Athlete number 424.
That would be me. The number felt good. The swim cap was purple. Purple is one of the Team in Training colors. Pretty cool. The bike rack "Men 45-49" sat just a few feet from the Bike Start gate. Again, things were feeling pretty good. Perhaps this would be a better day.
I had a year to analyze and agonize the disaster of a race on this very island. This year it would be different, or at least, my attempt would be different. Finishing at the top of my age group was a stretch but not the first objective. Executing my race and nutrition plan was job one. The only acceptable time would be under eight hours and a finish under 7 hours; 30 minutes would have me doing back flips. How about a finish under 7 hours? Well... if that happened you wouldn't shut me up for a month. Running, no, no... make that bounding, through the Finish gate, and feeling good with a smile was my objective. That would be my way of thumbing my nose at this very tough half Ironman course. This year there would be no vomiting on the bike, no bike gear malfunctions, no dehydration, and no mandatory visit to the First Aid station. There would be no white flag on this day.
I had a year to think about all of this. To return or not to return was never a question. I knew a year ago if I didn't come back and race again I'd be exchanging a single day for a lifetime of remembering me melting into a puddle of disappointment. Now I had a chance for a lifetime of remembering me sailing over an ocean of victory and I was about it take it.
The night before the race the 30 North Texas Team in Training triathletes gathered on the grand patio of our hotel for dinner. The ocean waves lapped the beach below and a breeze from the blew over our tables. After we had our fill of chicken, pasta, and carrot cake our Leukemia & Lymphoma Society staff leader spoke. She reminded us of the cancer curing and patient support mission we were all on. Six months from our first meeting as a team and $175,000 of donations later there was just one thing left for us to do and that was race in the morning. Some of us took turns telling our story why we joined TNT. The heartfelt words of my teammates were nothing short of inspiring. Shortly afterwards we decorated our race jerseys with messages, wrote down a guess at our finishing time, and painted our finger nails purple and green. We all did it, men included. Soon it was time to finish packing and once more go over the checklist before lights out.
The hotel phone rang at 3:30 AM. I was already awake. Breakfast included a bagel with peanut butter, two bananas, an apple, four Fig Newtons, and a Red Bull. At 4:00 AM I rolled my bike out of the room and onto the parking lot to meet the team. The bikes were carefully put into two cargo vans and the athletes piled into cars, minivans and an open aired bus.
The winds were high and the palm leaves shook like pom-poms. Not a single star could be seen in the sky. It was cloudy, very cloudy.
Thirty minutes later we arrived in Christiansted at the edge of the historic Danish wharf and park over looking the harbor. Large yellow concrete buildings and cannon topped fort are the signature buildings of the island. They made for the perfect landmark for sighting on the second half of the one loop swim.
Once the bikes were offloaded we made our way to the end of the line and waited to have our bodies marked with our bib number and age. The line moved fairly quickly as the six women team marked our skin with efficiency.
The waterfront park was a great location for transition. It was wide, flat, and the grass was soft. Large generators powered the lights that lit the way and finding the bike racks wasn't a problem. Just a few yards away from my rack was another important feature of the transition area -- the port-a-potties. I dropped my bag of gear, hooked my bike on the rack by the brake leavers and ran to one of those little blue buildings of relief.
On my way back into transition I passed professional triathlete, and winner of last year's race, Joanna Zeiger. She was on her way to the little blue buildings too. I said to her, as we nearly bumped shoulders, "Good morning, Champ." Our eyes met. She looked away. She said nothing. Ummm... she must not have heard me I thought to myself.
Back at my bike I laid out my towel and strategically arranged my gear and filled my three water bottles with Gatorade Endurance. I made small talk with the guy next to me and checked and double checked that I put everything where it needed to be.
As the artificial light gave way to morning's natural light the overcast sky was revealed. Winds from the east were swift and the U. S. flag high above the great yellow fort stood stiff and snapped in the breeze.
Satisfied that my transition area was ready for action I made my way to the boat ramp for the swim to the starting line. This swim course is unique in that the start is on the Cay island sitting in the middle of the harbor. It's a 200 meter swim from the main island to the Cay and an opportunity to check out the water conditions. The waves were moderate and moving from east to west. We would be swimming against them on the first half of swim. The water was refreshingly comfortable in the high 70's. Although the cloud cover kept the water a little on the dark side it was easy to see the grass on the harbor's bottom swaying in the current. The swim across was easy and quick.
I stepped out of the water and took off my goggles. Standing in front of me was Karen Smyers, former race winner, and Joanna Zeiger. I passed by them and said, "Good luck." Karen smiled and said Hi while Joanna just looked at me without saying a word. She must not have heard me I thought to myself.
On the Cay is a small hotel. The bar and kitchen served as a water station and shelter from the weather while waiting for my wave to start. Dozens of white plastic pool chairs and lounges were spread across the beach. I sat on the edge of a lounge and chatted with my teammates until I heard the National Anthem being sung from the main island. Most of us made our way to the water's edge and gathered in silence. Some of us put our hands over our hearts and some didn't. Some of us sang and some didn't. Those that didn't do either were probably not Americans or oblivious to what was happening. I stood silently at attention, faced the flag above the fort, and put my hand over my heart. A very young West Point cadet stood beside me and sang beautifully at the top of her lungs. At the end of the anthem we gave each other a high five and headed back to the lounge chairs.
A race official's bullhorn announced the start of the professional mens' wave. Many of us amateurs crowded around the pros to see their start. I could clearly see Peter Reid and Craig Alexander poised to dash into the water. The air horn blasted and they were off. Some high stepped into the water before diving in and some bounced down and back in with butterfly strokes. They swam fifty yards before turning left through two orange buoys and into the harbor.
Two minutes later the professional women waded into the water and just like the men they hit the water and made the turn in a flash.
For me it was now a waiting game until the start of my wave. It would be nearly 20 minutes before I hit the water. Sitting back on a chair I watched a large gray cloud get snagged on the island's northern side mountaintop. It was threatening rain on The Beast. My heart began to pound and I prayed The Lord's Prayer silently.
To be continued...