TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I recently had the opportunity to talk triathlon and everything under the sun with TCSD Treasurer Melissa Sosnowski. I could not be happier for this great lady who has become my friend over the past couple of years. Read below and you will see how Melissa has used running and triathlon to improve her life.
Craig: Did you play any sports when you were growing up?
Melissa: Not much…a few intramural-type sports in middle school, but for the most part academics were stressed in my family. Besides, I was a Navy brat and we moved every 2½ years. I went to 9 different schools between kindergarten and 12th grade so there was no consistency. I often think “what if…” I was encouraged to play sports, would I have done well? Much to the surprise of my current adult friends, I was painfully shy as a child. With moving all the time, it was just easier to blend into the background. I came out of my shell late in high school, but by that time I had missed the formative sporting years and I just cared about where the next party was.
Craig: You took up running late in life. What were the circumstances that launched your running career?
Melissa: So this is kind of a long story but I feel that all of the events in my life had a purpose, whether I realized it at the time or not. It’s much easier in hindsight to provide how everything interconnected to lead me to running, then to triathlon.
To set the stage, we have to go back to 2006 (I can SEE you rolling your eyes, but trust me, there’s a point to this). I was 37 years old, just had my 3rd child in 4 years and I was tired and, <ahem>…thick and slow moving. Prior to 2006, I had run a few 5ks and I think one 8k, but never took running seriously. I may have averaged one race every year or two, or three. I was always borderline pudgy and having all those kids had exacerbated my problem, so I decided to run to lose weight. I started from the bottom…on an elliptical in my basement for 10 minutes. That’s all I could handle. I made what I called “micro-goals”—tiny goals that would encourage me to continue. Eventually, I worked my way off of the elliptical and onto a treadmill at the local YMCA. I pretty much never went longer than 3 miles, but I was able to get to sub-10 minute miles by training alone on the treadmill.
A college friend of mine who was into running convinced me to do the Virginia Beach Rock and Roll Half Marathon in September 2006. I had no idea how to train for anything longer than 3 miles. I looked online and found the Smart Coach section of the Runner’s World Magazine website. I input my goal time and how often I wanted to work out and it spit out a training plan. I printed it out, followed the plan and showed up for the race. I beat my friend. She was so happy for me she somehow convinced me to do all of the Rock and Roll series races in 2007. Yep, all of them! All five. Hard to believe there were ever only five, huh? That was back when they actually had bands at the races. Well, we did it—Arizona, Nashville, San Jose, Virginia Beach and San Diego. Unfortunately, at the time, San Diego only had a full marathon option—no half. I returned to my trusty online Smart Coach and printed a marathon plan. We had a blast doing the races and we received a GIANT ROCK STAR medal. I think only about 200 people did all of the races that year. It was really fun and I was hooked on running.
Or so I thought!
So, let’s just fast forward through to 2011. All I’ve got to say are these tidbits: cross-country move, financial ruin, divorce, 3 young kids, a stalled career and trying to date after 20 years. Things got a little hairy, as life does sometimes, and I had bigger things to worry about. By mid-2011, I was stable, single and ready to get into shape. I had gained about 50 pounds over the ‘dark years’ so I decided to start running again. I thought the best way to do it was to join running groups; besides, I needed to meet people. For anyone who has not gone through a divorce, you basically lose all of your friends. Richard Duquette’s Sunday morning runs out of Carlsbad became a great way for me to meet other runners (and unexpectedly, triathletes). I signed up for the Silver Strand Half Marathon thinking a flat course would be a great start for my “return to running” (cue Rocky theme song).
Craig: A photo was taken of you just before the start of the Silver Strand Half Marathon. How did that change your life?
Melissa: So here’s the serendipitous part of my Silver Strand experience and how everything came full circle in my running life. A fellow single mom that I had befriended came to the Silver Strand race with me. She was a runner too, but on this day she was my support and cheerleader. She insisted on taking a picture of me as we walked to the start line. To be honest, I was feeling pretty good. I was excited that I had been able to lose weight and get back into racing. Off I went. I had an OK race experience but knew that running was back in my life forever.
And that picture my friend took? It ended up as part of my online dating profile. Yep, I had jumped into the insane world of online dating (for the 2nd time, but that’s a whole OTHER story). And guess who saw that photo? A man who had never ran any more than a 10k (once) and was training for his first half marathon. He emailed me under the guise of getting help to train for his race (and I fell for it!). Whatever he said worked because 3 and ½ year later, that man became my husband! There might have been a few other things that happened during that time, but it’s clear that the indoctrination of running into my life in that basement on the elliptical in 2006 led me to my one true love in 2012! What a long road, but totally worth it!
Craig: How did you get started racing triathlons and what are your favorite benefits of your TCSD membership?
Melissa: I continued to train with running groups and there were a few triathletes in those groups. I had seen the Solana Beach Triathlon in 2011 and was impressed that not everyone “looked” like an athlete. There were people of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, but everyone was encouraged and cheered, first or last place. That impressed me and planted the seed that would start me in triathlon. At the time, I was still running with Richard’s group. The group would meet for coffee after the run and one day a triathlete showed up (aside from Richard and his wife). Just a random guy that I didn’t know. I mentioned the race I saw and that I was scared to even think about triathlon because I didn’t have confidence in my swim. Let’s just say that by my last sip of coffee, Richard, his wife and this guy, who later I found out was Bruce Meister, a TCSD member, had convinced me that I could do it. I don’t think they know that their infectious enthusiasm was my start in triathlon. If they’re reading this, thanks guys!
It was one of those things that you have an argument in your own head about. “Can I? I don’t know how to swim”… “No! Well, maybe”… “I don’t have a bike”…“No, that’s silly”…“Maybe, but how would I?” And the crazy self-talk continued for a few months. Please be nodding your head like you know what I’m talking about.
To dovetail into my timeline above, I had done Silver Strand in November 2011, met Marc in January of 2012 and joined the Tri Club in February of that same year. In another serendipitous moment, I was talking to a new co-worker about attending the TCSD beginners meeting to see what this “tri club” was all about. Coincidentally, he had just moved here and his wife had already done triathlons. He thought she’d like to come with me. Alexis Barnes and I met at the Tri 101 meeting at Moment Cycles in February of 2012. I liked her immediately. We both joined the Tri Club and started training together. She had already raced triathlons but she didn’t like to train; I wanted to train but was nervous about signing up for a race. We made the perfect pair!
The benefits of being a Tri Club member were immediate. I had signed up for the ITU Sprint distance in May 2012 for my first race. Thao Vu put on unofficial training days that were great! I couldn’t believe how many people volunteered their time and went through a huge amount of effort so that I could train! I also went to the Beginner Open Water Swims (BOWS) to learn how to open-water swim; used the JCC masters to train; attended the Saturday Del Mar bike rides (full circle moment: that’s where Marc and I met the men who became the best man and groomsman at our wedding).
To this day, the dedication of the TCSD volunteers amazes me. The logistics of getting everything and everyone where they belong for training, races, expos, meetings, social events, etc. is enormous and is virtually invisible to the members. They do it so well, it took me a while to realize what a huge effort is put into running the Club.
Craig: You raced Ironman Arizona in 2014. What was that experience like for you?
Melissa: I have this very clear picture in my head of going to my first Saturday morning Del Mar bike ride. As I unloaded my bike, a TCSD member who had parked next to me introduced himself. It was Kevin Koresky and as we chatted about my “newbie-ness” he said “trust me, within 2 years, you will do an Ironman”. I scoffed at the idea. I hadn’t event done my first race yet! Those distances were beyond anything I could imagine. I just knew that they were long enough for me to not be able to memorize the exact miles, or was it in kilometers?! Those races are for those nutty OCD athletes, not me.
Fast forward two years and I was doing an Ironman! There was so much preparation that led up to that race. I wrote a rather long-winded article for the TCSD newsletter about my Arizona experience. It had made such an impression on me. Not only did I have a spectacular training and race experience but Marc proposed to me at the finish line. To say that was one of the best days of my life is an understatement. I felt as if all of the trials and tribulations that I had survived over the ‘dark years’ were very similar to the trials and tribulations I encountered in an Ironman race. The themes of being able to handle whatever was thrown my way, in the race and in life, solidified my confidence to believe in myself. The pudgy mom sweating it out alone in her basement could achieve anything she set her mind to! It was really a transformative moment.
For anyone thinking about doing an Ironman, I would encourage them to get a coach and to utilize the TCSD workouts. Both were invaluable. Not to get too “Psych 101” on you, but I would not only look at it as just a physical goal. You will find out very quickly that the mental aspect of the training is far more important. To be adequately prepared, you will be forced to prioritize your life and that will lead to some self-assessments about what is really important to you. It will be transformative in all areas of your life.
Craig: What are your favorite races?
Melissa: To be honest, any TCSD race is my favorite. They are free and they are fun! What more could you want out of a race?! Being able to hang out with like-minded individuals is awesome. Not only that, but I could be commiserating with someone who is a podium finisher, Olympian, or pro athlete and we all have a shared experience. Triathlon is crazy that way. There’s this comradery that transcends athleticism, especially within TCSD. I love that!
Craig: What did you do to help Carol Gasaway start the TCSD Youth Program?
Melissa: In early 2014, Carol put together a small group of women to relaunch the TCSD youth program. Besides me, Linda Rich and Liz Olsen volunteered to help as well. At that point, being a single mom put severe restrictions on my ability to volunteer, so I thought I’d help out because it would allow me a way to volunteer for the club and include my children. I was so impressed with how organized Carol was. We met one time to talk about the overall program and within a month she had put together an outline of the program, developed a mission statement, goals, and membership benefits. She would never take credit, she’s a very humble person (and extraordinary triathlete) but she really was the architect of the program. She had a really clear vision and knew how to execute it well!
Craig: You are now serving as the TCSD Interim Treasurer. Thank you for stepping up to the plate to volunteer! What are some of the tasks you do in this role?
Melissa: I know everyone is super-excited to learn about the thrilling world of accounting! I pay bills! I review tax returns! I budget! I’ll stop now, I know your heads must be spinning. Seriously, though, I am a CPA by trade, so when the Board approached me to fill in as interim Treasurer earlier this year, it was a “no-brainer”. By this point my schedule had changed to the point that I was no longer able to help Carol so I was in need of an avenue to volunteer that didn’t take time away from my kids, who had—to my dismay— rejected Triathlon as their sport of choice.
Aside from the routine bill-paying stuff, there was some other unfinished business. We had been selling merchandise which required us to get a seller’s permit from California, so I spear-headed that project along with catching us up on prior years sales tax. I track all of the money coming in and going out, so I developed a simple pie chart that summarized our year’s activity in a simple form.
I’m also gathering information for a discussion about the Club potentially converting to a non-profit charity (we are currently a non-profit sports club). In the past, this has been a somewhat divisive topic. My goal is to alleviate that problem by being the provider of information. Therefore, to present the “pros and cons” in an unbiased manner is really important to me. Think of me as the Switzerland of this topic—I’m taking no sides but I think people should base their opinion on facts and information, not conjecture and emotion. It’s tough with a group as dedicated and passionate as our TCSD members but it’s also one of the reasons the club is so great!
As Treasurer, there are things that come up almost on a daily basis, which surprised me. It made me think what a time commitment the other officers who deal with the races, meetings, permits, membership, social events, social media, etc. are required to have. The position really made me realize how tough it is to be an officer! It also made me realize that the key requirement for ANY officer, is the ability to work in a cooperative manner with the other officers, directors and members of TCSD. If you cannot compromise or do not have the ability to move forward even though you may disagree on the direction, then do NOT become an officer. Cooperation is key!!! TCSD does so many wonderful things and it takes a HUGE amount of effort and planning to make those things happen in the seamless manner that we are accustomed.
Craig: What does it mean to you to be on the TCSD Ambassador Team?
Melissa: To represent the Club that has given me so much throughout my short 4 years as a member is amazing. I cannot tell you how many times I think back to the enthusiasm that I experienced in that post-run coffee shop talk. I am now THAT enthusiastic person! I try to recruit just about anyone who will listen to me, telling them stories much like the ones I am sharing today. I am especially focused on people with children and couples who train together, since that has been my life experience. I think that’s the best thing about the Ambassador group…they all bring such diverse experiences together and can relate to so many different people on so many different levels—people who’ve had tragedy hit their lives, people who want to lose weight, people who are both life-long athletes and newbie athletes. It really is a diverse group and it’s always interesting to hear the stories of what lead them to triathlon and how transformative it is.
Craig: What is the funniest thing you have ever seen in training or in a race?
Melissa: Funny, but in a tragic way. My husband and I were at Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee (he qualified, not me). We were waiting for his start and watching the first place male swimmer come out of the water. He was SO FAR AHEAD…like 3 minutes! We couldn’t believe it. We see him enter transition and run down an aisle. Then back UP the aisle. He started jumping up and down waving his hands in the air. He couldn’t find his bike. Although we couldn’t hear him, we knew what he was saying. Probably not printable in our family-friendly newsletter. He ran up and down the aisles 4 or 5 times, jumping and waving, it was almost cartoonish, we had to laugh. Eventually a volunteer tried to help him find his bike but he was in such a frantic state that he couldn’t communicate properly. He eventually found his bike, but by that time a few more guys had entered transition and they knew where their bikes were. Needless to say, he lost his lead! It provided me a good lesson to make sure that I know where my bike is in transition. It’s also helpful that I’m such a slow swimmer—it’s usually the only one left!
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport, what would you like to change?
Melissa: Cost. It’s so expensive to get started in the sport. I think that’s one of the greatest barriers for a lot of people, besides finding time to train. Even if you can gather the equipment, the races are extraordinarily expensive. That’s what makes TCSD so great! I found most of my equipment through the TCSD classified ads. TCSD-ers are more than willing to cut you a deal if you are putting their equipment to good use. What I didn’t purchase through the classifieds, I WON at the monthly meetings—Rudy helmet, Rudy sunglasses (my favorite), a GARMIN 510 for my bike (given to me by Andy Potts, no less!!!), various gift certificates, I had an amazing raffle run the first year or two!
Craig: What are your future goals in the sport?
Melissa: I’m a goal-oriented person, so I could go on forever in answering this question. Improving my swim so that it is in line with my ranking in the bike and run is my top triathlon goal. I’m a runner, so a lot of goals center on improving my run speed. Qualifying for both the Boston and New York marathons were goals that I had never even thought possible 2 years ago but I did it in 2015!
I’ve learned to taper my expectations because it can be overwhelming and it’s easy to get caught up in the “me, me, me” aspect of training. I have a full time job, a wonderful husband and 4 kids at home (and 1 not at home) so our lives are busy and the need for balance is paramount. I have come to accept that there is only so much training I can do to achieve my goals. I’m willing to be patient. I recently heard a quote by Arthur Ashe that sums it up perfectly: “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” That has certainly been true for me and I feel like my journey has just begun!
Craig: Melissa, thank you so much for sharing your story. We are lucky to have you on the TCSD team. And Marc and your kids are really lucky to have you in their lives. I have a feeling that any goal you set your mind on has met its match. Good luck in all you do!
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.