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November 2012

My family left for Des Moines. It was quiet again, our house back to normal. They had come to celebrate my return from Kona and to watch the NBC broadcast of the race. They brought leis and a Bird of Paradise. They played surf music. We had watched the broadcast and saw my pre-race walk into transition with Craig Alexander, the then defending champion. My family cheered. Now they were gone and the weather was cold. It felt like November in Minnesota, windy and crisp.

Even so, I lingered in Kona, my mind replayed all of the details. I remembered slipping into the ocean, scared to death. I could still hear Mike Reilly yell at us to “go” and then thrashing my way into the Pacific. I thought of the blazing hot Queen K highway soaking up the sun and moisture of the thick ocean air. I felt like I could still hear the wind whipping the palm trees on the way up to Hawi. I remembered breaking down into a walk in the humid darkness on the run course, then rallying to run again for a couple of miles before descending Palani Road to emerge onto Ali’i Drive, the music, the lights. Then it was over.

It had been such an extraordinary year. In September 2011 I had achieved a decade-long dream of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. I felt like I was on the top of the world and I wasn’t coming down. With that mindset, I established goals for the coming year. I wrote them down. In the time since recording those goals, I had thus far achieved every one. My trip to Kona had become part of my identity and I aimed to solidify that identity.

As is always the case, though, my life did not entirely follow the plan I had established. In March, my friend Warren Thornthwaite was diagnosed with a brain tumor – glioblastoma. While at Wildflower in May on our traditional triathlon season opening spring trip, Warren was not yet well enough following his craniotomy to compete but he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to go for a walk on a part of the course. Warren got very sick while I was out on the course. Here I was happily achieving an athletic goal while Warren laid in an ambulance lumbering toward Templeton, California, almost an hour away. Later that spring, my friend from the Twin Cities Marathon board, Amy Ronneberg, began treatment for breast cancer. Another fierce struggle. My employer continued to lose money. Meanwhile, I ticked off athletic goals.

Against that backdrop, I clung to my goal for Ironman Wisconsin, the cornerstone race of my season, even though I knew the old joke: What makes God laugh? Plans.

Friday, September 6, 2013

We arrived in Madison on an unusually hot day. We got the last available parking spot in our hotel’s ramp. It was very narrow and I needed to pull in and out three times to properly center the car. Margy and I both held our breath to exit the car. I sighed.

I went straight to registration and stood in a long line. It took an hour and a half.

Margy and I visited the expo with all of the official Ironman gear for sale. We had bought in Kona like drunken sailors so I stuck to the sale racks in Madison and found a blue technical tee shirt with “IRONMAN” splashed across the chest. It looked pretty good. It was 30% off. Then I looked at the retail price: $51. I decided that this was an expensive way for Ironman to advertise. Expensive for me, that is.

Walking along State Street after dinner, it was warm and very humid even after the sun had been down for a while. It was a Madison Friday night, so the college kids and vagrants were out in full force. The college kids looked younger than ever. I wondered about their plans and what plans had gone wrong, if only by a little, for the men sleeping on park benches.

At dinner, I commented to Margy that if I were smart, I would have qualified for Kona, raced Kona and quit. Margy nodded her head in agreement. After Kona, Madison didn’t thrill as it once had.

Saturday, September 7th

I woke up very early. As soon as it was light enough to ride, I got on and pedaled my bike into the empty, dark streets. I didn’t yet feel acutely nervous but I also didn’t feel especially excited, either. At this point in my preparation for the race, all of my training had been done. I wasn’t going to get into better shape for my race Sunday from my Saturday ride.

My bike was set up to race with carbon fiber aero wheels and skinny tubular tires. With my first pedal strokes, the bike came alive. Switching from everyday training to racing wheels was almost like going from swimming with a suit to skinny dipping. Riding felt fast and sleek. Everything clicked. I felt connected again.

I rode most of the run course. Atop Bascom Hill, I looked out over Lake Mendota stretching into the steel gray distance tinged with just a bit of orange from the sun rising in east. Farther on, I rode around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Temple. Years of restoration were complete and the building stood solemn and still in the orange lights bathing it from the lawn beneath. The sun hadn’t yet risen.

These sights were Madison touchstones – points of contact that were at once beautiful, familiar and comforting. Ironman Wisconsin had come to mark the passage of time – summer to fall, year to year. Ironman Wisconsin was shorthand for connections to family, friends, places, happiness, disappointment, struggle, triumph, exhaustion, elation. The race had become familiar, ritual and meaningful in ways that I could not articulate. It just felt right to be there when I was there and to be doing what I was doing.

Regardless of this conviction that I was where I ought to be, another Ironman tradition gripped me. I was growing more and more anxious about the race. Call it performance anxiety. With each Ironman, I suffer with an almost unbearable nervousness. I recalled a conversation with a friend of mine, Pam Phillips, an accomplished masters swimmer. She talked about how she felt before races: nervous and regretful. She and I agreed that we often questioned why we race and subject ourselves to the anxious anticipation followed by physical suffering and, often, disappointment in our results. Our conversation had followed her placing third in a race that she had won the previous year. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” she asked.

“I guess that we just didn’t get the memo. Golf is fun. Endurance sports aren’t,” I offered.

She laughed a little, then sighed. She’s a swimmer. It’s not what she does; it’s who she is.

For reasons later opaque to me, at 10:00 a.m on the day before Ironman Wisconsin 2013, I took advantage of the early sign up option offered to 2013 athletes to enter Ironman Wisconsin in 2014. Here I was almost unbearably nervous about the race the following day and I was entering the race the following year. Smart. Just like Pam is a swimmer, I thought, I am a runner and triathlete.

In just a few minutes, my wallet was that much lighter. Ironman never lets your credit card rest. And you thought that Ironman only tested physical and mental endurance. Fiscal fitness is required. Modest IQ is a plus. Good judgment is not allowed.

Nervousness built through the day. By the time my family arrived, I felt like a zombie. We had dinner together, which was wonderful, but I ended up feeling very much as though I had retreated into myself, not really fully able to engage. I felt like I missed a chance to fully be part of my family but knew that they understood.

Sunday, September 8th

I slept from about 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m., then was up for good. At 4:30, I got out of bed and began the preparation routine. After 14 previous Ironmans, I knew the drill. I carried my bags downstairs and emerged into the cool, quiet darkness. People were already out attending to their pre-race chores but everyone spoke in hushed tones. It was a superficial calm with the quiet barely masking the churning emotions that all of the competitors felt. We walked to volunteers who marked our upper arms with our race numbers and our calves with our ages. When asked my age, I said “55.”

I went back to the hotel room to apply sunscreen and change into my wetsuit. By this point, the nervousness was all but unbearable. Margy and I spent a few minutes very quietly, then walked down to the lakeshore through a crowd of people jamming the convention center stairwell that provided access to the start area. We met my family. We took a few photos (for which I am sure I looked like a war criminal) and Margy walked with me until the crowd became so thick that we needed to part. A quick hug and I was off.

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In the picture above, I am standing with my sister, Ann Long, Margy, and my niece, Sarah Long. In the middle row are Annette Krause, a family friend, Lynn Cope, my sister, and my mom, Nancy. In the top row are my brother-in-law, Rick Long, and my nephew, Adam Long. Rick Krause, our family friend, took the photo.

2,500 people in wetsuits, all of whom looked like extras in some bad sci fi film, jammed through an eight foot opening to walk a few steps into the water. I cleared my goggles, placed them securely in my eye sockets and began to swim out to the starting line. The nervousness began to subside as I took long, deliberate strokes. The green-gray water glided smoothly by my goggles and over my wetsuit. I felt like I had entered my element. I was someplace that I belonged. (I was with a bunch of people who looked like extras in a bad sci fi film, for those of you with poor reading retention.) I swam on, dodging swimmers warming up. I stopped short of the start line and bobbed in the water about 50 yards from shore. I listened to the national anthem and to the announcer give us the one minute warning.

It was cloudy and windy, the waves pushing us slightly forward. There was no particular sunrise, just a gradual lightening in the sky above. The cannon sounded and I responded reflexively.

From this point, my memories are fragmentary. I remember the swim having been hard as we headed directly into a stiff east-northeast wind and the resulting chop. I remember running up the parking lot helix to the transition area from swim to bike.

As we biked from Madison to Verona, the wind was at our backs, I felt like things were going well. But over the course of the 16 miles, at least four guys in my age group passed me like they were on motorcycles. It was pretty clear that these guys were going to put at least 20 minutes into me on the bike, maybe even 40. These weren’t beefy bike grinders I knew I could catch on the run. These guys were sleek and powerful. My dreams of qualifying for Kona again on that day were over. Even so, I tried hard and kept after it – though “it” was heading down the road farther and farther ahead of me.

That guy from the neighborhood who always rides his bike in those spandex shorts.

That guy from the neighborhood who always rides his bike in those spandex shorts.

When I rode up the big hills, I found myself regretting having registered for the race the following year. On the way down the hills, I thought that Ironman Wisconsin 2014 wasn’t such a bad idea. But it takes longer to ride up a hill than it takes to ride down so I spent the majority of my time regretting.

It felt good to start the run. A cop on a corner near Camp Randall Stadium announced NFL scores all afternoon. I asked him about the Bears and he dutifully informed me, including the score, quarter and time left. At the 50 yard-line in Camp Randall, I yelled, “Go Hawkeyes!” It’s a tradition dating back to my first Ironman. Once an Iowan…

Sometime on the second lap, I tired. My uphill regrets about next year kicked in on even the slightest grade. Stepping up the height of a curb made me mutter “stupid” to myself. Soon, downhills, what few there were, hurt my quads enough that I don’t recall even once thinking that another Ironman was a good idea. One of my goals for the race, though, was to keep running no matter what. In Hawaii, I had broken down into a walk and my time soared. Better to run, even if it was to run slowly. I knew that if I did that, I would have the satisfaction of knowing that I had done all I could; I would have done my best.

Bad judgment runs in my family.

Bad judgment runs in my family.

My family saw me 42 different times during the day. (Margy is the universally-acknowledged master of all Ironman Wisconsin navigators and logisticians.) Sometimes they posed so that I could see them. This was no concern because they were loud enough to make the Madison airport want to move. No other competitor got the support that I received. My family kept me going, though toward the end of the day, I refused to answer when asked how I was doing. I didn’t really want to say.

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As I climbed Capitol Hill for the last time during the run, I decided not to criticize myself and just took it all in. Rounding the corner into the finish chute, I saw most of the runners in front of me peel off and go back around for a second lap. A few continued straight. In the distance, I could see that I would achieve the third of my possible time goals for the day. 11:00 would have been a “best possible.” 11:15 would have been consistent with “where I ought to be.” 11:30 was “mom still loves me.”

As I crossed the finish line, I joined my thumbs and pointed my fingers upward to form a “W” over my chest. The only member of my family who saw the gesture was Katie watching from college in Maine on a small, grainy computer screen. She saw the letter that I formed and cried.

The catchers steadied and delivered me to my family at the end of the finish area. Mom confirmed the result: She did still love me. (One wonders, however, if I had finished just 15 seconds slower…)

Finish Line

In the end, I was 11th in my age group, well back of the top two finish that I needed to return to Kona. It had been a great two years. Upon crossing the same finish line on September 11, 2011, I began to identify myself differently. I had tried for so long to qualify for Kona that once I had done it, I felt different. I felt like I was part of a club. I spent a happy year anticipating the cool ocean swim under a barely rising sun, a brutally hot and windy bike ride on a lava field bearing more resemblance to another planet than to the green Midwest fields lining my training rides, and an even hotter, more barren landscape on which to run amongst the best triathletes in the world. In retrospect, the experience was everything I had hoped, though it was less transformative than I had anticipated. With only one Kona under my belt, I did not feel like a charter member of the club. I was more of a tourist with skinny white legs.

I basked in my Kona afterglow for the ensuing year but wanted to validate my membership in the club by qualifying again at Wisconsin. Logic told me, though, that gaining a top two spot to re-qualify would be mathematically and practically very difficult. The geezers in 55-59 had all enjoyed success before in endurance athletics. Few had recently jumped off the couch just to give it a try. To punch my Kona ticket again, I needed to beat practically all of them. But I didn’t.

So, here I was crossing an Ironman finish line for the 15th time. My family was with me all the way, including Katie halfway across the country. From that finish line, though, I would need to do without my past identity as a current Kona qualifier.

It’s hard to know the things that we use to identify ourselves. I think a lot about a New Yorker article that I read in 2009 about the effect of solitary confinement. The article said that solitary confinement was so cruel because it destroys our identity. We are all who we are only in relation to others. Our identity arises from our relationships with other people. Some elements of identity may be ephemeral. Others stay with us and shape us forever. Which are the strongest and most enduring bonds? How does each person important to us affect us and help us identify ourselves? It’s hard to know. We emulate some people, but contrast ourselves to others. We draw some near and lose touch with others. Yet some people can be both very far away and very near. They are part of who we are forever. It seems like at an Ironman finish line, I feel closest to the people who are most of who I am. It’s the memory of Katie’s small hand in mine as we ran across so many Ironman finish lines together when she was just a kid. It’s my family meeting me at the end of the finish area. It’s Warren bringing the pizza and Gatorade back to the hotel room after my first Ironman.

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Monday, September 9th

On Monday morning, Margy and I went to Marigold for breakfast. Here is the Marigold formula: cramped floor space, loud atmosphere, Darwinian self-seating selection, great food, and long lines. We were part way out the door in line when a fellow finisher began to visit with me. He was from Indiana.

“How was your race, yesterday?” he asked.

“OK. Not great but not terrible.”

Margy corrected me and said, “You had a good race.”

I asked the Indianan about his race.

“It was great!” he offered volubly. “I raced really, really well. I set a PR. I just had a fabulous race!”

Given my response to his question, he seemed just a little tone deaf in his response to mine. Besides, it was a little early in the morning for hyperbolic self-assessment.

I asked him if he had done this race before. He said that this was his first Ironman Wisconsin. I then asked if he had been to Marigold before. He said that he had and began to explain the menu to me. I stopped him short despite the fact that he clearly considered himself an expert Marigold diner.

“We’ve been here several times,” I said, thinking to myself that I must have eaten there at least two dozen times.

I looked at Margy. She doesn’t suffer loud, self-proclaimed experts very well. Not well at all, in fact.

“So, how many Ironmans have you done?” our new friend asked me.

“15.”

He looked impressed.

“How many here?”

“I’ve done all of these except last year. I skipped 2012,” I said.

“Ever done Kona?”

“Yeah, that’s why I skipped last year.”

“Did you get in through the Legacy Lottery?” he asked.

I hope that I didn’t look mad – at least not as mad as I really was. The Indiana expert looked surprised, as if he could only imagine someone like me getting into Kona by chance, not ability.

“No, I qualified here in 2011.”

The man raised his hand to slap a high five, something I’m not big on ever but especially not in the early a.m. We exchanged the high five that I now found obligatory.

“That’s awesome!” he enthused.

It was short of what I had hoped to achieve at Madison but maybe I was a member of the club after all.

Epilogue

I hadn’t known at the time I finished the race but my friend Warren needed surgery the next day to stop infection that had gotten into the area around the incision for his most recent craniotomy. I thought about Warren a lot on the course even without knowing about the upcoming operation. I remembered the crazy, sad, tragic, funny, confusing, happy way that my season started at Wildflower in May. Since then, I have thought about Warren every day. If you have a minute, send a good thought his way. Do something fun and think of him. It’s a great day.

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3 Comments

  1. After I cleared my tear filled eyes, I want to just say “thank you” for sharing and being you. I value your friendship.

    Victoria Leddy │ Accounting Manager│ 952.564.3523│

  2. Thanks. Enjoyed the story, humor and pictures.

  3. Please see below

    Victoria Leddy Accounting Manager 952.564.3523


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