Dustin Hoffman starred in the movie “Little Big Man.” His character, Jack, looked back on his life as a 121 year-old. Jack came west as a settler, was raised as a Cheyenne, tried his hand at gunfighting and medicine shows, scouted for the cavalry, experimented with the hermit life, was married twice, survived Custer’s Last Stand, and sat at the foot of an old Indian man, Old Lodge Skins, who instructed him in the Cheyenne view of creation. The movie bounced around in time as Jack told his own story.
In the movie’s last scene, Jack was still a young man accompanying. One day, Old Lodge Skins dressed in full chief’s regalia and declared that, “It is a good day to die.” The two walked to a serene Indian burial ground on the spectacular plains. Old Lodge Skins laid down on his back facing the darkening skies, determined to die a solemn, noble death. In only a short time, his face relaxed. He laid completely still, quiet, peaceful. His spirit appeared to have departed.
Then, almost as if the heavens grew heavy and sad, it began to rain. First, a few drops, then steadily. As the rain picked up, Old Lodge Skins’ eyelids twitched when struck by rain drops. Finally, he sighed heavily and opened his eyes.
He looked up and said, “Some days the magic works; some days it doesn’t.”
The two decided to go get something to eat.
Saturday, August 27th, two weeks and one day before
For my last long workout before Ironman Wisconsin, I needed to ride my bike five hours, fifteen minutes, then run an hour. I began indoors on my trainer for an hour or so, waiting until the sun rose. I checked my iPhone weather app before riding outside. There was a chance of rain at 8:00 or so but otherwise it looked cloudy and cool. The pavement was dry so I headed for Watertown, Minnesota, about 30 miles away. With about ten miles to go, it began to rain – softly, at first. Then the rain intensified. By the time I reached my favorite Watertown convenience store, it was a downpour and about 63 degrees. I hurried through my stop to get back on my bike. I needed to ride hard to stay warm. It didn’t work. As furiously as I pedaled, I couldn’t stay warm. Rain pelted my helmet and sunglasses with a plastic thudding sound.
Somewhere between Watertown and home, I was in trouble. I was losing heat, shivering and saw no place to take shelter. I tried to figure out whether to call Margy or divert to a friend’s house nearby. The rain let up a little and I pedaled harder. By the time I neared the Twin Cities, I was still shivering but getting warmer. In the end, the rain stopped, I pedaled home, dried off and headed out for a run.
Friday, September 9th, two days before
The Friday before the 15th annual Ironman Wisconsin was chilly and rainy. Katie, Margy and I drove across western Wisconsin under a pewter sky, spray blowing onto our windshield from tractor trailers we passed on the hills overlooking long, green valleys.
Once safely checked in to our hotel, I went to the Monona Terrace conference center to stand in line for an hour and honored a long tradition. At Ironman races, athletes need to weigh in. The medical staff needs to know athletes’ state of dehydration if they require medical attention during the race or shortly after finishing. (One year, I lost 13 pounds before entering the medical tent. I received medical attention.) In the basement of Monona Terrace, volunteers weighed each competitor and wrote the weight on an emergency information card. Each year, however, I asked not to be told my weight. Despite being pretty scrawny, I just didn’t want to know if I had excess weight to haul around 140.6 miles.
The volunteer who weighed me complied with my request and passed me to another volunteer who verified my information. The second volunteer showed me my weight, almost exactly what I weighed as a sophomore in high school.
I returned to our hotel room and began to lay out my gear. I sorted gear into bags for each of the swim to bike and bike to run transitions. I removed my wetsuit to hang it up. When turning the wetsuit right side out, I noticed a big tear at the bottom of the zipper on the back. It was a very bad spot, the place that the wetsuit most needed to be strong. Margy encouraged me to return to the expo to see if I needed a new wetsuit and, if so, to buy one from a friend there.
My friend had ceased to work for the wetsuit company but a nice young man helped me. We looked at several wetsuits, including my torn 14 year-old wetsuit. Not surprisingly, he thought I had gotten my money’s worth from the old suit and encouraged me to try on several of his wetsuits, each of which was on sale for 40% off as it was near the end of the season. The young man sized me up as a “small tall.”
I tried on one suit, then another, then back to the first suit again, each time enlisting the young man’s help to ensure proper fit. After a half hour of wrestling myself into and out of skin tight wetsuits, I was a sweaty mess but I had a wetsuit that felt right.
I turned to the young man and asked, “How’s it look?”
“It looks like you could use another meal,” he opined.
He got the sale anyway.
When I was in grade school, our family doctor once called me “Groceries.”
For our 14th Ironman Wisconsin weekend, Margy, Katie and I wanted to try someplace new for Friday night dinner. Margy hailed an Uber. The driver pulled up almost instantly. He spoke exuberantly with an accent I couldn’t quite identify. When he learned that I intended to compete in the Ironman that Sunday, he gushed.
“I adore you!”
Margy, Katie and I later agreed that he probably meant that he “admired” me but I was not eager to correct adoration.
Saturday, September 10, one day before
I woke up early, really early, but the girls slept. I sat in a chair quietly trying to calm myself. Though it was to be my 18th Ironman, I felt almost crippled by nervousness. It happened every year and anticipating my 18th Ironman felt no more comfortable or familiar than anticipating my first. Maybe I was worried about performing well. Maybe I was worried about disappointing my family. Maybe I was worried that this would finally be the year that the challenge would be just a little bigger than my ability and that I would not finish.
It grew light enough to ride so I grabbed my bike and sneaked out. I rode up Martin Luther King Drive and onto Capitol Square where people were setting up stands for the Farmers’ Market. Spring rolls, squash, cheese, flowers – people quietly unloaded the contents of their trucks and arranged displays in the gray early morning light.
I rode down State Street beside darkened windows. Only a handful of people passed. It felt quiet and still like only a college town can early on a weekend morning. It began to mist, then the mist built to rain. I looked down at a bead of water that encircled my front tire. With a sizzling sound, the tire drew water from the pavement and flung it 360 degrees. I turned back toward the hotel. The Farmers’ Market people had put on their raincoats and scrunched up their shoulders. They kept working.
On Saturday afternoon, I dropped off my bike and transition bags. I ran into this guy, Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman. When he says, “You’re an Ironman,” you are.
I nursed my nerves through the rest of the morning and by the afternoon, the sky had cleared. I rode a bike beside Katie as she ran ten miles in preparation for the Twin Cities Marathon coming up four weeks later. We planned to run together and hoped that we could qualify once again for the Boston Marathon. Katie’s stride looked smooth and strong. I had no doubts that she was ready.
At the south end of Lake Monona, Katie and I stood at the top of a hill overlooking the swim course, buoys stretching toward the brilliant white Capitol dome in the distance. The sky was royal blue with a few puffy white clouds. The wind whipped the water into a chop. A few people swimming looked like pulsing specks of white bobbing on the waves.
My sister Ann and brother-in-law Rick showed up about the time Katie completed her run. Margy and Rick marshaled a computer and several maps to figure out places to see me on the new bike course, not an insignificant task. Margy was reluctant to see me fewer times than the previous year’s all time record, 44 times during the 140.6 mile, 12 hour day. The planning session lasted nearly two hours. I hoped not to slow down so much that I made their job easier.
Our niece Sarah and her boyfriend Matt showed up in time for dinner. It was subdued and I headed for bed even earlier than my very early usual. As customary for the night before an Ironman, I slept poorly.
Sunday, September 11, the day of
5:15 a.m. after dropping off my “special needs” bag for the halfway point on the bike.
Katie accompanied me to the parking lot atop Monona Terrace, something she did first when she was ten years old. It was quiet except for the gas motor generators powering portable lights. Volunteers marked race numbers on our upper arms, ages on our calves. In the background, Mike Reilly spoke calmly, reassuringly over the PA system.
The racers think that Ironman is about them and, it is, partially. It is also about the two thousand or so volunteers who absolutely rock the day, year after year. I do adore her.
Year after year, there is no peer: Team Rossman. Rick Long, Ann Long, Scott “Groceries” Ross, Margy, Katie, Sarah Long and Matt Wiegand.
Strangest thing: The University of Minnesota, The University of Chicago and Grinnell College all called practically simultaneously. They want their degrees back.
My family rendezvoused near the swim start. We took a few pictures, then I gathered Katie and Margy to walk me toward the swim start. Once the crowd became impassably dense, we hugged, said that we loved one another. Goodbye. Katie and I did our customary hand slap routine from the movie “The Parent Trap” and I inched toward the arch over the entry to the water. The music blared. No one talked. I looked down and saw only wetsuit legs and bare feet until I stepped into the lake. My heart pounded so hard I thought that it showed through my new wetsuit. Then I pushed off the squishy lake bottom. I took my first swim stroke, then another. I felt calmer. I put my head down and looked at the green lake bottom as I developed a rhythm. Soon, I found myself bobbing with approximately 2,700 other wetsuit clad triathletes waiting to start, all intending to go the very same place at the very same time in just a few minutes.
Mike Reilly encouraged everyone to remember September 11, 2001. A firefighter sang the National Anthem. Someone fired a cannon and 2,700 people began to thrash. Despite having survived 17 prior Ironman starts, I can’t adequately explain the chaos of a mass swim start. Everyone should have gone the same direction but people veered a little one way or the other and collided. An arm landed on top of my back. Two swimmers on either side converged and I was stuck with nowhere to put my arms into the water. People kicked me all over, but fortunately this year, not in the face. It was hard not to swallow a little water and, for brief moments, I felt as though I might drown. That got my complete attention. It was terrifying but only for a second or two before I recovered my composure.
The boiling throng heads toward the first turn.
Several hundred yards into the race, I was getting along pretty well. The worst of the crowd scene had sorted itself out. Then a swimmer lodged himself firmly on my back, his chest resting slightly below my behind. I took a couple of strokes but he seemed satisfied to stay where he was. So I bent my right knee and felt back with my foot. I placed the ball of my foot firmly but gently on his sternum. Once so placed, I pushed off hard. I felt his chest lift out of the water and ceased to feel him on my legs or feet. I wasn’t unhappy.
Upon exiting the water, my time was more than three minutes slower than my swim the year before. So much for the new wetsuit.
On the bike, Katie told me that I had exited the water in 17th position in my age group. Usually, I had finished the swim somewhere between sixth and eighth. I felt pretty discouraged and that mood lingered through the first lap of the 112 mile bike course. How could I have been so slow?
On the second lap of the bike, I recovered my equanimity and rode as fast as my pencil thighs allow. (Translation: Not fast.) I enjoyed the strong tailwind and brilliant sunshine for the last 16 or so miles of the ride. I felt like I had set up a good run.
I made good time on the first lap of the run and my family let me know that I was gaining ground on my age group competitors. Still, I was placed somewhere in the teens within the 55-59 age group and I was not passing many of my peers. At the turnaround heading out onto the second lap, I felt like I could picture the rest of the run, all of it. I needed only to be patient, not to want to be anywhere else or to want to go faster than I could steadily run. The turnaround point at the top of Capitol Hill marked a place I usually had felt tired during prior races. But it was different this time. I felt good.
At about mile 16, on a long downhill slope with shade and a nice breeze, I suddenly ran out of gas. I just didn’t have what I needed to keep running. I mentally ticked off a list of possible explanations: Maybe I had not drunk enough water and had become dehydrated. Maybe my weight had been a little low and my long endurance fat burning capacity may have been compromised. Maybe I had not taken in enough calories from the concentrate bottles strapped to my waist. (Later that evening, when Margy took those bottles from my belt, she noted that I had left about an hour’s worth of concentrate there despite having carefully planned for four hours of nutrition. Little wonder I might have not had enough energy.)
It might also have been mental. Maybe I just ceased to see the point. Why was I beating myself to death if I wasn’t even going to crack the top ten? I began to walk.
I felt bad when my family saw me walking. Katie tried to rally me, to give me permission to walk a while, then to regroup but I kind of felt finished. She walked with me for a while and I ran some but did not sustain the effort. I was not a very communicative dad and spent most of my time looking down at the pavement.
From that place, I ran and walked about eight miles, breaking into a full run at the 25 mile mark. I could not face walking during the last 1.2 miles.
I like to finish with the sun a bit higher in the sky.
I ran down the finish chute, saw my family and leaned heavily onto the volunteer “catchers,” the guys who propped up finishers to make sure that we were OK and get us through the finish area without falling. I needed their help for just a minute, then felt strong enough to keep walking. I refused to have my picture taken and walked toward the hotel. It struck me that I had not even looked at the clock when I finished. It could have taken me 12:30 to finish, I thought. Then I heard Mike Reilly announce that the 12 hour mark had just passed. So it had been a bit better than I had feared but I still felt ashamed for walking so much.
There for me at the start; there for me at the end. Ironman 18. Rick, Ann, Katie, Groceries, Margy, Sarah and Matt. This was the 42nd time that they saw me on race day!
Tuesday, September 13th, two days later
I was only interested in eating a mix of caramel and cheese popcorn. We got it at Costco. It was a big bag. It was a lot to eat but I was not discouraged.
Monday, September 19, eight days later in Sydney, Australia
“Is that the first time you have looked at your results?” Margy asked.
“I’m surprised, Margy said.
Often, after finishing an Ironman, I wanted to see the results even before they were in. In 2016, it had taken me eight days to get the nerve to even look.
In blog posts from years past, I have not recited the numbers for fear that I would sound as if I was bragging. Since the numbers this year helped me make excuses, I felt differently. 2016 was my fourth year in a five year age group. Of the 13 guys who finished ahead of me in our age group, 10 were in their first year (55 year-olds in the 55-59 age group). One was in his second year. Three of us in the top 14 were in our fourth year. I was the last of those three. Younger competitors appeared to enjoy an advantage.
The finishers ahead of me in my age group weren’t just young, they were very fast. Even on my best day, I could not have positioned myself for Kona and had little chance to place top five.
There were 154 in our age group and, as the 14th finisher, I was inside the top ten percent, not a disaster but far short of my hopes and expectations. In my age group, I had placed 3rd in 2011, 3rd in 2014 and 4th in 2015 at Ironman Wisconsin.
All this said, it troubled me that I dedicated so much time to training and yet so poorly managed my nutrition and my emotions. A better mental game would have dramatically improved my result. Why wasn’t I smarter after 17 prior Ironman finishes?
I could go on but I won’t. It was a disappointment, not a disaster, and there will be a next year and, I hope, a year after that. That disappointment whet my appetite to improve.
Thursday, September 22, 11 days later, somewhere in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia
The sky had darkened to steel gray over the Sydney harbor. The wind picked up and it began to drizzle onto the palm trees. Several birds picked at the grass.
I had read something recently that said we understand our lives in retrospect but need to live our lives looking forward. I was still thinking about Ironman Wisconsin, trying to understand it and to frame it within my life. I realized that I am most proud of two things: the results I have helped to achieve as a parent and my endurance athletic accomplishments.
Of course, I was very proud of all of my family, not just Katie. But I didn’t think that I had much to do with the rest of my family’s educations, careers, spouses or raising their children. I counted myself part of a good lot but couldn’t take credit for all that my family had accomplished.
Academic degrees and distinctions, jobs and other stuff that should have made me prouder than qualifying for Kona or running a 2:37 marathon didn’t. Maybe my retrospective understanding was not so sound but there it was.
For the past 11 days, I had been working the numbers pretty hard to make myself feel good about Ironman Wisconsin. That I had walked so much of the marathon spoiled satisfaction I might have taken from finishing in the top ten percent of my age group. Was it dehydration, lack of nutrition or just missing the spirit to keep running? I didn’t know.
At almost 58 years old, I realized that I needn’t state excuses. No one expected me to be who I once was in the water, on the bike or in my sneakers. But I also realized that I wanted to keep going and did not really know how to frame it.
When I rode beside Katie in Madison, I told her that I kept doing Ironman for one reason: I didn’t know how to quit. Walking in the Royal Botanic Gardens halfway across the world, I still didn’t know how and had no intention of doing so. As I stick with it, I hoped to do so gracefully, accepting the inevitable diminution of my abilities. It was graceless to complain if I could still finish an Ironman. Best to enjoy memories of past accomplishments and occasional modest triumphs to come. Most importantly, I needed to appreciate what I had, not to dwell upon what I had lost. Let the disappointments go. I hoped to keep firmly in mind how lucky I had been.
Up next: Twin Cities Marathon 2016 with Katie. It will be my 29th TCM and 80th marathon.