The story began in 2003 with the thought of a triathlon. Since then, I have been to many places and seen many events. I have covered short distances and long distances. I have dreamt of the Ironman and I have tried. And yet the distance still evades me.
Race morning began as they all do, rising just after 4am and going through all the race preparations. Ironman spoils you because you check in all your transition gear the night before along with your bike. All you need to do is show up with your wetsuit and you’re pretty much ready to go.
I rehearsed the entire event the night before. I visualized every step, every stroke, every transition. I have been to Tempe before; I knew what to expect. But I never imagined that the water could be so cold.
The official temperature was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. The water felt much colder. And not just to me but to everyone else as well. The night before I jumped into the non-heated swimming pool at the hotel. I thought that was cold. The lake was extremely cold. I had difficulty catching my breath let alone putting my head under water. I really did not know how I was going to swim.
I still was not warmed up when the cannon went off. I found myself in the middle of the pack and as much as I tried moving to the outer edge, I kept getting trampled. It was chaos and I could not get out. After about 15 minutes I finally found a spot to call my own and started swimming. The water was calm and I felt good, but still cold. I figured I would warm up as time went by.
I could not escape the thought of my previous experience in this lake in 2006 when my legs cramped up and almost caused me to pull out. I stayed relaxed and loose and worked with the water, careful not to let myself get tense.
I had an easier time with the swim than last time and my time was 10 minutes faster than before, but I still wanted to get out of the water and get warm.
The swim exit was a series of steps. The volunteers told me where to put my hands and knees and pull myself out. But my legs would not move. As I stood up, my feet felt like pins were being stuck in them. My legs would not bend at the knee. I hobbled to the wetsuit peel and once the suit was off, I realized how cold I was.
Part of me wished I had packed a towel to dry myself off and wipe the grass from my feet. But I had nothing of the sort. I grabbed my bag and went into the tent. The tent was warm and as I changed I tried to warm up, but nothing helped. I hoped that getting on the bike would help. I was on my bike 10 minutes later making my way down Rio Salado.
I wish I could say that the bike ride was good, but it wasn’t. From the start I began having problems. I ingested my Gatorade and electrolyte tablets in hopes of reducing the cramps in my legs. That helped quite bit. But then my stomach decided it did not like the concoction of fluids I was taking. The wind was strong on the way out, and by the time I reached the top of the first loop, the wind shifted the directions. The next lap would have me going up the slow and steady 6-mile climb into the wind. I started having flashbacks to my 2006 attempt. I fought winds and fatigue through the 112 miles only to make cutoff by 1 minute and too tired to start the run.
By the middle of the second lap, my asthma started flaring up and my digestive system decided that none of the nutrients would stay in me long enough to do me any good. My arms were hurting from the swim. I couldn’t get comfortable on the bike. I was not having a good time at all.
So at the end of the second lap of the bike, at mile 74, I called it a day.
And here I am just over 24 hours later wondering if I made the right decision. I know I did, but it still doesn’t help that the Ironman continues to be the elusive distance. Could it be that I have put so much value into this distance that I have created a monster within myself? I have decided that Ironman would define me in a new way. If I could finish an Ironman, everything in my life would change. I could prove to myself that I could actually finish something for once.
But every attempt has resulted in me pulling out. Not because I didn’t try enough. Not because I didn’t train enough. Not because I didn’t want to do it. I simply ran out of options. In 2005 I was one week out of the flu. I cramped during the 2006 race. And now in 2008, I couldn’t keep food inside of me.
I did everything right.
But the Ironman is too unpredictable. It is unstable. It is uncertain. Someone once said that Ironman encompasses and entire lifetime in 140.6 miles. I wanted Ironman to define my life because I felt that my life had no meaning.
I have travelled many miles in this journey. I found meaning in all those miles. Perhaps I have forgotten those meanings.
And so the question everyone is asking: Will I return next year? Will I try again?
I told myself before the race began that this would be my final attempt in a long time. I have sacrificed too many other aspects of my life for this event. I have let this event consume my thoughts and my dreams. This is not the way I want to spend the rest of my life.
I promised myself that after this attempt, I would step away from Ironman for some time. I would focus on the rest of my world, and those around me. I would make time for music, for friends, for love. I would return to something others might call a “normal” life. There are too many other things in my life to give up for 140.6 miles of Ironman.
Triathlon is not dead for me, however. I will still swim, bike, and run. I might even try my hand at 70.3 again. But not in the immediate future.
I have lost sight as to why I started this story 5 years ago. It was never about Ironman in the beginning. It was about a lonely man who bought a bike one day and decided to go up the side of a mountain only to discover that his body wouldn’t let him. It is about a man who found his way to other parts of himself he had forgotten about. It is about learning from mistakes and dealing with loss. The finish line is important, but it is not the defining moment.
And so 2009 will be a year without events. A year without training. A year without worrying about how many miles I need to cover next weekend.
I will let the blisters heal. I will let the toenails grow normally again. I will take care of my body. I will still swim, bike, and run. I will still time myself on my favorite rides. But I will explore unknown trails in the mountains, chase leaves down the road, and occasionally pass a bus on the road.
I hope that in the coming weeks, you will read about a man who went out riding out on his bike and remembered how he and his best friend in high school, Mike, once rode from Mission Viejo to Irvine in the rain and came home miserable and wet. And how the next week they went again but just a little further. And then a few weeks later found themselves walking into a Coco’s restaurant at Fashion Island in Newport Beach asking the hostess if they could have their water bottles refilled because they were thirsty.
I will have fun with all this again.
Another promise to myself.