It was in the early 80’s when I first got the idea in my head that, someday, I’d like to do an Ironman. Triathlon was relatively new back then, the first “Ironman” having been held in Hawai’I in 1978. I had loved endurance running probably from the age of 8, and back then the thought of someday doing just a marathon seemed, to me, the ultimate endurance event. Then I caught TV coverage of one of the Hawaiian Ironmans, and immediately it garnered top billing on my—excuse the cliché—“bucket list”, the ne plus ultra of (what I thought at the time to be “purely”) physical achievement.
Over the years I got caught up in different things—martial arts, mountain biking, girls, drinking (heh)—but I never completely forgot about this goal, and whenever, perchance, I happened upon some triathlon event while channel surfing, I was glued.
A couple of years ago a lawyer at my old firm sent out a firm-wide e-mail soliciting interest in the Calgary half-Ironman. I signed on and, as is so often the case with things I say “yes” to, took a pitbull-style jaw-lock on the whole enterprise.
Early on I realized I would be able to at least “endure” any kind of swim event thrown at me; I realized I definitely had potential on the bike; and I realized I could (hearkening back to my track and field days in Los Angeles in the 80’s) excel on the run.
So came my first Olympic distance triathlon, and an intensely enjoyable weekend in Kimberly and Wasa Lake. I enjoyed the event, and the short-term physical pain associated with completing the distance. Triathlon, and the folks I trained with, were pretty fun. It kept me out of the bars a bit more, to be sure, and I enjoyed not waking up at 11:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning with a crushing hangover, a string of regrettable texts, and a half-eaten hoagie in bed beside me.
Then came the Calgary half-Ironman, a slightly more arduous endeavour, but still perfectly manageable, and my result was commensurate with my commitment. I was starting to understand the sport a bit better by this time, and, though I never anticipated this when I initially bought in, I was discovering, or perhaps more accurately, “rediscovering”, things about myself. The more effort I put into a particular training session, the more I seemed able to drill down into my thoughts and find dusty old chests long since locked and forgotten. It may sound a bit dramatic and esoteric I suppose, but there have been more-or-less (as anyone close to me will attest) “significant” events in my past, and each one, when it happened, knocked me into a harshly oblique vector, rendering my original trajectory nearly unrecoverable.
As I say, this was never the intention when I started, but it certainly became one of the reasons I continued. And the Calgary half-Ironman, while fulfilling, just wasn’t enough. That “distance” wasn’t enough. I needed to go farther, and push harder. So I drove out to Penticton late in August of 2009, volunteered at Ironman Canada, and signed up for 2010.
This is how it went…
August 25th, 2010: I arrived at my parents’ place in Kelowna late Wednesday evening. The race wasn’t until the Sunday, but it’s important to arrive at least a few days early to acclimatize, fulfill a number of pre-race requirements, and most importantly, get your mind ready.
On Thursday morning I made the 40-50 minute drive to Penticton to get in a short workout and pick up my race package.
This is the Ironman Canada Village at Okanagan Park. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
(i) you don’t mind hacking your way through a jungle of contagious type-triple-A stress vortexes wearing compression socks on their entire body, talking about their 40 hour training weeks, formidable nutrition plans, and the latest rumour—just out of earshot—the one that, unless you’re privy to, is going to ruin your entire race (it’s not unlike any law school library the day before a final exam); AND
(ii) you’re not easily seduced by the vampish predations of various and sundry unscrupulous corporate juggernauts (although, that $27 visor is lookin’ mighty purdy!).
Okay, I exaggerate some. Aside from the fact I can’t shake the feeling that wearing Ironman gear is, at the very least, an unconscious plea for admiration that goes beyond even my vanity, the merch simply didn’t turn my crank. At all. But it was reasonable compared to what you would pay in stores.
As well, I have to acknowledge that some of the folks with whom I spoke at the Village were positively pleasant. And the 1000s of volunteers were simply outstanding (after all, I was one in 2009).
Nevertheless, a good many of the athletes are precisely like I’ve described them above. I’ve seen some triathletes finish races and treat the volunteers, fellow triathletes, and perhaps worst of all, their partners, like absolute shit, as if the ability to finish a race somehow gives one primacy over all other living creatures. This is so very unfortunate. At the end of the Hawai’i half-Ironman, I recall seeing one guy walking along unencumbered, with the telltale ‘I just finished an Ironman’ swagger, while his wife or girlfriend was trailing behind, carrying all of his transition bags in both hands. I was astonished. I mean, I get that you just finished a half-Ironman, but can’t you recognize the irony? You…just…finished…a…half-Ironman. I’m sure you can muster up enough energy to give your gal a hand, no?
At any rate, I kept my time in the Village to a minimum.
For most of my trip I stayed at my Mom and Stepdad’s house in Kelowna. Now, my Mom is a very generous woman, but—God bless her—she doesn’t know when to stop with the goddamn food. Maybe it’s a product of growing up in post-war Germany, where food was scarce, but food certainly ain’t scarce in my life, and Mom shouldn’t be trying to make me eat like Chris Farley just days before a race:
“Squirt, you want some cheese? I got lots of cheese in the fridge.” (Yes, folks, I know what you’re thinking.)
“No thanks, Ma. I’ve got my diet planned out until the race.”
“How ‘bout sandwiches? You want me to make you a sandwich?”
“Ma, please, no,” I say a bit more forcefully. “I just ate. I won’t be hungry for hours.”
“Rose, leave him alone!” my Stepdad calls out from the recliner.
“Okay, okay, sorry,” she says. “Was just askin’.”
One minute passes.
“Squirty, have a banana.”
“Ma! For Chrissakes already! I’ve got a freakin’ race in three days!”
Well, you get the idea.
However, two days before the race, I had a conversation with my coach in Maine. One of his directions was this: “Tomorrow morning, it’s time to eat, Ari. Take this meal seriously. I mean, put your carb goggles on. You need to eat a lot. You should eat so much that you’re literally uncomfortable for a couple hours afterward, alright?”
I put down the phone, and contemplated his instructions.
A moment later, and light bulb! I’ve got a plan!
An hour after the call, my Mom and Stepdad get back from walking the dog.
“Hey Ma? Can we have pancakes tomorrow morning?”
Her eyes light up. “You mean like the real ones?” (By this she is referring to the Dutch-style, skinny pancakes that she used to make for me and my Stepdad, and that take a hell of a lot of preparation.)
“Okay. Will do,” she says. “Pancakes it is.” Mom was happy. I was salivating.
The next morning I was awoken at 8 a.m. by the I.H.O.P.—like smell coming under the bedroom door. I stumbled out to the kitchen to see the mixing bowl, a bag of white flour, two large fry pans on the stove, and batter and butter everywhere. There was a stack of seductive, steaming pancakes nestled invitingly on a plate in the middle of the kitchen table.
I sat down, and began to dine.
Here’s how it works…
You carefully lift one of the pancakes and gently spread it out on your plate…
…then you apply a generous layer of butter right down the middle…
…then you spoooooon a liberal amount of jelly all over the middle (don’t be shy!)…
…next, you open up the Aunt Jemima floodgates to flavour and let the sugary goodness pour down (sounds obscene, but this IS the Pancake Channel, folks)…
…next, slowly but surely roll that bad mamma jamma up (carefully!)…
…you’re almost there…drizzle even more A.J. over the top…aaaaaaand, wait for it, waaaait for it!…
…Presto! Diagnosis deelicious!
(I had ten.)
Anyway, here’s the transition area. You have to drop your gear off the day before the race, so, after clamouring out of the carb coma, I struggled to get my bike gear together. Then, I made the drive from Kelowna to Penticton, a little stressed because I was supposed to stay off my feet the entire day, and yet I’d spent a portion of it running errands, and doing things I should have taken care of days earlier.
At any rate, when I got to Penticton, I set up my bike and proceeded to walk toward the transition area. I’m walking along with my bike, when to my right I hear someone yell “Ari!” I look over and see Nikki, a girl I used to work with at a nightclub on 1st street years and years ago. “What are you doing?” she asks.
“Heh, whaddya think I’m doin’, girl.? Takin’ my bike to transition. How’s it goin’, Nik?”
Then Nikki’s Mom walks over. “Hey Christine.” I say. The lovely Christine owned the bar when we worked there. After she sold it, she moved out to Penticton and bought a quaint motel right by the beach. That family…Christine, Nikki, and Nikki’s sister Dani, are striking women. And they’ve barely aged a day in 12 years. (Obliging me, while I was watching 2012 later that evening with my parents, to yell at the screen, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! Throw Oliver Platt overboard, and let Nikki, Christine, and Dani onboard. Platt probably eats more than the three of them combined!”)
Anyway, we chat for a bit about the race and then Nikki asks, “So where are you staying tonight? “ I tell them I’m staying at my parents’ in Kelowna, and am driving to the race in the morning.
Christine would have none of it. In her lilting but forceful Irish accent, “Oh, Ari, you shouldn’t be driving in the morning! Oh no. The roads. You don’t know what the roads will be like. You shouldn’t be driving in the morning.”
“Yeah Ari,” Nikki says. “Mom’s got a room available. Last minute cancellation, don’t you Mom?”
“Yes, I do.” So I thank them for the gracious offer, and tell them I’ll let them know later that day.
Took me all of ten minutes to figure out I’d be an idiot to pass up an offer to stay at a motel ten minutes away from the starting line of a race I’d spent the last 12 months preparing for. A couple phone calls later and I was set.
This is the swim start, around 6:55 a.m. There are just shy of 2,700 competitors in the water and on the beach. I seeded myself pretty much dead centre in that hive of swimmers. At this point I’m a bit better than average on the swim, so I thought a middle of the pack position would help minimize my getting stuck behind slower swimmers, or getting clobbered by faster swimmers trying to get past me.
Those last couple of minutes before the race I felt very calm, very prepared. I had no reason to question whether I’d trained enough—I had—and all elements of my coach’s race strategy were floating like buoys in immediate purview. So I just kind of stood there, knee-deep, contemplating the past year—the day I signed up in August 2009, the good times and bad times in between, the last couple of weeks—and as I brought myself back into that instant in space and time a couple of minutes before 7:00 a.m. on August 29, 2010, I realized I was smiling from ear to ear.
This wasn’t “just a race.”
“Alright, we have about 60 seconds until the race start, athletes,” announcer Steve King said.
I brought my goggles down over my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths.
“We have about 30 seconds until we get underway…”
I shook out my arms and legs one last time.
“10 seconds everyone…”
And as the crowd counted down from 10 to 1, it was as if someone had thrown a switch somewhere: My current went live, and mind, body, and soul went 20/20.
Go time 🙂
This is the washing machine. The photo doesn’t do it justice. When you’re there, it looks like some kind of shark feeding (or the dance floor at the Back Alley). Nevertheless, clearly I nailed my seeding, as I didn’t find myself getting clobbered too much, or having to swim over people.
Within a few minutes I found someone who was a little bit faster than I, and whom I could draft off of. When you get within a few feet behind another swimmer, you actually benefit quite a bit from their wake. It became clear pretty quickly that this guy knew exactly how to sight properly, as we passed within inches of each buoy, so I pretty much just kept my eyes on his feet and enjoyed the ride. I got separated from him a couple of times by errant swimmers, but he had a distinctive kick, so he wasn’t hard to find again.
The swim was over way quicker than I expected, and I came out of the water feeling pretty good. 1:09:57.
Onto the bike. At this point in the race the important thing is to focus. Often, when you come out of the water and on the bike, you feel elated, and this can take you away from the task at hand: controlling your own bike. And, when you consider the majority of people are feeling just the way you do, you realize you’re probably safer huffing ether and driving through a Walmart parking lot on a Saturday morning. So, focus!
This is the start of Richter Pass, a relatively steady half-hour climb that many Ironman Canada veterans speak of with fear and trepidation, like it were the Balrog, or, worse, Celine Dion. The fear, I’m guessing, is borne of improper race strategy. While I was spinning away in my lowest gear, I got passed by riders who were out of the saddle, powering up in higher gears, and panting heavily. In short, they were blowing themselves up to save five, maybe seven minutes on the climb—time they were clearly going to give up later on during the bike. I passed dozens of these riders over the next 10 kilometres.
Richter Pass descent: This was fast. Purchasing my bike and performing the various upgrades on it was a year-long process, with the last upgrade happening just days before the Calgary half-Ironman at the beginning of August. I also had the bike professionally fitted, and have been tweaking my body position for months. It’s paid off. I passed literally everyone anywhere near me on that descent, maxing out at 77 km/h. The advantage was so dramatic that, when we hit the next uphill portion, one of the other athletes pedaled up to me and asked whether I’d “greased” my bike before the race.
At around 120 kilometres into the bike, the weather got decidedly miserable. The sky went black, the wind picked up, and it started to rain. This made for an irritating climb to Yellow Lake (the second so-called “major” climb on the bike route), and a white knuckle descent down the other side. The weather had improved by the time I rode back into Penticton, and I rolled into transition in 5:56:03, right on target—not too bad, given the inclement weather.
Onto the marathon. I started out the run feeling pretty good, though I was cautious about my left knee and my right soleus, as they’d been giving me grief over the last month.
I settled into a pace that hovered between 4:54 and 5:15 per kilometer, which didn’t feel too bad at all at first. In fact, one of my primary thoughts was that I was kind of bored, and as I’d never run a marathon before, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself for the next 3.5 hours.
This is about 8 miles into the run. It was around this time when I first thought, “Hey, I might actually finish this thing,” as well as, “Hey, this is kind of starting to hurt.”
This part of the run was simultaneously inspiring and daunting: You’re afforded an expansive view of Skaha Lake all the way to the far shore, but therein lies the problem: You have to run ALL THE WAY to that far shore, and that’s just to be at the halfway point.
It gets somewhat hilly close to the turnaround, and I saw my pace had begun to suffer a bit. Nevertheless, I got there at 1:55—not too far off the pace—made the U-turn and headed for home.
The hills were more challenging in this direction, and shortly into the back half of the marathon we were hit with a substantial headwind. My legs were definitely getting tired.
Now, my coach told me that somewhere around mile 18 of the marathon things would get ugly. Well, I think I officially entered the hurt locker at mile 17, but didn’t acknowledge it until mile 18, when I consciously shifted, per my coach’s instructions, into “toughness” mode. The feeling was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before in any training session or any race. I can’t even begin to articulate it any meaningful way. For now, this is all I can say:
No acute pain or cramps anywhere. Just a feeling of extreme…something or other: malaise, with a generous dose of worry, and a feeling of fatigue, like someone had just upped the difficulty level on life to “expert”. All signs pointed to “stop.”
It’s a curious little philosophical conundrum. We talk at length about mind/body dualism, but if your body is telling you stop, and your mind is telling you to stop, then what on earth is it that’s compelling you to keep moving? Those last 9 miles I was playing “whack-a-mole” with negative self-talk. The myriad ways in which my mind contrived all manner of creative criticisms, insults, and jibes were staggering. Every other second I was given a new reason to stop, and every other second I did whatever I could to blast the thought out of existence like Bill Murray’s gopher in Caddyshack.
It was unreal, and, at times, ridiculous: I tried to think of “tough” people. I found myself considering various superheroes. And they had to be real tough. The Hulk wouldn’t do, as he would’ve sunk without a trace three minutes into the swim. Batman wouldn’t work, either, because he’d get blisters from those high-heeled boots of his, and be at the side of the road rubbing Jergen’s lotion into his feet not even two kilometers into the run. The choice was obvious: Dr. Manhattan. No one’s tougher than Dr. Manhattan.
Evidently Dr. Manhattan’s not a marathon runner, as the last 10k were tougher than I’d ever imagined. It was one step after another. I went from the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to hold my 5:00 minutes per kilometre pace, to the resolve that I was NOT going to stop, or walk, under any circumstances (and I didn’t). However, I refused to look at my watch those last 10k, because I’m guessing my pace slowed to 6:00 minutes per kilometer, dreadfully slow for me. And the worst part: I got passed quite a few times in the last three kilometers. For me it’s especially aggravating, as I’m almost always the one doing the passing.
My goal for the marathon was 3 hours, 30 minutes. I came in at 3:56:06.
Despite the ninth circle of hell that describes those last 9 miles, I still clocked in at 11 hours, 10 minutes, and 41 seconds, just outside my goal time of 11 hours. Top 25% in my age group, and top 17% overall.
My time in the finisher’s area was interesting. Crossing the finish line is like hitting the tarmac after an 11-hour flight, the last 90 minutes of which have been spent flying through a hurricane. As you taxi through the chute, you look around for signs of shearing, and half expect the engines to simply fall away from the wings and hit the runway like smoking husks.
Despite the blanket the volunteers draped over me, I was shivering like a muthafucka. And what was most odd was that, try as I could, I wasn’t able to achieve any sort of “perspective” on the experience. What just happened? What did I do? How do I feel? Like trying to climb on top of a giant, slippery beach ball in the middle of a lake, I couldn’t gain any purchase on these questions. Am I happy? Am I sad?
Was it worth it?
I gave up asking, and said to myself, ‘If I don’t have any answers 24 hours from now, then maybe this wasn’t a good idea.’ So, I gave myself a day.
I’ve questioned whether I wasn’t “tough enough” those last 8 miles, whether I could have run faster. I’m not sure. It was my first marathon, but then again I do have great stamina as compared to other athletes, and my running is far and away my strongest suit. That being said, I was clearly one of the slowest moving creatures in the finishers’ area after the race, and more than a few people looked at me with a blend of admiration and pity. I could hardly walk. Even as I write this, my legs are still very, very sore. I’m guessing I took myself pretty close to the edge.
Exactly where I wanted to go.
After I hobbled out of the finisher’s area, collected all my gear, and wheeled my bike through the crowd to my car, I had one thing on my mind: junk food. But, Main Street, where all the junk food is to be found, was closed to vehicular traffic, and I couldn’t really walk, so I drove around Penticton in a post-Ironman fugue, in search of anything. I would have eaten a park bench. After about 20 minutes I finally came across an A&W.
Angelic chorus as the drive-thru girl handed me my order: large fries, gravy, coke, and a Mozza burger. (I’d see that same drive-thru girl about 60 minutes later when I drove through again to order a Mama burger, a large coke, and a large root beer.) It was the first solid food I’d had in over 12 hours, and my taste buds rioted in full bacchanalian frenzy.
After my, uh, dinner, I went to meet Nikki and her family, who were near the finish line waiting for their 61-year-old friend to come in. They were the first folks I’d said more than ten words to in about 24 hours, and it was great to decompress. As I indicated earlier, I wasn’t able to gain any perspective on my experience while I was in the finisher’s area. However, as I talked to Nikki and Christine, and recounted the race, I could see the outline beginning to take shape.
After I said goodnight to Nikki and Christine, I hobbled toward my car. On the way, I stopped and turned and took one last look at the athletes still on the course.
As one of my colleagues from my tri-club put it, this is “the wreckage hour.”
Some of these folks looked like extras in a George A. Romero movie. These souls have been exerting themselves for so long at this point (15+ hours), and they’ve been running, walking, and staggering in near complete darkness for a good portion of it, that you can’t help but wonder: What keeps them going? I admire them tremendously. But what keeps them going? Clearly, they must have some good reasons, but I can’t speak for them.
And at this point, I’m still not sure I can speak for myself. At least not conclusively. I did get my answers the next day, but some of those answers came in the form of more questions. Somewhere down there remains unfinished business. (Melodramatic, I’m sure, but you’re more than welcome to take a spin if you like.)
What I do know is this:
This was never some sort of lark for me. Even given my excessive tendencies—of which, God knows, I have a few—this was not a lark. The night before the race, as I was flying down the highway toward that motel in Penticton, sunroof open, music blaring, the setting sun bouncing off the mountains across the lake, I had some sort of quasi-Sartrean experience, a profound feeling of absolute freedom that was at once exhilarating and terrifying. I’ve traversed about a web of others’ opinions and expectations for so long, always cognizant of how even just the act of pressing down on one strand may cause a reaction somewhere else far off in that sticky matrix. For a few moments it was as if the web fell away.
No, this was not a lark. There was too much at stake. This year, I gave up, sacrificed, lost, and gained. I realized how far I would go for something, for someone, and perhaps most importantly—and this has been the hardest to accept—how far I’d go for myself. And though I’ve successfully avoided two out of three of my late father’s unholy trinity—drinking, smoking, and gambling—this was a bet I knew I had to make. And the race isn’t over…