I don’t have a profound memory of my first triathlon other than one of my co-workers suggested I consider doing it with him for fun. So without any training, I woke up two weeks later before the sun came up, grabbed my mountain bike, some old running shoes, some shorts, a long-sleeved cotton shirt and I put my swim suit on to make my way to the race start. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew how to swim (well enough). I knew I could ride a bike (best with a banana seat). I was fairly confident I could simulate a run/walk motion. What I didn’t know, was how the heck to do all three in one day. Immediately. After. The. Other. I stared at everyone setting up in transition and thought, “Why am I here?”. I watched the other athletes set up their space and tried to mimic what they were doing and then suddenly I was following the herd to the edge of the lake. I remember getting in the water, and at some point I obviously got out. I remember being on the bike and even saw my coworker on the course. I successfully returned to the park and managed to run and finish the race. I can’t remember the actual finish. I don’t remember it having any significant feelings of gratification or a finish that resonated with me. That was my first triathlon experience. My second one was the one that made me consider doing it more often. It too, was a sprint, but this one was different, this time my brother, Adrian, who was enlisted in the Army, was home visiting and planned to come out to watch and cheer me on. This was so significant for me because I was not known as the athletic one. I had grown quite comfortable with being his spectator. He was a wrestler, a soccer player, a baseball player, a football player…you name the sport and he could do it. I tried playing basketball in elementary school and junior high. My father affectionately started calling me “his little Clydesdale”, so you can see who was clearly the athlete in the family.
This race I was more prepared. I learned to ask more questions. I didn’t feel as awkward when it came to the transition. I even trained some.
This time when I came out of the water I could hear my brother yelling my name. He ran alongside the chute to see me go into transition. He patiently waited for me to come out with my bike and even ran along for a while until I got up to speed, all the while yelling my name. When I came in off of the bike, he was already pacing the course waiting for me. He was ready to run the 3 miles with me and was visibly frustrated when the officials told him he couldn’t. I remember telling him I would be fine and I’d see him at the finish. He relaxed and indeed, his cheers and excitement were waiting at the finishline for me. His smiles and hugs were all I needed to know that he was proud of me for my athletic accomplishment. A year later, I would do the same race during his first deployment to Iraq where he managed to find a way to call my mom to cheer me on from a desert setting and it was equally emotional and motivating.
Fast forward three years to 2006. I sort of stopped doing triathlons, not because I didn’t like them, I just didn’t seek them out. I had a gym membership and occasionally I would use it. My brother had just graduated from school at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina and was now a part of the elite Special Forces community. Once again, he was excelling in athleticism and endurance and I was so proud of him and even more so to watch him walk across the stage to accept his coveted Green Beret. After graduating, he recieved his orders to move to Washington and would be stationed out of Joint Base Lewis McChord. He moved in with me and for a year we were roommates. Even though I was dating my now husband, Adrian and I reserved Tuesday evenings as “our time” to have dinner, hang out, and catch up and discuss his upcoming second deployment to Iraq. We had always been close growing up and we remained each other’s best friends as adults.
On March 4th of 2007, Adrian and I hugged as he prepped for his second deployment to Iraq. I cried only a little as I needed to appear stronger than I felt since I am the big sister. We hugged more and tossed sarcastic jokes around until one of his teammates came to pick him up from our home. I hugged each of them once again, told them both to be safe and to take care. I stood at the porch with as much composure I could muster and watched the vehicle pull out of the neighborhood. That was the last time I got to hug my only sibling. On Sunday, August 19th 2007, he called me just to chat and I heard him tell me “Love you Sister” for the final time. Four days later on August 23rd, we received notification that my brother SFC Adrian Elizalde, and his teammate SFC Michael Tully, were both killed in action when an IED struck their vehicle while they were out on a mission.
Shattered. Broken. Paralyzed. Numb. Those emotions and more consumed me for the next two years. I navigated each day through a fog and found I was lost so deeply in grief that the “normal” day to day functions had to be scripted because deviating was debilitating. Somehow in 2009, I found the courage to go back to the sprint triathlon that my brother had been present for. I found, yet again, another cotton shirt to wear for the bike and run (clearly I still didn’t understand wicking fabrics). This time I had it personalized to have both Adrian and Mike’s pictures on the back to “push me” through the course. I finished that race and felt a sense of elation, a moment of peace and genuine happiness start to warm its way back into my heart. I found myself feeling not so heavy again for the first time in two years and decided I needed to continue to find ways to remember and celebrate the athleticism that my brother modeled. I went on to sign up for my first half marathon and that brought on a whole new bag of feelings. I got halfway through and my feet hurt, my body hurt, my lungs felt like they would burst out of my chest. The only way back to where I started was to either continue or turn around and go back the way I came. Quitting wasn’t an option and I had already gone halfway. I discovered that these races were essentially becoming a direct reflection of how I was navigating through my new life. I hurt, I often struggled to breathe, but I could get halfway and still keep going because quitting wasn’t an option in life either.
In 2010, our family was contacted by a group of gentlemen that had served with my brother and Mike as well as two other individuals that were killed during the same deployment. They asked for permission to form a team and race a 70.3 distance to honor all four of the boys all the while, raising money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which would provide college scholarships for the 6 children that were left behind as well as other children who had lost a parent while serving on a special operations team. Our families decided to fly out to Virginia to watch and cheer them on. As I watched them enter the water and start the race, I remember thinking, “Wow, 1.2 miles is so far. I don’t think I could ever do that.” As soon as that thought was complete, I think a deeper part of me knew that I was going to do it.
When Adrian died, I was immediately and violently stripped of my identity. I was no longer the big sister. I was now an only child. The other part of my DNA was absent to share with, laugh with, and to discuss what our futures held not only for us, but for our parents. I was alone. In 2011, one of the teammates called me and invited me to join the racing mission. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to be a part of their great cause. In this new world where my brother was removed from my life, I was suddenly granted a tribe of brothers that were ferociously protective, undeniably supportive, and relentless with humor, jokes and yes, even sarcasm…everything that I was missing and so desperately needed. This team nurtured my reason to tri and try.
Since that phone call, I have gone on to do a few Olympic distances, (7) 70.3 distances and on September 24th of this year, I completed my first Ironman in Chattanooga, TN. I’ve finally learned the benefits of wicking materials. I’m not fast. I still get a little nervous on the bike and it takes me a few rides at the start of the season to work those nerves out. I’m not terribly efficient when I run (picture the game whack-a-mole with my feet). What I am though, is an athlete that races with heart. I smile when I’m on the course. I thank my volunteers and police officers for their time. I talk to other athletes during the race to either give strength or get strength. I pass out sweaty hugs or sticky high-fives. I “tri” because I have an able body and all of my limbs. I “tri” because my lungs have air in them and my heart beats with life to live. I “tri” because as long as I can put one arm over the other to swim, or pedal each rotation to bike, or put one foot in front of the other to run…I will breathe life back into my Adrian’s legacy as an athlete, as a soldier, as a son, and as my brother. When I cross the finish-line, I’m never alone. His voice is in my ear, his presence is felt and we finish together. I “tri” for SFC Adrian Elizalde.
Raise the Bar
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