On a Sunday in mid-September in Madison, Wisconsin, I completed what I think will be my last Ironman triathlon. At 57, I’m on the downside of the curve and getting slower on the bike and run. And my Ironman friends from Oak Park seem to get younger and faster.
An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26-mile run, all of which must be completed in less than 17 hours.
For me, doing an Ironman is not about wattage, heart rate monitors, odometers or speedometers (what would be the point for a slower person like me?)
Instead, I do what I call a “zen Ironman.” I go the entire day without any data. I don’t even wear a watch.
In Madison, it was mostly about gratitude. Gratitude for my wife who drove four hours from our cabin up north and surprised me on the run course. (Her first question was: “Are you going to finish?”) Gratitude for my two kids, whom I love with a depth I don’t show enough. Gratitude for what St. Francis called “brother sun and sister moon,” both of which I experienced from pre-dawn to late night in a 15-hour, 15-minute Ironman-Palooza.
And gratitude for the last mile of the run. It’s hard to explain needing encouragement at mile 25. But there I was. Unable to think. Limbs throbbing. Stomach feeling more than nauseous. Spent. Badly wanting to stop.
And there, outside the University of Wisconsin college bars on State Street amongst the dwindling crowds, was Oak Park friend and meta-triathlon coach Sharone Aharon standing in the middle of the road, waiting, and offering a big hug. I’m “done, done, done,” I rasp.
“No you’re not,” he says. “Don’t even think about it.”
I continued on because all I had to do was circle the Madison capitol building to get to the finish line. What I forgot, and always forget, is that even that close, after a hilly bike with 5,000 feet of climbing and a hillier run with another 5,000 feet, there is one final rise to climb (or amble or lope) up to the capital square.
But I could hear the thumping music from the finish. And an as-yet-muffled voice.
By the final corner, the crowds had picked up, even though it was after 10 p.m. People I didn’t know cheered me, offered a high five. To be honest, I was so locked in my push to finish I could not connect with people.
But the crowd cheering took over. And somehow I forgot the tweaked back, the sore knee, and I ran — well, jogged. And a voice, as if from heaven, called out: “You are an Ironman.”
Through the finish line, two guardian angels grabbed me under my armpits and propped me up. Post-finish line — when you finally stop — is where the collapse happens, if it happens.
My brain was noodles. I saw an Oak Park friend who had finished in 11 hours and 30 minutes, and he was saying something from beyond the barriers, but my brain had lost its ability to understand English.
The angel (after making sure I was crowned with a medal and handed a finisher’s hat and shirt) asked if I needed medical attention. Why I wonder would she ask that? I just felt very comfortable sitting in the chair she dropped me in.
I was babbling and staring off into the distance. And my wife pushed through the crowd from the other side of the barriers and found me, and I could feel her hand on my shoulder.
And I just sat there until the urge to eat something began to make sense, and I said that I’d like to rise despite wobbly legs and make my way to the food tent where I would either throw up or nibble on salty pizza. I skipped the pepperoni.
Whatever dark moment I felt after the finish faded in the hours afterwards. Rational thoughts returned — slowly.
My final Ironman was over.