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Monthly Archives: September 2012

I called my coach, the fabulous Jared Berg, on my way home from work on Monday night. For reasons that I could not articulate, I had become really nervous about Kona. Maybe it was the fact that I had finished my last weekend of long workouts and all that remained was to hang on to that fitness, waiting for the cannon to sound.

I called Jared to talk it through.

“We can make this short or long, Jared,” I said.

“OK,” he answered in an apprehensive way, suggesting he knew he would not get away with the short conversation.

“We can dive down into all the details of my training and all of the things we need to plan for Kona or you can tell me two things.”

Jared chuckled and said, “So what do you need me to tell you?”

I like Jared for several reasons. First, I like him because I have much better hair than his. Jared has no hair on his head whatsoever. I also like Jared because his coaching got me to Kona. Most importantly, Jared has a knack for telling me exactly the right thing at the right time. In that he is absolutely consistent and that is no small talent.

“I need you to tell me that I am in shape and that everything is going to be OK,” I said. I sounded needy.

“That’s it?” Jared laughed, “OK, you really are in good shape and things are going to turn out awesome.”

I expected the hyperbole. Jared is, after all, a coach. But I needed to hear someone else say it, someone who knew the situation, knew all of my workouts, all of my average watts and mile paces, IMW swim times – all of it. It helped that Jared had raced Kona and had qualified four or five times. Jared knew me and he knew the territory on which I would race. I understood that he would not say, “Whoa, I’m not sure you are going to make it. Are your tickets refundable?” I knew that he would encourage me but I also knew that he would tell me the truth, even if he wrapped the truth in an optimistic package.

We spent an hour on the phone. (So much for the short conversation!) We got into all of the details – nutrition, hydration, positioning for the start of the swim, bike pacing, wind, humidity, terrain, temperature, run pacing, average swim, bike and run times for my age group in Kona. As we discussed each, I realized that we were plowing old ground. I had studied up on Kona and knew about what I would face. Jared and I had formulated close variants of the Kona plan when preparing for hot races at Wisconsin and Coeur d’Alene over the years. What was new this time were the setting and the fact that I was running in a world championship. I needed to form a plan that would take me from start to finish safely and fast enough to deserve the company in which I would find myself. No illusions of grandeur could cloud my anticipation: I would be a participant and not a contender. Even so, pride would be on the line and I want to race Kona like I belong there. Challenge enough.

Reflecting on our conversation afterward, I understood what I needed when I called Jared. We could have stopped with the short conversation: I needed only to know that I was OK and that everything would turn out fine. Isn’t that something that everyone needs to hear from time to time? We think of needing to comfort kids by telling them that they are OK and that things will be fine. I’m not sure that we outgrow the need to hear that as we get older. Apparently, I don’t.

Ironman is crazy. You work out long and hard, pay a lot of money, subject yourself to the elements, achieve uneven results and, when you succeed, you end up matched against even longer odds that make you feel vulnerable. Then you ask an expert to tell you that you are OK.

Sounds like life.

It’ll be OK if it doesn’t rain.

That was what I thought when I looked at the weather Saturday morning at about 5:05. The wind was blowing at 17 mph from the northwest. I could hear the trees outside our window as the leaves rustled, loudly with gusts, more quietly when the wind momentarily subsided a bit. Windy. Heading out for a 112 mile ride on a really windy day is not so much fun. I planned the route to go northwest, directly into the wind on the way out so that I could have the wind at my back on the way home.

For the last eleven years, a late September Saturday would be pretty laid back. Ironman Wisconsin would have been run a week or two before and it would be another week or two until the Twin Cities Marathon. In athletic terms, it would be a good day to do not all that much. But this year was not like the others: No Ironman Wisconsin, no Twin Cities Marathon. This year was my chance to take all that I had done and learned in my years at those races and wait. It wasn’t time yet but there was time for one more big training day and this was it, windy or not.

It was pitch black outside and would not be light for almost two hours. In the meantime, I ate as much dry cereal as I could, pounded down some orange juice and set up my bike bottles with Infinit Nutrition, the powdered product I use on long training days and during races. It’s not bad stuff but I wouldn’t choose to drink it if it did not serve the specific purpose of keeping me upright and moving.

I spent an hour and a half on the indoor trainer reading news magazines, then extracted my bike from the trainer, hauled it upstairs, reloaded my water bottles with more Infinit Nutrition and headed out onto the road. My fears about a windy day were justified. I had taken an elastic race number belt and snapped it on across my chest over my jacket to keep it from flapping. It had to look odd but I congratulated myself on how well it worked. The jacket and my long sleeve jersey were warm enough but only just. I wore toe warmers, little neoprene half socks that fit over my bike shoes and did not regret that for a minute. I wore Gore Tex gloves and those helped, too. When the wind gusted, my helmet lifted a little and skewed to the side. I got chilly.

Even after riding an hour and a half, I had at least four and a half hours to go. When I thought about it, I couldn’t quite picture it all. It’s hard to think all the way through a 112 mile course, even if you have traveled the first 27 miles in your own basement.

In just a week since my last ride into the country, everything had changed. All of the sumac had turned red. The maples were turning orange and a number of elms and ashes were turning to bright yellow. North of St. Bonifacius, several fields of corn were fully harvested. The farmer there wore a brown jacket, hat and gloves as he tended to a wagonload of corn. A dog ran around the field nearby.

The sun rose into a solidly steel gray sky and while it was light enough to see, it was not bright or clear. Instead, it was a blustery fall day, more like the end of October than late September.

I rode through Watertown and stopped at the Fuel and Food. I bought a flavored water to make more Infinit Nutrition. The woman behind the counter asked how it was going.

“Windy,” I said.

I told her that this was likely my last ride to Watertown for the season. I had seen her most weekends since May and we were acquainted from my training rides over the past ten years or so. I said that I had one last race of the season, then it would be all over until next spring. She asked me where my last race would be.

“Hawaii,” I said.

She looked surprised. She raised her eyebrows and said, “Hawaii!”

I could tell that Hawaii seemed like a very exotic destination to her. I guess that when you work in a convenience store in Watertown, Minnesota, Hawaii really is a long way away. She wished me luck and I zipped up my jacket, headed out to my bike, put the bottles in their cages and left the Food and Fuel for last time this year.

I rode north along the Crow River valley. The wind had picked up. I got to Delano, a town I had never previously seen. The town bustled at the perimeter with the Shell and Holiday gas stations and the car dealerships. The small central business section of town bordering the river was quiet with its 19th century brick buildings housing mostly modest restaurants and bars. The Catholic Church was the largest building I saw as I rode north past the vintage town baseball park with plaques designating it a historic place.

I wound through more farm fields and small housing developments before calculating that I had reached my turnaround point. It was time to take advantage of the wind that had mostly fought me so far.

Heading toward home, the wind helped me maintain my speed without so much effort as before. The sun had peeked through the clouds and warmed me. I felt good.

This 112-mile bike ride would be the season’s last big effort. While it was a challenge, especially with the wind, it did not impose the heat, humidity and cross winds that Kona would likely throw my way. With the wind at my back and about 38 miles to go, I was well on my way to doing all that I could in Minnesota that day. I reflected on how much I had done, not just on this ride or this year but for 11 years to train for Kona. Kona would be the culmination of over a decade of effort.

Even so, I understood that Kona was indeed a very long way from the now brown and gold corn fields of the Crow River valley. I hoped that what I had done to train here in this fertile farmland had sown the seeds that I could harvest on a lava rock wasteland thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean.

Pulling off my gloves and jacket in the driveway before my hour and ten-minute run, I remembered that it hadn’t rained after all. The sun shone brightly as I pulled on my running shoes and hat. I pressed the “start” button on my watch and began to run.

The official Ironman World Championship website has a countdown clock. As I write this, the countdown clock says that there are 22 days, 8 hours, 10 minutes until the race.

People comment that my race “must be coming up soon.” They ask if I am getting excited or nervous. To all of these, I say, “Yes.”

The race is coming up and I am excited and nervous. The clock tells me exactly how long it is but for the time being, an exact figure seems unimportant. Whether it is 22 days or 17 or some other number, so long as that number is not zero, seems not to matter that much. Here is what matters now:

On Tuesday, I ran along a bike path about three miles from my house. It was dark and very quiet. I had not seen anyone out except the man who always sits in his small SUV with a cigar and the newspaper. The car points east in the parking lot, I suppose so that he can see the sun rise. Sometimes he waves at me but, usually, he is engrossed in his paper and I run past without us acknowledging one another. The trees just north of the parking lot in which he reads close in overhead tall and dark, forming an arching canopy over the thin strip of asphalt that winds gently between the thick tree trunks and among the crisp leaves that now carpet the path and crackle beneath my feet.

I ran as hard as I could for this 8.12-mile course, trying to break an hour. I knew that this would take one of the best efforts of the season. The route is hilly and traverses gravel, streets, sidewalks, hills and dirt paths. It’s a challenging course and I wanted to extract the most from this run knowing that only a few really hard runs remained before Kona. I ran hard because I wanted to hurry up to make sure that I was ready to race. I realized, however, that no matter how hard I ran, no matter how ready I made myself, I could always be readier; I could always get into better shape – at least in theory.

Then I thought that the object was not to get into the best shape theoretically possible but only to get into the shape necessary to meet my goals: to finish the race and to race as though I belonged on the course with the other athletes in my age group. How would I know how ready I could be? How would I know if I was ready enough to meet my goals? Unfortunately, I could only know after falling short, by failing on race day. Failure would mean not finishing or by racing really slowly or by walking a substantial part of the marathon.

Ordinarily, I would measure my fitness Tuesday’s running route or the 56 mile bike to and from Watertown. I would know how those courses and times translated into performance at familiar races like Ironman Wisconsin and the Twin Cities Marathon. But this year, I would run neither of those races and my ten IMW’s and 25 TCM’s would not correlate to Kona. Instead, Kona would present a new course with new weather conditions – wind, temperature and humidity. While my past experience meant something, it did not mean enough that I could fall back on that prior experience to fully inform my performance at Kona. Kona would be brand new to me.

The situation seemed a bit like religious faith. Looking ahead, I simply could not know how things would come out. I had to take things I knew for sure, like my times on various familiar courses, the coaching that I have received, the entire body of training I put into Ironman and simply choose to believe in its sufficiency. There is no test that one could do to predict the outcome at Kona. To make that day bearable, to feel optimistic and excited about Kona, I needed simply to abandon certainty and to place my faith in a web of things seen and unseen that I believed added up to a day in Kona that would fulfill my expectations, hopes and dreams.

I knew exactly where the last mile started before I got home. I put my foot on the pavement at that point and started to really push. I ran at race pace, rounding a sharp right turn, running up a hill, along a sidewalk between houses, then a sharp left and sweeping right and sweeping left, down into the woods and up a very sharp, steep hill and along the sidewalk that bends just a little left and a little uphill heading east into the sun rising over our street as kids headed toward the pick up points for the school buses.

I crossed the crack in the sidewalk in front of our house that I use as a finish line and pressed the “stop” button on my watch.

I looked down: 1:00:05. I had missed my goal by five seconds. It was a strong run but I had missed my goal. I was not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. My faith had not broken but I had not pushed that run to the level that would have made me feel really sure I was ready for Kona. The run helped me believe without making me feel certain.

On the Ironman website, the countdown clock had ticked off one more hour until the cannon blast over Kailua Bay.

I swim at the Eden Prairie Community Center. The pool is part of the original building and has not changed much since the 1980’s when first built. The rest of the Community Center has been remodeled and expanded. The pool is the place in the Community Center that time forgot.

My friend Bob has swum at the Community Center five days a week since the late 80’s. Bob rarely takes vacations and almost never takes a weekday off of swimming. Bob goes to bed at 8:00 p.m. and wakes at 3:30 a.m. Bob drinks six cups of coffee and reads the paper before coming to start his swim at 5:30 a.m. If you met Bob, you would believe me when I say that he drinks six cups of coffee before swimming. Bob is my height but skinnier with a staccato manner of speech, quick smile and hurried manner. Bob is in lane 1. Always.

Bob and I often recall the swimmers who used to be regulars who have left for one reason or another. Mike was a teacher who had bad shoulders. Dave got so old that he could not see well enough to drive in the early morning to make it to the 5:30 Community Center opening. Bob and I feel like old settlers. But we never discuss the fact that one day we, too, will stop coming to swim at 5:30.

Steve and Sarah have been coming to the pool for most of the 11 years that I have swum there. Both were Big 10 swimmers, Steve at Minnesota, Sarah at Iowa. They give me stroke technique tips. After all of the years of swimming there together, they have not run out of helpful tips.

Another friend, Dan, is a very big guy and a good swimmer. He is a student of sports and always curious about my next race or what kind of bike I ride. He also comments on my stroke technique. (If it sounds like I need a lot of help, I do.) Like Steve and Sarah, he is nice about it but does not seem to run short of helpful hints.

The other day, Dan and I got out of the pool at about the same time. As I was toweling off, Dan said,”You have that Tour de France cut.”

I must have looked at him like I was confused, which I was. Dan figured that out.

“I meant that you look like a Tour de France rider a week into the Tour when he has lost all of his body fat and is “cut.””

“Oh, thanks,” I said, not quite knowing if it was a good thing for me to have lost body fat. Dan is a watchful guy, though, and I knew that it was probably true. I am flattered that someone said that I look like a professional athlete. I am not sure if Dan was saying that just to make me feel good or because it was true.

I dwelled on Dan’s comment and wondered why it so struck me. I am not close friends with Dan or the rest of the small group of regular swimmers at the Community Center, though we do share a unique bond of friendship. How many people rise early enough to swim at 5:30 in a tired community pool? My swimming friends are more acquaintances than friends, though I see them much more frequently than many I consider closer. The pool gang talks more about our kids than athletics but we do talk about swimming and triathlon. Over the years, they have come to expect IMW in the fall and all know about my upcoming trip to Kona. They all ask when I will leave or if I feel in shape, whether I am nervous.

I consider Ironman training a primarily solitary pursuit. When I think a bit more carefully, however, I realize that is not entirely true. My friends of many years at the pool, the woman at Fuel and Food in Watertown who always lets me put ice in my water bottles, the guys at Gear West, the people at TC Running Company who recognize my voice even when I don’t say my name, my friends at work and at Briggs, the Wildflower gang, none of them spend much time with me as I crank out the yards and miles to prepare for the next Ironman. Even so, it’s a web woven with bonds of family, friendship and acquaintance, some of which are stronger and others looser but all of which sustain me. I came to realize that even the more distant acquaintances who follow my training offer me important, maybe crucial, support. Would Ironman mean nearly as much to me if I did it completely anonymously? Of course not. It has become part of my identity to the host of people around me.

While I love the support, it has a downside. If Kona goes poorly, I will no longer disappoint only myself; I will disappoint uncounted family, friends and acquaintances. Sure, I understand that they will not be disappointed in me but for me if something goes wrong. But I worry that as I live by the sword, I may die by the sword. The support is important but I can’t bear the thought of disappointing so many.

Training for an Ironman gives ample time to imagine. I have used that time to picture the lava fields north of Kona, to feel the cross winds and heat radiating from the pavement, the humidity and blazing sun. The closed course stretches out along the rocky western coast without providing much access to spectators. Aside from fellow competitors who will live in their own worlds of effort, concentration and exhaustion, I’ll be out there on my own, following only my own thoughts. Only a few people will cheer and nobody will know me. Even so, I will reach inside and draw on the support that I have received from so many for so long. I will know your encouragement without hearing your voice, feel your support without a high five. I won’t feel alone on that long, hot ribbon of asphalt when I think of everyone back home who is in this with me.

By the time I  round the corner onto Ali’i Drive, hear the music blaring in the distance and Mike Reilly shouting people’s names, Katie will be in Maine, very tired, waiting to know that I am done and OK. Bob will only have a couple of hours left to sleep before getting up, putting on a pot of coffee and unfolding the newspaper.

People ask how someone qualifies for Kona. I usually answer that it’s complicated. They persist.

“Do you have to get a certain time?” they ask.

I explain that a certain number of Kona slots are allocated to each race, that the winner of each age group automatically qualifies so long as that person finishes in under 17 hours. The rest of a race’s slots are allocated on a pro rata basis according to the number of starters in that age group.

I illustrate with reference to my qualification: Of Ironman Wisconsin’s 70 slots last year, four slots were allocated on a pro rata basis to my age group, men 50 to 54. So, to qualify for Kona, I needed to be one of the first four of 193 finishers in my age group. In larger age groups, like men 35 to 39, there might be eight or more slots out of nearly 400 finishers. In smaller age groups like women 60 to 64, there would only be one slot because perhaps only a handful of women that age would finish. If no one qualifies in a particular age group, that slot goes back into the pool and is allocated on a pro rata basis with all of the other slots. With this explanation, the person who asks seems satisfied, if not exasperated. But I’m not done.

More explanation is required. Sometimes a finisher who qualifies for Kona does not accept the slot and that slot “rolls down” to the next finisher in the age group who has not qualified. That next participant must attend “roll down” the morning following the race. Roll down is a tense gathering of very stiff, limping people hoping that one or more qualifiers in their age group will decline their Kona slot. Before qualifying at Ironman Wisconsin in 2011, I attended several roll downs. I came within one slot in 2005 and two slots in 2010.

In October, about 1,850 people will race Kona. A substantial portion of the participants will not have qualified by racing. 100 qualify by entering a lottery, the proceeds of which go to charity. Another 100 come from a “legacy lottery” for participants who have run a certain number of Ironmans but never qualified. A lottery for Hawaii residents acconts for another 44 slots; Ironman wants to keep good relations with the host communities. Five slots go to high rollers who bid on a Kona slot on Ebay, proceeds going to charity. The opening bid is $10,000 and winning bids in the recent past have been around $60,000. Then there are 49 other slots that go to people with compelling personal circumstances, often disabled war veterans, cancer survivors and others who have overcome really extraordinary challenges just to be alive. So about 300 of 1,850 slots go to people who didn’t qualify by racing an Ironman event.

Pros, both men and women, account for 84 slots. They qualify by a points system that is hopelessly obscure. (And you thought my explanation for qualifying as an age group amateur was complicated. Think again.) Racing a combination of Ironmans and Ironman 70.3 (half Ironmans put on by the Ironman company, World Triathlon Corporation or “WTC”) with sufficiently good results gives them the point totals necessary to race Kona.

Six Ironman 70.3 events have slots. Most of those 70.3’s have 30 slots, one has 20. That means that 170 people qualify without having to run a full Ironman. 30 slots is a relative few and 70.3 participants are many. Those who qualify this way are mighty bad hombres.

So, a rough 700 slots are allocated by lotteries, discretion, pro qualification and 70.3 performance. That leaves about 1,150 for the Ironman finishers to fight over. (When I say “Ironman,” I mean the 140.6 mile triathlon event.) Most of the 31 Ironmans held throughout the world during 2012 had 50 slots for age groupers (non professionals). Most Ironmans have about 2,500 participants. Those 2,500 are chasing 50 slots in each race. That means that the top two percent in any particular race qualify. Across all Ironman-qualifier races, 80,000 people, pros and amateurs, compete for 1,800 slots, meaning that about 2.25% of all competitors qualify. The other 98% get to hear Mike Reilly call them an “Ironman” and receive a tee shirt, hat, medal and as many IV’s as needed in the medical tent. For your $650 entry fee, it’s not exactly a screaming deal – until you need the IV’s, that is.

After racing 12 Ironmans prior to IMW 2011, a reasonable person would have given up trying to qualify for Kona. The odds seemed stacked against me. I had come close but I had missed very consistently – and I had a reasonable sample size. In my mind, I knew that my chances were very slim. Even so, I looked at the process as stochastic. A certain amount of random chance was at work. I needed to control what I could, to train hard, race hard and finish as fast as I could. But I knew that I needed the right day when I raced particularly well and when my age group was not too deep with talent. It was as much about who didn’t show up as it was how well I raced; there is almost always someone faster than you who didn’t race that day. Qualifying for Kona is a matter of showing up when someone else faster doesn’t.

Once one knows the numbers, what do those numbers mean? Numbers have an objective quality. I hoped that by studying these numbers, perhaps I could know something about myself, something concrete and not subject to dispute – something quantifiable, verifiable and objective. Of course, I hoped that it would be something good.

Speaking generally, what does a Kona slot mean? First, WTC does not mean to make Kona a total meritocracy. It isn’t the exclusive province of hard bodies who are the fastest triathletes in the world. It’s a race for people who qualify only by the luck of a lottery. It’s for people who pay a ton of money to charity for the privilege to enter. It’s for locals. It’s for people who have compelling personal stories that provide the cinematic, tear-jerking stories that NBC tells so touchingly every year during its highly cinematic broadcast. (Tell me that you have watched one of these broadcasts in its entirety and not cried. No can do.) Sure, the pros, 70.3 and Ironman qualifiers have done what is required under the rules to qualify. Winnowing down 80,000 participants to 1,400 who qualify by racing makes Kona a tough “in.” So, Kona represents a balance engineered by WTC. Kona is a mixture intended to showcase inspiration, talent, persistence and luck. WTC, a for-profit corporation, stages a show packaged for a television audience and calculated to produce a profit.

This idea of luck nagged me. The first year I ran an Ironman, I entered the lottery, figuring that I was already going to be in shape so why not run Kona if I won the lottery? Once I had finished my first Ironman, though, I soured on the lottery. To me, Kona stood as a mark of distinction for only the very best triathletes. Racing Kona should not be about luck, at least not for me. Others could get in by luck or lucre, but to me there was only one honorable way in: to qualify. But what does it mean to qualify for one of those approximately 1,150 slots for Ironman qualifiers?

If I know that 1,150 of the people who enter Kailua Bay with me have qualified by running an Ironman, does counting myself among that peerage say anything about me that is both important and beyond reasonable dispute? I don’t think so.  First, a certain number of qualifiers turned down their slots. Count four-time champion Chrissie Wellington as one of those. Some of the most capable Ironman athletes simply find better things to do with five, six, seven or eight hours of their Saturdays. Second, it was really hard for me to qualify. If it took me 13 tries, do I really deserve to be there? Was this just a fluke? If it took the proper celestial alignment, a process of chance and absence of stronger competitors, was it me or the stars? Remember, most of the time, I didn’t qualify. I don’t think that it was all luck that qualified me for Kona; I worked hard for a decade. Even so,  this frame of analysis gave me sympathy for the lottery participants. I was lucky, too. Third, what if I don’t qualify again? Does that prove that this qualification was a random occurrence or does it testify to the increasing difficulty of qualifying? Ironman slots are now fewer per race than they were when I began. Likewise, as I grow older, slots allocated to my age group grow fewer while those who keep racing into their old age have enjoyed success up until then. Strangely, sometimes the older age groups are as competitive or more competitive than younger, more populous age groups. It’s survival of the fittest in the golden years.

Maybe to understand what my race at Kona means, I need to differentiate my performance and qualification from others. What about the 98% who race an Ironman but don’t qualify? What does that say about them? From everyone I know who has completed an Ironman, they feel just fine, thank you. Crossing the finish line is a feeling of exultation that I can’t describe. And it doesn’t wear off for a long time. In my case, for years.

How about the people who compete in Kona but either don’t qualify at all, winning their slots by lotteries or by bidding high on Ebay? Is their Kona finish tainted? The course is just as long, just as hot, for them as for anyone else. Perhaps their finish is even more meaningful without the extreme athletic pedigree. It’s certainly a storyline that NBC loves.

The numbers don’t really support my conclusion – or maybe any conclusion – but I think that participating at Kona can only truly come down to luck. Even the winners, the world champions, have gotten to the finish line on luck. If you think that hard training and determination are the sole determinants of finish place, think again. The winners made one fundamentally good decision: They picked the right parents. Without a genetic predisposition, the winners could have worked harder than anyone else and to no avail. The best athletes are lucky to have the genetic framework but they need to put in the time and effort to make that luck pay. More generally, luck rules for everyone at Kona, whether one has survived cancer against long odds, won the race or just qualified.

To conclude that racing Kona is about luck is unsatisfactory. It does not reinforce the great American myth of pluck and desire, hard work and industry being the sole determinants of success. We like to say that everyone in America can grow up to be president if he or she really wants it and works hard enough. Luck seems an unjust, random, even capricious basis upon which to get into the World Championship. Sorry, but to degrees more and less, everyone entering Kailua Bay on October 13th will have their luck to thank.

Kona is not really about numbers, it is about a vision, imperfect and incomplete, that matches one’s spirit against the ocean, lava fields and the inevitable things that go wrong when you let 1,850 inmates out of the asylum, put them in swim suits and goggles, give them bikes and running shoes, and send them all in the same direction at the same time. Kona is something personal and special to everyone who qualifies, tries to qualify, competes or wins. It’s unquantifiable and the numbers, while not random, do not say much that is both important and indisputable. It’s not one thing to everyone; it’s significance differs from person to person. In the end it really may be about a tee shirt, hat, medal and hearing Mike Reilly say it out loud: “You are an Ironman.”

For my part, I like to think about Rocky the night before he fought Apollo Creed in the first movie. Rocky said, “If I’m still standing at the end, I’ll know I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.”

I hope that I’ll be that lucky.

Yesterday was hard. I began my swim workout precisely at 7:00 a.m., the time when 250 miles to the east, the cannon sounded to start Ironman Wisconsin for the first time without me. After swimming and running, I spent much of my day glued to the computer or to my cell phone, catching updates on friends racing and on my family who attended to cheer our friends on. I spoke with my sister, Lynn, no less than 12 or 15 times and watched videos that she shot with her cell phone. At 4:30 p.m., I could take no more and went out for a ride to further adjust my new bike. For my day’s swim, bike and run, I imagined myself out on the familiar IMW course on the perfect day that it was. Once back, I stayed close to the computer, checking friends’ results, watching finishers come down the chute. All the while, I had this urgent sense that I was missing out on something of which I needed to be a part. Once a couple of my friends finished at around 13 hours, ten minutes, I tried to relax but I kept dwelling on having missed a perfect day – and time with my family. (Cue U2 here to sing, “It’s a Beautiful Day,” the Ironman anthem.)

Today, I woke up early to get my workout done so that I had plenty of time to park myself in front of the computer. At 8:00 a.m., I got rooms at the Hilton Monona Terrace for Ironman Wisconsin on September 8, 2013. At 12:00 noon during my lunch hour, I registered for my 11th IMW.

At this stage of preparation for Kona, I am little more than gristle and bone with some pretty stringy bits of muscle stretched here and there. Heaven only knows what dragging my scrawny bottom across the lava fields north of Kona will do to what’s left of me. All I know right now is this: IMW 2013? I’m in.

When I tell people about my weekend workouts preparing for an Ironman, they just shake their heads. I am not sure that many people understand what it feels like to work out for six or seven plus hours on a warm Saturday. Most people probably think that when a workout ends I am just really tired. Maybe it would feel good to just sit on the couch, watch some TV and do nothing. I’ve tried that. It is a profoundly bad idea. Though it seems contrary, the worst thing to do after a long workout or a race is to sit or lie down and do nothing. Inactivity for even a short period of time, like driving home from a race for an hour, leaves me stiff and sore. It takes very little time for rigor mortis to set in. Better to stay up and moving, whether it is mowing the lawn, grocery shopping or walking around a lake – after a meal, that is.

It’s hard to get fired up about eating after a long workout or a race. I just don’t feel that good and am not hungry but it’s always a good idea to eat as soon as reasonably possible. I start with a recovery drink that has lots of protein (and tastes like chocolate!) then try to get to the kitchen counter or to a restaurant. Recently, however, we went to a favorite restaurant and it took a very long time to get our meals. During that wait, I could feel myself crashing, growing increasingly restive and irritable, my head getting light, just not wanting to interact. Very bad. (If “husband and/or father of the year” honors are to be conferred, don’t bet on me if the committee considers my Saturdays with delayed feedings.)

So how do I feel when I am running my delayed Saturday errands after getting something to eat? In a word, sick. I don’t feel extremely sick, just the kind of sick like on the day coming down with a mild flu or cold. My head aches, usually because I haven’t drunk enough during my bike or run. I feel run down like I should just go to bed. Sometimes this feeling of being sick is stronger than other times. Sometimes it is hard to get up out of the bathtub after getting hammered by a workout. Other times symptoms are pretty mild.

The idea of working out to prepare for an Ironman is not to exhaust yourself, to completely wear yourself down. The idea is to adapt. With repeated exposure to exercise stress, you develop all sorts of adaptations that will allow you to run an Ironman without extraordinary stress. The line, however, between working out to a point of stress that builds adaptation and working hard enough to be ill is very, very thin. After riding that line for years, I am never really sure when I have stayed on the right side of the line and when I have crossed over until it is too late.

Ironman Wisconsin is going on right now and I am thinking of the race non-stop. I wish that I were there and racing. At this very moment, I would be nearing the bike-to-run transition. Watching an Ironman is exhilarating. The feeling of finishing an Ironman is all but indescribable. But the price you pay to get to that finish line is not paid in its entirety on race day. Instead, it is many Saturdays of long workouts and wobbly grocery shopping trips.

Those of you who read last week’s entry entitled “7:20” recall that I broke the left handlebar of my bike during a six-hour ride last weekend. You may also recall that I had tried to replace that aluminum base bar but had run into troubles because my 31,945 mile-old bike was built with components that no longer match the modern standards for stem clamping circumference. A part had been ordered but, by Friday noon, it had not yet arrived because it had been shipped from Utah during a holiday-shortened week. I was worried about being able to do my four-hour ride on Saturday and had been calling the shop, Gear West, daily to get an update. With my noon call on Friday, I had determined that I would have to ride my Saturday workout with my road bike, a bike that does not have the aero bars and, while a very good bike, it would not accustom me to riding in the position on the bike that I will ride in Kona.

On my way back from lunch, my cell phone rang.

“Scott, this is Luke at Gear West.”

“Hey, how is it going?”

I was pleased, thinking that the part may have arrived and that installation was in process. It was, sort of.

“I’m afraid that I have bad news,” Luke said.

“Rats,” I thought. I speculated that the part was back ordered.

“We were installing that base bar and we noticed that your bike’s frame is broken,” Luke said. “I’m sorry.”

Initially, I was shocked. Titanium frames like mine last forever. I am a relatively light and power-free rider, notoriously easy on a bike. Could he have confused my bike with another? I have been a customer at Gear West for more than a decade and I know the guys there pretty well. Then I figured it out: Kevin and Drew had put poor Luke up to it. This was a practical joke. I was silent for a moment trying to figure out how to play along.

“You may think that this is a joke or a mistake or something but it’s not. Your frame broke right by the cable routing openings on the downtube near the head tube. It’s one one-inch crack and another one that is almost the same length,” Luke said.

I had to admit, the kid was good if he was pulling my leg but I had a sinking feeling. Luke was serious.

“Kevin told me that I probably shouldn’t tell you over the phone but should get you to come in and look at it yourself,” he continued. “I am really sorry.”

By this time, I had figured out that this was no joke. Luke was serious.

“I’m shocked,” I said.

“You sound shocked,” Luke said.

My head spun. I had three weekends to get into shape, to do the long rides and long runs that are critical to adapting to the load that an Ironman imposes. Worse, I knew that there was absolutely no way to repair a broken frame in time for Kona, much less for the following day.

I went into the office. It had been slow. I told my friend, Vicki, that I would likely not return that afternoon. I needed to go buy a new bike.

I loved my bike. I loved that the model name, Tiphoon, a clever spelling that emphasized the frame material, titanium. I loved the symmetry with the model name of my first “adult” bike, a Schwinn Typhoon. I loved that childhood bike, too, with its chrome fenders and metal-flake gold paint. Then I began to think back on the memories that I had formed on my titanium triathlon bike, now, apparently, deceased. I thought about riding up the biggest hill at Ironman Wisconsin with a guy in a colored wig, sunglasses, a Speedo and tennis shoes running along beside me. “Rick and Annette Krause told me to come and run with you and help you up this hill,” he said. I didn’t know him at all but I was extremely grateful. He really did help. That help and support made me feel better than I can say.

I also remembered riding my bike in the rain at Ironman Wisconsin. The electronics on my bike got waterlogged and quit. I got so cold that I couldn’t use my hands to unbuckle my cycling shoes.

Then I remembered plunging down the long, steep hill at Wildflower at speeds around 43 mph, scared stiff.

In each case, my bike had done really well. The bike was totally outfitted for me with a customized, computer fit, blue handlebar tape and a little container of Purell swinging from the under seat bag. (Yeah, I know, a little OCD.)

I didn’t treat my bike like it was a person or even a pet. I had never named my bike. I didn’t think that it had some sort of soul or was anything. It was just an inanimate companion for 31,945 miles when I had fun, suffered, got wet, got hot, and acted out who I am in a way that is strangely discordant with being almost 54. Now that looked like it was over. I didn’t really mourn the bike but I had bought it with the intention that it would be until death did us part and I was betting that I would be doing the parting, not the bike.

When I got to Gear West, I looked at the cracked frame and felt grateful that they had discovered the problem. To have that part fail when racing Kona or, later, when riding on a steep downhill at speed. It made the backs of my knees feel watery to think of how everything would have come apart if that crack gave way. My chin would be the first thing to contact the pavement racing by beneath me. While that broken frame was appalling, the broken handlebar might have been even worse. Cracks radiated from the break point in four directions from beneath a thick crust of salt that had accumulated beneath the handlebar tape over seven years. It was a wonder that the bike had held up as long as it had. When discussing the damage, Kevin O’Connor, the owner of Gear West, said, “All bikes break eventually. Titanium, carbon fiber, steel. Nothing lasts forever.” Here I had clung to the notion of something lasting forever. Nothing does.

I spent about 3.5 hours with Drew at Gear West selecting a new bike. Drew had all of the measurements of my bike and used those to select a new bike that would need minimum customization to fit me as my old bike had. I settled on a Cervelo P3, maybe the most popular bike in all of triathlon. The frame is carbon fiber, which is lighter, more shock-absorbent and less expensive to manufacture. Many of the components of my old bike that were made of aluminum were now carbon fiber. Many other parts are similar, just modestly updated. The bike was less expensive than the one I bought seven years ago and probably better for the advances made in materials and construction techniques.

I took the bike out for a short ride after it had been completely measured and tailored to fit as my old bike had. There was a strong wind from the west and some of the season’s first leaves skittered across the street. When I rolled over the leaves, they gave way with a reassuring crunch. Fall had arrived. The wind pushed waves up from the western shore of Long Lake and gave the surface a matte green appearance. Several people carried rowing shells to the dock for a late afternoon row. I turned up the street and there was no traffic. It was just me, a man in his early 50’s on a high tech bike trying to hold onto a bright, cool and clear early fall afternoon and the memories that had accumulated on the saddle of many bicycles for nearly 50 years. I really was sad, sad to say good bye to a bike that I had loved. I pedaled up a hill and turned around in a bank drive through. Then it occurred to me how similar this ride felt to what I would have been doing in Madison on State Street, the wind blowing through the vents of my helmet and the air so clear. I felt for a moment like I was in Madison one more time. I knew that everything would be just fine.

Postscript: I rode the new bike today for 73 miles in a strong wind. I started skeptically and a fierce headwind did not make my new bike seem like much of an improvement in any way. Then I went across a bridge expansion joint that I had ridden countless times. On my old bike, that expansion joint made it feel as though my prostate had been plunged into liquid nitrogen and then hit with a hammer. On the new bike, I felt the bump but it was dampened through the frame and not pounded into my privates by a sadistically narrow saddle. “Well, that one thing is better,” I thought.

In the end, the bike still requires adjustment. It is only an acquaintance and not yet my friend. But we have a good start. I put some spare blue tires on it, then replaced the handlebar tape with some of my favorite blue (after the picture below was taken). One day and 73 miles; it’s a good start. Let’s just hope that I outlive this bike, too.

Ironman Wisconsin runs this weekend. For the first time, I won’t be there. I will be thinking a lot about my friends and family who are.

I am sorry to miss IMW. The event marks the passage of time and is the first weekend when fall seems fully apparent in the first leaves turning colors, the farm fields turning tan, the mornings chilly and the afternoons bright and clear. Students will walk and bike up and down State Street on Friday afternoon looking forward to a weekend early in the semester when they can relax without finals looming. The marching band will practice in the late afternoon. The band members will wear workout clothes and glisten with sweat, stepping high. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unitarian Temple will stand subtle and spectacular just west of campus, shrouded in trees gently rustling with drying leaves overhead.

Connection. I will miss all of those things terribly but, most of all, I will miss getting together with my family and friends who have been there in 94 degree heat and 55 degree rain. (Why they didn’t stop showing up years ago mystifies me. They could have just asked me to call once I finished.) You don’t race on nutrition and hydration, you race on the support of family and friends who feed your spirit. Somehow, I feel more connected at IMW than anyplace else. Right now, I feel foolish for expending so much time and energy in an effort not to run IMW.

Advice. Friends haven’t asked for advice when running IMW this year (small wonder) but if I were asked, here is what I would say:

  • Race your training. You know all about swimming, biking, running, nutrition and hydration. I can’t help much with that. Ironman is pretty simple: Do what you trained to do all day long until some guy grabs you at the finish line and says to stop.
  • Smile. If you start to feel a little bad, look up and spot a race official or spectator. Give them a big smile. Almost without exception, they will return your smile in a way that will make you feel better and go faster. I don’t know why that works but it does.

Places to take a breath.

  • Swim: Pause for a few seconds on the backstretch of the second lap. Take a good look at Monona Terrace rising out of the western shore as it is bathed in the orange glow of a very early fall morning. It will be quiet there and you can have a few moments to just feel yourself in the midst of beauty, calm and the real majesty of everything going on all around you.
  • Bike: Once you have completed all but the last couple of miles of the bike, you will come onto John Nolan Drive. Look across the lake to see Monona Terrace with the Capitol building behind it. The sun is at its brightest in that moment and those two buildings will stand shimmering white against a brilliant blue sky. That view keeps your mind off your bottom, which by now, hurts like thunder.
  • Run: On the second lap, look out across Lake Mendota from Observatory Hill. If you are lucky, there will be a little breeze up there and the sky will be clear, almost unnaturally blue in the reflection off the lake. A few sailboats may dot the lake below. You are on the highest point of the run course. It just seems like the place you can get the deepest breath of fresh air. (If you ran up Observatory Hill, you will be gasping anyway, so taking a deep breath will come naturally.)
  • Before you finish: The entry to Capitol Square from State Street is pretty quiet and a great place to gather your thoughts. Take some time there to think about all of the things that got you to that moment. Think about your family and all of the friends who have offered you so much support. Think of the good luck stacked on good luck that propelled you. The finish is just up that slight grade and you can hear it. Grab a quiet moment to reflect. It will be noisy and ecstatic soon enough.

Most of all. Several years ago, Ironman banned finishing with your kid or kids. I understand. It was dangerous for the kids and for other competitors. Besides, Katie had gone off to college and could no longer come to IMW anyway. Before the ban, though, I recall rounding the corner onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and spotting Katie with her hand out. She would grab my right hand and begin to run beside me. She enjoyed a jolt of adrenaline and began to drag me along. I had to ask to slow down. After crossing, I would sit in a folding chair just beyond the finish line. I couldn’t talk much but Katie would stand beside me holding my hand. That I will miss.

This sign usually, and more accurately, reads, “Back up your truck here and deposit your money, all of it.”

Several years ago, when my bike needed some repairs and maintenance, I told Kevin O’Connor, the owner of Gear West, our local triathlon shop, that it cost me about $400 a year to keep my bike going. He looked thoughtful for a moment, as though he had never really attempted to come up with a number and a rule. (Secretly, Kevin was thinking, “$400? My kids can’t all go to Stanford on that. How can I sell bikes that need a lot more maintenance and upgrades than $400 a year?”)

Those few tortured souls who had nothing better to do on a Saturday and read my post entitled “7:20” learned that I broke the handlebars on my bike. Brute force upper body strength has not been entirely ruled out as a cause but each person to whom that explanation has been proposed has doubled up and after regaining their breath said, “That’s a pretty good one.” See? Not ruled out.

31,915 miles ago, when I bought my bike new in 2005, I had a pretty high end machine. The titanium frame was attractive because, unlike aluminum and steel, titanium doesn’t fatigue and wear out with use. Times have changed. The vast majority of bikes are made of carbon fiber and shaped in wind tunnels for minimum aerodynamic drag. Not so mine. While sleek and reasonably aero, my bike frame is about durability; it’s about the long run.

I took my bike and its broken handlebar to Gear West and spoke to Shaun. Shaun is typical of Gear West’s employees, friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend whatever time is necessary to help, no matter how small the sale may be. Shaun regretted to inform me that the world had moved on since I bought my bike. Many, maybe most, “base bars” were now made of carbon fiber. Instead of a $40 to $60 part, a base bar was now $250. For that, a triathlete could expect something extremely light and aerodynamic but maybe not so good for grasping when hill climbing. “How much time is a really light, aero base bar worth in a race?” I asked. “Seconds,” he said, “And only if you are in a relatively flat time trial setting.”

Shaun did some research and found an “old school” aluminum base bar that would serve as a good replacement for the one I had broken. $55. It wasn’t in stock but he would order it and call when it arrived. I thanked Shaun and wheeled my wounded bike back to the car. I pitied anyone who would try to compete with Gear West; they always do a great job for me.

But Gear West couldn’t stop the clock. Seven years, 31,915 miles. Stuff gets old. Stuff breaks. Everything is impermanent. Maybe even one day, the “lifetime” titanium frame will give way or cease to be repairable. Maybe it will be me that gives way. One day, I may not answer the alarm clock. Everything breaks. Nothing I see around me every day is forever.

I did what I could to make the $400 rule immutable. No $250 carbon fiber base bar for me. Despite my thrift on this one purchase, Kevin should have plenty of opportunities to enlist my help keeping his kids on course for Stanford – all of them.