I Ignored the Pain and Sprinted

“Is that what you eat

before an Ironman?” I asked, taking a seat next to a tall, 40-ish Texan digging

into a burger and fries at the lunch counter across the street from the Ironman

Lake Placid race tent. He was lean and looked vaguely like Donald Sutherland.

“It’s what I eat,” he shrugged.

Good enough. I ordered the same, with a salad. On my left

was another Texan, small, blond, button-nosed, with an accent that placed her

somewhere between Houston and Mexico

City. It was her first Ironman, too.

“How soon do you

think you’ll come in?” she asked, wrinkling her nose at her pasta.

“I don’t care,” I said. “As long as it’s before the course

closes.”

“Sure.” Heading out, she grabbed her Texas-flag-on-a-pole

for the Ironman parade, organized by state and country. It had poked everyone

on the plane. “They were about to keell

me,” she said. That didn’t surprise me. Having abandoned California

for New York, I watched wistfully

as their group, which went first, marched off-course. They didn’t seem to

notice, or maybe they just didn’t care. That didn’t surprise me, either.

What surprised me was

crying the next morning before the race started. My old man finished the Hawaii

Ironman three times before his body started deteriorating in his early 60’s. He

had always been old school: overtrained, do-or-die. At his first Hawaii qualifier, when I was 16, he pushed himself so

hard that he temporarily busted his bladder. On the

drive home to Tiburon, he kept asking me to turn my head and look out the car

window so I wouldn’t see him pissing in a bottle to keep from wetting himself.

Even in this weakened state, he seemed larger than life.

But if Dad used to be a Greek god, to paraphrase Olympian

Babe Didrikson, these days he’s just a goddamned Greek. Since ’90, when he

remarried and I left California,

we’ve grown increasingly distant. Talking to him means long, furious silences

on both ends; the last time we spoke, a few years ago, was literally the last

time we spoke. Now, every time I talk to his brother, I learn of some new

indignity Dad’s suffered: the foot injuries, the scoliosis, the catheter they

stuck in his privates. He even says that Dad, a schooled-in-the-sciences

atheist as long as we knew him, now attends weekly services at the Orthodox church. With every new detail, I have to accept that my

towering, Achillean image of Dad is fading.

“You should talk to your father,” my grandma said the last

time I flew home.

“I do talk to him. We’re talking right now. We have this

secret communication thing, like Wonder Woman. We put our fingers to our

temples and send mental waves.”

It’s true: We’re so similar, my Dad and I hardly need to

speak. We make the same asinine mistakes, just in different towns. Everybody

said I had to get a coach for Ironman, but I wanted to wing my first one the

same stubborn, dumb-ass way Dad did. You could argue whether this was more

challenging, or not challenging at all. An ex-high-school-varsity and Masters

swimmer, I trained independently for 10 months, ever since two brothers I met

at the upstate S.O.S. triathlon last September suggested “the Plan”: swimming

and bike-to-runs for one to two hours, Monday through Friday; a 100-mile bike

ride on Saturday, followed by an hour of running; rest on Sunday. With hardly

any speed work and a lot of overtraining, “the Plan” seemed a remnant of Dad’s

era, when Ironman was more soul and less science.

Treading water at the starting line, I held my hand over my

heart for the national anthem. I’d never worn a wetsuit before, but figured

1,809 other triathletes justified the padding-it was the largest mass swim

start in triathalon history. Ten minutes in, I was getting hit so hard that I

couldn’t breathe and became convinced I was going to drown. Apparently, this is

not uncommon. When I tried to move beyond the crowd, things got worse.

I recovered, but was slow, finishing the 2.4-mile swim in 1:14:55, a small price to pay for surviving.

Two female volunteers pulled my wetsuit off, and I ran to Transition 1, where

I’d have to bike 100 miles. Just that morning I was going under; now I was

alive! It felt great.

I’m slow and was using a heavy touring bike, but having

worked as a messenger back in San Francisco

made the Adirondacks seem relatively tame. Few of my

peers passed me going uphill; downhill was another story. But by the 90th bike

mile, I was, like many others, getting sick from too much Gatorade passed out

by cheering volunteers. Supposedly, one guy was ejected by race officials for

vomiting.

Before I even reached Transition 2, a down-to-earth California

mountain biker named Steve Larsen, with no previous Ironman or even marathon experience,

had set a course record of 8:33:11

and was getting his IV, and 10-time Ironman winner Heather Fuhr had set a new

course record for women at 9:31:11.

It was impossible to believe we were all included in the same race.

As I stumbled onto the marathon course, I recalled thinking

that I might get in a couple hours after Dad’s record. By mile 17, that idea

elicited an airless chuckle; it was pitch-dark, and everyone else around me was

walking. I insisted on “running,” but lost at least an hour from nausea and

muscle lockup. Still, I took comfort in knowing that with every step, I moved

closer. At last, hearing the roaring crowd, I ignored the pain and sprinted the

last 500 yards. Stubbornness hadn’t entirely paid off-15:55:21 was hardly Dad-worthy, but I was thrilled,

anyway. I wanted to stay at the finish line and scream “I love you, man!” to

everyone who came after me. But they escorted me to the massage tent, and I

wasn’t fighting.

The next day, I went to the banquet with a couple who got

engaged at the finish line, was offered encouragement and much-needed training

plans by better athletes, and consulted Bob Brubaker, the Spam-sponsored

Christian-minister triathlete, on whether it was O.K. to pray to God for help

with a race. (Wasn’t He busy with less frivolous affairs?) A bunch of us went

to see Planet of the Apes , and the

simian beatings seemed strangely real after the previous day’s swim.

Slumped in the passenger seat on the drive back to New

York, I remembered a scene from another ape-movie

remake, Dino de Laurentiis’ King Kong -the

part where Kong, seeing Manhattan’s

World Trade

Center towers, is reminded of his

more primitive home. Gazing at the Adirondacks, I

recalled the less pastoral California Sierras, where Dad had so often pushed me

and my sister along snowy high-altitude trails, and remembered the steep bay

cliffs he’d pulled us over as kids to reach the farthest beach, the richer tide

pools. Maybe all this activity was the only way he knew how to love a sonless

family. In a way, it was the best kind of inheritance. Unfortunately, it was

the only way he let us love him back.

I took a deep breath of Adirondacks

air. There was a whole year to train-the right way-before my next Ironman. I

pressed fingers to temples and sent a mental message: Next year, old man, I’ll beat your record. I’ll live it all back for

you .