© Karsten Steiger 2012
Ironman US Championships
New York, NY – 2012.08.11
It comes down to reality, and its fine with me cause I’ve let it slide.
I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside.
I don’t have any reasons.
I left them all behind.
I’m in a New York state of mind. – Bill Joel
It would have been awesome to have had a bunch of Billy Joel stuck in my head – Jesse Thomas-style – but I did not. For most of the race, I operated the way I normally do, without any music of any kind echoing through the hollows of my brain. But for the last 28ish miles of the bike, riding back into a headwind towards transition, and hating my bike as I always do at that point in the race, I started to strike up a tune. What song did I sing? I sang the one I most often sing these days. It’s Quentin’s and my favorite song. It is… Elmo’s Song!
Elmo is small and red and incredibly addictive. Like Quentin, except for the red fur.
Ironman is incredibly repetitive – like most endurance sports – so perhaps it’s a fitting mantra for race day. And, of course, there are few things more powerfully motivating than thinking about one’s progeny. But I’m glad the race motorcycle engine is loud enough to drown out the soft chorus of, “This is a song, la la la la, Quentin’s song…” from the video coverage. Why am I even telling you this now? I don’t really know. I think I will claim it was the 250mL of hard cider – I split a bottle with Jill at dinner – coursing through my veins. (I’m not much of a drinker.) But a lot of it a function of the extremely sparse memories I have of the race that I’m attempting to recap. I’m telling you this because it’s one of the few things I remember from Saturday, August 11, 2012.
Like most traumatic experiences – and make no mistake, from your body’s perspective, Ironman is most certainly traumatic – I think your brain demonstrates a remarkable capacity to suppress or silo the memories. I suppose I should be thankful this is the case, as I imagine it would very difficult – if not downright impossible – to make a living doing Ironman if you actually could really remember what was involved. All I’m left with are some cankles (which have actually faded almost entirely), some very sore quadriceps (which are fading as well), a shiny finisher’s medal (which is still shiny), and a bizarre memory of rolling down the Palisades Parkway on my bike singing a song from “Sesame Street.” It’s probably just coincidence – or a testament to Elmo’s popularity, but Elmo was everywhere after the race. I saw two different life-size Elmos walking around Times Square on Sunday. I saw a giant Elmo doll in a toy store that was closed, sadly, because I wanted to get it for Quentin. And I know there were some other sightings as well, but I’ve lost track of them in a massive meat-induced-fog following successive meals at Blue Smoke, Virgil’s, and Peter Luger’s. Let me pause now to remember the glory of those meals and the seared animal flesh that I consumed.
From what I remember, the swim was pretty uneventful. The dive start made me glad I’d spent a bunch of time racing in the pool over the winter. Despite setting a swim PR that I don’t have a prayer of breaking unless I do this race again, I didn’t realize how fast we were going – I don’t wear a watch during the swim – until I got out and heard Mike Reilly talk about the leaders being out in sub-40 minutes; the swim was not obviously fast to me, though some other athletes said they could tell when they passed a buoy that it slipped by faster than normal. 41:45, 51:45 (what I would have expected)… It’s all a long time to swim in a straight line, without flipping, without rounding a buoy, and without any sort of change of scenery. The water was basically like every other time I’ve been in the Hudson. Not the cleanest water I’ve swam (swum?) in and not the dirtiest. I do remember spending the last 1000m or so repeating over-and-over “flip the zipper up, and then pull.” I had a new swimskin from the gang at Zoot with one of those locking zippers, and I was deathly afraid of not executing the flip-and-pull to get out of it. So that was my memorable one-fourth of the swim. One fourth of the bike was Elmo’s song and one fourth of the swim was “flip the zipper up, and then pull.” And people wonder why Ironman isn’t televised live.
I really don’t remember much of the run at all. I remember ice and coke being like mana from heaven. I remember being really hot. And I remember wanting to jump in the Hudson more than anything else while running along the West Side Highway Recreation Path. And I remember thinking this is stupidly far and why won’t it just be over. So, it was pretty much like every other Ironman ever. Coke. Ice. Jump in water next to run course. Far. Stupid. Far. I will say that the George Washington Bridge was pretty cool for about five seconds. And then it was just another mile past the halfway point in an Ironman marathon. But those five seconds were fantastical. I remember – very briefly – “Wow. Awesome. We’re really high. There’s a helicopter filming me run across the bridge.” This was followed very quickly by, “Where is the ice? Where is the coke? Why is this so far? This is stupid. Be careful not to die going down the stairs.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid in my life of stairs. Maybe the first time Quentin decided to climb some. Or maybe it was the first time he attempted to go down some. The descending is way scarier. I remember – sort of – doing this kind of side step with one hand firmly anchored on the hand rail as I went down the stairs. I recall going up the stairs faster than I went down, which Coach Michael confirmed he had observed on the live coverage. Score one for my memory! I’d wager that’s a lifetime score of: memory – some number in the neighborhood of 25; race-induced amnesia – some number best expressed in scientific notation involving 10 E-X, where X is reasonably large.
I wish I could say the finish line was awesome, but I remember basically nothing. I’m glad I have a photo of me hugging my mother, because otherwise I’d never remember it. And that’s true of all of the shots from Riverside Park. I think I’m more aware of the absence because – as a parent – when I look at one of the thousands (yes, I’m that parent) of photos I’ve taken of Quentin, I say to Jill, “remember when Quentin…” Like today, when I thought it would be good to let him “air out” his privates, which was pretty much the cutest thing ever when he was running around naked in the yard and which was still cute when he stood in the middle of the carpeted guest room and started peeing on the floor. Only I didn’t have a camera handy for that. But I doubt I’ll forget it. Ironman is sort of the opposite of that. You have all these photos and yet you have to think, “Is that me? It looks like me, but I do not remember that. Maybe I have a long lost twin who also decided to do the race.” I suspect that may be the real reason for bib numbers and – even more than that – permanent marker or temporary tattoo race numbers (though in a bit of irony, I find permanent marker to be noticeably less permanent than temporary tattoos, which are temporary, I think, within the context of light-years or, perhaps, millennia); they are to convince you that it really was you who decided to… Well, I can’t remember what I might have decided to do that I would have needed photographic evidence to convince me I had done.
Apparently, post-race, I used the phrase, “you know” a lot. Like a lot a lot. I took a lot of flack for this on Slowtwitch. And to those who mocked me for it, I’d like to challenge them to give a coherent interview after an Ironman. I suspect that in addition to being a bit of a verbal crutch, it was also a way of emphasizing that – hopefully – Matt Lieto knew what the heck I was talking about, because there was a strong possibility that I did not. “You know,” was really a genuine plea for confirmation in the aftermath of 140.6 miles of idiocy. Please, someone, tell me you know what on earth I am trying to say.
I hope so…
Thankfully, after a bowl of gumbo and ribs for two – all for me – plus two ribs from my friend’s plate at Blue Smoke, I do remember the finish line. I remember giving the über-BAMF Hector Picard a hug as he crossed the at around 11:45PM; I’d only met him that morning, but I couldn’t think of anything that seemed more right at the time. And I remember Mo Donaghy finishing after midnight. I remember the awesome NYC Cheer squad that helped us make the best for every finisher despite NYC’s 10PM noise ordinance. And I remember seeing Mike Reilly tell each person who crossed the line, in a quiet but strong voice, “YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN.” straight to his (or her) face. That was, in many ways, a more powerful and poignant expression of what Ironman is all about than when he booms it over a loudspeaker.
The way I see it, I remember the important stuff. I don’t remember my race, but other people do. And other people may not remember their races, but I do. I just hope we all can keep what we do know enough of a secret that we all continue to sign up for these crazy adventures. At the finish, I apparently said, “That was the hardest run I’ve ever done; it felt like it was a million degrees out there.” I didn’t mean that was a bad thing. I never really understood why, for example, Ironman St. George wasn’t a more popular race. It’s beautiful there. You’ll get a ton of really great photos of yourself doing things you don’t remember. Everyone will tell you how spectacular the race was. You’ll suffer, of course. You’ll probably suffer a lot. But you won’t remember that. You’ll just remember everyone telling you how epic it was.
The cliche tells us that “ignorance is bliss.” Thomas Gray actually wrote, “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” which I think is actually much more insightful. Not surprising that the original is better than the bastardized colloquialism. I think it certainly can be folly to be wise. Because, as the great Sir Isaac Newton (and many others), who I quoted in my post-race speech (which I do remember, especially my knees shaking for the entire time as I stood on very unsteady legs), showed us, what we think we know is often wrong. You know… Or maybe you don’t…