I started my official training for Ironman France on January 1, which is probably the worst time to begin any serious undertaking. Hung-over and bewildered, shivering in the cold despite the added holiday weight. Ah yes, that sneaky holiday weight where you still basically feel and look like yourself until you start sprinting on a track and realize that there’s a lot more moving than just your arms and legs.
So I did what any man in my situation, who feels over-matched and under-prepared, would do. I grew a Bad Ass Beard. My thinking was that for winter training it was practical apparel. I also hoped that by looking like a Bad Ass I’d be inspired to act like one. I mean, you have to earn the Bad Ass Beard, right? No point in looking tough if you weren’t. Still dark as night at 5 AM? Strap on a headlamp and start running. Freezing temperatures on the day of your long bike ride? Put on an extra layer, or four. Pool heating system broken in mid-February? Too bad. You jump in that pool and move some water. You’ll warm up. Eventually.
The Bad Ass Beard made me feel a bit like I was going into seclusion. Like I was entering some chrysalis to emerge later as some spectacular superhero’d version of myself. Imagine my chagrin when I finally shaved sometime in April and revealed to the world a face that looked startlingly like…me. No chiseled jawline. No gladiator glare. Just me again, like before, only with razor burn. There’d been no metamorphosis, no movie montage of “things getting better.”
But it’s funny, though. If Ironman training really was like some long Rocky training montage, that would only tell part of the story. Highlight reels don’t capture the everyday drama, the constant small sacrifices, negotiations, prioritization and re-prioritization that are part of any one workout. All the times my wife, Christa, walked our dog even though it was my turn.
But I was out on a ride.
All the “my night to cook” nights that became “let’s order in” nights because I came home late from the pool.
The zombie-fied lost weekends that saw me at my best while I was out running in the woods alone and at my worst in my friends’ company, a semi-catatonic shell, he of the insatiable appetite and dull conversation. People would ask me how I did all that training and my reply would be something like, “The training is fun. It’s finding the time that’s the problem.” You see, the hard part isn’t the life you’re leading while you’re training for an Ironman.
It’s the one you’re not.
I came to experience the wonder of doing things at a level I’d never reached before, going longer, harder, and faster than I’d ever gone. But to get there I often had to be more isolated, tired, and lonesome than I’d ever been. Great things are never easy and this was no exception. Though I remained generally sane there were moments when I knew I’d lost the thread connecting me with the rational world.
A conversation with a friend
Her: “Your training sounds intense.”
Me: “Yeah, it’s gotta be. You have to prepare for the pain cave.”
Her: “The pain cave?”
Me: “It’s the place you go, the dark place, where you’re pushing yourself to the limit. And you, you know, go into the pain cave where it’s dark and painful and you’re all alone and at the end you sort of come back out again.”
Her: “That’s crazy.”
Me: “What part?”
Her: “Every part. You sound like a crazy person.”
Getting a haircut
Barber: [enthusiastically] “So, any big plans for the weekend?”
Me: [flatly] “A lot of exercise.”
[End of conversation]
My literary life
In a moment of serious delusion I started a blog to capture the experience of Ironman training, thinking I’d have time and energy to write about the jam-packed days I barely made it through as it was. I decided to call it A Year of Living Strenuously and to incentivize myself to write regularly I registered with a fee-charging blog site.
Number of months I’ve had this blog: 12
Total money wasted, absolutely wasted: I don’t want to talk about it.
(Sadly, I think this non-existent journal has been viewed 9 times by what I can only assume were some disappointed readers. Feel free to check it out. Won’t take long because there’s really, truly nothing there.)
Just as I was hitting saturation –when I was so tired of always being so tired — the weather turned, summer started, and I hit the taper period. And then the time came to board the plane for France.
I stood in the crowded transition area, puzzlement growing into genuine concern. We had 15 minutes to report to the swim start and I was looking down at a tire-pump that was somehow stuck to my tire valve. I looked quizzically at the man who lent me the pump, a spirited European of unknown descent. He smiled and nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. There was a language barrier so I shook my head, frowned, and pointed to the valve. I pantomimed trying to dislodge the valve. He nodded sympathetically and pointed to the valve as if to say, “Ah yes. It is the valve.” I also nodded and pointed to the valve as if to say, “Yes, I also feel that it is the valve.” He nodded in agreement. I nodded in agreement.
All this nodding was getting me nowhere and I returned to the task at hand. I pulled with increasing force until the pump popped loose, the tire went instantly flat and I realized something had gone very wrong.
[Flashback: After a tune up half-Ironman in May, during which I had two flats. A friend after the race: “Well at least you got those flats out of the way now and won’t have to deal with them in France. Me: “I’m not sure it works that way.”]
I started to panic. I had a tire change kit on my bike but for me changing a tire entails sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday afternoon. Two hours and a few beers later I am finished, sweaty, angry, and have blisters on my thumbs. Changing a tire when you have all the time in the world is one thing. Changing it under extreme duress is quite another. With five minutes to report to the swim start I unracked my bike and start trotting around transition, looking for some sort of mechanical assistance tent.
No mechanical assistance tent. No nothing.
I wheeled my bike around looking for I don’t know what, dodging triathletes, already in their wetsuits, headed to the swim. The idea of missing the start of the biggest race of my life because I was changing a tire was horrible. The idea of starting the swim knowing that I had a flat waiting for me back on shore was not much better. Screaming maniacally at strangers was rapidly becoming my best option when I saw my friend Trish leaving transition. Trish is an elite swimmer and clearly had other things on her mind but I flagged her down anyway. She turned and called Jack, another friend, who is there to watch the race. From the other side of the wire fence Jack began trying to talk me though the tire change but was clear that I was completely flustered. I stared at the tire. All the thousands of miles of training, the hundreds of hours, all of it hinged on a damned tire valve — a few inches long.
In the end Jack reached through the fence and changed the tire for me as I stood there trying to look busy in some general way. I re-racked my bike and sprinted to the start just as they closed the transition area.
I stood on the shore feeling like I’d just won the lottery. Under normal circumstances the thought of an Ironman swim start, where 2,500 athletes charge the water at the same time, would have terrified me. That’s 10,000 arms and legs all thrashing about, making furious way toward the same buoy. But the tire debacle gave me some instant perspective. I was lucky, not only to have gotten some badly needed help with my tire, but to be in France at all. I had done all the training. I was uninjured. I had Christa, my parents and some friends at the race. It was a beautiful day. I got to swim in the Mediterranean, ride in the Alps, and run along the beach. Music blared, the crowd cheered. What a privilege to be there. What a joy to be alive. I felt a lump develop in my throat.
What? Oh no. No crying, Jason. There’s no crying in triathlon.
I didn’t have time to cry. I still wasn’t sure what the swim course was. It involved a big loop followed by a smaller loop, which was inside the big loop and may or may not have utilized some of the same buoys. One loop might have been clockwise and the other counter-clockwise. Or were they both counter-clockwise? A quick poll of those around me revealed that none of us really knew what the course was. We all agreed, though, that all we had to do was follow the group and things would probably work out fine. The horn blasted and we charged the water.
The Ironman swim was similar to swimming in a school of fish, assuming a school of fish is also an orgy of violence, rage and fear. I told myself to be calm; that things would thin out eventually. But no. I was battered, clobbered, and pressed down upon from behind — a sensation that in any other situation may simply be called “drowning”. Just as the field felt like it was thinning out we hit shore to start the second loop. In getting out and back into the water the field accordioned back together again, cozy as ever. At one point I found some room to swim and was starting to enjoy myself until I realized I was 25 yards off course. I redirected and was soon back in the madness.
But through it all there was an ongoing and surreal commentary in my head.
So this is the Ironman swim…
Look at me! Swimming in an Ironman!
Ouch! I just got kicked in the face as I swim in this Ironman!
The swim was ending. The dark blue of the underwater became paler. I made out the sea bottom and the granules of stone rising steadily with the sloping shore, swelling until they were large rocks inches from my face. I sprang up and scrambled out of the water. I finished the swim in 1:13, which put me somewhere in the middle of the field.
I ran into transition, waving at the crowds along the chute. A man running alongside turned to me:
“Well, the first bit is out of the way.”
“What, you mean there’s more?”
I peeled off my wetsuit, donned a shirt and ran off to my bike, tires miraculously inflated.
I glided down the promenade de Anglais along the seaside and passed the airport. The route veered right and carried us inland. The ride started easily enough and was mostly flat for fifteen miles or so. The sober reminder that this was a climber’s course came abruptly with a hard left turn onto a steep incline. We were all up on our pedals, S-turning our way up the hill, trying to avoid slow-motion collisions. One man was run off the road into a hedge. It was strangely quiet despite the drama of the moment — the click-a-clunk of shifting gears and breathing.
After the initial climb we settled in for the next thirty miles or so of mostly up. We passed through tiny villages on roads lined with supporters, all cheering and ringing cowbells.
“Allez! Allez! Allez!”
It was perfect weather for a ride. The sun blazed against the cloudless sky as we made our unrelenting way up through countless switchbacks. The road wound along the mountainside offering a sweeping view of the valley below and the ocean beyond. We hit the biggest climb of the day: Col de L’Ecrea — a twelve mile slog at an average 7% grade — low enough to stay on my seat for the most part but hard enough to feel the constant burn searing in my legs. I summitted and passed through the aid station, swapping out my Gatorade and Coke bottles for fresh ones. I saw a number of riders off their bikes and doubled over in exhaustion. They’re done, I thought. Only at mile 43 and totally spent. They’re not gonna make it. There began the steady stream of reminders that some of us, either through poor conditioning or misfortune, would not finish the race.
The descents of Ironman France were some of the greatest moments I’ve ever had on a bicycle. Shooting down the mountain, through thick woods opening up to lush glades smattered with wildflowers. The road curved and twisted, following the contours of the mountainside. Because it was never straight I couldn’t zone out. I’d looked to the side for a moment or two and turn back to find that the road had shifted sharply beneath me and I was now adrift in the other lane. This made the glances I allowed myself all the more beautiful and made the ride fly by because I had to be present, making decisions, guiding my bicycle, in every moment.
I zipped by people on the roadside having mechanical issues. As I’d learned earlier, there seemed to be no technical support on the course. I’d already used one of my two spare tubes so I knew I had a slim margin for error. There was not much I could do to help anyone, and that’s assuming I could understand them to begin with. My French is limited basically to introducing myself but shouting Je m’appelle! Je m’appelle! at riders stranded on the roadside would not have helped anyone.
The route wound down and back into Nice. I made the turn back to the beach and pedaled along the run course toward transition. Down from the cool mountains I found a sun-splashed and simmering promenade. The ride was over. I finished in 6:11 and had caught around 140 people.
As soon as I dismounted a race volunteer whisked my bike away and racked it somewhere deep among hundreds of other bikes. With my cycle shoes in my hand I made my way toward the changing area and realized I’d left my salt supplements behind. Given the heat I knew I’d need them. I turned back and found the volunteer who’d taken my bike moments before. I tried to explain what I’d done but he didn’t understand me. He was short, sage-like older man with silvery wisps of hair jutting out from beneath his cap. He smiled serenely, nodding along as I implored him.
“Salt tablets! My salt tablets are on my bike!”
I stammered and gesticulated wildly, using as many different words as I could in the hope I’d stumble upon one he understood.
“Salt tablets, salt pills, on my bike, I need the salty snacks, je m’appelle salt tablets!?”
At last something clicked. He smiled knowingly and took my shoes from me and walked away. He did not return. I stood there stunned before deciding that I would have to move on with my life. People were streaming by me and any more time spent standing there was time lost. The bikes were not being racked in any systematic way and I could tell it would be a needle in a haystack situation to find mine. I’d endured many hot days without salt supplements to help me; this would just have to be the next one. (When I picked up my bike after the race I found my shoes had been lovingly clipped back into their pedals.)
The run course was four out-and-backs along the promenade. The sun beat down, there didn’t seem to be any wind and it took me only three miles to realize that my race plan needed a drastic overhaul. My initial plan was to settle into low zone 3 and walk through every other aid station. Each aid station had a shower for runners to pass through but I’d decided to avoid that as long as possible, not wanting to get soggy shoes so early in the marathon. But in the scorching heat I decided that I needed to dial my pace back significantly, stop at every aid station and pass under every shower. I was not going to set any records out there. It was all about survival.
The course, while monotonous, allowed me to see my friends and family eight times each. It was also divided into quarters. I was a miler in high school and college so I was accustomed to thinking in sets of four. First lap is easy because it’s first and everything is new. Second is the settle-in lap, which goes by fast. Third is the hardest, always. Fourth is also easy because you’re almost done and nothing can be that hard when you’re almost done. It doesn’t exactly make sense as I type it out but it feels right in the moment and helps to make big things seem smaller.
The first lap was going well until I fell down. I was fiddling with my hat and sunglasses and tripped on one of the legs of the steel fencing lining the racecourse. I tumbled down and slammed my thigh into the leg of the next barrier. I skinned my knee and elbow and felt my quadriceps ball up in a knot of pain.
A bike ride through 112 miles of hairpin turns and you fall down on the run?
I jumped up and started running. My leg hurt and would probably hurt much more as the run wore on but I seemed to be okay for the moment.
The miles fell away and I managed even splits from lap to lap. Frequent drenchings in the showers kept me just cool enough that I was able to enjoy myself. Lap one was easy. Lap two was my settle-in. During lap three I felt my form start to break down slightly as my throbbing quad knotted further. By lap four I was running with a more pronounced limp but it didn’t matter because I was almost done and nothing can be that hard when you’re almost done. I passed my family. “See you at the finish!” I heard my father yell. I was 6 miles away from finishing an Ironman.
I made my way down the promenade for the last time and made the turn by the airport. I could see the inflatable yellow awning near the finish across the bay. I tracked it as I ran and watched it grow slowly closer. I got to the last aid station and a strange thing happened.
I went pee.
It was something I didn’t expect. I knew I had to go to the bathroom but it didn’t feel urgent so it came as a surprise when I felt myself evacuate. I stood there as the warm effluent streamed down my inner thighs and pooled in my shoes. Just act normal. I casually strolled along and took in fluids, nodding and smiling at friendly race volunteers, peeing all the while. They don’t know I’m peeing right now! THEY DON’T KNOW I’M PEEING RIGHT NOW! Although I was mortified it did feel strangely luxurious and relaxing. Glorious, actually. So glorious, in fact, that it suddenly seemed a great pity that peeing oneself is territory reserved only for the very young, the very old, and the very frightened. I sucked an orange slice and contemplated the state of things in the world. Maybe someday society will embrace everyone with pissy-pants. Not just the chosen few.
For reasons that should be obvious I spent a few extra seconds in the shower following that particular aid station. Though I felt better I was unnerved that my body had started making decisions without consulting my brain. What other decisions could it possibly make? All afternoon I watched people fade or drop out. They stretched under trees or sat listlessly on a curb. I was sure they all felt fine until suddenly they didn’t. It was worrying that the end could come so quickly and conclusively and seemingly without warning. But I was lucky. I was nearly through the gauntlet.
I reached the end of the marathon and the hot pavement gave way to the plush blue finishing carpet. I made a sharp left and there it was. The finish. Not fifty yards away. I took off my sunglasses and hat and found my family in the crush of supporters. Christa gave me a high-five as I went by. I hit the finishing podium, turn around and looked back at the crowd, the blazing sun, blue sky, all of it.
I ran a 3:47 marathon, passing over 500 people.
I sat in the athletes-only area following the race, waiting for my massage. Ironman France gave a free 15-minute massage to athletes following the race, which sounds decadent until you actually do the race. Then it seems like the least they could do. I sat on the steps of an outdoor amphitheater and watched athletes making their way around, some more easily than others. I chatted with a man sitting beside me who told me that he’d done five Ironman races and this was the hardest. We talked about the intense climbs. The marathon heat. The unexpected current in the ocean.
Then it was his turn and he got up, leaving me by myself. I looked out at the waning day and savored the gentle heat radiating from the stone steps beneath me. In that quiet moment, that first quiet moment since my alarm woke me at 4 AM and maybe the first truly quiet moment since I decided to do the race all those months ago, I felt a lightness wash over me and I started to cry. It turns out there is crying in triathlon and this time I didn’t try to swallow it up. I let it pour freely for those few minutes. I cried for joy, relief, and pride, unbelievable pride. I cried for the support of my wife and family and friends. I cried for the love of sport and sweat and tiredness and commitment. I cried because this was one of the greatest days of my life and the people I loved most were out there waiting for me. And in a few minutes I would join them and we would walk off together under the falling Mediterranean night.
Total: 11:26 (518th place)