Season Finale – Zoot Westchester Triathlon, 9.24.2017
“I should run an Ironman.”
The recurring siren song of that fantasy percolates inside my head every year that I train for an Olympic Tri. And every year as I dismount from my bike after the 26 mile ride and transition to the 6.2 mile run, that fantasy evaporates into the more rational thought of “I’m calling an Uber.”
Yet for almost 10 years running (and swimming and riding), I get sucker punched by my selective memory, which highlights only the conquest of the finish, bonding with my kids, and my valiant physical attempts to slow the relentless onslaught of aging and its ponderous gravitational pull toward the couch, the remote, donuts, gated Florida communities, and the ever threatening scourge of the muffin-top. It conveniently sweeps the rigors and tedium of the sport under the rug with other inconvenient truths such as how close 59 is to 60, that they charge for college, and that there is still no viable alternative to death or taxes.
But while I continue to drink the electrolyte infused Kool-Aid, I have become painfully aware that the events are not getting any easier.
I noted this year, for example, that the 4:30 AM wake up seemed to have come several hours earlier than it did for my first Olympic Tri in 2009. As a side effect of that strange shift in the space time continuum, my first thought when the alarm sounded has morphed from a chest pounding “LET’S DO THIS” and a leap into my race gear, to a disoriented whisper of “why is it so dark?” and a lurch toward the snooze button, sending several items on the nightstand crashing to the floor.
What has remained constant is that a good night’s sleep is perhaps the most critical factor in running a great endurance race. And the likelihood of achieving such a sleep on the eve of the race remains less probable than coming face to face with Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, bipartisan support, or erections lasting longer than 4 hours. Not unlike previous years, I went to bed at 9:30 and fell asleep around 1:30, waking up a half dozen times before the 4:30 AM jolt worried that I had 1) missed the start, 2) had a defective timing chip, 3) had forgotten something or everything, 4) would be eaten during the swim, 5) would be eaten during the bike ride, 6) would suffer multiple flats, 7) wouldn’t have enough “get up and go” to stay-up-and-finish.
But as frayed as the Tri relationship gets as you rack up miles, laps, and bricks, the thrill and rush of race day is overwhelming. It’s theory transitioning to practice; reality on the cusp of biting. The chatter and grumbling in your head coalesces from a muddle of mundane blather (did I lock the shed?, who fed the dog?, how do they get milk out of almonds?, etc.) to the more succinct fight-or-flight catchall of “holy s*%!.” Time accelerates as you merge into the swarming pre-dawn stream of athletes triple checking their gear, racking bikes, donning wet suits, greeting old friends, making new ones and, given the High Holidays, praying that God will write you and your bike into the book of life for one more Olympic distance.
Speaking of God, this year She made a spectacular entrance and marked dawn in the form of a glorious flaming red sunrise which peeked up across the Long Island Sound before rising majestically and directly in the sight line of the outbound portion of the swim. “Swim into the light.” Site on the sun, and temporary blindness notwithstanding, you would have a perfect bead on the outer marker.
As a footnote, this year’s sunrise set enough jaws dropping that at least a third of the crowd listened to the national anthem with their backs turned to the flag and PA system which had been set up at the western edge of the beach. If you listened carefully, you could hear Trump’s sphincter seize as a handful of athletes took a knee, some in deference to Mother Nature, some in support of peaceful protest, and one guy who was nearing exhaustion struggling to zip up his wetsuit.
Then in a blink, and before I could revert to my traditionally predictable thought that I probably should have trained more, the game was on. Reggie and I cheered Elijah as he stampeded into the Long Island Sound with wave 5, and feeling vaguely insulted that our age group had been dealt silver caps, I donned mine and I lined up with the gaggle of men in wave 7, unified by our recent solicitations for AARP membership.
Never underestimate the competitive swagger in the men’s 50-59 wave. It runs far thicker than our dwindling testosterone levels and was alive and literally kicking on Sunday. As the last wave of the morning, we stomped hooves and champed at the bit with hopes the younger age groups weren’t putting too much distance between us, them, and our illusions that we were still them.
I was a little late to the on-deck circle and got stuck 4 rows deep in the chute on the beach, so my start began as a roiling morass of feet, elbows, knees and neoprene, a cross between a Jacques Cousteau special on seal orgies and an underwater rugby scrum. I broke free of the fray after about 100 yards, mostly unscathed except for the footprints on my head and the right lens of my goggles which had ended up in my mouth.
At the third marker, in what was absolutely the most bizarre moment of any triathlon, mugging, or alien abduction I have ever experienced, I had a fender bender with a navigationally challenged psychopath who was swimming north in the eastbound lane. I never saw him coming, and along with a couple of other swimmers, swam over him. We both stopped, and as I took a breath to say “sorry,” he slapped me.
Treading water and stupefied, I shouted in no uncertain terms, “you!” “what?” and “HEY!” in that order. Then, I splashed him, which I’m sure put the fear of God in him. I repeated “WHAT” and then, as anyone with 30 plus years of sales experience would advise, I continued swimming upstream. Given the detailed description I reported to the race committee, I am sure they have since identified and disqualified him: white guy, black wet suit, reflective goggles, dark swim cap, scruffy beard, age between 25 and 59, wet.
Though my helmet had melted during the ride, and I had felt nauseous at several points on the run, I hadn’t really registered how hot it had been (low 80’s for the ride and 85 on the run) until about 30 seconds after I powered across the finish line and nestled into the turf.
“Are you sure you are OK?” I lay on the grass with my feet raised looking up at Reggie.
“You look very pale,” she added. I had to squint to bring her into focus, and I found the little animated birds, random flashes, bright stars and punctuation marks floating around her head to be very distracting.
“I’m good,” I said, and then took a deep breath and focused hard on not throwing up. “Maybe next year I’ll do an Ironman?”
Behind every successful man, is a very surprised woman. A wife’s expression can paint 1,000 words (or 9 for sure). Reggie had the same look in her eyes that she had worn two months earlier when she had overridden my doubled over “I’m absolutely fine!” declarations with an immediate early morning exodus to the E.R. and brief round of surgery. (See appendix A below or, for Canadians, Appendix Eh? or this link)
And given that emergency episode, I was all the more overjoyed that I had finished – uninjured, upright, and under 3 hours. Dizzy but euphoric.
“Hey Dad, you OK?” Elijah, now 6’2”, seemed dramatically taller when viewed from ground level. “If you have nothing left, you raced just right.” The heat didn’t seem to have any effect on him. After only 3 weeks of training (he had just returned from a 4 month exchange in Peru), he finished 5th in his age group and 239th out of 616. Spritely, animated and annoyingly zesty would be apt descriptions of his post-race demeanor.
As I stood up and regained my equilibrium, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps it was time to retire from the sport and revert to a less taxing activity, like flossing. I resolved to be wary about selective memories, and made a mental note to avoid letting the addictive rush of finishing, endorphin highs, jubilant crowds, fellow athletes, a spectacular September morning, Elijah’s smile and high five, and Reggie’s embrace subjectively woo me into another season. The park may have been spinning, but my head was on straight.
As we headed back to the car with all of our gear, I was on the brink of discussing my retirement from the sport when Elijah asked if I wanted to shoot baskets when we got home. Youth is so wasted on the young. Then in the next breath, he told me that my window of opportunity was closing, an opening line which instilled in me the same sense of apprehension as the proctologist’s warning of “you will feel a little pressure.”
“Dad, we should do an Ironman.” He went on to enthusiastically expound that it wasn’t going to get any easier as I got older, so there was no time like the present. “We can do it together!”
I paused and glanced at Reggie trying to convey with my eyes for her to run and get wax for my ears, silently but intensely channeling “That is the Island of the Sirens. Circe warned me to steer clear of it, for the Sirens are beautiful but deadly.”
“Dad?” Elijah asked. “Dad!?”
With the memory of lying flat on my back and sizzling fewer than 20 minutes old, I was having a difficult time deciding whether “no, never, absolutely not, Hell no, you’re out of your mind, you’re out of my will, you’re fired,” or simply repeating the word “no” indefinitely would be the most effective and least ambiguous response.
I looked him straight in the eye for emphasis and put my foot down.
“Maybe,” I said.
* Appendix A: Avoid the early July emergency appendectomy. Surgery is to a successful training regimen what the Democrat Party is to a cohesive unifying message. What you gain in weight advantage by dropping the few ounces that was your appendix, you lose in the mandated 6 week rest and recovery period. Details are here.