Of course, I didn’t realize it was the beginning at the time. . .
July 26 2009, Lake Placid, New York
The Ass-Crack of Dawn
Just a few of the names for that much-too-early time of the morning. . .which was still several hours away when we got up to head to the IMUSA race site. There were three of us in Mary’s “Athletic Support” team for her Ironman: myself, and our uncle Garth and cousin Melanie all the way from NZ. We all knew it was going to be a super-long day, and unlike Mary, none of us had trained for it! Mary had given us a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of her race plan, and I’d done some additional research so felt reasonably well prepared. Ah, the arrogance of youth.
But while Mary had been racking her bike and packing what seemed to be an endless series of plastic bags, the support team had not been idle. I’d undertaken the arduous task of sitting in a coffee shop and testing out whether I had enough network access to enable me to update Mary’s blog from my phone. Tough day! Since many access roads into Placid were going to be closing at 5am, we scouted a possible route into town from where we were staying in Wilmington. Garth, Mel and I, had made signs, arranged for our electronic message to display on the run route and—most importantly—registered to win a trip for two to Kona and an Escape Hybrid (which still counts as a clunker in my book, but I was sure that it’s sale would fund the purchase of one or several pretty nice bikes).
As it turned out, we didn’t need any of our elaborate route planning. Mary’s simple expedient of getting us up before anyone else had gone to bed ensured that we had a smooth, almost completely traffic-free passage into town. We parked in the back of a place that our friends Scott and Martine were renting, and made our way down to the transition area to allow a) Mary to get the last of her gear squared away, and b) Martine to take a photo of all of us looking our zombified best. Most of the streets around the skating oval were closed and it was a strange sight to see lines of people filing out of every side street, all converging on this one spot. Conversation was subdued; you could feel the mounting tension.
We made our way to Team Z headquarters, located on the out-and-back along Mirror Lake Drive. One side of the road was almost completely lined with the tents of support groups and there were already a lot of spectators in place. At Team headquarters, food was waiting (as usual). I was really amazed at how calm everyone seemed; if there were nerves they were being kept under pretty tight control. In fact, most of the athletes seemed cheerful and eager to be getting on with the race. Es and Jason, who had driven up just for the event were there, although Es was looking (or, to be more exact, sounding) a little worse for wear after attempting to preserve her triumphantly iron-fit body in alcohol the night before; now she sounded as if she were attempting to win a Fat Albert impression contest. But there she was laughing away and helping (with Zoe’s able assistance) re-apply everyone’s body marking.
People suited up, the team photo was taken. . .and then it began to rain. The weather forecast had predicted this and also predicted that it wouldn’t last long, but still, it was disconcerting. It was Kai who rallied everyone, however, by repeating “This is Team Z weather! We train in it! We race in it!” Having shared a good many of the rides from hell with the team this year, in everything from torrential rain to howling winds (plus not a few over the winter where I’d lost the power of speech as well as reproduction), I knew how true that was. But it was also a timely reminder, another way of saying what Ed had said the evening before: it was really all about the journey, and all of the Team Z athletes had traveled a long road to get to this point.
Garth, Mel and I made our way toward the swim start and it was then that I began to get a real understanding of just how different this event was. There were people. Everywhere. Never mind the long streams of neoprened athletes converging at the water’s edge. The number of spectators was simply overwhelming, more than I had seen at any event. I guess you would probably get more spectators at a large marathon, but they are spread out across the entire course. Here, people were occupying every square inch of ground; from the ropes near the swim exit all the way up the bank and extending a good way along the lakeshore was one mass of humanity. The three of us eventually found a spot with a little elevation so that we had a clear view of the start and the first part of the swim course. And it was right about that time that the heavens opened in earnest. It lasted until my Gortex jacket was just on the point of calling it a day, and then stopped as abruptly as it had started. All around us the umbrellas came down (phew, we could see the start again) and the crowd grew more boisterous and tense, anticipating the start. First we had to sit through an anthem. I think it was supposed to be the US one, although the singer supplied both different lyrics and, toward the end, a different tune. Maybe it was supposed to be a hybrid version, sort of a Star Spangled O Canada.
Then the first gun went off, and the pros quickly formed a thin white line, a wriggling snake making its way across the lake. The crowd got a lot quieter. Then the second gun went off.
I had seen a mass start on TV coverage of an Ironman, but even with all the technology and angles at their disposal, it doesn’t even begin to approximate seeing one in person. Even from our distance it was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen. Suddenly it seemed as if the entire lake surface, from platform to shoreline was transformed into a seething mass of white with little colored marbles bobbing here and there. And it was at that exact moment that the magnitude of the event sunk in, and I found my eyes filling with tears: mostly happiness that Mary had made it to the start line, pride at what she had overcome in order to get there, and not a little anxiety for what was to unfold over the next few hours.
We watched the threshing mass gradually begin to space out across the lake, and then went to try and scout out a spot from which to see the swim exit. We did watch the swimmers coming out of the water at about the time when we thought Mary should be coming through, but from anything but spitting distance one person encased head to toe in neoprene looks pretty much like another. The chute that led from the water up the bank to the road was jam-packed but we managed to elbow our way in. Athletes ran by in such a steady stream that it was very difficult for me to pick out any Zers unless they were wearing the team strip, which, for the swim, many people weren’t. I did see Iwan, the distinctive figure of Heidi, and finally Mary. Mary was actually difficult to miss, because she was grinning from ear to ear. How anyone can look that happy coming out of a tumble-washer is beyond me, but there she was, absolutely ecstatic. She rushed up to us and, giddy as a schoolgirl, said, “Tell Ed that I feel like I’m flying!” before darting off up the chute.
As soon as she had disappeared from view the three of us got our skates on and headed down to the transition area to try and get a view of the bike exit. After a long circumnavigation of the oval we ended up high on a grass bank just in time to see Mary head out, looking calm and focused. We slithered down the bank to take up a position along the barrier to cheer on more Zers—and then almost got cleaned out by a Team Z member (didn’t catch who it was) who chose the wrong moment to look down and just missed wiping out into the side barrier. As it was all the spectators took a swift step back to avoid being gouged by his aerobars. Deciding that this might not be the best spectating position we made our way to the bottom of the hairpin before the start of the first downhill. Jason was already there, snapping photos and cheering people on. I couldn’t believe Jason’s energy and his strategerie: everywhere I looked on the day Jason seemed to be there, including places (like behind the finish line!) where he had no right to be. Where he got the energy from I have no idea! Course, that could be why he’s an ironman and I’m not. . .
Once we’d seen the last Zer head out on the bike course we trekked back to the Team Z headquarters; I relayed Mary’s message to Ed, and then got stuck in to a second breakfast. It felt like we’d put in a full day already; I couldn’t believe how much more of it stretched in front of us. Oh, and I guess it also stretched in front of the athletes, too. But hey, this is all about me. We hung around the team tent for a while, I updated Mary’s blog, time passed. . .and then the first of the cyclists began to come through at the end of the first bike loop. I moved up to the short hill into town and met up with Martine. Scott had apparently come through looking strong, and from our current vantage point we saw several people almost wipe out as they tried to take the corner, some people spinning away quite happily, others already looking tired and grinding away. Moving back down to the Team Z tent we saw several Zers go through including—finally, and although she was right on her expected time the wait was interminable—Mary, smiling and waving to the team. Thankfully, she wasn’t trying to do some elaborate kind of origami with her special needs bag or so busy waving to friends and family that she almost fell off: saw both of those scenarios more times than I cared to count. I started to feel that the more sensible people were those who simply stopped their bikes to give their families a hug over the barriers or, in one case, spend about ten minutes engaged in what seemed to be a long conversation about the impact of a unified field theorem upon the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. Or something like that.
After Mary’s triumphal passage the three of us and Martine headed back to Scott and Martine’s cabin. I was able to update Mary’s blog from my phone but thanks to the collusion between the crappy AT&T network coverage and the IronmanUSA servers that seemed to have been designed to accommodate inquiries from only one friend and/or relative from each athlete, it was a laborious task trying to get splits (there was a very real chance Mary would have completed her second bike loop by the time I got the splits for the first). So we were able to use Martine’s laptop and the cabin’s internet to check up on everyone’s times. Mary had had a negative split on the swim, which I knew she would be thrilled about, and was on schedule for the bike.
Satisfied with that knowledge, we all promptly fell asleep, some of us where we sat. This was definitely part of my race plan, and Mary was a little dubious when I told her this is what I was going to do, but I honestly don’t think we could have made it through the day without it, especially with what was to come.
After napping happily for a couple of hours we gathered up our gear for the final push and wandered back toward the Team Z tent. I had time for another brief blog entry and then it was off to our volunteer station. This was about a mile or so outside town on the run course, so we hiked through the crowds lining the roadway.
We were at the aid station from 4pm to 8pm, and it was an incredible experience. First of all, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to cheer on Team Z. I saw everyone on the team, from the uber-athletes like Chris Wren to the back-of-the-packers, most of them twice. Of course, the fact that a) I wasn’t in Team Z regalia, and b) I kinda look pretty non-distinctive anyway, and c), most people (especially on the second loop) were barely processing anything, meant that most of them probably didn’t recognize me. But they seemed to respond to the cheering, and that was what counted.
The aid station was also bloody hard work! I knew exactly what the “chocolate cookie volunteer” that Mary described in her report meant when he said that he would do anything for her, because I and the people I was working with felt the same way. We would chase down people if we didn’t immediately have their preferred drink to hand; we directed people to other tables for other stuff, helped people with sunscreen and Vaseline (not applying it. . .usually). The last was a bit of a mystery to me at first. I, of course, was aware of the “no outside help” rule that prevails, but it was part of our standing orders to provide sunscreen and Vaseline to anyone who wanted it, so maybe there is an exception for things that might create severe medical conditions? Regardless, the aid station was some of the hardest work I’ve done over a four hour period in a long time. There literally wasn’t a single moment in all that time where I was not doing anything. Even when I was grabbing a snack or trying to stay hydrated myself, I was constantly handing out stuff with the other hand. And always, always, trying to provide encouragement without sounding like a total dickhead (i.e. saying things like “You are looking really great!” when it was patently obvious to the athlete themselves that they probably looked as if they had been crapped on from a great height).
The most amazing thing about volunteering on the run course was that I got a rather brutal, up close and personal look at the real physical and emotional cost of an ironman. As the entire field passed me by I noticed the change from people who were merely tired, to people who were tired and hurting, to people who were tired and hurting and had something wrong with them (GI issues, an injury, etc.). The last half of an ironman field in particular is not pretty. It isn’t the kind of thing you watch reveling in the spectacle of athletic perfection; it’s the kind of thing that you watch marveling at the guts and determination of people, cheering people to the finish when a significant portion of you wishes that they would simply stop. I saw people who hadn’t been able to keep any food down on the bike, people who had been throwing up or beset with chronic diarrhea for the last several hours. . .these people were beyond empty. Many people had retreated so deeply inside themselves that when you looked into their eyes you couldn’t see anyone there. I would offer athletes their choice of drink and they would walk right by me, only to turn around ten metres later and say, half-wonderingly, “Yeah. Coke. Yeah.”
My biggest shock came when a guy stopped in front of my station and I gave him something to drink. We talked for a couple of minutes, and then with a sudden start I realized it was my friend Bob. Or at least a version of him. At almost the same moment he recognized me. He had been throwing up constantly on the run and just looked terrible.
Speaking of terrible, after one visit I avoided the nearby portaloos, especially on the second loop. How you get stuff that far up the walls is beyond me.
But the good news was that both times Mary passed me she was looking in great shape. Still running, and still apparently with a lot of energy.
Once we’d finished our shift, the three of us walked back into town and then split up, with Garth and Mel heading back to Team Z HQ and me fighting my way into the Oval to retrieve Mary’s bike which I took back to Scott and Martine’s. I then went to grab her special needs bags from further up Mirror Lake Drive. At the time I could only find one, but later discovered that the teleportational Jason had already picked up the other one. Finally, I made it back to the Team Z tents.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget being a part of the Team Z cheering section. I’d been a part of the Team Z support team at other races, but nothing compared with this. It was pitch dark by now, with not many street lights around our position. Everyone had pushed aside the barriers on one side of the street, and a second line of Zers was standing in the middle of the road, forming a solid block that stretched about 100m down the road. There was insanity galore. Someone was wearing a giant green creature that could have been a dragon, or a kangaroo, but which at any rate seemed to have a life of its own. Ilhan was dressed in a grass skirt and a fetching blond wig. Some people were wearing the letters I, M, U, S, and A, on their chests, which was even more impressive when they managed to get themselves in the right order!
But the main thing was the noise. It must have been loud for the athletes running past, but to be inside it was deafening. The cowbells, the screams, the whooping, cheering, and shrieks of encouragement. . .and that was just me. It was like standing next to the speaker stack at an AC/DC concert (when I did finally head down to the oval my ears were ringing). Jason was at one end of the gauntlet and was yelling out the names of Team Z athletes who appeared at the bottom of the hill. Given that I couldn’t see squat at that distance it was clear that in addition to the ability to manipulate space and time Jason also possessed infra-red vision. And when he spotted a Team Zer the noise level went up even further. As a tired Iwan walked toward us, for example, everyone began rhythmically chanting his name. And Iwan, like the many non-Z athletes going past, couldn’t help but smile.
Jason spotted Mary down the end of the street and called it up the line. Ilhan turned and hauled me bodily toward the road to meet her. She was looking happy, hugging and high-fiving people as she went down the line. I was cheering and cowbelling like a crazy man, and high-fived her as she went past, only for her to tell me later that she remembered seeing Garth and Mel but not me! Maybe I should have been more restrained in order to stand out from that insane mob!
As Mary ran off into the darkness toward the turnaround further up Mirror Lake Drive, Garth, Mel and I, with Scott and Martine who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere walked back down to the stadium (with me wondering the whole way how Scott was able to walk at all!). The streets around the stadium entrance were packed with people and we had to fight our way inside; the area around the finishing chute was barely controlled mayhem. The stands on one side were jammed with people, brightly lit against the darkness; on the other side, where we were, people packed the barrier and and the bank behind us. Mary’s name finally popped up on the screen that told everyone who had just passed the 26 mile mark and then, after an interminable wait, Mary finally appeared at the end of the chute.
The emotion of that moment for me was overwhelming; I don’t know how to describe it so I’m not going to try.
Mary veered straight over to the barrier on the other side, drawn, I’m guessing, like a moth to a flame by a flash of Team Z green (as so many of us have been!); she hugged Melody and Iwan’s mom and then continued on down the chute crossing, finally, the finish line well ahead of her expected finishing time.
We met Mary on the other side of the finish line. I took a photo of Mary as she strode towards us out of the gloom, wrapped in a foil blanket and clutching her victory swag. It was a ratshit photo, and of all the photos that I took that day it was the only one I wished that I had done a better job with. Clad in that blanket and wrapped in the foil blanket she looked like a superhero, which is what she is to me.
Appearing out of the dark behind her was Iwan. Iwan is a mighty terrific athlete and he’d obviously had a rough day. But he was dealing with it, accepting it with a smiling calm. He walked up to us and he and Mary hugged. That, unexpectedly, was a strange moment for me. It was as if I was looking at these two foil-wrapped figures through the wrong end of a telescope; they had shared something that I hadn’t, knew things that I didn’t: I was, for all my involvement in the day, an outsider.
Then it was back to the finish line. We were at the top of the bank and had a great view of the entire spectacle. I held Mary upright while she changed clothes and we settled down to watch the finishers come in during the last hour of the race. Well, actually, “settled down” is highly inaccurate; the entire place became like an increasingly rowdy rock concert. Mary had described this to me, but like everything else about this day, hearing about it is one thing but being there quite another.
I screamed myself silly as every Team Zer came across the line, knowing that for several of them this was not their first attempt to finish the race. I screamed myself hoarse as Matt Long, the designated everyday hero came across the line with minutes to spare. But for me, the most unforgettable moment, as I suspect it was for many, was the lone figure that entered the stadium with less than two minutes to go. Not to take anything away from Matt Long’s achievement, but by the end, he was running with an entire support entourage, not to mention TV crews. All eyes were on him. But the last finisher was by himself, unexpected, unheralded. And the crowd went ballistic. I’ve never experienced anything like it, not at any rock concert, nothing. The crowd poured forth sheer willpower, urging this guy toward the finish; the cheer when he made it over the line with, literally, fractions of a second before the official 17 hour cutoff, could have woken the dead.
We drove back to our cabin out in Wilmington and finally got to bed about 1.30, only a few hours before Mary had to get up to get in line to buy her victory gear. It had been an amazing day, but one thought was going through my mind as I fell asleep.
That was incredible, but I seriously doubt you’ll ever see me doing anything as crazy as that.