, the Midwesterners among us agreed that the heavy humidity felt exactly like what you get before a severe thunderstorm. Sure enough, by 5:30 we were all huddling in our cars, watching the radar and wondering if that was hail we were hearing amidst the pounding rain. Then came the tornado warning. Everyone was directed to shelter in their cars until at least 6:30

By the time the rain let up, we all needed to pee. We emerged from the port-a-potties to the news that the race was postponed at least until 7:30, more likely later. But by 8:00 a.m., we were lining up in our AMR wave, looking at cloudy skies and appreciating the fresher temperature. Maybe this would turn out to be the perfect conditions after all.

Even the elite wave was playful as we entered the water – many entered with cannonballs and everyone cheered. We were actually doing this!

I was so happy to simply complete my first tri. The swim went better than I’d hoped; it started pouring during the bike, but that just make me feel badass; and the last half mile of the run was a mudslide through mountain bike trails. I just had to laugh – and also run faster because the thunder and lightning were back.

Forge Triathlon

Pam slaying the bike.

I did finish, but I also felt for my colleagues who were pulled of the course for safety reasons as a second wave of storms came through. On the drive home with my daughter, we dodged more thunderstorms and watched dramatic skies change before us as the sun went down. The day that started at 4 a.m. with lightning ended the same way. But at the end of the day, I was officially a triathlete.

Forge Triathlon

Somehow, as I settled into sleep and prepared to go back to being with my grieving community on Sunday morning, a firefly snuck into the bedroom. This has never happened before.

But its presence felt like a little continuation of an electric day at the end of a tumultuous week, a reminder that you never know what will happen on any given day, but at the end of it, you hope you did the best with what you were given.