Sunday, September 17, 2006

Ironman: Seven Days Later

One week ago from this moment, I was making my way across slick roads through icy rain towards an elusive, mysterious destination called "The Finish Line". I was on the other side of Iron. The pages were being written, so to speak. We, all of us, still had a day of potential and possibility ahead of us. Our stories were still incomplete.

The lore was, once you crossed that Finish Line, "nothing would ever be the same". I'd heard it and read it enough times from others. Not always describable, but something was different. It just wasn't possible to go through what a person goes through during the course of an Ironman, particularly his first, I suppose, and not come out unchanged. I wondered if that would be true of me, or to what extent. Would I really feel different? Would I feel differently?

Pre-Iron, I had this conversation with Pharmie, where she wondered if she hadn't had the kind of transcendental changes in herself that it seemed others had during the road to becoming Ironman. I told her that, in my case, I felt changed...but that I was one who was requiring some changing.

So. Is it true, then? Am I different now than I was a week ago?


The process doesn't feel complete seems The Finish Line is where much concludes, but also where much begins...which is how I suppose any great adventure should feel. But I do feel changed. More patient, somehow. More...available. I've seemed to have some reckoning with my mortality, which was somehow always on the cusp of conversation with my Becoming. If, as it was, Ironman was a life decision for me, then I feel that some things in life were decided. I feel at peace with the person I am, the man I am, but more importantly the person I intend to be. And for me...that's been a long time coming.

Is it possible that it was just Ironman that could provide such a catalyst? Yes. Though Ironman is better described for me as a crucible. The transformations occur slowly, and not always with one's awareness, in the course of chasing down thunderstorms, or riding through ice and rain on a lonely Saturday, or even simply getting to the pool when it's the last thing one really wants to do. The ingredients and elements reveal themselves through countless hours, all alone, out there doing what no sane person should want to do in the cold of March, or rains of May, or heat of July. And it takes a particular person to become Ironman. Nobody is there, making sure you run that last mile, or even 50 yards. Nobody will hold you accountable to your Saturday morning workout. Nobody sets the alarm clock for you. And none of us will make a living this way - we're not preparing for a paycheck, and very few of us are even trying for a coveted Kona slot. Whatever the reason, it is deeply personal and acutely singular, and it drives one to want to become something more than he is, more than he thought me might ever be. And therein lies, I think, an essential truth to the alchemy of becoming Ironman. It happens to be, simply, a race. But the race is just the metaphor, the reason, the vessel. The crucible.

But the crucible is, I know now, essential. I had thought and felt, pre-Iron, that whatever happened, I had transformed. I had changed. And that was true, to a limited extent. For me, it took nearly 15 hours of constant exercise to fortify. For those ingredients, senseless and haphazard, to mix and mesh and create that person who crossed The Finish Line. It took the race and all its terrain to fire the forge. And, for me, it took its Finishing to finish it.

So a week later: I feel humble. Suddenly awakened to a new appreciation for my life, for the people in it, for the strangers who pass through its halls. The experience shared that day with my friends and family has strengthened a bond there, but created new ones that were not before apparent or possible. The daydreams I share with my wife seem more colorful, more tangible. I have, as an Ironman, a tacit awareness, if not yet an understanding, of things I felt oblivious to before. And it's only been a week! Heh.

I feel a sense of camaraderie and intense respect for anyone who has become Ironman. Even if it's unspoken and never acknowledged, I feel like when I see that tattoo on the guy's leg in front of me in transition, I share some kind of bloodline with him. I'm struck by how utterly irrelevant the Finishing Time is and feels. That it's the race that was important, not the speed in which it was done. I know this is specific to my goals for that day, and that others incorporate a time into their personal becoming, but I enjoy the feeling. I feel impacted by the volunteers that day, and that they were a testament to how decent human beings can be to one another. Strangers all, but so kind, so useful, to helpful, and so aligned with each and every one of us to keep us moving forward. To go! go! go! To provide and assist and encourage, for a moment or a minute or more. And I want for life to be one big transaction between volunteers. So that the lady at the bank says to me, "Go! Great job! You're looking awesome with your checking account!" And for me to say to the man at the gas station, "Dude, thanks for the fuel. You guys are the best!" and for my next client meeting to conclude with an exchange like, "You're doing it! You're looking awesome!"

And I feel a deep, almost sacred appreciation for triathlon. This sport and its athletes! Where else!? This game has changed my life. It may have, without any exaggeration, saved it. I came to it a confused, clueless, overweight and under-lived emotional and spiritual vagabond. I came to it part of the problem, and not part of the solution. Today, 3 years and a lifetime later, it has created an Ironman. Or as my mother called it, "IronMAN!" And maybe that distinction is important somehow. And the game's players...where to begin? How ever would I end? The support, the friendliness, the inherent want that we have to want the guy over there to do better, to reach his goals, to go! go! go!'s unlike anything I've experienced, and I applaud it and am proud to be among it. But also: the game feels fun. And that's an important lesson from Ironman for me. In the past, the races weren't always "fun" for me, even when I've truly enjoyed them. I'd take myself too seriously, or my "goals" too seriously. So, so silly now, it seems. I had the most fun I've ever had in my life at Ironman, and I can't wait for another race, at whatever distance, just so I can go have that kind of fun again. The game, and the race, has taught me so much, and I hope to be its student for as long as I live.

I have, in the last week, done zero exercise. I'll start again on Monday. I've eaten for the enjoyment of it, whenever and whatever I like. Yesterday I spent the entire day with my wife, and we both said several times how nice it was. She'd say, "Usually I only see you on Sundays, so I keep thinking I have to go to work tomorrow!" and I'd say, "I know, it feels so weird not to be on my bike, or planning my day around my bike!" and then we'd go get some ice cream. It's been great. It's felt well deserved. It's been sweet.

But next week I start exercise again. Unstructured and fun for the next few weeks, and obviously nowhere near the intensity required for Ironman. I'm running a small road race with friends at the end of October. I'm starting to put together the beginnings of a plan for next season.

And this: I will do another Ironman. I know that now. Not next year. Not even the year after that. But sometime I'll be back there, among the heroes, a chance to do something extraordinary once more. To stare life down, then give it a wink. It's in my blood now.


triteacher said...

You say it so well... I too am different, and I too have IM in my blood now. I'm thinking of getting an IM Wisconsin '08 tattoo; care to join me? :)

Anonymous said...

Chris, Another one? WOW! I'll be there, rain, sleet or snow. Wherever it is. My dad and I were talking the other night. We agreed that we did pretty well planning to see you the 14 or whatever times we did but we think we can do better now that we know the course. I think that was part of the fun- it was sometimes a gamble as to whether or not we'd see you and we won everytime. And the closer bond you write about- it there. I emailed Debbie the other day just to say hi and talk about how much fun I had with someone who was in the thick of the sport of spectating with me. She responded back that we're more family now than ever.

Mike- Can I drive the Hummer next time Chris does IM? :)

Chris- I started my 5k training. I didn't know that it was only 3 miles- I thought it was more than that. I found a website that has a little training program- From Couch to 5k. Funny, isn't it? I followed the plan last week and so far so good. I don't like running yet tho- when do you start to like running? :) Erin

xt4 said...

Wait, at some point you LIKE running? When? Did I miss the meeting???

Another one: But not for the forseeable future. Not next year, or the year after that, at least. So says I for now, anyway. But you can be sure that you'll be among the very first to know, Erin...

Good for you on the 5k - "3 miles" isn't nearly so short when it's "from the couch", or even cardio stuff in the gym...I clearly remember my first half-mile, and sucking air with burning lungs. All great adventures start with a single step, that sort of thing...I of course am here to help however I can, just lemme know...

Pharmie said...

As always, such an inspiring post. Your writing never ceases to amaze me. I too feel changed now, different somehow. I went on my first 5 mile run today. I twas my first exercise in a week. I was a little sore, but it felt great! Here's to IM round 2!

TriSaraTops said...

Holy I on your wavelength or WHAT.

RunBubbaRun said...

Like you, I feel I have changed, IM flowing thru my head 24-7 and the lessons learned that day will last a lifetime. Great post and knowing you are part of the IM brotherhood is such a great feeling. And yes after the pain is over, I think back, it was such a great day even with all the wind, cold, and rain thrown at us.

Fe-lady said...

Very are a member of a club that gets larger every year, but we are still all very special in some way....
I guess I have been doing this stuff for so long that I no longer view my life as "changed" but it's just part of my life now...and 99% of it is lived to it's fullest. Fitness lets you do that!
(My first IM was just about the same time that you crossed! Cool!)

qcmier said...

Such an awesome and powerful post. Amazing how so many of us came to together for a race, and having expeirenced it from our own perspective, came out with many of the same conclusions.

Can't wait to see where your plans take you in the future. And maybe some day, I'll actually meet you in person.