In her new book, Surfacing: From the Depths of Self-Doubt to Winning Big and Living Fearlessly, elite triathlon coach and world champion Siri Lindley shares her daring journey that proves it’s never too late to rewrite your own story and change the thoughts, habits, and behaviors that hold you back.
Chapter 4: Awakening
WORKING AT THE WORCESTER YMCA, I developed a new circle of friends thanks to my friend Jeanne, the aquatics director. They were strong, accomplished women who were comfortable in their skin. Jeanne introduced me to her friend Lynn, who shared my passion for sports and lived just up the street from me. Lynn Oski quickly became one of my closest friends. She was easy to talk to, funny, and whip-smart, and she had an upbeat personality that was infectious. She had a female life partner, and together they broke the hackneyed stereotype of gay women, presenting a much more relatable, feminine image. Lynn possessed the courage to follow her heart and live life on her own terms, and she had found great success both personally and professionally as a doctor.
One day Lynn told me she was going to race a triathlon and invited me to come watch.
“Yeah, sure, sounds fun!” I replied enthusiastically, without any inkling what a triathlon was. I’d never even heard the word before. I knew Lynn was into Jet Skiing, and the race took place at a nearby lake, so I concluded it was probably related to that.
The following weekend, I turned up to cheer on my friend in her mystery challenge. I stood on the sidelines and watched all kinds of people—a wide swath of ages and sizes—as they first charged into the lake and swam to a marked buoy and back to shore, then got on their waiting bicycles to ride a loop as fast as they could, and then went for a run. These people were pushing themselves to their physical limits, yet they all seemed to be somehow enjoying it, flashing quick smiles at us cheering on the sidelines and just looking so . . . proud. I was fascinated. When I met Lynn at the finish line, I just about tackled her.
“Oh, my God, Lynn!” I exclaimed, the words falling out excitedly, breathlessly. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”
She just looked at me, smiling and chuckling, still trying to catch her own breath.
Everyone seemed equally fired up as they approached the finish line. They were ordinary people rising to an extraordinary challenge and having a damn good time doing it. They looked totally spent but happy. As I sat with Lynn and her triathlete friends around our picnic lunch listening to their animated race replays, one thought kept surfacing in my mind: I have to do this.
Back home, I could not wait to become a triathlete in training. There was just one small hitch: I had no idea where to begin. Sure, I was a certified personal trainer who had no problem prescribing a get-fit program to Y clients, but I had zero clue how to approach triathlon or endurance training. I asked Lynn if she’d mind if I tagged along on some training sessions. My eagerness coupled with her supportive nature made it impossible for her to say no. We’d meet at the hospital where she worked as a sleep-disorders researcher and go for a 30-minute jog that would absolutely destroy me. Lynn was in great shape—she was winning her age group in local races. The extent of my running had always been short, explosive sprints down the field for field hockey and lacrosse. Race to the ball. Flick the ball. Run back into position. In college, a big run training day was a mile warm-up followed by a dozen line sprints—that was it. When I started running with Lynn, I could maintain the pace for the short warm-up but really struggled to keep up after that. But Lynn never made me feel self-conscious about the chasm between our actual endurance capacities. I’d be loudly huffing and puffing, and she’d stop midrun to point out a random sight, saying, “Check out that cool house!” or “Hey, look at those grazing cows!” She had to know I was about to collapse. But instead of feeling deflated after these runs, I was determined to get stronger for our next run.
Because I idolized Lynn, it was inevitable that I’d develop an enormous crush on her. But I respected the fact that she was in a wonderful relationship, and I was content to have this incredible role model as one of my best friends. My feelings for Lynn gave me further confidence that it was women, not men, who brought out the best in me and gave me butterflies in my belly.
When Lynn asked me if I knew how to swim, I shrugged off her question with a cool “Yeah, I can swim.” We went to the local Bally health club, which had a 15-yard pool, for my first swim workout. Swimming, to me, had been games of Marco Polo and dead man’s float as a kid. As I stood on the pool deck watching people swim up and down the length of the pool, I tried to absorb as many visual cues as I could in a mash-up crash course on freestyle stroke mechanics. When it came time to take the plunge, I “swam” the way my mom did when she didn’t want to get her hair wet. We called her “the Swan” for good reason. With my neck craned forward, I was trying so hard to propel myself that my arms and legs were left to spastically thrash around, creating a counterproductive whirlpool effect. I barely made it across the pool.
Luckily, Lynn didn’t flee the pool deck after that first lap. She patiently taught me how to swim with my entire head in the water (terrifying) and how to breathe (without stopping midstroke!). She showed me some swim drills to help me develop proper technique. I felt perpetually guilty because I knew she only had an hour lunch break to squeeze in her own swim workout, and she spent most of it trying to help me not drown. But with her help, I was able to swim a few laps and worked my way up to 1,500 yards within a few weeks. Every single day I went to the pool and swam 1,500 yards. It took my entire 45-minute lunch break.
A few months after I started swimming, Lynn invited me to join a proper swim session at a nearby 25-yard pool. I was so psyched that I got there an hour early. But my excitement turned to frustration minutes into the warm-up as I started getting lapped. A lot. I felt that I was just getting in everyone’s way and being an annoyance. I moved to the other end of the pool, feeling defeated.
Surely the cycling had to come easier. At that point in my life—I was 24—childhood joy rides were the extent of my cycling experience. My yellow bicycle with a banana seat and pink streamers had been my pride and joy, and I had spent hours riding it up and down our dead-end street. But one day, during a spat with Lisa, she threw it into a creek, and I watched in horror as it floated away from me. The only other time I had been on a bike was when we visited Fire Island in New York each summer and I borrowed my aunt’s rusty cruiser to ride down the boardwalk to the ice-cream shop.
Lynn told me her neighbor was selling his 10-speed bike for $100. That sounded like an awful lot of money, but I decided to check it out. The bike was electric blue and had a front basket and these clever straps over the pedals to hold your feet in place. I was especially psyched about the basket so I could carry my stereo and ride with music. I bought the bike and started riding 35 minutes to an hour every day, per Lynn’s instruction. I’d pedal the same route to a nearby lake and back.
Soon I was averaging 18 miles per hour on my rides. It was hard, but I was relieved that my innate cycling strength might help make up for my lackluster swimming and running. On the bike I felt strong, fast, and confident. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that I wasn’t the strongest cyclist on the road. Not by a stretch. I was getting dropped by teenagers on beach cruisers and thick guys on mountain bikes. It was puzzling.
I told Lynn how humbled and impressed I was by the cycling talent in our area. Here I was nearly pushing 20 mph and getting dropped right and left.
“Are you sure your speedometer is working correctly?” Lynn asked earnestly, walking over to my bike to investigate.
“Yeah, I just had it fixed—it works perfectly,” I said, watching her lift my bike and spin the rear wheel, then lean in to see the reading.
“Siri, this speedometer is set to read kilometers per hour, not miles,” she said, laughing off my mistake.
All that time I was going maybe 11 miles per hour. The realization brought me crashing back to earth. I had my work cut out for me.
In a storyline that was beginning to feel all too familiar, I perpetually felt intimidated and guilty on group rides because either people would have to wait for me, or I was holding them back. Every time I showed up for a ride, I believed every single rider who saw me was thinking, “Oh, great, here comes Siri.” I desperately wanted to change that perception.
In addition to a weekend group “long ride” of about an hour and a half, Lynn and I would train on the Lifecycle stationary bikes at Bally. I began doing most of my harder bike sessions indoors. We’d meet at the gym at 5 a.m. for interval workouts, which Lynn would guide. Our hour-long session would be a series of 3 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy, 5 minutes hard, 1 minute easy, with changes in resistance.
During this time I began having the same recurring dream. I am standing in a sea of people—thousands of people. Every person is trying to say something, but I can’t hear anyone’s words clearly; it’s just a cacophony of sound. But then I lift my head above the others and start speaking, and my voice transcends the din. My speech rings out with clarity and force, and at the sound of it my heart is so full it could burst. After spending so many years of my youth feeling powerless, triathlon training fed my deepest yearnings. I wanted to see what I was capable of on my own. My previous athletic experience in team sports left me to wonder how much of my success could be attributed to me. If I could achieve something special independently, it would validate all that I’d accomplished in my team sports. It would prove that I’d mattered. Nothing was going to stop me from improving, from being a legitimate swimmer, cyclist, and runner—a triathlete.
By the end of the summer, Lynn and I felt my training was at a point where I could enter a race. I was swimming 35 minutes somewhat continuously three or four times per week. I was feeling stronger on the bike. And I’d slowly built up to running five days a week, with my longest run lasting an hour. I’d also started doing some strength training in the gym.
I had one nonnegotiable requirement for my first race: absolute anonymity. There was no way I was going to attempt this feat in front of Lynn or my friends. I didn’t need any outside pressure in addition to my mounting anxiety about the race itself. So I decided to fly to Colorado to race. My mom was living in Vail, and her unconditional support helped to calm my nerves. The day before the race, I bought a new bathing suit and rented a 10-speed from the local bike shop—all the lighter bikes had been rented, so I was fitted with a steel beast.
The sprint race (800-meter swim, 12-mile ride, and 3.1-mile run) was in the Denver suburb of Englewood. The night before the race, I stuffed myself with pasta, bread, chicken, and cookies. I felt like I was going to burst but kept eating.
“Are you sure you’re supposed to eat that much?” asked M, unable to mask the trace of concern in her voice.
“Mom. Yeah, it’s called carbo-loading,” I said matter-of-factly. I had this race nutrition thing dialed.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night—endorphins were coursing through my body, and I kept getting up to pee. When the alarm sounded, I leaped out of bed, still full and totally amped for race day.
When we arrived at the race site, the local YMCA, the registration volunteer asked me for my 100-yard pace so she could assign me to the appropriate start wave for the pool swim. I looked at her blankly. I’d never timed myself over 100 yards and had no idea what to tell her.
“Sorry, I’m not really sure?” I stammered, noticing the line behind me growing longer with antsy racers.
“Is it 2 minutes? One forty? One twenty?” she asked, her patience starting to wane.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said sheepishly.
“Well, what’s your best guess, then?” She was over it.
“One twenty?” I blurted. It was a total stab in the dark.
“Okay, you’re in lane 3 and start at 8:15—don’t be late,” she said, already looking to the next athlete in line.
Fifteen minutes before my start time, I walked over to my assigned lane. Five other people—all guys—stood at the end of lane 3. They were lean and muscular, with triangular chests and broad shoulders. They looked like, well, swimmers. I felt sick to my stomach. But then I remembered Lynn telling me that sometimes the ones who look the fittest aren’t always the fastest. What mattered was how efficient you were in the water.
Waiting for the race to start, I thought I might come out of my skin—or pass out. Maybe both.
Someone on a megaphone blew a horn, and we were under way. For 10 minutes straight, I got absolutely pummeled. I was swimming at a pace of maybe 2 minutes per 100 yards (and most certainly not in a straight line), while the guys in my lane were moving at sub-1:20 speed. But I didn’t slow or stop to let anyone pass, and they were forced to swim over or around me. It felt like being mauled inside an active washing machine. The guys were visibly annoyed by this rogue intruder, as were the race organizers on deck, but I was too focused on my own race to really care. Finally, the guys in my lane got out and left me to finish the last half of my swim in calmer water.
When I completed the 750 meters, I crawled out of the pool totally flustered but exhilarated. M was frantically waving her arms and shouting, “Siri! Siri! Over here! I’ve got your shorts!” I was nearly hyperventilating when I reached her (I hadn’t considered the added challenge of the mile-high altitude). She held out my Spandex shorts for me to step into, but as I wrestled to get them up over my wet legs I lost my balance and tipped over, shrieking. M knelt down and was trying to help me get my other leg into the shorts when a referee ran over, shouting, “Hey! You can’t give outside assistance! She will get disqualified!” Mom, verging on tears, told the referee, “But this is my daughter!”
We were making the biggest scene.
I finally got my shorts on and went charging off toward my bike. Because of the multiple-wave start, there were still a number of bikes in transition, which gave me a confidence boost. I was still ahead of all those people. The 20-kilometer bike course consisted of five laps. Five excruciating, Mt. Everest–scale laps. (When I went back to that area years later, I noted that the bike course was actually gently rolling at most.) I pushed those pedals with all I had and still got passed and lapped as if I were soft-pedaling to Sunday brunch. I felt like everyone was snickering at my snail’s pace as they dropped me in commanding style.
Deflated but not wholly discouraged, I finally arrived back to transition. M was there to receive me, cheering like I was gunning for Olympic gold. I was happy to be off my bike and excited to tackle the 5K run. I sprinted out of transition on wonky legs like a bat out of hell. About 100 meters later, I had to stop and bend over, gasping for air and on the verge of throwing up. I composed myself and took off again in a sprint, only to stop in another 100 meters to repeat the same gasp-and-gag routine. I ran the entire 5K like that. It never occurred to me that if I slowed to a sustainable pace, I’d actually finish faster.
I reached the finish line ready to drop. M, with fat tears rolling down her cheeks, drew me into a huge hug. I’d done it. It had been agony from beginning to end, but I’d never felt more alive.
I grabbed some orange slices, water, and a Power Bar and let it all sink in. Walking back to transition together, Mom asked me if I wanted to get lunch to celebrate. I looked at her in disbelief. “Mom, the awards are in an hour!” In a compassionate gesture, she agreed to go. She knew I had finished nearly dead last.
That night, lying in bed, I started replaying the race in my mind, except this time I was seeing myself through the eyes of the other racers. Images I had clearly registered but blocked out until then flooded cruelly into view as if I had turned on the TV. I cringed at what I saw: flashes of faces expressing shock or pity at my attempt to become a triathlete. A wave of deep embarrassment came crashing down on me, and I felt like a cross between an impostor and an utter flop. I started bawling.
I ran into my mom’s bedroom, hot tears streaming down my cheeks.
“That was such a disaster; I feel so humiliated!” I cried, crumbling onto her bed.
“Siri, you’re so good at so many other things,” M reasoned.
“But I want this more than anything in the world! This is all that matters to me,” I sobbed, inconsolable.
“Okay, honey,” she soothed. “I will support you in this for two years, but if in two years it’s not working out, promise me you’ll go and do something else.”
But it wasn’t a question of if it would work out—it was a matter of when. I had suffered physically and mentally as never before in my life, and I had loved every minute of it. I was as hungry as I was humbled.
The fire had been lit.