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Wednesday, October 10, 2018, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

The volunteer snapped the sparkly red band onto my right wrist.

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“How do you feel,” she asked.

“Overwhelmed,” I said before my eyes filled with tears.

She stood up and reached over the table to give me a hug. Thus began my Ironman World Championship experience.

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Just before my hug.

If a triathlete dreams, Kona always plays a part. An amateur (also known as an “age group triathlete”) dreams of qualifying for Kona. Every triathlete dreams of winning Kona. It’s triathlon’s biggest prize, both to participate and to win. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to race Kona more than I.

In 2011, I placed third in my age group at Ironman Wisconsin, my 13th Ironman, good enough to make my dream come true. I wanted to qualify again to prove that the first time was not just luck. But as my 60th birthday approached, chances of returning appeared slim. I missed qualifying by one slot in 2014 and 2015. I had kind of given up, yet somehow I believed. Then Ironman selected me, at random, as one of 40 athletes to race Kona in celebration of the race’s 40th anniversary in 2018. I didn’t see that one coming. It never occurred to me that this would be the way I would get to relive my dream: all luck.

Thursday, October 11, 2018.

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Does this look like something out of one of your dreams? Me, too.

As a rule, Ironman athletes take themselves pretty seriously. The time and effort to train for an Ironman represent a pretty sober enterprise. Only a certain sort of person thinks that a three-hour bike ride followed by a two-hour run make for much fun. Ironman brings out people who are pretty driven, often in most everything that they do. So it would be no surprise to learn that of the 2,500 or so athletes competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, many worked as doctors, dentists, lawyers, executives – serious people with serious jobs and serious responsibilities. A lot of people counted on the people who raced the Ironman World Championship.

So those people entrusting serious matters to people standing around me on a sweltering parking lot on a Thursday morning might not have thought what was going on was funny. Not at all. A guy in a golf hat, white men’s briefs, running shoes and nothing else had grabbed a microphone to administer an oath. The thousand plus people gathered there had all raised their right hands and repeated after the guy in the golf hat. I won’t bother you with the full text but the gist of the oath was this: we all agreed not to wear our Speedos in public – not to the grocery store or to the gas station or anywhere other than training in a pool or at a race. Naturally, all of those with raised right hands were wore their underwear, running shoes, hats and nothing else. No one missed the irony.

Background: During Ironman’s early years, competitors visiting Kona thought nothing of wearing their Speedos out shopping or to the gas station or to restaurants or just to walk down the street. Locals weren’t all that enthused. So a couple of professional triathletes decided to try something to shame competitors into putting on clothes before going out into public: an Underpants Run. I know. This is kind of weird.

As Paul Huddle, once a professional triathlete, administered the pledge, I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah. Banana hammock. I forgot that one.” I don’t think that Huddle’s sense of humor helped his triathlon career. Not one bit.

The crowd parted as Huddle and a small group of VIP’s pranced through the crowd and led us on a very slow jog along Ali’i Drive, the street where the Ironman World Championship finishes in front of Kailua Bay. Margy had intended to come take a few photos, then get as far from that crowd as possible. She ended up running along, though she was embarrassed to be fully clothed. Life can be funny that way.

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I wasn’t the only person with a suntan line where I usually wore my heart rate monitor strap. 

To qualify for the Ironman World Championship, one needs to place in the top two percent of his or her age group at one of 40 qualifying Ironman races. There are exceptions, like me, who get to race in Kona for other reasons but they are relatively few. Overwhelmingly, those competing in Kona look like physical specimens and they know it. Under ordinary circumstances, they might feel embarrassed to be seen in public in their underwear but on that sweaty Thursday morning, they felt all too happy to have everyone look at them. And not without some justification. What flesh remains on Kona competitors’ bones serves a single purpose: to propel the athlete forward, whether swimming in the ocean, riding a bike, or running. A little self celebration of this austere aesthetic suited these Kona Ironman competitors.

Once we finished the run, the lighthearted fun stopped. Cold. The athletes went back to their hotel rooms and AirBNB’s and began to take themselves seriously again, preparing for Saturday’s race.

A Historical Digression.

Ironman started on Oahu in 1978 as a bar bet. Who was the best athlete? Was it the winner of the 2.4 mile rough water swim near Honolulu or of the 112 mile bike ride that circled Oahu or of the Honolulu Marathon? Then someone had an idea: What about doing all three of those events, one after another and all in the same day? Ironman was born. The first three Ironman races occurred on Oahu. In 1981, the race moved to the Big Island of Hawaii with start and finish in downtown Kailua-Kona. (Kailua is the town and Kona is the district. Most people refer to the race and location simply as “Kona.”) The race wouldn’t bother so many people in Kona as it did in Honolulu and besides, the organizers needed to make the race harder. The barren lava fields north of Kona perfectly suited inflicting punishment. Seriously.

Friday, October 12, 2018.

My mom, sisters Ann and Lynn, brother-in-law Rick Long, Katie, Margy and I gathered for dinner the night before the race. We sat outside enjoying the cool ocean breeze at an Italian restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sun began to set, a dark orange disk slicing into the horizon. Katie took 48 hours away from studying for her MBA at Northwestern to come see me race and arrived only a couple of hours before dinner, so this was our first chance sit and talk with her. The subject of private equity arose so my 84-year old mother asked Katie what private equity was. Katie said that Rick, as a finance professor, might better answer but she offered that there were many different types of private equity, then explained some of the common features. In that odd moment, I felt overwhelmed again. How could I be so lucky to have such a smart kid and a mom, both of whom were willing to travel half way across the continent and then half way across the Pacific Ocean to see me race? I sat with my very favorite people, wishing that the feeling of being together could never end. My eyes welled up but I don’t think anyone noticed.

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Ohana: Meeting of Team Rossman called to order.

Saturday, October 13, 2018. Ironman World Championship.

At 3:13, I woke up for good. I had slept solidly from about 9:00 to 1:15, fitfullly thereafter. At 4:45, I went down to “body marking” where a volunteer applied a cold, wet decal to my arm, marking me as “316.” I shivered in the damp morning air, nervous, scared, excited, focused.

Margy staked out a place under the banyan tree near the swim start for my sisters and Katie to join her. My mom and Rick reserved a spot near “Hot Corner” just up the hill, a place racers passed several times during the day. Katie kept me company on our hotel room balcony. She turned on her portable speaker and let me pick the songs to play softly as the sky turned silver near the horizon, pushing the midnight blue up,  overhead, then toward the western horizon. We watched people mill around anxiously – friends, family, volunteers, athletes.

I told Katie my mantra for the race: “Steady, strong, 60 and smiling.” She said that seemed like a pretty good mantra. Then she reminded me that I had suggested her mantra for the marathon near Portland that landed her in the hospital for 36 hours: “Trust yourself.” Sometimes Katie and I think that things are funny even when they aren’t.

It was time to go.

We walked down to a gate. I gave Katie a hug, then wandered into the transition area where athletes enter and exit the ocean, transition to bikes, and transition to the run. I decided to walk around to try to stop shaking before the swim. I looked up and saw a familiar face. I smiled. He stuck out his hand.

“Good luck out there today,” he said. It was Mark Allen, a six-time winner of the race. That felt like a good omen.

I watched starts for the pro men’s wave, then the pro women, as I stood near my family. My wave would come next. Mike Reilly’s voice boomed over the PA system and the music played. My family couldn’t hear me so I crossed my arms over my chest, sign language for “I love you,” put on my cap and swim goggles and walked toward the somber group of athletes walking slowly toward a set of carpeted stairs down into the ocean just off Kailua Bay Pier. Very fit lemmings.

“Hey, Scott!”

I turned around. It was Paul Phillips, a professional photographer from the Twin Cities. I waved and Paul took a few photos. I acted happy and relaxed.

I swam 100 meters or so to line up with almost 1,800 other age group men bobbing as waves rolled toward shore. I chose to wait for the start in the back of the field. At age 60, I counted as one of the older athletes and thought it would be a whole lot more fun to avoid having 1,600 or so guys swim over my back.

None of the guys around me sought a podium finish. One reached over and shook my hand. Another commented on just how incredible it felt to be part of this scene. A helicopter roared overhead. We heard music playing on shore. The sun shone brightly in a crystal clear sky. The water felt cool. Another guy asked how I felt.

“I feel just so incredibly lucky. Incredibly.”

“We’re all so lucky,” he said. “Really lucky.”

A cannon fired. I put my head down, taking care not to get kicked in the face. I swam ten meters, then ran into the swimmer in front of me. Everyone stopped in a huge pile up, scuttling around randomly like so many beetles on their backs. Guys had jammed up against the surfboarders holding the start line. In just a few seconds, we untangled and off we went.

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That’s me in the pile up in the upper lefthand corner, the one with the blue swim cap.

Swimming in the ocean felt quiet and rhythmic. With each stroke, I felt my body roll gently from side to side, heard the splash of each hand entering and exiting the water. Salt water swirled around my ankles and streamed across the tops of my feet. Excepting the soft sounds of my hands entering and exiting the water, I swam in cool silence, focusing on my breath, in and out, in and out.

As I neared the pier, I felt sorry to end my swim. I didn’t know if I would return to Kona to race and that felt sad.

At the stairs I had descended almost an hour and a half before, I rose to my feet just as a wave rolled onto shore. The wave swept me forward and I sprawled on the carpeted stairs, clambering on my hands and knees.

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Mercifully, the photographer waited until I stood up to take this photo.

I quickly found my feet and not all that quickly transitioned from swim to bike, taking too much time to carefully place my socks, shoes, shorts, chest strap, cycling/run jersey, suntan lotion, helmet and sunglasses. It would be a long day in the sun; better get it right. Small spots exposed to the hot Hawaiian sun without protection turn Maine lobster red.

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At the top of Palani Hill, about ten miles into the bike course. My forehead still has the striped sunburn to match the vents in my helmet.

The bike ride started with about a ten mile loop in Kona, then ascended Palani Hill onto the Queen K Highway, then proceeded north past the airport and on toward Hawi. If you grew up on the moon, the Queen K would feel familiar. To the rest of us, not so much. To be fair, the terrain varies. Some of it is sheer lava rock with almost no vegetation whatsoever. Some of it is lava rock with small tufts of grass here and there. As you might imagine, placing a lava rock field under the tropical sun in a humid climate, then topping it with a black asphalt road created an outdoor convection oven for an afternoon bike excursion. It felt like riding my bike inside a parked car on a hot day.

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Note the gap between my left sleeve and watch. Yeah, that got really sunburned.

Margy and Katie greeted me at the 32 mile mark, a wonderful lift.

In the industrial port of Kawaihae, the road turned right to begin an 18 mile or so climb into Hawi, a tiny town 800 feet above the Pacific. On the way, the weather cooled as we rose through several climatic zones. The breeze felt cool. Leafy trees and bushes swayed and rustled under whispy clouds that partially obscured the sun. As I climbed toward Hawi, I saw the many, many far faster athletes who had already made the turnaround and sped the opposite direction, toward Kona. I pedaled in a slower part of the pack but felt no regret. I could think of no place I would rather have been. I didn’t want the ride to end and looked forward to my brief visit to Hawi.

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Nearing Hawi.

Once I turned around, the wind blew gently at my back, the road descended, my speed climbed. The bike demanded attention; things could go wrong quickly at nearly 30 mph. Gradually, the cool gave way to heat at the bottom of the hill. A long climb rose in front of me. The gentle tailwind blew at the same speed I rode, making me feel as though the air had gone completely still. Sweat formed drops that fell from the brim of my helmet. Drip, drip, drip in staccato rhythm, splashing in small, silvery flashes against the top tube of my bike.

At the crest of the hill – about mile 80 – my family surprised me again. Katie had set up her portable speaker to play “Careful” by Guster, a favorite. My family cheered. I rode by a cop controlling the intersection.

“That’s my family,” I said.

“Never would have guessed,” he replied.

Back in Kona, I transitioned to the run after receiving another family welcome. My legs felt tremendously stiff after the 112 mile ride. I wasn’t sure that I could run. Slowly, ever so slowly, I started to trot, then, finally, to run.

The course followed a local highway that offered a bit of shade, a tremendous relief in the 90 degree heat. We turned west and then onto a narrow road, Ali’i Drive, that offered occasional ocean views and cool breezes off the Pacific. My family saw me at a turnaround on that road, another wonderful surprise for me but sobering for them. They saw a woman collapse there and need help. Fortunately, I missed seeing that.

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On Ali’i Drive.

Leaving town, the course climbed the very steep portion of Palani Hill. The late afternoon sun beat on my back. I decided to walk so as not to spike my heart rate. Katie leapfrogged me, running up the hill, occasionally stopping to cheer.

Back on the Queen K, only 17 more miles to go. Katie continued to leapfrog, stopping every quarter mile or so to encourage me until we reached mile 12, at which point she returned to town.

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Nearing the Natural Energy Lab.

 

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Clouds gathered along the mountain.

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Late in the day. Several runners visited this water stop before I arrived.

At mile 15 or so, the course descended into the Natural Energy Lab, a 1970’s federal project to explore alternative energy sources. The landscape formed a gentle bowl that killed the breeze and focused the deep orange glow of the sun sinking toward the horizon. Two aid stations featured some extremely enthusiastic and supportive volunteers but I had become kind of numb. Two miles into the Natural Energy Lab, I had descended to sea level again, sacrificing the elevation gained in a steady climb starting just outside Kona. I began to think that whether I ran or walked didn’t matter. None of this mattered much at all. The sports drink concentrate I kept in flasks on a belt to maintain my nutrition had begun to burn my throat. I switched to the Coke offered at aid stations. I wondered if I would ever get to sleep after I finished but the Coke seemed to help. I ran some, walked some.

I turned back up the hill toward the Queen K just as the sun touched the horizon. It must have been raining out over the mountain. An angry gray cloud clung to the high terrain. A rainbow slashed a wide stripe in front of the cloud. By the time I had run up to the Queen K, night had fallen. Sparsely scattered street lights and stop lights dotted the seven miles back to Kona. None of the runners around me spoke. In the darkness, I struggled to make out runners and upcoming aid stations. When I could see runners in front of me, I couldn’t tell if they were running toward me or if we were both heading the same direction. Nobody ran fast but it would have hurt to collide. The illuminated mile marker signs that the run course shoe sponsor had erected had mostly gone dark. I worried about tripping over a crack in the road or on one of those lane line reflectors glued to the pavement.

It seems like a prosaic goal for a world championship but I wanted to finish in time to see Katie off on her flight back to Chicago. I really didn’t know what time it was, but I felt like I had a shot. I accelerated.

At 24 miles, the road ascended the shallower but longer climb up Palani Hill on the Queen K. I just didn’t have the energy to run the whole thing so I walked a little, ran a little. At the top, tents where young people had gathered during the afternoon to drink beer, play loud music and cheer looked all but deserted in the darkness. Loud music remained but the few people cheering looked and sounded weary.

I rounded a corner to head down the steep portion of the hill that headed directly toward the finish line. I worried that as I picked up speed, one of my legs might buckle. At the bottom of the hill, the course turned left in pitch darkness. I got confused. I ran into the wrong lane. I heard Katie yell.

“Dad, no! Dad, get into the other lane!”

I couldn’t see. I felt so tired. No volunteer steered me through the blackness but I managed to correct course, knowing that I had only a mile or so to go. I could hear the music and the announcer at the finish line and see a white glow above buildings lining Ali’i Drive.

The course turned away from the finish. The joyful sounds coming from the finish area faded. The street fell quiet and completely dark, calm. A crescent moon hung in the western sky, illuminating thin clouds. It felt cool, windless.

Turning onto Ali’i Drive, I knew that the finish waited between a quarter and half mile away. It felt like I quickened my pace, though I probably went from a torpid slog to a slog. Sounds from the finish area became clearer. I began to hear names as each runner crossed the finish. But the road curved along the shore so I couldn’t see anything more than the glow rising over the darkened tee shirt shops and tattoo parlors lining the ocean side of the street. I felt conflicted. I felt so deeply tired, I just wanted to finish. At the same time, I wanted to slow down to make the moment last. A few people’s voices emerged from the dark to urge me on.

“You’re almost there.”

“You’ve got this one.”

“You’re amazing.”

I rounded the bend by the church and, suddenly, the lights of the finish area shone over the still waters of the bay. I ran without thinking, without feeling. I wanted to feel overjoyed. I wanted to feel grateful. But I only felt tired and relieved.

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At the finish line, a ramp elevated each finisher so that everyone could see him or her cross. As I climbed the ramp, I took off my hat to acknowledge the crowd. To my right, I heard crazy, wild cheering. Two volunteers grabbed me, taking me toward the post-finish area. Over my right shoulder, I saw Mom, Margy, Ann, Lynn and Rick. And though I didn’t see her, I heard a pure, sweet voice call, “Dad!”

Faith, Belief, Dreams.

To me, faith is about believing in something even after having kind of given up. The answer to prayers isn’t always yes. For a lot of people, the answer to their prayers is rarely yes. If belief implied receiving whatever you prayed to get, it wouldn’t really be belief; it would be knowledge. You would know what you could obtain and have the power to get it. Belief is more fickle, cloudier. I had given up on the prospect of returning to Kona. I never dreamed that I would return based only on luck. But when that chance came, it felt like grace, something not earned, not to be counted on, something inscrutable, yet something deeply connected to belief.

So I went to Hawaii to turn 60, finish an Ironman and run around on the street in my underpants. Dreams really do come true.

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Sunset on our last day in Hawaii.

Postscript: I met my goal. I finished with enough time to see Katie before she headed to the airport. We even had time for a meal, though we had to eat pretty fast.

I had another goal: I didn’t want to finish last in my age group. I wanted to prove I belonged there. I finished 44th of 72 men in my age group.

Special thanks to the most senior and junior members of Team Rossman.

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Who dreamed that we would celebrate my 60th birthday together – and in that way?

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My prized dinner buddy. Note the hat that Margy and Katie designed marking my 60th birthday and 20th Ironman.

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My dinner companion for the last 32 birthdays.

 

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The three Ross sisters.

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And to the trip’s other birthday boy, broken wrist and all. Thanks for making it work, Rick.

Without Team Rossman, there is no Rossman.

4 Comments

  1. Nicely done, Scott. I always enjoy these stories!

    Thanks for your referral today, too.

    Regards, Brett

    Sent with Good (www.good.com) ________________________________

  2. Congratulations, Scott!

    Done very well, your text is pure motivation to me.

    Volker

    • Ellen T. van Iwaarden
    • Posted October 19, 2018 at 10:49 am
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Scott,
    Congratulations! What a wonderful story! Hello to Team Ross, too!
    xxxooo
    Ellen

  3. Congratulations on doing so well in this difficult race, on realizing your dream, and reaching the age of 60 in such great shape! So glad your family could be there with you as well. Thanks for sharing! This is awesome. Great pics too. Take care.


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