“If you think you’re in the top ten percent of swimmers,” the race director said, “Start in the first wave.” I didn’t. But I did.
The swim start was brutal: bodies on bodies, limbs flyin’, knees to the back of the head. The pack thinned slowly, as the fluorescent buoys inched closer, leaving me in the bottom ten percent of the top ten percent. I struggled to find my pace, and my breath. I struggled to calm myself, to stem the flow of precious adrenaline. A few yards from the first buoy (the swim was a triangular-shaped half-mile course in the Schuylkill River), I spotted a flash of skin inches from my face. Soon, another swimmer was just millimeters from punching me in the nose. Worse, he too was breathing to his right, and hence couldn’t see me. I pulled myself away from him to the left, but he followed. In a moment of desperate, adrenaline-fueled rage, I crossed right over his legs, pushed his torso away to my left, and pulled away.
Soon, with a few arms’ lengths from my nearest competitor, I was able to settle in, and find my focus. Before long, I could spot the exit ramp. I looked around, and picked a few victims, battling past them to the finish. The volume dimmed the moment I my foot hit solid ground. I ripped off my goggles and cap, and looked down at my watch.
In transition, I fought to catch my breath as I pulled on my Asics. My body felt leaden, my limbs dead weight. I strapped on my helmet, jogged my bike to the street, and hopped on. The bike course consisted of two eight and a half mile loops between Falls Bridge and The Philadelphia Art Museum. It was a beautiful riverside ride: fast and flat, tree-lined, and sun-dappled. I was out in front, and settling in. My quads were burning, but I leaned in, and kept it in low.
Only a handful of riders on five thousand dollar triathlon bikes passed me on my eight hundred dollar mountain bike. The rest of the time, I was overtaking road bikers and thinking, “You really don’t want to be passed by me: me and my eighteen speeds, me and my fat tires.” I gelled (Gu Orange Burst with caffeine) just after passing the museum (with a nod to Rocky) the second time, then dug into the final straight away. I wasn’t sure I could run four miles, but I knew I’d killed the last seventeen. I lept from the saddle, racked the bike, dropped my helmet, and looked down at my watch.
No sensation is more terrestrial, more earthly, or more grounding, than running. And no activity is more punishing. Every footfall reverberates from the heels through the knees up the spine and through the jaw. Every footfall feels like a small earthquake. Especially after a half-mile swim and a seventeen mile ride.
Still, I knew I only had to maintain for four miles, albeit long, hard, slow miles. I don’t remember the first two. I know some guy passed me, I said, “Go get ’em” (as I always do), and he said nothing (which I thought was pretty dick). I know I had to stop and tie my shoe, which bugged me. And I know that, at some point, a freight train crossed a trestles overhead. Otherwise, nothing. I splashed a cup of water over my head at the halfway mark, and then focused on home.
At mile three, I began picking victims. I overtook a young couple in the final half mile, the heard another pair of footsteps gaining on my left. Two young men — twenty-one? twenty-two? — were pushing for the finish. The taller, skinnier was clearly carrying the other. I said, “Go get ’em guys” as they passed. Then they settled in just in front of me and I thought, ‘I can use these guys.’
I stayed with ’em until I could see the finish on the horizon, then made my break. “I’m going,” the taller, skinnier one said to his buddy as he looked over his shoulder at me. For every degree I turned up my pace, the youngster matched. The crowd became thicker, the cheering became louder, and we sprinted towards the banner. Twenty yards out, legs spinning like Roadrunner, I stumbled just a fraction and lost momentum.
Just across the finish, I patted the kid on the back, and thanked him for the strong finish. He looked up from under his eyelids like a zombie. I smiled, splashed an ice cold Poland Spring over my head, and looked down at my watch.
The actual finish line came some eight hours later as Abbi and I saddled up to the bar at my favorite Upper West Side watering hole, The Dead Poet. A half-mile swim, seventeen mile ride, four mile run, three state drive, nine story move, and twelve block walk later, I settled into a dozen hot wings and a Harp.
I’d left my watch at home.