Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ironman: Who knew?

This post could also have been titled:

Ironman: Great for Physique, Bad for Hair.


Did I Do That?

Yes, I did that.

It took me a long time to start this. I struggle with finding adequate words to encapsulate what has so fantastically changed me as a human being forever. When someone asks me how Ironman went, a series of thoughts flash by like a matrix which finally will allow me to answer based on: who is asking, how much do I think they really want to know, how much energy do I want to invest in trying to describe this Magnum Opus to them, etc. Finally, after these microcalculations reach convergence, some sort of answer emerges. Inevitably my eyes fill and I choke, regardless of the length and depth of my description.

Writing about it is different. Here my problem is one of expression and quality of perspective. How do I impart to you reading this the how and why one day has altered the course of my existence, forever?

It was mile 60ish of the bike ride.

I eased into my easiest gear, which on my triathlon bike is not so easy, and lurched up yet another hill. I remembered it from the first loop; started steep, looked like it was going to level out, finally steepening again to the then-invisible crest which ended in an awkward right turn that flung down a nice, gradual 8% slope into a set of s-curves. I thought, momentarily, and for the 500th time that day, how nice it might be to have watched this from the safety of my desk at home. That thought quickly passed as I worked my way through the field on the hill and realized that, although my spirits weren't as great as they could have been, I was passing people every hill climb. That does a lot to boost the spirits.

One of the people I passed was the man who started to seem like he was following me, or like my new best friend on the bike. I thought I might be imagining him, for he was ever-present. He was 48 (as noted from the left calf) and his name was Jimmy. Our bibs at Ironman have first and last names on a separate number, so the throngs of spectators can confuse demoralized swim-survivors during the early minutes of the bike ride by yelling out your last name. Jimmy wore an entire LSU Tigers Tri-suit of purple and gold. It might have been bike shorts and a jersey. These are the little details that don't permeate on Ironman day. I did note, however, that Jimmy wasn't the fittest looking guy out there, but he was biking well. Anyway, I slowly passed Jimmy on the hill for probably the 8th time. I looked over and I said with a grin "Hey Jimmy, here we are again." I couldn't help loving this banter.

"I am too old for this!" Jimmy replied after shaking his head when he saw me again.

"I am too young for this!" I shouted back over my right shoulder to him. I knew that in a matter of time we would be going down hill and he would pass me, yet again. When this happened I yelled over to him "You big guys always pass me on the downhills."

"And you skinny twerps always climb too fast." We both laughed and he motored on ahead, the sweat visible on his legs now. We were all beginning to feel a little warm. We were all sick of the hills, sick of the 18 mph head wind every time we turned south toward town, sick of Gatorade, sick of being on the bike. We were sick of it together, and it was wonderful. That's the ironic beauty of Ironman.

It's amazing I slept at all.

When the alarm went off at 3:45AM on June 24th, 2007, I hesitated for a moment. Could this really, finally, be the day? I had been training and preparing and waiting for so long--is it really time to go do this thing? I leaned over and kissed my wife and got out of bed. I was immediately struck by how much I wanted to do Ironman just to get it over with at that point. This wasn't a very good motivation, so I thought about the excitement I felt picking up my race packet and doing the pre-race hype festivities. I looked at my bracelet and imagined it bashing in the impending waves. A giant knot emerged in my gut. I decided not to think about waves right then and went about my over-thought morning routine, which wasn't a routine for me yet. I noticed I was shaking as I sliced our 100% whole wheat english muffins in half and inserted them into the 4 slot toaster at the hotel. One other sleepy triathlete was slouched in the corner over a bowl of fruit loops. I wondered about her, later, during one of my darker moments in the lake.

Jan was wonderfully patient with me as I bumbled around with all of my stuff and took up all the extra space in our tiny room. Between my antics and the dog, I was imagining how big a coffee she would purchase later while I raced. We ate the same thing we always did before our 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 hour rides: muffins with peanut butter and jelly. I added cottage cheese and some mandarin oranges during the last week, and I am glad I had. The ironman's properly trained body is a powerful food eliminating device. Within a couple of hours I was already hungry again, and I hadnt even gotten into my wetsuit yet.

Dog walked, bottles stowed, car loaded, the three of us headed toward City Park. As we drove, the trees started dancing and debris was flying into the air. Wouldn't you know it, the wind actually got WORSE race morning?? Arrival at the swim start only served to worsen the effect. My stomach may have fallen, but it was still far above my heart which seemed to reside deep in the tip of my big toe, hiding. The lake was seething with a dark, angry temper this race morning, and I knew I had to master it. I had no idea it would be one of the scariest events of my life. The wind was whipping the water off the top of the white caps that were cresting 20 feet from the beach. The boats and kayaks beginning to line the course looked like even they were having trouble navigating.

I was praying the 2299 other suckers would soften the blow in front of me. They were looking at me thinking the same thing, wishing I weighed a lot more.

I volunteered for this? AND paid??

Ironman morning is an interesting time. There really isn't that much to do, but you have to get there early to avoid the hysteria. This leaves the average nervous wreck athlete such as myself plenty of time to calm down, or get more nervous. I decided to spend my time walking back and forth from the car because I forgot my sunscreen, had too much to carry, etc. Bullfrog--this is the best kept Ironman secret ever. I highly recommend this for any long distance multi-sport event that begins with being tossed around in a lake-sized whirlpool tub with 2200 other screaming nut-jobs, when the average sunscreen might get washed away. Not Bullfrog. Anyway, I did my due diligence, did my dookie, and acted calm as long as I could. It was when I finally didn't have anything else to do that I realized I needed to turn my back on the whole thing for a moment. Jan and I walked to a deserted park bench north of the transition area and I stretched and she took pictures. We joked and I pretended to be ok. I saw her well up in those pretty eyes a few times as she looked out at the transition area or the lake, and I knew she was as scared for me as I was for myself. I had a hard time not shedding some saline myself. I didn't fully know what was going to happen, all I knew was I would be ok back on dry land.

It was time to head to the water. I gave Jan a HUGE hug and kiss and enjoyed it immensely, as this was goodbye for potentially a long time. With some tears in my eyes, I dropped off my dry-clothes bag at the transition area, then wandered to the beach with the parade of other Iron-wanna be folks in our super suits and got ready for my warm up.

My warm up in the 4 foot beach break.

Then the voice started coming over the loud speaker telling us NOT to warm up. Apparently it was SO bad and loud from the waves and wind they didn't want dead bodies floating around BEFORE we started swimming...

Next time, Smart Guy, stay in the BACK!

I spoke with a nice man, Donnie, on the beach as the music droned on over the din of waves crashing 10 feet in front of us. Donnie was paranoid to the extent I felt over-relaxed--and that's really saying something. He warned me about so many things that I thought he was nuts, but it took only about 15 meters of "swimming" that morning to make me realize he wasn't so far off his rocker after all.

I have been in a fist-fight. I have swam in rough, cold, ocean water. Even swam around in Lake Samish near Bellingham in January.
The swim of Ironman CDA in 2007 was by far more brutal and scary than any of those experiences.

I thought I had followed my best friends instructions well enough. Jeremy told me "line up IN BACK, left side." In retrospect, if I had to point out one mistake I made on Ironman day, my failure to pay attention to where I was in space when the riot known as the "swim leg" started would be where the finger pointed.

The first lap was a blur of being pushed under water, smacked on every part of my body with amazing force, kicked, elbowed, grabbed, molested and cried on. It created my new image of what hell would be like. Imagine 2300 athletes lined up in a space about 50 yards deep and a quarter mile wide. Then imagine that all of the people in that quarter mile wide area being condensed into a space about 30 feet wide. That is an under-exaggeration of hitting the first turn on the first lap of the swim. The only positive thing I can glean is that the sheer fear of being annihilated gave me the motivation I needed to swim the first lap in probably PR pace for me. Of course, we surfed back in on the breaking waves, after making the turns, so it took an eighth of the time to get back to the beach as it did to get out.

I could describe the inhumanity of the swim, the cannibalistic mayhem, to greater extent-- but it makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

During the second lap, AKA "The 1.2 Mile Swim that Would Never End", I gulped so much water that I literally threw up 3 times while bobbing in the lake. At this point I realized how tenuous our position is as feeble, skinny folks on Ironman day, and I thought of quitting. That went away quickly. Quitting would not happen this day. Drowning, perhaps, throwing up, definitely. But not quitting. I didn't consider it again for the rest of my race. I bobbed there, getting pushed and swam over, gagging, and thought of the girl in the kitchen at the hotel eating Fruit Loops. I wondered for a moment if I would notice any colorful, soggy cereal bits floating past me. Seriously, that is the kind of mental detritus that happens out there. Just ask anyone who has done Ironman.

Peel me, Heal me.

My arms were strips of leather by the time I got back to shore... I did it!! I got back to shore! It was a delirious, cold, overwhelming experience all on its own. To stand up at the big swim exit arch was probably the most under-expressed happiest moment of my short life thus far. It was under- expressed because I was numb in brain and body, and I was mindlessly following everyone else up the slope towards the transition area. But it was a momentous victory for me, because my largest fear was behind me. The one part of this day I couldn't really train for was that mass swim in those waves. And, 10 minutes slower than originally planned in an excruciatingly long 1 hour 25 minutes, I finished. Not too bad. But I was in a serious fog, and cold.

The Peelers were waiting in force just up the beach on the grass, and unleashed their mastery of wetsuit removal upon me, leaving me laying on the ground, shivering, not quite sure of what to do next. Thankfully, yet another kind volunteer steered me in the direction of some long lines of plastic, colorful bags... Oh yes! I remember now, I am supposed to find my swim to bike bag and then change for the bike ride. And what's more amazing, I loaded the bag myself. This is exactly the thought process I experienced. Ironman is fun, I kept telling myself, but not in a happy, cuddly kind of way. Our brain's aren't meant for it, and the thought patterns kinda go haywire.

I entered the big transition tent and found myself in an alternate universe. I was freezing, bewildered, nauseous, and staring into a dark, cold, humid chaos. Yes, I used chaos as a noun. Rows of chairs covered by bodies in various states of nastiness. Clothing, grass, goop, bike stuff, bags and body parts flying in every direction. Yet again I am forced to admit that if it weren't for some wonderfully selfless volunteer I may not have made it out---with bike shorts on. But I did, and when I was ushered out of the tent, still freezing, slathered with sunscreen, and jogging to my bike--everything seemed better. I started to feel like I belonged on land, again. I took-off into downtown with a pack of about 15 people immediately surrounding me. I was riding way too hard. I remembered my training instantly and slowed to what appeared to be a crawl compared to everyone else through downtown. I sipped my beverage in the aero-bottle and just shivered and pedaled along, all the while becoming a little more clear in the head. I saw Jan a few blocks out of transition and smiled at her. She was a sight for sore eyes. I felt a little better.

The truth is I didn't get comfortably warm until 40 miles into the bike ride. I was shivering violently the first 25 and nearly stopped and got off the bike to warm up. I decided I would just keep pushing on, pedaling like I would in my training, probably 14-15 mph, sipping little bits of my Sustain sports drink. I kept shivering, and it was so bad sometimes that my arms were coming off the aero-bars. I was a little nervous that it would never get warm and that all of my energy was going to maintain 37 degrees celsius internal body temp. If I rode harder I might warm up, but I might be using up energy. If I ride the way I practiced I would have ample energy but maybe freeze the entire time...

Race your plan. Best advice EVER.

As simple as it sounds, people don't often have the discipline to do just that.

The sun was out and I was cruising down the twists of the Hayden Lake road system. It was beautiful outside, and amidst the forests, twists and turns the wind was hidden and the sun thawed my frozen joints and skin. I was being passed by people left and right, and it wasn't even mile 45. I let them all go on ahead and paced myself carefully over the hills. I knew in my mind that this was going to determine how the rest of the day went-- this first 60 of the bike, and I thought it was a no-brainer. Stick to the plan, race strong for 12-plus hours or go with the people passing me out of immediacy and potentially ruin everything you worked for. Yoda taught me well and reminded me "You may be fit, but you are not a Jedi yet. Stick to your plan, young Skywalker."

The immensely satisfying thing for me was just how fresh I felt going up the hills at that point. These were tough hills. I couldn't go fast before the internal "BEEP BEEP BEEP" intesity-o-meter went off, but I could go indefinitely at the pace I practiced. I thought to myself, as I watched some of the cyclists who had screamed past me already falling back during these hills, that maybe things would change for me over the next 50 miles. Who knows in this thing. But something inside told me that it wasn't going to.

Of course this is Ironman, so these wonderfully confident, soaring spirits disappeared rapidly when 3000 milliliters of pee collected in a bladder designed to accomodate 250 and I just passed a potty stop. For those taking detailed notes? Skip a bathroom break during the bike ride at Ironman if you really want to be in a bad mood. That turns things right upside-wonky real fast, don't ya know. I was the whiniest sonofabitch in my own head, at that point, until the first turn-around at mile 53. At that point I found a little side road with some easy trees nearby to serve as my rest stop. This is not recommended, by the way, but I considered it an emergent situation. I laughed while I relieved my aching bladder, now most likely resembling a deflated beach ball. It felt sooooo good to get back on the bike without that extra 15 pounds of fluid.

I rode easy back into town. I was beginning to loathe the idea of having to ride this all again, but realized at the same instant that I was slowly but surely having the best day possible. No problems of real consequence. No road rash. No mechanical problems. Eating and drinking. The head wind was a little troublesome going back south into town and again out east, but I again took it easy. My particular plan was 16ish mph for the first 56, then 17ish for the second 56 IF I felt ok. I rode these speeds so much in training that I didnt have a speedometer with me, but I knew when my speed was correct. In town I rode by a screaming Wife and Gerking family, which really made me feel great about things. I felt fast, which was nice for a change. My legs were a little tired, and somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered feeling like this in some other long bike rides and wondered if I had enough left.

You are what you eat. I hope Granola and Sustain are fast triathletes.

I was plenty hydrated, as evidenced by the 5 pee breaks I took on the bike ride. I had a nice system for fluids; my aero bottle up-front received pure water at aid stations and on my bottle containers behind my seat I kept triple-strength Sustain (from Melaleuca in case you want the best sports drink around). I would ask for a bottle of water at every aid station and fill the aero bottle part of the way and then reach back and add some Sustain until it tasted like I was used to. In this way I only carried two bike bottles and my aero and could control my salt intake with fluids before I resorted to my Endurolyte tablets. I didn't dig into those until mile 101. I ate two granola bars early in the ride; one at mile 35 and one at mile 50. I read somewhere that if you feel good: EAT. You will need it and its not often you feel good during Ironman. So I did. I ate a Clif bar over several miles. I followed the food with water. I even snagged some bananas and some yummy Chocolate Brownie Powerbar chunks. I was a well fed Ironboy. But the hills were starting to take a toll.

You might remember how I said the easy gears on my tri-bike are not so easy. This makes the hills we were riding very much more challenging. The gearing on my bike allows me to cover much more ground per pedal stroke than those around me, but the effort required to get the pedals around is quite large. I started to feel extremely fatigued at mile 70 and I started hearing funny things from the devils in my head. It became a challenge just to climb average hills and I debated whether or not I should charge up them just for the sake of getting them over with. This idea didn't win me over, thankfully, and I plodded along with the same group of cyclists until something extremely miraculous occurred. I remember it started when I stopped to pee for the last time on the bike, at the base of this hill--the last real hill we had, in fact. I asked the girl who was holding my bike (its amazing, the volunteers will hold your bike for you while you use the Honey Bucket and they actually will gather anything you ask for from the aid station) if she could collect a couple of PowerGels and a bottle of water, which she said she could. I thanked her a few too many times and did my business. When I came out, I felt pretty rotten about the state of my legs and having to try to suffer through a marathon. Thats when it started.

I realized I hadn't gotten to the marathon yet, and I put it out of my mind. I took the gels and water and ate one of them followed with a couple swigs. I put the other in my pocket. I stretched my glutes and hammies for a moment and then mounted my bike to head up the hill. Here is the amazing part: I felt completely different. I literally flew up that hill, as if it wasn't a hill and my bike was not gear-challenged. I decided not to tempt fate by pushing it, as I had already seen how quickly Ironman puts you on your ass for testing it, but it struck me heavily that perhaps all was not lost. I held a little higher tempo on the hills than I had the whole previous 80 miles. At mile 101 I rode up a gentle slope, not even a hill, really, to my friend Jimmy who gave me a hard time by telling me I really shouldn't play with myself in the bathroom so often. As much as I wanted to comment on his gravitationally enhanced racing belly, I remained silent and focused, and kept pedaling past him. Of course he was spurred on by my sudden energy and passed me when it leveled out. This time he didn't get very far.

We came down some curvy downhills back towards civilization. On a particular, slight uphill which came around a corner into a very long, level straightaway, I put my foot on the accelerator. It was a perfect moment for me. It was as close to art as I have felt on a bike ride. I had been patient until mile 105 and now it was time. I knew it. Jimmy disappeared behind me and I heard him say "Come back here!" I reeled in cyclist after cyclist that I had seen in the young miles of the bike ride and I seemed to be getting stronger with every stroke. I didn't push the speed more, but instead held a nice aero position all the way into town. I was flying through town and smiling the entire way. My Ironman race had arrived. As I pulled into the transition area I saw Gerking, climbing like a monkey on a wall, and he saw me smile. It was a terrific moment that will stay with me for a long while: I knew it right then, I was going to finish this thing.

Not so fast, soldier.

I looked up at the sky and measured the angle of the sun over the horizon. I hadn't worn any sort of time-keeping instrument and had absolutely no idea what my time was. I didn't care so much, but I was in a rough spot and needed something to pull me home. I needed a goal to shoot for that would continue to lift one tired foot in front of the other. I decided that I was going to finish before the sun set. I had about 30 degrees of sky left to work with. I estimated that would take at least an hour and a half for the sun to set, and I could finish before then.

I was walking. It was almost mile 22. I had been reduced to not only walking the aid-stations, which I did the entire marathon up to this point already, but also walking every other half-mile. I jogged for a while and caught up to a man also walking. I slowed and walked with him at mile 23, when I noted for the first time by way of a reader board that I had been racing for 11 hours and 57 minutes. "Its amazing how we have been out here for so long already, and here we are this close to the finish, and we can't seem to run!" I said to him, chuckling. Our walks both looked pretty convalescent at this stage.

"You are telling me." He looked at me and smiled in return. In Ironman its never really about you against everyone else, its you against yourself. And I loved sharing these moments with some of my fellow athletes.

I offered him my hand and introduced myself. "My name is Aaron. I don't know what you think, but I think we should jog to the bottom of that next hill and then see how we feel again."

"Yeah, that sounds ok." He chuckled. "I was thinking about that, too. Jes' needed some motivatin'."

As we jogged together, we had what I call the "Ironman Fireside Chat" which involves a short introduction and exchange of biography between two athletes doing the same thing at the same time for the same sorts of reasons from amazingly different backgrounds, and was repeated thousands of times during each event. I started thinking about all the people who were going to be walking and jogging over the same ground I was now jogging, but still in hours to come. I wondered what kept them going, what was their "reason." In the dark they would persist as long as they were allowed. They were the inspirational athletes, I thought.

At the bottom of the hill, my companion told me to have a good run and slowed to a walk. I slowed and shook his hand again and thanked him for helping me. Ironman showed me courage, showed me kindness, and showed me teamwork--in a sport that isn't supposed to involve teams. A short while ago I was smoking-fast toward mile 21, looking at potentially a 3:45 marathon. Two miles later I was walking, hurting, looking for that reason the get me running again. And I smiled because I was going to finish. Walking or jogging, heck, even crawling, nothing was going to stop me.

When you feel good, its fun.

I dropped my bike off to the great volunteers who were always smiling and so happy to do everything for you, and jogged over to my bike-to-run transition bag. I had just ridden the fastest 15 miles at the end of a 112 mile ride ever and my legs felt remarkably fresh. I was in terrific spirits and joked and smiled with everyone around me who gave me the opportunity. I saw a lot of other athletes not having good days and I tried my best to give them a reason to smile. I know, though, that when we are suffering nothing helps. Especially staring down the barrel of a loaded... marathon.

I entered the transition tent and cheerfully greeted me helper monkey, yet ANOTHER wonderful volunteer. He grabbed the bag from me and insisted that he do this for me. At that moment I thanked him for being there and for his kindness, and although I felt good, I bet there were a lot of folks NOT feeling good who needed him more than I did. Anyway, he dumped the bag and helped me sort through it, even fixing my race belt for me. As I was taking off my bike jersey who should run in the tent but my friend Donnie, who I chatted with on the beach. I laughed loudly and gave him a hug. "DUDE!" I yelled at him. It was like making it up the beach at Normandy with my best buddy who also lived through it. "Its great to see you here!"

"Wow, I am glad you made it out of the washing machine!" His exact words, no shit. "I couldn't believe that business! And you had a good bike ride, yeah?" He was grinning from ear to ear as he took care of his T2 business.

"It was according to plan, and finished better than I could have ever imagined. Now I am excited to run, can you believe it? What are you shooting for, 4 hours on the run?" I winked at him. I was giddy, truly, at this moment. I figured that you don't feel this good during Ironman too often, so I needed to enjoy it.

"I don't think so, boss. But I hope it works out for you, my man. See ya out there, Aaron."

I ran out of the tent to where a team of women volunteers were smothering us nasty, stinky, sweaty, tired athletes with sunscreen. It had gotten warm out there and running in the sun was on tap. I stopped and one of the women gave me a nice little rub-down on my legs, which I asked her to continue for a moment. She did, bless her heart, and it felt goooood. Next thing I know, I am running through a narrow chute lined with people just above the beach where the most awful swim on earth took place several hours earlier. I looked at the water, now calmer than it was while I was suffering in it, and thought, "I did it. You can't stop me now."

I passed the Gerkings again and tried not to run too fast. I wanted to make it to mile 18 as well as I could and then see what happened. I had run enough marathons to know that I don't really "feel" it until 10 miles or so. This was the beginning and again, I needed to race the way I trained. Jeremy told me I looked great, but I thought he may have been just being nice. I did feel pretty peppy, though, and hoped it would last. That thought sure did occur a lot that day.

The aid stations were amazing during the marathon. It was a buffet of drinks and foods. I opted to start slow and just sipped Gatorade the first 5 miles. I hadn't settled in, yet, and was scared to have that much fluid sloshing around in my belly. After mile 5 I started sucking on the bottles I was packing in Jeremy's race belt, which I enjoyed much more than the Gatorade. I felt terrific and decided to push the pace. Not a huge jump in effort; still within the plan. It was really getting warm so I started taking sponges and inserting them in my hat. That was nice.

My legs kept on feeling better. I drank more, and was holding it down, and even peed a few times. I think I was doing about 9 minute miles and holding steady. I was passing so many people it was unbelievable. There were a couple people running by me, and they were REALLY fun to watch--as if they were out running a 10K or something. I walked through every aid station, talking to people, enjoying a beverage, and started stretching every 3 miles after mile 10. I ran back into town, which was about mile 15 or so, and passed a guy who I had met in the pool recently. I hate to admit it, but I felt proud of myself and then immediately felt bad for my pride when I jogged passed him, because he had seemed so fit and was a dominating swimmer, and was already reduced to walking. Perhaps he would be jogging past me in a while. My wife was there on the east side of town with the dog, and it was really a pick-up to see them. I pushed the pace, probably up to about 8 minute miles, which was definitely NOT in the plan. Was this a mistake? I don't really know. I felt good, my goal was to finish, and it was pretty clear that I could finish. How soon would I finish? That was subject to debate.

I screamed through town, with spectators commenting on how strong I looked. Whether they meant it or not didn't matter. I imagined they did. I was running past an awful lot of tired triathletes at this point, and I still had 10 miles to go. On my next push through downtown I started to feel my strength dwindle just a little, but I still thought I was fine. I saw the Gerkings again, and Jan was there cheering loudly. I loved seeing them on the course. Once through town I stopped to walk at another aid station and definitely noticed something different. It was mile 18. I made it to the end of my race plan...

I slowed down considerably and jogged up to a woman who looked remarkably fresh. Her name was Andrea and she told me it was her first Ironman, and she was just on her first lap. She was radiant--she just seemed too happy, as if we were jogging around the park on a warm Sunday afternoon. I told her I was on my second lap and looking forward to getting done. She said she hoped she looked as good on her second lap. I smiled at her, and told her "...looks can be deceiving, but thank you." Her watch beeped and she told me it was time for her walk break. I admired her planning and her discipline, and continued to run on alone amongst the others running alone. It wasn't until I was on my way back in that I noticed she only had one arm.
If anything, Ironman teaches us humility.

A little help from my friends.

The same guy who I had seen run past me four times during the marathon was only about 20 feet in front of me. I increased my speed, now walking briskly. That's Ironman. I caught up to him at this particular corner just east of town, at about 24.5 miles into the thing. The Ironman Fireside Chat ensued. His name was Eric and he was a teacher/track coach from Oak Harbor, WA. As everyone seems to, during Ironman, we felt we had a lot in common at the moment. Maybe we did or maybe not--it didn't matter. What mattered is that we were each, to each other, an anchor. I anchored to him and him to me.

"I was thinking about running from mile 25 in, man." I said to him. We then rounded a corner at the water's edge and about 200 feet in front of us was the mile 25 sign. My heart did a back flip at being so close to the finish, but then sank as Eric replied,

"Well you are in luck, thats about in 15 seconds." He laughed and slapped me roughly on the back. He said he just wanted to finish in 13 hours or less. He said now he definitely would.

"Damn," I said. "I thought I had more time than that." I laughed and told him if he didn't start running now, it may not happen. He started to jog and so I reluctantly jogged with him. He jogged at a little quicker pace than I felt comfortable and I told him I might now be able to hang the entire way. It immediately struck me how incredibly stupid that statement was, because when, during Ironman, are you very comfortable?

"You WILL stay with me, man. Come on now."

An amazing thing happens at the end of Ironman. Eric and I ran together, steadily increasing in speed, until this intersection I had gone by 7 previous times during the day. The intersection has these cones and chalk words on it. The far right says "First lap, stay right." The far left says "Finishing Stay Left" with an arrow to the left. I had looked at that stupid writing all day feeling like I was never, ever going to "stay left." I told Eric my little story and he agreed, saying he had similar thoughts during the day. He thanked me for giving him the motivation to keep running. I couldn't prevent the tears that ensued, and neither could he.

"Aren't we a dandy pair of Iron-men??" He said to me, smiling.

The final turn of our almost 13 hour day was now 15 feet in front of us. Everything we had worked for, individually, over the last 4 or 5 months-- or maybe more-- had been building to THIS moment. The thought hit me hard and I was overwhelmed. We had been through enormous, cold, dark, nauseating waves filled with violent, swirling athletes; 112 miles of cold and then hot temperatures climbing hilly country roads in the wind on the bike; and now this roller-coaster marathon that would never end. The turn was now at our feet and I said to Eric, "Are you ready for the most amazing moment of your life?" I was smiling from ear to ear.

"Absolutely. This is going to be amazing." And with that, we turned the corner and looked straight down to what had to be heaven.

You could hear the announcer from mile 25, but it was too far, still, to feel good. After 139.4 miles, that one little 1.2 mile stretch felt like a thousand miles and a lifetime away. But then you turn that final corner and nothing matters.

Through the whole race the spectators crowd narrow paths for us to ride or run through. At some points, we could hardly see 20 feet in front of us with the crowd around the bike lane, cheering and waving their arms madly. The final stretch into the finish chute is different. We turn the final corner and look a quarter mile down this street where the onlookers are on the sidewalks, and to our eyes, the street looks about a mile wide. You feel like you are on stage, running slightly downhill, towards this concentration of light and noise. It is like running to heaven through a perfect dream. The screaming, the voice over the speakers, and the light all wait for you if you just can get there. The whole day they were there, but we couldn't acknowledge them. It was there during the swim, it was there during the hills, and during my desperate stops for cola in the aid stations at mile 22 of the marathon. But only now can I acknowledge it.

The flood gates open as I run down the final stretch toward the finish chute. My eyes flood with tears and I shake my clenched fists in the air. I did it, I tell myself. I did it. In that brief time I think about Jan and the time and energy she spent to help me get there. I think about the rainy rides and the early mornings and the miserable days she put-up with. I think about the swim and how hard it was. I really did it and I did it with help from wonderful people.

Jeremy appears on the side a few hundred feet before the stands, which are packed with spectators. It is incredible and breathtaking to see this. I have waited years for this moment, and watched others experienced it many times, anxious yet scared to try. I dreamt about how it might feel--and my expectations fell far short of reality. As I ran toward the glow and energy, I realized it was going to be over too soon, so I slowed and let the people in front of me get through the chute and across the line and try to enjoy it longer. My legs were numb and my heart was pounding as I entered the grandstands filled with screaming people. This is it, I tell myself. This is what it's about. The lights got bright in my eyes, and I was the happiest man on earth when I heard "Aaron Moss, from Kenmore, Washington--YOU Are an Ironman." Nothing else matters.

I am an Ironman.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I am an Ironman.

"Aaron Moss, YOU are an Ironman!"
~The official "voice of Ironman" as I crossed the line.

I did it. Its over. Its 9:45 PM and I am showered and feeling probably as lousy as I can ever remember, but its hard to feel bad because I am so ecstatic. I had to get online and let people who might read this know.

With a total time of 12:44:something, I finished. I finished healthy, almost in tears, and happy. And fucking tired.

I love Ironman volunteers. There should be a special award given, like the Oscars or Emmys, to the best volunteers. Ironman has the best volunteers on the planet, hands down. They made my race possible.

The swim was the hardest hour and a half of my whole life. I have never EVER swam in waves that big---even the ocean. They even gave us the option of skipping the swim and doing a duathlon because it was so bad.

I will write a full race report later.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ready...or not. Its time.

"To follow without halt, one aim; there is the secret of success. And success? What is it? I do not find it in the applause of the theater; it lies rather in the satisfaction of accomplishment."
~Anna Pavlova

Its 2:30 PM on Saturday the 23rd of June. I am in Starbucks typing away, enjoying an "Antioxidance" Odwalla drink, trying to quiet the demons in my mind. And they are loud, with megaphones and freakin' lazers on their heads.

The jitters have disappeared more rapidly since I have left the race central area, where the tension is thicker than a nice mouse intestine slurry, 2:1 PBS to tissue ratio, of course...

Tomorrow is it. The big show. Now. There has been so much build up for so long and THEN the build up of this weekend; the meetings, endless lines, bike things, tune-ups, rests, meal plannings, numberings etc, that I am all Ironmanned out.

I just have to run the darn thing. So here goes. I am as ready as I can be.

The next thing I write will be my race report. Cheers. Thanks to everyone for your help and support. Loves.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Eve of the Eve...

"Peace is not only better than war, but infinitely more arduous."
~George Bernard Shaw

Its 9:!5 and we just got back to the room after the MANDATORY Race Meeting. Yikes, that was a huge confusing waste of effort. I wont even go into details. I will instead go to bed because I am going to need my energy come Sunday.

Its been four and a half months of building up to this point, and I have heard everyone else's theories, stories, myths and advice and its time for me, now, to develop my own. I am scared, and thats ok. I have a quote on my desk at school that says courage is not the absence of fear, but merely the choice that something else is more important than fear. That applies now more than I could have hoped.

I viewed the bike course which is, to say the least, a beast. A hilly beast.

Peace is more arduous than war. I spent four months finding peace on my bike over long miles of hardship. Will I find peace on Sunday or will it be war?

Till tomorrow. Have to get my bags and bike race ready.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I am an Iron-Virgin.

"All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand."
~Steven Wright

Today was great.
Woke up at 7, ate a nice little breakfast, got the car loaded with swim stuff, bike stuff and dog stuff, headed to the race start and proceeded to freeze my ass off in 3 foot swells. Holy moly. I suppose it wasn't too bad. After about a half mile it felt ok; my brain was too numb to complain or feel nauseous from gulping down about 15 gallons of yummy lake water. Mmm.

My brave wife tried out her brand new wetsuit for the first time. Needless to say this was probably not the best occasion for a first time wetsuit try out open water swim session, but I assured her "it only gets easier."

After I got me land legs back, we hopped on our bikes and rode the run course, turn for turn. Beautious. Its perfect. I predict that I will be miserable for 26 miles. However, I will be much less miserable on this course than I would be on many other marathon courses. And, if I play my cards right during the 112 miles before that, I could potentially have a great run. It truly is sweet.

After all the exercise it was time to get my race packet. I stood in the line for about 40 minutes before I got into the STRING of tents, inside of which non competitors are not allowed. I peered nervously into the tent from my distant line-bound perch, but could make out nothing. When I got in the tent they had, after a few short forms, someone sit me down and chat with me, all while assembling my packet, about my Ironman/Triathlon experience...yeah. This was a little weird in that Job Interview feeling. I found myself wondering if maybe they werent going to buy my story and deny me entry or something. But no, on my way with chip, cool Ironman bag and official shiny Ironman wrist-band. Now its official: I am an Ironwanna-be.

Well its 8 and that means its bed time. Later, yo.

yes, made my reservations for Saturday dinner. The best part? Its at 4 PM. HA!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Arriving in Ironmanland

"I never set out to be weird. It was always the other people who called me weird."
~Frank Zappa

You know you are in an Ironman Town when...

...the 6 people in the line at the hotel's front desk in front of you try, and fail, to get rooms that same night and have been to every other hotel in town with the same result.

...the price of a $55 dollar room is $89. For one weekend out of the year.

...all of the cottage cheese, cream-hair-removal products, and bottled water are sold out of the "convenience marts" nearby, because no one knows there is a supermarket just three blocks away.

...the average body fat % drops to below 10% one weekend during the year whereas normally its 25%.

So its Wednesday night and I am in Coeur D' Alene, ID. Ironman is Sunday. I am nervous, but more tired than nervous. It was a long drive from Seattle and its hot. Very HOT.

Tomorrow morning I will be up at 7, down to RACE CENTRAL at 8:30, swimming by 9. Then a ride around the run course and then packet pick-up and perusing the expo. Should be a good day. I cant wait to go to sleep. We brought much of our own food so it will be easy to handle the morning affairs, for a change. Nothing like being an over-prepared Virgo.

Till Tomorrow.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Its Coming Down to This.

"Those who are warriors can master anything, but first they must master themselves."

4 months I have been training, but the build-up has been happening for 7 years. in 1998 a few of my friends did Ironman and every year since, with the lone exception of 1999, someone I know has competed in an Ironman event, somewhere.

I run out of fingers and toes before I am finished counting all the times some of these folks have urged me to "go long," but the truth is we are the only ones who know, inside of ourselves, when the time is right. Its startling to many when a person is so steadfast about something, some think its fear and others laziness. But I knew, all these years, that I wasnt ready. Until 2006.

I have been training non-stop since the first weekend of February of this year, but I really count the 9 previous years of triathlon as integral training as well. Without that background in humility, triumph, and tradition in the sport of triathlon I would not have finally been ready to jump in to the big dance. Ironman Coeur D Alene 2007. So I signed up.

I havent really written about this occasion much until today, for reasons I cant wholly describe. Some people who actually have read this might think its not a big deal. That is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. Mainly,I feel it is the intensity of the situation I have placed myself in doesnt leave much emotional energy left each day to write about it. Its a very difficult thing for me to place into words. I have been so focused on this, Ironman, that the idea of stopping to spill my emotions and thoughts about it here on this blog feels like a "leak" of some of that powerful emotion that I have been riding toward June 24th, race day. Some people might believe I am making too big of a deal out of this.
I don't.

I have seen great and not-so-great Ironman days. The funny thing for me is, they all looked great. The miserable and the triumphant all are victory, as long as the finish line was crossed. I have trained for 4 months and taken thousands of dollars and hours for preparation and training. I am now a zen- master of my physiology at this point, with the exquisite ability to sense what my body is craving at a particular instant as well as how to suck every bit of energy from my starving muscles over the course of 12 hours. I believe that I owe all of the people I have counted on so heavily for this last 4 months to have a great day.

And, more importantly, I owe myself.

So I havent written because I did not want to "leak" any of the power and emotion I have been building up. And I see it as power. I do not see my emotional build up and focus as a "weird" thing or as dangerous, because I have kept it positive and constructive. I see this emotional build-up as one of the necessary ingredients to a successufl, maximized race day. I have not written, but the mental, physical and emotional journey has been relentless and incredible and wonderful. I feel on the brink of tears just thinking about the path I have traveled in 4 short months. To describe it would have taken the magic out of it, because you can not describe this sort of thing. You can not, absolutely can not, understand it fully until you experience it yourself. Period.

Surely it has been a balancing act; walking the tight-rope between training and overtraining. I became ill just after my biggest week of training, 2 weeks ago. Actually, I probably caught the virus DURING that week and it manifested the following week. I heeded the instructions of physicians, friends and heros and "took it easy for a week." I eased back into a sort of scaled-back training (we are less than 2 weeks out) trying to undo my sudden over-taper without killing my race day. The result is I feel better than ever today, 10 days before Ironman.

After the race I do not know what to expect. I cant even bring myself to think about post-race yet. It doesnt exist.

I do not even know what to expect when I stand in the water next to 1999 other freaked out, emotional, nervous wrecks waiting for the canon. But at that moment I know I will think back and remember seeing my beautiful wife in the swim lane next to me so many days, and think of her with me during so many bike rides of the worst weather I have ever ridden in. I could always look back and see that familiar cadence and that beautiful smile no matter how nasty the weather was, how many hours it took. Without complaint, without pause, she has been as relentless a training partner, coach and companion as she has a supporter and wife. She will be with me as I slip into the water beginning my day and I might feel a little sad that its coming to the end of the journey. I am more thankful than she will ever possibly know for the last four months we have had together. I know it wasnt easy to be with a wanna-be Ironman, and I love her for her constant effort and unselfish support.

Maybe I will think about all the times I have watched my best friend, Jeremy, going through this exact experience on his own race days. Even though I havent trainined with him this year, I feel closer to him than ever having gone through this. Now I have a little bit of insight into just how tough, how disciplined and how driven he is. He has always been a hero of mine, and now I feel, a little, like I understand him better: I am in awe.

So the countdown has begun. Its hard to think about anything else, really. I am nervous and excited and yet sad all at the same time. Jeremy described Ironman as like your birthday and christmas and at the same time the worst day ever all at once. Yikes. Awesome. Yikes. Awesome. I have certainly eaten enough for five families over the last few months, and I am looking forward to getting back to some normalcy, for sure. First I have an Ironman to do. I hope, I sinerely hope, I can stick to my plan well enough such that I can experience my day. I want to live it, not just get through it.

Thats it until sometime after.