Normally, my blog post after an Ironman would include separate, detailed sections for the swim, bike, and run. After Ironman Florida 2006 I wrote about racing with a 105 degree fever and bronchitis. The report of Ironman Wisconsin 2007 was long on the flat tire and bike penalty keeping me from breaking the 14 hour mark. With me, for the entire race, were the names of over 500 cancer fighters, survivors, and souls. Then, just seven weeks ago, I wrote about a stomach in revolt and my quixotic aspirations against the ski jumps of Ironman Lake Placid. So, writing about this year's Ironman Wisconsin would seem to be the normal thing to do on a blog about triathlon but on this occasion it would be too normal. This time I'm departing from the expected and will write not about the events of the race but about the experience of the race, and the experiences of becoming an Ironman.
But, so as to not completely depart from tradition I'll summarize the day. During the swim I made a tactical error in that I took the first loop of the two laps too conservatively resulting in exiting the water 20 minutes slower than capable. Next, I crashed on the bike around mile 50 and skinned my hand, knee, shoulder, and cracked my helmet. The medic tending to me required me to sign a waiver refusing further medical attention before allowing me to continue. I removed the leg bandage a few minutes later because it itched. Then my leg went numb shortly afterward. The numbness affected my running gait from the start of the marathon resulting in two blisters on one foot and three on the other starting at mile six. It was too painful to run the last 10 miles of the marathon and I walked all but the last quarter mile to the finish. My finish time was 16 hours and 5 minutes, some 90 minutes slower than my first Ironman in 2006. It was a long day filled with challenges, self-doubt, determination, and relying on experience. Despite the challenges, the idea of quitting never entered my mind. It was only a matter of finishing within the time limit. Two days later I was on crutches, resting my blistered right foot.
On this day I beat the conditions; fought the raging headache after the crash; gritted my teeth with each pain filled step of the run; beat back the nattering negativism; and won.
Ironman at its core is a race born out of bravado. On its surface there's nothing complicated about it. Three events over three ridiculous distances. It's an endurance test to be done in 17 hours. That's it. Period.
But if that's all Ironman is then why the popularity of these races? Why the mystique, why the spectacle? Obviously Ironman is more than the distances of its core. Ironman's essence is what it teaches and its lessons about the athlete's most important subject; themselves. Each of my four races was a lecture unto themselves.
Ironman Wisconsin's class was in session and here is what was learned:
Team sweat has no odor
Lasting friendships and cleaves are seldom born from the good times only. Unlike in the previous three Ironman races, I traveled to Madison as part of a team. Five athletes, plus myself, of Negative Split Racing traveled from our home base in Dallas to take on the course. Five of us were veterans of the distance and one was making her first attempt. These athletes were my corps with whom I would train with week in and week out. Together we ran the same trails, swam the same waters, and biked the same
roads. We watched each other have breakthrough training days and break down training days too. Each of us had our moments of keeping ourselves together on the toughest of tasks and each had our moments of falling apart under the toll of seemingly small training duties. Some became
injured and recovered, some continued to improve while some worked doubly hard just to maintain their fitness. Some never recovered from injury while some did, and one brought her injury with her, but none stopped, and none ever gave up.
We encouraged each other and believed in each other when we may not have believed in ourselves. We had espirt de corps. Virtual teams, or cyber-social groups, know only the good times; only the laughter and excitement of a cheery meeting. They are teams in title only. What they don't have are the bad times and what they lack is communal sweat; the honest sweat that has no odor. They don't stick together because don't have the messy glue of shared misery. What Team Negative Split Racing gave me were companions on the tough days of adversity's forge, and the best of times; the kind not measured with a clock.
Build no perfect past
Over the last three years of talking to and learning from triathletes I now know that no athlete is content with what he did yesterday. This again is another lesson taught by Ironman. The non-athlete, if given a choice, most would give up the reality of today for the memory of yesterday or the fantasy of tomorrow. But not the Ironman triathlete. For him tomorrow is a promissory note and yesterday is a cashed check. It is today that matters and what he does today and its affect on his future. Tomorrow is another opportunity to excel and yesterday's past is just that; the past. Trying to relive the perfect past is of no use. For the training athlete, when he's in his element, his time shortens and lengthens at a pace only he understands.
Where it starts
The road to Ironman leads to self-discovery long before you make it the starting line. Parents, teachers, and sages sing the familiar song to become the thing we are, to fulfill our design; to choose our own reality, our own way to being a person. But for all they did tell us as to what to become often they didn't tell us was how to do it; or how hard it would be. But once the athlete takes on Ironman he begins to fill the void. For him, he soon learns that where fitness starts, so does self-discovery. These athletes succeed or fail while making no excuses. They recognize themselves without pride or prejudice. They train to possess their own experience rather than be possessed by it, to live their own life rather than be lived by it. They fight their limitations, fight their pain, fight any unfairness, and do not give in, and will conquer the distance, the road, or the hill alone.
The non-athlete often sees the Ironman and his asceticism as jejune folly. What they see as an avocation of self-denial and sacrifice is seen by the triathlete as a key to place of purpose. There's an entire other world that begins on the other side of exhaustion and sweat. Its place with its own rewards for the present day. An athlete that pushes himself to this place is intoxicated with the athlete's truth and the dedicated lives to go there. They know the blindly intoxicated sees things the sober man never will.
Where it suspends
The roads to four Ironman races have lead me to many places and none more important than today. Here today I suspend my Iron-distance racing. Although I have not had what others may say is the perfect race or a performance worthy of satisfaction to step back from Ironman's punch bowl. To them I say they have missed the point. They have confused racing the clock with Providence and I shake my fist at Providence. I entered the road to Ironman imperfect for the distance but I didn't let my imperfections keep me from participating. I now leave Ironman far from perfect but much farther away from the uninspired spirit wearing the clean, neatly folded, under-used soul of my yesterday.
Ironman has served me well and I have tried to embody its spirit and learn its lessons. And in my opinion, so should you.