Monday, June 15, 2015

An Ironman Story

This is a fictionalized account, some of these things have happened to me and others were in stories I heard from others. I think something very similar plays out for a few dozen people at every Iron distance race. I wrote it in 2009 for a post on a triathlon forum. I still like it, hopefully you do too.

He hits the button on his watch and the face glows bright bluish green, allowing him to see that it’s 9:23 PM, just about his normal bed time.  It’s late summer and the kids just started school.  It’s been a long day, a 2.4 mile swim that included lots of jellyfish; a hot long 112 mile bike ride that took close to 7 hours, and now he’s been out here on the run course for close to 6 hours already, and there’s still a long way to go.
The reason why varies, sometimes it’s a training plan that is simply not enough or sometimes flat out misguided. The two young children at home certainly don’t make it easy to get in the required training hours. Throw in the two months away from training due to the bike accident and prospects for a fast time were not all that high in the first place. Certainly the mechanical problem and the injury that developed during the race made it harder. Whatever the reason, today is definitely not his day. He’s been at this for 14 hours now, and if he is honest with himself he has at best an hour and a half to go, more likely two hours. There was an article once that said people still on the course of Ironman after 9 PM are playing high stakes with a bad hand, all the cards are dealt and the Aces are gone.

It was probably around mile 50 of the bike that he started questioning what he was doing out here, “Why am I doing this?” and “Can I even make it?” It was at mile 80 of the bike that he first decided to quit. “Next aid station, I am out of this, they can call the sag wagon and take me home.”
But when considering it, the sag wagon might take an hour and a half to get to him out on the course, that's a long time to wait so he figured he might as well ride the bike in and then stop.

And why IS he doing this? there’s nothing to prove. This is Ironman number five for him. None of them particularly spectacular, there was that Lake Placid finish in the low 12 hour range. But other than that they have been 13 to 14.5 hours. At this point he is looking at a mid 15 hour finish, absolutely no one will be impressed that he trudges through another finish.  
So that’s it, at the next run aid station, he is packing it in. He has thought it about a dozen times before during the day, but this time it's for real, done. They can radio the race staff to come pick him up at mile 18 of the run, he’s had enough.

Even though the bike had not gone particularly well, to say the least, when he got to the transition area and went into the changing tent, he felt better, people always do after they are off the bike for a bit. The bike had included some gastric issues, neck pain, a flat tire, and even a broken seatpost binder bolt that meant he rode that last 8 miles standing up on his pedals, unable to sit down. At least you can’t get a flat on the run, so he decided to give the run a try.
While he was never going to smoke the run, it started OK; he ran the first three miles and felt pretty good, his pace was solid and he started to think he might still manage a decent time.  Then things got a little tougher. He started walking a minute every mile. It quickly grew to two minutes, then three.  Now, at mile 18 he’s been walking for the past six minutes according to his watch and is pretty well done with running. His feet are shot, thighs are totally blown apart, there are blisters on his feet and as for his knees – well imagine sandpaper rubbing against sandpaper. Every step is deep grinding pain.

Even so, it was feeling like he was going to faint that made him first seriously think about stopping. It’s dark out here, running through farm fields mostly. If a person were to pass out on the course and fall into the ditch, who knows how long it might be until someone found him. The only lights are at the aid stations a mile apart. You never really realize how far a mile is until you are all alone, in the dark, on foot and heading toward portable klieg lights that seem impossibly far off. To make it worse, he'll have to run to eight more sets of lights if he wants to finish this thing, yep going to walk to the next aid station and then that is it.
It’s not like anyone cares. If he thought that anyone cared about his triathlons, or would be impressed or would change their opinion of him, he was disabused of that notion long ago. The people that were his friends liked him whether he did it or not. To the people who disliked him, doing the race is all the more confirmation of how stupid, self absorbed, or crazy he is.

Meanwhile, half a continent away, there’s a 67 year old lady hitting refresh on the results page of the race he is in. She’s not exactly sure how long the race is or what all was involved.  Just getting to the right webpage and learning what “reloading” a webpage means took a thirty minute lesson. But these are the things a mom does; she knows this is important to her son so she’s checking to see when he will finish.
At the finish line there’s a tired four year old boy who keeps asking when daddy will be back, his current frequency of asking is about every 3 minutes. Chasing fireflies was fun for a bit but even the fireflies are sleeping now. There’s also a nine year old girl sleeping in a Hannah Montana sleeping bag who brought pom poms for dad but just couldn’t hang in there until he came back around. There’s also a wife there, she was up at 4 AM when he left the hotel room. Fed the kids, got them to the swim start, back to the hotel for breakfast and some time in the hotel pool. Convinced them to take a nap (one of them slept) and has now been here for four hours waiting. She saw him as he started the last loop, he didn’t look good. and it’s been a while.
She’s standing on the curb near the kids, peering in to the darkness hoping that the next glow-in-the-dark necklace she sees come bobbing out of the night is around her husband’s neck.
A few people DO care, these folks care, the 67 year old lady, the kids, the wife; they don’t care what the time on the clock is, just that he’s OK and happy and safe.

He’s got about a half mile to the aid station, and it the darkness is complete.  Darkness gives time and mental space to consider how an Ironman run strips a person down. Every pretense, every psychological self-defense mechanism, every artifice you construct around yourself to get through life is stripped away. The machismo, the smartass jokes, the big smile, they all drain away at the same time as your blood sugar. What you are left with is your true inner soul. It’s a sports cliché to say that you dig deep and find strength. Some do find strength, but certainly not everyone; others look deep inside and see fear, pain, weakness, or despair. Sometimes they see those things and keep going, sometimes they stop.

Just another half mile and that will be it for him, he'll walk to the aid station and then pack it in.
But then he thinks about the 67 year old half a country away, the kids in the parking lot at the finish and the lady standing on the curb. He dips his head a bit, leans his body forward, and gingerly
Starts to Run.

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