They look like seals. Nervous seals with bright green and yellow hats. Huddled together, they push to the center of the pod so when the circling sharks attack, they won't be snatched. The rush into the water is slow, like floating at the top of a waterfall, waiting to be sucked over the edge.
And they're off, into the misty water, two laps in Tahoe's transparent blue before being flung into what's being called one of the hardest triathlon courses, ever.
I've witnessed the start of a handful of triathlons, even participated in a few. But this was a start like no other. Just above freezing, half the athletes were wearing socks just to keep their feet from going numb. Mist rose from the lake, as if to remind them how cold the air was. Air they'd be slicing through on their bikes, air that would dip below freezing before the day was done. Fresh snow dusted the mountaintops. The daybreak scene was postcard-worthy. And I couldn't have been happier not to be getting into the lake.
My brother and his wife, Abra, chose Tahoe as their first Ironman. Both in phenomenal shape, they still had to spend the better part of the year training, forgoing family events, social gatherings and pretty much everything else that didn't involve swimming, biking or running. As the race neared, they just wanted it over so they could get their lives back.
They both had by all accounts very good swims. 1:05 for KJ and 1:40 for Abra. T1 was a slow affair, with the smarter ones doing a full change and dry before heading out on the bike. I heard about a couple people who wore their bike clothes into the water to save transition time. They never got warm on the bike, and one even had to stop for an hour midway through to warm up.
I jumped from Tahoe City to Truckee to intercept them midway through the bike, just in time to catch the leaders charging up Brockway Summit. After coffee and breakfast with my dad, Pam and Kat, I wandered out into the Alpine sun to post up along the course and watch the riders coming through downtown. Its a positively beautiful place to ride. Wide roads, mountain vistas and challenging climbs. But as KJ said after the race, "I would love to do that ride again. But only once. And then not run a marathon after."
The bike course was two grueling loops. 112 miles in thin, frosty air, burdened with the knowledge that the reward for spending six (if you were lucky) or eight (if you were normal) hours in the saddle was 26.2 miles on your feet.
After watching KJ fly past in Truckee, I headed over to Squaw to find a spot to watch the end of the ride and catch them as they started the run. I met up with my mom at the finish of the bike course, and my dad soon joined. I still chuckle when I spend time with just my mom and my dad, 30-years now divorced. They get along perfectly well but its just one of those things you never really get used to.
KJ cruised in, looking happy. I would be too if I got to get off my bike. He started the run with a smile on his face, calling out: "My legs still work!" When we saw him suffering back into the Squaw, two hours and 18 miles later, I wondered if he still had the same opinion about the functionality of his legs.
My mom and I found a spot to watch the riders come in to the home stretch, catch the runners head out on loop one (18 miles), then see them again on the way in, then back out again on loop two (8 miles). Triathlon watching is hard work.
KJ was out on loop two before Abra came in from the bike. I ran with him for a few steps and slapped him on the back for encouragement. He was not appreciative -- and in hindsight I don't think I'd want someone touching me at that point in the race either. 10 hours of exercising in "challenging" conditions will wear out the patience of even the most up-beat competitor.
We started watching the clock. There was a 5:30pm cut off to finish the bike course, and we hadn't seen Abra yet. Her stated goal was to finish the race one second before midnight (the run cutoff), but in order to even get there she'd need to finish the bike before 5:30. At 5:00, we saw riders laboring in, riders who looked like real riders. This wasn't the dregs of the field (if there is such a thing at an Ironman), but people who looked well-trained and comfortable on their bikes.
I heard more than a few athletes going out on their run saying things like "I can't believe I spent eight hours to finish the bike." Eight hours!
At 5:15 we started getting worried. I tried to imagine how crushing it would be to train this long, work this hard, only to DNF (Did Not Finish) because you missed the bike cutoff. I tried to imagine, but couldn't. At 5:20 we were really worried.
If you've ever been a spectator at a bike race of any sort, you know how hard it is to identify riders as they approach. Even if you know what color their helmet is, what they're wearing and what color their bike is, it's still almost impossible. We kept "seeing" Abra, picking out her pink jersey, white helmet and pink bike, only to realize we had really picked out a guy with a gray helmet, orange shirt and red bike. You can't even be sure what gender they are in the distance.
And then, when you see them, you wonder how you could have ever mistakened them for someone else.
She made it. Barely. With five minutes to spare.
Just before we saw Abra, we witnessed one of those hilarious moments that can only happen at a big race where everyone but those involved are highly inconvenienced and its basically impossible to drive anywhere. A spectator with a megaphone was standing in the middle of the road cheering on the bikers, telling them to get their asses in gear to make the cutoff. The downhill lane of traffic was closed to cars, split between bikers and runners.
Across from megaphone guy was a little parking lot. This car came out of the parking lot and, in a misguided attempt to head downhill, staring turning left. She would have taken out cones, runners, bikers and blocked the course, but she seemed determined to give it a shot. Megaphone guy didn't miss a beat.
"Go Go Go!" He yelled to a passing biker. He then deftly stepped in front of the turning car. "STOP! STOP! STOP! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! GET. THE. FUCK. OUT. OF. HERE. NOW!!"
He stood feet from the hood of the car, now stopped, screaming into his megaphone. He kept screaming, repeating his command to get the fuck out of here until she did. The crowd, along with the passing runners, cheered wildly.
With Abra now safely into the run, we started making preparations for watching the end of the race. We hustled to scope out the finish line, settling into a spot about 200 yards from the tape where we could easily catch them as they ran past, then could run over and watch them cross the finish line, accept their medals and, probably, burst into tears.
KJ came down the chute looking strong. He wasn't running fast per se, but he was running. And smiling. High fives all around as he passed. He had an amazing race. 11 hours and 26 minutes, 126th place. Not bad for his first Ironman. And more impressively to me as a runner, he ran the marathon in negative splits (meaning he ran the second half faster than the first).
Ironman knows how to put on a race. When you cross the finish line, whether you come in first or last, the announcer yells your name and says, "YOU are an IronMan!" Man or woman, it doesn't matter. You are an Ironman, and no one can take that away from you.
Volunteers flank the athletes as they stumble across the finish line, checking their vitals and getting them whatever they need. They toss a medal around your neck, prop you up for your post-race photo then help get you warm. It's remarkable to watch. Half the finishers are crying.
I've been there. You just spent countless hours out on the course, every ounce of focus, energy and endorphin pushing you forward. Don't imagine the finish. Don't imagine what it would feel like to stop. Because you just might. And then when you finish, when you don't have to run any more, the emotions come gushing forward, like a hose that was just turned on. Where there was nothing, now there is everything.
Your eyes well up. Your stomach clenches. And if you don't cry, you feel like you are about to. It's not quite happiness about being finished, or pride at completing the race. There is a sense of sadness to it. It's like you just lost a best friend, someone you just spent six, eight or 11 intense hours with. And how they're gone. Never to be seen again. You have to push on alone, with only memories to fill the void.
That and you are god damn happy not to be running any more.
KJ spent 40 minutes in the medic tent warming up and re-hydrating. The human body is an incredible machine. One moment you can be mercilessly pushing yourself forward, nothing but grit and adrenaline keeping you on your feet. The next, you can barely stand and can't stop shivering.
Strong mind. Strong body.
KJ on the mend, we settled in to wait for Abra. The sun dipped behind the snow-swept mountains. The temperature dropped. Daylight slid away. And we waited.
Realizing she had set out on the run without a jacket or gloves, we rustled up her warm clothes to hand off when she came by at mile 17. We found a big light to stand under. No way we'd miss her with three of us looking.
There is this app you can download that shows you the athletes' splits as they cross various points along the course. We saw Abra clock in at mile 13.1. She had slowed down, but was still moving plenty well enough to meet her midnight deadline. But service was spotty along the course and with every other spectator checking the same app, technology begins to work against you.
She must have crossed the 16.7 checkpoint by now. But we're at mile 17 and haven't seen here. Where is she? We weren't quite worried, but started to wonder if we'd missed her. It was dark now, after 9pm and cold. If she had slowed down, which would be understandable, she'd be generating less body heat, making her even colder.
At around 10pm, an hour after my sister Lisa had texted my mom to tell us that Abra had indeed clocked in at 16.7, we decided to take action. Perhaps we had missed her on the way in. Maybe she stopped after the first loop because she was too cold. Maybe she was just still running. KJ and my mom went up to the finish to check in with the medics and I ran out into the course, jacket and gloves in tow.
Wearing a headlamp, I checked each runner I passed, figuring I couldn't miss her on the out and back course. But no Abra.
I hadn't run at night in a long time. I had forgotten how magical it is. Its quieter, more peaceful, and even though you can't really see, the poor light illuminates your senses. You feel every breath of wind, hear every sound and eventually, as your eyes adjust, you can even see the road.
Not having been competing for the past 15 hours, I flew past runners, shufflers and walkers alike. I felt guilty as they cheered me on, not being able to tell I was wearing jeans and a hoody. At each aid station, I asked if they had seen a girl concede and be taken away to the finish. No dice.
When I hit two miles and Highway 89, I called KJ. Nothing I said, any luck with you? Nope. I wanted to keep going, to finish the loop. Occam's Razor says the simplest answer is usually right. She was just running, I felt. But when you are out looking for someone else's wife, and they tell you to come back. You do what they say. The last thing they need is some idiot there trying to be a hero.
I ran back and found KJ and my mom, wandering around the finish line looking for answers that weren't there. We tried to think rationally. If she had stopped, she would have called. If she were with the medics, they would have called (one called us from the medic tent to let us know that KJ was taking in fluids, but OK). The only logical answer was that she was just out there running. The alternative was too distressing to consider: that something bad had happened to her, and that they had taken her away in an ambulance without calling. But you don't propose what everyone is thinking in the back of their mind. It's just not productive.
KJ went to talk to the medics again. He was frantic now. It's not every day you lose your wife in the woods, with the temperature dropping and her out there with a running vest and yoga pants, 16 hours into the hardest physical activity of her life. Hell, its not every day you lose your wife, period. It's not easy to stay calm.
My mom started chatting with a guy also looking for his daughter, sharing her iPad and the app to try and find her. She also had checked in at 16.7, then nothing. The last check in was too long ago to make sense. Occam again: maybe the post-16.7 check in just wasn't working.
Ironically, the technological solution designed to make it easier to find people threw us into a panic when it didn't work. Evidence of just how damaging bad information can be when you believe it. Without that app, without knowing she had clocked in at 16.7 but nothing more for hours, the only logical explanation was that we missed her going by and that she was still out there running.
KJ came back and said: "They think she's just out on the course." He almost seemed relieved. I said, "KJ, let me go back out there. You stay here in case she finishes. I'll be fine." He acquiesced.
So I headed back out there again, at 11pm, looking for Abra. The air was even stiller now. Mist rising off the open fields, now shrouded in darkness. My running had an urgency, interrupted only when I passed a runner and shined my light at their belly, looking for their number. Looking for her number. 572.
I passed the first aid station, and this time took some water. I hadn't eaten much all day, and had now run five miles, fast, at altitude. No need for me to lose my energy, which I'd need to get back.
Twice I passed the girl wearing 573. One number off. Not Abra.
Everyone was walking now, but me. I have run for lots of reasons in my life, but never before to look for someone. Looking for someone who we thought may be lost. Fatigue is not really an option.
But she wasn't lost. She was just out there, running.
Up ahead I saw two headlamps coming towards me. I slowed down. I raised my arms. "Abra!"
"Is that your husband?" her companion asked.
"No, its AJ! I found you! And I have a jacket."
She was confused. Why was I there? Delirious and freezing, less than three miles from the finish, walking, she didn't really care. I had brought a jacket. She had one of those silver finisher capes wrapped around her shoulders for warmth, hiding her pink arm-warmers, probably why we missed her going by.
She and Julia spoke slowly, complete sentences were a bit of a struggle. Understandable, thanks to the pain and cold and exhaustion. But they were in good spirits.
I almost forgot to call KJ. "Found her!"
"And we're going to finish on time."
I walked with Abra and Julia the rest of the way. It was a hard balance to strike, talking to them enough to keep them lucid, meanwhile not wanting to wreck their rhythm. Long past tired, long past hurting, even walking those last miles takes something more than will. Maybe its the haunting knowledge that if you stop now you'll always regret not pushing on, even though at that moment every step brings shooting pain and is one more step than you thought you could take one step ago. Or maybe to finish an Ironman, you can't know the meaning of the word Quit.
I left them when I saw KJ and my mom. KJ kissed his now found wife. She started running again and finished, nine minutes before the cutoff. "Abra Cranford, YOU are an ironman!" Indeed she is.
We racked the bikes on KJ's car and drove off, past midnight, out of the quickly emptying parking lot. KJ and Abra drove together, sharing a moment I am sure they won't soon forget.
Watching all those people finish, watching most of them cry, watching their families and friends so proud, I couldn't help but think that maybe an Ironman was something I'd like to do. But swimming isn't my thing, and while I enjoy being on the bike, not enough to put in the time it takes to train for the Ironman.
But as I stood there in the dark, midnight approaching, I watched these people push on. For many, this would be the crowning achievement of their athletic career. Perhaps even the hardest "thing" they'd ever done. If you're not inspired by a thing like this, you're lacking some fundamental human emotion. It doesn't take any more will to come in 126th than it does to finish at 11:51pm. Or to win.
I am still pretty sure that I'm not going to sign up for an Ironman any time soon, but I'm definitely jealous of the experience.
And so the next day I laced up my shoes, hit the trails and started training. For what, I don't know. But it won't be long until I figure it out.