(Like a neverending story that finally reaches its conclusion, behold the final chapter in a series of posts that has taken too long to unveil but needed to run its course. Pt. 1 is here; Pt. 2 is here; and Pt. 3 is here.
By the way, it’s currently still possible to donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, supporting my participation in the Westchester Triathlon in memory of my grandfather Harold. While I passed my required donation minimum, I had hoped to raise more for such a great cause. Just visit my donation page here, and if you already donated, thanks again.)
It was dark out. Not quite pitch-black, but plenty dark. Too damn early on Sept. 27, 2009. Too many people were awake and lazily shuffling around the lobby of the hotel, but that’s because like me, they were all just waiting to hop on the bus at 4:45 am in order to be at Rye Playland by 5 when the transition area officially opened. The race didn’t start until 7 am. I was “lucky”: because of my age group, I would be in the third wave to take-off at 7:06 am. Friends I had trained with would have to wait an additional 10, 15, 30 minutes … some even more before they got to start. And it wasn’t just dark: it was raining.
We arrived at the transition area, i.e., one of the Playland parking lots, and it was still pretty empty. My bike had been moved since the night before because the triathlon organizers had miscalculated the number of racks and spaces they needed. I began to set-up up my roughly three square feet of ground space next to my bike. Generally, you would just lay out your bike gear and run gear on a towel or on the ground, next to your bike so it would be ready to go. But it was still raining out, and the weather reports indicated it wouldn't stop any time soon. So instead, I put my bike gear into one garbage bag and my running stuff into another. The transition area was slowly filling up with people, but I felt like I was done. I wasn’t set-up near any of my teammates, so I wandered around a little. I decided it was probably a good idea to try going to the bathroom again meaning waiting in line for the scary porta-potties. Still raining, still dark, with just the illumination of the parking lot lights overhead.
Around 6 am, i started getting myself ready. I was already wearing my trishorts and top. I put on my heart rate monitor and started putting body glide lubricant in the necessary places, especially important when wearing a wetsuit in salt water. Around 6:30, I went with a bunch of other people down to the beach. It was starting to get light, but it was so overcast and grey, it wasn’t that great. We got in the water and started to warm up a little, let the wetsuits fill with water. The water temperature wasn’t that bad, and in the wetsuit, it was almost balmy.
People started moving towards the beach for the start. Suddenly, it was a mob. Hundreds of people, all wearing the swim cap colored to identify their respective waves. It was kind of chaotic. Couldn’t hear the PA announcer. Standing around. And then suddenly … off they went. The male pros go first. I was hoping to finish the whole race in 3 ½ hours if I was lucky. These guys sprinting and dolphin leaping through the water were likely going to finish in a vicinity closer to two hours. But if they were starting, that meant I was too in just six more minutes.
I’m not sure what happened next. I was excited and scared and saying to myself, “What the fuck am I doing here.” We were standing around, shuffling near the shoreline and then suddenly, a horn, and we were off.
I was trying to be super-cautious about starting too fast. In several practices, I felt that I had started too fast, couldn’t find my rhythm, and next thing I knew, I was almost hyperventilating. So I took it easy. The water was actually kind of calm, and I was feeling good. The orange buoys were big, and I could see the furthest one way off in the distance, but I figured I would just swim, take my time, and count off buoy to buoy. Swimming, I didn’t mind the rain, and so far, this was the calmest open water I’d experienced since the very first open water practice at Coney Island nearly two months earlier. But that calm was temporary.
The beach is somewhat sectioned off from the larger sound by rock embayments. Inside the embayment, the water was relatively smooth without much in the way of swells. In fact, the other swimmers were more of an annoyance or obstacle than the water itself as every now and then someone would bump into me, kick me, or swim right across my path. But even that wasn’t too bad, until I got close to the end of the embayment. Suddenly, the water was pushing me around much more than I was pushing through it. Swells would lift and drop me or smash into my face as I was trying to breathe. At one point, the water hitting me at the exact wrong moment, mouth wide, turned to the side, inhaling ... I couldn't stop it from going down my throat and up my nose simultaneously. I began to retch, choking on the salt water, even throwing up a little, stopping and treading water for a minute or so. The coolest thing about the wetsuits is their buoyancy, and at that moment, I appreciated how floaty I was more than ever. I had to stop and tread water. At most, I was only a third of the way through the swim.
It only got harder the further from the shore I traveled. Suddenly, as I got closer to the turn-around point, I noticed the largest buoy seemed to be drifting out further into the sound. Only later did I learn that yes, in fact, it had become untethered and took off on its own. I made the turn, noticing the color of some of the swim caps around me as those from one of the female waves that started a good 9-12 minutes after I did. But no matter; I had to just keep going.
Once I made the turn, I figured it would be easier because the current would push me towards the beach. I was sadly disappointed when I noticed that it instead pushed us parallel to the shore. Yes, the swim distance is supposed to be 0.9 miles, but I’m pretty sure when all was said and done, I traveled closer to 1.25. At one point, I was trying to swim against the current and must have turned myself a full 90 degrees because after taking 10-20 strokes, I looked up and found myself about five feet from one of the kayakers out there to help (read: save) us if necessary. This guy was frantically pointing to my right: the direction of the beach.
Eventually, I was back within the embayment, and it all became much easier once again. For the final third of a mile, I found myself able to relax a bit, and yet, the beach didn’t appear to be getting any closer. I took a quick look at my watch and saw that I had been swimming about 35 minutes. There was the beach, and no matter how far off it looked, I knew I was almost there. Maybe another 8-10 minutes? And yet at that moment, I simply thought to myself, “I have another three hours of this shit?”
And then, the swim was over. My finger tips touched sand; I stood up; I started rulking (that would be some combination of running and walking) up the beach. I couldn’t believe I was through the first part. I couldn't believe it was over. I was totally energized but thoroughly exhausted too. Dozens of people around cheering all of us on, and then volunteers approaching offering us Gatorade or water. I heard a few people I know cheer my name, but I was in a bit of a haze.
I reached to my transition space and strip off my wetsuit. Again, it’s raining, so the drying off would be pointless. I put on my socks and bike shoes, strapped on my helmet, drank some water, ate some Clif Shot blocks, took a deep breath and again I was off. The competitive racers have all these tricks to shorten their transition times: they have their bike shoes already clipped into their pedals; they don't wear socks and just lube-up the inside of their running shoes. The transition times count, and they get through theirs in under 60 seconds. Mine each took closer to five minutes.
Walking my bike out of the transition area, I heard more people cheering me. Many, I likely didn't know, but they saw my name on the front of my TNT top. Others were my coaches from TNT, standing out there in ponchos and raincoats, in this cold miserable rain, just there to motivate and cheer us on. I hopped on my bike: 25 miles to go.
Suddenly, I realized I was not wearing my sunglasses. No, there was no sun, but I have really sensitive eyes, especially to wind, and when you’re cycling, there’s always wind ... and sometimes bugs. On this day, at that moment, wind and rain. But I was on my bike already and wasn’t about to go back.
The most amazing thing about doing an event like this with a group like Team in Training is the support you receive from everyone around you. I’m not the most rah-rah of guys, and in fact, quite often (as some of my newer friends discovered), “Go Aaron” was more likely to make me roll my eyes than receive that extra burst of inspiration to complete that last 1/2 mile. But even my cold, stonelike, Grinch heart couldn't withstand the enthusiasm and energy from all the people I knew -- and the even greater number I didn’t -- who were cheering me on.
“Go team!” isn’t the most original or clever of refrains, but when you’re wearing a purple TNT top, you hear it constantly, from almost each and every cyclist or runner who passes you. Riding on my way-too-heavy-to-do-an-event-like-this-on mountain bike, I was passed by a lot of people. If they were wearing TNT clothing, every last one of them said, “Go team!” or “stay strong!” or “looking good!” or “you can do it!” as they passed.
It almost became like one of those “I love you” situations. You know what I mean? You’re in a relationship with someone, and he/she says, “I love you.” Well, what do you say back? If you say, “I love you too,” does the very fact that you didn’t say it first, unprompted, negate some of its value or importance? Are you just saying it because you have to say something? Am I supposed to say “Go team!” back? Probably, but I most of the time, I was one step away from out-of-breath, and I felt dumb doing so. So mostly, I smiled.
Regardless, I don’t know that any of it truly pushed me through the terrible conditions in a way that I wouldn’t have managed on my own, but it doesn’t really matter, because doing something like this with that kind of support is, ultimately, indescribable.
But that wasn't even the most amazing or unbelievable part. At least those were my peers. Those were the people racing. Those were the people with TNT, raising money for LLS. Those were the people who had fathers and grandmothers and sisters and uncles and nieces and sons and friends and all manner of people in their lives who had been affected by blood cancers. Yes, I was racing in memory of my grandfather, and yes that was important to me, but even now during the race, I knew it still wasn’t the primary reason I had embarked on this journey. But for the vast majority of TNTers, it was. So their support and the idea of teamwork was understandable.
So how do you explain the staff and volunteers? These people standing out in the rain yelling at cyclists, “Watch that pothole!” Or, “slippery metal plate. Watch out.” Over and over. For hours. Doing their best to keep us safe. Or the people who live in the neighborhoods and, again in the pouring rain, sat out in lawn chairs cheering on every last cyclist or runner who passed by.
It was shocking. It was inspiring. It was all something that I don’t believe I would ever do myself if I wasn’t the one racing. But I was. Riding my bike through the course I had previewed a couple weeks earlier. That day, it was lovely and sunny and warm. On this day, it was cold and windy. My shoes were flooded with water. The first half of the bike course is the hardest with two long climbs. My legs burned up both, but when I got to the top of Claire’s Climb (the second), I knew the rest of the course was much easier. And yet, my feet … were so cold … by mile 20, they started getting numb, and I could do nothing but just count down until I knew I was nearing Playland again.
After a little over an hour on the bike course, I suddenly thought to myself, “I swam this morning?” It all seemed so long ago. The night before was a month before. Leaving my apartment to meet the bus in the city just over 24 hours earlier was Labor Day. And I still had just shy of two hours to go.
But then, before I knew it, there it was ahead of me: the Playland roundabout, and the crowd around the reentry. I hopped off my bike, again seeing one of my coaches yelling encouragement. But I could barely acknowledge. I wasn’t feeling bad because of swimming and biking, but the rain and the wet and it was just so very miserable.
I ran my bike back into the transition area, tried to dry off my feet a little and put on new socks and my running shoes. A few minutes later, I was off again. 6.2 miles seemed so far, but I knew at worst it shouldn’t take me just around an hour. I’d been going for nearly three hours already. What was one more?
About half-a-mile in, my left calf began to cramp. It wouldn’t stop the rest of the way. Another quarter of a mile, I couldn’t avoid the huge puddle, and my reasonably dry(ish) feet (even in the continuing rain) were no more. My shoe filled with water, and I let out a sharp, “awwww, shit.” A mile in, the trouble knee started twinging again. At the first water station, I grabbed something to drink and walked for about 30 seconds, but I didn’t want to walk because the more I walked, the longer it would take to get through this damn thing.
Two miles. Three miles. I was half-way. The fourth mile marker. The fifth seemed to take forever to reach (and I think was misplaced), but there it was. Just one mile left. I had stopped to walk briefly around the water stations, and I also took a brief break walking up a short hill because the knee really started hurting momentarily, but otherwise, I had run the whole thing, dammit. One more mile.
And then, that mile was gone. I get to the top of a short incline, and there’s the Brooklyn team’s head coach. He’s yelling “Looking great Aaron” and holding his hand out for me to slap it as I pass. “After this turn, it’s the home stretch. Just a quarter mile to go.”
I turned into the park, literally the home stretch. Downhill. Muddy. I kept thinking I was about to wipe out. I was trying not to go too fast because the ground felt like it would slide out from under me. I thought I was going to pitch forward, tumbling down this final stretch to the finish line just a few hundred yards ahead. More people cheering. A few calling my name. And then … it was over.
I ran through the line. I heard the sensor chirp as the timing chip strapped to my ankle told the electronic mat i had passed over. One person handed me a medal; another handed me a water bottle. I tried to walk off, but was stopped and asked for the timing chip. I was in a haze. I was ecstatic, but miserable. I was starving. I found some of my friends and headed for the pizza/bagel tent. I sucked down a Gatorade and a water, inhaled two slices of pizza and a bagel with peanut butter. And all the while, my knee started hurting and tightening up. They began to hand out the awards to the competitive winners. The top two males finished within 10 seconds of each other. The winner finished in under 1:58. I didn’t have my official time, but according to my watch, I finished in about 3:57. He had had more time to relax.
After standing around a little longer, I was done. I still had to go back, gather all my stuff at the transition area, load my bike onto the truck, and get in the shuttle back to the hotel. The transition area was mostly empty, just as when I had arrived at 5 am. Everything was totally waterlogged. I was the last one on this shuttle to head back to the hotel, and when I sat down, I realized that for the first time in seven hours, raindrops were not falling on my head.
A few hours later, after showering and packing and exhaling for real, we were back on the bus, headed back to New York. My knee, at this point, was killing me. Stairs were no fun at all, and because I had clothes and towels that were more absorbent than I had ever imagined, my bags felt at least 10 pounds heavier. But I was back in Manhattan. And then I was on the subway. And then I was unlocking my apartment door in Prospect Heights.
About 32 hours before, I had left my apartment. About four months before, I had started training. About six months before, I had come up with this crazy idea that I wanted to do a triathlon. And now, after a summer of thinking way more about swimming, biking and running than I ever imagined I could … it was all over. In a flash of four hours out of a whole weekend. But I did it. And I did it well. And I did it well in some of the worst conditions imaginable.
So … now what? Well, on that day, as the rain had stopped and the weather had even become “nice” … it was time for a nap. And after it’s all said and done, would I do another triathlon? Well … I’ll let you know when I hit you up for a donation … but not until 2010.