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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Maybe it was something in the dressing. My family demonstrates thankfulness in its own unique way.

At Thanksgiving, my family has a tradition. While gathered at the dining room table, we go around, each offering something for which they feel thankful. Not surprisingly, two members of my family (other than me) said that they felt thankful for my chance to run Kona. I jumped on that bandwagon, too. After qualifying in September 2011, I felt thankful for my shot at Kona and remain thankful now. Even so, I have been interested in how I feel about the experience now that more than a month has passed since crossing the finish line on a warm, dark night with a light ocean breeze blowing in from the west.

Just Another Bum. Last summer, Katie and her boyfriend, Collin, watched “Rocky.” If you recall the original in, gasp, 1976, Rocky has a hard time sleeping before the big fight. He confides in Adrienne that he can’t win; he can’t beat Apollo Creed. He says, however, that if he is still standing at the end, he will know that he is not just another bum from the neighborhood. After watching that movie again with Katie and Collin, I felt the same way about Kona. I couldn’t possibly win the race or my age group or anything. I knew that I would need to satisfy myself simply with finishing. Finishing would be winning. And finish I did.

So, do I feel like I am not just another bum from the neighborhood? Well, yes and no. For the record, I am not familiar with any other person from Harlan, Iowa, who has run or finished Kona. To that extent, I distinguished myself. I did not note in previous posts that I placed 1,309th of 1,883 finishers. That number has troubled me. First, I am not sure that I have ever finished that far back in any race. I am accustomed to finishing at least in the top half of any group and usually better than that. Then again, I have never raced in such a competitive field. Even so, I would have felt that my presence in the Ironman World Championship was validated by a better finish place.  So, I am probably not just another bum from the neighborhood but I am also not someone whose presence at Kona is expected annually based on my first race there.

I have made myself feel a bit more comfortable by noting that I finished just six minutes slower than the average in my age group. Subtract the penalty of four minutes on the bike and I am right in there with the average of my age group while racing in my very last year of eligibility.

I enjoy thinking a little bit about walking into the transition area with Craig Alexander after body marking. He had a terrible day because he finished 12th. I had a great day because I finished 1,309th. I have vowed that I am firmly set on finishing no worse than 1,308th if I ever return to Kona.

Satisfaction. Do I feel satisfied now that I have finally run Kona? Not in the slightest. Having now competed, all I want to do is to qualify again and race Kona at least one more time. If I badly wanted to get there before, I want to get back even that much more badly now. I think that I want to return for several reasons. First, it is just the human condition. We spend little time focusing on what we have and a lot of time thinking about what we want but don’t have. Second, I can think of ways to improve upon my performance. This year, I spent the race just figuring it out. It’s hard to race a really challenging course well the first time. This year’s world champions, Leanda Cave and Pete Jacobs, have both raced triathlon for nearly 20 years each and have competed in Kona multiple times before winning. If I ever race Kona again, I think that I can do better than my first time on the course. Third, I remain troubled by the possibility that my qualification was a fluke, a product of chance not to be repeated again. A finish place of 1,309th hardly shouts that I totally belonged in Kona. It says that I beat more than 500 finishers – and more like 700 if you count the people who started but did not finish. Qualifying again and running better would make me feel like merit trumped chance. Finally, I still think about darkness falling on the marathon course as the sun went behind a cloud and I was looking out over the Pacific Ocean from a gentle slope heading down to the Natural Energy Lab. They don’t allow fans there and the only sounds were the shuffling and light padding sound of footsteps made by very tired people. The air was hot and heavy despite a light wind blowing inland. That was time spent totally by myself despite being surrounded by fellow competitors and course volunteers. I had shrunk into myself, unable to muster the energy to interact with people, to say thank you or to utter more than “ice, please” as I passed the aid stations. No competitors talked to one another; we all shared a thousand yard stare and kept shuffling.

Somewhere in my blindness, in the nearly total darkness between the Natural Energy Lab and Kona on the Queen K highway with no one around, I gave in and walked for a long time, maybe a quarter of a mile or more. I think about that now with a deep sense of regret bordering on shame. I have run races before during which I have dug down and kept running no matter how badly I have been depleted by the sun and heat and wind. On that day, though, I did not really have my best race. Had I run the whole way, no matter how slowly, maybe I would feel better about my effort. As it stands, I would very much like my time between miles 22 and 23 back.

All of this may seem silly and it probably is. I finished and finished with a time near what I expected. That should be satisfactory but as the Buddha said, life is unsatisfactory and finishing out a 140.6 mile day in hot darkness is very real life.

Important. Was Kona important? I have thought about this a lot. I suppose that it depends upon how one defines “important.” It is pretty safe to conclude that the Nobel committee has not dwelled much on my Kona experience. Same holds for the Pulitzer committee and all others who confer prizes to people who achieve legitimately important things. That does not mean, however, that the only important things in life qualify people for prizes judged by panels. In my case, I think that the athletic accomplishment is far less important than the sense of connection I achieved with so many friends and family. To feel so close to so many people who care so much for me was extremely gratifying and something that may motivate my interest in returning to Kona more than anything else. Of course, a second trip will not be of as much interest to others as my first trip – and may not be to me, either. Still, that was a powerful experience and I just wish that everyone could feel like I did during the build up to Kona and for the time after the race. Sure, cancer, heart disease, war and drought still plague mankind but I do believe that the world is an infinitesimally better place for having connected me with friends and family sharing my passion for Kona. So, I suppose that the answer is, yes, Kona was important but its influence was probably not all that widespread. Nelson Mandela and Jonas Salk still have me beat.

On the Couch. Katie had not watched the NBC broadcast of Kona but wanted to see it before returning to school. So, on Saturday night, Margy, Katie and I curled up on the couch in the basement. Gizmo jumped up on our laps and we rolled tape. Once again, we saw all of those places where Margy and I had stood or stayed or eaten or swum or biked or run. The sights and sounds evoked feelings and memories, putting me back on the big island, even if only for a second. Then I would snap out of it and realize that I was back in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Snow was on the ground outside and the wind was blowing cold from the north. I was inside with my feet up sharing the experience one more time with the people who count most.

Dark. I woke up early on Sunday morning to get in a 90 minute run before taking Katie to the airport. I pulled on my running jacket, mittens and hat in the garage before heading out into the darkness. It was quiet except for the wind rattling dry the leaves of an oak tree on the north side of our house. In the street, I pulled my collar up a little higher and scrunched my hat down lower on my forehead to expose as little skin to the wind as I could. Once my running watch had captured a satellite signal, I started off. It was 5:26. When beginning a run, I am almost always cold, figuring that I will warm up once I am out and moving for a while. The stars were out and the sky was clear. The thin crust of the snow that we had received three days earlier on Thanksgiving clung to the ground. It crunched quietly beneath my feet and held shallow footprints tracing my path otherwise shrouded in darkness. I ran west on a railroad bed converted to a running path. Near my turnaround, I veered into a neighborhood that sits atop a hill with a commanding view of the Minnesota River valley. Grain elevator lights twinkled far beneath my promontory and reflected orange and silver blue off the water rippling beneath the breeze. I thought about Kona and how far I had gone for that reward, the hot darkness and exhaustion, the elation at the finish and the quiet of the following evening standing on the Kailua Bay pier watching a lone swimmer quietly swim off into the ocean. Kona had been great, a prize for years of fun, work and struggle. But standing in the chilly darkness looking out over the Minnesota River seemed an ample reward and all that I could truly enjoy in that moment. I felt thankful.

I turned east, toward home, and began to run. I unzipped my collar. I was starting to get hot, even though the sun wouldn’t come up for another hour or so.