The Age Grouper’s Race

One of the reasons for the exploding popularity of triathlon is that, unlike nearly every sport in the world except running, ordinary folk can not only compete but can do it in the very same events as the best in the world. This is like me teeing it up next to Phil Mickelson at the Masters. (I actually did tee it up once next to Phil Mickelson at the Masters, and it took nearly everything a dozen of my friends and family had to post my bail.)

At the Ironman World Championships, it's not unusual to see a 70-year old nun wade into the start area next to eight-time world champion Paula Newby-Fraser. My 61-year old wife has been in the same helicopter television shot as Heather Fuhr. The fact that Heather was heading down Palani at mile 25 while my wife was heading up Palani at mile 10 is quite beside the point, the point being that they were still in the same race.

The non-professionals, known as age groupers, get a lot of attention in Ironman, because the World Triathlon Corporation considers every athlete to be the center of its mission. If you look at how the race is organized, you'll notice that this attention to every individual who competes is baked deep into the clockwork of the logistics. That's why the competitor who drags himself across the finish line at two minutes before midnight in 1,925th place gets the same reception and service as the one who came in nine hours earlier in first place.

Yet, most of what's been written about the race seems to focus on the professional's experience. This isn't unreasonable. It's very exciting to read about epic battles like Scott vs. Allen, and less so about epic battles like Joe Blow vs. his exploding intestines. The professionals also photograph better, since one of the things that make for a nice picture is light, and there is a hell of a lot more of it at 3:00 pm on Ali'i Drive than there is at 11:00 pm on the Queen K Highway. It's also the case that press interviewers are fresh and alert when the pros come in, but probably on their eighth mai tai at Pancho and Lefty's when the main body of age groupers starts drifting in.

So it occurred to me that, while Ironman fans seem to know a lot about what the race is like for a professional, they don't really have much appreciation for what it's like for an age grouper. Here are a couple of observations from hundreds of conversations with the "The-only-thing-I-ever-endorsed-was-a-check" crowd.

 

Biking the Queen K: Professionals often comment on how hot it was out on the Queen K during the return portion of the bike leg. Part of the reason for this is that they usually have a tailwind. Herewith a little simple physics, well known to anybody who has ever sailed: If you're doing 30 mph along the road with a 30 mph wind at your back, you don't feel the wind. As far as you're concerned, there is no wind. And if there's no wind, there's nothing cooling you down. Hence, you feel the heat.

Age groupers never complain about how hot it was out on the Queen K during the return portion of the bike leg. That's because, by the time they get back down from the turnaround at Hawi, the tailwind has shifted and become a headwind. The good news about a headwind is that it cools you down. The bad news is that it also slows you down. A lot. About ninety percent of the drag on a bicyclist comes from wind resistance. (The rest is from friction between the wheels and the road and the turning components of the bike. Ironman veteran and Olympic cyclist John Howard once pedaled a bike behind a race car that blocked the wind for him and ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records when he hit 155 mph.)

So the last 30+ miles of the bike leg is typically a howling hell for most age groupers. But since the pros never mention it, a lot of people probably think that the age groupers are either making it up or making excuses.

And in truth it's even worse than that, because that wind that has become a tailwind on the way back is a headwind on the way out. This means that most of the age groupers have a headwind on the Queen K in both directions, and sixty-eight miles of the 112-mile bike leg is on the Queen K.

If you ask me, the reason that most people turn pro is for no other reason than to get rid of that damned headwind.

 

The Energy Lab: Nobody likes running in the Energy Lab, the main facility of a state-operated alternative research program about six miles out of town. Miles 15 through 19 of the marathon are in the Lab. It's four miles of hot, badly paved road, of which the last mile is a relentless uphill pull. Worse still, it puts you tantalizingly close to the cool blue waters of the Kona Coast, so close that you can feel the spray if the wind is blowing right. Along with whatever other pains you're fighting, you also have to fight the urge to veer off the course and take a thirty-yard running jump into the biggest natural spa on the planet.

But at least if you're a pro you're doing all of this during daylight.

Doing it at night, when you're already half-dead from dehydration and exhaustion, is a whole 'nother smoke. As I said, the road is badly paved. It's also full of random chunks of lava and sandy spots that, to a dizzy, blind and semi-delusional age grouper seem like malevolent sprites dispatched by Madame Pele to teach a lesson to those who would presume to challenge her authority. Every step is a potential catastrophe, and it's hard for we non-racing mortals to fully appreciate the enormous psychic energy expended in dealing with this distraction. It takes a terrible toll at a time when the athletes have little left to give.

And when they leave the Energy Lab they have something else to look forward to:

 

Night: I already said that. Once you get past seven o'clock or so, yes, it's night, so everybody who hits the Lab after about six is going to do some portion of it at night. And it's pretty dark down there.

But night out on the Queen K is not just dark…it's really, really dark.

Back in the day, the World Championship was always scheduled for the Saturday closest to a full moon. This made sense. There are very few street lamps out on the Queen K, so a full moon would provide a bit of illumination.

The problem was that night also brought an abrupt rise in humidity, which quickly threw up an overcast so thick you not only couldn't see the moon, you quite literally couldn't even tell where it was supposed to be. It provided about as much illumination as a Timex Indiglo watch at five thousand paces.

Most people in modern civilization really have little idea of what outdoor darkness is like, because it's rare for most of us ever to escape artificial illumination altogether.

About the darkest dark I've ever seen is the Queen K Highway at night. It's the damnedest thing you ever didn't see. You have to concentrate really hard to be able to make out your own feet, or even your hand, and as for other people out there somewhere in your vicinity, it's a good thing they're all breathing so hard and treading so heavily or you'd never know they were there. This is why the race gives out light sticks after sunset: It has nothing to do with helping you see where you're stepping. It's so you don't step on someone else.

Standing around in stuff like that is frightening. Running around in stuff like that is downright terrifying. To an age grouper the aid station at Mile 20 looks like an oasis to a desert traveler not because of the Gatorade but because of the light. However brief the respite, it's a moment of comforting illumination, then it quickly fades and then gets even worse. Like an escaping prisoner who thinks he has it made and is then recaptured, a bout of depression is in store for the athlete who plunges once again into a featureless sea.

 

Loneliness: Even if you can cope with the darkness, it's hard to fight the feeling of isolation. It's hard to keep in mind that there's actually a race going on when all you can hear is your own breathing and all you can see is nothing. It's quiet. Nothing moves. You run but nothing seems to get closer so it's difficult to know if you're getting anywhere. There are no helicopters, no cameras, and absolutely nobody standing on the sidelines wishing you well, because what spectators would want to take up station where they can't even see the athletes?

It's one step, then another and another, and the only thing keeping you going is the knowledge that there truly is a finish line out there somewhere, and if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually you'll get there.

The last few miles out on the Queen K is where the Ironman veterans have it all over the first-timers: They know what's coming. They know it's going to be worth it.

The rest have to take it on faith.

 

Homeward Bound: Paula N-F once said that the reason you race the first 140 miles is just so you can do the last three hundred yards. But there's one more psychic hand grenade thrown at you before you get to the good stuff.

It happens as you're running down Pay 'n' Save Hill (the one without the Pay 'n' Save on it). As you near Kuakini Highway you can see bright lights in the distance down by the pier. You can hear music and celebrating and the voice of Mike Reilly conferring the title of Ironman over and over as weary athletes stumble to a stop with varying degrees of grace, relief, gratitude and new-found appreciation for the sport and for themselves.

At the bottom of Palani you're back among cheering spectators and light, and only a block away from the festivities, a handful of steps. It's right there, a seven-iron away but…

…you turn sharply left and, maddeningly, run away from the finish, to be swallowed up in the bleakness of Kuakini Highway, alone again. The reason is that you've only done 139.6 miles, and the full distance is 140.6. You have to add one more mile and this is where you do it. The only thing that makes you feel a twinge better is that there are people just heading out on the run, twenty miles to go, and you can't comprehend what that must be like, so this last mile doesn't seem quite as bad. But it's still bad.

There are only two turns left. The first comes at Hualalai, and you wonder what it means. The mind races to put a label on it, to categorize the small maneuver, to fit it into some larger context, because at this point in your fatigue and disorientation those little milestones suddenly take on critical importance. It can't just be another mile notched onto your belt; it has to be the last mile before something, or the first of several something elses, some symbolic rite of passage to make the point that there is a point to all of this, that progress is occurring, that the list of things you have to check off is finite and getting smaller and you've checked off another one. So what does that last turn onto Hualalai mean?

Hiding in the darkness at that corner is a man. A voice, really, because no one ever gets a good look at his face. As each runner passes him he says quietly, "Welcome home." Nothing more. Just "Welcome home," but it's one of those phrases that seems to glow with a quiet mysticism, dense with meaning and possessed of a kind of inarguable finality. You've been out "there" for thirteen, fifteen, sixteen hours, at times genuinely perplexed about what you were doing out there at all.

But now, all questions are answered and all questioning ceases. There's no more mystery. No more plunges into heartless darkness. No more heart-breaking detours.

Home is where you go when you go home. It's where they have to take you in, no matter what. That guy who welcomes you home knows all this, and in that instant when he says "Welcome home," you know it, too.

I don't know who that fellow is. Nobody seems to, but this year I'm going to find out, and then I'll let you know. I'm hoping he doesn't actually exist, because just imagine what that would tell us about this race and these racers and about the kinds of things that are hard-wired into the human soul.

 

Ali'i Drive: I'm going to shortchange you a little here and not even try to describe what it feels like for an Ironman finisher to run the final quarter mile. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I'm not an Ironman athlete and I have no idea what it feels like. The second is that no Ironman athlete has ever been able to describe it, even though every single one of them has tried. Perhaps the fact that they all tried and failed tells you everything you need to know about what it feels like.

I do have a couple of observations, though.

The first is that Ali'i Drive on an ordinary day bears about as much resemblance to Ali'i Drive on Ironman night as Times Square on an ordinary day does to Times Square on New Year's Eve. There are thousands of people. There is singing and dancing. There is food and music and powerful lights and enough energy to power a nuclear submarine.

I'm not talking about mid-afternoon when the pros come in, either. I'm talking about midnight, when the last runner comes in, and all the hours that precede it. The place is a combination hoe-down, riot, rave and Eminem concert, except without all the throwing up (at least if you don't count Joe Blow struggling to get to the finish line at the same time as his intestines).

Now that you've got that picture, picture this: you've been swimming biking and running since seven that morning. You've been in the Pacific, up on Kohala Mountain, up and down the lava fields, all on your own power. You've seen the sun come up, seen it traverse the entire sky and seen it disappear again, and during all that time you never stopped moving. It's been hot, wet, windy, muggy, glaringly bright, blindingly dark, physically agonizing, psychically draining and unutterably lonely. You've seen God, you've seen the devil, and at times you couldn't tell them apart.

But at just about the point where you'd be willing to sell your soul for three minutes on a soft couch, you make the final turn onto Ali'i. Where there was darkness, there is now light. Where there was silence, there is now music. Where there was unbearable loneliness, there are now 2,000 of your closest friends holding the world's biggest frat party to celebrate the fact that you are in the final stretch of the Ironman World Championship.

As tired and hurting as you are, it feels as though some beatific spirit has just pumped 500 cc's of primo adrenaline into your sagging behind. You straighten up. You lift your shoulders. If you were walking you now run, knees kicking up high. You adjust your race number and wipe away some sweat. You might even kick in a little speed, which a mere twenty minutes ago you would have thought as likely a possibility as Jabba the Hutt making the Wimbledon finals.

All the demons in your head flee for cover under the onslaught of those 2,000 friends screaming their lungs out for you, and in the last few seconds as you close in on the finish line everything suddenly becomes clear and you know why you're here. It took all day to figure it out but it happens right smack in the nick of time, because one more second of delay and you might not be able to fully grasp the one amplified voice that barrels in over the rest. The voice belongs to Mike Reilly or Whit Raymond and it makes an official declaration every bit as profound as a papal bull from the Vatican:

"You are an Ironman!"

Welcome home.

[Editors' note: The invisible man whispering "Welcome home" was first reported in the book Become an Ironman by Lee's wife, Cherie Gruenfeld. He has since disappeared.]