A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Half Iron, Half Jello

Last summer I competed in a triathlon. I use the word “compete” in the sense of “finished the course without drowning or succumbing to heat stroke.”  When I signed up for it, it was unclear even to me why I would even consider doing such a thing, except that I knew the threat of public humiliation would help motivate me to get into some semblance of good shape.  This was no idle afternoon’s entertainment; the race included 1.2 miles of swimming, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run. 
Why such peculiar distances?  Well, 13.1 miles is half of a marathon, and 56 miles is half of… 112 miles.  I have no rational explanation, other than the fact that a race twice this long is called an “Ironman” – a name that invariably makes me giggle.  Is an Iron Man one step up from the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz?  Does he have an accent like the Terminator?  Does he channel a British butler, like C3PO?  Or is he just a real whiz at getting dress shirts neatly pressed?
If “Ironman” sounds goofy, “half Ironman” sounds both goofy AND incomplete.  But, I thought, a semi-triathlon seemed appropriate for me, because I often feel like I do everything by halves.  I work 30 hours a week at a job that could easily suck up 60 hours.  I write emails while on teleconferences, I eat breakfast while creating spreadsheets, and I plan meetings while folding laundry.  This would be great if I did a stellar job with all this multi-tasking, but I don’t.  I have Cheerios in my keyboard and a whole bag of stray socks.  I try to bake 30-minute brownies in 15 minutes – but I fail.  I knew there was no way I could do a whole Ironman, but maybe – just maybe – I could fake my way through a half.
My potential triathlon prowess, I had to admit, fell squarely into the half-baked category. I run with a lumbering gait on my iffy Achilles tendons; my bike is designed for touring, not racing -- complete with shock absorbers and a rear rack; and I swim like a cat who has accidentally fallen into the bathtub. 
My training for the event mostly consisted of hauling the kids around – either biking them to and from preschool in their Chariot trailer, or trotting along with them in the jog stroller.  The fact that we often jogged to the playground next to Hotlicks Ice Cream may have negated some of the positive benefits of the exercise.  I did TRY to practice swimming – I really did.  I got a punch card for the gym.  I put on a Speedo, repeatedly.  I slogged up and down the pool, occasionally crashing into whatever poor soul got stuck sharing my lane.  I got bloodshot eyes from the chlorine leaking into my goggles, and I earned pitying glances from the 21-year-old lifeguards, but I didn’t get much faster.
On a sizzlingly hot Saturday in July, I showed up at the start of the race – a Steese Highway pull-off -- with my inappropriate bicycle, my exceedingly cheap wetsuit, my muddy running shoes, and my cheering squad, otherwise known as my family. The kids immediately found a large dirt pile that afforded excellent mountaineering practice.  Meanwhile, I staked out a spot for my stuff in the official transition zone.  I loaded my bike with water bottles and crammed Powerbars in the snack bag.  I applied sunscreen, and snuck glances at the other competitors.  Their buff physiques, slick logoed tri-suits, and shiny, high-tech paraphernalia made it abundantly clear that I was out of my league.  I think even my bicycle felt embarrassed. 
In line for the Port-a-Potty, a woman about my age asked me a logistical question.  “Oh, I have no idea what I’m doing,” I blurted. “Actually, I feel kind of ridiculous.”
It turned out it was her first half-Ironman, too.  “You look official enough,” she reassured me.  She was obviously either very kind or extremely near-sighted.  I was wearing nothing but a 15-year-old highly compressive sports bra and a thrift-store pair of Spandex shorts.  I’m relatively muscular, I suppose, but I’m not even vaguely lithe – and I’ve had twins.  When I was pregnant, my belly expanded to roughly the size of the Hindenburg.  Four years later, my skin is still a couple of sizes too large, and my belly button is irrevocably inside out.
As in almost all triathlons, the swimming portion came first, thus giving me the chance for maximum immediate mortification.  We were tasked with doing five laps around the perimeter of a gravel pit.  Imagine swimming in a shallow, murky, weed-infested pool of water (which, it later became clear, was infested with more than just weeds).  You are encased in a hot, restrictive wetsuit, and you are wearing blurry, leaky goggles.  Now imagine that there are fifty immensely strong people in black neoprene attempting to swim beside, around, over, and on top of you. After the first thirty seconds, I was pretty well convinced that I would not survive. 
Things got marginally better when all of my competitors had passed me and were surging around the other side of the pit, but pretty soon the leaders started catching up with me again.  The water was only about sixty degrees, but I was so hot I was hyperventilating.  I couldn’t see where I was going, and kept getting tangled in the orange flags, or beaching myself in shallow gravel.  After two miserable laps, I stopped and took off my wetsuit.
Taking off a skin-tight neoprene bodysuit is no easy maneuver at the best of times, and I was panting, discombobulated, and waist deep in water, but I managed to extricate myself, and hurl the offending item shoreward, where my long-suffering husband retrieved it.  This sort of move might have disqualified me from a race in the Lower 48, but up here, no one seemed unduly concerned about protocol.  Besides, it was already obvious I wasn’t going to win any prizes.
I wasn’t the last person out of the water – I was the second to last.  However, I didn’t have long for this amazing success to get to my head, because the slowest swimmer was a woman of legendary speed on land, and she passed me about ten seconds into the bike race.
I was last – dead last – and I felt like a wet noodle.  The sun was blazing down from an unrelenting sky, I had water in my lungs, and I was practically naked in public.  The bike portion of the race would send us back and forth on the Steese, two laps to the north, and two laps to the south.  I could see one of the lead racers approaching from the opposite direction, already almost done with the first leg of the bike ride. 
This was not exactly a morale-booster… until he gave me a cheer.  Not a fake cheer, or a patronizing one, but a genuine chunk of audible goodwill.  A few minutes later, the next guy did the same thing.  And the next guy.  I waved back, nonplussed.  Amazingly, those folks with the aero handlebars, solid racing wheels, and 3% body fat had the energy to root for slackers like me.  “Looking good!” they said, with absolute conviction.  “Keep it up!”
I really dislike the taste of Gatorade, especially with overtones of warm plastic bottle, but all of a sudden it tasted like the nectar of the gods.  I slurped half-melted Powerbars.  My legs got going.  The breeze of my own motion cooled me.  The miles flew by.  I did one lap, and then another – and, astonishingly, I caught up with someone.  And then someone else, and then three more someones.  “Looking good!” I said, because the goodwill was infectious, and because they WERE looking good.  They looked like triathletes!  “Keep it up!”
When I rolled back into the transition zone to drop my bike and collect my running shoes, I was feeling pretty good.  Only a half-marathon to go!  No problem!  My legs, however, had other ideas.  Someone seemed to have replaced them with a pair belonging to a rubber chicken.  I staggered uphill like a drunk, and when I left the shelter of the trees, the force of the sun thudded into my skin.   Fairbanks has a climate that is nothing if not ironic.  Don’t like fifty below zero?  Wait a few months!  The temperature was in the mid-eighties… and that was in the shade.  The road was not shaded, and there would be no more cooling breezes.
But the forces of support and camaraderie were doing valiant battle with the sun.  At every lap, my miniature fan club waved at me.  At every water station, stalwart volunteers handed out life-saving Dixie cups, and cheered the fortieth competitor just as much as they’d cheered the first.  One brilliant individual, to whom I will forever be grateful, reached into his cooler and gave me a cupful of ice.  Having lost any vestige of pride approximately seventy miles previously, I immediately dumped it directly into my sports bra.  It gave me peculiarly lumpy cleavage, but it felt like heaven.
Despite my slow dog-trot, I passed several people.  These were the flushed, salty, panting individuals who had been reduced to a limping walk.  By now, the winners had already won.  We were the melting residue on the roadside, and everyone was suffering from the heat.  I saw one guy, who looked about nineteen, leap the barricade and hurtle down a near-cliff to the river far below.  He passed me again twenty minutes later, soaked to the skin and much refreshed.  “Smart idea,” I told him, and he grinned and told me I was doing great.  I didn’t detect any sarcasm.  So what if I was twice his age and had a bra full of ice?  We were in this together.  “Keep it up,” I told him.
Ultimately, I finished the race in six hours and forty-two minutes, good for fourteenth out of twenty-three women.  I also beat six of the twenty-six men.  But the stats didn’t really seem to matter very much.  Everyone was happy to welcome and congratulate the finishers who straggled in at seven hours, and at seven and a half.  And everyone seemed more excited about the potluck barbecue than the scoresheet. 
I was so sweat-salted that I was shedding white flakes.  My mushroom-like belly had burned to a fiery scarlet.  By the next morning, I was walking like a wooden puppet, and my entire body had erupted with the hideous itchy pustules that characterize swimmer’s itch.  “I had a great time,” I insisted, as friends and coworkers eyed me with nervous, queasy sympathy.  They were obviously convinced that I was suffering the delusional after-effects of sunstroke. 
I had to admit that they had a point; if my goal had been to get into great shape, any positive benefits were clearly outweighed by the gimpiness and pox. I might be half Ironman, but the other half was pretty much unmentionable.  And yet… if I was deluded, I was certainly not the only one.  The race organizer warned us all that the popularity of the event had grown so much in recent years that he’d probably have to restrict the number of entrants in 2011. 
I sent in my registration form long before the hives crusted over and the last of the sunburn peeled.

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