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First Tri: Remembering The 2009 Jarden Westchester Triathlon

September 10, 2010

The 2009 Jarden Westchester Triathlon was my first attempt at training for and competing in any type of Triathlon. I enjoyed a wonderful thread of emails with my niece, “K” (an experienced triathlete), during and up to the main event. She helped me in no small way to prepare mentally and physically for that race. But after the race, I forgot (this can happen after 50) to update her on the big day. I sent her the note below late one night in January.

I would have written less if I had drunk less wine.

As hosts of us gear up for the upcoming 2010 event on September 26th, I thought it was worth looking back on the drama, weather, and rush of last year.

Jan 2010

Dear K,

There’s snow on the ground now. The days are amazingly short, and running requires multiple layers and a watchful eye for ice. Cycling has become more akin to sledding than riding, and if you leapt in the Sound right now, the only doubt regarding the outcome would be whether you died from freezing to death or from your reproductive organs retracting so rapidly that they slammed against the inside your head, knocking you unconscious and causing you to drown. It’s hard to believe that a few short months ago I was on the verge of heat prostitution as I ran interval training in the August heat. Now if I leave the dog outside too long, I have to go outside with a hammer and crowbar and chip him off the lawn.

As I was mulling all of this fascinating climate diversity around in my head, brushing the icicles off of my eyebrows after trying to find the van under a pile of snow, it dawned on me that I never updated you on the Triathlon. Not sending anything after that bevy of training updates was anticlimactic (and still may be), and is probably akin in some respects to several months of foreplay leading only to an evening folding laundry with a senile grandparent.

The irony of that is just how climactic (figuratively speaking, of course) the race was.  I loved the whole process – the months of training (most of it), the camaraderie, the anticipation, and ultimately the race itself. I was so into it, that in the days following the race, I didn’t know what to do with myself and drifted into a mild case of post-race depression, sleeping with my helmet, wearing my bike shoes to work, surfing the net for upcoming triathlons, tossing back 12 oz water bottles of Accelerade from a brown bag as I drifted aimlessly from running store to running store.

I’ve meant to write several times, but haven’t been able to steal away the time to piece all the moments of that day together in a cohesive thread. The short story is easy. I survived; I exceeded my goal of finishing the same day I started; I did not need the aid of an EMT, priest, Rabbi, or coroner; I had a ball.  But there’s more to it than that, as I know you know. There was a certain elation associated with the whole process that seemed unrelated to all that leftover Percocet from my shoulder surgery. So with everyone in bed and the dog thawing by the fire, I thought I would take a moment and regale you with this former Tri virgin’s musings of the big day.

The Set Up

In hindsight, given the incredible high of the race, it’s odd that I never thought about the actual event until registration the day before. That day was sunny, cloudless, windless, and festive. And for the first time it actually occurred to me to think about the race from a perspective other than what it would take to finish it. This was truly an Event. There were tents, vendors, balloons, cameras, massage stations, music, and flocks of manly looking men and manly looking women. And at the center of this “pavilion”, at the foot of a long chute, was the finish – a grand red arch with a timing clock that was definitely something you wanted to run under, not crawl toward.

In 4 ½ months of training I had never thought how exhilarating race day could be. But from the moment I picked up my race pack to the following morning when I splashed into the transition area, I was swept up in the building energy of the race. I didn’t stop grinning until the end of Yom Kippur services the day after the Tri.

Basking in that balmy September sun and the glow of the welcoming volunteers, I opened my race packet. I pawed the very cool fleece coat, tried on the bike cap, and checked out the assortment of energy bars and drinks, a welcome note, a list of things to bring and remember, and a warning not to forget my timing chip. Another sheet, bright orange with big black letters was entitled “SAFETY FIRST.” It began by clearly detailing in an even larger bold large font what to do in the event I got in trouble during the swim. “Take off your brightly colored swim cap and wave it vigorously.” I looked into the packet and pulled out my Jarden 2009 Westchester 25th Anniversary cap.  It was dark grey, closer to black. Roughly the same color as the majority of the rocks out in the Sound. The same cap, I think, that Navy SEALS wear when trying to infiltrate an enemy beachhead undetected.

“Listen for your heat, and look for similar colored caps” (if you can distinguish them from the rocks). I would be starting in Wave 7. In my case, the rock heads consisted of a mix of men 50-54 and recently pubescent boys 20-26, intermixed on the beach.  I guess the logic there was that the younger swimmers were strong and vibrant enough to push the wheelchairs down to the water or perform CPR on an older participant while still completing their swim in fewer than 20 minutes.

I received numbers for my helmet, my bike, and one for my running shirt. A wrist band for identification (really important if you had a blackish cap and were planning on getting in trouble during the swim), and a timing chip to wear around my ankle. Each volunteer wished me a great race and echoed the warning of “don’t forget your timing chip.”

I went home, stashed my packet with my other gear, re-read the race instructions (show up, wave your cap, DON’T FORGET YOUR TIMING CHIP, keep your bike on the road, no drafting (a huge part of my biking strategy), have fun,) and then wrote myself a note and taped it to the back of the front door. It read:

  • Eat Pasta.
  • Hydrate.
  • Bed by 9:00.
  • Set alarm for 5:30.
  • Remember timing chip.
  • Don’t forget the bike.

I did eat pasta.

I drank lots of water.

In bed by 9:00 didn’t happen. In what cannot accurately be categorized as a true MENSA moment, I went out that night and played the first set of a gig with my quartet at a local club (thinking it would have a calming effect on me). That pushed the “in bed by 9:00” thing closer to “in bed by 11:30.” And as was the case with every match during my entire high school wrestling career, I then found myself staring up at the ceiling. And when I did sleep, I had a series of recurring dreams about forgetting my timing chip, missing the start, great whites (the fish, not big white people), crashing the bike, forgetting my timing chip, not getting my feet out of the clips, running the wrong course, and forgetting my timing chip.

Race Day

I woke up at 4:25 AM as our 80 pound purebred mutt “snuck” onto the full size bed Reggie and I share (yes, full size – amazing we don’t have more kids just from accidental coupling during un-choreographed position changes during the night).  His sneaking was roughly the equivalent of dropping a 64” screen TV into the middle of the bed while setting off a car alarm. He dragged himself up, circled a dozen times, stretched, shook, groaned and then proceeded to audibly and relentlessly lick every inch of himself, and from the sound of it, the walls, the ceiling, quilt, side table, bathroom door and the top of his head. A canine equivalent to a Metallica rehearsal, which would have been easier to sleep through.

Muttering threats to the dog about the local Korean restaurant, I got up, and with a slight sense of panic ran to my pack and immediately strapped the timing chip to my ankle.  Then, dressed only in the chip, I stepped outside and noticed several things. There were animals bobbing around the yard in pairs as the weather forecaster’s prediction of 100% chance of rain (“some local flooding”) was proving dramatically accurate. And things were flying by vertically – leaves, branches, rain, a group of squirrels, and several small homes, all of which suggested that the high wind part of the forecast was also spot on.

On the bright side, I was going to save big on sunscreen, and you could put heat prostration on the “things to worry about list” right behind getting gored by a woolly mammoth. But as I stood there, a sudden wave of anxiety swept over me at the thought that they would cancel the race – or the swim.  I felt an urgent need to call the race committee and insist that losing say 2% of the 900 race entrants to drowning was an acceptable risk in light of the 5 months of training I had put in.

And then, still naked staring into the rain, I got anxious about the bike ride. Big rain, slick roads – should I ditch the loaner road bike (F-18) or opt for my ancient hybrid (Hindenburg). The loaner was sexy and lean, but temperamental – light weight, clip-in pedals (which I had almost mastered), gears that practically changed themselves, with a seat that could capture the hearts and index fingers of 4 out of 5 proctologists. But those hard razor-thin wheels in that storm seemed less stable than Sarah Palin juggling vials of depleted Uranium while trying to recite facts of any kind. My hybrid, on the other hand was cherubic with a great personality – older, heavier, a few good gears, no clips, rusty, but as solid as 5 day old oatmeal, with a seat fashioned after a lazy-boy recliner.

Grabbing the hybrid (with encouragements to “be safe, dad” from both Dylan and Elijah who were up at 5:45 to see me out the door) was the first of only three somewhat questionable strategic decisions I made that day.

5 Minutes later, I was at Rye Beach, pumped up and splashing my way into the throng.

The “no wet suit” part of my strategy (MENSA moment #2) stopped resonating with me as I set up my transition area. I was barefoot, in my bike shorts and a swim top, about an hour and a half from my start, shivering like an impassioned Chihuahua which had eaten its way out of a case of espresso beans.  Numbers were inked on both of my arms and my age on my left calf. And in front of me, my race gear was meticulously laid out in a series of plastic bags under a tarp: bike shoes, shirt, helmet, water, GU, running shoes, ½ case of Butt Balm and backup quart of KY, passport, last will and testament, flares, life vest, emergency raft, jaws-of-life, sleeping bag, laptop, English-Romanian dictionary, rear axle from a 1965 Mustang Convertible, emergency generator, and everything else the training books and blogs said I should have to ensure smooth transitions throughout the race.

Despite the fact I had long since lost all feeling in my feet, and that pieces of my teeth were shooting out of my mouth as I shivered, it was an exhilarating sensation to look out at the Sound, the course, the kayaks, the crowds, the patrol boats with their strobe lights, and see close to 900 participants getting ready for the start. And somehow, amidst all those people milling around on the beach (OK, only 7 of whom weren’t wearing a wetsuit), Elijah, Dylan and Reggie found me, which was a tremendous lift. I gave them all hugs and meant to say “God, it’s so great to see you,” but what came out was closer to “ga eeth tho ugliabath theepmo oo”  as my jaw had apparently frozen nearly shut.

And then, a welcome speech, the national anthem, and the first wave was off. Luminous yellow caps and wet suits hopped, jumped and sprinted into the sound. Dylan said they looked like a flock (school?) of penguins racing into the water. I soaked up a bunch of their hugs and kisses, and then ambled into the sound for what could erroneously be called a “warm up” swim.

The Swim

5 minutes later, I gathered with the rock heads, behind the vibrant purple and royal blue heats, in front of the pink, luminous yellow and neon green caps. Heading all the warnings during our open water swims about how brutal sighting into the morning sun would be, I was wearing a dark blue tinted pair of reflective goggles which gave me the sense that I was participating in some late night beach activity.

And then, a horn, a strobe light, a chorus of shouts, and we were off, our grey/black caps now exactly the same color as the water in the morning storm.

Knowing how important hydration was, I made sure to take huge swigs of Sound water every time someone swam over me or when I looked up to sight on a distant buoy. If you’re not familiar with the water in the Sound, it is composed of 7% salt water, 18% sea lice, 22% general debris, 38% urine, and 15% anything else that happens to float out of the NY water/city/sewage system.  It was choppy, and the further out we swam, the more turbulent it became. I found this to be a significant advantage, for my twice weekly swims in the sound had included several really stormy days. One day in particular was so windy that a bunch of us actually body surfed for about 20 minutes before the swim. The choppier it got, the more I felt I was in my element.

Roughly 10 minutes into the race, I gently collided with a purple capped woman swimming perpendicular to the course. She blinded several of us waving her brightly colored cap vigorously at a harbor patrol boat off to our right.  They pointed to my head and advised her to just grab onto the rock in front of her.

At the outer buoy, the current and chop were impressive.  Several swimmers were calling it a day and being pulled into a nearby boat.  I hung a left, not using the high tech “buoy turn” we had practiced on day 1 in the sound (I must have blown at least 12 seconds there) and then made strategic decision #3. Instead of sighting from buoy to buoy, I opted to swim a straight line to the last buoy. An arc vs. a straight line, a geometrically sound plan. So I, and about 10 others, set a bead on the final buoy. But no matter how hard we swam, the current seemed to keep pushing us right. After about 5 minutes of that we figured something was amiss when we passed a harbor buoy that read “Welcome to Newfoundland.” Three of us stopped, pulled off our goggles and stared through the rain and chop to find we were swimming toward a buoy that was being slowly towed off the course by some Jihadist boat, skippered no doubt by the same crew that had selected the color of our caps.

Give or take several additional mild collisions, and despite the 5 minute course correction, the rest of the swim was uneventful. I felt strong, still giddy and ready for phase 2.

Transition 1

For all the bricks I had done, I had never actually bolted out of the water and run for my bike.  It turns out, interestingly enough, that swimming in all that chop with only partially thawed legs has a way of lingering when you hit the beach. While my mind registered the crowd above the beach and shouted “RUN,” my equilibrium was experiencing an emergency broadcast test moment, and was off the air. I felt as if I had to grab each leg and toss it ahead of me for the first 50 yards out of the water. I didn’t fall, but I was demonstrating the physical finesse of a cross between the Tin Man and John McCain.  Drink a martini at a mountain resort, have someone spin you around a few times blindfolded, and then start running without bending your knees, and you will experience a similar sensation.  No one mistook me for a member of the New York City ballet, despite the tight black shorts.  And given the cold, it was equally as unlikely that anyone confused me for a male, despite the aforementioned tight bike shorts.

I high fived Reggie and the kids (who did recognize me) and then wobbled off to my first transition.

I had never practiced a transition before, either. But my reasoning was, how hard could it be, especially if you didn’t have to wrestle out of a wetsuit?  You change, you drink, you GU, you go. And I was nearly right. I tossed the useless swim shirt and tugged on dry socks and dry shoes, which given the pouring rain, would be dry for maybe 28 seconds. I toweled off a bit, and then grabbed the bike shirt, which like the bike shorts, were fitted for a person roughly 2 ½ feet tall weighing 57 pounds.  I stuck my head through and then stretched out my arms, and as I tried to pull it down over my dripping body, it stuck to me like a wet piece of paper. I got it as far as my armpits when it coagulated, the number tore off and the open safety pin started jabbing at my chest every time I wriggled.  I hopped, tugged, spun, and then rubbed up against the bike bar trying to cajole the thing over my body. By the time I pulled the skin tight thing on, extracted the pin from my chest, and re-pinned the two halves of my race number back onto the shirt, I had expended more energy than I had on the entire swim. I think my first transition time was something like 90 minutes.

The Ride

As I took off on the bike, I was pumped, amped, and literally laughing out loud at the intensity of the rain. On the downhill stretches it actually stung.  And while a lot people bitched later about the ongoing deluge, the ½ inch of standing water everywhere, the spray of their own wheels and the wakes from the other bikes, I have to say I found the inclement weather to be hugely entertaining.  Validating Reggie’s theory that Elijah (age 10) is the more likely of the two of us to mature any time soon,  I ploughed into every significant puddle I could find, especially the ones being actively flagged by concerned volunteers along the route. That may have cost me 5 minutes or so on the ride, but it was worth every “wasted” second.

Starting shortly after the beginning of the ride, and for the first couple of miles, I experienced a jolt of acute anxiety as I suddenly realized that I had lost a significant portion of my hearing in both ears. At first I attributed the affliction to over exertion and assumed I was on the verge of a stress induced brain tumor, stroke, or massive myocardial infarction. These things can happen spontaneously after your 50th birthday. My notes for next year now include a reminder which reads, “don’t forget to remove ear plugs after the swim.”

26 miles. Hard core cyclists and veteran triathletes tend to belittle this distance, classifying it as more of a spirited romp to bring their heart rates up a bit than any kind of endurance ride. But in my mind, it still sounds like I had to pedal my way from Tampa to Bangor. This is not a trivial distance on a bike… or even in a car now that I think about it, especially after a hefty swim in the height of a monsoon. But as you know, you power through, and despite the intensity and focus (or maybe because of it) those miles all start to become a bit of a blur as you grind them out.

My personal grind was interspersed with ongoing shouts of thanks to volunteers and occasional chatter with fellow bikers. Otherwise, I focused on the course and staying upright (a considerable amount of bikers wiped out that morning)and moderated the ongoing battle in my brain as half of it cheered me on, saying push, you’re in great shape, I think I can, I think I can, go baby go, Oprah could pedal this hill carrying Dr. Phil wedged in her cleavage, while the other half (the part with a direct line to my legs) was shrieking simply and clearly, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND!?”

I relished the hybrid on the downhills and the turns. But I cursed it vigorously on the uphill stretches. In aggregate, I did more cursing then relishing by about 3 to 1. Early on in the ride, I lost all but the highest 7 gears, and as I found out after the race, the front bearings had gone bad. And irony of ironies, my choice to ride the hybrid literally came back to bite me.  At about a dozen points on the ride, I leapt up on the pedals, and shouted, sounding something like a cross between a samurai warrior and a neutered geriatric lapdog.  To the unobservant and severely retarded, this may have seemed an impressive demonstration of unbridled athleticism. Manliness unbound. Testosterone unleashed.  In fact, the front half of my bike seat had broken off, leaving a death gap between the seat and the metal frame beneath it. To say it “pinched” if you sat down wrong or careened over the pock-marked NY roads, would be a euphemism not dissimilar to describing the Spanish Inquisition as a mildly opinionated Catholic social group.  The good news is that all domestic arguments about scheduling a vasectomy have been rendered moot.

I did have one glorious moment prior to humiliating myself on the infamous Claire’s Climb. About ¼ of the way into one of the first major climbs, I noticed that I was keeping pace with a dazzling red carbon-fiber Tri-bike and a youthful left calf branded with the number 34. With a few lower gears still intact, and cautiously positioned on the seat, I powered past youthful tri-guy, very casually stating “ON YOUR LEFT,” as I steadily moved ahead of him. I had a momentary thought about whistling as I went by, but I was pretty sure that any added effort on my part would cause me to pass out.

The real moment for me happened as I got about two bike lengths ahead of him. I heard from behind me, “FUCK THAT.” As he went by on my left, he added, “Sorry dude, this ain’t happening.” It was brief moment, but rewarding. I remember having something incredibly witty to say to him as he rode by, but only managed a grunt which came out as something like “argloph.”

From a performance perspective, Claire’s climb was my low point on the ride. It’s the midway mark sporting about a ½ mile stretch that takes you at roughly a 90 degree incline from sea level to an altitude equivalent of the summit of Mt Rainer. In the short downhill stretch preceding the right turn that marks the start of the climb, I tried to gear up and gain speed. It was at this moment for the one and only time in the entire race, that I somehow managed to engage the lowest gear on the bike.

The switch from mid-gear resistance to nothing caused a series of things to happen. First, my legs suddenly started spinning freely which through my balance off and set my full weight down hard on the broken seat. The combination of losing my balance and the sensation that a pit bull had leapt through my shorts and taken a death hold on my groin, caused me to take the turn way too wide and careen in front of a several cyclists as I frantically tried to gear up and extract myself from the seat. As I coasted uphill toward the timing mat at the base of the climb, the de-railer finally engaged, dropping me somewhere in the neighborhood of my 18th gear. My maniacally free spinning legs hit a solid wall of resistance, jolting me to a near stop, but enabling me to lift off the seat.  I crossed the timing plate at the base of the climb at a speed just slower than the annual growth rate of a giant redwood tree. And then to avoid toppling over, I had to veer right to gain momentum, nearly taking out another collection of bikers who had successfully powered through the turn. Kind words were said by all.

With legs burning, my heart rate just over 325, and a vague sympathy for John Wayne Bobbitt, I struggled up Claire’s Climb mostly standing on the pedals trying to avoid slipping backwards down the hill. I was passed by nearly everyone, including a geriatric bystander taking his walker for a stroll, and anyone else who was in the vicinity of Claire’s Climb within 15 minutes of my getting there. There was no way I was going to try and change gears, I didn’t have enough momentum to reach down for my water bottle, and about half way up, I was seriously considering just lying down and barfing (not necessarily in that order). Naturally, as I was chanting “don’t hurl” to myself, I noticed it was at this point on the ride where the professional photographers were set up, snapping pictures of all the cyclists “racing” up this infamous stretch. I figured that given my rate of climb, I was probably in over 100 photographs as the featured sidekick with every person that passed me by.

I have to say that despite the pain and nausea that hit me on the first half of that hill, and partly because I was keeping an eye out for a place to throw up, I did managed to take in the compelling site that was Claire’s Climb. Here, in addition to the rain, a low fog hung over the hill and the trees. And while I thought I was still whimpering from my seat encounter, the sound I was actually hearing was that of a bagpiper.  He stood at the apex of the hilltop left of the road, dramatically silhouetted between two oak trees, fog wafting above and around him. He was playing in memoriam of the climb’s namesake, who had passed away from ALS. If I toppled over and died right then and there, the music would have been perfect.  And over the road, held aloft by a hook and ladder truck, was a huge American Flag. As I passed under it, roughly 4 hours after taking out half the field at the base of the climb, I chugged over the timing mat which given my speed bleated like a dying sheep. And following the bleat, I was spurred on by a collection of giddy volunteers who were enthusiastically chanting “GO. GO. GO. Almost there. Only 10 more miles to go.” I viewed these particular volunteers with the same disdain as I did my dentist, when after 30 minutes, sweating profusely with one knee on my chest and both hands and a massive pair of pliers in my mouth announced, “The next one should be a lot easier.”

After Claire’s Climb, I had the road to myself. I didn’t see a soul for a good 2 miles. In my head, I became convinced that everyone had passed me on the climb, and I picked up my pace hoping the finish would still be there when I arrived. But then I caught up to some groups, and others caught and passed me.  I saw bikers carrying crippled bikes with contorted wheels. I watched one pretty battered guy climb into an ambulance. Several people were feverishly changing tires (which reminded me – duh – to bring a spare tire and kit for next year). I saw one woman miss a turn and fly straight into a driveway, unscathed, swearing like a banshee. Each of those scenes added to my focus on staying upright and the latter part of the ride seemed to pass relatively quickly. Granted, the winner probably completed the entire race in roughly the time it took me to get up Claire’s Climb, but nonetheless, from my perspective the transition area seemed to appear far sooner than I expected. To the cheers of a fairly sizeable crowd and a few friends who had braved the storm, I gingerly dismounted, and using the bike as a crutch (until my legs congealed), jogged into the transition area.

The Run

One of the dark little secrets of rotator cuff surgery is that for the first several months of recovery, you have to “sleep” sitting up. This therapeutic procedure comes highly recommended by the physical therapists stationed in Guantanamo Bay. Percocet helps. Percocet on top of two gin martinis helps more. But sleep is never more than fleeting, as night after night you jolt yourself awake at countless points with a thunderous snore, either completely dry mouthed staring straight up at the ceiling, or alternatively, with your chin against your chest staring straight down, drooling uncontrollably into your own crotch. It’s an all-night bobble head episode as you ping pong from banging your skull against the headboard, to falling forward into your own lap.  Drives the chicks nuts.

After three months of that, I developed hugely annoying chronic pain and stiffness in my lower back. It usually only affects me first thing in the morning when I lurch out of bed just a little less limber than our dining room table. But fortunately, outside of a little stiffness, my lower back had never bothered me significantly during any of my training. And on race day, there hadn’t even been a rumor of pain or stiffness from the swim to hoisting my bike on the rack after the ride.  But after some water, a pack of GU, and a change of shoes (I had a pair of dry socks and a dry shirt which I only looked at, and only long enough to curse them) , I bolted out of the transition area and ran about 100 yards when my lower back completely seized.

There was no transition from mild discomfort to my acute desire to shout “MEDIC.”  In an instant, it felt as if jolt of electricity had hit the small of my back (I know that feeling, because I built a house once…including the wiring…but that’s another story). I was sure that my demonic bike seat had chased me down and chewed its way up into the base of my spine. With each step the pain evolved – up from the middle of my back to my shoulder blades, and down the back of my legs to my knees. At the rate it was spreading, I figured it was only a matter of seconds before I would be completely paralyzed, laying flat on the ground using my tongue in the gravel to scratch out “CALL 9-1-1”.

But I dug dig deep. As the pain transitioned to agony, I reflected on those months of training and recalled all the motivational stories of people who were running sightless, or with disease, or with missing limbs, or prosthetic heads. I thought of the plethora of worthy and heartwarming causes represented by so many committed participants. Then I contemplated the complexities of having to lie to all the people who knew I was running this event, if I didn’t finish.  And then there was the obvious danger of lying down with a signed “organ donor” card in my pocket.

In the few seconds it took to dismiss all that and begin looking for a place to lie down, the crowd started shouting loudly, “Helmet! Helmet! HELMET” at which point I reached up with both hands horrified that I had forgotten to discard my bike helmet, and that that was somehow related to the pain in my back. But it was another guy who tore by me with his bike helmet still on. And then I had a fleeting but panicky thought that perhaps you were supposed to run with your helmet on, and I made a quick and painful lurch back toward the transition area. That momentary confusion, embarrassment, and slight burst of adrenaline didn’t free me of the pain, but it eased it.  I kept moving, painfully and way off-pace, but I was moving.

For the first two miles, the course looped us out and around Playland Park (a nice varnished hard wood surface that in the rain, had adopted the sure-footed texture of a piece of glass coated with Vaseline) and then threaded us back between the pavilion and transition area. It was at that point, looking even worse than I had on Claire’s Climb, that I passed in front of the second group of photographers,  holding my lower back with both hands and grimacing as if I was trying to pass a kidney stone the size and shape of a lawn gnome.

I enjoy running. It has become over the years, almost meditative for me. So, at this point in the race, despite the pain (I was confident and therefore comforted that it wouldn’t get any worse), my steady but slow rhythm and the consistent hiss of the rain had lulled me into a bit of a trance. My mind drifted from the photographers to random daydreams about Starbucks, the gig the night before, and the general stream of consciousness that sets in on my long runs. It was in that zone that I started uphill through a narrow fenced area on my way to the streets.

It was at that point, and with the suddenness of an Apache ambush, that a neighbor (a life time coach of some JV La Cross team in Poughkeepsie) inexplicably leapt out from nowhere and with his mouth inches from my ear, started shouting, “GO, GO, GO, ED. DIG! COME ON ED …RUN!” I nearly peed in my saturated bike shorts. Thinking that I had inadvertently run in front of a moving train, or that a pack of rabid Dobermans had been unleashed, I literally shouted and bolted up the hill. With the general outlook of “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you’” I passed a half dozen runners before I craned my head around to curse at the guy and his lineage (on his mother’s side). But as I shouted, I noticed that the adrenaline (now squirting several inches out of both ears) had served a higher purpose. It had unlocked my back. I wasn’t pain free, but I was back on pace, ready to dish out payback to the senior citizens and the guy in an iron lung that had whistled by me on Claire’s Climb.

As a side note, I found it odd that no one was distributing coffee at any of the mile markers. Just water. I suppose that was the easiest decision, since all the volunteers had to do was leave empty Dixie ups out and they filled themselves in the rain.  But coffee, a Danish, and (while we’re going Scandinavian) a Swedish massage would have been a great touch at the end of mile 3.

I was feeling fatigued, but in a way I had become accustomed to from the training. It was still pouring. I was still grinning.  And as I headed out on the loop to the point, the thought of finishing started to creep into my head, adding a little bounce to my step.  The loop out to the point is about ½ mile each way, so you have the opportunity to chat with the runners ahead of you on the way out, and – more fun – the runners behind you on your way back. It was with great relief that I noted there was more than one person behind me, and that not all were over 80 or in the physically challenged category. I traded greetings with many of my fellow training buddies in both directions. Some were walking. Most were running. But everyone knew the finish was close, and smiles were beginning to take shape in a host of otherwise pained and determined faces.

The vast majority of people I met through the Tri club turned out to be supportive, interesting, pleasant and even motivational .  And while gender, race, creed, and age were as varied as the menu at a NY Diner, the somewhat odd and eccentric drive to survive, finish and even excel at any level in this sport had created a compelling bond between us. Granted, some were just certifiably out of their minds (running a myriad of insane events throughout the summer), and others were so intensely dedicated to a specific goal that it took most of the summer to get passed the veneer of their incredibly focused athleticism.  I was stunned to find a number of people found me to be distant and non-communicative, mistaking my recurring need for oxygen as a general lack of social skills.

In the midst of all that camaraderie, however, there was one Ironman with whom I crossed paths only sporadically, that set the bar for anyone aspiring to be a complete and unabashed wanker. The first time I encountered him on a practice ride up in New Haven, he shouted several times for me to “try and keep up.” On one ride as we stopped to regroup, he asked me, “does your husband ride too?” When I suggested during an interval training one night in Stamford  that we set the 90 second rest from the time the last person finishes (as opposed to the first – that day, always him), he suggested I start a minute or so ahead and keep out of the way of the serious contenders.

Wanker yes, but brain-trust absolutely not. On a swim once in Greenwich, he had made some rude comment to me as we regrouped at a channel marker. Despite the fact that most of our group had not yet reached the mark, he wanted to move on. Naturally, everyone else waited, despite Ironboy’s abrasive impatience. But just as we were ready to resume, I suggested he swim 25 or so yards back to the buoy (the current had been moving us around as we waited) so I could take a picture of him. As he swam over and waved from the buoy, the rest of us (none of whom had a camera), took off. I swam particularly quickly that day trying to avoid any physical altercation in the open water.

So as I ran out to the point, I saw Ironboy about ¼ mile ahead of me.  For as huge of a jerk as he was, he was truly an amazing athlete.  So whether he had drunk more Sound water than I had, torn one of his neck muscles, or was experiencing a migraine from the strain of forming a complete sentence, it was obvious by where he was (only a bit ahead of me) and how he looked (like he was struggling with his own set of kidney stone gnomes) that something was way way off with his day. As he approached me, I shouted, “Hey – I’m kicking your ass! Better catch up. Step it up, Ironboy.” He glared at me. I knew I had definitely confused him and that I would be way out of earshot before he could register any related words beyond “HUH?”

Over the course of the last two miles, I picked up speed. All that interval training had been about finishing faster than you started, which I took to heart. And lo and behold, 1 mile out I was running alongside Ironboy who was definitely hurting. “Hey,” I panted as casually as I could. He looked at me, glared, and said, “You were confused. I’m ahead of you.” He’d been saving that one. And then in the best Clouseau accent I could muster, I replied, “Not anymore.”

As I left him behind (he would eventually walk across the finish), I could see the entrance to the park, and realizing people who knew me might actually be watching, I started to run with everything I had left.  I also had an eye out for that neighbor who could be lurking anywhere, ready to pounce. At the final turn heading into the park a friend of mine stood on the stone fence and shouted “Ladies and Gentleman, Rye’s own…ED MANNING,” which inspired a spattering of applause from several people who thought someone important was in their midst.

The final 100 yards were downhill on a wet and muddy lawn, bordered by an unexpectedly (not that I knew what to expect) large crowd that lined the red fences on both sides leading to the finish gate. As I was pondering just how tenuous the footing was, the guy 20 or so yards in front of me went down like he’d been shot, sliding into the fence.  He slipped again in his haste to get up.  I was running flat out, imagining with every step that I was running on ice. No last second involuntary acrobatics from me. My photo finish was not going to have me sliding belly first, just short of the line.

Closing in on the finish

About 25 yards out from the finish, I crossed another mat, which fed all my electronic info to the announcer. He read out my name and home city over the PA with what I thought was a faint hint of surprise, and certainly less gusto than my friend had at the turn.

And finish I did. Upright. Alive. Still grinning. Soaked. Exuberant. Humbled. Hungry.

I streaked through the finish and then a touch caught up in the thrill of the finish, banged my chest in a way that startled the woman collecting the timing chips.  I think she thought I was performing CPR on myself or that I was deaf and using Morse code to pound out a distress signal. Looking a little wary, she spoke loudly and clearly, “I NEED YOUR TIMING CHIP.” She was holding my participatory medal just out of reach until she got it.  I gave her my chip, accepted the medal, and gently banged my chest twice with my right fist.

The next person handed me a towel.

The last guy in the line handed me a bottle of water. I offered him a $256 for a cup of coffee and Danish, at which point he held out a second bottle of water.

And just like that, it was over.

Afterglow

I hear from the seasoned veterans (every time I hear “seasoned,” I have this weird vision of athletes standing around peppered with paprika, basil, and just a dash of sea salt) that the usual festivities of the finish were greatly subdued due to the rising floodwaters, anticipated Tsunami, tornados, ice storm, and locusts. So while I made merry with a few friends and took advantage of a free 10 minute massage (what kind of person spends hours massaging sweaty spent triathletes?), no one really lingered after the race. Reggie and the kids walked me to the transition area.  I grabbed my gear and in the ebbing drizzle, we headed back to the van.

I felt terrific. Not only not exhausted, but energized.  I arrived home to banners Elijah had made: “You are AWESOME,” “You are 51 and the winner of the triathlon!!” and my favorite, “The best, funniest and fastest winner is DAD.” No Roman emperor had been regaled with more rewarding accolades.

I rolled the bike into the garage, dragging it by its collar muttering “Bad. Bad.  Bad  bike!” as I shut the garage door.  I greeted the dog, who was still licking himself, and took an immensely gratifying (to me and those around me) shower. An hour later the rain had stopped and sans coffee or Danish, we were kicking back at a Mexican restaurant with another Tri family.  We shared a few of the day’s “war” stories and basked in the afterglow and endorphin rush of the morning. At one point, the mother ‘fessed up to having walked her bike up Claire’s Climb. She mentioned offhandedly that she recalled passing some guy who was nearly stopped, balancing on his pedals.

The Web site eventually posted every conceivable race stat, from overall time, to splits covering not just every leg of the race, but transitions, time spent in port-o-potties, back hairs lost during shirt changes, longest time spent waiting for a massage in the finish pavilion. My initial goal was to finish the same day I started, preferably not last. I evolved that to wanting to break 4 hours. Here’s the official breakdown of my day:

  • I finished in 3:10:39, placing 456th out of 848 people that finished. If I had used that specialized buoy turn and shaved 12 seconds off my time, I would have finished 20th – that’s how damn close this event was.
  • I clobbered the 70 and above age group and decimated the 30 plus that didn’t finish.
  • In my own age group (50-54), I finished 13th out of a field of 28.
  • To put this all in perspective, the first and second place overall finishers finished 10 seconds apart, the winner at 1:58:30 (obviously, not much on an athlete – I was working my ass off for over three hours, while the top two bozos weren’t even at it for 2 hours) The first woman finished at 2:03:06.
  • The last person to finish clocked a time of 5:22:53 (she had passed me on Claire’s Climb, but obviously had difficulty with the run).
  • The eldest finisher was 74, and he finished at 3:44:16. Natalie, the second eldest woman to finish (62), finished at 3:02:04, despite my letting the air out of her tires on the ride and tripping her several times on the run.
  • The swim was disappointing. I swam that leg plus the buoy diversion in 36:51 (369th overall).
  • My first transition was 6:44 (748th….Cheeses of Nazareth and damn that shirt to hell).
  • My average time from sitting down incorrectly on the broken seat to standing on the pedals was 0.025 seconds (placed 1st).
  • My ride was 1:32:49 (placed 561st ). Note to self: get a better bike. Practice biking. Really.
  • Claire’s Climb. 3:11. Out of 848, I placed 1025th.
  • My second transition was 2:51. That seemed quick to me. But noooo. Real tri people tie their shoes a hell of a lot faster than I do. Or run barefoot. Or ride through the transition area and leap off their bikes without stopping. I know for a fact some of them don’t bother to take off their damn helmets. For transition #2, I placed 523rd.
  • The time it took me to reflect on motivational speeches, months of training, and still make the decision to stop and look for a place to lie down when my lower back seized: 2.03 seconds.
  • The run – 51:25. I’m OK with that given that I ran those first two miles at something like a 22 min/mile pace (my target was 8 min miles). I finished the run 262nd.

What a rush. I’m pacing with anticipation, waiting for next year. I’ve changed my diet from healthy to healthier, adopting a pure Vegan health plan, with the exception of the beef, chicken, fish and dairy that I eat (only about 30% of the time, and only free-range grass fed – though I have no idea what a free-range fish or grass-fed chicken is). I’ve purchased a Vitamix 5200 blender which pulverizes vegetables, fruits, and even hubcaps into a form I can actually stomach. (I’m not sure of the nutritional value of a hubcap, but I just love watching that blender vaporize stuff).

I have no ambitions to up the ante to a full Ironman or even a  ½ Ironman (which half of the man does that actually represent?). I think you need to be divorced and unemployed to successfully train for either of those.  If not, I am completely convinced that you will be( divorced and unemployed) by the time you finish training..

And finally, as I look at my overall time and factor out all those wasted seconds brought on by errant buoys, a demonic bike, rookie mistakes and back pain, I visualize a new and ambitious goal. My time of 3:10:39 was WAY under 4 hours, dangerously close to breaking three. With the right training, firm resolve, a wet suit, a dry shirt, and a decent bike, I should easily be able to pull off the course, park the bike, and snag a coffee and Danish at Starbucks… and STILL finish under 4 hours.

With great expectations for the 2010 season,

Ed

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2010 1:35 pm

    Wonderful. Hilarious. You don’t need me to tell you what a good writer you are, but… what a good writer you are.

    You wrestled in high school? How were you? How did you find the experience? What was your record?

  2. September 23, 2010 12:13 pm

    Ed, I laughed ’til I cried! I am always flabbergasted by our patients who are training for these events–I have no desire to cover that distance without a motor unless I am on the back of my horse! You give some insight into why people choose to do this–and we will keep treating their injuries and back pain, and help them improve their performance for their next event.

    Thank you for sharing–I have always wondered what it’s REALLY like to compete in a triathalon!

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