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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.

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