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I got outside early yesterday morning. It was completely dark, still and cold. Orion stood clear in what felt like a late fall sky. It seemed quieter than usual and I could hear my breathing without the rustle of the leaves overhead. For the first time in 26 years I headed out for a run on race day that did not include the Metrodome, Hennepin Avenue, Lake of the Isles, Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis, the Mississippi River, Summit Avenue or the Capitol. I felt rueful to miss the Twin Cities Marathon but excited to begin our trip to Kona.

Our plane took off to the west. That meant that I could not peer out my window and catch a glimpse of the human ribbon stretching across the colorful fall landscape below. I imagined how it must have felt to glide one more time along the course I had come to know so well.

In Los Angeles, we deplaned and had three hours before the flight to Kona. We decided to grab a bite to eat at an airport concession called “Lemonade.” Like all airport restaurants, it was dramatically overpriced. Unlike other airport restaurants, the food was really good. We made our selections and walked into the dining area. Of course, there was no place to sit. Well, that’s not exactly true in that there were places to sit; people had just put their luggage in seats that would otherwise fit people. I told Margy that there was no place to sit and she kind of groaned. A nice woman moved her backpack and offered to split their four top with us. When we sat down, I could not help but notice that her companion wore a “distance swimming challenge” tee shirt but both women had “The Look.”

Perhaps I should explain. Katie, Margy and I identified “The Look” years ago. “The Look” is the appearance maintained by an Ironman participant in the days leading up to the event. Those sporting “The Look” lack almost any hint of body fat. They wear Oakley sunglasses propped up on their running hats. Their tee shirts, sweatshirts, jackets and backpacks usually bear the name of an Ironman brand race. (It is better, of course, if the Ironman race is a prestigious, full Ironman of 140.6 miles instead of a half Ironman of 70.3 miles.) The Look usually omits long pants; shorts better show physique. Running shoes are required and are better if very brightly colored. For those under 40 wanting to feature The Look, it’s a good idea to have tattoos. An “M dot” Ironman logo tattoo on the calf is standard but larger and more decorative tattoos are becoming common. Those with The Look tend to have a certain twitchiness and self-consciousness combined with a sense that the universe bends toward their entitlement.

The gate area outside our plane to Kona featured extreme density of people who had The Look. I started to get very nervous as I scanned and saw that every single person readying to board that flight with The Look was going to beat me like a rug. Once we had boarded, several people with The Look moved aft in the plane from us but most seemed to have seats in first class. (Flights to Hawaii nix the automatic first class upgrades that make traveling with Margy so nice so often. We suffered 5.5 hours in cramped economy quarters. Oh the humanity!) Occasionally, those festooned in their Ironman logo gear stood in the first class aisle and stretched.

During the flight, I needed to step aside as a flight attendant passed. It so happened that I was standing right in front of the woman who invited us to share their four-top at lunch. She told me that she had spotted my RoadID (a birthday gift from Katie) and figured that I was racing. I was embarrassed because I had tried to do all that I could not to have The Look. But my RoadID was a giveaway that I had not considered. She said that she was racing and representing the Coast Guard. She said that she had never done a whole Ironman before and was nervous. I assured her that it would be just fine. She was nice. She wished me luck, too.

When the wheels touched down at Kona, something changed and I am not sure why. I had anticipated crying with the mix of relief and gratitude with finally making it to the Big Island. Suddenly, instead of being overcome with emotion, I just smiled and felt completely relaxed. I felt really, really, really happy.

One guy put his carry-on bag well back in economy but notified the flight attendant that he would need to get back there on landing. (So far as I could tell, the universe failed to bend that far in his favor, though I noticed one man with The Look who managed to sneak from economy into first class for purposes of being the very first person to disembark the plane.)

Baggage claim was an even denser Ironman scene with many, many Ironman logo backpacks, jackets and shirts.

We got our stuff into the minivan. At the intersection of the airport road with the Queen K Highway, a road construction sign flashed, “Aloha Welcome Ironman.” I didn’t need the sign to tell me but with that message, I knew that I had arrived.

The sun was sinking orange in a haze to our left as the ocean turned steel gray. We headed north. I had seen the landscape many times before on television and in magazines but I was unprepared. The lava fields north of Kona are more jagged and barren that I could imagine. Little tufts of dry grass stick up here and there but the landscape is otherwise completely unremitting. It was shocking. I understood the colorful descriptions in magazines and on the yearly NBC broadcasts. No shade, just jagged black rocks and an asphalt highway.

This morning, I rode for about an hour and a half on the Queen K. For reasons unexplained, all of the doubt and worry that have clouded my thinking in the days and weeks preceding today melted away and I found myself completely happy. Today is my 54th birthday and I get to spend it in good health shared with my family and friends too many to count – even if that sharing is by phone, email and this blog. It seemed a stark contrast to be on such a barren landscape but to feel so content with so much support.

The sun peeked above a hill to the east and the haze began to fade. The sun was out and I watched fellow participants pass on the opposite side of the road. Some smiled broadly and held out their hands with pinkie and thumb extended while the other fingers clung close to their hand, the Hawaiian symbol for “hang loose.” Other riders remained stoic, hands on their aero bars, jaws set.

For the record, I was one of the riders with the smile and “hang loose” gesture every chance I got.

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One Comment

  1. Happy belated birthday, Scott! I am thinking of you often, enjoying reading your posts, and confident that you will have (and are having) a wonderful adventure. Bob Boisvert


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