“But Dadda…why do you have to do your Ironman races?”
This was asked of me by my youngest son, Jeffrey (5 at the time), just 3 days prior to my first ever triathlon. I found myself in the uncommon position of not having words to explain why I “had to” do this race.
After a moment’s thought, the best answer I could think of was this:
“When I was about 12, I watched the first ever Ironman on TV. I was at your great-grandpa’s house. The awkward part was that while I was in awe of what I was seeing everyone else was kinda freaked out. They all thought it was crazy, ridiculous, I even heard someone say, ‘that’s just disgusting.’ I just sat there quietly, now carrying a bit of shame…wishing it was me out there, running through the lava fields! I’ve wanted to do this for my whole life, so now…I’m gonna try. No, I’m gonna do it!”
Later that evening I realized that a more truthful answer wasn’t conveniently sitting on the surface. It was deeper. I just wasn’t aware of how deeply I’d have to dig in order to find it.
Ironman; the event, the medal, the emotion, all of it, is really the reward. The truth is that the training, the pushing through, the breaking down of barriers, the ebb of the ego, the discipline and self-accountability it takes, and the will to keep going…it just makes me a better person. The alone time on long runs, the loneliness of long solo rides, and the quiet, mind numbing hours staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool have made me, and continue to make me, a better man. I guess that’s why I keep trying.
Suffering: It forces you into places where your ego can’t survive. It strips you down. It forces you to be raw; to be authentic; to be “you”, whatever that means. That is why triathlon has become so important to me. The personal pilgrimage is constant, and I like it that way. It provides a time and place for me to dump my stresses, and maybe to heal a little bit. In a funny way, it lets me stand taller. Not taller than someone else, but taller than I could yesterday.
I was born and raised in California, just east of San Francisco. My Mom and Dad busted their tails for us. Mom raised four kids virtually on her own as dad worked tirelessly for everything we had. We never wanted for anything. We weren’t the “rich kids,” but we had all the toys we needed, great holidays and vacations, family get-togethers, and nice homes with all of the modern conveniences and luxuries. We had it all.
Personally, (please known there is no conceit in this) everything was easy in my life: Making friends, academics, sports, playing music, and on and on. In fact, I never read a book until well after I earned my Masters Degree in Education. (Ironic, isn’t it?) With virtually no effort, I was enrolled in all the ‘gifted’ courses and earned high marks. Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for me to have been the fastest, the strongest, or to arrive at the answer first. Again, this is absolutely not something that I’m bragging about or that I’m proud of. In fact, those memories are most often accompanied by the shame of squandering these gifts. That’s a shame that I continue to struggle with today. That said, these were my circumstances, in spite of myself and in spite of my lack of effort, things were good.
But with all of these blessing, why did I feel such an ugly hole in my self? Why, from my earliest memories, did I carry around insecurities and sadness that ultimately undermined even my best days. Whatever the cause, I often felt myself unconsciously seeking attention. I found it in less than the healthiest ways. I was that “X-Games” kid, long before there were X-Games. At 7, that means in 1973, I did my first one-footed wheelie on a motorcycle. It was the first day I’d ever ridden a motorcycle. I remember thinking, “If Evel Knievel can do it, I can to!” Think about that for a minute. If a professional can sometimes achieve death defying feats, clearly I (at 7) could do the same thing. I often found myself looking down some ridiculous flight of stairs, or a steep hill, on a mountain-bike or a skateboard thinking to myself, “This could go one of two ways. I could make it, and everyone would go crazy…again. OR, I could crash and burn, in which case everyone would go crazy! Either way, I win.”
These destructive activities increased in frequency and intensity until I felt like Customer-of-the-Month at John Muir Medical Center. It wasn’t until after my 2nd 100+ MPH motorcycle road-racing accident that I realized if I didn’t come to grips with whatever was wrong; whatever drove me to do these ‘stunts’, I probably wouldn’t be around long enough to enjoy them anymore anyway!
Ironically, it was in training for motorcycle road-racing (a sport that I’m still fanatical about) that opened the door to a new kind of suffering. Cycling! And I was horrible at it! But this means-to-and-end was actually “socially acceptable!” Now I can have my cake and eat it too! I can, for all intents and purposes, punish myself, and get away with it; even be praised for it! “Winning!”
All along, I continued to think, “Maybe someday I can even get myself to Kona and do that Ironman I’ve always dreamed of! That’s got to be the most beautifully brutal event on the planet.” Then I started dabbling in Cross Country Mountain-biking, then Downhill. In cross-country, like road cycling, I was horrible. Built for MMA, but trying to climb? What was I thinking? I was always in the back half of the field. Downhill, though? That was simple. When it’s your turn, go as fast as you can! I’d been doing that my whole life. I was competitive right off the bat! (Top speed on a hardtail: 59.5 MPH, Mt. Hamilton, San Jose, CA. 1999).
As far as endurance sports, “I’m not very good at this!” was a feeling that I wasn’t accustomed to. “I’m really busting my ass and getting nowhere! I’m struggling to be any good at all. No, I’m actually really struggling to simply not be horrible at this sport!”
And so began my love/hate relationship with endurance sports. To make a long story even longer, I registered (albeit idiotically) for an Olympic Distance Triathlon in Santa Cruz, CA in 2001. Looking back, I now know I’d never have finished. Not a chance. But, like always, failing would have been an epic adventure in itself. So how did my first triathlon go? I couldn’t tell you. I never made it to the starting line. Instead, I unceremoniously ended my motorcycle road-racing “career” just a month before the race date.
In a flash, I was done. I felt, quite literally, that God was asking me, almost rhetorically:
“This is what you want, isn’t it? It must be! Now let’s see you get to Kona, tough guy! Are you going to grow up now? Are you going to show me what you’re made of? Are you going to accept yourself for who you are, or are you going to continue to squander your gifts and sabotage your life? It’s up to you!”
I found myself at the start of a new challenge: Healing. So what was the state of my body after falling of my absolutely fantastic Suzuki sport bike? Simply put…I didn’t break my feet. In greater detail, here we go:
Left side: Two metatarsals (fingers), All metacarpals (hand bones), Radius & ulna (wrist), left femur (upper leg) Head/Back/Neck: Complex Grade-3 Concussion. Collapsed cervical vertebrae C3& C5, thoracic vertebrae T3 & T5.
Right Side: Right shoulder dislocation, displaced fracture of right clavicle with a type-3 shoulder separation. 5 rib fractures (2 displaced).
Head: 14th loss of consciousness due to concussion. I don’t know how long I was out, but it was long enough to get all the bikes off the track, to get the marshals to me, and to get the ambulance and EMTs to me…and then some.
The truth is that it couldn’t have happened at a more important time. It was well beyond time to grow up, and now all I had was time with no means of complicating things. I couldn’t do anything but be in bed and think, and even that was a challenge.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’m running again, cycling and swimming too! My shoulder didn’t handle the work load, so we had it fixed. Restabilization, SLAP repair, rotator cuff, tendon debridement, etc. Good as new. A couple of years later, now with kids in tow, I’m still trying to reach a fraction of my former self. I ran myself into the ground, necessitating Achilles replacement. Two steps forward and one step back never rang so true. But this time, with wisdom and continued growth. This time it’s with the support of the coaching I receive from my MX Endurance team mates, and the support of my biggest fans; my boys.
At this point, in my 50s, I not only have a purpose, but a duty to model living rightly. I have the two most precious boys on earth and I’d be devastated to have them live the life that I chose to live. They are their own individual selves. They make many of their own decisions. But I’m grateful every day that they don’t feel what I feel, and what I’ve felt.
“So why do I have to do Ironamn races?” It’s never about the event. I never stand proud because I finished an event. Thousands have; hundreds of thousands have, and they’re pretty much all faster than me! It’s not for the medal around my neck. There are more valuable medals! It’s about the journey and who I’m becoming along the way. I stand taller because I no longer need to carry around the baggage that I’ve carried around for so long. That, and because my training helps me find peace…or rather…it helps me create it.
Through my training and the Triathlon lifestyle, I’m finding balance and peace: Two things that have eluded me for most of my life. Yea, it’s pretty awesome to receive those medals, but it’s way better having your sons hang them around your neck!
I’m no longer obsessed with ironman. More importantly, I’m no longer running from anything: Not shame, not memories. I just am. What would be the icing on the cake? A Kona slot! I’ve got to say that this will remain a goal…until it’s done…so I will keep Tri-ing!
My ultimate goals? To be. For a long time, that wasn’t even a thought. To lead my sons through the landmines of life, and to teach them how to avoid them. And finally, I want to die young…as late as I possibly can.