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stories >> 1998 - 06 - 16

Run, Bike, Swim, The Tortoise Carries On
     Triathlon. I remember years ago when I first became aware of triathlons. Like most folks, the only thing that I ever heard of was the Ironman, probably on some dusty Sunday afternoon when there was nothing else on the TV. Wedged in between golf and NASCAR, there was a group of people who were competing in three different events at the same time, each one of a ludicrously difficult length, and like most folks I thought that these Ironmen were just a crazy lot. 3 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and then a marathon on top of it all? Yeesh. Nuts.
     The thing I remember most, though, were the race numbers. Since the first part is a swim, and you can't really wear a normal running type race number, I saw that each competitor had his number written across his arm and his thigh. I remember, from way back then, thinking, "These guys are crazy, but that number thing sure looks cool. Sure looks tough."
     So I forgot about triathlon. What a crazy damn deal.
     But I never forgot about those numbers. One time I went up to the law school to pick up Traci, and I wrote her room number in huge numbers across my forearm. When I picked her up she exclaimed, "What did you do to yourself?!" I grinned at her and told her, "You know, just like a triathlon." She shook her head. Crazy Alan.

Smells like... Victory
Coach Jim in the early morning light. "Smell that smell? That gasoline smell?"
     Years and years go by, and sometime last January I was in the bookstore looking for a new running magazine. I had read all of the ones that were there, so I idly picked up the issue of Triathlete that they had. Since it was January, the editorial was about New Year's resolutions. One of them was "Move to San Diego, and don't even think about bringing your car." I almost jumped out of my skin in the store when I read that. What a gutsy move, even to suggest. These people were crazy. But they were stoked on this craziness that they were doing. So stoked that they would drop huge parts of their life to feed their obsession of triathlon. I devoured the issue, and when I finally got to the end and read Scott Tinley's smart ass article (I don't remember which one it was now... maybe something being half way through a 90 mile training ride and laughing that he was getting paid for this) triathlon had been wedged back into my mind. It was the first time I read about a "Sprint" triathlon and realized that there were triathlons that were shorter than Ironmans and within the grasp of mere mortals. It would take me another five months to work up the guts to actually enter one.
     The one I will enter is the "Metroplex Sprint Triathlon" up in Dallas Texas. It's put on by this guy who calls himself Jack "Iron Jack" Weiss. Jack Weiss is an ex Air Force jar head, who describes himself as having run over 80 triathlons and 24 marathons. When I get my registration information back in the mail, you can read his drill sergeant mentality all through it. Every thing is bullet pointed, and each stricture and suggestion says things like, "NO EXCEPTIONS" or "YOU WILL BE DISQUALIFIED" in bold type with exclamation points. It's pretty fearsome reading, and I have a little moment of doubt. But, down deep, I'm all set to go, and Jim tells me that he wants to come on up too just to see what the crazy nonsense is all about. Bueno, bueno, bueno. The big day rolls around and we pack up the Blazer and head north.

     We stay in Richardson, on the north side of Dallas. The race is down on the south side in Grand Prairie. It's 11:00 the night before, and Jim and I are watching "Black Adder" on TV. We've driven the course, gotten the race packet pick up, taken care of last minute adjustments to the bike. My race number's laid out, my talcum powdered socks laid out, goggles ready to go, Gu packets taped to the handlebars, nothing left to do. I've gotten pretty good about pre-race nerves, but there's always a little. Having Jim there helps, as well as the obsessively precise preparation. Jim has his own thoughts tonight, and we're not talking very much, just watching TV. The weather man will give us depressing news: high of 102, low of 80, wind in the morning is 15-25 mph to give you a face full of head wind on the bike.
     I set the alarm for 4:45 in the morning. The race starts at 7:30, and you have to be there at 6:30 ("NO EXCEPTIONS"). I fall asleep, trying not to think about things.

     The familiar boom of the alarm wakes me up. After a few groggy seconds, my mind instantly flips over into that familiar psych up ritual. I throw off the sheets and spring into the bathroom to take a pointless shower. I'll be full of sweat and stank in just a few hours, but it's all part of the ritual. I lather up, soap off, start muttering to myself, and whip out of the shower to flex at the mirror a little. As I'm pulling on my shorts I roar some incoherent noise at Jim to wake him up. Boom, he's up, and I'm boiling the water I set out the night before for the coffee. Jim's chewing on the manky bagels that we bought yesterday and making a terrible face. The bagel is pretty gnarly, but I French press out a few gritty gooey cups of coffee and the caffeine buzz takes care of the lousy food. As I'm slurping through my bagel, Jim's trying to find something powerful to listen to. The closest thing we find to pump up music is Duran Duran. This just won't do. So out to the car.
     We bound out the door, trying to think of something that will get the blood flowing. The caffeine's buzzing sturdily through our heads by now and we start thinking of aggro things to tell each other. Jim's fallen in love with the latest bit of punkass attitude we have written up on the white board, written to someone who was buying a new car with an air conditioner: "I SCORN YOUR CLIMATE CONTROL WEAKNESS." I drum on the dash and shout back at him some bicycle ad, "I'LL MEET YOU IN THE PARKING LOT." Jim grins back at me and gives me the set up for his favorite line from Conan: "What is good, Conan?"
     Easy. I know this one. I turn on the Arnold voice and boom at him, "TO DRIVE YOUR ENEMIES BEFORE YOU AND HEAR THE LAMENTATION OF THEIR WOMEN!!"
     Oh yes, we're off to a good start.

Note Race Numbers and Stylin' Tan
The Golden Tortoise before the battle. That's the sweet bloodshot red Hoo Koo E Koo next to me. The tri-spoked wheel is the bike of someone whom I will beat mercilessly in the bike leg.
     Once at the race, we unpack the car and wheel out our stuff into the transition area. The race is a sprint distance, which basically means each leg is fairly short. The breakdown is a 800 meter swim, a 30K bike, and a 5K run. I'm shooting for a two hour time, which will put me solidly in the middle of the 533 people out here. I see a phenomenal number of really expensive trick bikes, lots of giant SUV's, and lots and lots of folks who are in really really good shape. The Motorola marathon made me nervous about being in shape for that race; these folks make me nervous even just standing around without my shirt on.
     We wheel the bike down to the water, and there's the transition area. As you walk into the transition area, they stop you to check you in and write your number on you. My number gets scratched onto each arm and thigh, and on my right calf they scrawl your age ("So you can tell who you're passing" it really said in the race packet). As they write the numbers on me, I'm indescribably pumped and happy. In my own mind, I look as tough as that original Ironman I saw so long ago, all freaked out and pounding hard. I get Jim to take a picture of me, all decked and ready to blaze.
     Now, of course, comes the waiting. Ironjack has a mandatory 6:45 pre race meeting ("NO EXCEPTIONS") so Jim and I drift over to the swim start. Ironjack himself comes striding down to the water. He's a small man who's whole attitude just seems to say, "I'm pretty sure that I'm tougher than you are." He's bald and he hollers like a he's been in the Army. He keeps telling you what you will and will not do, and it's pretty intimidating until I see the folks around me all smiling. Ironjack has a good attitude about it all, which I finally realize when he says, "Please do NOT start the swim early. I have a life guard down there, who is a better swimmer than ANY OF YOU HERE. His personality is also very SIMILAR to mine. Very LOVING." Once I pay attention, I see that he's always grinning through all of his instructions. Finally at one point, he says, "We want to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that you have a good race. Unfortunately, that means I have to be a Nazi." Someone behind me hollers out in their best Soup Nazi voice, "NO RACE FOR YOU!" and the whole crowd roars.
     I'm racing as a Clydesdale, which puts me in the fifth and last wave to go out. Before I even get into the water, the leader is shivering and shaking his way up from the swim into the bike transition.

     As I get into the water, I hear that we have two and a half minutes before the horn. I swim out with the rest of my wave, and suddenly there's only forty-five seconds left. I'm in the back of the pack, slowly sculling around to face the front, and I have just enough time to think, "Oh my God. What the hell am I doing?" Everything gets quiet as the swimmers wait for the horn, and there's only the soft chop of the water bobbing us up and down. I feel a strong, silent expectancy in me, watching the race like that tiger in the trees in the Amy Tan book.
Who the hell are all these people?
7:31 am: H-Hour.

     There's the horn. We're off.
     I'll tell you my race plan. I'm a miserable swimmer. My goal is to survive the swim. I'm pretty confident that I'm going chew up the competition on the bike, so I figure I can make up for my lousy swim in the bike leg. I'm unsure of the run. 5K is only three miles, so it's well within my training volume, but I've never run it after 90 minutes of all out exertion before. I figure I'll run a slower but solid 5K and come in right at my 2 hours.
     I'll tell you one other thing, and this one's a secret. The reason I love to train so much, apart from the health benefits and the vanity aspect, is that when you're training the problems are all simple ones. Right now, pounding my head in and out of the water, the only things I can think about are getting the next breath and moving forward another few feet. I'll worry about the joker bashing me in the head around the turn when I get up there. But I sure won't worry about work, or life, or money, or just about anything else. Just breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke.
     No time for worry. No time for panic. No time for pain, of any kind. Jeff tells me that after every basketball game he has to stop and count how many toes he has left. Breath, stroke. Everything else just fades away. The only time I have right now... breathe, stroke... is to focus on the movement of my body through space.
     Breathe, stroke. Breathe, stroke.

     The swim is a long, slow 24 minutes. I consciously keep my pace slow but I still nearly lose what breakfast I've eaten at three different points along the course. Some kid has panicked and bonked already, and I pass him gripping on to a "No Wake" buoy. I ask him if he's okay, which he will be after he calms down a little, and turn back forward and press on. Jim will tell me that he saw a few people pull up on to the patrolling jet skis for a breather, but they all make it. I lose all track of time in the swim, and I'm a little surprised when I actually see the finish line-boat ramp ahead of me. I've been passed by countless people, so I stagger out of the water and try to get my land legs back as I run up to the transition.
     Jim's running along beside me, hollering some kind of "GO GO GO" noise. I don't see that many bikes in the area, so I know I've got a lot of folks to blow by in the next hour. I wrestle my shoes on and run my bike out of the transition area (no riding inside the transition - "NO EXCEPTIONS"). I cross the red line that means "RIDE" and squeeze onto the saddle of the Hoo Koo E Koo and start to proj my way out.
     I start to keep track of how many folks I'm passing. After passing five folks in the first mile, I figure it's pointless and concentrate on racing.
Woo hoo!
Wait a minute... this looks just like the picture at the top of the page except that it's EXACTLY OPPOSITE. Oh my God -- it's like Bizarro World Triathlon!

     The first turn I roll into, I squeeze my brakes to slow down and feel a quick surge of panic as the front brake lever clacks uselessly. I lean over the front wheel and see that I never re-attached the brake after taking the front wheel off for the trip up. I start to slow down so I can rehook it, cursing the loss of time. But I get a glint in my eye and I think to myself, "You only need brakes if you're going to stop. AND YOU'RE NOT STOPPING, BABY!" Woo hoo! I whoop out a war cry and set off after the biker ahead of me.
     Nine miles in and someone finally passes me. My immediate impulse is to lock on to his rear wheel, draft him for a mile, and then whip past him when he least expects it. But one of the more quaint rules of triathlon is that it's illegal to draft in the bike; so illegal, in fact, that you're disqualified on the third violation. And their definition of "draft" is following within seven meters of the other guy's front wheel. I curse this guy under my breath as I pick up the pace a little, trying to keep with him but seven meters back. As I'm cursing, another guy passes me, and now I've got two road bikes to keep up with. Damn.
     I stick with them for another mile or so, watching the way they ride. The first guy is obviously blowing his pace: I can see his shoulders sinking left and right as he throws his back into powering his bike, and I don't think he'll hold it for long. The second guy is more of a threat, with a monster pair of legs and a relaxed, steady cadence. I watch the two of them as I begin to pull up behind. I think back on an article I just read in Bicycling, where someone described an ideal Tour De France racer as "knowing when to attack." Ah hah, attack! The very word sends my blood through my legs, and I actually scream "ATTACK!" as I cut the corner by both of the riders. I'm back out in front of our threesome now. I zip past someone on the right, who shouts at my back "Pass on the left next time!" I'm gone before I can say anything in reply. I've left the tired buy behind, but the in-shape guy and I will play cat and mouse for the next four miles until we hit the hills, and then I'm gone.
     I plunge through the last five or seven miles, talking briefly with people as I pass them. On the last hill, I'm out of the saddle grinding as the woman I'm passing shouts encouragement at me. I figure I should make the most of my dominance in the bike, so I suck one more Gu pack and figure I'll blow everything I have to try to make up for what's looking to be a lousy run. I pass ten people who are coasting to the transition, lock up my one brake to try to stop in time, and slap my feet against the ground like Fred Flintstone. I've pulled up parallel to the Famous Red Line of the transition area. I run in to put my bike on the rack and see Jim hollering at me from the side line. I keep holding up my fingers in a big round Zero, and shout "Zero people passed me, baby!"
     Now I've finally got my shirt on, and suddenly the heat is unbearable. I'm crawling through the run and everyone is passing me. The guy with the monster legs is back and passes me at the 1.5 mile mark. I laugh and we talk for a moment as he goes by. I nibble down one last Gu pack to try to get the guts for a charge to the finish, but I'm at the point where I'm just stoked to be running with all these folks and knowing that I'm almost at the end of this thing. As much as I'm being passed, I'm starting to catch folks now and leaving them behind. I'm a little ashamed at how excited I am to pass people who look like they are in much better shape than I am. As I pass them, I grit my tortoise teeth through my grin and think, like Jack Weiss, "I'm probably tougher than you are."
     3.1 miles later, and I'm down the home stretch with Jim Bob riding his bike next to me hollering encouragement. Once I'm across the line, I start seeing spots and I drunkenly lurch over to the water tent. I down a soda, and as the adrenaline starts to fade I'm not sure I'll be able to keep standing. I grab another soda and a handful of ice to pile on my head. I lurch back to the shade of a tree and hunker down on the ground. Jim finds me there and tries to get me moving, but I tell him I'll need a few minutes.
     I tell Jim that I think this is quite possibly the hardest, most grueling thing I have ever done.
     We hang around for the awards ceremony and Jim comments that everyone going up to get an award has a particular post triathlon limp. I'm lost off in a fuzz of endorphins, but I think, yeah, I've got a monster blister on my left toe, my right foot's sore, and my left hamstring has that chronic tweakyness. If everyone else feels like this, it's no wonder we're limping. When the awards are handed out and we get up to head back to the car, we both laugh to see that I'm hobbling along in the exact same way. I look down at my limp and I can see my race numbers glowing along my arms and flashing from my thighs.
     I close my eyes and walk into that brutal Texas sun. I am a triathlete.

 

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