Monday, September 27, 2004

Diary of a Triathlete

To fully understand the gravity of this situation, some disclosure is in order. I'm six inches shorter, 50 pounds lighter and 3.2 seconds slower than your basic NFL Pro Bowl left tackle.

In other words, I really had no business standing in the sand at Zach's Bay awaiting the start of the Jones Beach Triathlon on Sunday morning.

However, there I was, in wetsuit shorts and a long-sleeve Under Armour ColdGear shirt, waiting for a whistle to commence what is easily the most ridiculous and personally satisfying thing I've ever done in my 29 years, 1 month and 6 days on Earth.

Surprisingly, I was not nervous, just completely focused on the 800 meters of salt water in front of me. I could have sworn Shark Lavay was standing next to me screaming, "Get hyped! Get hyped!" Hey, when embarking on such a demanding physical challenge, especially for the least fit of 381 competitors, you search for motivation wherever the f-bomb you can find it, even if that includes random scenes from "Any Given Sunday."

Word from the other competitors is that Lawrence Taylor was not at Jones Beach. I contend he was.

But definitely in attendance was Lawyer friend Steve. He's what we call an accomplished triathlete, which is to say he's done several of these and got me interested in the prospect of completing a half-mile swim, 14-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run in the same morning.

The whistle blows. The race of my life is on. It's a race I know I won't win. But my definition of win is completely different from Webster’s. I finish, I win. I live to tell the story, I win. Last place or not. Odds of me finishing last are at "Smarty Jones winning the Belmont" proportions. Yet, in a statistical oddity, the line on me finishing this thing is off the board.

I know I'll finish. I spent two months preparing for this day and as DMX says, "You will not take this from me, bay-bee!"

The first few steps signal potential doom as I slip running into the water. It's a quick slip, the kind no one notices because I don't fall. Zach's Bay is forever known as Lake Valdez now, what with the tremendous amount of crude oil that appears to be poured onto the sand at the start of the race. Think "trying to stand up on a slip-and-slide."

250 meters in and I'm not nearly as dead as I expected to be. The pretty blonde in the kayak (she's a race volunteer) keeps me headed in the right direction. Fifty more meters and delirium sets in. My fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Norton, is yelling at me to keep swimming. I think about the Papal snow globe in my bag, a good-luck charm of sorts from Artist-in-Italy friend Jenny. Then there's that Twix candy bar I bought three years ago after work one night -- did I really need that? I'm on a Hunter S. Thompson LSD trip right now, only I didn't take any LSD. Fear & Loathing in Lake Valdez.

By the backstroke of good fortune, I get to the second buoy and hug the turn like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Anything to shave a second or two. By now, I'm clearly last in Wave 1 (there are five waves, launched 10 minutes apart). Oh look, here comes the second wave. Flying right by me like a bunch of Thorpedos and Michael Phelpses. I care not about these people. We all paid our $80 or so, and I'm getting my money's worth. Let them pass me.

I'm on the last 100 meters now, not once thinking about the four years I’ve shaved off my life expectancy. Somehow, I finish. Pops has the camera ready. Not sure I'll want to see that picture until later in life, or at least until my left hamstring floats ashore. Oh, did I mention my surgically repaired left knee popped four times? So I have that going for me, which is nice.

Moms and others cheer me on. I have no idea what city I'm in, much less who these people are. I'm just figuring out a way to unload the six gallons of salt I drank while in Lake Valdez.

The makers of this athletic pit of hell were kind enough to place overhead showers near the bike area for people to wash off salt, sweat and sand before getting on the bike. It is here I realize that people who attend triathlons are the nicest people in the world. They cheer for everyone, even the left tackles who look completely out of place. One nice fella says, "You're doing awesome, big guy. Take a quick shower and keep going."

My response: "Oh great, more freakin' water!" He laughs and relays the line to anyone who would listen.

At this point, I wonder why I did this. My reasons are three-tiered:
1) Surface level: Tremendous exercise.
2) Underneath level: Unbelievable sense of individual accomplishment.
3) Subterranean level: Personal heartache needs an outlet for rechanneling of anger, aggression, depression, sadness, etc.

Reminded of why, I tune out the 378 other competitors and run my own race. Bring on that bike ride. Let's do this. Fourteen miles ain't nothing.

Around mile 6, Eminem's "Lose Yourself" comes through my headphones. This is my moment and I own it. For the rest of the day, the rest of my lifetime.

At mile 10, here comes "You're the Best," of Karate Kid fame, arguably the greatest song from a soundtrack since forever. The next four miles are a blur. I put that song on loop and cruise. It felt like two minutes. It felt like two hours.

I pass through the next time-point. Lawyer friend Steve is already done, and I haven't even started the run yet. This was to be expected. If this was Outrun, Pole Position II or Enduro, the game would end right there without my advancing to the next checkpoint. Lucky for me, I have a few quarters left.

Time for a 3.1 mile run. OK, more like a brisk walk with running in between. "I'll see you in an hour, kid," I tell Lawyer friend Steve.

"Don't worry, I'll be there cheering for you," Lawyer friend Steve responds.

The vote of confidence was nice.

Power-walking my way past the Pitch-and-Putt, the shuffleboard court AND the West softball fields, I wonder "I worked here three years when I was a kid and I never knew the boardwalk was this f-bombing long!!!!!!"

People who I've never seen before and will never see again are high-fiving me. The support is appreciated, even if they are 1.2 miles ahead of me already. Everyone loves a left tackle with a smile.

Somehow, I lug myself to the turnaround. Five young kids offer cups of water. I request vodka to dull the pain and forget where I am and what I'm doing. I settle for water, but the cups are half-full so I shoot it and pretend. By now, hallucinations are the norm.

In fact, Denzel Washington is at the turnaround, screaming "Fourth quarter, fourth quarter, fourth quarter." I yell back. "This is left side. Strong side!"

Hey, whatever works, right? Even Kevin Costner showed up, telling me "You gotta find it, buddy," just like he did to Adlai Stephenson in "Thirteen Days."

I start to book now, but I'm like Henry Hill: I said nothing and I got nothing.

A half-mile to go. I can see the finish line. I can see Mom, Lawyer friend Steve, his mom, his lovely girlfriend Jamie and one of her friends. They're all screaming for me, as are the other three spectators still hanging around.

Then, whammo! The battery in my mp3 player dies. What in the name of Dinacell 20-pack for a $1 just happened? I got mushed. No worries. I can see the finish line, which means I'm gonna finish this thing, which means this is easily the most proud moment of my life.

I put my head down and run as fast as I possibly can. I cut the corner as my family and friends cheer for me. Sixty feet left. Fifty. Forty. I might die right now. Thirty. Twenty. My spleen is on the ground. My kidney is somewhere near the umbrella stand. Ten feet. There's Rocky Balboa's trainer at the finish line. "Get up you son of a -----, because Mickey loves ya."

Five feet. Four. Two. One. Lean in and shave an extra .01 off, just like the pros do. Holy Mary Mother of God. I did it!

And I was third to last, unless you don't count the two people who quit halfway through the bike ride.

Last but not least never sounded so good.

Time to start my vacation. See ya next week. E-mail me.