I turn 35 this week and feel the weight of the number, a number heavy with all I haven't accomplished: a baby, a book published, a home with a yard. I find a scattering of white hairs near my part and a white eyebrow. Seriously. A white eye brow.
I sign up for an Olympic-distance triathlon that weekend: 1500 meter swim, 40 K bike, 10 K run. I stand in queue before the swim start with women in the 35-39 age group. I compare my body to theirs, how my waist, arms, and legs squeeze into this neoprene wetsuit and try to guess their stories, mother of three? Lawyer? Personal trainer? They surround me, all the lives I might have if I'd chosen to live differently, married, not married, life in the city or the country, run a little more, not finished that whole tub of ice cream the other night.
We count down to the start together and then plunge into the water, thrashing about until the strong swimmers stretch ahead and those of us who spend only a couple days a week in the pool lag behind. I am in the back half and struggle to find breath, struggle to keep going toward the buoys that look so far away. I breathe and pull and try to imagine I'm in a heated pool instead of this cold lake with no lanes or edges. I swim; pull, breath, pull, breath, stretch and make myself slippery through the water. Forty minutes later I emerge on the shore and jog up the boat ramp to the transition.
The bike leg starts with a short, steep hill and it's there, climbing up that slow grade that the ages of my competitors are revealed to me. I'm not sure why this has become part of triathlon culture but not only is your race number drawn onto your arms and legs in permanent marker before the start, but your age is as well, on your left calf, so as you pass people or as they pass you, you can see this number, this age.
I smile to myself as I pass the 27-year-old. I don't feel too bad when the 31-year-old flies by on her bike. Hey, who knows what she'll be able to do in four years. At the top of the hill a 54-year-old charges past and I hope to I'll be able to do that someday, but honestly, probably not. I can't even do it at 35.
I fly through the rolling hills of the 26 mile out and back bike course and pass more bikes than pass me and in my completely unscientific calculations, I'm doing great for my age.
After the ride it's time for the long slog of a 6-mile run. I continue to check the legs of my competitors, study the numbers and the bodies of the walkers and runners all around me. My legs feel heavy. Maybe it's from pushing too hard on the bike or maybe I just didn't train hard enough for the run, or maybe I'm just getting old.
A 38-year-old passes me, her long, lean legs strong up the path and she disappears around the corner. I curse my legs for not following her, for not carrying all of my five-foot-one frame up another hill, but my muscles have nothing left. I convince myself that surely that 38-year-old woman doesn't eat ice cream. She isn't still carrying the weight of a miscarriage. She is so much taller than me. That's why I can't keep up.
I pump my arms; urge my legs on. I pass a few walkers, (32 and 28), but come on, age is just a number. I've been telling myself that for years. I still get carded sometimes. I look way younger than my 35-years.
But age does matter. I've been paying attention to the numbers on my leg and on the legs of my competitors my whole life. When that number was still in single digits I watched gymnasts and figure skaters in the Olympics and thought, it's not too late for me. I could do that with my life. I could become an Olympian. When it was too late for my Olympic dreams, when I was too old to become the next Mary Lou Retton, I blamed my parents. If they had put me in gymnastics, or tennis or made me keep swimming my life would be so different. If I didn't have Olympians to measure up to I compared my accomplishments to the barometer of my older brothers and sister. What had they done by my age? Was I ahead of their curve or behind?
I pick up my pace at the 5 mile mark and pass a 37-year-old woman. No one else will pass me, well, no one older than me will. But a 41-year-old flies by and there is nothing I can do but keep pressing on, at my pace.
I cruise down a last, long hill to the finish line 3 hours and 35 minutes after I started. The comparisons of the day fade away as I walk toward my friends and family, 35-years-old, carrying a bit too much around the waist and hips on this course, but still, 3:35 feels like a good time for me.