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stories >> 1998 - 08 - 30

Swimmin' Swimmin' Swimmin'

     Scott Tinley, one of the original winners of the Kona, Hawaii Ironman, has written the closing article for the magazine Triathlete since 1982. In the short amount of time that I have been reading Triathlete, his article has always been one of my favorites, the one that you try to read as very last because you like it so much.
     Why do I love it so much? Not sure. He writes about training, and he writes about racing, and he writes about living your life. He's as honest as can be (one time he wrote, "I know I could be a prick when I was 27"), he's funny (he also wrote, "Triathletes don't get piercings because it might mess up their hydrodynamics"), and he's been there and he's done that and reading his articles I always think, "Yeah, I can see how that is."
     (BTW, even though Scott Tinley's pretty cool, his website pretty much stinks.)
     So in this month's Triathlete, he talks about the pre-race day jitters, and how the anxiety builds and builds until the starting gun, when distress is finally turned into motion. Triathlons, by nature, tend to be grueling events, and worthy of some amount of distress, even if only for the inevitable pain that you're going to go through. But in one beautiful sentence, he says, "The pain comes, but it's never as bad as the fear was." That's what triathlon's all about. That's what life's all about.
     I ran my second triathlon today; last night was worse than the usual pre-race nerves. I tried to go bed early (we always try to go to bed early), and I tried to sleep, but there were three big stressors working on me. 1) The triathlon itself, 2) Some random issues at work, and 3) Of course, a woman.

     This particular triathlon was called "The Couples Triathlon," where there was some sneaky deal where your time would be added to your partner's and the lowest combined score wins. I was racing with just about the only other freak I know who's into triathlon in the "Mixed Friends" category. Since the Leper has gone off to Car Heaven, she had graciously offered to give me a ride. She was going to be here at about 6:30 in the morning so that we could make it down south of Austin for the 8:00 start. I laid out the war chest the night before (goggles, shoes, towel, race number, shorts, Gu), put the water bottles in the freezer, and laid me down to a fitful night of sleep and non-sleep.
     The alarm went off in the morning, and ten punctual minutes later Jamie calls to make sure that I'm ready to go. A lot of my pre-race rituals had been neglected: the steaming pots of coffee, the techno music, the talking to myself in the mirror to get ready to rumble. But as I fished my right contact into my eye, I burbled to Jamie on the other end of the phone that I would be ready and waiting for her outside of the apartment when she arrived here momentarily.
     Bag picked up, bike picked up, house locked up, and I'm down waiting for Jamie to show up.
     Let me tell you about Jamie real fast. I met her years ago when I was working at Apple. She was dating one of my buddies there. She's always drank; she's always smoked. When I first met her she did a lot of aerobics; one of these folks (much like myself) who balances out all their sinning with a little penance in the gym. In the past little while (months, years, who knows?) she picked up running occasionally to supplement the aerobics. She ran her first triathlon at the Danskin earlier this year and got stoked and stoked on it. She still smokes, she still drinks, and she doesn't finish first in these damn races, but Jamie qualifies for what every few people I have ever met qualify for: hard. Never a whine, never a fuss, just chug chug chug through whatever's in her way. On the way to the race she smoked two cigarettes, and the way back she'll smoke one more, and in between she just worked out for two hours straight. I'm pretty sure that when the nukes start falling, there will only be cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Jamie standing at the end.
     Jamie shows up, we load up, and we drive the twelve miles down to Creedmore, bullshitting about racing, about what the swim's going to be like, about our projected times, about how little either of us have been training.

     The race is held in this oddly shaped "water ski" lake. It's shaped like a horse shoe, with a big median down the middle, and is only about seven feet deep in the deepest part. The entire horseshoe is apparently longer than the 1,500 meters of this swim leg, so the organizers cleverly have us jump out of the water 2/3 down the median, run across to the other side, and then dive back in to finish. Hmmm. But the race literature says that the water is "comparable to Barton Springs," so we shouldn't have to worry about mud and such. Hmmm.
     The bike leg is 30K (18.9 miles) of "flat to rolling hills." The run is 5K of "flat and fast." The race is only about 1/5 the size of the Metroplex Sprint in terms of people, and it's nowhere near as well organized as that one. But it's much more relaxed, and there's a keg of beer at the end of the line, and there's a black dog sitting at the bike to run transition area right now, and the temperature is a merciful 74 degrees at race start. The sun is rising, and I think that it's going to be a good day to race.

     (Nota Bene to the careful reader: there are three lies in the above paragraph. They all have to do with the race conditions. The water, unlike Barton Springs, is so black with mud that you can't see your hands as you swim. The "rolling hills" are almost all uphill leg burners. The "flat and fast" means that you get to run down hill on the way back in. Ugh.)

     Since there are only one hundred or so folks out here, the organizers have opted for the mass start where we all plow into the water at once. Jamie and I have been standing around nervously for thirty or forty minutes now, so we're glad to finally be getting into the (har har) swim of things. I pull off my sneakers, and in the one hundred yards from the bike transition to the swim start I get bit a dozen times by vicious and voracious fire ants, leaving nicely swelling blisters behind.
     In the water, we sink ankle deep into the muddy bottom. Jamie, not being a mud between the toes kind of person, is visibly cringing at the feel of the bottom. I keep telling her that I, Golden Tortoise Al, have never swum a mile before, and that I'm terrified of being last out on the swim. I start behind almost everyone so that I won't have to face being run over by the 99 other more powerful swimmers out here today. The minutes tick quickly away, and I look around me. Here's the eight year old kid who's going to run the race. Here's the guy paralyzed from the waist down who's going to run the race; how tough is that guy? I smile to myself and squat down in the water to float a little, waiting for the horn.
     And, as it always does, the horn comes. And, as it always is, it's better than the fear.

     Breast stroking Alan, son of Laertes and the gods of old, weakly combing along and staring discouragedly at the orange cone that marks where we get out of the water. I choke down a lungful of water and roll over onto my back to calm down and cough and watch the eight year old kid pass me while being coached by his Dad. Dad's doing the side stroke. Yargh. I take a few deep breaths, roll back over, and site on the cone.
     It's not getting any closer.
     I was a fool to enter this swim.

     During the swim, you get a lot of time to think. You can't hear anything because of the water in your ears, you can't see anything because of the goggles strapped to your face. A good part of your mind is taken up with the raw mechanics and machinery of swimming (are my hands in the right place? Are my hips floating high? Do I have enough air?), but that leaves a very lucid and limpid part of your mind free. While I keep focusing on that unmoving orange cone, I eventually have to let my mind wander off, ignoring the damn cone, or I'm going to be sick from frustration.
     So, of course, my mind focuses instead on the problem of Her. It was an ugly breakup, surprising considering how short we actually dated, but ugly ugly none the less. I remember the Sunday night that I poured forth every shitty thing I could think of, feeling so bad afterwards that I couldn't sleep, taking interminable showers while crying to the walls in my frustration. The showers, the hollering, the pacing, anything to try to forget about that pain. There's times that you're going through something like that and you can actually feel your heart breaking in your chest... you wish that you could just die and get this over with. And there's times when it seems like forever.
     Just like the swim. You're going nowhere fast.
     But I make a tentative connection: I remember one of the first things I read about open water swimming said, "When you can't see the bottom, your mind thinks you're not moving. But don't be discouraged: you know you're stroking, and you know you're moving, so keep reminding yourself that you are, in fact, moving along. You are getting somewhere." Ah, what a metaphor. Quiet and lonesome, just like me. And I remembered on Sunday night in between the showers and the pacing, I kept telling myself two things over and over: You're doing the right thing. And, you're going to get over this.
     I'd like to go back and categorize all the things that went wrong: I opened up too fast. She opened up too slow. I treated her too good. I treated her too bad. There was her history and there was my history. I wanted too much. She wanted too much. Whatever (I told you this was ugly)... One of the first things I told her was that I wasn't afraid of having my heart broken. I didn't mean that she couldn't break my heart; what I meant is that just being afraid of it wasn't enough reason to get involved.
     I'm afraid more of being afraid than just about anything else, even sharks and undertow. I never want to be a confirmed bachelor, afraid of relinquishing his carefully built up individuality. I never want to be a bitter, jilted lover, afraid to tarnish the memories of his perfect love with a real, live relationship. I never want to be too afraid to not talk to someone that I'm interested in, and I'm sick at heart when I am.
     So I had told her: I'm ready to be involved because I'm not afraid.
     Because as bad as the pain is, it's never as bad as the fear was.
     Triathlons teach patience: you can't go all out on any leg, because there's still the bike after the swim, and there's always the run at the end of it all. And factor in that the distances can be pretty daunting (hellfire, a mile swim is daunting to me even right now), and you can't sprint through these damn things. With the patience comes the trust that you're actually going somewhere, and that you're going to finish. A long time ago I learned the trick of listening to my body instead of my mind; in the middle of a workout, as my brain is screaming about how slow and weak I am, I actually listen to how my legs feel, how my back feels, what my lungs are pumping. And the message is always the same: we can creak along just a little more. We'll get you there. This isn't the end of the world.
     And I try to do the right thing. And then, I try to get over it.

     After the mini-sprint in the middle of the swim, I trade the orange cone for the looming ski jump in the middle of the lake as my current goal to ignore. Ignored, and passed, in due time, I work my way into the transition area. The water suddenly shallows, and I scrape my chest against a submerged pipe. Ouch. As I skirt out of the water and stumble into the transition area, I catch my toe on a bike rack and fall to the ground. Ouch, ouch, some new road rash. Back up, and reminding myself, "You just swam a mile, take it easy my man," I put on my shoes, unrack the bike, and hop off for the bike leg.
     After the blackened, muddy water exposing Triathlon Lie #1, I'm not surprised by Triathlon Lie #2 when the hills start hammering at my knees and arms. I set off at a strong pace, catching up with the eight year old kid who passed me in the swim (ha!), and then knocking off the bike competitors like they were standing still. Up and down hill, over the lousy asphalt in a few places, and 18.9 miles later as I come into the bike to run transition, not a single person has passed me on the bike.

     I fire down the Gu right at the start of the run and head down the road. The "flat and fast" course is really "one long slow hill." I start working up it as two guys zip by me at double my pace. One of them smiles and waves at me on the way back, hollering, "It's easier on the way down." At the top of the hill, there's the turn around. I grab the cup of water and shoot back down the hill, feeling stronger now for the first time in the whole race, and thinking to myself, "I think I just might finish this damn thing."
     In the last few hundred yards, I pass the only person that I'm going to pass in the run. They don't even want to talk, they won't even look at me, so I just shrug and pass on by. I turn the corner into the finish line to the desultory cheering of the race organizers and come across the line in one hour fifty-six minutes and change. I catch my breath and shamble off to that much dreamed of keg of beer.

     Later, Jamie crosses and we walk around to let the adrenaline wear out of our systems. I quietly categorize my injuries: road rash on both hands and right knee; cut on left big toe; unbelievably painful chafe; scraped chest. Jamie has a few less bruises. We're both surprised at how good we feel after this race. We're not ready to run another one right now, but we're not messed up too badly. We walk back to get our bikes, limping off and on and talking about nothing much at all. I wince occasionally as the cut on my toe rubs on the inside of my shoe.
     It's hard to explain... some people think triathletes live for the pain. There's a Gatorade ad right now that makes a big deal out of the "Well Oiled Masochist." And, sure, in some ways we do live for that pain and the endorphin rush. One more thing that surprised her about me was when I told her how I enjoyed being sore from a workout; "It lets me know that I'm alive" I told her.
     And that's the secret, isn't it: life involves pain. Being born is hard, growing up is hard, earning a living is hard, triathlons are hard. I used to think that I could isolate myself from the pains of living, if only I lived in the right place and acted the right way and knew the right people. But you really can't: the center does not hold, things fall apart. So you have to make a conscious decision to be able to deal with the pain, because it's always going to be there anyway, and you just can't hide from it.
     So, since I can't hide, I let it come. And, y'know, when the pain does come, it's never as bad as the fear was.


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