Races and Stories

Ironman USA, 2000

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^Mirror Lake, during the 2000 running of Ironman USA

Seen on a sign in front of a small Baptist church in near Jay, New York:

"In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and he shall direct thy paths."--Proverbs 3:6

When I saw those words, it occurred to me that I was in the middle of an Ironman.

A tall redhead and I rolled into Lake Placid on Wednesday evening. I had been in Knoxville teaching people about communications in traffic management systems, moving my mouth the same way I’ve done dozens of times in the last three years, but not really thinking much about it. I finished Lance Armstrong’s book while bobbing and weaving on the clouds like a cork on gale-driven surf, and bounced onto the runway with that slightly sick feeling that comes from too much motion, too little air, and realistic discussions of cancer treatment. Was Lance inspiring? I don’t know. His story demonstrates something else to me: The capacity of people to endure what is placed before them. That concept would return to my thinking later.

As we drove up Highway 73 through Keene, the road tilted uphill. And stayed that way: Mile after mile of incessant climbing. I had not yet related the written description of the bike leg to real earth, but I hoped we would not be riding up that hill. In the end, of course, we rode down it, but all in good time.

After driving up and down Main Street a couple of times to get a feel for the place, we checked into our motel and nearly filled the tiny room with gear. After ten hours of driving, we were both ready for sleep, but we still drove back to Mirror Lake to scope out the swimming site for the next morning. While there, we met a night-time swimmer in beach trunks—a tourist from Germany—who emerged from the water with the comment, "Te vater iss varm; Te air iss cold!" I just could not imagine going into that water. I was a pretender.

The Ironman experience is more than just a race. I’m now glad of the five-night minimum required by the hotel. Being in Lake Placid for those many days allowed me three opportunities to swim in Mirror Lake, and many opportunities to meet with old friends and make new friends. My two days in Penticton two years ago was just a taste. But I felt no less like a pretender in Lake Placid than I had in Canada, where I really was just a spectator.

Those of us in the Internet community who met for swimming each morning must feel inadequate with virtual fame, and apparently must therefore demonstrate for the surrounding crowd. Others slipped into the water quietly. Not us. After directing the crowd on the dock adjacent to the swim start to provide a lane, we flung ourselves off the pier, each in turn, earning style points for the air time and the amount of water projected upward. Jeff Mazer’s nice, clean dive was booed; Scott Rosen’s almost-flip attracted cheers. Each swim was short—just enough to get us to the first buoy to get a feel for the water. We needn’t have felt anonymous. Trevor Shand provided all the visibility needed with his red, white, and blue hair dye job.

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^Make a lane, here we come! (photo by Michael Parente)

That first swim panicked me. I never felt comfortable in the cold lake, and was sore and stiff after only ten minutes of swimming. The next swim had a calming effect, but I elected to swim on Saturday as well, by myself, without the theatrical entry into the deeps. That third swim was the first that felt like swimming.

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^Eric Weiss, Mark Markley, Bob Mina, Greg Pressler, Steve Dragoni, Michael Parente, and Trevor Shand having a post-swim breakfast. I'm safely behind the camera.

On Thursday, we met at a central hotel for a ride of the running course. In my nervousness, I arrived early, and was sitting on a rock ledge when a very fit rider glided up to me and said "A Habanero—you must be Rick Denney." Kurt Egli stuck out his hand and we shook. Others arrived: Bob Mina, Mark Markley, Trevor Shand, Scott Rosen, Eric Weiss, Steve Dragoni and others who in my hypertensive state did not record. We coasted out of town on Main Street, down Lower Main, and out of town towards the vertiginous ski jumps on Route 73. Bob Mina has stored even more useless information in that shiny pate of his than I have in mine, and the conversation was non-stop. But Bob has that unique ability to sprinkle his steady stream of data with effective encouragement. Though I arrived in Lake Placid feeling a bit like Eeyore (of Winnie the Pooh fame), his unquenchable good humor started to rub off.

Each evening, the weather service would do its best to return my state of mind to Highly Anxious.

Friday, we piled into too few cars and drove the cycling course, stopping on significant climbs so that our loved ones could leave notes to us in chalk. That afternoon, more rain came and washed it all away. But the ground was hallowed all the same.

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^Chalk, a necessary commodity. ^Writing love letters on the climb out of Jay.

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^From the sublime (a tall redhead) to ^the ridiculous (Eric Weiss: Self-Portrait)

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^Parente scoffs at bad Karma.

Saturday morning found me swimming, cycling, and running, as called for in my plan. A tall redhead and I mounted bikes for a leisurely five miles, followed but a gentle jog of about a half a mile to the Athlete’s Village and back from our motel. A last check of transition bags completed, I delivered the bike and the bags to the transition area. Being separated from my bike did not relax me.

Rain. Again. We hid in the car, and in Jimmy’s Restaurant (and Ben and Jerry’s).

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^Rain over Lake Placid

The rain stopped just in time for the parade, and despite my willingness to walk with Virginians, I defected to Pennsylvania to hang with the Philadelphia contingent. As Mark Markley (another Virginia defector) said, "I lived there once." Well, I’ve driven through it a couple of times.

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^Ominous Clouds dampen spirits the day before.

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^"Pennsylvanian" DRS's on parade.

That night, in the room: "You’re turning on the TV?" "Yes, it’s time to obsess about the weather." "The National Weather Service advises the potential for flash flooding in New England as the rain chances continue to increase. Sunday, look for a high in the low 80’s with a 70% chance of rain and thundershowers, mainly in the afternoon and evening." Sigh. I could not sit. So we drove the bike loop again, this time me with my own thoughts, and silent redheaded encouragement.

After all the activities of race week, the race itself seems like it would be anti-climactic. It wasn’t.

To those who said that an Ironman is less painful than a marathon: You lied.

To those who laughed at me for putting a triple on my tri-bike: I was the one laughing (internally, of course) as I spun past people who were grinding up those hills, out of the saddle, at about 30 rpm’s.

With the final morning checks completed, and the usual pre-race activities done, I left my companion in search of the glasses table, and to don my wetsuit. Despite the undeniable inspiration of the sun’s sudden penetration of the fog on Mirror Lake during, literally, the singing of "the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air," I still needed to see her once more. I cannot imagine getting through the day without seeing her at every opportunity. There she was, at the shore, already building a network of friends around her. One last hug, one last shake of hands with Mark, Bob, and others, and, without a hint of countdown, the cannon fired and off we went.

The Swim

As it turned out, I enjoyed the swim most of all. Many report being battered in the crowd. I was. But it did not intimidate me, not even the guy breast-stroking with an aggressive frog-kick (now, there’s something that should be outlawed for safety reasons in a crowded swim). I parried his kicks with my arm about five times before he got the idea and stopped trying to remove my head. I supposed battling for position in a four-to-a-lane master’s swim program provided enough training for that sort of combat. I swam along the tight line for a while, but found could not actually swim because of the crowd. So, I parked the sun’s orb a little further around the compass and navigated to the outside line to find freer water. The slowness enforced by the crowd kept me from going out too fast, and I never found myself sucking wind. Surprisingly soon, the turnaround buoys appeared. On the way back, I kept getting tangled up with the same guy. I’d steer left, he’d steer left. I’d steer right, he’d steer right. In similar situations I had yielded and let the other person swim on, but as I found my pace I decided to let him yield, and eventually he fell behind.

After all the energy I’ve expended being afraid of so long a swim, the sheer enjoyment of it surprised me. Both laps were within seconds of being the same duration. No, that doesn’t mean I’m signing up for the Chesapeake Bay Swim next year, heh, heh.

I hope there are no pictures of me running from the lake to T1. Me in a Speedo jiggling along the carpeted path would not make a pretty picture. I heard my name from various directions, one them emanating from a tall redhead. Yes! Just the person I wanted to see.

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^Me (on the right) emerging from the water but not from blindness as I tug a wad of duct tape (used as a makeshift label) from my glasses.

I passed my bag, my handler having missed my number being called out, and had to double back. Thence the portapotty, where all the water I’d swallowed in the first swim lap had found its way through my system. Then there were none of the promised towels in T1 (I used one that had been previously used). Mark Markley was sitting behind me having a great time. I was grousing about the wet towel. Like I’ve said before, Ironman brings out the true person. Sigh.

Yes, the transition was a bit slower than my projection by a minute or two. But, hey, I’d come out of the water over seven minutes ahead of schedule.

The Bike

In the past, I’ve reported that getting on the bike after swimming provided a great feeling of liberation and free air. I didn’t have that feeling this time, which I suppose demonstrates my improvement in swimming more clearly than anything else. This time, I had a business-like feeling about the bike as I dried and tested the brakes on the short downhill leading away from the Athlete’s Village.

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^On the first lap approaching the downhill into Keene.

The first big climb appears quickly upon leaving Lake Placid. It’s a mere shadow of things to come, and I was passed by dozens of people on that climb as I twiddled along, keeping my heart rate as low as possible. I saw many of those people again. Following The Man’s advice, I held off eating until after I’d recovered from that climb, so I could digest the food during the relaxing downhill into Keene. Somewhere along here, Frank Wohlfarth and I exchanged greetings. Who was that riding with him wearing a Jason Jersey?

Yes, that’s what The Man said while we ate tortellini: Relaxing.

Balderdash. There was nothing relaxing about that downhill. It was white knuckles all the way, trying not to get tangled up with zillions of other slow swimmers. Several times, I dragged my brakes to control my speed. Even so, I passed many folks who had left me behind on the climb.

The leg between Keene and Jay seems all too short. The road rolls along adjacent to the East Fork of the Ausable River, with a bit of tailwind, and goes by quickly. Jay appeared too soon, and I had to stuff a Clif Bar into my mouth almost whole so I would not be fooling with it while starting the long climb over the shoulder of Bassett Mountain.

Now, folks will say that the series of climbs into Lake Placid are the worst, but this climb out of Jay seemed longer and tougher. It is a big start to what seems like perpetual uphill for the rest of the course. Once again, people left me behind as I changed down to my granny gear and maintained a steady 70 rpm’s. I saw many on the out-and-back: Eric, Bob, Mark, Bud Bonzai, and others, but usually too late to say anything.

I was so afraid of the hills between Wilmington and Lake Placid that I found myself surprised to see the painted names of the final five climbs: The Little and Big Cherries and the Three Bears.

When I opened the card that I found in my special needs bag, the assembled volunteers said "Awww, he got mail." How could I have done an Ironman alone?

I actually felt like a cyclist spinning through town. She was just past the entrance to T2—the entrance I had to pass this time.

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^Cruising through town after the first lap.

The second time up the hill, nobody passed me.

The second time down the mountain into Keene, I didn’t touch the brakes at all, and passed a multitude. But I was glad to arrive in Keene, knowing that I would not have to negotiate that downhill in rain as I had feared. As it happened, the forecast rain never appeared at all until the next morning.

Once again, the leg to Jay went quickly. Too quickly, and several times I had to force myself to slow down. I was losing concentration, and lapsing into roadie mode. I would pay, first on the big hill climbing out of Jay, then again on the hill returning from Black Brook. It was about then that I noticed that I felt like dog-do. With 15 miles left, the sun (where was that forecast rain?) and the humidity were taking their toll. My butt hurt. My feet were burning (time for new insoles). The wind seemed to putter along at my own pace, and provided no cooling. When the sun was behind a cloud, I moved well. When the sun emerged, my spirits sank. I was actually looking forward to the run as I slipped into a mini-meltdown. On the run, if you can’t run, you can walk. If you can’t walk, you can trudge. On the bike, though, you have to get up the hills any way you can, even with granny gears. I cannot imagine how tough those last hills would have been without the triple. The last ten miles of the bike commanded more determination and grit than any part of the run.

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^112 miles is a long way.

She was waiting by the bike finish. She laughed as I offered my bike for sale to the assembled helpers. She laughed with me as I declined the 20 dollars offered by one smarty-pants.

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^"Who wants it?"

During the second transition, I once again relieved myself (at least the hydration plan was working), and sat in the tent to change. Digging into my bag, I found a note from Bob. In addition to a few encouragements, he offered the only advice that works at such times: Walk if you must, but Keep Moving. There was another note from an anonymous Satan: "So, Rick, is it easier than you thought?" But the "easier" was crossed out, and replaced by "harder," revealing a true schizoid personality, with Dr. Jekyll asking a question only to be corrected by Mr. Hyde. Only Eric Weiss could have been responsible.

It was both: Unimaginably hard, yet being conquered all the same. We endure what is placed before us.

The Run

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^Now... Go Run A Marathon!

After important encouragement from a tall redhead, I turned down the hill that leaves town. We endure what’s placed before us, but we do it at our own pace. I walked, after jogging a bit for the crowd, that is. I walked for what seemed like about three miles, and reached a sign that said "Mile 1." So, I jogged a bit until my legs started to cramp, then I walked some more. I ate Gu. I drank Gatorade and water. After another mile or two, I found I could jog a bit on the downhills. I was depleted, and could only expend what I could consume. About halfway up the River Road, I had to pee. I had to pee again at nearly every stop for the rest of the evening. That made me afraid of hyponatremia, so I stopped drinking water and just drank Gatorade. I figured that if it was going to pass through me, at least it could drop off a few electrolytes on the way.

At one stop, I tried a few animal crackers. At another stop, I tried some pretzels, but they almost made me sick. Stick to the plan.

Eric passed by going the other way, returning up the River Road on his second lap. I had much earlier seen Tom Shinners going back into town, finishing his run as I was starting mine. Tom makes a strong case for the fitness of bike messengers, and some of it must have rubbed off on his wife, too. He finished fourth in 45-49.

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^Climbing a hill on the out-and-back.

I heard my name yelled by others, but I have to confess that my focus had turned inward, and my true introverted self controlled my actions. I waved, but could do little else for a long time. I was actually looking for Bob, to thank him for the note, but when I finally saw him, returning on his second long out-and-back as I started mine, I just plain forgot. So I waved and mumbled something and kept going.

I have to mention that I saw John Faith on several occasions, appearing unexpectedly like an apparition, shouting words of encouragement.

As I returned to town after the first loop, a middle-aged woman I had never met saw my number and screamed, "1046! Are you Rick Denney?!" "That’s me." Whereupon she spun on her heel and sprinted back up the street, all the while screaming "Rick Denney is coming! Rick is coming!" I could see that a scout had been recruited into the Redhead network. Sure enough, a tall redhead bounded out of the waiting crowd, with cameras aplenty and afiring, and the middle-aged woman recruited to point the video camera. (By the way, you don’t want to see that video. Some people do not understand the concept of steady.) I turned to the crowd on the other side of the street and said, "My fiancée probably has the whole crowd wired." "Yes, she does" was their response.

After more encouragement, I continued walking to the second loop of the first lap. Someone yelled my name from the crowd (Doug Fuller?), or maybe that was after I returned from the second turnaround, beginning my second lap. Whoever it was said something that stuck with me on the second lap as I jogged down the hill. "C’mon Rick Denney. One more lap and you’re an IRONMAN!"

I never in my life have felt less like iron than at that moment. With only the slightest provocation, I would have melted in a steaming heap just like the Wicked Witch.

I felt stronger for a while as I began that second lap, and ran the downhills as much as I could. Chicken broth became my friend for much of the next half-dozen miles. About six miles from the finish, I seemed to get on a roll, and started running. I skipped a rest stop, feeling like I had enough to finish, and not liking the thought of putting anything else in my mouth. I ran consistently from the River Road into town, past the light towers, which seemed to accomplish nothing but blast my night vision and attract every insect in New England, past the rest stops, past the waning crowds, past the athletes already finished and returning to their hotels. Not real running of course, and barely what I would call a jog on a normal day. But it seemed like enough. I didn’t attempt to run up the steepest part of the big hill going into town, but I started running again as I rounded the corner onto Main Street. There she was again. I turned the corner, and topped the hill…and the well ran dry. I guessed wrong what I had left by about a mile and a half.

When you can’t run, you walk. And I walked. Everyone kept congratulating me, but it seemed premature. I felt sick, and it didn’t seem that far from where I felt to the way Julie Moss looked all those years ago. I tried to drink some broth, but couldn’t stomach it. I drank a bit of water on the return of the last out-and-back. The walking helped; when I got a block from the Athlete’s Village, and it was truly downhill, then I started running again. Now was the time to spend what was left and look good for the cameras. As I rounded the oval, I was nearly overcome by the accumulated emotion of the day and all that preceded it, but I managed to compose myself before the finish.

The lights at the finish were like daylight through my sweat-encrusted glasses, and I floated on the roar of the crowd. I didn’t think I’d have the strength to break the tape, but I think I managed to raise my arms in victory.

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^A long day. Yes, I'm sticking my tongue out, but I have no idea why.

I don’t know what I bought, but I paid a bundle.

Someone hung a medal on my chest, and another one wrapped me in mylar and steered me to scales: 199. I’d lost six pounds. Not bad, I thought to myself, I’d avoided severe dehydration. The guy asked me if I wanted the medical tent. No, I wanted to see my fiancée. Did I want water? No, I’m not thirsty or dehydrated, just a little bonky. Where is that tall redhead? He led me to a chair, a blessed, cheap, wobbly, wonderful, plastic folding chair. Then she was there, having recruited some credentialed fellow to lead her the short way through the gates. Mark Markley and his friend emerged from somewhere about that time, and we shook hands and took pictures.

After a while, the sickness fades, and the mind turns to food. Then, a little later, it seems possible to trudge back to the hotel, the various gear bags and other triathlon effluvia (bikes, etc.) having been collected. The next day, the feeling of suffering thins out. Now, a day later, only the soreness remains as a general discomfort. With some, the triumph grows and they think of what can be done to reduce that 15:19:54 to something like, say, 14:45.

Not me. I’m looking forward to life’s new directions. I intend to pursue music as I did a few years ago. I intend to have a home life with someone I love. I intend to balance this obsession with other obsessions.

But I’m glad I did it. If for no other reason than to pass by that sign on that little church in Jay, to remind of me of why I do triathlon: Because I’ve been blessed. Because I Can.