First, let me thank a long-time friend, K-Rob Brafford, for lending space on his website so that I could write my first-ever blog entry. Maybe one day I’ll even learn how to use an iPod and drive a stick-shift car (don’t hold your breath on that last one).
A few years ago, I would wake up bleary-eyed at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings to accompany the now ex-girlfriend to her triathlons. Just a faithful spectator with a camera, and something to read for those long stretches when she and other friends would disappear from the transition area to the race course. But one thing surprised me and made me laugh every time I saw it. Why were so many of these people so nervous before the event, sprinting to the bathroom so fast it looked like they were trying to qualify for the race itself? After all, these were some of the healthiest, fastest people I’ve ever seen. They were ready. Why the butterflies?
Then in 2005 I raced in my first triathlon and felt what they always felt, no doubt in large part to the three- and four-foot seas I saw in the ocean when I walked past the dunes to the starting point. I still haven’t been able to shake the butterflies, though mine aren’t nearly as bad as the ones others experience. Now I just wish I had been able to feel the butterflies more in the last two years.
To put it mildly, 2005 could have ended better, and as spring 2006 continued its endless grind and office-work piled up to overwhelming heights, I decided that training for another triathlon would be one way to distract me and pull me from the wreckage of my personal and professional life. I set my sights on the Sandestin Triathlon: a half-mile swim, 20-mile bicycle ride, and a four-mile run. Just long enough to test my physical ability and my mental resolve, both of which had waned too much by that point in time. Within two months, I was slowly improving and the goal was slowly coming into focus. When my 5K running time unexpectedly dropped more than two minutes, it changed my mindset from thoughts of You can do this to You Will Do This, and Faster Than You Thought.
Then, six weeks before the race, a fall in a creek bed during a hike in North Carolina sidelined me for three weeks. Though I was lucky I didn’t break my neck or back, I remember feeling more disappointed that Sandestin would have to wait another year. I later finished a sprint triathlon that fall, but it was no consolation for what my clumsiness had cost me. Increasing the training and weightlifting for two months, I felt better than ever – until one day I felt abdominal pain and had to stop almost all physical activity. Though my doctor disagreed with me, I knew it was a hernia. Another surgeon later told me I had torn two spots in my abdominal wall. How ironic, I thought, in getting my body in the best shape of my life, I’ve broken it.
Postponing surgery seven months for an office that couldn’t function unless I gave my heart and soul to it day and night, I still held out hope that I could recover in time to compete in the 2007 Sandestin race. But recovery was slow and painful, and once again I had to cancel my best intentions. Then doubts arose in my mind. Will you ever be able to finish another triathlon? Why were you cursed with so little athleticism and durability? If you start training again, what will go wrong next time, and will you be able to handle it again?
It took several more months, with fits and starts, before I could consistently train and handle the same physical demands I exacted on myself two years ago. Slowly but surely, I began achieving what I used to do – and a little more. Over the long run, practice went according to plan – despite slowdowns for a strained back, strained shoulder, bronchitis, and two bouts of heat exhaustion that have apparently reduced my tolerance for high temperatures and humidity. Registered and ready for the 2008 Sandestin Triathlon, all I had to do was execute. My parents were ready to meet me there and watch the race, and two close friends told me later that they were going to drive all the way to Destin and surprise me. It would be a fitting milestone on the weekend before my 35th birthday. At least that’s what I thought.
I couldn’t decide what was more ridiculous: the fact that Tropical Storm Faye was over Destin the very day I was supposed to race, or that she followed the same path from Orlando to Destin that I would have taken. What odds. Now I know that Sandestin is a cursed race for me, and its cancellation put me in a foul mood, to say the least. Six months of work, and no chance to prove myself in one of Florida’s most popular USA Triathlon competitions. At that point, saying you tried is not enough, you have to actually do it and finish it.
So without hesitation, feeling stubborn as hell, I registered for an end-of-season race to try and make up for more than two years of frustrations and cancellations. One last chance for this year to finally get it right, and it happens this Sunday – God forbid the weather turns on me again. The race is longer than I originally bargained for – the swim is almost a mile long, the cycling route more than 24 miles, and the run is 6.2 miles. I’ve had to accelerate my training schedule and push my body more than I wanted just to have a chance to finish the race, but thankfully it has held up so far. Two things fuel the motivation to double the length of my longest-ever swim, run two more miles than I ever could, and cycle a course with two causeways. First, a sense of urgency will move you forward quickly when you only have six weeks to prepare. But just as important is where I will race – Melbourne – where I was born and raised. The course is two miles from the houses I grew up in. I’ll swim next to the library where my mother used to take me every week, and the civic center where my father used to take me to toy-train shows. Then cycle past the house where my grandmother lived and helped care for me, and over the causeway my father and I used to cross on our old beach cruisers. Recalling these memories, now more than twenty years old but still vivid in my mind like they happened yesterday, it’s only natural to think You’ve waited too long, and worked harder than you ever have – Don’t screw this up in your hometown.
If it ends the way I want, what is ordinary for hundreds of thousands of triathletes will be a significant accomplishment and a redemption of sorts for me, if only for one day. I wasn’t built for this kind of thing. Twenty years ago, my asthma was bad enough that my doctor excused me from running a single mile within the national standards used in my physical education class. I can still remember how hard it was to finish that one mile, which seemed to go on forever. On Sunday, I have a chance to cover 31 miles of water and land without stopping. A chance, 30 or 40 years from now, to pick up a photograph of me crossing the finish line and look back on what I accomplished. To anyone who ever doubted me – like the interviewer who offered the job to someone else, or the woman who made me feel insignificant and unworthy of her time – a chance to say F**k you. I can do this, and you can’t.
At last, when the race official blows the whistle on Sunday and releases us to dive in the water, I’ll feel the butterflies and crush them all at the same time. Just the way I want, just not the way I originally planned.