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| Part I: Big Idea | | Part II: Swim | | Part III: Bike | | Part IV: Run | | Part V: Done |

"The race was just four months away, but I figured if I started training right away, I’d have plenty of time to get ready..."

Rainbow over Sonoma Vineyards - KP Photo
Sonoma County's Wine Country



Well, the years went by, “The Day After” never came, and puberty brought new interests. A set of reshuffled priorities prevailed over my old list, which got stashed away between the pages of a soon-forgotten book. When I left home after high school, the book went into a box that eventually made its way up to the storage shelves in the attic of our barn – which could very well have doubled for one of those vast warehouses in an Indiana Jones movie set.

I headed to Southern California after college and eventually found myself working an uneventful engineering job that made me wonder how I could possibly be spending eight hours a day with my rear end parked in the same swivel seat. Real adulthood status hit me even harder when my parents first came to see me in my new place. After a quick hello, my dad went straight back out to the RV and started unloading a bunch of boxes he had run across in a recent, empty-nester downsizing effort. As it turned out, their real motive in dropping by was not to see me, but to finally unload all of the junk I had left at home.

After they left, I got nostalgic going through boxes I hadn't seen in years. At some point during my reminiscing, I ran across my old list. I was excited to see it again, and I thought it might be fun to go through it and see how many goals I could check off. Nope, nope, nope… I stared at the check-less list, and the paper itself seemed to taunt me: You’re over a quarter of a century old and can’t even cross a single life-goal off your list!

Without giving my brain a chance to interject some common sense, my sub-ego came back with a premature reply: No way! A quarter century is NOT old, and I still have plenty of time to get to every item on this list one by one. Watch this! I glared at Goal #1 and decided right then and there that I’d be checking it off before my next birthday.

What I originally had in mind was the king-daddy race in Hawaii that I had seen on TV, but unfortunately in the meantime the Kona race had become so popular that only those who had previously qualified could even give it a shot. Sure, there was a lottery for novices like myself, but even those who won the coveted lottery spots had to validate their entry by completing another full-distance triathlon first. Now my goal was to do it once…and then never again. I started checking around online and, to my consolation, found an ironman-length qualifier race right there in California: the Vineman in Sonoma County’s wine country. Sounded like a beautiful setting. Besides, a trip to the Bay Area would give me an excuse to see some old college friends from my days at Berkeley – ideal!

The race was just four months away, but I figured if I started training right away, I'd have plenty of time to get ready (note to wannabe Ironmen: take a year at a minimum...two if you work a desk job). I was psyched when my entry form came in the mail, and I started filling it out right away. Though you don't have to officially quality for the qualifiers, you still have to guess at your finish time on the entry form; I made what I now know to be a very overconfident estimate (not a good idea, as it turns out), wrote out a check, and dropped the packet in the mail. Being financially challenged, I felt a bit like someone posting bail; in other words, I was taking enough of a hit coughing up the stiff registration fee to guarantee that I'd at least show up on race day.




I only lived a few miles from the coast, so I started biking to work and hitting the beach on the way home for ocean swims and boardwalk runs. I had been looking for some sort of challenge to break up my day, and this sort of so-called training in SoCal certainly seemed like an optimal way to get my sorry butt into shape. The first hitch, however, came when my road bike got stolen. I had locked it to a signpost, but someone had pulled the sign clear out of the ground to get to the bike. Downhearted, I switched to my mountain bike. It really slowed me down, but as a positive spin, I figured my newfound “resistance training” might actually help increase my stamina.

Another hitch came up slowly over the next couple of weeks as I found myself up against a deadline at work. I started staying at the office later and later until pretty soon it was getting dark before I left. A couple of freaky encounters with seaweed during night swims in the ocean convinced me to switch venues to my subdivision’s tiny pool. It seemed easy enough – probably because the pool was so small that kicking off the wall would get you clear to the other side without much effort. I tried going in circles, but that made me dizzy, so I went back to regular laps. I measured the pool and figured out that it would take four hundred or so laps to test my endurance for the full 2 ˝ miles of the race…never happened.

After a few months of phony spring training, a further hitch came with a job transfer to Phoenix. Arizona’s brutal summer had hit in the meantime, which meant no biking during daylight hours unless you’re into heatstroke. Luckily, I found a health club near my office that was offering a free trial membership that would cover me all the way through race day. Training in air-conditioned comfort seemed too good to be true…and it was: My final weeks of training consisted of running on a treadmill, biking on a stationary bike, and swimming laps in another miniature lap pool. It should have been obvious to me, but I was about to find out the hard way that this kind of simulated, lunch-break training doesn’t quite cut it on the day of reckoning.

I booked my flight with a few weeks to go; the airline wanted an extra $50 to check my bike as luggage, so I started calling friends in Berkeley to see if somebody could lend me one for a day. After a couple of dead ends, I finally found a friend with an old racing bike, so I made arrangements for the pickup. It's ridiculous now that I think about it, but if the airline rep hadn't told me about the extra charge for the bike at that point, I would have brought along a mountain bike for the race and would (presumably) have gone the whole 112 miles on knobby tires. Absurd!

As race day approached I started feeling the butterflies. I hadn't set a time goal for myself, but I did have some additional, self-imposed race criteria: I wanted to swim the swim, bike the bike, and run the run. That may sound obvious, but there's actually a true story about a guy who stayed in the shallows and walked the whole swim leg of the 1980 Ironman. Others have pushed their bikes up every incline or walked the entire marathon. I’ll bet even my grandma could finish an ironman-length race if you gave her enough rests; so as my secondary goals, I vowed not to touch the ground or hang onto buoys during the swim, dismount during the bike leg, or walk a single step during the marathon.

Initially I had been completely confident that – whether or not I met each of my goals – I’d somehow manage to finish the beast. But as crunch-time neared and training time ran out, I realized I hadn't tested myself over the full distance of any of the three events. I started wondering if I'd be able to hack a single one of the legs, let alone all three on the same day; it was too late to compensate with long training sessions, though, since this late in the game I'd just wear myself out for the race. I spent the last few days before the race bouncing back and forth between mild fear and complete panic.




I flew into Oakland the night before the race; my friend Michael – having embarked on a more lucrative post-collegiate career than I – picked me up from the airport in his brand new BMW. We made a quick stop to grab the loaner bike, which didn’t quite fit into his trunk. I hadn’t considered the need for a bike rack, and the fact that I hadn’t thought this whole thing through became pointedly obvious as I ran around looking to borrow some twine to jerry-rig a solution to my oversight. I then found myself crouched behind the car in a vain attempt to make the scratches in the paint job a bit less conspicuous by rubbing in some dirt. Needless to say, my spirit was sinking fast as we pulled up to Michael’s place.

I had been planning to shave my head for the race anyway, so to instill a little false confidence I got out my razor and gave myself a full-on Bic-shave with a Mohawk. Turned out when I looked in the mirror, though, I didn’t feel any badder – just balder.

I set Michael’s alarm clock and, too late for any regrets, crashed on his couch. I didn't sleep well – if at all – knowing that a full day of certain torture lay just ahead…plus I didn’t trust the borrowed alarm clock; I kept having flashbacks to that Seinfeld episode where the marathon runner oversleeps because Jerry’s alarm clock doesn’t go off.

With these fears haunting me, I was already wide awake when 4:30 a.m. hit and it was time to start rolling. The course was about an hour’s drive away; I borrowed the Bimmer and headed out alone on the road. As the miles passed, I became fixated on the speedometer and odometer, realizing that I was going to have to cover more miles with my own legs and the human-powered vehicle strapped into the trunk than the Bimmer could cover in a whole hour at top speed. Trying to focus on a different set of lights on the dashboard, I turned up the stereo.

As I neared my destination with the bass thumping in my borrowed ride, I began to feel the adrenaline pumping, and I actually was starting to feel a little badder! I started seeing bikes out on the road with the first glimpses of daylight; it hit me that race day really was finally here, and I was stoked to kick some butt. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that I was still miles from the starting line, and these guys were out taking warm-up laps – cruising around at highway speeds on bikes that cost more than the combined value of all my earthly possessions. So it wasn’t long until I lost all my badness once again.

I pulled up to the staging area, found some parking, and mechanically went through the check-in process. I was pretty much the only one doing a race-day check-in; most everyone else had been in town the day before to register, preview the course, work out all the logistics of the transfers, and pack in a carb-loaded spaghetti dinner. I had read about all the pre-race activities in the registration packet, but without any vacation days saved up at work, I never really considered showing up early. Now I wished for a familiar face – a veteran to sit down with and drill for advice or a fellow first-timer to show me I wasn’t alone. But with the starting gun just an hour away, it was too late for small talk. They handed me my packet, and I got my number written right on my shoulder in waterproof marker just like those guys on TV in Kona…but I sure didn’t feel like one of those guys on TV in Kona.

I packed my running gear into a bag full of logos and walked my bike out to the racks – then spent far too much time among the hundreds of bikes trying to figure out where to strategically stash mine so that I could find it again quickly when the swim was done. That last hour was probably the shortest hour of my life. It was total ground rush, which is what skydivers go through for a few seconds before touchdown. Though you’re not going any faster toward the end, at the last minute the ground seems to rush up like it’s going to smack you hard. A couple of times in life I’ve faced milestones (my wedding day, for instance) where the sheer magnitude of the approaching event made it feel like it was accelerating toward me. Well this was one of those times, and I was about to get smacked.

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| Home |
| Part I: Big Idea | | Part II: Swim | | Part III: Bike | | Part IV: Run | | Part V: Done |

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This account was originally written when Kara Douglass Thom was collecting stories from other "First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event" for her book Becoming an Ironman. Well, being Moronman, I didn't finish my contribution in time, so I've posted it online instead.


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