“I put on my swimskin suit, collected my bike and run gear bags, was picked up by transport, and walked into the start area.”
It’s now two days post Ironman. I’m in Kona, Hawaii, sitting in a beach restaurant at about mile one of the swim. I watched the sunset. I watched the couples enjoying dinner on the sand. I drank two exotic drinks. I hurt everywhere and can only walk a little. I need to share this experience.
In 1978, I completed a marathon, thinking that was the human limit. Then I read in Sports Illustrated about some Navy Seals who argued among themselves about the greatest endurance challenge: biking, swimming, or running. After too many drinks, they designed a 140.6-mile race that encompassed all three. At the time, I didn’t really believe their Ironman was humanly possible. Two years later a 65-year-old man finished the race and the thought entered my head: Could I at 65? Would I?
At age 65, I lined up at the start of the Coeur d’Alene Triathlon to find out. I was too slow in the swim and didn’t survive the 2:20 cutoff. I was disqualified, and I went home embarrassed.
The next year, after swim lessons and 20 hours a week training, I went to St. George, Utah, to try again. I just hoped to make the cutoff times and be a finisher, and it turned out that I finished second in my age group. So, the next year I went to Phoenix, Arizona, hoping to win my age division—and earn the right to race in Kona. Well, in spite of getting really sick just a day before, I won. I thought I had qualified to get to Kona, but I didn’t arrive the next morning in time to accept my slot, so I was disqualified.
The next year, I entered Louisville, then Los Cabos, and Cozumel. Finally, my second race at Los Cabos, I qualified again. There are 30 Ironman qualification events around the world with competitors from 68 nations. Only the division winners get the invitation to Kona.
So now I’m 70, and it’s 4:00 a.m., October 11, in Kona. I put on my swimskin suit, collected my bike and run gear bags, was picked up by transport, and walked into the start area. The wind was up and the ocean swells were 10 to 12 feet. The feeling was much like my arrival in Vietnam.
My swim time was just under two hours (ugh). Too slow. Disappointing. Discouraging. Right then I knew I couldn’t catch the first three finishers. So that played with my head. A lot about this race is the messages the brain sends continuously: “You suck!” “What’s the point?” “You’re doing serious damage!” “At this pace, you’ll crash!” “This isn’t fair because . . .” It’s so annoying—and it would go on for more than thirteen more hours.
As I headed out on the 112-mile bike leg, I was temporarily passed by one of my age competitors, and got more competitive. Then about 15 miles later, the hot winds over the lava fields picked up to over 45 mph and everything changed. I saw people blown off the road. Ambulances were running back and forth. I couldn’t reach for my water bottle because I wouldn’t have been able to control the handlebars. I often felt my front wheel lift completely off the road.
After the race I learned that 8 percent of the field gave up during that stretch, and I was just hanging on to survive. But when I arrived at the halfway checkpoint, something changed. I realized that I would be disqualified if I couldn’t find more. I got even more purposeful. The temperature rose over 90, it poured rain, and the winds returned, but I had stopped racing the conditions. I only raced the clock. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I finished with the third fastest bike split in my division.
I started the run still not knowing where I was in the race, but I promised myself I would run consistently hard for the full marathon because I knew I could, and I knew that memory would be stuck in my head forever. The final result: I was 15th out of the water, and 8th at the finish line.
I don’t intend to do another Ironman. But, as I looked out over the ocean it struck me that if I improved my swim just a little, I could be on the podium. After all, I only really learned to swim four years ago. Oops—did I just say all that?