May 30, 2008

This Is What It's Like In Heaven

I opened my eyes just moments before the sun blanketed the land in it's warm morning rays. I lay still in the dimming darkness. Slowly and quietly I embraced the peace and tranquility.

As serenity encircled me, I began to hear the chirps and cheeps that mark the start of a beautiful new day (from the alarm clock). Soon enough the light (of the bedside table) immersed the room in it's splendor. I sat, stood, smiled and stretched my arms. I was grateful to be here, to be now.

I walked outside the bedroom and was greeted by the sprinkling patter of a distant waterfall (Catherine peeing in the bathroom). Ah, the limitless joy of the sounds of nature in paradise.

We decided to go for a swim this morning and, in anticipation, prepared ourselves for the exciting journey. We feasted on fruits and herbs (Quaker Oats instant oatmeal) and rehydrated ourselves from nature's ultimate replenishment (English Breakfast tea).

I glanced out the window to an endless sea of God's green earth (plants and weeds that had overrun the patio) and reveled in my excitement to be alive. Soon enough we finished gathering our swim gear and headed towards the water.

We mounted our horses (a Toyota with about 5 horsepower) and galloped to our destination as the music of the morning (KISS FM, all R&B all the time) whistled in our ears.

The swim was angelic. The water was so clear you could see the bottom (of the pool). I splashed and played and went back and forth in endless succession (it's only a 25 yard pool). I could barely refrain from laughing and smiling (actually, grimacing). I heard the clicking of dolphins frolicking from afar (the jewelry of the old lady in the far lane) and decided to float on my back and soak in the serenity of the moment (3x 75 backstroke with 15 seconds rest).

After what seemed like only a few minutes (2400 yards), we emerged from the water, enlivened and refreshed. I walked away and as I dried my body, found myself standing amidst a plethora of penguin (the design on my underwear) who seemed to embrace me (from the elastic of the underwear) as if they were a part of me (it is my underwear, after all).

Though still early, it was already a fantastic morning. And as I emerged from my beach-side abode (the men's locker room), I turned back to gaze once more across the watery expanse (of the YMCA pool). Lo and behold, a whale emerged on the horizon (actually, just a really fat old guy) to greet me and welcome me to another wonderful day in paradise. And I couldn't help but think, this is what it must be like to be in heaven.

May 28, 2008

The Things We Watch When We're Not Training For An Ironman

Top Chef
I love cooking. I love watching other people cooking. I especially love watching eccentric people with huge egos, sharp knives and bad judgment cooking.

Jon and Kate Plus 8
3-year olds are cute, especially when you don't have to take care of them yourself. six 3-year olds are six times as cute. makes me want to have more nephews and nieces.

Rock of Love
though season two is over, it's effects still linger, kind of like genital herpes. and though they have made us think Brett found his "rock of love", there's no way in hell that will last. mark my words, it's comin' back for another awesome, killer season.

lost used to be an amazing show. then it went to a great show. now it's dropped down to a really good show. but the motorcycle engine is revving and it's kinda getting ready to jump the shark soon.

CNN for the sports junkie, but the stupid headlines are actually meant to be funny.

The Office
consistently the wittiest comedy on tv.

Flight of the Conchords
how can these guys be so funny, write so many great songs and have such neato accents but still nobody watches them?

The Next Food Network Star
like top chef, but in a way that makes me feel good about my cooking talents. and my personality.

perhaps the best show on tv. period. enough said.

Any Yankees baseball game
yes, they're in last place. but it's still early in the season so stop your yammering.

May 24, 2008

My Uncle Ted

Mt Carmel is a small town in Pennsylvania that you've never heard of. Actually, it's probably too small to even be considered a town. Maybe it's a township. What's smaller than a township? A hamlet?

Mt. Carmel is a charming little hamlet.

Hmmm...makes it seem like hobbits emerge from mushroom shaped abodes and waddle around cobblestone streets in their pointy-toed shoes, don't it? But trust me, there is nary a hobbit in Mt. Carmel. I know, I spent a bunch of time there in my youth.

Mt. Carmel is located smack dab in the middle of the antiquated coal mining region of Pennsylvania. It's a depressing area, where enormous piles of black soot lean like tired old men against the rusted iron of the broken down ore elevators. As you drive by the abandoned mines, the ghosts of history stare intently with their dirtied blank faces and fading flashlights. I was in awe of those coal mines when I was a child. It represented a profound emptiness that at once scared and intrigued me. And amidst it all, was Mt. Carmel.

Mt. Carmel was my oasis.

Once or twice each year my parents would ship my sister and I off to Mt Carmel to visit the “fun relatives”, as we liked to call them. Uncle Ted and Aunt Lynn. I remember staying in Ted and Lynn’s house, running up and down the stairs, banging on the piano and carousing about town.

A walk through the town of Mt Carmel was a very short event. The entire town seemed to fit within my line of sight. After walking out the door, I could take a right and meander the few blocks to where the town ended at an unused baseball diamond muddled with overgrown grass. Or I could take a left and, after passing by “downtown”, reach the other end of Mt Carmel in but a few short blocks.

Nothing seemed to happen in Mt. Carmel. It was almost too small for anything to happen. Then again, perhaps I was too young to have a proper memory of the enormity of the town. Or maybe I was simply too short to peek over the fence and see the sprawling, emerald-glowing metropolis that was the “real” Mt Carmel - the place where things happened. My guess, though, is that no such oasis existed. I was, in fact, seeing the “real” Mt Carmel and the only glowing metropolis was from the distant abandoned mines that were still ablaze, burning up the neighboring towns like hellfire from below.

But I was proud to go to Mt Carmel. I was proud because I was a Madden. Walking through Mt Carmel with Uncle Ted was like walking with the President. People waved, people stopped and talked, everybody knew and loved Uncle Ted. And though I was barely pushing four feet tall and miles from even getting a glimpse of adulthood, I felt like a giant among men as I walked with him through the town. If there were a red carpet down the center of Main Street, lined with royal trumpeteers announcing our arrival, as rose petals were scattered in front of our feet, the feeling would be no different.

Not only was I a Madden, but I was related to the great Ted Madden of Mt Carmel. Sir Teddy. Teo The Magnificent. Teodore del Monte Carmela.

I was a Madden, and we were the ruling dynasty of Mt Carmel. Our family stores lined the streets of downtown. There was my Aunt Mary's children's clothing store, my Uncle Martin's lingerie store (for which I was too young to even be allowed in) and, of course, Madden’s – the pride of the coal mining region.

Sitting in Madden’s as Ted worked was like sitting with the King – it seemed that everybody in town entered the store each day to pay their respect. King Ted. I was amazed. I was proud. I was six years old.

Somewhere in my teen years I stopped visiting Mt Carmel with such frequency. Perhaps because I saw the family at so many other functions throughout those years. But it didn't matter that I didn't go back as much – I was already instilled with the Mt Carmel-Madden pride that had so deeply affected me in my youth.

Years later I went to Cornell University to see my friend Keith graduate. The evening before graduation, I went out to dinner with Keith and a few of his friends, including his then-girlfriend Karen. In my conversation with Karen I learned that she grew up in Pennsylvania.

“A small town that you’ve never heard of,” she said (words I’d heard many times before in describing towns in which my family lived).

“Really?” I replied. “Try me.”

When the words “Mt Carmel” came out of her mouth, I felt myself go flush. The adrenaline in my veins quickly pumped up to maximum capacity until the enormous pressure that had built inside my body was suddenly released in an explosive burst of energy.

“I’M A MADDEN!!!” I screamed, probably with a bit too much enthusiasm.

Silence befell the entire restaurant. Patrons slowly and discreetly turned to look at me – slightly nervous to come face-to-face with the crazy man, lest I jump up and assert my Madden-ness to all who lie in my path. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I was still proud. I looked back at Karen to see a look of fear on her face.

“You’re a Madden?” she asked hesitantly. “As in Madden’s Men’s Clothing? As in Ted Madden?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, I am.” And, with my chest pushed out in a proud warrior stance, I proudly declared, “I am Ted’s nephew.”

When I inquired about whether she knew of all the other Madden establishments that ruled Mt Carmel, I was certain, of course, that she knew them all. That she respected them all. That she was in awe of me, simply because I was a Madden.

“Yeah,” Karen said. “Whatever.”

* * *

After college graduation I moved to Los Angeles and started trying to become an adult. I got jobs. I paid bills. I learned to cook. I bought clothing on my own.

One day I decided I needed a new suit. I jumped in my car and drove to my favorite uber-hip men’s clothing store. Due to my frame-size, I frequently had to order custom suits and this day was no different. After picking out the fabric and style, I gave the store manager my name. “Madden,” I said, spelling the last name for him. He laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I inquired in my least paranoid voice.

“I used to know a Madden family,” he silently responded.

“Oh yeah?" I asked. "From where?”

“Oh, in Pennsylvania,” he answered. “A small town you’ve never heard of.”

“Don’t tell me,” I responded, with a slight chuckle. “Mt Carmel?”

He was in awe. His face lit up as he asked, “You know Ted Madden?”

“Do I know Ted Madden?!” I responded, as that familiar burst of adrenaline started revving its engines. “I’m his nephew!”

He laughed a hearty guffaw. "No kidding?!" he bellowed. And soon we were led into the depths of discussion about Mt Carmel and Madden's. We shared anectdotes about my uncle and my cousins and Main Street and the overgrown grass of that lonely baseball diamond on the edge of town.

As we stood in front of the mirror and he measured me for the suit, the manager began to laugh again. “Who would have ever thunk,” he confessed, “that I would be measuring a Madden for a suit. That I would be measuring TED Madden’s nephew for a suit! A Madden!” And he laughed again as both of our minds wandered into long lost thoughts of a Madden childhood.

After leaving the store, I quickly contacted Ted and told him about my encounter with a true Mt Carmel native. Amused and flattered, Ted sent me a box of Madden's clothing labels. When I returned to the store weeks later to pick up my suit and presented the Madden’s labels to the store manager, he looked like a kid on Christmas morning. He smiled so wide I thought his cheeks would fall off. He looked down at the Madden’s labels in his hand, battling to fight off the tears. I could practically see the Mt Carmel memories scroll like a billboard across his face.

Now, whenever I go into the store, I am treated like royalty. I am Prince Madden. And every time I walk in there I get that feeling of me, running to keep up with Sir Teddy, as we stroll down the red carpet of downtown Mt Carmel, with the royal trumpeteers blasting our arrival, and rose petals falling from the sky.

[Editor's Note: Names have been changed to protect the people who aren't already in witness protection]

May 21, 2008

Hot As Hell - or - Bakersfield Triathlon: A Spectator's Race Report

Though my racing season is over, my spectator season is just kicking in.

Catherine was supposed to race the Bonelli Triathlon this past Sunday. But alas, on the Thursday before, they canceled the race. Apparently the fire department is using Bonelli Park as a staging area to combat the forest fires raging in Southern California. After all, we are smack in the middle of Forest Fire Season, after having survived another Mudslide Season and quickly approaching Earthquake Season (and you thought we didn't have any seasons here in Los Angeles).

Catherine, however, was trained, prepared and excited for the race and she wasn't backing down. The moment the cancellation announcement hit the airwaves, she scoured the Internet to find a replacement race. And that pretty much explains why we're sitting here in Bakersfield, California, sweating our assets off in 103 degree weather.

If you've never been to Bakersfield before (and, for your sake, I hope you haven't), let me paint the picture for you. First of all, the picture is very very ugly. In fact, it's one of those pictures that, if it were to be hanging on a wall in some gallery, people would walk by, stop, look at it with sickening wonderment, and then say something like "I wouldn't even hang that in my Port-A-Pooper" They might then spit on the sidewalk to add extra emphasis. Ccchhhhat-ptooooey!

Catherine calls Bakersfield the armpit of America, but I disagree with her. New Jersey is the armpit, Bakersfield is something different. You know that feeling after you've been walking around for hours in the burning sun of a brutally hot day and suddenly you notice that your crotch has become disgustingly sweaty and ridiculously uncomfortable? That's Bakersfield. It's the sweaty crotch of America.

Since we didn't have a lot of time to research hotels, and since it appears that every discounted European-filled bus tour had descended on this so-called city for the evening, Catherine and I decided to shack up at the beautiful Best Western Crystal Palace, a convenient 300 meters from the highway (which was actually one of their selling points, just to put it in perspective for you).

The Best Western Crystal Palace (let's call it the BWCP) is, in a word, ghetto. Our room was spacious, which basically means there was more area for disgusting to live. The wallpaper was peeling, the bathroom was moldy and the whole place had a distinctly repellant aroma which Cat equated to the smell of a damp, moldy towel.

Since we got into town a little late on Friday night, we quickly tossed our belongings in the room, scanned for large insects and then headed out for a pre-race dinner. Of all the great things to say about Bakersfield (none of which I can remember at the moment), one thing it will NOT be mistaken for is a culinary metropolis. After passing a long row of Arby's, Sonic's, Burger Kings and Johnny's Apparently Famous But Still Crappy Pizza, we finally opted to partake in the heavenly cuisine of the Macaroni Grill.

I won't go into the details of the food (I'll save that for my upcoming IMAFoodie blog), suffice to say, it was good enough for what we needed. After wolfing down our meal, we returned to our hotel where Cat proceeded to do her pre-race packing.

After a few years of racing together, I've figured out that my required role in Catherine's pre-race activities can best be described as Casper The Friendly Ghost. Basically, I have to be both invisible and supportive at the same time. As long as I don't speak to her, come near her or look at her, I usually stay out of trouble. Usually.

Inevitably, though, the time magically arises when she actually wants me to look at her or speak to her. Problem is, I don't have ESP.

So there I was at the beautiful BWCP, quietly laying on the bed, soundlessly playing around with my computer as Cat packed her transition bag. All of the sudden I hear a slight crack... SHIT!!! she screams. I look up to see her trying to stuff her helmet into the bag. SHIT SHIT SHIT!!! she screams again, suddenly trying to un-stuff the helmet from the bag. I want to help, it's my nature to try to help and make it better. But we're in pre-race mode now and all inclinations to do what I normally would do must be tossed aside.

Suddenly I notice that Cat starts to lift up her head and look at me. Uh-oh. Danger Will Robinson. I should go back to being invisible. Wonder Twin powers, ACTIVATE!! Form of... a ghost!!

I quickly avert my eyes back to my computer before she meets my gaze. I continue typing mindlessly. Be quiet, be relaxed, stay in my own world.


Huh?!? I stumbled on my words in confusion. Ummm.....I looked....I looked!!!

She huffed in my general direction and turned away before I could say anything else.

Honestly, I didn't take it personally. I knew she was frustrated with the helmet and was just taking it out on me. If I were in her position, dealing with the pre-race stress we both feel pre-race, I'd probably lash out at her for some equally ridiculous reason.

So I sat in silence for a few seconds, knowing this would all blow over soon. I know how touchy she gets before a race mostly because, as I said, it is exactly how I am in the same circumstances. I've got to leave her alone but be right by her side, to shut up but say the right things. But there's really no way for me to win (nor for her before one of my races), so I just try my best to mind my own business and eventually it all blows over. Just like this one did.

I'm sorry, honey, she said after realizing her helmet was, in fact, ok and I was, in fact, just trying to be loving in my seemingly unloving way.

And after a few more moments of packing it was time to go to sleep.

The Bakersfield Triathlon takes place about 10 miles outside of Bakersfield. As it turns out, once you get 10 miles outside of Bakersfield, Bakersfield starts becoming pretty. The race is in a beautiful location with a picturesque lake nestled into the foothills of some very brown hills.

After 28 years of running the event, the Bakersfield Triathlon still maintains the feeling of a low-key, down home race. There are only about 200 people in total that do the events (100 for the Olympic, 100 for the Sprint) and they come in all shapes and sizes, from the casual first timer to the seasoned veteran. But don't be fooled, the race is an extremely challenging course. Though the swim is in a pristine lake and the bike only has a few moderate climbs, it's the run that is the killer. Even for the 5k of the sprint course, the run is a consistently brutal uphill, made even more challenging by the ridiculous heat that settles into the sweaty crotch of America at this time every year.

Since Catherine had been training for the Bonelli short course adventure, she naturally decided to do the sprint race at Bakersfield. We got to the race site very early, allowing Cat to casually set up her transition area before we sat around, relaxed and mentally prepared for our respective racing and/or spectating.

The forecast for the day was fairly horrendous, with expected highs of 102 degrees. Already, at 8 o'clock in the morning, it was nearing 90. It was definitely going to be a tough day to race not to mention a scorcher of a day to spectate. We both had to rest up.

As always happens in these situations, the start time quickly approached. We walked to the grassy area of the starting line, Cat got into her wetsuit and it was time to go. There were about 30 women lining the side of the lake for Cat's wave. After a quick kiss and a couple of photos, the gun went off, the women jumped into the water and my girlfriend's race had begun.

Catherine is a decent swimmer, though of the three sports I would say that swimming is her weakest (though it's far from weak). She normally swims a mile in about 30 - 32 minutes, so it seemed fair to assume that she would complete the Bakersfield 1/2 mile swim in about 15 minutes. I looked at my watch and calculated when I needed to be back at the swim finish.

With a few minutes to kill, I casually walked to the car, dropped off her extra gear I was lugging around and walked back to the transition area. I looked at my watch - 10 minutes had passed. As I started preparing the camera and getting ready to cheer her on, I looked up and saw a woman coming out of the water. She was wearing Cat's wetsuit. She was wearing Cat's goggles. Could it be Catherine?! I looked at my watch... 11 minutes. No way, can't be her. I looked up again... She had Cat's body type. She was moving like Cat.

An 11 minute swim?! Could it possibly be?!

I hesitated to yell because I still wasn't convinced it was her coming out of the water. But I lifted up the camera and started snapping photos just in case. As the swimmer came up onto shore and approached me I realized, lo and behold, it WAS my girlfriend. Holy cow! She had swum an 11 minute 1/2 mile!


As she zoomed into transition, I hustled over to the other side of the fence. Shortly after I got there she emerged. I gave her some encouraging words as she headed onto the bike and I emitted a trumpet of screams to accompany her onto the course.

Things had changed on the bike ride. What was hot had become sweltering. The announcer said it was 95 degrees but it felt well over one hundred (later we realized that Cat's watch showed a peak temperature of 104). I was sweating profusely as I stood somewhat still in the hot sun cheering people on. Meanwhile, Cat was out there on the bike pushing herself. I didn't envy her.

Fortunately, the bike ride is only a 12 mile course that isn't too hilly. Cycling is Catherine's strong sport, so I figured she'd blast through the course in about 35 minutes or so, maybe a little slower due to the heat. Regardless, it wasn't her fast time that really threw me when she came zooming back into transition because, honestly, I lost track of time in the dizzying heat. The thing that got me was that she was the 2nd woman overall into transition. She was in SECOND PLACE!!! Holy SHIT!!

Holy SHIT! I screamed at her as she got out of her cycling gear and put on her running shoes. You're in the lead*! Only a 5k to go! 20 more minutes and this is yours!! Go Go Go!!

I LOVE YOU! I screamed as she burst onto the 5k run course with two other woman closing in.

Earlier in the day I had talked to the race director and he told me how challenging this course was. Catherine and I had also looked at times from previous years and the average running pace, even for the winners, was pretty darn slow. With the sun broiling hotter by the moment, I knew it'd be a tough run for Cat, as it would be for everybody. But I stood there with baited breath and butterflies in my stomach at the thought of her being one of the top finishers overall.

After about 20 minutes of anticipation, the lead runners started coming in. One by one they came barreling down the hillside and towards the finish. I watched closely, hoping each one was a man until my Catherine turned the corner. Suddenly, though, a woman appeared in the distance. The lead woman - one of those that was right behind Cat on the bike - she had overtaken the others in front of her on the run and crossed the finish line as the overall female winner. Shortly after another woman came down the finishers shoot. Suddenly, I saw another woman round the corner in the distance. She was wearing a visor like Cat, sporting a one-piece like Cat. I started yelling. GO CATHERINE! GO CAT! YOU'RE DOING GREAT HONEY!! I started snapping photos. And just as the woman waved to me I realized it wasn't Catherine. Ooops.

But, alas, a mere 60 seconds later my girlfriend rounded the corner. I screamed, I yelled, I took photos. I couldn't believe she was doing so incredibly well. I started choking up, tears of pride forming in the corner of my eye. GO CATHERINE! I yelled. GO CAT!!

I cheered her on the last stretch of the race, snapping photos as quickly as possible. She crossed the finish line the 4th woman overall and ran straight into my arms. At first I thought it was so caring and loving that she ran right to me. I felt like the male lead in the closing scene from some Hollywood chick flick where, after stress and strain, the couple finally realizes their undying love. I suppose I felt kinda like Harry in the closing scenes of "When Harry Met Sally". Then, of course, I realized that the reason she collapsed into my arms was less about the palpitations of love and more about the fatigue from a ridiculously tough race. That kinda made me feel closer to Adrian at the end of "Rocky", which is still a nice love story, but one with a bit more sweat and pain.

Either way, she did amazing, my girlfriend. Truly incredible.
- 4th female finisher OVERALL!
- 1st in her age group
- the fastest bike split of any woman
- the 9th fastest bike split of all competitors

Isn't she great?
I'm so proud.

And hot. Let's get the hell out of this godforsaken place.

May 15, 2008

I Slept In Today

On April 13 at 8:41 pm my 2008 race season came to a close. My next race on the docket is scheduled for September 2009.

That makes me happy.

I slept in today. Woke up at 6:30. (OK, shut up. When you're used to waking up far before the sun stretches it's rays, 6:30 is considered "sleeping in".) After doing a crossword puzzle in bed, having some breakfast and watching a bit of Sports Center, I meandered on down to the gym.

When you check in at the front desk of my YMCA they hand you a workout towel. I decided not to take one this morning. I wasn't planning on sweating.

I walked upstairs and hoisted my leg over the Lifecycle. After thousands of miles sitting on a carbon-coated piece of plywood and making believe it felt good because everybody told me it was a nice saddle, I forgot how cushy and cumfy these Lifecycle seats actually are. It was like I just died and went to tushy heaven. My butt was as happy as....well.... as happy as a butt on an uber-cushy Lifecycle seat.

I piddled around on the stationary cycle for awhile, or, rather, until I finished reading this fascinating article in Sports Illustrated about golfing and animals and the ridiculous things that happen when the two of them meet. I won't try to explain it to you because you won't care.

After finishing the magazine, I hopped off my tushy heaven and proceeded to get myself tangled in some apparently quite complex weight lifting machines. There were levers and pegs and rotators and axles and none of it made any sense. There were pads in places that didn't seem to touch my body and bare metal bars sticking up into places I sure wish had pads. I studied the little instructional sticker on the side of the machines but the silly drawings just made it seem like a very dangerous game of Twister.

I decided to go into the free weights room since I didn't need any instructional manual on how to lift a bar above my head. I put some embarrassingly light weights on the bench press bar, laid on my back and huffed out 12 reps. As I put the bar back on the bar holder thingy I felt a twinge in my upper back. I tried to sit up but it hurt like all heck. Oops. I suppose I shouldn't push it so I put the weights back and went into the stretching room.

I grabbed the big exercise ball and laid down on it. It did nothing for my upper back but it felt really good and super relaxing so I decided to close my eyes and stay there for awhile. I started thinking about what I was going to eat for lunch. Barbecue chicken salad sounded good. I wondered how the chickens lived, whether they were free range or caged. I tried to imagine what it was like to be a chicken. I wondered what they thought about. And through some randomly circuitous route that I can't quite remember, I started imagining I was laying in a tub of warm water. That's about when I started dozing off.

I woke up just as I rolled off the exercise ball onto the mat.

I lay there for awhile pretending as if I intended to roll onto the mat. Then I picked up my magazine and left the gym.

Another great workout.

Only sixteen more months until the big race.

May 07, 2008

Ironman Arizona Race Report - or - Man's Search For Meaning

If you dig deep down inside the human psyche - if you strip away the body, the bones and all physical semblance of being - if you delve beyond the mind and intellect and throw away the loose sands of knowledge and experience – all that remains of us is desire.

We are desire.

Amidst the scraps of all the rest, there is nothing but that glowing ember of desire that drives us forward. We challenge ourselves further, we drive ourselves deeper and, in turn, the ember burns hotter. What we do with that ember is up to us; either stoke the flames or douse it, the decision is our own.

When we increase our struggles, the decisions on how to handle desire become more fragile and more tentative. As we challenge the limitations of our physical being, we find ourselves balancing precariously on that ember, teetering on the edge between accomplishment and failure.

It comes as no surprise that the challenge of Ironman racing far exceeds our physical capabilities; it is fueled by nothing more than that ember and the decisions we make to support it.

Let’s face the facts, the human body was not designed to travel that distance in that manner. There has never been any study anywhere at any time that has claimed Ironman distance racing is good for the human body. It’s not. Us Ironman racers, we subject our bodies to some of the most absurd conditions. And for what? A t-shirt? A finisher’s medal? Or is it that increasingly remote feeling of accomplishment that we try so desperately to harness. Like a strung-out junkie, we push harder and deeper to relive that moment we call “success”.

We race Ironman to feel good.

We pay to compete because we believe the pain will make us feel good; it will make us feel like we’ve done something with our lives. The pain will prove that we have grown. The pain will stoke our ember of desire. The pain will set us free.

At the 2008 Ironman Arizona, there was pain. In a couple of minutes I’m going to tell you what that race was like and hopefully I can effectively relate how horrendously difficult it was. More importantly, hopefully I can do that in a manner that doesn’t get you bored. Yes, this is long, but if you’ve ever stopped by my site before, you understand that I really never got the “short post gene”. So enough with the pre-race warm-up…


I’d wanted to compete in an Ironman for well over a decade. In 2006, when I finally made the commitment, I chose Ironman Lake Placid. It is the hilliest, prettiest and, arguably, the most difficult Ironman course in North America. If I was going to put my body through this challenge, I was gonna make damn sure I had the hardest challenge possible. After all, I not only wanted to brag about doing an Ironman, but I wanted to ensure that I appeared muy macho in the process.

I had an amazing race at Ironman Lake Placid. Though I tend to live my life swimming in the anxiety-ridden pools of yesterday and tomorrow, for that one day of racing, I was completely and utterly in the moment. I was living my dream. It was spiritual. It was incredible. I wanted to hold on to time, to squeeze every second of that race until it choked to a standstill. There was pain, of course. Pain is inevitable. But I embraced the pain. I tried to capture every emotion and every feeling, and store those in my heart forever. I was at peace. I did not worry about going faster or slower. I didn’t care what was ahead or behind, who passed me or who didn’t. I was. And that was perfect.

In the weeks and months following Lake Placid, I began to ponder that experience. I spent long bike rides struggling to stay in the moment, to recapture that feeling of serenity. I wanted it back. I wanted to feel that peace again. But the more I pushed, the further away it seemed.

Like a forlorn drug addict, after you feel that high for the first time, you spend your days spiraling down the rabbit hole of destruction chasing after the hope of harnessing that feeling again. Yet it always remains just out of your reach, so you push yourself further, harder, deeper, you stretch yourself thinner… Because you know that if only for one more time - if you had just one more moment to live in that bubble - then everything would be fine.

* * *

I suppose you can say that I decided to do Ironman Arizona on a whim. Catherine (my girlfriend) and I were out for a bike ride one weekend when she casually said, “You should do Ironman Arizona.” And I said, “OK.”

Two days later I had a five hundred dollar hole in my bank account.

In reality, there are a few reasons why I decided to do Arizona. First, there’s my friend Chris. Arizona was going to be Chris’ first Ironman race. I’ve been a spectator at an Ironman event before. It’s horrendous. It arguably takes more endurance watching the darn thing than racing it. Racing seemed like such a better way to support my friend.

The other reason is that I felt like I’d already be in Ironman shape. I was doing the SOS race in September, where the swim and run distances were practically Ironman length. And then I ran the NY Marathon in November. In my mind, all I had to do was keep my running and swimming steady for 3 months while I beefed up my biking. No problem.

One final gnawing reason was curiosity. My Lake Placid race was such an amazingly transforming experience, I wanted to know what happens on number two. I wanted that feeling back.

So I ran, I biked, I swam. I trained solidly for months on end making all the sacrifices every other Ironman racer makes. And, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, I found myself standing in Tempe, Arizona the morning of the race wondering how the hell I got there.


There was nothing that happened out of the ordinary before the race to get me overly nervous. Sure there were some fears of leg pain, of getting sick, of the unknown, of all the usual pre-race gobbledy-gook. But there was nothing really dramatic to get me worked up except, maybe, the weather.

Ironman Arizona is known for its strong winds. I’ll tell you more about that later, suffice to say, I’m light and I’m weak. If I auditioned for the movie “The Kite Runner”, I’d probably be cast as the kite.

High winds aside, there is also heat. Just my luck, Ironman Sunday was forecasted to be the one day of the month that got hit with a freak heat wave. Amidst a month of 80 degree days, Sunday’s highs were supposed to be 94 to 98.

Remember all the hoopla from the last Chicago Marathon? You know, it was where somebody died and another fifty were sent to the hospital because of the heat. Yeah well, it was only 88 degrees then. Compare that to the Ironman Arizona forecast and it seems downright balmy. Add 10 degrees and an extra 114.2 miles to the Chicago fiasco and, yes Virginia, there is cause for concern.

That said, when Chris and I got to the race site, it was a beautiful 70 degrees with clear blue skies.

The pre-race activities were relatively uneventful. You know the drill….Drop off special needs bags, freak out, open special needs bags, look inside, close special needs bags, pump up bike tires, use porta-potty, get my body numbered, try to stretch, act casual, put on wetsuit, exchange nervous banter with bike-rack mates, meander in silent anxiety to the swim start like neoprened cattle being herded to slaughter.

The day’s challenges:
* Kicking, fighting, pushing, shoving, biting, punching, smacking
* The sun. You can’t miss it.
* A dramatic inability to move in a straight line

The Ironman Arizona swim is a mass water start. A mass start at an Ironman is like a cross between the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Sea World and the Chicago riots of 1968. What happens is that 2,000 people dressed like seals float around in the water for a few minutes listening to a pretty pathetic version of the national anthem and then, at the blast of a canon – KA-BLAM!! – they all start punching and kicking, crawling and clawing, shoving and biting. In the triathlon world, we call that a “swim”.

The Arizona course is a one lap swim that has you heading east in Tempe Town Lake for a little over a mile before you turn around and trudge the rest of the way back to the swim finish. As you can see, I made a special note to tell you the swim starts by going east for over a mile. I didn’t say “up the lake” or “down to the bridge.” I said east. You swim east.

The race starts at 7am. Sunrise in Tempe is at about 5:45am. This gives the sun, which rises in the east, a little over one hour to put itself in the perfect position to completely blind you for half of your Ironman swim. Great planning.

But, wait, I’m jumping ahead.

I got into the water about 15 minutes before race start, had a lame attempt of warming up and then piddled my way over to the starting line where I stayed about halfway back and proceeded to tread water, pee, and tread water some more (in the process pushing my pee over to the people treading water next to me, who were, in turn, probably pushing their pee back at me. Ironman starts are essentially a pee pushing party.)

As the minutes ticked by, the crowds around me started to thicken. I kept moving to open spaces, trying to find that perfect spot where nobody would touch me at the start. However, despite my best efforts, I continuously found myself surrounded by a herd of other water treaders. Naturally, I kept slowly inching myself towards the front of the group where there seemed to be more room to maneuver. As the national anthem came to a close, I looked up to find myself just a few rows back from the starting line.

I was ready, it was time, I had found my space, my peace…. and that’s when the starting gun went off.


Even here, on my second time around, the start of an Ironman is somewhat surreal. The starting gun is not merely an indicator to go, it is a symbol of the journey. It is a distinct line that separates before from after; it marks the space between training and racing. It is a split second in time in which your entire history, your months of training, your heartache, sacrifice and drive, all fuse like a sub-atomic reaction, catapulting you forward with a blast of energy right smack into your destiny.

They say that Ironman is the intersection between your greatest fears and your wildest dreams - that’s what happens at the starting gun.

With the sound of the blast still ringing in my ears, I desperately tried to let go of my wacked-out philosophies on athletic firearms, put my head in the water and began moving forward.

Aside from Ironman weekend, no motor boats and no people are allowed to be in Tempe Town Lake. Consequently, the lake’s water is quite clean – or at least it tastes that way. Unfortunately, the water is also a dark shade of brown with the clarity of double chocolate bundt cake. Visibility doesn’t extend much further than 24 inches, which pretty much means that you can’t see your own hand in front of your face when you’re swimming. It also means that you can’t see anybody else’s hand until it bashes you in the ear. Oh, and the feet in front of you, you’ll see those just about the time they thwack you in the face.

The Ironman Arizona swim is violent like, say, “Reservoir Dogs”, as a for instance. In fact, the first 1.2 miles of the swim was, without question, the most frustratingly violent swim I’ve ever done in my life. From the moment I started swimming, hands were grabbing my legs, feet were kicking my head, bodies were swimming over me, I was being punched in the shoulder, the back, the face. Every stroke I tried to make landed on the body of another person. Every move left me packed in tighter.

I’ve had my goggles kicked in many races before and knew if they were kicked off in this race, in this crowd, in this mayhem, I’d be screwed. So I tried to keep my head up to avoid the feet in my face. But every time I lifted my eyes, I was blinded by the relentless glare of the rising sun (don’t forget, we’re swimming east).

Head down, head up, nothing was working. I tried to swim left, to swim right, I tried to speed up or slow down. I kicked my feet harder to dissuade those behind me and punched the water stronger to clear those in front. I tried to stay on the inside lane, hugging the buoys and doing my best to maintain a straight line (which, for the record, didn’t work). I swallowed masses of water. And as I choked and coughed, I swallowed more. I was trapped, the walls of claustrophobia were shrinking around me.

This is going to end, I told myself. These violent parts always end. Five minutes went by. Then ten. Twenty. And the violence didn’t wane. I wanted out. I wanted to quit. I tried to relax but the frustration was overwhelming. I looked up to find a hole, any room for movement, but all I could see was a molten mass of people. We were wildebeest storming across the Serengeti, pushing and shoving to escape the jaws of the lion. I’ve seen this television show before, I know how it ends. I am the weak one. I’m gonna be eaten. I’m too young to die! I don’t want to be a wildebeest!

As I reached the turn around, the mass got more aggressive. I pushed myself through, kicking my feet as a warning to those behind, forcing my hands to let others know I’m here to stay.

All I wanted to do was get through. I wanted this to stop. I wanted out.

I tried to stay as loose as possible. I didn’t care about my swim time anymore. In less than 30 minutes the race had turned into a battle for survival. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. I tried to get into my rhythm. Focusing on my form, trying to stay in the moment. Left arm, right arm, punch, kick, breathe. I’d get a few seconds of space – left arm, right arm – and then just as quickly would be trampled by a small pack – punch, kick. I tried to breathe. I swallowed more water.

Somebody. Please…. Make the bad man stop.

I soon looked up and saw the swim finish. I don’t know how it came so quickly, I didn’t really care. I just wanted this to stop, so I started sprinting, pushing harder to reach the end.

Thank God, I said as I climbed out of the water.
Thank God that’s over.

I got my wetsuit peeled and, as I jogged towards the transition tent, I spotted a waving, bouncing, jumping, screaming, loving Catherine. I love you! she yelled at me.

I lifted my hand. I love you too, I said in a whisper.
Thank God that’s over.

My swim time: 1:06

TRANSITION 1: swim to bike

I jogged into transition with my T1 bag in hand, and found a seat in the far corner. I emptied my T1 bag and prepared myself for the bike as smoothly and efficiently as possible. I lathered my body in lotion, put on my shorts, nutrition in my jersey, donned my helmet, grabbed my glasses, wiped the dirt off my feet, put on my shoes. No talking, no gabbing, no battle stories. I took a big breath, and a long exhale. Time to go.

The day’s challenges:
* Hot. Really really really hot
* Hurricane-like winds
* A stomach that just wouldn’t cooperate
* A never ending desire to give up

If you’re looking for a beautiful, scenic and relatively easy bike course, this ain’t it. You’ll hear all sorts of people spreading all sorts of rumors that the Arizona course is as piece of cake. It’s not. Don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They probably forgot to take their medication.

The Ironman Arizona bike ride is three loops around a primarily ugly 37 mile course (and I say that with all due respect to the cacti). Everything starts all nice and fine as you travel through the outer edges of Arizona State University. When you pass by the stadium (home of the Fiesta Bowl, which I remember going to at least once, though I don’t remember being there – if you get my drift), you may even convince yourself that it’s going to be a scenic ride. But it’s all a trick.

Shortly after passing the stadium, you’ll wind your way through 8 miles of industrial city streets, passing by a vast array of mini malls, gas stations and run down ranches. Just about the time when you feel like you can’t handle the beauty any longer, you reach the Beeline Highway.

The Beeline Highway makes up 20 miles of each 37 mile loop. It’s a steady 10 miles of uphill through an extremely deserted desert with abandoned buildings and lonesome cacti. Even the tumbleweed are looking for some company. You continue to climb steeper and steeper until you reach the turn-around, at which point you turn around, follow a 10 mile descent and a winding path on the same silly streets back to transition. Cross a bridge, turn around again, cross back over the same bridge and it’s time to do the loop another time, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. (Actually, you do pass go – the start and finish lines - twice on this ride. But there’s no two hundred dolly for you, so don’t bother bringing your wallet.)

As we discussed earlier, previous IM AZ races were marked by a pretty strong tailwind that began the moment you got on the bike and continued through half of each loop, pushing you up the 10 mile climb to the Beeline turnaround. Naturally, after turning around at the Beeline Highway turnaround, you’d be slammed face first into a headwind. Tailwind uphill, headwind downhill. That’s how it’s been for the past few years.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, this year was different.
Which sucks for me.

The moment after I mounted my bike and left transition, I got body slammed by a massive wall of wind. I don’t mind climbing. I can deal with rain. But I despise headwind.

SHIT! I screamed in frustration, though the wind was so strong, my words just got thwacked back into my face, which was fairly humiliating, all things considered.

I tried to push hard, thinking maybe if I bike really fast the wind will go away. When you’re out on an Ironman course, logic doesn’t always take the drivers seat. Naturally, my heart rate started climbing. And still, despite my efforts, people were passing me by like I was standing still. This is fucking ridiculous! I yelled at nobody in particular and everybody in general.

After about a mile of this frustration, I realized I’m not going to win a fight with the wind so I decided to try and relax. I had 8 miles before the Beeline Highway and a long day in front of me. If I could just take it easy and spin my way through the wind, maybe the bike ride won’t be as annoying as the swim.

I tried to pedal as easily as possible but with every turn I made, the headwind got worse. What started as a 10 mph wind, gradually turned to 15, then 20mph. It may have even gotten to 25 or 30, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Steady and smooth, I told myself as masses of people cruised by. Calm and relaxed, I reminded myself as other riders effortlessly streamed past. All the while, the wind was ripping my determination to shreds.

By the time I got to the Beeline Highway, things had gotten worse. I tried to stay relaxed but it sure is tough when you’re climbing a 10 mile hill with over 20 mph winds. Every pedal stroke was a struggle. With every minute the turnaround seemed further away. My friends started passing me by. How are you feeling? they’d say, somewhat concerned at my lack of speed. I suck, I’d respond just quiet enough for them to not hear me.

What did you say? they’d ask curiously.

I’d just smile and nod, desperately trying to grasp hold of my ego as it deflated into a pathetic mush that dribbled onto the side of the road.

My back began to hurt, my legs grew tired and my frustrations amplified. Then just as I vowed to never do an Ironman again, I reached mile 17 of the bike: the turnaround.

It’s amazing how one’s mood can change on a dime during an Ironman race. When I turned around, I was greeted with a storming tailwind to carry me down the 10 mile descent. Within seconds I was at 20 miles per hour. 25. 30. It was effortless, I was flying. I smiled. I love this!! I screamed as if I completely forgot that I wanted to quit the damn race two minutes earlier.

I quickly made my way back to town, finished the first lap and, with a wave and a scream from Catherine, head out on lap number two.

I’m not quite sure where it all started. One moment it was a cool-ish ride with ridiculous headwinds, the next moment I found myself riding in the world’s largest sauna with one of those super-sized Hollywood hurricane fans blowing in my face.

The headwind didn’t die down much on loop two, but my legs had grown more tired, my back was in more pain and somebody really turned up the thermostat. It began to get hot. Really hot. Like so hot that you don’t even sweat – the sweat evaporates the moment it hits the air. The forecasters had said there would be a high of 94 to 98 degrees but this felt much worse. (As it turns out, when I looked at my watch after the race, it listed the high as 107 degrees).

I poured water on my head, down my back, on my arms. It felt great for a few seconds but, alas, the water would dry within five minutes. My body began to overheat so I’d continue to pour. Soon enough, though, my water bottle got hot. I tried to drink. That didn’t work.

Lesson number one: swallowing hot water in 100 degree weather during an Ironman is not good for the stomach. I grabbed a cold Gatorade from the next aid station and took a quick sip. I nearly threw up.

[cue police siren]
Danger Will Robinson. We’ve got stomach problems. This is definitely not good.

There’s a movie called “The Runner” that documents the journey of a man running from one end of the Pacific Coast Trail to the other. Mexico to Canada. As he’s taking his first steps in the beginning of the journey he utters some words that immediately stuck in my brain.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

There I was, struggling through the Ironman Arizona course, I had a sick stomach and an overheated body; I was a slow rider with tired legs and sore back climbing a 10 mile hill with a 20 mile headwind in 107 degree weather. This fucking blows.

I was in pain and I was suffering.

When you’re riding through the heat of the desert, the mind can play tricks on you. When you’re tired and drained, when you can’t eat or drink, when your ego has been torn to pieces from a three hour steady stream of riders passing you by, when you’re overheated, overwhelmed, over-wrought, there is nothing more you want to do but quit. If you just stop moving, maybe the pain will go away. If you just stop, maybe everything will be fine.

Beginning on that second loop I struggled more than I ever have on a bike ride. I fought the wind, I fought the heat, I fought the pain, I fought my mind. There was no fun in my journey. There was no enjoyment, no excitement. STOP! my brain was ordering the rest of my body. STOP! STOP! STOP!

Don’t listen, I told myself as I tried to focus. One pedal stroke, then another. I concentrated on each muscle contraction. I painstakingly forced the crank to turn in one more rotation. I cursed the heat, the headwind, the hill. I cursed my back and my legs. I cursed the course, the bike, the sport. I cursed the Chipotle billboard in front of me. I wanted to find serenity, to keep moving forward with peace of mind. But I struggled and pushed and fought and argued. I wrestled the constant desire to give in. I battled to the death for every single goddam inch of the race.

The wind blew, the body ached, the day grew hotter. I tried to drink, but after sitting in 100 degree weather for three hours, my liquid had nearly come to a boil. My stomach grumbled. I tried to eat pretzels but that made it worse. I nibbled on fig newtons and gagged.

Sick. Nauseous. Can’t eat. Can’t pedal. Can’t move.
I can’t do this, I said. It’s too hard.

And then suddenly, my legs stopped moving.

They just quit. They had enough. It was not a conscious decision; they didn’t consult me, they just stopped on their own. Immediately, the wind slowed me down. The riders who were right behind me passed me by. I dropped my head. I resigned. My ember of desire was dimming.

This is it.
I’m done.

My bike began to teeter from the speed. I slowed towards a stop. And just as I began to lose my balance, my legs began again. Again, no thought or consultation, they just began moving. One excruciating pedal stroke. And then two. Slowly, methodically, they moved. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but they moved.

NOOOO!!! My brain screamed. NO!!! YOU NEED TO STOP!

The pain got worse, the legs more tired, but still they moved. And as I turned around on the downtown bridge, with one more lap to go, I bid Catherine farewell yet again and pedaled forward in utter disbelief, into the wind, into the heat, back into the depths of hell.

The second lap of my bike was horrendous, but the third was worse. I struggled and suffered. Every second of every moment I had to continually convince myself to push through another pedal stroke. And then another. I pedaled slowly and slower. I strived to stay moving. I played games with my mind. Just to the next sign, I’d say. The next block, the next turn, the next traffic light. Just take one sip, one bite, a little nibble. I broke my race down to infinitesimally microscopic segments. I battled my mind to forget what was ahead of me and to focus on now. I wrestled with the acceptance of immediate accomplishments. I’m proud of you, I’d say. Good job, good effort. But it meant nothing.

There is no pride in the circle of suffering. Encouraging words fall limp and lifeless when battling a flat feeling of frustration. There is no “me”, there is no “now”. There is no peace or serenity. All I saw was a frustratingly long, brutally hot, extremely difficult road ahead of me. How do I pedal another block? How do I finish this bike? How do I run a marathon? I can’t, I can’t.

I can’t.

But still, somehow, for some reason, I went on. I picked a goal and a reward. Just get to the corner and nibble on a pretzel. One more aid station and get some water. Just pedal. Just move. Just go.


Despite every atom in my body screaming for me to stop, despite every cell laying in resignation, despite everything everywhere, I moved forward. Somehow, someway I finished the bike.

There is a satisfying feeling I usually get when I finish a long, strenuous bike ride. I’m ecstatic to be off the bike, relieved to finish and ready to run. I felt that at Lake Placid, I felt that in training.

There was no ounce of that feeling anywhere for me in Arizona. My soul was drained from that ride. I stumbled off the bike a shell of a man.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
I suffered.

Are you ok? Catherine screamed from the sidelines with a look of dread and concern. Do you feel alright?

Yes, I murmured in a heat-induced daze, assuming she was asking because I went so slowly. I’m fine, I said.

You’re doing great, she screamed encouragingly. All you have to do is manage your nutrition and you’ll get through the run! You’ve got this!

I looked at her. I may have nodded, I’m not sure.

I suffered.

Bike time: 7:12

TRANSITION 2: bike to run
The men’s change tent in transition two was a site I will not soon forget. There were about forty people in there, none of them moving. They were drinking cups of cold ice, volunteers were massaging some feet. They weren’t moving. They weren’t leaving. It was a morgue.

I had entered the Tent of Resignation.

As I dragged my tired body to a chair, I knew how they felt. This was the place where people go when they can’t go on. My body was drained, my stomach was revolting. I was dehydrated, feverish and frustrated.

I put my hands on my legs and hung my head.

I took a sip of cold water and stared at the person massaging the feet next to me. I slowly changed into my running shorts. I took out my visor and running shoes. And I sat and waited. I waited for the world to pass me by. I waited for the run to finish. I waited for me to quit.

As I sat in limbo, I knew that it was no less than 95 degrees outside, there was no shade, no relief. Suddenly the man next to me began to speak.

I can’t go on, he said to the volunteer. I’m staying here. I’ve had enough.

I looked over and stared him in the face. I looked into the depth of his eyes, searching his soul for a mirror of me. We stared in silence. And just as suddenly, an ember burned brighter.

He is not you, it said.

I dared not look into his eyes any further. I quickly put on my shoes, stood up and left the tent.

The day’s challenges:
* Very very hot
* Blister on right foot
* Ouch

The moment I stepped out of that tent, I committed myself to keep moving forward. Despite the pain or the frustrations, I promised myself that I would run the entire race. Yes, I would walk part of the aid stations, but there would be no walking in-between. So at the very moment I stepped out of that tent, before I even got to the timing mat, I began to run.

But just because you’re moving doesn’t mean it feels good.

If you’ve ever run in intensely hot weather you know the feeling. It’s like you’re suffocating. It’s as if somebody wrapped a pillow over your face and dropped you in the Sahara. Every inhale burns your throat, it scorches your lungs. You struggle to find some escape, just a modicum of shade. But there’s nothing you can do. The more you struggle, the more it hurts.

My legs were tired from the bike ride and my soul felt drained. I turned onto the course and ran towards the crowd of spectators. I searched the crowd frantically for Catherine. I went from face to face, looking for a ray of hope. Blank stares. Random cheers. No Catherine.

I took a big breath, a sigh of resignation, and moved forward into my next 26 miles. It was then, my eyes focused on the road in front of me, that I saw her. Bouncing, screaming, yelling, waving, it was Catherine.

The most treasured moments in life are those where from the depths of darkness comes light. When the world is piled with despair, there emerges a faint glimmer of hope. I started my run a broken man, fatigued and fearful, and then I saw Catherine.

I ran directly up to her and stopped. I put my hands on her cheeks, pulled her face close to mine and kissed and kissed and kissed. I hugged and held. And for that single moment in time, everything that was weighing me down, all the pain and suffering, the heat and struggle, the fading ember of desire, it all fell free. For once, I was free. I began to cry.

I love you, I said. And though with me I dragged the suffering and pain I had been embracing throughout the day, if for only a few seconds, the touch and sight of Catherine made it more bearable. There was hope.

I began to run my marathon.

The Ironman Arizona marathon consists of three laps of a figure eight course (which I suppose makes it six loops in all). The first loop (let’s call it Loop A) starts at transition and continues for 3 ½ miles until you pass through transition again and head out for the 5+ miles of the other loop (Loop B) which, again, leads you back to transition. After completing that circuit three times, you are rerouted to the finish line and the end of your journey.

Throughout each of the 8.5 mile laps, runners travel across varied terrain, including paved roads, dirt trails and bike paths. Like the bike course, the marathon route is extremely exposed with little shade to relieve racers from the heat. While the 3 ½ miles of Loop A is fairly flat with one short but steep hill near the end of the course, Loop B provides a bit more of a challenge thanks to a surprisingly long hill (about ½ mile) halfway through the loop.

My initial target was to get as close to a 4 hour marathon as possible. I knew that if I could run 10 minute miles for the first lap and slowly pick up the pace through the rest of the marathon, I should be fine. I was only about ½ mile into my marathon when any hope of meeting that goal began to fade.

When you’re already spiraling down a hole, there is a vulture of frustration that circles the mind and wears down the soul. Each negative thought gives birth to another, until you are caught in an endless spiral of decay.

The trick is to fight the vultures. No matter how deep you fall into the darkness, your only hope is to focus on the light. You must continually struggle to climb and claw your way to survive.

As I continued through the run course, my struggles increased. The heat was overwhelming and my legs were increasingly tired. I tried to focus on little goals. I knew if I could just get from aid station to aid station I’d be fine. But I couldn’t help but think of the long road in front of me. I felt overwhelmed at the power of Ironman. I struggled to stay running.

The first loop was horrendous. Though I ran the entire way, the moment I reached each aid station, I slowed to a walk. I drank and ate as best I could despite my growing inability to swallow anything with flavor. No Gatorade, no oranges, no gel, no pretzels, no fig newtons, nothing. I yearned for bland nutrition but the choices were limited. I drank water, I ate salt tablets. And I reached deep into the very pit of my soul to find the energy to start running again.

After finishing Loop A, I embarked on the five seemingly endless miles of Loop B. One turn led to another. A long uphill led to a quad-crushing downhill. At every intersection I expected it to be over, but it kept pushing forward. On and on and on, my mind swirling and fuming. Even when I completed that loop and embarked on my second lap of the course, I was bottoming out. I was angry. Tired. Hungry. Pained. Hot. Suffering. Fatigued. Every step was an effort. Every mile seemed further then the last. I’d struggle, shuffle, move. Get to the aid station and walk. Then, again, battle to find the will to run once more.

Lost in the circling drain of frustration at mile 10, I passed by my friend John. John had passed me early on the bike and, worn out from the heat of the day, was walking the marathon. Seconds after I passed him, he found the energy to pick up the pace and we began to run side-by-side.

There is a power one gets when running with another. It’s not just the conversation that keeps you going, it’s the energy you share. As for us, our energy was negative. We were hot, we were angry, we wanted this day to end.

One thing you should know about me, when I get very frustrated and tired, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear anybody else’s problems. I want to suffer and struggle and wallow in my own private misery. So that’s what I did while I ran along John. But John isn’t like me, I think he liked the company. I vaguely remember him saying “misery loves company” at some point, though I didn’t bother to argue about the pissy, companionless nature of my misery. So on and on he went, talking to me about his day, his challenges, his experience and blah blah blah. He talked and tried to heal. Frankly, I didn’t want to listen. I was too busy suffering. Don’t bother me when I’m suffering.

We can do this, he said at one point. Even if we have to walk, we’ll do this.

There’s no walking, I spat at him like a drill sergeant. We run. Aid station to aid station. Walking is not allowed.

He looked at me in somewhat disbelief of my attitude. Ok, he said in a “what’s gotten up your ass” type of tone.

As we continued running, I began to feel bad for hiding in my prison of pain. I figured I needed to suck it up and talk, at least a little. I dug deep inside and forced myself to let go of my suffering long enough to say a couple words.

Nice day for a run, I said in a weak attempt to act happy. Probably not the smartest thing to say, but ya gotta give me credit for trying.

As we continued running, John started feeling more relaxed so I tried to build off that energy. I tried to calm my mind and clear my head. I did my best to let go of the rest of the day, and let the miles pass me by. And then, somewhere around mile 13, everything changed.

There is something mysterious about that ember of desire. Just when you think the flame has died, something ignites a spark. It may be remote, it may not even create a fire, but it gives light - and hope. And somehow it keeps you moving forward.

Halfway through the marathon at Ironman Arizona, it all started making sense to me. This pain, this suffering, this constant battle to keep moving forward… THIS is Ironman. This is exactly what I trained for. It is why I am here.

When I raced Ironman Lake Placid, I was having an amazing race, feeling great and relaxed all the way until mile 14 of the marathon. At mile 14, everything stopped and didn’t want to move. If I’m impressed about anything from my Lake Placid experience, it’s that I ran the last 12 miles.

At Arizona, everything was different. Twenty minutes into the race I wanted to quit and that feeling never subsided. My swim was the most frustrating of my life. My bike ride was the most horrendous. My run the most challenging. And then, at mile 13, as the sun went down on the city, the ember inside me began to glow. My mind began to clear. My body began to loosen. The drive and determination I have known began to seep into my veins. For the entire day I had been searching for the answers everywhere I could. Finally, I found me.

For the next five miles the balance of energy began to shift. With each step I grew stronger, each mile I grew tougher. I began to encourage John, to drive him harder. We picked up the pace and pushed deeper. For the first time I began to smile. I lifted my head, widened my eyes, straightened my back. I felt a surge jolt through my bones. By the time we got to mile 18, I felt renewed. I was reborn. It was as if my race had just begun. After one hundred and twenty two miles of suffering, I let go.

At mile 19, John couldn’t keep the pace any longer. His legs were cramping and he needed to walk. As I pulled away and bid farewell with immense gratitude, I felt my body pick up the pace. For the first time throughout the entire day, my mind became focused. Aid station to aid station, I went. A quick drink, a quick bite, and I was off.

As I neared mile 20 I ran on the edge of the road to absorb the energy of the crowd. Great job! they yelled. You look wonderful, they said.

I feel great, I replied with a smile and a wave. And slowly I picked up the pace.

My race had changed. After 13 hours and 134 miles, all was good.

Then, fairly suddenly, the blister appeared. One second I was doing fine, the next second I was limping in pain. It hurt and it hurt bad. But, alas, I ran 20 miles of IM Lake Placid with a blister, surely I can get through 5 miles of this course without walking. So I kept going.

There is something about me that is drawn to pain. Especially when running. The greater the pain, the greater my focus and determination. Naturally, as the pain of my blister became worse, I began to dig deeper and focus harder. For the first time in the entire day, I knew I could make this. I passed through mile 22 and 23 with barely a stop at the aid stations. I surged up the hill and barreled back down to mile 24. As I crossed the bridge to mile 25 I could see the lights of the finish line in front of me. I felt great. Amazed, relieved.

I stormed through the last aid station without stopping and picked up the pace. The adrenaline coursed through my veins like a thundering waterfall. With each step I got stronger and faster, pushing harder and deeper. I felt renewed and refreshed. For the first time, I felt accomplishment. I smiled and began to cry.

I passed through the parking lot at mile 26 and…

It seems to appear out of nowhere. You climb the last hill in dark silence, take a left turn and then… Yes.

Yes, a wall of people.
Yes, a thunder of applause.
Yes, a rush of emotion.

Yes, it was surreal. There was clapping and there was cheering. I turned around to see, but there was nobody but me.
Yes they were cheering for me.

A tsunami of emotion flooded my body. I became enveloped in tears of joy and disbelief. Yes, I did it. Yes, I survived.

I jumped in amazement.
I screamed in disbelief.

YES! YES!!! YES!!!!

As I strode the last meters towards the finish, snapshots of the day came flashing across my brain. Yes the pain, yes the frustration, yes the struggles.

Somehow, someway, yes. I did it. Yes I did.


* * * *

The conditions at Arizona were absurd. My watch showed a peak of 107 degrees with an average for the day of 95 degrees. The wind seemed well above 20 miles per hour. I’ve heard rumors that the race had the highest DNF rate of any Ironman in history (somewhere between 23% and 28%, depending on who’s statistics you want to believe).

I am proud of myself to have finished. And though I tell myself that the race should be proof that I can withstand anything, I don’t yet believe me.

Shortly after I finished the race, I looked down to notice my right shoe had turned red. I removed the shoe to see a blood soaked sock. Upon hobbling to the medical tent, I learned that, as a result of running on that blister, I had stripped all of the skin off my toe. The week to follow became extremely painful, despite the antibiotics, crutches and pain killers. And though that injury soon healed, there is a deeper part of me that is still trying to heal and find the meaning of my difficulties in Arizona.

As humans, when we encounter life’s toughest obstacles, we strive to find meaning. We want to know how we’re better, how we’ve changed. We want to know in the end if it was all worth it. We want to know why. We want to believe that there is more than a t-shirt and a finisher’s medal. There has to be.

I found a piece of me during my struggles at Arizona. I don’t know what it means or where it fits, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure that out or even care. But deep down inside I believe – I have to – that I am a better man because of it all. And I suppose sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

After all, I am an Ironman. And that’s gotta count for something.