In August of 1987, I was the very last person to complete the Chicago Triathlon in 4 hours and 51 minutes.
I hope reading the following account of the day’s events, which appeared in an issue of Big Beautiful Woman magazine inspires you to find the motivation to do everything in your life that you need to do to get healthy and more fit.
And if you’ve read this before, it’s time for a tune up.
Commit To Get Fit – do it for the health of it.
Do it for your life.
Going the Distance
One Full-Figured Woman’s account of her triumph
over a real triathlon,
and a few tremendous obstacles in her life.
One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself was to compete in, and complete, The 1987 Chicago Triathlon. I was the very last person to finish – with a time of 4 hours, 51 minutes; but the entire experience gave me incredible strength because I found out that the key to success in all things truly is mental.
On the day before the race, all the contestants had to report to a downtown Chicago hotel with our bikes, helmets and entrance forms in tow. I quickly learned how to maneuver a 10-speed bike up and down crowded escalators and into elevators with finesse and style.
Next came the race clinics, which gave tips to help us through the next day, but none of the anticipation and preliminary preparation even came close to actually doing the real thing – although every day for over a year I either swam or race-walked for a full hour, in preparation, so I thought I was more than ready.
5:30 a.m., race day: I reported in to be body-marked. With a waterproof black marker, they wrote my ID in three-inch high numbers that reached from my shoulder to well past my elbow. I was “2541” on both arms. Not to worry, they assured me – it would come off. My question was, when? I looked like a biker chic from hell.
From there, I proceeded to hang my bike, helmet, towel, Walkman (this is 1987, remember), sunscreen, shoes, shorts and lipstick (you know me), in an area at the end of the 1-mile swimming event at Olive Park, carefully taking note where I left it all so I could locate the spot quickly among the 3,999 other bikes already stored there.
On to Oak Street beach, with only a swim card, determination, and, oh, yeah, goggles, to keep my eyeballs from freezing right out of my head in the 59-degree water.
My triathlon suit was a stylish purple unitard – the kind you dance in. It wasn’t insulated like a Body Glove because at the time I didn’t realize I needed one, and they didn’t make them in my size, anyway. Oh, how I wish they did, because one of the most brutal experiences of the triathlon was the one-mile swim from Oak Street beach to Navy Pier in 59-degree water, bucking one-to-three foot waves. Yes . . . It took me an hour to swim the course, where I normally do a mile and a half in an hour in East Bank Club’s pool.
It was quite an inner conflict for me just making the mile walk to Oak Street Beach in that purple unitard. No towel to hide my butt behind, no shorts to camouflage my hips. What the hell, I told myself, if they don’t like how I look, that’s their problem. I strutted, head held high, trying not to look too scared. There were 3,999 hard-core triatheletes there, and not a flabby one in the bunch. I was the fattest person within a mile radius. Seriously.
The men were great; they all wished me luck and gave me encouragement galore. Thin women just stared; many were down right hostile. Others were in awe. And I confess to some enormous feelings of self-doubt along the way. Did I say, “some?!”
All of this nonsense was quickly forgotten as soon as I took the plunge. The freezing cold water blew my mind – it was beyond awful; I couldn’t draw a decent breath. I had to keep changing strokes to breathe and thought I was going to die in Lake Michigan’s frigid waters right then and there. The cold, the current, the waves, and everything going on inside my head . . . all the fear and frustration, drive and determination, and my anger at all those things, made me realize I had to complete this challenge. I couldn’t turn back even if I wanted to; I was in way too deep to quit.
Suddenly, I found myself fuming! My life as I knew it was in shambles, my marriage was disintegrating; my plus-size clothing design business was just getting off the ground, and a lot of people had made no bones about their expectations of my failure. If I wimped out now, how could I ever trust myself to tackle the other things in life that faced me? How could I be strong, take the type of rejection that comes with building a new company from scratch, the rejection that comes with just “putting it out there” every day. There was no way I would quit.
One hour and one mile later, I staggered out of the water, exhausted but exhilarated. I decided not to stress myself too much more, so I took my time getting to my bike and belongings. I’m built for comfort, not speed anyway. And while I might not be the fastest, I sure was steady and with one-third of the triathlon down, I had only two-thirds left to go.
The 25-mile bike ride was pretty tough in the blistering sun, 100% humidity and 98-degree heat, and I admit I thought about quitting a million times. I also could have cheated, like I saw some others do, by choosing to ride only half the course, but I figured that was no way to build character, so sweating bullets, zipping along on my bike, grinding my teeth, I took all my frustrations and anger out on LSD’s pavement, and I’m proud to say I finished that part of the course – my way – all 25 miles.
Imagine for a minute what it felt like riding along Chicago’s beautiful lakefront on a sweltering-hot summer day with half the traffic lanes on Lake Shore Drive blocked off in one direction for us triathletes and the other half bumper to bumper. Motorists and passengers alike must have wondered who this crazy-big woman in the purple unitard and black shorts was, cruising along on her bike like she didn’t have a care in the world – totally making their lives miserable.
I laughed and cried at the same time. Here I was, desolate because my marriage was over, yet delirious with joy because if I could complete this Herculean task set before me, I really felt that I could and would be able to do anything I put my mind to. Somehow this race had become the ultimate test of my guts.
The next thing I knew, I was parking my bike on lower Randolph Street under the Standard Oil building (1987) and starting on the 6.2 mile run, and that’s when I knew I had it licked. One woman who had already finished her run hissed, “Just starting your run?” It was then I realized I was the last one – the very last one.
“Here she comes folks, the last one…give her a hand!” “Way to go purple,” one guy yelled, thumbs up in the air. The volunteers sprayed me with water as I race-walked by, keeping time with the music on my Walkman. It wasn’t easy to keep going – but by then, it would have hurt too much to stop. Every muscle, every bone, every tendon ached and burned. All I could do was continue moving.
At about the halfway point, one of the workers said, “Just turn around here and save yourself a half mile, no one will know.”
“I didn’t come all this way to cheat,” I told her. “I’d know.” But, of course, she couldn’t understand. I needed to FINISH for complete Victory; I needed the accomplishment of knowing that I did the whole thing.
I asked one volunteer, as I passed, to call the Finish Line to make sure someone was there to record my time. I had paid my money and I wanted an official time. There were only about ten people left, taking down flags, putting things away for next year’s race, when I finally crossed the finish line; but the Official Timer was there to sign my race bib and record my time. It was like a Seal of Approval for me.
That day, I saw people who did the triathlon in relay teams of three – one for each event. Others, much thinner and more fit than I, dropped out right before my eyes along the way. But I finished. I went the distance. I made it all the way to the end, and I’ve never had such an exhilarating experience in my life.
I like to think I competed in that remarkable race for all the Large-Size Women out there who grew up like me, thinking we had some defect or some unacceptable flaw. What I proved by finishing, to myself, anyway, is that you don’t have to be thin, or a raving beauty to succeed in life. You must simply have the determination, the drive, and the dream to go the distance.
When this article was originally published in a 1988 issue of Big Beautiful Woman magazine, Laura Dion-Jones was one of the country’s first and top designers of fashions made exclusively for the Full-Figured Woman, and a formidable Plus-Size model in her own right.
She is now America’s Preeminent Pro-Health Activist, a successful motivational lifestyle writer and speaker with a longer, more comprehensive version of her current how-to, how-I-did-it motivational weight loss book, Commit To Get Fit: The Secret To True and Everlasting Weight Loss, due out in late November of 2009. Laura is also working on a documentary on obesity and has a screenplay, a semi-autobiographical book as well as other creative projects in development.
Still keeping her hand in design, she is one of the principal designers of Snob Hounds, a canine couture clothing company.