So, Racer K came out of nowhere and raised the bar for this blog and our training. Then Coach Robbie confessed he’s been slacking. It’s piercing honesty the world craves, and they delivered. It’s also a tough act to follow, but I certainly can’t ignore it.
I’ve never been able to come to grips with my age. No matter how hard I try, I’m always older than I think I am. Maybe that’s what keeps me young.
I started my quest for endurance last January at age 48. I couldn’t run a block. My swim was more or less a breast stroke. And my bike was hanging in the garage. Now, just over 12 months later, Ironman is looming.
I’ll racing my first Ironman in the 50-54 category. What the fuck? In 2012, the gentleman that won that age group at Wisconsin checked in at 10 hours, 17 minutes, and 19 seconds. I won’t win, but I will try, because that’s my nature.
I hear it all the time, “Wow, Ironman? That’s amazing, why would you do such a thing?” And normally, before I can formulate an answer, the person who asked has drifted back to their own problems. It’s natural, normal . . . very human. And, as silly as it sounds, I have had a real struggle with being human.
A lot of times I feel like I’ve wasted big chunks of my life chasing illusion. Something new to rub across my face while dreaming of the next conquest. And it’s easy to say Ironman is another in a long line of illusions, but it goes much deeper.
Ironman training tears at the very fiber of my being. It rips me apart and will slowly put me back together. When it’s done, I simply won’t be the same person, and that is very exciting because frankly it’s exhausting trying to be someone your not.
I played baseball for years, and every time I stepped on the field I lived in fear. Fear of failure, fear of not rising to the moment, fear of not being the best me.
In baseball you survive in isolation, even though you’re on a team. If the ball trickles through your legs or you strike out with the game on the line, you stand alone, with no one to blame. You instinctively pull your cap down to cover your eyes and drift far away from the beauty of the baseball diamond, which is now the ugliest place you can think of . . . and you never want to play again.
But it’s in your blood.
The team depends on you. You depend on you. Redemption awaits, and usually comes . . . if you show up.
The more you show up, the more people believe in you. The more you believe in yourself.
On Sunday, I showed up for my third triathlon. The fact that it was a “short” Sprint did not make it easy. Distance is relative, and my stomach churned. I fought back the only way I know . . . by pounding emotions deeper inside. Shoveling that fear into my psychological furnace and burning it for energy before the fire scalded my brain.
I filed around the edge of the pool and watched as other racers jumped into the water. I watched them swim into the snake pattern of the ropes and quietly told myself to relax. “Have fun” was the Fab 5 buzz phrase that morning and I quietly said it over and over to myself while the guy behind me rambled about some bike route he loves because it “seems like one of those roads where they would shoot car commercials.”
Shut the fuck up, man, I’m trying to have fun!
Of course, he was too, I just don’t quite know how to do it yet, but I will.
The swim was 300 meters, a fraction of my training distances, and for the first 100, I felt relaxed and alive. When I pushed off the wall toward my 5th length (of twelve), I lost my breath and sunk into swim anxiety.
I wasn’t tired, hungry for air. I pushed forward. I kept showing up. Then just before the tenth length, I decided to stop at the wall and stand on the edge to gather my bearings.
I’d never been happier to reach a swim wall and slowed to stand on the ledge. Hundreds of other athletes stood in line no more than two feet away and I wallowed in embarrassment. I worried what they would think, even though none of them knew who the fuck I was, or likely cared. But you know what? I didn’t want to be a post-race “story” that people laughed about at Cracker Barrel.
My chest felt like it might explode and I caved to the humiliation. I looked away from my fellow racers as I felt for the ledge with my foot. But I’ll be damned if there was no ledge and I sank like a ton of bricks straight to the bottom of the deep end! Now I was flailing like a baby bird trying to get my head above water, and surely the laughing stock of every triathlon party for years to come.
Somehow I sucked it up and pushed off to conquer length ten.
Eleven and twelve were no picnic. Form was gone and I slashed about like a wounded turtle. Somehow I made it to the end and found the energy to climb the ladder and run through the door into 40 degree rainy weather. What a fucking great time I was having!
I was dizzy, weak, and shivering. The trek from pool to my bike was about 40 seconds worth of running barefoot on frigid asphalt before crossing a rock garden covered with carpet.
This was a perfect example of a life situation when, in the past, I’d quickly decide to run to my car and get the hell out of there! It crossed my mind, but something inside this neural grid is changing. These are the things I want to face . . . I need to face.
While I may be getting clearer on commitments and decision making, that doesn’t mean I had a clear mind. I was absolutely flustered. I snapped my bike helmet tight, then tried putting on my Crushing Iron shirt, but it got stuck on the helmet! I tried pulling it over, but there was no chance and I was tangled inside like a monkey trying to escape a cargo net.
I took off the helmet, put on the shirt, then ran toward the bike exit hoping I was going the right direction. At least I was moving.
The bike was rather uneventful, but by mile 4 my feet were numb. Oddly, it didn’t seem to bother me and I found a comfortable groove in aero position. I was cruising at around 34 kilometers per hour (I can’t figure out how to get my speedometer language off of “Holland”) when I noticed blue hair and white knuckles as I approached a driveway. Two cyclists ahead of me whizzed by and sure enough, that big ole’ Ford LTD started pulling right into my lane. I reached for my breaks, swerved into the other lane and thought about how that little old lady was probably going to church –and how I don’t have a church– and potentially the next time she went to church I could be in a casket in front of her congregation as they dabbed her teary eyes and said it wasn’t her fault.
The roads were slick as ice from the onslaught of rain and she slammed on the breaks stopping just in time, so thankfully we didn’t have to meet in some ethereal world called “the ditch” in Murfreesboro, TN.
Ahh, so the bike ended with frozen feet and thighs, which is a great way to start a run. It was a legal shot of cortisone that took away any leg pain (real or imagined) I might have had. I labored through the run and crossed the finish line just about the time my I was warming up — which I suppose is a good sign considering I would have had about 11 more hours to go if it were an Ironman.
There is something about finishing a triathlon that does my body right. The dizziness from the pool is replaced by the sore butt on the bike and the ankle pain from the run makes you forget about your ass. It’s really a nice equation.
As usual, the race humbled me. There wasn’t much fanfare and the scenery was far from electric, but something about finishing is undeniably rewarding. You show up on a cold and rainy morning to put yourself to the test. You push yourself to the limits to see how far you can go. What you’re capable of. What life is capable of.
When people ask my why I would do Ironman, I never have a clear answer. It’s obviously the challenge and accomplishment, but I think it’s more about the journey. About how the training along the way brings out the parts of you that might normally stay buried. The confidence, the clarity, the humility. You become more comfortable with your beliefs. The commitment forces you to appreciate what’s really important and you begin to lose interest in petty distraction and “filler” that sucks energy from your true path.
About halfway through that run on Sunday, I was passing a guy wearing a beard, visor, and big toothy grin. He looked to be struggling a little and I asked him how he was doing. His smile grew even bigger and he said, “Well, if you’re gonna skip church, I can’t think of a better excuse.”
Right on, brother.