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

"The gun went off, and I saw nothing but Speedos and elbows...I thought about slowing down to let the real athletes pass, but they'd have gone right over the top of me."  

Swim. A blissfully ignorant self-portrait in the staging area before the swim.

(a mile and a quarter up the Russian River to a turnaround point and back downstream to the staging area)

Everyone was assigned to a wave for the start of the swim. I don't know how they split up the waves, but I'm guessing it had to do with the estimated finish times on the registration form. If that's the case, I must have really underestimated my time on the registration form, because I somehow ended up in the first wave.

By the time I found a spot for my bike, I only had about thirty seconds to stretch before they called my wave down to the water. So, just like that, it was time to strip down and size up the competition. The guy standing next to me actually looked like the muscle and ligament dude in one of those anatomy pictures, only painted a skin color. As I packed my clothes into my sports bag there was no way to hide the fact that I was going to have more swimsuit and more body fat than any other man in the competition (and most of the women, too). Mr. Anatomy gave my baggy suit a strange look.

 “My girlfriend threatened to dump me if I bought a Speedo,” I said apologetically.

The fitness poster boy didn’t crack the slightest smile but went right back to his stretching and flexing. Apparently I wasn't taking this thing seriously enough.

As I looked at the athletic caliber around me, my casual training suddenly seemed overwhelmingly inadequate. The feeling of ill preparation was like that dream where you show up for class and the teacher hands out a test everyone else knew about. Plus you’re wearing nothing but a jockstrap…Somewhere in the field there must have been some other iron virgins as we’re known, but to me everyone else seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

Just an hour before I had been shouting out Ozzy's classic Ironman riff in the car to get me stoked, but now it was more like “I am Virginman,” with cheesy John Tesh music backing me up (yes, John Tesh actually has an Ironman album, too.) Rounding off the list of groups with an Ironman album is Ghostface Killah, whose lyrics start out with “What you doin' on our turf, punk?” followed by a bunch of obscenities. The gangsta rap version certainly fit the situation more closely. The sneers of the players around me seemed to be telling me to take my John Tesh CD and get off their turf while I still had a chance to walk away. 

The forecast called for warm weather later in the day, but you wouldn’t have known it from the chill before sunrise. I envied the guys with enough foresight to show up in a wetsuit. When you walk down to a river on a foggy morning, shivering uncontrollably while wearing nothing but your shorts, stepping into the black water is about the last thing you’d want to do. I stared at the shoreline and hesitated for a second before I realized all the good (i.e., shallow) spots were disappearing fast.

There was nothing to do at that point but to walk right in, stake my claim on a piece of the river, and make a warm spot to tread water in until the starting gun. The other competitors were starting to cheer in anticipation of the starting gun. When my feet left solid ground and I found myself in over my head, a contagious boost of adrenaline kicked in; I don't know if it was the chill in the water or just the palpable intensity of the moment, but the whole horde in the water let out a good yell that could have saved the Alamo or sent the walls of Jericho a-tumblin’ down. I've never been one to raise my fist to a speech or cheer raucously with a crowd, but here was one time I got into it – hoopin’ and hollerin’ like I was a freaking cowboy in a landrush. 

The gun went off, and I saw nothing but Speedos and elbows while I gasped and swallowed gulps of water. I caught a couple of heels off my chin and thought about stopping to let everyone pass, but they’d have just gone right over the top of me.

“It’s only a race,” I told myself. But people have actually died in this leg of the Vineman…like really dead: deceased, extinct, cadaverous, liquidated, departed forever! From what I’ve read, it usually starts with a panic attack set off by getting elbowed, and then you get pushed under, never to surface again until the scuba divers pull you out and stuff you into a body bag. Only a race? This literally felt like a life-or-death struggle for survival!

Well, I was in no way ready to meet my maker, especially if I’d have to explain how a pre-teen stupor of thought had led to this suicidal situation, so I swam over to the side as close to the buoys as I could manage. At one point I actually scraped my hands on the riverbed and realized just how shallow the water was – maybe I wouldn’t drown after all! As I looked around to gain my bearings, I realized that a few others had succumbed to the relief offered by solid ground – they were actually walking this stretch! No way was I going to give up on my goals this early in the race, so I kept right on plowing through the shallow water facedown.

Unfortunately during my surveillance I had also spotted some cows along the river banks, which got me thinking about what I knew of the local hydrology from my engineering classes. With dams along the river blocking the flow, the water I was swallowing – thanks to an ongoing drought in the region that had led to historically low river levels – had now been stagnating for quite some time. How many cow pies had been dropped into this reach of the river with nowhere to go? And, with heavy pesticide use in the contributing watershed, what sort of agricultural brew might be forming in this sink? Was that really fog coming off the water or something more malignant? Perhaps the walkers had the right idea after all!

The race frenzy had begun to die down by this time – not because people were getting nicer, but because I had gradually dropped to the back of the pack. I was a little bummed about falling back so soon, but at least the calm water allowed me to get into a good, slow rhythm with my strokes. It wasn’t long before I noticed people swimming the wrong way – they were already on their way back from the turnaround that marked the halfway point. And I wasn't even half way to the halfway point!

I picked up the pace until I came to a low trestle crossing the river. It was covered with a mat, and you had to get out and walk a few steps to get over it. Apparently I had forgotten how to support myself on two legs – a bad omen given that functioning legs would be crucially vital to the rest of my day. I had to focus on the present, though, and I slowly got back into my hydro-groove.

Every once in a while there would be a rush of turbulence, and I realized it was the later heats passing me by. By the time I hit the turnaround, there weren’t many swimmers behind me anymore, and I briefly forgot I was racing. When I hit the trestle the second time, I stayed on my hands and knees and just flopped back into the water on my side. I wondered how long it would take me to float downstream if I just passed out right then and there, but the so-called current was too slow to be of any help at all.

On the home stretch, I aimed for the spot of green that marked the Astroturf mat they had laid out in the water. I wasn’t sure how close I’d have to get to be able to stand, so I just swam right up it until I was basically lying on it. I was finally on solid ground, but my arms were shot. Out of sheer adrenaline, I had been doing the crawl stroke the whole way. In training, I had never gone more than a few hundred yards before switching to a wimpier breaststroke or even the backstroke. I guess I hadn’t considered that there’s no way to swim backstroke in a race setting, since you’ll wail on the people next to you and probably end up getting shoved under the water by some dude with no body hair. Plus without the luxury of lane markers, you’d end up running yourself right into a logjam.

My arms were completely numb, and they gave out when I tried to prop myself up. My face hit the water and then the mat just a few inches deeper. I was a bit disoriented when I finally stood up and stumbled toward the bikes like a drunk fish out of water. The race photographer started snapping photos and caught me in an awkward pose. I could just imagine the next day’s newspaper showing a picture of the winner: “Vineman!” Then next to it you’d see my picture with its own caption: “Wineman!”

All embarrassment aside, though, I found some consolation in the fact that I had licked one full leg of this beast; somehow I had managed to come out relatively unscathed. One down, two to go!


   [click below to continue]

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

Additional links:

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.


Related books:


This site is not affiliated with the Ironman Triathlon or any of its sponsors
"Ironman" and the M-dot are trademarks of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC).
"Vineman" is a trademark of the Vineman Triathlon.