Monday, March 09, 2009

Of Ironman: Again

I went for a nice run this weekend with Erin and Krista. It was rainy, but not terribly cold, and the pace was comfortable. They're training for a May marathon, so we did two loops of 6.5 miles. As they took a short break after Lap One and I collected my things to leave them to it, Erin (who is a 2007 Wisconsin Ironman) and I joked about how hard they're working these late winter days, and how I'm the one ducking out early even though I'm training for Ironman. She remembered that when she was training in '07, it would have been her this day in early March, already cranking out 13 mile training runs for a September race. I remembered exactly the same thing, outrunning a March snowstorm while trying to train my body to adopt a midfoot strike; my calves were killing me and I was freezing some 13 miles in. I remembered how my first century ride while training for Ironman: One was in May. Then I said, almost flippantly, that of course we were cranking out ridiculous volume that early for our first Ironman races - we were terrified half the time, and had to prove to ourselves as early as we could that it was even possible to cover the distances.

We laughed about it, but as I sat in my warm car and cranked the heater, giving the horn a honk as they took off for another 6.5, I collected some thoughts about that brief conversation. It stayed with me for my drive home.

Here's an interesting exercise: go back to the March of '06 posts in this blog. Go ahead, I'll wait. Or, here are the Cliff's notes: This same weekend 3 years previous I was on the Ironman Wisconsin bike course with my Grandpa Doyle. I had my video camera and was taping the course so I could review it when I got home. Grandpa and I were out there for a couple of hours until we got lost, then backtracked to some familiar roads to make our way home. We made it just past Cross Plains, before a left became a right or something got confused. I remember the first time we were on S, we blew past Witte - it's easy to miss that turn. I've only raced the course once, but I've ridden it a thousand times - either in reality or in my dreams. It was some stranger then; now it's etched on my heart, tattooed on my left arm.

When I think back to that time, Before Ironman in '06, I relish the newness, the innocence, the cluelessness. Every encounter, every experiment tried and failed, every gadget gawked at, all of it shiny and perplexing and mysterious. It was more solitary - there is a class of us, and we all know who we are, that sort of engaged the blogosphere around the same time, sorting out our way to Ironman Wisconsin 2006. But that community wasn't known to me yet, and this blog was really shared among only a few close friends. Every post was long and thorough as I searched in the dark with a flashlight for things that made sense on how to swim, how to run, how to bike. How to Become.

There is some nostalgia there, a bit of mournfulness at what is now a certain kind of missing mystery. I remain a dedicated student to the game, but - how is this possible? - this is my 6th year in it. I still think of myself as new to this. I still think of seasons as experiments that will probably most benefit the season after - then I should probably know just what the hell I'm doing. There is something frightening there, in the exhilarating way a roller-coaster suddenly drops, to realize that time has passed by. To let it occur to oneself that Who He Was in that first Becoming is not - not even close - Who He Is.

So gone is the catharsis. Gone are the ghosts that chased me down all those lonely miles while I learned to run, while I taught my legs to churn cranks. Gone are the sea monsters. Ironman: One was some kind of metaphoric battle for me, a last stand against what was, to that point, a third of my life spent in haze and mourning and confusion and sadness. Every time I laced up my shoes and headed out the door, I lugged with me every kind of post-traumatic nuance I could. It's who I was, then. It's what I needed from Ironman, then. I understood only some of that at the time, of course. It's only with the perfect vision hindsight allows that I understand that my finish line was really the starting gun that cold September morning. That it wasn't Mike Reilly's voice that defined me, You are an Ironman! but my mother's, smaller and from a wrapped blanket somewhere on the wet marathon course, when I, dismal and hypothermic, heard her cheer, "Ironman!". We had had so much taken away from us, see. Here was...what? Pride? Discipline? Self Respect? Dedication? Ah, more simply: Life, and it's magical stuff that we were taking back. It was never about that race, you see. It was always, always about that race, but never about the race.

Which brings us to now, which might seem somehow anti-climatic considering all the drama now foreclosed on, but for me - the guy on the bike - it's a whole new, fascinating ride. Ironman is no longer a long series of questions about "if", but is instead a conversation about how. It's an opportunity to take everything I've learned - lessons from the game itself maybe constituting the least significant chunk of that book - and see how it fits now. I'll give you a very small example; patience. Of which I famously have none. But here I am, casually strength training and logging in a mostly slow and enjoyable 12-15 miles/week while the rest of my friends are gearing up for spring marathons and 70.3 distances, and my OCD should be on overdrive to start dialing in intensity and distance and nutrition etceteras ad nauseam - but, heaven help us, I've learned. To be slow and steady. To bide my time. To make my move when it's my time, not somebody else's. To prepare first. To become ready for the Becoming. And while these lessons were in the making during training and racing since Ironman, they come as much or more from learning - sometimes despite myself - to have faith that the house would sell. To adapt to change away from dearest friends and be willing to have an open heart to make new ones. To having a plan and following a system while a life develops. To get sleep when you can, because you can't be sure when you'll get the chance again. To teaching a little girl to sign please and thank you when she'd like more crackers. Strength, endurance, discipline, concentration, adeptness, readiness, fearlessness, confidence, faith...these things are not exclusive to the game, after all. Ironman has always been for me, and it still is, about life. About living.

These days, when we reach the last quarter mile, Jack and I, we sprint. We start with just an increased pace, then concentrate on how fast the feet turnover. Until they're barely touching the ground. Until we're on the edge of losing control. And I'll shout at him that he can do it, to keep up, to give it all he has. And the neighborhood looks at us funny sometimes, and children stop playing the in yards for a moment and watch thoughtlessly at what commotion this is, but we'll go faster and faster towards that last signpost on the block. He'll hunker into some kind of primal running position, away from his usual goofy gallop and into something serious, determined, disciplined, and I'll look straight ahead, my lungs burning now, my quadriceps screaming and my feet flying. And I'll cheer for us, tell him this is it, this is the Ironman! This is the Ironman! Go! Go! Go! until at last, breathless, we cross that line in the sidewalk and lean into a slow trot before walking, then stopping. And I'll pat his sides and tell him he's a good dog, and he'll grin at me panting and slobbery.

We've been playing this game for a long time now, but we don't do it anymore because something inside says we must, or to prove we can, or to outrun our regretful selves, or to chase elusive better versions of us like our shadows on the sidewalk - always just out of reach. We do it now just to feel the wind against our faces, and the earth underneath us, and because it's better to run fast than not at all.

This is Becoming Ironman.


Triteacher said...

Gar, man. You've got so much in this... nostalgia, loss, hope, new ventures. I am enjoying the ride. Go X & Jack!

Erin said...

I love this -- just the way you summed up such an epic journey thus far so very well. And the mental picture of you and Jack made me a little misty-eyed. I'm continually amazed at how great a good run can become with my boys by my side, and how pleased they seem with themselves after.

Good run on Saturday. Here's to more of those (or, maybe, minus the rain :)

TriSaraTops said...

That was beautifully wonderfully PERFECT.

I'm literally sitting here with my mouth open and teary eyes.

So glad to be part of the class of '06 with you.

Anonymous said...

Best blog on the Net!
I wish you the very best in 2009!

Mommymeepa said...

As someone whose goal is to do her first Ironman in 2013 I absolutely loved this post. Thanks.

craiggery said...

was watching your videos on youtube and somehow found myself at your blog. unbelievable. you should be a writer too.
im looking forward to reading your posts as far back as they go.

mom said...

Yes, my ironman, it has been quite a journey. I am proud to be your mom. I hope you turn this into a book sometime, I am serious.

Wil said...

Now see... you get it. Always have, always will, and that's something that's so good to know.