Monday, June 12, 2006

Becoming an Ironman -- The Journey to Ironman Couer D'Alene 2006


A. Diving in Head First.

I've always considered myself an athlete, but as I aged the definition of the things that I considered "athletic" changed. At some point, my deterioration was such that golf qualified as a "workout."

One day my mom showed me a picture of myself in college. "Wow, look at those abs," I said. Then I looked down at where they used to be and I decided that I was going to "make a comeback."

At about this same time, my college buddy, Rick Snyder (aka "Digger") called and said he was going to do a triathlon not too far from where I live. I went to cheer him. When I saw Digger running at mile nine of a marathon, looking like a 40 year-old Adonis, after having already swum 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles, an idea began to take hold.

Soon thereafter I started running, working up to a half-marathon and then a full-marathon. I bought a bike. I learned to swim. And in the summer of 2005 -- I did my first triathlon. I wasn't good at the sport. Men and women of all ages passed me in every phase of the race. But I was increasingly fit and I came to enjoy hanging with the characters in the back of the pack. What we lacked in speed, we made up for by being mutually supportive.

Naturally, since Digger had done an ironman distance triathlon, I felt obliged to do one too. I asked Digger to do one with me. He reluctantly agreed. In August of 2005, we registered for the 2006 Ironman Coeur D’Alene scheduled for the following June.

And so began my education on what it takes to become an Ironman.

Obviously, the ability to swim is a precondition to completing an Ironman, which posed a problem, since I couldn't swim. Not wanting to drown, I sought professional help. Pedro Ordenez, the Director of Housekeeping and Aquatics at my local athletic club agreed to coach me. Laura agreed to take a lesson or two with me.

After one of my first lessons, I was in the locker room, changing into my street clothes, when Fred, my spin class teacher asked how the swimming was going. I asked how he knew that I had been swimming. He pointed to the goggles and cap on my head.

I said that I dreaded being in the water and that the pool was always too cold, but admitted that I was excited that Pedro had me swimming all the way across the pool without stopping.

Fred said, “yeah, Pedro’s amazing isn’t he?”

“He seems like a nice guy”, I replied. “Although, ‘amazing’ might be a stretch. He mostly walks along the pool-side yelling ‘elbow high, Stiv’, and the other day he told Laura to practice swimming with the ‘pool boy’ between her thighs.”

“He meant ‘pull buoy,’” said Fred.

"Yeah, Peruvians get a little sloppy with the vowels", I replied.

“Anyway, you should Google Pedro.”

Well, it’s a funny thing about Pedro. It turned out he’s the Michael Jordan of open water swimming.

Pedro has completed the one and a half mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco more than 300 times -- a world record. He is one of only two men to have swum the Beagle Straights in both directions. For those who aren't intimately familiar with the geography of the near-Antarctic Ocean, the Beagle Straights is a channel at the very tip of South America. Icebergs float through it. He swam it in a Speedo and a neoprene cap.

Where my swimming skills were still fledgling, I felt more comfortable riding my bike. This was good, because I had to ride a lot. Few hills in the Napa Valley and around Lake Tahoe eluded my clueless wanderings. On the other hand, being lost was a useful training tool.

In April, while I was almost to the top of a 10-mile climb up 9,000 foot high Mt. Rose, it began to snow. In a short period of time, the temperatures plunged 20 degrees. I was working hard, so the ride uphill was pleasant even with the snow flurries falling, but I failed to consider the wind chill on the 30 mph descent.

The locals taking refuge from the cold in the coffee shop at the base of the mountain were speechless as I lurched through the door like the abominable snowman in skin-tight, neon cycling gear.

Two large hot cups of coffee later, the ice dripping off my eyebrows, I called Laura hoping she would pick me up.

"H-He-Hey, Hon. I j-just froze my ass off riding down Mt. Rose in a snowstorm. I'm soaked and I can't feel my fingers. What are you up to?"

"Can you hold?"

"Sure." Then, after 5 minutes, Laura picked up again and said "Hey, I have to let you go, I have customers at the store. Ride safely. Bye."

Miserably, I re-mounted the bike and was within a mile of shelter when "Blam!". Goodbye front tire. Too cold to replace the blow-out with my spare, I carried the bike in cycling cleats in a driving sleet storm as cars sprayed me with muddy road-slush at 60 mph. To paraphrase Bevis or Butthead "this sucked more than anything that has ever sucked before."

Continuing my training (which I sold to Laura as a “vacation”) -- in May, we rented a Recreational Vehicle covered on both sides with a silk-screened picture of a wild boar or hedgehog. We drove the RV to the Wildflower Triathlon near the central coast of California and parked among what I assume was the largest gathering of RV animal art in California.

The Wildflower triathlon is Woodstock for triathletes. It is a festival of camping, athletics and cookouts that goes on for almost a solid week. Some rate it as one of the top three triathlons in the world.

Streaking college kids add to the ambiance of the event, but for the married, middle-aged triathlete it’s mostly about driving the RV.

A moderately clever RV operator knows that it is imperative to find a level spot for the vehicle. Yet, this detail somehow escaped me. So the first night I slept mashed into Laura who was jammed into the wall on the downhill side of the bed.

The following morning, Laura showed up with a burly, mustachioed guy she picked up on the other side of the outhouse -- a man who had clearly driven his share of RVs -- none sporting a picture of wildlife. He fixed our problem with a couple chunks of wood under two of the wheels.

A couple nights’ sleep on a flat surface had me primed for race day. But considering that this race was my final tune-up for Ironman, I planned to race smart, not fast. As usual “smart” wasn’t in the cards. I swam my typical erratic course, struggled to get out of my wetsuit, went too fast on the really steep uphill at mile two on the bike and then settled into an uneven pace.

At about mile 20 on the bike I caught Sarah Reinertson, a remarkable young woman who is famous for completing Ironman Hawaii on a prosthetic leg. She also had a stint on the TV series, The Amazing Race, where she dragged her whiny boyfriend around the world for a couple weeks. I said “you rock!” as I passed her. She said “thanks.”

I rolled along on mostly flat or rolling terrain for another hour or so with my strength slowly ebbing away. Naturally, that's when the angle of the asphalt decided to change for the worse. “Nasty Grade”, they called it. Sadistic, I called it. I was in a world of hurt when I arrived at the bike to run transition.

Trotting out of the transition like a guy clenching a marble in his butt cheeks, I had a hard time imagining myself running a mile, much less 13 miles. But I did it. I don't know how, exactly. But I finished in about 6 hours and could still walk without being completely paralyzed by pain that evening. Suddenly, Ironman didn’t seems like such a far-fetched goal.

Then I called Digger to brag about finishing the half-Ironman. He said “Great! Now do it again.”

This is psychotic. What was I thinking?

B. The Ironman Travel Log

A little over a month after Wildflower, we left the Bay Area on our way to Idaho for Ironman. We stuffed the SUV full of athletic gear and organic snacks and drove north a few miles before veering sharply into the Taco Bell drive-through. (You didn’t expect me to eat flax-seed cereal bars for 800 miles, did you?)

That night we stayed in a Best Western "along-side" the 5 Freeway in Redding. I was so close to the freeway that I could have helped motorists change tires through the motel window. I couldn't sleep a wink with the windows shaking all night. I suspect that's why Starbucks is located next door. No wonder that company rules the world.

After spending the next night in Bend, OR we headed for Idaho at first light – or at least it was the first light we saw when we opened our eyes at 9 a.m. I popped in the new Nelly Furtado CD and aimed the car in the wrong direction.

Not wanting to worry Laura, I surreptitiously consulted Simone (the navigation system), seeking a shortcut back to the correct road. But when we passed a ramshackle store in the middle of nowhere advertising -- get this -- "GUNS, AMMO, BEER, WINE, LIQUOR" it became clear that we were not only lost; we were lost in a bad place to be lost – and, oh, by the way, we were low on gas.

I confessed to Laura that Simone had screwed up. Luckily, just when Laura was about to start asking the tough questions, we spotted a no-brand, converted-trailer-home-gas-station. I coasted in on fumes.

Getting out of the car, I stood momentarily surprised that the pump in this dump had a credit card swipe slot. But before I could swipe, a frizzy-haired, leather-skinned person, launched herself out of the converted trailer home/food mart, shrieking "Ah’ll do it, Ah-will-do-it!!" I had no idea what "it" was that she was going to do but, worried that I might jeopardize my chance at refueling, I promptly ceased doing anything that she could even theoretically do.

She saw that I was bewildered, noticed that we had California license plates and commenced a rambling lecture about how I had been about to break a state law by pumping my own gas.

I see.

So that we’re clear: In Oregon, it’s acceptable to buy a shotgun, a case of ammo and a bottle of Scotch from the local Quick Mart, but it is illegal to pump your own gas. One assumes the legislature passed the no-self-pumping law for the convenience of people who need the valuable time offered by someone else pumping your gas to slam a couple beers and re-load before getting back on the road.

I told the Frizzy-haired attendant that I had been pumping my own gas for nearly 22 years and that I felt pretty confident in my abilities. However, she insisted that, despite my sterling gas pumping credentials -- in Oregon, I was not permitted to pump. She then spent the next ten minutes lecturing me about the grueling tests she had passed to become a certified pumper while filling my tank with the wrong octane gas.

After the gas was securely in my SUV, I asked her if I could wash my windows and dispose of my Taco Bell wrappers or whether there was a specialist on staff to manage these complex tasks.

The SUV was so happy to have gas, it didn’t complain about being shorted a couple octane. And with Simone un-muted, we escaped Oregon.

We arrived in Coeur D’Alene on Tuesday night and checked into a rather suspect-looking motel. After some initial disappointment, I realized that we were in the right place when the hotel clerk asked me whether I had any special dietary requests for the 4 a.m. breakfast the morning of Ironman.

The townspeople of Coeur D’Alene were warm and friendly. The Ironman is a huge event in this small town and the people embrace the race and the athletes as their own. In the days before the race, I was asked whether I was doing Ironman by at least a dozen locals. At first I assumed that I was being asked because I looked like an Ironman -- my head swelling each time I was asked -- but it turns out that the locals ask everyone. It's good for sales.

C. Ironman Race Day

Race day arrived early. I slept terribly except for the five minutes before the alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. I forced myself to eat a power bar and a peanut butter sandwich and saddled Laura with my 25 pounds of triathlon gear. We met Digger and his wife Michelle in the parking lot -- she, carrying his stuff while Rick was industriously trying to eat a dry, plain bagel. His jaws were working, but at 4:00 a.m. it’s pretty tough to swallow a dry bagel. Mostly, he looked like a losing competitor in a hot dog eating contest.

We arrived at the Ironman village at around 5 a.m. and unloaded our gear in all the appropriate places. We pumped up the bike tires and joined a line for the Porta Potties, which were unusually popular considering that we were all about to go swimming. (Yes, people pee in the lake – it’s a very long swim.) While I was waiting, I slathered myself in body glide (Vaseline on a stick) and wrestled myself into my full-body wetsuit. Just as I completed this arduous process, Rick looked up and frowned at me. That's when I noticed that everyone in the Porta Potty line had their wetsuits pulled up only to their waists.

After our pre-race preparations, Rick and I moved to the beach, taking in the sight of 2000 Ironman hopefuls all nervously eyeing the water. Here we stood more than 20 years after we first met in college, embarking on a very cool, though somewhat intimidating adventure.

Standing there with Rick brought back memories of the two of us driving my old 1971 Landcruiser to Laguna Beach from Peoria after our sophomore year in college at Bradley. The Landcruiser had one of those platform safari roof racks, which was where Rick slept in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. I slept on the front bench seat with one door open so that I could extend my legs fully.

Rick and I had become fast friends during college, and that summer, after surviving the cross country road trip, Rick spent a few months in Laguna Beach with the Kukta family.

Trying to think of things to make me relax before the gun went off, I remembered the day when, shortly after arriving in Laguna, Rick had canvassed the town looking for a job. Having little work experience he was aiming pretty low, so we walked into an ice cream shop with a “Help Wanted” sign and Rick asked the owner-lady for a job application. Her manner made it clear that she didn't think we were worthy of her ice-cream shop, and she curtly asked, “do you have any relevant experience?” Her tone made me uncomfortable. But Rick just looked her in the eyes and said: “Yes, ma’am I have scooped ice cream before.”

Twenty years later, that's still funny.

Unfortunatly, that's when I realized I was still wearing my sandals. And my swimming abilities were not up to the challenge of 2.4 miles with footwear.

I ran to the viewing area, handed my sandals to the nearest spectator and assumed that I’d never see that pair of sandals again.

When I turned around, I’d lost sight of Rick. And, with the countdown clock ticking, I realized that we wouldn’t be starting the race together. I tried hard to spot him, but with 2,000 people wearing black wetsuits standing on a 30-yard deep, quarter-mile long swath of sand, it was no use.

A little sadly, I walked to the edge of the water about a minute before the start and looked around for someone to wish good luck – just for a little human contact before getting swallowed by the event. Then, improbably, I heard “Hey, Cookie (college nicknames stick for life) it’s time to race! This is awesome baby.”

There was no time to ask Digger how he found me. We gave each other a quick guy hug, the gun sounded and Ironman Coeur D’Alene was underway.

As we duck-walked into the icy-cold lake, I had thoughts of drafting behind Rick, a stronger swimmer than me. But my 2000 new friends were like a herd of seals being chased by killer whales. I quickly lost sight of Rick in the maelstrom of flailing rubber arms and legs.

Digger describes the start of the Ironman this way: “One minute I’m standing on the beach getting all choked up about how cool the whole scene is and then three minutes later I’m in the water with 2000 people thinking ‘I'M GOING TO DIE!!’”

The next time I saw Rick was over eight hours later when we were both early in the run stage.

Since I had last seen Rick, I had wrestled with every swimmer who was even remotely on my pace for over an hour, I had biked for 6 and a half hours in 90 degree heat, (narrowly avoiding being sprayed by a guy peeing off his moving bike) and I wasn’t feeling much like an Ironman – unless Ironmen are supposed to feel nauseous. Rick, on the other hand, looked good, giving me a “Hey, buddy, keep it up” as he passed by.

I packed ice in my hat, stuffed cold sponges in my shirt, took an anti-diarrhea pill, fizzed an Alka Seltzer in a cup of Coke, swallowed a couple Aleve, and felt almost instantly better – though not in the sense that it made me run any faster.

I had been worried about my heart rate being too high all day, but no longer. I couldn’t run fast enough to raise my heart rate above what I’d expect to see when watching my Dolphins lose another football game. By mile 12, I was fueling almost exclusively with Coke and chicken noodle soup. At mile 14, I chewed some pretzels, succeeding only in making salty carbohydrate dust, which I then spit out like a mouth full of sand.

I saw Rick one last time when he was about 2 miles from the finish and I still had about ten to go. By now Rick was either intensely focused or incapable of oral communication, but he was still moving a lot faster than me.

On the other hand, I was moving ever so slightly faster than a guy who was jogging with a pronounced limp. Here I was twelve hours into an Ironman and I was just now catching a man who was limping. Approaching him I realized that he wasn’t, technically speaking, limping. He was running on a prosthetic leg. (I later learned that this guy was Major Dave Rozelle, who had lost his leg in Iraq and had then returned for a second tour of duty. After returning to the States, he decided to do an Ironman.) And he was going to finish in about the same time as me.

As I passed, I gave him my tried and tested: “Dude, you rock!” He gave me the marine "OOHRAH!" back.

Inspired by the Marine, I found the strength to run the last couple miles at an 11-minute pace (which, at that point in the Ironman, feels like you’re channeling Jesse Owens, but in the real world looks like an eighty-year old with blisters pushing his walker through a buffet line.)

As the grandstands rose up near the finish line, I spotted Laura standing behind the barricade, cheering me on. A few yards further on, I crossed the finish line and heard the words: “STEVE KUKTA, YOU-ARE-AN-IRONMAN!” – as the words washed over me, I was tackled by a very big-boned female volunteer.

I must have looked on the verge of collapsing. I kept saying, “I’m alright, I’m alright” – but my Teutonic assailant wasn’t buying it as she practically carried me towards the medical folks. Considering the god-knows-what-besides-sweat that had adhered to my body during the past 13 hours, the big lady should get a medal for bravery.

At the end of the day, I finished the Ironman in a chunk over 13 hours (Ok, 13:47), while Rick finished almost an hour and a half earlier. We celebrated with a couple slices of pizza each, stole a couple more slices for the girls and told war-stories until our Mylar blankets could no longer ward off hypothermia.

The memories of that day will be with me forever. For anyone considering undertaking a major challenge in life, whatever that might involve, I say go for it – the sooner the better. In the words of the great Warren Miller, “if you don’t do it this year, next year, you’ll be one year older.”

-- Steve Kukta