Lee Gruenfeld has a vision of what Ironman etiquette should look like
"After you! No, after you! No, please, you go ahead! No, no, you go ahead! No, really…!" I wasn't planning to watch this year's Tour de France … It's not that I have a problem with an athletic event whose outcome is determined by which team has the cleverest doctor. It's just that, if you don't know in advance who's taking what, it's difficult to know whom to root for. Should I bet on the tried-and-true EPO guys, or maybe go with Team Transfusion, or throw caution to the wind and take a chance that Champs-dela-Androstenedione will ride in on this year's breakthrough pharmaceutical? But my wife Cherie was glued to the Tour, as she is with any sporting event featuring athletes pushing themselves to the limit. (How many households do you know of where the Sports Illustrated subscription is in her name?) So I watched a little here and there, and it was occasionally exciting, but then I bet a wad of dough on Rasmussen and we all know how that ended up so I tuned out again.
Until I heard that the leader's margin over second place was twenty-three seconds going into the last day. Twenty-three seconds! And the guy in third was only a few seconds behind that! Cheating or no cheating, that was going to be one tremendous final day.
So I got up at 4:45 am, gathered together the requisite endurance supplies (soda pop, HoHos, pork rinds, etc.) and settled in on the couch to savor what was sure to be the best man-to-man athletic showdown since Ali v. Frazier.
"They're not racing," Cherie said as she came downstairs on her way to a swim workout.
She pointed at the screen. "They're not racing."
"They're not racing."
I looked at the television. There were Paul and Phil in their usual announcing booth, the weather looked beautiful, the riders were mounting their bikes…what the hell was she talking about?
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's the last day," she said, stuffing a towel into her bag. "They don't race."
"It's tradition." She slung the bag over her shoulder and headed for the garage. "Etiquette.
Whoever's winning on the last day, they let him win."
Now I knew she was just kidding. These guys had dreamt about the Tour since they were kids, had spent years training, they'd just dragged themselves through a couple of thousand miles of hellish cycling, there were millions in endorsements riding on the outcome and she was trying to get me to believe that they were going to concede the yellow jersey to a rider with a twenty-three second lead on the last day? Because of etiquette? No way I'm falling for that gag.
Then again, why was she leaving the house to go swimming instead of watching the last stage?
I'd always wanted to marry Miss Right. I just didn't know her first name would turn out to be "Always." Sure enough, a bunch of athletes whose idea of etiquette is swallowing enough steroids to turn a housefly into Mothra pedaled lazily in formation as they ushered the leader into Paris. I thought back to the year Lance Armstrong got his handlebars caught up in a spectator's tote bag. After he hit the pavement, another rider held everybody up to wait for him.
Excuse me? He did what? What a load of hooey. Imagine Janet Evans stopping mid-race to tread water so the swimmer in Lane Two can adjust her goggles, or Holyfield waiting up so Tyson can catch his breath. This is supposed to be athletic competition, not ballroom dancing. Yet the Tour is full of stories like that.
So as I munched away on the pork rinds, I got to thinking: What if other athletic events also had this kind of tradition?
What about Ironman?
Only a mile left in the run when a spectator yells out to Normann Stadler that Chris McCormack had to stop to tie his shoe.
Stadler, powering down Pay 'N' Save Hill, stumbles to a halt. "Ach, du lieber Gott!" he gasps. "What a terrible thing!"
Faris al-Sultan comes tearing around the corner. Stadler throws out an arm to stop him.
"What are you doing!" al-Sultan demands as he nearly falls to the pavement.
Stadler folds his arms and announce imperiously, "Macca has stopped to tie his shoe."
"You are kidding."
"I am not."
Al-Sultan's eyes grow wide. "You are kidding!"
"No. It is true."
Al-Sultan turns and looks toward the Queen K. He sees McCormack down on one knee, fiddling with something near the pavement. He turns back to Stadler:
"You are right, Normann. We must wait."
The crowd of spectators, utterly enchanted and moved nearly to tears, roars its approval. Less than six minutes later, Stadler, al-Sultan and McCormack cross the finish line holding hands.
Natascha Badmann does a hair-raisingly fast one-eighty at the bike turnaround up at Hawi, then stands on her pedals to gain even more speed as she storms through the aid station. She knows she's almost a minute behind leader Desiree Ficker and has to make up the time.
As she tops the rise leading out of town and begins heading downhill, Badmann suddenly screeches to a halt. There in front of her is Ficker, off her bike and scratching frantically at her fanny pack.
Re-mounting and pulling up close, Badmann asks her what's wrong.
"I though I had three gels," Ficker replies, desperation in her eyes, "but I can only find two."
"No!" Badmann exclaims. As she gets off her bike, she notices Ficker looking back toward the turnaround. When she twists away to follow her gaze, Badmann sees Hillary Biscay powering her way over the top of the hill. The two women watch as Biscay slips into a higher gear and gathers speed. By the time she draws near she's doing almost fifty mile per hour.
Badmann throws out an arm and body slams Biscay to the pavement.
Her broken limbs splayed into awkward disarray, Biscay slowly opens her eyes and stares up at Badmann. "What the hell…?"
Badmann jerks a thumb to indicate Ficker and bends down, putting her face close to Biscay's.
"Desiree's missing a gel," she intones solemnly.
Biscay, just beginning to focus again, looks over at Ficker. "Oh my God."
Newly stunned, Biscay puts her hands to her profusely bleeding head. "Oh! My! God!"
"Do you have an extra?"
Biscay, desolate, shakes her head.
"Here comes Michellie," Ficker says.
Sure enough, Michellie Jones is screaming down the hill. Thinking fast, Badmann grabs Biscay's shattered bike and hurls it beneath the 2006 champ's wheels, sending her arcing over the handlebars. Even before Jones is finished tumbling down the steep grade, Badmann is jogging along at her side. "Desiree needs a gel!" she calls out.
"Oh my God!" Jones shouts back as she continues to roll. "Give her one of mine!"
The footage, played over and over on the Larry King Show during an interview with the three women, eventually replaces the shot of Julie Moss crawling toward the finish as the iconic symbol of all that is great and good about Ironman.
Sister Madonna Buder, who sped past the three — and past 657 other women who stopped to lend assistance to Ficker — was the only female finisher and therefore the overall winner of the event. But after being righteously vilified by press and public alike, Buder had her medal taken away and was banned from the sport for life.
"Poor sportsmanship," sniffed WTC spokesperson Blair LaHaye.