I’m having a hard time deciding which is odder: the feeling of getting 100 miles into a ride on your bike and realizing that you have just about 40 minutes to mentally prepare yourself to run a marathon ... or the feeling of intentionally peeing in your shorts.
At any rate, these are the types of moments you’ll never get to experience if you never do an Ironman, which – if you’re like my wife – may well cause you to shrug and say, “Yeeaah, I think I’m OK with that.”
I’ve done two Ironmans now. The first was last year in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Then on Sunday morning (and Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening), I participated in Ironman Louisville, a race that combines 2.4 miles of swimming in an Ohio River that was deemed toxic just one week before the race; 112 miles of biking up and down roughly 112 hills; and 26.2 miles of running back and forth between Churchill Downs and the city’s 4th Street Live! entertainment district.
It’s a massive physical undertaking that required me to train for about as long as it took James Cameron to shoot “Titanic.” And the race itself? In the amount of time I needed to complete it, you could have watched “Titanic” 3 1/2 times in a row.
And frankly, doing an Ironman is actually quite a lot like “Titanic”: It is both stupendously awesome and mind-bogglingly stupid at the same exact time.
But I prefer to focus on the stupendously awesome parts of this mind-bogglingly stupid race.
My coach and a few select friends will at some point soon get a private message from me with details about my performance – what my plan was for each leg, what the execution looked like, what worked, what didn’t, what I felt like at about two dozen different points of the race.
In other words: the boring stuff.
The most compelling moments of the day, I think, were the ones I observed as opposed to experienced. Here are five of them.
1. The joy of (hard-fought) victory. Triathlon friends will understand the significance and exclusive nature of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii; I’ll try to put it into perspective for everyone else. OK, for runners: Imagine if the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon was 15 minutes faster than the current standards. For everyone else: It’s about as rare as a kid getting into Harvard University on a full scholarship, and winding up with a roommate that is both clean and socially unawkward. A friend from Davidson finished third in her age group on Sunday, and – almost a quarter-century after first entertaining thoughts of earning her way into one of the world’s toughest endurance races – finally punched her ticket. Triathlons typically don’t make me cry, but the tough-guy exterior almost slipped off when I caught her weeping tears of joy upon hearing the happy news.
2. The agony of (another) defeat. After collecting my belongings post-race, I booted up my iPhone and started going through race results to see how friends had made out. One of the first names that came up belonged to a stud athlete I had hoped to see multiple times on the out-and-back run course but never spotted. Turns out, he’d run into crippling back pain around 90 miles into bike course, and was forced to withdraw. In four attempts at the Ironman distance, this was his third DNF – an acronym that is by far the least desirable result in any endurance race, as it stands for “Did Not Finish.” By almost any measure, this guy is one of the best triathletes in Charlotte. I’m not sure whether anyone doubts his resolve, but if they do, I’m here to say this: NO ONE spends the amount of money that we do on these races (and on the equipment and the travel, not to mention the sweat equity involved) and then gives up simply because they’re a quitter. As we sipped on beers after the race, I couldn’t see the pain in his back, but I could see the pain in his face.
3. Defining mental strength. While that one was checking out of the race physically, another Charlotte athlete I know was checking out of it mentally. By his own admission, he got about three-quarters of the way into the bike ride and suddenly decided, “I don’t really want to do this anymore.” I saw him a few times on the run course, and every time, he was walking. When I later heard his explanation, I have to tell you, I was skeptical. It sounded to me like something someone would use as an excuse for poor performance: “I just didn’t really want to do it anymore” being code for “I was simply out of gas.” But I ditched my attitude after again reminding myself that NO ONE spends the amount of time and money we do and quits unless they have a damn good reason. He lacked a damn good reason for quitting so he stuck it out. THAT takes incredible amounts of mental strength. THAT, on some level, is still hero stuff.
4. Leggo my ego. Last year, some may recall, I finished Ironman Chattanooga alongside the college buddy I started it with. He beat me on the swim and bike in Tennessee, then I finally ran him down at Mile 24 of the run and gave up a couple minutes to hang back and cross the line with him. This year, I figured I might be able to run him down again. I didn’t. He crushed the swim, destroyed the bike and ran well enough that I just couldn’t catch up. Look, in a sport like this, it’s as easy to develop a feeling of superiority as it is to develop an inferiority complex. I used to get wrapped up in these thoughts: “My training was better than so and so’s, how did they beat me?” “My run time was faster than so and so, this proves I have a better coach.” But what I’ve learned over the course of more than 100 races is that you bring what you can, and so long as you bring your best, there’s no point in worrying about what others brought. Upon reuniting with him in the finish chute afterward, it wasn’t disappointment or frustration I was feeling; it was awe, and it came to me naturally. I’m chalking it up to personal growth.
5. Remember, it’s also supposed to be kinda fun. Whether it’s bursting into fits of laughter while creating human-made puddles at the foot of our wetsuits pre-race or being almost bowled over by cheers from friends and supporters who look more excited to see you than if they’d just won the Powerball, I can attest that the Ironman experience delivers epic highs to offset the dark moments in the race.
The real party, though, is at the finish line. In Louisville, finishers are welcomed home with a setup that feels like a cross between Mardi Gras and the Oscars’ red carpet, and for several hours, it’s one of the happiest places on earth.
Stand on the sidelines at the right moment and you might even see someone turning a cartwheel as she finishes fourth overall and qualifies for her second Kona (that would be a good friend of mine, who you’ll spot in the Ironman Louisville highlight video once it is made public).
Or stand out there a few minutes before midnight and ... well, just, wow.
How it works: Ironmans typically start at sunrise and give you until midnight – usually about 17 hours – to finish. If you don’t make it under 17 hours, sorry, but you’re not an Ironman. And so there’s a ton of drama to behold between 11:50 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. Here come people who’ve been slugging it out from before the time the average American woke up until long after they went to bed, burning calories by the thousands, doing everything they can to reach the end before the lights turn off and the music stops.
For those 10 minutes, the crowds are about 140.6 times louder than they were for even the winner of the race, fueled by alcohol but also charged up by the raw emotion on the faces of the slowest but often most determined finishers. From where I sit, this is what Ironman is all about: Determination. Achieving something that was thought to perhaps be impossible. Guts. Guts. And more guts.
The night before the race, I used a Sharpie to write a movie quote on my arm, but I could only fit a couple sentences of it. I leave you with the full unedited version, courtesy of the incomparable Rocky Balboa:
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”