Admin note: this started out as an introduction to my Big Kahuna triathlon report, but things got a little carried away, and before I knew it, nearly 1000 words had gone by. As it developed, this segment seemed to tell a story of its own, so that’s what I’m doing for today. Look for the race report in the next couple of days – and by way of a theme preview, there’s a classic (potentially somewhat vertigo-inducing) rock video after the post.
If you detected a sense of ambivalence in my pre-race posts, that wasn’t exactly an accident.
Truth be told, I spent much of race morning questioning just what the heck I was doing at this race anyway. I hadn’t done any training (aside from developing an enormous slow-twitch aerobic base – but that’s not entirely effective for high-intensity activity), I wasn’t particularly excited about participating, and I had pulled myself away from two other weekend family activities at home to take part in it.
Furthermore, these several months of ultra training had led me to feel like I didn’t really fit in with this tri-crowd all that much. More specifically – and I’ll try to phrase this as politely as possible – a large percentage of the tri crowd seems to take this athletic stuff way too seriously. It’s a direct contrast to the laid-back, whatever-gets-you-to-the-finish mentality of most ultrarunners I met this year.
The feeling started at the expo, in brief exchanges and conversations overheard while I picked up my race number: Your clothes are last year’s models? You’re totally behind the times. Your bike still has factory wheels and components, without high-end aerodynamic upgrades? You’re giving away speed, dude. Your sports drink is from Costco, and not a scientific $5-per-bottle superpotion? You’re cheating yourself, bro.
Finally, there was this conversation I overheard in the porta-potty line on race morning, between two women immediately in front of me, after each had asked the other where they were from:
Girl 1: So have you done this race before?
Girl 2: Yeah. I’m only doing it again because I didn’t qualify for Kona this year. I took second in my age group at Ironman France, and they only gave one slot for Kona. I should have won, but some other girl beat me by a few minutes. I’ve done Kona three times, so this is my easy consolation race for the year.
I mean … are you kidding me? Who talks like this? From all appearances, this was the first time these two had ever met. And they were in the porta-potty line, for goodness sake - it’s not like there might have been Zoot or Cervelo scouts combing the area looking for athletes to sponsor. It’s hard for me to fathom just how much some people are into themselves. All of a sudden, I was feeling very out of place.
So when the Kona woman turned to make sure I was listening, I said, “Guess what? I only have eight toenails!”* - and that was enough for them to leave me out of the conversation.
(*My other big toenail fell off the night before the race, as I was getting ready for bed. My daughter was already asleep, I wouldn’t see her until the following evening, and I didn’t want to carry a toenail around with me while racing 70.3 miles. So the OFFICIAL story is that the toenail fell off in the ocean during the race – are we all clear on this? Yes, I’ll probably go back and delete this paragraph once she starts reading my blog someday. Let’s move on.)
Needless to say, I wasn’t in the greatest mood while walking from T1 to the start area, but as soon as I hit the beach, everything changed.
There’s a reason that I live in California. OK, there are several reasons - but one of them is this: there’s something absolutely magical about watching the sunrise over the ocean. And as I walked towards the start line and saw the sun coming up over the pier, with the silhouettes of hundreds of athletes standing on the shore and swimming in the water, on an unseasonably warm September morning, all the things I appreciate came back to me.
I waded into the ocean and took a short warm-up swim, then stayed about 100 yards offshore, floating in the water, looking back towards the beach. In all of my athletic experiences, it was one of the most inspiring scenes I’ve ever observed: masses of triathletes and spectators gathered on the shore, with the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in the background, and a red-orange sunrise heralding the promise of the coming day.
In that moment, there was no place else I wanted to be.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t trained very much. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t identify with a lot of the competitors sharing the day with me. It didn’t even matter that I only had eight toenails. All that mattered was that I had a race to enjoy.
I took a few more warmup strokes towards the shore, and drifted on the waves until my knees skimmed the sand. I stood up, exited the water, and took my place in the throng of age-group men anxiously awaiting their charge into the ocean.
A few seconds later, the horn sounded, and our race was on.
Metallica, "The Memory Remains" (click to play):