THE BIG WIN
I have attempted to do an Ironman-distance race seven times. Four of my attempts have been successful and three have been “DNFs.” In triathlon, when you don’t finish a race, it’s called a “DNF”: Did Not Finish. It doesn’t give a reason, but it makes a statement in capital letters: you quit.
The Ironman is the Grand Slam of triathlon—swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running a marathon 26.2 miles before midnight. I’m not trying to win the race, I’m just trying to finish it. The races take place all over the world, and anybody can sign up for one. There is only one you have to qualify for: the world championship in Kona.
I am what’s known as a “slow age-grouper” or “back-of-the-packer,” but that is not an insult. Just being in this elite group is an accomplishment, and I had to overcome a lot of negative thinking to get here—I also trained my ass off.
But quitting in triathlon carries a stigma. The sweating, the all-day heat from the sun, the relentless wind on the bike, trying to hold it together on the second half of the run through the pain and exhaustion, all work against one’s determination.
People outside the sport always ask me why on earth I would do such a thing. The answer is: covering 140.6 miles in a swimsuit makes me feel good about myself. I crave that feeling of accomplishment—it was hard to come by growing up.
I come from a tennis family. My grandfather played at the collegiate level, and my dad and his brothers grew up with a tennis court in their yard. Two brothers were state champions in tennis and the other migrated to golf. If we had a family crest, it would have a tennis racket, golf club, waterski, ice skate, and a bicycle on it. I was a jack of all trades, though not drawn to team sports. I thought the lines of a tennis court too confining and approached everything as an endurance sport or an obsession, so it followed that I become a triathlete.
I finished my first two races in Brazil and South Africa. It was the third one, in Malaysia, where I had a problem on the bike course five years ago. I was misdirected by an official after I witnessed a crash between a bike and a car. I missed one loop of the bike course, went to the hotel, scrubbed the smeared race numbers off my arms and legs in the shower, and ordered my favorite soup from the restaurant. It burned my throat. I couldn’t even eat soup right.
I got in a cab and went back to the race site to notify officials that I’d dropped out. It was hard to find anyone in charge. The deposit was never refunded, and I doubt race directors would have known if I’d even come out of the swim alive.
That night I sat at the hotel bar, drinking and listening to a Malay quartet sing Sting’s “Englishman in New York.” I was an outcast, a failure. I’d come only to do the Ironman and now my race blew up. Worse, I had demonstrated poor sportsmanship by not watching the others finish. I was bitter.
In the months that followed, I struggled with my Ironman identity. I’d used my positive race experiences as a metaphor for life. The little guy could succeed, hard work would win out, blah, blah, blah. I tried to learn something from my failed attempt, but there was nothing. How could I use this as a life lesson when I didn’t want anyone to know about it?
The kind word for DNF in tennis is “retired.” That’s the word they use when someone walks off the tennis court before a match reaches its completion. “Forced to abandon” is the term used in the Tour de France when a rider leaves the race. In Malaysia I’d felt abandoned by the race. It took almost two years for me to get over it.
Finally, I signed up for three Ironman races in eighteen months. I had finishes at Lanzarote and Arizona. But France was different. Quitting became a logical choice. There were no tears. I was proud of myself for even going out on the run course. I had far from fresh legs leading up to the race and I’d not slept at all.
I’d clung to my hotel room since my arrival, the only familiar thing, but it was on a busy traffic corner in Nice. Cars and scooters went by at all hours, blasting “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.” Michael Jackson had died.
From my hotel room I could see a park filled with sculptures of chalk-colored men. At night they changed color from green to purple to red. My room was above a bar, and on sleepless nights I pretended the singer was singing to me.
I did take a half a sleeping pill one night, but it was almost morning by then. Too late. When I got to the breakfast room with the red-checked tablecloths and the still-warm hard-boiled eggs, I remember hearing a thud. It was me, hitting the hardwood floor. A Canadian girl, who was racing for the first time, tried to help me back to my room, but I fainted again in the hall. Once in my room I waited on the twin bed for the paramedics to arrive. There were three or four of them, I don’t remember exactly, in French EMT navy uniforms. One of them left his gloves after he took my blood pressure. I worried how many Euros it would cost, but in France even a tourist can get free healthcare.
I was glad they came. They said I seemed OK, but there was no way I was going near the Mediterranean for a practice swim. What if something happened again? I spent the day in my room, forgetting about the not-sleeping-in-the-day training rule.
The next day I felt better and buddied up for a swim with a few other racers I’d met at the rock beach. We paused for a breather at a buoy, where I learned that Ed McMahon had also died. News from home can find you anywhere, and news of that variety takes on a surreal quality when you are bobbing around in a light-blue sea.
During the race I chatted with another competitor during one of the bike climbs; she was going to quit when she got back to the transition area. But I made it into the second loop of what would have been a four-loop marathon.
“You’re amazing,” someone said from the sideline. She clapped as I walked by. I think she really meant it. It was dusk but there was still plenty of light, the day being one of the longest of the year. I felt past wilted, throwing my heart rate monitor strap in the trash and handing my sunglasses to a spectator.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Take them, they’re yours,” I said. He smiled.
I went to the medical tent to lie down for a minute. The cot felt like the most luxurious mattress in the world.
“Are you OK?” the nurse asked me.
“Yeah, I’m just tired.”
“You know you have enough time to walk it and finish the race.”
She said all the right things.
I went back out on the course. Can you live with this? The answer was yes. The next time I got near the finish line, I looked for an exit chute.
It felt good not to finish.
My coach suggested I hadn’t had enough belief in myself. All I knew is that I felt lost. Looking for inspiration, I subscribed to The Tennis Channel and spent the next two years watching Maria Sharapova play tennis on TV because tennis is something that triathlon is not: a good spectator sport.
Like me, Maria needed a comeback. She was a former number-one player who’d suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. Her pure passion for her sport brought her back to it, though nobody believed she could ever win again.
From what I could see on TV, Maria didn’t care what they thought. She was all business about the job at hand—winning. She kept to herself on tour and looked constantly pissed off and shrieked as she hit potential winners into the net. I admired her mental toughness. She constantly double-faulted when she served, but was too stubborn to change her “way-too-high” toss. It was truly stimulating to watch her lose. If I could just capture some of her confidence for myself, I knew I could sign up for another Ironman.
Maria had endorsements, her own line of purses, and a candy called “Sugarpova.” I was jealous. I not only wasn’t getting paid to swim, bike, and run, I was paying to train, travel, and enter.
I studied Maria, hoping somehow she could help me. Maybe if she finally won something, I could rid myself of the “Ironman block” and sign up for another race. But I could not move forward, and by the time Maria lost at a tournament in Miami, the Ironman in western Australia was sold out. The only one left that season was Ironman Cozumel. I had cold feet about that race, but maybe if Maria’d won I would have forced myself. She changed coaches and so did I.
Maria did win at a lesser tournament, not a Slam, but the tennis equivalent of a half Ironman—two times—on red clay in Rome. She said she moved like a “cow on ice” when it came to the red clay, and it was in between those wins that I signed up for Ironman Utah. I just couldn’t wait for her to win something big. What if she never won?
Utah was orange. People said it looked like Mars, but it was the same color as the red clay on tennis courts in Europe. Race day, the winds picked up to forty mph about five minutes into the race. I got blown way past the first buoy as four-to-five-foot swells slipped over my back. I thought for sure the race—or at least the swim portion of it—was cancelled. All around me racers were being pulled from the water by rescue boats. When one came near me, I thought I should get in it.
“If you get in the boat, your race is over,” the man at the helm said. I hung on to the platform made for water-skiers, looked back at the first buoy, and climbed in the boat. My wetsuit had a hole in it and the zipper was broken. I needed to care about the Ironman a whole lot less at this point or it would be too devastating. Five months of training: two-hour sessions in the pool, bike rides for nine hours and twenty-three minutes, runs of six hours and eighteen minutes. Sunburns my dermatologist warned me about.
We rescued another racer who was pale and shivering, pulled in a capsized kayak escort, and headed to the opposite shoreline from the race start, unloaded, and were made to turn in our chips. The boat was pulled out of the water just as a wave crashed over the back of it.
A school bus brought thirty of us back to the start as we watched the leader of the race get blown off his bike. I still rode seventy windy miles of the bike course, but felt demoralized at the end. I had never seen so many racers quit as I did on that open-range bike course. It was a reverse camaraderie—instead of doing the race together, we were quitting it together. It was, in a way, a relief. I had experience with not finishing, and this time I did not blame myself. I blamed the unpredictability of race day.
There wouldn’t be another Ironman Utah the next year. The dropout rate was over 30%. The race hadn’t filled in the first place. They’d given a $30,000 check to Sand Hollow Reservoir, where the Ironman swim had taken place, and I wondered if the check bounced. At least nobody died, as had happened years before at another Ironman race location in Utah.
The next day I took a finisher’s medal and t-shirt even though I didn’t finish the race. They had so many left over they were just giving them away. I was happy to have something for my efforts this time because that is something I missed from France: all the work and no medal.
A few weeks later Maria won the French Open. Everyone said what a great competitor she was, how well she’d learned to move on the red clay. She was no longer a cow on ice. She’d completed her career Grand Slam and was number one in the world. At least one of us had finished what we’d set out to do. She smiled and I watched her, hoping that I could believe again. I didn’t. Two weeks later she lost at Wimbledon before the quarterfinals. I moved on.