Saturday, April 21, 2007

race day: IMAZ 2007


that's the only word for today.


40mph. sustained. continuous.


unending. unrelenting. unyielding. from late morning into late evening.


merciless. horrific. carnage.

and it all started out so well.


it's 3:45am. the alarm goes off, but i'm already awake. i've had a fitful night of sleep. some of it is the anticipation to get things started, some of it is the hydration regimen from the past few days (which pretty much leaves you a bathroom turnstile), most of it is anxiety and nerves from what is undeniably a very big day.

everyone else is asleep. i take the opportunity to go through my morning stretch and warm-up routine--not that it's necessary now (i can do this when we get to the race site), or advisable (it's several hours to race start, so i'm just going to get chilled again), but i do it anyway to help focus my mind and give myself a few quiet moments to collect myself before we make our way into the inevitable chaos that comes with race day.

people start waking up. we whisper. we eat. we drink. we expunge ourselves in the bathroom. there's little room for niceties in the race; civilization will become just a delusion; we know we'll be reduced to the most primitive state for this day, and we might as well begin now. in silent farewell to dignity, we brush our teeth and clean our faces, wistful in our goodbyes to such pampered comforts of normal life. then, with a rising sense of expectation, we gather up the last of our gear (transition gear, morning clothes, and swim equipment) and pile in the car to the race start.

start time

it's 5:3oam. we're here, walking to the transition area that serves as the morning gathering place for competitors. we snicker at a group of girls standing on the sidewalk, very obviously ogling all the men passing by. being the bachelor, i return their look, nod. but then, with the smell of the water and the glow of the sun rising in the air, i am reminded of more urgent matters and trudge on to what must be my fate.

truth is, at this moment, we're actually excited. standing in the transition area, surrounded by other competitors, you get the welcoming sense of companionship that radiates from other people all sharing a common experience. you're not alone. we're not alone. and we're in this together.

we are all active. we are all moving. we are all alive. and we're beautiful.

the transition prep ritual is the usual: inflate the tires on the bike, do a last check of gears and brakes, review the nutrition, get bodymarked for age and race number (so they can identify you when they pull your carcass off the race course), change into your race suit, pull on the wetsuit and goggles and swimcap, and then line-up for the ever-perpetual eternity of a line leading to the port-a-potties for the last flush before the race start.

i stop to take some pictures. they're awful. but i need something to drain out the tension, and there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.

it's odd how that will become a theme for this day.


it's 7:00am. we're in the water. it's a mass swim start, with an army of heads clustered by the starting buoy. most are floating. i'm sitting to the concrete on the edge with a number of others, saving my energy.

the starting gun goes off, and there is a roar from the spectators lined up on the river's edge and the overhead bridge. everyone in the water goes berzerk, flailing madly in an effort to push forward and make some space and find their stroke. the water is a gigantic churning cauldron of white spray and neoprene suits and white swim caps and bare hands and bare feet, all shimmering in the morning sun.

my swim is good this year. i start off near the front, to avoid the struggle of passing others. i stay near the side, to more easily sight direction off landmarks. and my stroke is much more smooth and controlled than last year. i find myself making my way relatively easily, locked in a 3-stroke bi-lateral cadence, balancing my left and right sides and tracking swimmers to either side. i remember the mantras that other swimmers (incidentally, world-class swimmers, and so who i assume know what they're talking about) gave me: for long distance swimming, good is slow, slow is control, control is smooth, smooth is fast, fast is good.

i'd had trouble making sense of these words, or keeping track of them while moving in the water, so someone simplified them for me into something they thought i could understand: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

how wonderfully oxymoronic. how quixotically Taoist. how prosaically Zen. but yet, so ineffably true.

my mind starts to wander. i start to zone out. i think, and then i don't. i think of technique, and then i don't. i think of the rest of the day, and then i don't. i think of things i have to do tomorrow, next week, this year, the rest of my life. and then i don't.

for a long, long, very long moment, i think of my grandmother, who i lost. slowly. painfully. i miss her greatly. even now. especially now.

thinking of her leads to think of my grandfather, who i lost much earlier, much quicker, but most equally as painful. i miss him, too. even now. especially now.

i find myself in a silent prayer, and a very long conversation with a God that i cannot begin to know.

and then i don't.

a leg kicks my goggles, a hand digs into my ribs, a body flounders in my wake. i am losing speed. worse, i'm headed off the race course. i was distracted. i lost sight of the crowd around me, and allowed the spacing to close. i scold myself for the lapse in concentration, and focus once again on getting back to my pace. slow is smooth, smooth is fast. locked in a 3-stroke bi-lateral cadence. headed towards the transition space.

there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.


it's 9:00am. i go through the transition slowly, struggling to get my bike shoes on, slather sunscreen on my back, and take in nutrition. i was hungry. i take it easy to start the bike, letting my food digest and my legs warm up.

the first half of the first loop is uneventful. i've done this course before. it seems the same. an empty road leading out into miles and miles of sage-and-cactus-filled desert. i'm thinking to myself it isn't as hot as i feared it would be. the gradual uphill to the turnaround is effortless to what i had expected. i start to feel a little giddy. i might actually hit my target time this year.

then i make the turn.


it's a roar.


it's a monstrosity.


it's horrific.


it's bringing me to a dead stop, even as i stand in the pedals and crank as hard as i can. just to move downhill.

i wait for it to ease. it doesn't. it just gets worse.

i find myself gritting my teeth. so this is how it's going to be.

the thought occurs to me that the longer i'm out here, the worse the wind is going to get. but there's nothing i can do. i'm in a wind tunnel, and there's no end.

i see several people get caught by gusts. they are lifted off the road. resignedly, methodically, stoically, they simply stand their bikes up and get on them again.

i see Hillary Biscay, a pro triathlete and a friend of mine from school days, on the side of the road walking with her bike over her shoulder, a look of frustration on her face.

i see a dead sagebrush rolling towards me in the wind. me, too tired and too overworked to care, can't divert enough energy to turn away. it's a train wreck in slow motion: you find yourself in macabre fascination watching an accident unfold, but oblivious--or apathetic--to any thought of trying to make things change. the sagebrush slams into me, breaks off into my drivetrain and chain. i instantly lose traction and drop the chain, and get blown off to the side of the road.

it's comical. all i can do is laugh. resignedly, methodically, stoically, i run the chain back on the gears, stand the bike up and get on it again.

at the special needs station, i stop to take a few minutes to think. i have to make a decision whether or not i'm going to continue. this is bad. very bad. i'm getting pushed backwards if i'm not pedaling. people at the aid stations are having to lean into the wind to hand out supplies. the tables of fruit, gels, and gatorade are getting blown away. port-a-potties are falling on their sides. and at the pace i'm at, i'm questioning if i can even make the bike cut-off time.

a friend of mine passes by, yells. i try to say something in reply, but my shout is drowned by the wind. something about his shout snaps my mind back to attention. i look around, and i see volunteers holding onto tables and flagpoles and streetlights and cars--anything to remain upright. i see competitors hunched over their handlebars, pedaling dejectedly into the wind. i see race officials fighting to maintain control of their motorcycles. we're all suffering.

strangely enough, the thought of this seems to be a comfort. we're all in this together. resignedly, methodically, stoically, i stand the bike up and get back on it again.

there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.

later i'll find out that the wind was a constant 40mph for most of the day, with stronger gusts in the late afternoon continuing through midnight. there'll be a high (maybe a record) number of DNFs, with people quitting after the 2nd of 3 loops. even the pros will comment that this is one of the toughest days they've ever seen.

but for right now, i'm just suffering in the wind, pedaling on 2 wheels, trying to hold on for just a few minutes more. with a pace that can only be described as glacial. excruciating. mind-blowing. my effort level is at maximum, i'm dangerously over-extended into anaerobic mode, and there are miles and miles and miles left to go.

and the wind is a roar.

i find myself in a silent prayer, and a very long conversation with a God that i cannot begin to know.

i remember a very philosophical discussion i had once with my kung fu instructor. it was in very dry academics about traditional Chinese perspectives on life. but it was underneath the trees and clouds and sun and--strangely, ironically enough--the wind, and so it had a resonance and life that stuck in the mind, even through a day as miserable as this. i remember he recited a classical proverb popular in Taoism and Zen that in life, we must let things go in order to pick things up. it is oxymoronic. but what the proverb means is that you cannot learn what you must learn, cannot find what you must find, cannot do what you must do, unless you first let go of the many things that impede you from moving forward.

which is exactly what i must do right now. so i can find my way home. so i can learn the lesson of this race.

by the time i pull into the transition, i am a wreck, one of many hobbling in. like the person in front of me, i drop the bike without even waiting for a volunteer, happy to never see it ever again. we walk into the transition, completely uncaring as to time, just grateful that we are finally, finally off. the. bike. and, quite frankly, done with the rest of this godforsaken day.

in the tent, i sit back and take a breath and pause for a moment to collect my thoughts. i notice everyone else in the tent is doing the same. we're all shell-shocked. i look into someone else's eyes. we both shake our heads knowingly. he starts to laugh. the laugh spreads around the room. soon, we're all laughing.

and with that, resignedly, methodically, stoically, we start the business of pulling on our running shoes and heading out of the tent. i look at the blisters on my feet, then shrug. might as well finish. i get up and follow everybody else.

there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.


it's 5:00pm. i am way behind schedule. hopelessly out of reach from my target time. but i knew that anyway, and have known it since i turned into the wind on the 1st loop of the bike.

i'm not upset. not angry. not sad. not depressed. not tired. not happy. not content. not concerned.

i just know. and that's enough.

i know that at this point, i'm just going to have a very nice, very long, very lonely aerobic workout. and with a setting desert sun, it'll even be romantic.

the only thing making it perfect is the wind, still blowing strong in the twilight. and adding insult to injury, it's loaded with sand.

how lovely.

the run course is uneventful. even boring. it's just running. on concrete next to a lake. with lots of other people.

at this point, i'm descending into a pit of self-pity. not from the thought of being unable to finish--i beat the cut-off time on the bike (whoever thought that i'd consider that an accomplishment...yikes!), and so now i'm sure i'll finish (my running is good enough that doing this marathon is an aforethought). but i'm feeling a rising sense of frustration and disappointment from knowing that i'm going to miss my target time, and may very well be lucky just to match my time from last year (which had been, to say the least, abysmal, and something i'd chosen to forget).

it's not the sentiment of failed ambition--that is derived from the foible of arrogance; it's the sentiment of lost aspirations--which is derived from the fragility of hope. and the loss of hope is a loss of soul...and right now, hope is a whisper lost in the wind.

at this moment, i see my friend Hillary. i do a double-take, incredulous, seeing a pro trotting along with the rest of us amateurs. us losers.

strangely enough, i see her laughing, smiling, clapping. she's cheering other people on. she's cheering us on. us losers.

in response, i grin. i wave at her going by. we share a knowing shrug. yeah, it's just one those days. nothing to do but make the best of it. with everyone else. us losers.

it's now that i have a revelation.

it occurs to me that, for all the jokes, jabs, and kidding whenever we meet, for her this event is a livelihood. it's not just for pride, or hope, or spirit of competition, or catharsis of emotion, or camaraderie, or individuality. it's something that she depends on, even needs, to make a living.

and for all that, on a day when she's lost any chance of winning, and quite possibly lost ground in the competition for sponsors, she's still out here cheering for other people--and more importantly, she's still out here to finish the race.

i start to feel a sense of shame. a realization of my own stupidity. the sight of my own self-pity. it's pathetic. it's reprehensible. it's disgusting.

more than that, it's insulting. to me and everybody else around me out here suffering on this race course. me, wallowing in self-pity.

how utterly selfish, how completely self-serving, how totally self-centered.

why? because on a day like today, in the conditions as horrific as they are, what the people hurting around me want--what the world around me needs--is a human soul sharing itself in a supreme self-expression of conscious celebration of the life we have been given.

we are all in this together, and we were from the moment the starting gun went off. and what we don't need are things that make the world worse; what we need are things that make the world better. and those things might as well begin with us.

i find myself in a silent prayer, and a very long conversation with a God that i cannot begin to know.

i am suddenly aware of an old man next to me. i don't know how long he's been there. his head is bent down, his body his slack, and his walk is a contorted mix of shuffling and walking.

i'm not sure, but i think he's in trouble.

we talk. he mumbles. he's here with his son, who dropped out. he's supposed to be here with a friend, who also dropped out. he's 65. he's done 20 of these. this is his 21st. but right now, he's becoming incoherent, he doesn't know where he is, he's lost, he's wandering, and he doesn't see the finish line.

i'm not sure, but i know he's in trouble.

i walk with him for about 5 miles. whenever he starts to wander, whenever he starts to make a turn off the race course, i casually mention to him that i think the finish line is this other way. we walk, together, for miles, just 2 souls making their way in the darkness.

he tells me i can leave him if i want, since i can clearly make up some time. i tell him it doesn't matter, that it was a pointless exercise anyway. ultimately, he prevails, stopping off at a port-a-potty within sight of the finish. he can see the lights from here. he says he can make it home. he thanks me. he says he wouldn't have made it if i hadn't been with him.

i'm not sure, but i think he's okay.

there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.


it's after 10:00pm.

later in this week, i will have family, friends, and strangers ask me how i did and tell me that i did well given the conditions, and that not very many would have made it as far in the wind. they'll tell me that they're in awe of me. they'll tell me that they're proud. they'll tell me that what i did was something few people could have done or do. and then they'll ask me why i'm not more excited. and all i'll have to give them is a shrug.

but right now, it doesn't matter. i'm just happy it's over.

i hear Mike Reilly call out my name. even as he says it, i slow down, and pause, and wait for another man to cross ahead of me. i can tell it means something to him--there's tears in his eyes. i figure it's better to give him his moment. it makes me happier to see him step over the tape before me anyway.

my friends are at the finish. they say it's been a tough day for everyone.

one of my friends, Genaro, says it's not good to end the day the way we did, battered and bruised and tired and sore and empty and spent and dejected and bitter--and worse, unfulfilled. he says we need to stick around to the 17 hour cutoff. he says it's something special, something we need to see, something that'll end the day in a way that it was meant to end. trust me, he says. just trust me. you'll see what i mean.

he's right. it is something special. it's amazing. it's incredible. it's one of the greatest human moments i've ever seen.

the crowd is going wild. people are crying. children are screaming. families are embracing. voices are hoarse. volunteers are jumping in ecstasy. Hillary joins us from out of nowhere, still cheering competitors on. Mike Reilly is yelling out the name of each person coming into the finish chute. the camera lights are flashing as bright as suns. the television monitor is glittering as clear as glory. the air is alive with union and joy and kinship and elation. and everywhere, everywhere, is the sound of souls sharing themselves in a supreme self-expression of conscious celebration of the life we have all been given within God's great creation.

and i find myself in a silent prayer, and a very long conversation with a God that i cannot begin to know.

all i know is that we are not alone. we are in this together, we are all active, we are all moving, we are all alive.

and we're all beautiful.

there's nothing better to forget yourself than to think about others.

and there is no such thing as wind.

Battered and torn
still I can see the light
tattered and worn
but I must kneel to fight
Friend of mine
what can't you spare
I know some times
it gets cold in there
When my legs no longer carry

and the warm wind chills my bones
I reach for Mother Mary
and I shall not walk alone
--Ben Harper, I Shall Not Walk Alone


Trihardist said...

I thought of you today, J. I was at CSULB and there was a little bit of wind. I started complaining to myself ("Damn wind."), but then I thought about your IMAZ experience and told myself to shut up.

You're totally my inspiration, dude.

jonathan starlight said...

thanks, man. i appreciate it!