Be Strong- What You Didn’t Read in “Sweat with Brook Benten”

In Chapter Four in “Sweat with Brook Benten,” I spoke-wrote about being strong. Being strong isn’t about winning. The flex is in refusing to back down, back out, give up, give in, pout, poke, or quit until you’ve done what you set out to do. Being strong is approaching the eye of the tiger. That tiger, for you, may be giving up alcohol in order to live a clear and present life. That tiger may be talk therapy with a licensed counselor and continuing to show up even when you’d rather avoid your trauma. For me, the tiger was triathlons.

In 2003, I signed up for my first triathlon. The swim portion was in the Gulf of Mexico and I had never swam in the ocean before. I ended up treading water and doing the elementary backstroke for most of the swim. I was undertrained and gravely unprepared. I did not enjoy the race and swore off triathlons, for good.

18 years later, the memory had faded and I decided to sign up for another triathlon. This one was a very long one. Once again, I showed up at the starting line undertrained and unprepared. (To give you a visual, it was nearly freezing. Everyone else was in wetsuits. I was in a bikini.) The swim was in a lake. I got swatted by so many propeller arms and kicked in the face by so many flutter kicks that I felt like the odds of me sinking to the bottom of the lake were about as good as the odds of getting out of it. At one point, I held on to a rescue kayak and said “I don’t know if I can do this.” The volunteer kindly said, “Just give it a second.” That second allowed me to take a breath, get my mind and body on the same page, and doggie paddle my way to a sloppy finish. It was sloppy. Every woman in my age category beat me. Including a blind woman.

After the triathlon, I called my friend, Rachelle Jensen, a world-class triathlete. She was eager to hear how my race went.

“Never. Again.” I enunciated with no room for misunderstanding. She responded, “Oh, Brook! I’m sorry. You’ll just have to train differently- in open water and with other people. Next time will be better.” Without missing a beat, I quipped “There won’t be a next time. I am never doing that again. I felt like I was being waterboarded. I would have told each and every one of my deepest, darkest secrets to get me the hell out of that lake. There are hundreds of other ways to exercise. I will pick every single one of them before ever doing that again.”

We were both right.
There are hundreds of other ways to exercise and get in great shape, without getting kicked in the face in murky water by people’s overgrown toenails.
But if I trained differently, it could go differently.

Two years later, I made a pitch to a magazine to write “The Best Pool Tris in Texas.” I was still too frightened to attempt open water, but in a swimming pool, where I could drop my feet to touch the ground if someone swatted, kicked, or swam over me, the barrier to entry was removed. I thought readers may feel the same. The pitch was approved. My nervousness to return to triathlons was offset by the perk of getting to stay at some swanky lodging on hosted media (free) rate. The Ritz-Carlton, Las Colinas even threw in spa services! (Note: I did pay for my USA Triathlon “USAT” membership and triathlon entry fees. In many events, race registrations go to a philanthropic cause.) I sharpened my skills over a handful of pool tris. My swim was still pretty rotten. And my transitions were so long you could have taken a nap. But I was getting stronger.

I secured a 7th place overall finish in a women’s-only triathlon in August 2023. It was good enough to tell me that I wasn’t an utter failure at this matryoshka (Russian doll) of a workout, but that placement was earned by finishing 55th in the swim, 4th in the bike, and 1st in the run.

The swim, the very thing that frightened me all along, was still my Achilles Heel. Unless I put time, effort, hustle and heart into bettering my swim, I still wasn’t really looking the tiger in the eye.

I was playing it safe.

If I was ever going to experience the splendor of conquering my fear, I was going to have to be strong enough to attempt open water triathlons, once again.

I had my doubts about whether or not I really needed to realize that splendor. Maybe just being in the same jungle with the tiger was enough. Did I really need to go eye to eye with him?

I wrestled with this question. I had a miserable experience in the two open water triathlons I had attempted in the past. It was red hot fear with an actual threat of drowning.

Now is a good time to scroll back to the opening of this blog, where I documented that everybody has an ever-present something that challenges us to be strong. If you are avoiding difficult emotions by drinking alcohol, being strong means that you quit drinking alcohol and 100% face your life– not that you drink less and only avoid reality a little bit. If you are needing to cope with trauma with the help of a licensed therapist, being strong means that you keep the appointment on days that you really don’t want to talk about it and you face it, anyway. If you are scared out of your mind of triathlons, you don’t just get in a swimming pool to work around your phobia of open water. You put in the hard effort and heart effort and show up at the starting line wearing the right gear in the right head space and with sufficient training to set you up for success.

“You haven’t come this far to come this far” is something I often say to personal training clients and group fitness class participants.
But had I?

The answer didn’t come to me through an epiphany.
The answer came through a neighbor.
A neighbor who is no longer here to tri for herself.
I am called to be strong (to really tri) in memory of Jamie Chapoteau.

Jamie Chapoteau was a professional triathlete and XTERRA racer. Not long ago, she got the feeling that something wasn’t right with her body. Her OBGYN specialist dismissed her concerns as being “all in her head.” When she elected to have a hysterectomy, cancer was rampant. Aggressive measures were taken to fight the terminal illness. The process prohibited Jamie from being able to maintain physical activity. As anyone knows who embraces exercise, having the ability to move taken away from you affects your mind. Mental illness transpired.
On the day after Christmas this year, December 26, 2023, Jamie’s life ended, tragically and suddenly. She left behind a husband and 13-year-old daughter.

Jamie’s husband, Jiian, had the pieces of his own life, his homeschooled daughter’s life, and all that Jamie left behind to try to reconcile.

Jiian wanted me to have Jamie’s triathlon gear. (He has also given me permission to share this story.) He gifted me wetsuits, dozens of goggles, helmets, Oakley sunglasses, gloves, vizors, hats, a Garmin GPS device, and more.

Up to this point, I had still been swimming in a two-piece, wearing cheap goggles that leaked (and sometimes no goggles at all), a helmet that was cracked from hitting the pavement years ago in a bike accident, a 51″ bike frame when my long legs require 56″, and no technology.

Jiian made me the beneficiary of gear that I wouldn’t have bought for myself. I would have kept making do with just enough stuff to get the job done, nothing more and sometimes less. This gesture came with trust. Jiian gave me Jamie’s state-of-the-art triathlon equipment to “achieve whatever athletic dreams I have for myself.”

My athletic dreams became channeling Jamie. My dreams became seeing her through to race finish lines, using myself as a vessel for her greatness. She was only 40-years-old. She should have been able to do so much more. She will. Through me. We will do it together.

On May 27, 2024, five months and one day after Jamie’s death, I will stomp through the jungle to hunt down the tiger. I will challenge him to a big brown eyes stare-down contest. I have taken Rachelle Jensen’s advice above about training differently. I’m now on a swim club~ in a lake~ with other people. Memorial Day is the season-opener triathlon in Austin, Texas. I will be prepared and unstoppable. But I will be scared. Being strong isn’t the absence of fear. It’s acknowledging it, respecting it, and persevering through it. I will be strong. For me. For Jamie.

There will be more to this story. Jamie and I are just getting started.

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