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Finishing famously

In 1982, Julie Moss finished second. In doing so, she made Ironman and triathlon famous.

I don’t want to be famous. I’ll tell you why.

Julie Moss was a first time Ironman competitor. She entered the race as part of her research for an exercise physiology thesis. Nobody knew who she was before the race and she surprised everyone by developing a sizable lead over the rest of the women’s field during the marathon. She was young and perky. She wore a trucker’s cap. With about two miles left, Moss started to succumb to severe dehydration. A couple of things stopped working for her, specifically, her legs. For a while, she staggered, her legs splaying awkwardly as her knees went left and right with ever decreasing control. Within sight of the finish line, Julie Moss kept falling down. She was forced to do what all Ironman triathletes need to do: She needed to figure a way around a problem. Everyone has problems finishing an Ironman and we distinguish ourselves, or succumb, based on how we figure out how to solve the problems that inevitably arise. Unusually, Julie Moss was leading the women’s race at the time she faced her problems and needed to figure it out on national TV with ABC’s Wide World of Sports cameras rolling.

When her legs ceased to function, she crawled toward the finish line. It is one of the most moving things that I have ever seen. The YouTube clip makes me cringe with a mix of dread and admiration. Her courage and suffering were nearly unimaginable. A crowd of fans, race officials and medical personnel surrounded Moss as she ever so slowly made her way. The officials debated whether to pick her up and whisk her to the medical care she so obviously needed or to let her play it out to the end, which would either bring collapse before the finish or collapse after the finish.

In the hubbub occurring only 30 meters from the finish line, Kathleen McCartney slipped through the crowd of onlookers almost undetected. She crossed first, anonymous in the shadow of the drama that she snaked through just 25 meters up the finish chute. And few remember her.

Ironman became famous because Julie Moss’s courage and suffering showed on a very popular national television program at a time before cable TV and the internet let us all go our own way to seek entertainment. When Wide World of Sports aired “The Crawl,” nobody could believe what they saw but everyone who saw it was inspired, whether they chose to enter a triathlon or not.

I saw that show and drew inspiration from “The Crawl.” Much as I drew inspiration, I have no intention of finishing Kona in a way that brings fame. No good can come of a dramatic finish. Since I can’t win, the only way I can finish famously is to finish very unhealthily, suffering as the finish line video streams worldwide. No thanks. If I achieve my fantasy finish, I will look pleased but hardly surprised. I’ll smile, wave and maybe even pump my fist – but keep both hands below my shoulders. I tried a big fist pumping celebration last year and looked ridiculous. Subtle anonymity will do nicely for me but I will not forget that finish 30 years ago that filled me with a mix of wonder, dread and awe that set me on course for Kona.

Julie Moss is still famous but I would choose Kathleen McCartney’s finish any day. Let’s hope that I get my choice.

Postscript: Leafing through the list of athletes entered in Kona this year sorted by age, the name two above mine is “Julie Moss.” She and Kathleen McCartney Hearst are celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Crawl.”


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