After 2 hours, 45 minutes, 43 seconds, I placed 543rd out of 548 people who finished the West Point Triathlon. I finished.
Last August 26, I was wondering what my next challenge should be. Just then, David Roher, who had been telling me for years that I should complete a triathlon, posted on Facebook that he had just completed the Louisville Ironman. I Facebook messaged him, “I’m ready.” He asked me to call him and I did — at 11:45 p.m. David asked me my goal. I said, “to finish.” I hired him as my coach on the spot.
I started by asking Beryl, the lifeguard at the Kaplen JCC pool, how many lengths of the pool I have to cross in order to swim a mile. 64. Oy. I jumped in the pool, swam one lap, crossed into the second lane, and got out of the pool gasping for breath. Over the next two months, David taught me how to swim from scratch at the Glenpointe pool. After each lap, I’d stop for about five minutes, trying to catch my breath. And then I did another lap. For the next 10 months, I would arrive at the JCC pool at 6 a.m. twice a week, even in 4-degree weather, to swim, first two laps, then four, then eight, then 12, until I was consistently doing 64. I would look at the guys and women, sleek and fast in their bathing suits, and say I want to do that one day. I remember the day that I got out of the pool and the lifeguard said to me, “How’s life in the fast lane?” I had been swimming in the lane designated as fast.
I ran half a block. That’s it. My legs would cramp, my toes would twist. I loaded RunKeeper on my iPod. Packed it with great dance music and ran. Half a mile. A mile. And on. I bought the coolest sneakers at Road Runner and the best running outfit and gloves. As long as it was more than 25 degrees, I was running.
Biking is my sport. I’ve done the Five Boro Bike Tour many times, the last time in the pouring rain. I could do this — but I can’t stop. So I practiced stopping on hills, going up and down the Degraw hill in Leonia. Going around and around the hills in the Country Club section of Teaneck. And stopping in the middle of the hill.
When I heard that Rochelle Shoretz, the founder of Sharsheret (who was a year ahead of me at Shulamith High School in Brooklyn) passed away in May, I was devastated. She was larger than life and truly my idol. She had told me years ago that I should do a triathlon. I decided immediately to go public with my race, to join Team Sharsheret, and to dedicate the race to her memory, in honor of my grandmother (a 40-year breast cancer survivor) and in honor of my father, Dr. Abe Pollack, a relentless hunter for the sneakiest of breast cancers.
The Friday before the race I spoke with my brother Michael in Israel, who came in second in a Mr. Israel bodybuilding contest years ago. He said that it is about the journey; that the yearlong commitment of training to achieve the goal is just as important as completing the race itself.
Right before the race started, a woman saw my Sharsheret Tri-shirt, came up to me, and said, “I’ve been following you on Facebook. You will do amazing.
“Remember — this is your race.”
There are 10 waves of around 50 people who start the race in the lake. I was part of the third wave, the red swim caps. I walked in with my wet suit on, tasted the fresh sweet water, and was calm. This would be easier than the salty Belle Harbor ocean where I had been practicing for the last three weeks. I started swimming. I looked back and saw the next wave of caps swimming quickly up to me. My heart started racing, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I turned onto my back to slow my breathing and started doing the backstroke. I went off course because I wasn’t watching where I was going.
As I swam, I said to myself over and over, “This is my race. Failure is not an option.” By the last third of the 800 meters, I was able to control my breathing and finish with the freestyle stroke.
I had lost so much time during the swim that when I got my bike, the first bikers already were starting to run. But I took my time, used the portable bathroom, brushed my hair, and got on the bike for the 22K ride. The hills were a breeze. Literally. I was able to fly through them and enjoy the gorgeous West Point scenery. When I returned to transition where you prepare for the next segment — I saw that my brand-new wet suit was missing and there was a ratty old one was in its place. I said to the lieutenant colonel in charge of the race that I couldn’t find my wet suit and I looked down. There, on the ground, was the person I had finished the bike with. She was unconscious; medics surrounded her and had given her oxygen. I said, “Never mind about the wet suit.”
And I started the 5K run. Despite the hills, it was my easiest run ever.
The great thing about finishing so late is that everyone else passes you as they are leaving and they call to you, “Great job. You can do it.” They are encouraging you to get to the end.
When I heard the announcer say “Sunni Herman. 42. Teaneck, NJ.” at the finish line, it was awesome.
As I walked back to transition, I saw a woman dancing on a hill. I said, “That’s what I do after I run and bike — dance on my front lawn. Can I join you?” She said her name was Star. I said that was perfect. “I’m Sun. Let’s dance.”
We took a selfie and I emailed it to Star. I went back to my bike and sure enough, Star was the name on the red wet suit that had been left behind! She texted me the next day that her friend had taken my wet suit instead of hers by mistake.
For me, this triathlon was about beating the odds and living. It was about inner and outer strength. Setting a goal and working like anything to make it happen. It was about the Sharsheret, the Chain, that links us to hunt down and obliterate cancer together and encourage passionate compassionate living.
I hope this story inspires you to set a goal and finish.
For more information on Sharsheret and to donate: sharsheret.org
Sunni Herman is the Executive Vice President of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.