I Didn’t See The Lighthouse, But I Did See The Light
When you strip it down to its bare essentials, swimming is pretty simple. One hand pulls you through the water as you lift the other one out and forward. Rotate and repeat. Glide along smooth as silk through the water like a playful otter, basking in the beautiful day with not a care in the world. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I’m tossed from side to side by the waves in Lake Michigan on a cool July morning in Racine, Wisconsin. It’s understandable that I have to remind myself how to swim at times today. When you reach down for the next stroke and you’re pulling air instead of water that will disrupt your rhythm somewhat. When you try to raise your left arm out of the water – only to realize that the water on the left side of your body is a foot or so higher than the water on the right side of your body – well, that can be a bit disconcerting as well.
Only a few years ago, Coach Joe was trying (and nearly failing) to help me overcome my fear of the water. Lesson number one involved actually putting my face into said water in the local pool. I still remember the look on his face when I looked down at the water, then looked up at him and said, “Um, no.” Finally – after many lessons and much encouragement – he was able to coax me out into the deep end of the pool at Centennial Beach. And now here I am starting my first half Ironman. Between the cold water, the waves, and my nerves, I find myself on the verge of hyperventilating as I start swimming head on into the rough surf. But I just try to remember all of Coach Joe’s pointers. I keep my head down, not even trying to sight into the waves, and stay with the pack as well as I can until it is time to make the first turn.
At the turn, I am a bit distressed to notice that the water has not gotten appreciably calmer one tenth of a mile from the beach where I started. There is a little voice in my head telling me that surely this is way too rough – no one should expect me to keep swimming in this, right? As I look around I see several triathletes already hanging on to the lifeguard vessels by the turn buoy. I imagine what it would be like to quit so early in the day after all of my hard work to get here. I think about that long walk of shame down the beach back to the swim exit, where the world famous ET cheer crew waits to scream my name as I exit the water. I try to envision how I would feel if I had to face them knowing in my heart I had given up before I had even begun… and then I stick my face back in that water, and I swim.
I swim through waves that knock me off course. I swim through knots of disoriented racers that are either trying to swim over me or use me as a floatation device (it can be hard to tell at times). I dish out elbows liberally, all the while thankful for some of our swim drills at Centennial. At some point, the water is so cold, the waves so bad, the smell and taste of diesel so prevalent, it becomes so ridiculous that it somehow stops being scary for me. I don’t know when exactly it happens, but at some point I stop worrying that I can’t do this. As the buoys continue to creep past I gain confidence that I am going to finish this swim. Until finally I see the last turn ahead and know it is time to let the waves do some of the work for me!
Note to self: take bodysurfing lessons…
Finally I reach shore, dragging myself up the beach like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I am tired, but I have a big smile on my face. I have done the hardest part of any triathlon for me, and I am ready to move on to my favorite part – the bike. I make the long march through the sand, giving a smile and a wave to the many ET folks spread along the way. I even make use of the wetsuit strippers – that is a new experience! I grab my bike, don my helmet, and head out of transition for the 56 mile ride.
Now, I really like biking. One of the reasons I wanted to move up to the half Ironman distance was for the longer training rides. Compared to an Olympic triathlon, the bike distance is more than doubled, and yet the dreaded swim is only about a third farther. That’s my kind of deal! In fact, I like the bike so much I often have been known to go out way too fast, and not leave enough in the tank for the run afterwards. And today’s run is going to be 13.1 miles – not exactly a walk in the park. So I remember my coach’s advice and keep it in check as much as possible over the first half of the course. I also need to follow my nutrition and hydration plan very carefully if I am going to have the energy to finish the day strong. It is an exercise in patience, but following the plan does me a lot of good in the end.
Speaking of “the end,” this bike ride is definitely making an impression on me – in a very tender area! The back roads of Wisconsin are often covered with tarred-over cracks every twenty feet or so, and the Racine bike course is no different.
Over the course of several hours, the rough surface begins to take a toll on me. It feels like an angry dwarf is hitting me over and over again right smack in the man bits. I have to admit that after a while it is getting to me mentally as much as it is physically. The second half of my bike ride is definitely slower, and I am having trouble keeping even the moderate power levels I’d planned to maintain over the whole course. I cannot wait to get off of these roads, away from the angry little man, and off my bike!
At last, it is time to get off the bike and assess the damage. I am stiff and sore, but still game. I know I will finish this race, even if I have to walk the entire way. I notice the ET cheer crew is looking a little worried about me when they see me come hobbling out of T2 like a man fresh out of his first colonoscopy. Seeing the concern on their faces lifts my spirits even more than the enthusiastic cheering that is their hallmark. I tell them not to worry – I just need to loosen up and I will be running in no time at all. Soon enough, I am motoring along and beginning to encounter some of my fellow ET racers. The smile is back on my face!
The Racine run course is an out and back route that you do twice, which as it turns out gives me the opportunity to see my fellow racers quite a few times. So I get to cheer on and high five a lot of friends on the course, which helps to distract me a bit from my growing assortment of aches and pains. It is a beautiful day, and not nearly as warm as this race had been the previous two years when I was a spectator – one of Coach Joe’s famous “sunny and 80” kind of days, in fact. And yet, even as I try to enjoy the experience, I find myself beginning to worry a little. My feet have begun to ache early in the run, and while I have had foot issues in previous races, they usually do not start until I have been running for well over an hour. As I approach the turnaround point I stop briefly to check in with the coach. He tells me to just keep running, so that’s what I do! And somewhere out on my second trip to the lighthouse and back, I finally have an epiphany. All day long I have been fighting pain and self-doubt. A traitorous part of my mind has been trying to convince me that I don’t belong here with these other triathletes. As I look at (and listen to) the people around me more closely, though, it finally hits me. There is nothing wrong with me – everybody else out here is in pain, too! No one races these distances without encountering their own demons. The harder you push yourself, the more you are going to hurt. It’s not the pain that matters – it’s how you respond to it. Do you let the pain rule you? Or do you accept the pain, acknowledge it, but refuse to let it keep you from your goal?
I choose to keep pushing, and it is the best feeling in the world to finally cross that finish line with the cheers of my friends ringing in my ears. I have achieved my goal of finishing strong, and even surprised myself by beating my time estimate for the race. Best of all, I have my lovely wife, my good friends and training partners, and my long-suffering and patient coach all waiting to congratulate me and to help me soak in the experience. It’s been a great, great day!