Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Iron Tourist (The Long Version of IMZ '08)
“It’s deeper than I thought,” I noted myself as my descent into the murky darkness was paused by the buoyancy of my wetsuit (and maybe some extra fat). Two nights before the race director had claimed the water was only five or six feet deep. I was at least three feet underwater. Luckily, it didn’t feel nearly as cold as it had yesterday. Still, something wasn’t quite right. The last time I had that feeling was moments before I ate a shore break and broke my collarbone in two places in Hawai’i. I was a tourist at a locals’ beach. I’d been in Hawai’i nearly a week and figured I was ready for something more than the relatively small waves at another local beach, Hukilau. So I made my way to La’i’e City Beach, otherwise known as Pounders. The locals’ incredulous looks should given me an idea that I was in over my head. But, I had just enough experience and know-how to be dangerous, but only to myself. Similar looks of disbelief had met me in the predawn darkness as volunteers with bullhorns herded us into the starting pen. It was clear that I was different than the vast majority of the other competitors. The most plausible explanation was that my body type was so much different than most of theirs. Another explanation had to with the makeup of the field. What I mean is, the percentage of A-Types in a field is directly proportional to length of the event. Since this was the longest standard distance in triathlon, it should have come as no surprise that there were a high-percentage of A-Typers. And everybody knows that “A-Type” is just a polite way of saying a$$ hole. So I wrote off the looks as dismissive as coming from people who felt that someone like me was no threat. I also figured that the looks reflected some of their disbelief that someone like me would even think about competing with them. I was in this for me and had no intention of competing with them, so I wasn’t that worried about it. Still, the people huddled into that pen were the Ironman locals. This is their world. People that weigh their food. I was just a visitor, a tourist into this Ironman thing and should have taken note from the looks before hand. But then again, like every good tourist, I thought I was prepared. I’d read the guide book (Going Long by Gordon Byrne and Dirk Friel), I’d purchased the equipment, and I’d been to several other places that I thought were similar (I’d completed five half-distance races before the start). So, I figured I was a more of a local than a tourist. Yet at the start, I was as obvious a tourist as a blotchy-skinned white guy with plaid pants and a straw hat asking the clerk at the Superette in Kahuku what poi is and whether it was any good. Despite my misgivings, I jumped in. Literally. In fact, I pushed some of the more hesitant out of my way, muttering, “Let’s get this over with,” as I plunged into the cold water. I swam to the start line and found myself dead center in the middle of 2200 people. At 7:00 sharp, the starting gun went off. I’d heard horror stories of swim starts in open water. But by now, I’d done at least ten races in open water. Each time it got a little easier to settle in and swim normally. None of those experiences prepared me for this. It was like the push to the stage as a concert begins as I tried to pick my way past hundreds of people to a comfortable, open spot while hundreds of others tried to claw their way to the front. It didn’t get much better at any point during the swim. Throughout the swim, as I reached ahead to anchor and pull I’d occasionally get a handful of foot, or ankle, or swim cap. Or something else. Finally, the final buoy appeared and I turned for home. I felt good coming out of the water. A quick look at the clock confirmed it – I was only three minutes off what I thought was a ridiculously optimistic goal. Nobody seemed really amazed that I’d made it through the swim. Anybody can suffer for an hour and a half. My guide book had suggested a few things – first was that comfort was more important than aerodynamics unless I planned on going significantly faster than 19 mph, a road bike would be a great idea. Second was that I needed to ration my effort, taking it easy on the first third of the bike. So, I swallowed my pride as overweight women and wrinkly old men started to pass me with surprising frequency as we headed out into the wind. Surely I’d start to bring them back as the race wore on. Not so much. I usually do fine into the wind. But, I fall apart going uphill and into the wind. It was windy that day and half of the course was slightly uphill. It didn’t help that I brought the wrong bike. I’d brought my road bike and my position on that bike had me sitting up and taking the full force of the wind when I really should have been hiding from it in an aero position. I’d brought the road bike to be comfortable, to avoid back pain from riding for too long hunched over. But soon I found my lower back in agony from struggling against the wind in my upright position. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I wasn’t thrilled with my first lap time, but at that pace I would have only been ten minutes off my projected time. Near the end of the out portion of my second lap, the wind switched direction, leaving me to fight a head wind again on the way back in. The choice of bikes was now really starting to hurt. Maybe that’s why the vast majority of the ‘locals’ were on tri bikes. My confidence in the guide book was shaken. The next thing you’re going to tell me is that Rachel Ray actually can’t eat well on $40 a day. Or that Guy Fieri raves about anything, regardless of whether it’s actually any good or not. Seven hours later along with several stops to stretch my aching back and feet and the bike portion was finally over. I took my own sweet time in the changing tent for T2 before heading back out for the marathon. This was the part I had dreaded the most. I ran the first mile to the first aid station. After the first aid station, I fell into a motivational hole. After twenty minutes of walking and the first of several long negotiations with myself, I found a groove and ran for nearly 13 more miles except for walking up hills and through aid stations. And then it all came unraveled as the sun went down and it got dark. My motivation faded with the light. Shortly after sunset I found myself working with Alfredo from Miami – a fellow tourist doing his first Iron distance race. We walked/ran the last part of the second lap – I was optimistic we could keep each other motivated. I was wrong. Walking into finish the second lap, Alfredo stepped off the pavement to talk to his girlfriend. As we moved to the side, a pair heading to the finish bumped into me in their haste. “Get out of the way!” one of them yelled in disgust. Since I was standing on the very edge of a 20 ft wide path, I didn’t feel like there was much more they could expect me to do. This prompted an instinctive response: “Go to hell!” I shouted back. In most situations it’s not really smart to provoke the locals. But while Ironman locals are able to beat me handily at racing, they don’t tend to be physically intimidating. As we started the last lap, Alredo was done running and he told me so. Since we were on our last lap, there was no wondering if anyone else was on the same lap as us and the course got a lot less busy as we made our way around the last loop. A third of the way through the last lap, I was sick of being out there and wanted to run to just get it over with. But, I’d already picked my horse and so we gutted it out to the final finishing loop. There, we shook hands and I ran the final distance alone. Since the race, I’ve thought a lot about the race. While the race didn’t get the best of me because I finished, it did get the better of me mentally. At first, I had no intention of ever returning to the full Iron distance and was content to have gotten through it. After all, I’ll never look like the typical triathlete, much less like the typical Iron-distance triathlete. I’d like to think I’ll never fit their profile (A-Type, etc). So, at the end of the day, I’ll never be an Ironman local. I’ll always be a visitor to their world. But, as I sit here, I think of one of Anthony Bourdain’s mottos – be a traveler, not a tourist. I could be a traveler to Ironman world. I think I’ll start planning my next trip.