Concrete Sky

Halfway through swim portion of the New York Island Foundation’s Freedom Tower Aquathon, I thought to myself, ‘I could win this thing!’

I did my first triathlon in Philadelphia in 1996. I’ve done roughly twenty since then, including New York City, Montauk, Stone Harbor, Malibu, and Nantucket. I’m into sprint (400m/20k/5k) and olympic distances (1.5k/30k/10k). Don’t even try and talk me into an Iron Man. I’m into suffering and all, but not for an entire day (and then some).

I’m really not much of a triathlete, I’m just a runner who rides a bike and likes to swim. I was on swim team for a bout thirty seconds in high school, and showed aptitude, but (not unlike running, or rock ‘n roll for that matter), am not much for training or practicing.

Still, I like duathlons and triathlons because they’re a different kind of challenge. There’s variety. You get to switch it up. There’s less of the drone of marathons. You get hurt in all kinds of places you forgot about. It’s great.

I’ve done the last six New York City Triathlons, but bungled my entry this year. You can’t hesitate when these things open up; they sell out fast. So Chris did it solo, and I watched. Which kinda blew.

This weekend was race weekend for Abbi and me. We did a brief four-mile “Run For The Parks” (one of numerous Central Park races organized by the New York Road Runners Club) on Saturday morning. It was wicked humid, like, Amazon humid. I extended to five; Abbi extended to ten (after all, the New York City Marathon is just three months away), then spent the afternoon in repose.

Sunday morning at eight o’clock, we rode down the West Side Promenade to Battery Park City. Race organizers were still getting their tables together, so we sat a while under the slate gray skies. The river was chopper than I’d expected. Water taxis, leisure craft and even cruise ships were kicking up a chop. Then it started to drizzle.

The swim was supposed to be a half-mile from the South Cove to the Yacht Harbor. In the late 90s, when I was in the throws of my heaviest addiction, used to ride my bike to the South Cove after work, and write in my journal. Invariably, those scribblings tended towards, “I need to get off the junk and do something with myself!”

Saturday’s heavy rains precluded us from starting in the South Cove, though, as the current had changed direction early (currents will do that because they can). We walked up to a New York Water Taxi pier outside of the World Financial Center, a creaking, rickety, tented thing floating about ten feet off the river just a quarter mile north of the Yacht Harbor.

We ordered ourselves by participant number (there were just seventy duathletes, and another thirty swimmers-only), and jostled nervously. Just as we expected to get started, the race director asked us to take a moment of silence to honor the recent death of Stuyvesant High School swim team member and NY Swim volunteer, April Lao, who was killed four months ago in a car crash on the New York State Thruway. The dock pitched, creaked and yawned, as her younger sister read from note cards, fighting back tears. It was sad, of course, and led me to reflect (as any trip downtown must) on September 11th. We were just a few dozen yards from what the world now refers to as Ground Zero.

Finally, we leapt from the platform one by one. The water was cloudy, and deep green. It tasted saltier than I expected. Soon, one hundred pink swim caps were bobbing in the swift downstream current. The race director motioned the group upstream to some invisible start line, which, by the time he yelled, “Go!” was some fifteen yards downstream. The smiles, jokes, nerves and platitudes turned to flailing arms and kicking legs. I concentrated on steadying my stroke, and finding a pace that wouldn’t wipe me out. I kept my eye on a cement pylon a few hundred yards downstream, and willed myself towards it. I wondered as I rolled over for each breath, ‘What is that gray thing out of the corner of my eye? Oh, it’s the World Financial Center. Cool.’ Slowly and steadily, I overtook the field. Then I began picking victims.

“Picking victims” is something I do only in sport. It usually occurs late in the race. It’s simple enough: I look ahead, find someone I can pass, and pass them. It’s not vicious; it’s motivational. It’s how I perform best. I overtake some dude, make sure he doesn’t catch up, then overtake another. That is, when possible. I’m not Lance Armstrong by any stretch of the imagination. But occasionally, I got lost in the moment…

Like yesterday morning. I was nearing the front of the pack thinking, ‘I can win this thing!’ The buoy marker for the swim finish was in sight. There were just a few pink caps between the buoy and me, one of which was just fifteen feet off my right arm. So I pulled a little harder, and focused on slipping through the waves with a minimum of resistance. Soon, the mystery man fell behind me. I climbed up the ladder, and jogged towards transition.

Total elapsed time: 06:56.

A lot of triathletes wear wetsuits. Wetsuits increase buoyancy, and diminish drag. But they’re also a real struggle to get on and off. It stands to reason, then, that any in-water efficiency is lost with that struggle. I don’t own a wetsuit. And this becomes a bonus in transition, as I don’t have to wrestle with the thing. I just pull on my running shoes (no socks for a short run like a 5k), snap on my belt (which has my race number attached), pull on my sunglasses, and go, leaving those wetsuit wearing chumps behind.

Total elapsed time: 00:33.

The run course was flat and fast: a mile and a half north along the promenade to Pier 40 and back. I went out with a dude in blue tri-suit, but a dude passed us both within the first few minutes in a blue Speedo and black tri-top. He became my victim. I passed him just prior to the turn-around, then focused on the next guy.

The great thing about pain is that it’s difficult to remember. It’s a biological imperative, really. How else would women have more than on child? How else would we ever fall in love again? How else would we ever compete in a second marathon if we remembered just how painful the first was? I can tell you this of running: no matter the race, no matter the distance, it is a constant attempt to balance muscular pain with searing, full-body heat with burning lungs and a pounding heart. I am in a constant state of assessment, pushing right up against the moment where my physical body overwhelms my will and stops me in my tracks.

The Promenade was crowded with bicyclists, bladers and joggers. I ran past one woman bicyclists three times (she congratulated me on my third pass), all the while keeping the guy in the blue tri-suit in my sights. Finally, in the last few blocks, there in the shadow of The Winter garden, I slipped past him. I spotted Abbi as I turned the corner towards the finish, but didn’t smile. I did finally smile, however, after crossing the mat (races are electronically timed with a chip worn on one’s ankle or shoe), when the race photographer pointed his Nikon my way.

Total elapsed time: 30:24.

I didn’t win the thing. I was fourth in my age group (30-39), twelfth among men, and fourteenth overall. But I did enjoy the ride, and relish the competition (as always, I thanked my “victims,” aka “pacers” afterwards), and got myself just a few steps closer to being ready for next weekend’s Philadelphia Triathlon.