On Sunday, September 25, 2016, our family took a 4:30 AM trek from Chestnut Ridge to Rye Beach in NY where my 16-year-old son Elijah, 18-year-old daughter Dylan and I participated in the Zoot Westchester Olympic Triathlon. Here are a few reflections on the day.
The Art of Tri
The essence of my Tri strategy builds on the core premise that the road to victory or at least a “personal best,” is built squarely on the back of experience. Participate in enough triathlons, and you will eventually swim, ride, and run to your rightful place at the podium. The math, even for me, is simple. Clock a 2hr 37min Olympic tri at age 53, and by the time you reach 75, you will have shaved a good 30 minutes off that personal best.
As sound and obvious as the theory reads on paper, a few minor inconsistencies in the data suggest I may have failed to account for some unforeseen variables. Case in point, beginning with triathlon #3 and extending to and through the next 4, my times have not, in the strictest sense of the word, improved. Not to put too fine a point on it, and if you can believe the official time keepers, there is a fairly strong argument to suggest I’ve gotten progressively slower.
Sunday marked my 7th Westchester Triathlon, my 8th Olympic since I started dabbling in the sport in 2009, and most rewarding, the third time I have raced with my son and daughter. I stood at the starting line at Rye Beach pumped, poised, pacing, and bristling with all the confidence, exuberance, and anticipation that an 8th season can instill. Wide eyed, nostrils flaring, champing at the bit, a thoroughbred in the gates (hold references to Mr. Ed please), I was on the cusp of obliterating any nagging shadows of doubt that threatened to undermine the absolute truth that is the invincibility of experience.
58-year-old rocket man on the beach. Buckle up. Theory in practice. Don’t blink.
Elijah, Dylan and Ed 6:30 AM, ready for the start
As I look back on the race, I can trace the first variable to the start, which is surprising given how perfectly the morning and the stage seemed to have been set. Outside of starting a couple of hours later, a nice cappuccino and perhaps an additional 10 degrees, conditions could not have been better. It was a brisk 52, stunningly clear and nearly windless. I had my kids at my side, my wife Reggie rooting us on from the boardwalk, and Uptown Funk, Moves Like Jagger, and a hit parade of upbeat grooves amping us up as we counted down to the start. As the sun inched up over Montauk across the Sound, majestically poised to blind every swimmer sighting to the outer buoy, they piped in Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of the national anthem, and then the sea of close to 1000 athletes cheered, and the first herd of colored caps lined up in the starting gate.
Gentlemen, ladies, and gender ambivalent, start your engines.
My engine revved as we cheered the pros out of the gate at 7:00. It continued to rev as several more heats stampeded into the water. Dylan’s heat plunged in at 7:15. Elijah and I cheered, and I revved. A few heats later, Elijah headed offshore at 7:25. I hooted enthusiastically, and I revved some more. I revved to the point I considered refueling, shaving or at least taking a run to the port-o-potty. By the time the starting air-horn sounded for us pre-geriatric men, the last heat of the entire event, the horn had dwindled from a blast to a bleat. The crowds had dispersed, leaving only a few disheveled seagulls scavenging on the beach and boardwalk, eyeing our older age group anticipating one us might die of old age before the start. I had lost all of the feeling in my feet. The pros were out of the water and half way through the bike ride, and Monday’s financial markets were opening overseas.
The water felt warm in contrast to standing in the open air on the beach, and it was truly exhilarating to finally be swimming. With every breath, I remember being struck by the stunning beauty of the morning and lifted by the awesome rush of swimming offshore while avoiding being an active participant in the broader food chain. I had never felt better on a swim. I exited the water 4th in my group, energized, borderline euphoric, winded, but eager to ride.
Variable number 2 was an unanticipated derivative of the late start. To pee or not to pee, that was the question, and one that had never come up in previous races or in any of the 2 or 3 training articles I had read over the last 8 years. As I jogged up the boardwalk, I weighed coveted race time against comfort, and to the annoyance of my uncompromising inner coach that bellowed how every second counted, I veered left for the porta potty and away from the transition area. As I did, a guy behind me shouted.
“Dude. Where are you going?!” I felt like I had been caught shoplifting.
“Taking a leak.” I responded meekly. “It’s a long ride.”
“Just pee in your bike shorts.” And then with an irritating and condescending tone of disbelief, he hissed, “Jesus Christ.”
Risking the loss of even more seconds, I paused to snag his race number, primarily to ensure our bikes weren’t racked side by side. As an added benefit, I was able to check his time after the race. He finished 23 minutes behind me.
In was in the next few moments that variable number 2.5 nearly cost me the race. Suffice it to say, look before you leap is an imperative never to be ignored when racing into a porta potty. I sidestepped disaster by mere inches, and my scream and ensuing cursing must have given pause to anyone running by. For the record, there is a high degree of difficulty in urinating with a wetsuit around your knees and each foot planted on opposing walls of a porta potty.
I felt as supercharged and elated on the ride as I did on the swim, though my feet never fully deiced from the long wait on the beach. After the first several downhill stretches on the bike, a few other extremities felt the chill as well. But despite the fact I had lost all feeling in my hands and that I sensed ice was accumulating on the front of my bike shorts, I knew from the intense burning sensation in my legs that I was tackling the most challenging ascents of the ride with nothing short of a record breaking pace. The landscape was a mere blur, due only in part to the fact that I had forgotten to wear my glasses, and I was passing parked cars and mailboxes as if they were standing still.
During miles 6 through 10, I made a mental note to investigate the obvious abuse of human growth hormones and other performance enhancing drugs in the 55 and up age group. Halfway up the first of the most challenging hills on Riversville Road, right at the sign that reads, “elevation 28,230 ft.,” a 64-year-old woman pedaled past me as if I were moving backwards. I know she was 64 due to the sadistic practice required by all triathlons of body marking. Your race number gets inked on your arms, and your age is indelibly scribed on the back of your right calf, a passive aggressive practice that alternately fans or smothers your competitive flame. If you happen to shower with a loofah, hydrochloric acid and a power sander, these marks generally fade within a few months.
Before I could grab the Taser from the back pocket of my bike shirt, she was gone. And just as I had convinced myself that I had probably misread her number, I was passed at similar rates by a 59, 55, and 62-year-old. By the time I summited, the trickle had become a flood, and a veritable platoon of 55+ men and women had left me in the dust, fading at disturbing rates into the distant zip codes ahead of me.
Unlike the 2015 event, I did remember to unclip from the pedals as I finished the ride, making my dismount a far more graceful one than the previous year. Reggie greeted me there and let me know both Dylan and Elijah were safe and already on the run. I jogged into the transition area with a smile, sucked down a pack of GU (a liquid power bar), drank some water, racked my bike and was immediately blindsided and panicked by the next variable. I had only one running shoe.
There had been two when I set up my transition area. I knew that for a fact, because my phobia of showing up at the race having forgotten a critical piece of gear drives me to manically check and recheck everything I pack.
“I laid out two shoes before I hit the beach,” I said loudly and to no one in particular.
This disappearance was something sinister, an obvious conspiracy orchestrated by the aforementioned growth hormone abusers in my age group. For the next 4 minutes, I worked myself into a lather of bewilderment, frustration and anger and then set off to summon the race authorities and demand 1) an inspection of all participants for mismatched running shoes and 2) a restart of the entire event. On the way to lodge my protest, I miraculously spied my missing blue Nike, one rack behind me and a dozen or so bikes down the line from where I was stationed. It had been dragged, kicked and caught in the stampede of riders bolting out of transition, and oddly, was soaking wet.
The incoming flood of swimmers and outgoing tide of bikers raises and randomly distributes all soles.
The wet shoe added an interesting pulse to my run, a two beat tempo of thump-squish, thump-squish, thump-squish. But it beat hopping or running like a misaligned piston. I was moving, feeling tired but still strong. The yin in me joyfully took in the spectacular setting and fed off the endorphin rush of the swim and the ride. The yang in me was on the hunt for sputtering 55+ calves.
Reggie supported our training sessions and races with one major caveat. Return home with both kids, alive, intact – no exceptions. Elijah had been on the injured reserve list since the Tuesday before the race after suffering a nasty laceration on the inside of his left ankle during a school field trip. At the hobble-in clinic, the doctor, who apparently was scheduled for dual cataract surgery the following morning, had offered his unequivocal prognosis of “hmmm.”
Risking a major breach of Reggie’s prime directive, I had lobbied to let Elijah make the final decision to compete or not as we loaded the car that morning a 4:00 AM. He never wavered from his “I am totally fine” declaration, which transitioned from confident to adamant to insistent the more we expressed our concern. Parents can be repeaters, especially when they are leading the witness. As I applied butterfly band aids, liquid skin, a big piece of gauze and a half acre of waterproof tape, I green-lighted his decision with my own caveat that if the wound opened or bone started to protrude from the dressing, he would promise to stop.
“It’s going to be fine,” I promised Reggie, and looked to Elijah for one final confirmation. A 58-going-on- 16-year-old-WASP-father taking advice from a 16-going-on-16-year-old son. It’s hard to imagine a decision built on a firmer foundation. Then, very quietly and with great warmth and gentleness, Reggie said, “OK.” Not a whisper of dissent. Any man married for more than 3 hours would understand immediately just how precarious the situation had become. I quickly applied several more wraps of waterproof tape, and stared hard at Elijah over the top of my glasses.
“I will be fine,” he assured me, articulating each word very slowly and clearly.
There are two points on the run where the course doubles back on itself, and you can see the runners ahead of you. It was at that first point, about 3/4ths of a mile into the run course, where I was gripped with a second flash of panic. I saw Elijah. He had just made the turn and was heading back toward me when he broke stride, slowed to a walk, lowered his head, and put his hands on his hips.
We were dead men limping.
Though the wound hadn’t opened, he was hurting, and the disappointment on his face was heart breaking. I rounded the turn, caught up to him, and we walked.
“Hey,” I tried to reassure him, “injuries happen. I am so sorry.” Then I reminded him that given his wound, most people wouldn’t have even started the race. We walked a bit. I thump-squished. He limped.
As I prepared a pep talk in my head about there being no shame in withdrawing, he looked up at me and said, “I’m finishing. I’ll walk or hop if I have to, but I’m finishing.”
It was hard for me to balance my conflicting paternal instincts at that moment. On one hand, with an eye toward convincing a judge to grant me visitation rights on the weekends, I wanted to give him a big hug, tell him to call it a day, pick him up and carry him to the first aid tent. On the other hand, he was 6’2” and carrying him would be problematic. And, as hard as it was for me admit, the majority of my role as a parent had long since shifted from CEO to consultant. It was his choice.
He gracefully declined my offer to walk with him, mustered a brave smile and told me I was doing great. Then he suggested I get running. I bit my tongue and fought back the ridiculously overprotective urge to tell him to be careful and not to push it. I gave him a hug, reminded myself he was 16, had more common sense than I did and then blurted, “be careful and don’t push it.”
When I crossed the finish line, it was still Sunday. The spirits had done it all in one night. I felt awesome and remembered for the first time in 8 events to raise my arms high at the finish and smile so that the race photo didn’t capture a finish grimace that suggested I was in the early stages of a colonoscopy. I imagined the interview with the local Patch reporter. “No,” I would say about the run, “I did not grow up in Kenya. And yes, in answer to your second question, I am looking forward to summer 2020 in Tokyo.”
As I greeted Reggie who graciously welcomed my sweaty hug, I was a paradoxical mix of happy, energized, and totally spent. While there was no thrill of victory, there was the vibrant joy of finishing, finishing strong and without the need of an EMT or rabbi.
34 men competed in the 55-59 year old age group. To the pessimist, I finished 11th. To the optimist, I finished first in the second group of 10 in my division. My time was 10 minutes slower than 2015, sucking a little more of the wind out of my working tri theory. Neither Dylan nor Elijah did anything to bolster my hypothesis either. Dylan finished several minutes slower than last year, yet for the third straight event, took first in her division. And Elijah was still out there. As I hugged Reggie at the finish, I thought carefully about how I would break the news about Elijah’s foot.
“I walked with Elijah for a bit.” Reggie told me, just milliseconds before I had fully formulated my version of events which involved tangential references to terrorists and a mischievous one-eyed rabid coyote.
“He was so disappointed. I told him it was OK to stop, but he told me that even if he had to hop, he was going to finish.” Without fail, Reggie met each of us at both ends of every transition on the race. It was a beautiful thing, but I should have thought to coordinate stories with Elijah before we parted ways at mile number 1. Then she added a quick update on Dylan.
“She finished a while ago, looking strong, and when I told her about Elijah, she immediately ran back on the course to find him and walk the rest of the way with him.”
That one took my breath away.
It took a long time for Elijah to appear at the top of the hill above the finish. As he hopped into view, he wore an expression that was equal parts smile, frustration, determination, pain, and a just whisper of embarrassment that seemed to say, “can you believe this?” He bounded toward the finish gates as the announcer, who greeted all racers, called out his name and prompted a cheer from the crowd as he said, “there’s heart for you folks. This kid showed up with a pre-race injury and stuck it out. A lot of us might have bailed. Great finish kid.”
The Great White Hop. Elijah at the finish
The setting at Rye Beach is breath taking, especially if you are struggling to breathe after finishing an Olympic Tri. What had been a stunning morning had blossomed into a truly glorious afternoon. A warm and gentle summer breeze was holding fall at bay. The Sound shimmered in the sun, music pulsed from the PA, and athletes celebrated as they finished, some running, one hopping, and dozens lying down and rolling across the finish, the traditional Westchester Tri salute honoring those suffering from ALS.
I soaked in the scene while gently licking the emotional abrasion of my slower than anticipated time. I was actually teetering on the cusp of disappointment when the Universe sent a 44-year-old messenger streaking down the last 100 yards of the course. She stopped at the finish, dropped to her knees and rolled across the matt. While lying on her back, she raised her arms to the sky, tearfully shouted “FOR YOU!” and then let out a long celebratory shout.
Variables happen. Core premises beg for revisions. But, ultimately our times don’t amount to anything more than bylines to a much more compelling collection of moments. Together, our family had enjoyed an amazing journey of spin classes, swims, bricks, long rides, and runs. Our predawn prestart huddle on the beach had warmed everything but my feet. Elijah’s courageous finish simultaneously filled us with sadness and pride, schizophrenic emotions endemic to most parents. Our souls sambaed when Dylan ran back two miles to be with her brother on the final stretch.
At the rate I am going, finishing the Westchester Tri 22 years from now could take me several days. Posting a personal best will require an act of God, some serious strategy sessions with Ray Kelly, and advanced math based on new data suggesting that each year beyond age 52 requires training twice as hard to finish 10% more slowly. But as the woman who lay on her back with her arms outstretched to the sky so brilliantly reminded me, the only time that truly matters is the time we spend together.
Dylan, Ed, Elijah ad Reggie after the finish
Dylan setting up her transition area, 5:15 AM