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Restored Fitness Leads to Renewed Faith

What did her husband find so compelling about triathlons? She thought she'd never know.

Linda Nollette

My eyes darted from my watch to the clock on the website that was up on my computer screen. Why was I so anxious? All I had to do was register my husband for a triathlon he wanted to race in, the Ironman Wisconsin. 

Jeff was away on a backpacking trip with some buddies so he couldn’t do it himself. You had to sign up for Ironman triathlons exactly one year in advance and they always sold out in minutes.

“Really?” I said when Jeff asked me to sign him up. People were that eager to punish their bodies by swimming 2.4 miles, bicycling 112 miles and then running a 26.2-mile marathon—all in the same day? “Yep,” said Jeff.

Maybe I was anxious because even though I knew I should be proud of Jeff, I was sick of these triathlons. It seemed like all Jeff ever did was train, go to work (yes, I knew he had a demanding job) then train some more. Why couldn’t he…

Ouch! I grabbed my right knee. It was swelling again. So were my elbows and knuckles. I gingerly flexed my hands and winced. That’s why I was anxious. Two years earlier I’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

“It’s likely you’ll have episodes of joint pain, swelling and exhaustion for the rest of your life,” my doctor said.

No kidding. I was in my forties and my RA could come on with a vengeance and make me feel twice my age. I glanced down at my body. I looked nothing like Jeff, who was totally trim and toned.

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Even before my diagnosis, my definition of exercise had been walking to the snack bar at our kids’ games or swim meets. I was a stay-at-home mom in size-12 sweats.

And I was jealous of my husband, resentful that his body could do whatever he wanted it to, even compete in one of these grueling triathlons—for fun!

The clock on the website counted down the minutes until registration opened. When was the last time I’d been in a race? Way back in high school, when I was on the swim team.

Our teenagers, Bethany, Tyler and Zach, had been athletes practically from the moment they could walk. That was something they shared with their dad. Not me. I felt left out. Jeff’s triathlons didn’t make me proud of what he could do so much as make me feel inadequate about my own limitations.

Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about something weird that had happened to me just last night. I’d been praying, asking God to help me with my conflicted feelings about this triathlon.

I remembered Jeff’s last Ironman. My girlfriend Kim and I had tagged along with our husbands. We stood watching them at the starting line. Suddenly I felt Kim staring at me. “You’re going to do one of these someday, Linda,” she said with a grin. “I can tell by that look in your eyes.”

I laughed out loud. “Are you crazy?” I said. “I got out of breath just walking here from the hotel. I’m excited for Jeff, that’s all.”

But Kim did hit on something: That race got to me. I’d thought triathlons were a guy thing. But I noticed lots of women in race gear. Everyone looked so happy—radiant, even. The air at that starting line was electric. I couldn’t help getting charged up myself. For what, I wasn’t sure.

Then, last night, right in the middle of my prayers, an even stranger feeling came over me. I couldn’t put it into words. It was more like a glimpse—of me, doing something totally unexpected.

The vision filled me with excitement. And the next instant it filled me with anxiety. The anxiety was still with me when I woke up.

Now I watched the registration clock count down, my anxiety building. Five, four, three, two, one. Quickly I clicked the “Sign Up” button and filled in Jeff’s information. Whew, these triathlons were expensive! And no refunds if you dropped out. I hit “Send” and waited. Success! Jeff was in.

I stared at the screen. Holding the mouse made my knuckles ache but I didn’t let go. I moved the cursor over the “Sign Up” button and clicked. A new entry form appeared. “Linda Nollette,” I typed next to the words “Race Participant.”

I filled out the rest of my information. I typed in my credit card info. I paused. And then, before I could talk myself out of it, I hit “Send.”

A message popped up on my screen. “Congratulations, Linda! You’re signed up for next year’s Ironman Wisconsin in the beautiful city of Madison.”

Whatever trance I was in, I snapped right out of it. “Holy moly!” I shouted. I leaped up from my chair—and grabbed my knee. Ouch! I sank back into my seat. Had I really just signed up my overweight, out-of-shape, pain-ridden self to race an Ironman triathlon?

I didn’t even own running shoes! I tried to remember where my bike was—oh, that’s right, in the garage, covered with cobwebs. Congratulations? The message should have read, “What were you thinking?!” That’s probably what Jeff would say.

The next day Jeff called on his way home from backpacking. I told him what I’d done. “Linda, that’s awesome!” he cried. “You’re sure you’re up for it? Wait, don’t answer that. Of course you’re up for it. We’ll do it together!”

I put down the phone with a knot in my stomach. Now I’d be letting Jeff down if I dropped out.

A few days later I bought a pair of running shoes and tried going for a jog. It wasn’t long before I was gasping for air. I could barely walk afterward.

“You’re going to get sore at first,” Jeff said. “That’s natural. You’re starting from scratch.”

Sore didn’t begin to describe it. My RA had never hurt like this. The whole week after that first run every muscle in my body seemed to go on strike.

“Use this week to swim” was Jeff’s advice. That, of course, meant squeezing into a swimsuit. Still, I went to the pool each morning, trying not to look at myself in the mirror in the locker room.

Jeff dusted off my bike and pumped up the tires. We went for a ride around the neighborhood. Right away I was ready to turn around and go home. My back was killing me. Jeff sailed along, zipping ahead then looping back to me. “Good job. We’ll go farther next time,” he said. Farther?

After that week I wanted to quit. But Jeff had already mapped out a training regimen for me. He even rearranged his own schedule to take the kids to their games and meets so I had time to work out. He joined me on bike rides, adjusting my seat and handlebars so I didn’t strain my back.

Soon I noticed he only had to loop back to wait for me a few times each ride instead of a few times each minute. Progress.

I signed up to race a short triathlon called a sprint distance—a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and three-mile run. With Jeff’s encouragement, I finished! And I had fun doing it. It was like my swim meets back in high school, only better.

I trained harder. Now that I could actually breathe during workouts I looked forward to them because they gave Jeff and me time to talk—which we hadn’t done in ages, we’d each been so busy doing our own thing.

One morning I pulled on my sweats— and they slipped right back down. Size 12 was way too big. “You’re looking pretty buff, Mom,” Zach said at breakfast. “And you don’t seem so tired anymore.”

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Zach was right. My RA hadn’t gone away, and I still had to take medication. But it hadn’t stopped me from training. In fact, training made me feel better. The endorphin rush I got lessened my pain. The more I exercised, the less tired and achy I felt.

It was like this triathlon thing was changing me into someone new. I just didn’t know who yet.

Jeff and I flew to Madison in September. It was muggy, not ideal weather for a race. Still, I could hardly contain myself at the starting line by a lake downtown. Here I was—one of those women about to do an Ironman triathlon.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe I’d actually make it to the finish. Or maybe I was just a middle-aged mom with rheumatoid arthritis who ought to know better than to try crazy stunts like this.

The start cannon fired. Twenty-seven hundred competitors charged into the lake. I was so full of adrenaline I hardly noticed the swim. Then I was on my bike, zooming through city streets and out into the countryside. Spectators cheered, filling me with energy.

Only when I jumped off the bike and laced up my running shoes did I begin to feel tired. The marathon course wound through a university campus, up and down hills, past the lake. I lost track of the miles. My legs felt wobbly. My whole body ached. I wanted to stop. I wanted it to end.

Then, suddenly, there was the finish. I staggered across the line. Arms reached out to catch me. I looked around for Jeff. Volunteers helped me sit on a bench. “I want to find my husband,” I said, fumbling for the cell phone in my gear pack.

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“Where are you?” Jeff asked. “I went looking for you in the medical tent. Are you okay?”

“I finished,” I gasped.

“Wait right there.” Moments later Jeff was sprinting toward me. He took me in his arms and held me tight. I could barely hug him back.

And yet, inside, I felt stronger than ever. At last I knew what I’d glimpsed all those months ago when I’d lain in bed praying about this race and remembering Kim’s premonition.

God had lifted me up so I could see over the dreary mountain of my rheumatoid arthritis and my resentment at being sidelined because of it. I’d glimpsed myself as he saw me. \As someone with the potential to go beyond my physical limitations and tap into strength I never knew I had.

I made my family proud and myself even prouder.

God made me an Ironman. Better yet, he made me an Iron Mom—new, strong, grateful.


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