As expected, this past weekend was a whirlwind of witty and snappy fun with my mother. Standing at 5 feet tall, my mother is packed full of the honest, cheeky, and sometimes surly grit that you would naturally expect from a New Yorker displaced into the Midwest. If I inherited anything from my mother, it is the ability to tell it like it is. With her, or me, you will always know where you stand with us, how you stand against others , and if you’re standing in the right shoes. We plead helplessness on this one, because that’s just how New Yorkers are.
Once a season, my mother accompanies me to a race. Regardless of the location, the type of event, the distances, or even my performance, she somehow finds me at exactly the right moment, positions herself in the most visible place, and shouts my name with an unmatched fervor, putting on her best teacher voice and drowning out the cheers of any spectator within a one mile radius.
As the years have passed, she’s become much more adept in the sport of spectating. She’ll casually throw out terms like transition area, packet pick-up, race wheels, body marking, run split. And with her limited background in sports, her understanding of the ebb and flow of the event continues to impress me. You see, growing up in Brooklyn, you do not involve yourself in sports. Instead, you visit with family, you sit on your stoop, you walk up to the avenue to shop, and if you live in a good neighborhood you might ride your bike up and down the block. And if you’re Italian growing up in Brooklyn, you pray, you watch your mother sweep the sidewalk as a sneaky cover for spying on the neighbors, and you eat.
With sports clearly not a part of my mother’s milieu, she offers a completely fresh, unadulterated look at triathlon and other sports events from the eyes of an outsider looking in at the idiosyncracies of athletes. This past Sunday, the Pigman triathlon became her forum for a weekend full of insightful and priceless gems. In fact, if race directors really wanted to rev things up, forget the results, achievements, and other mathematical observations about the athletes. Give my mom the microphone and let her roll off her candid observations as the race goes by.
It started early, as we crossed the border driving Route 20 into Iowa. “Are there hills in Iowa?” she asked as the car pointed upwards on one of the long, rolling hills typical of northeastern Iowa. Though she is a science teacher, I pointed out the fact that the car seemed to be traveling up a hill at the moment indicating that indeed it was a hill and indeed there were hills in Iowa. “Oh, I always thought Iowa was flat. Maybe it’s that next state over, what is it, Kansas? Nebraska?” After a quick lesson Midwestern geography, my mother admitted that being from New York, there really didn’t exist much of a world outside of the New York state line. So this was all very new to her.
We drove along towards Cedar Rapids and in her brutally, and at times, too much so, honest way, she inquired, “Did you fart?” Laughing, I replied with a “No, but I was going to ask you the same thing.” She quickly gave me a vehement “NO” and said, “Is it just me or does this whole state smell like farts?” She asked if perhaps it was the corn, or the soybeans, or if there were animals out there, maybe pigs or cows or something else really smelly.
Later that day, I introduce her to the person I often refer to as my separated sister, the sister my mother did not realize she gave birth to, Leslie Curley. We met briefly at the race site before Leslie headed out to do a brick. “Oh she’s just adorable. What a sweet young lady,” my mom said, “Where is she from again? Topica? Topika? Is that what people from Kansas are like?” Little did Leslie know that she was representing the entire state of Kansas in that brief interlude with my mother.
The next day, around 6 am, we headed into Pleasant Creek State Park. Her savvy commentary started almost immediately. “I can’t tell if half these people are men or women,” she said as we watched a parade of athletes walking their bikes and gear to the transition area. She made note of how the women with their short hair and square shoulders and the men with their long legs and slim hips took on almost a genderless appearance.
We parked and I made my first of many trips to the port-o-let while she waited by the car. When I returned, she was standing by the trunk with a sharp look in her eye. The only thing that was missing was a broom in her hand. “I watched some guy ride up and down the parking lots rows. He looked like he was practicing taking a drink from his handlebars,” she said. I explained the aero drink system that many athletes used in between their handlebars. She listened and understood, but still could not refuse to point out the obvious, “You would think he should have practiced that before today.” And there it was, the best advice any athlete could ever receive from the most non-athlete around, never try anything new on race day.
I began to set-up my bike, putting the wheels on, and she was eager to help. She unzipped the wheel bags and held my bike steady. As usual, I was unable to get air into my front wheel. She had seen this before at Half Max, along with my subsequent breakdown as I worried that I would be forced to ride a flat wheel for 56 miles. I started getting frustrated with the pump, the valve extender, the wheels, the race. And frustration turned into anxiousness turned into hot tears fighting to hide in my eyes. “Liz, I have yet to watch a race where you haven’t cried,” she remarked. Yes, mom, I know, true to myself I will cry at least once today. “Why don’t you bring it to a man who can do it for you.” Excellent, but surprising advice from a woman that once told me men were good for nothing except children, with an addendum to the rule for today – also good for putting air into tires.
After setting up my transition area, I walked back to the car to find my mom still standing by the trunk. A show was unraveling right before her and she was taking every entertaining minute of it, almost with a 'can’t help but look' curiosity about all of the athletes.
She was playing a game of ‘guess their age’ with herself. “Look at this, Liz,” she said with an unusual excitement, nodding towards an athlete approaching us. “They walk towards you and you think they look 35 and then they walk by and you see 47 written on their leg.” A few rounds of the game and she was hooked. Triathlon is the ultimate time machine and often an athlete’s appearance doesn't match their age. "Sure beats wrinkle cream," she said.
We waited for the race start, lingering in the parking lot like New Yorkers sitting on a stoop, watching athletes make last minute preparations and adjustments. “All the men are eating,” she said pointing to a few men walking by. “Look around, that guy’s eating a bagel,” she said gesturing to a man by a pick-up truck. “He’ll pay for that in the middle of the swim,” she added. “And that guy, he’s the second one I’ve seen with a can of coke. Who drinks a coke before a race?” she asked. She went on about how silly it seemed to start eating 30 minutes before a race that was going to last 5 or 6 hours. “You’d think they would have gotten up a little earlier to get their food down.” She then went on to question still how anyone could drink coke before a race, all that carbonation, all those bubbles. ”Who could swim on a stomach like that?” she asked.
There was still time to pass before the race and though I suggested we go set up her chair under a tree, she seemed quite content in the parking lot composing an editorial column out loud. “If I was a single woman, I’d come to one of these events just to meet a man. Forget doing the race.” She commented on how some of the men were young, fit, and good-looking. “How many men do you think are here today?” she questioned. Of the 650 participants, I thought there might be about 400 men since they typically outnumber the women. “Seems like pretty good odds if you ask me,” she added.
After the race, she found me right away and congratulated me on a solid effort. I had no idea how she occupied herself for nearly 5 hours in the middle of an Iowa state park, but she didn't miss a minute of the race. “You finished about 10 minutes behind that pro” she said, “But you better watch out because Leslie had a much better bike than you.” For someone that didn’t know much about sports, she sure figured out this game very well. So then we waited. We figured out the differential, knowing that at least 12 minutes had to go by before we heard Leslie’s name, before I could be the top amateur. “Did they call her name yet?” She must have asked me about a dozen times in the next 12 minutes.
While we were waiting, she started to pick apart my race in the most professional of ways. “You had a great swim, but a not so great bike, what happened?” I didn’t know what to say other than that it was Iowa and Iowa was like that with it’s deceptive wind and hills and difficulty. “But your run was right where you thought it would be,” she added with a smile.
We talked about Ironman, and we talked about racing. We talked about the other people that were still coming across the line. “I hope they aren’t hurting themselves out there,” she worried. We watched people in all shapes and sizes finish the last ¼ mile of the race. “Look,” she said, “they’re still smiling.” And she seemed to get it, why we do this, how we can still smile through the challenge and pain.
Soon after, Leslie and Jeff joined us in the grass. We enjoyed visiting with them and then went to get my award. My mom happily took a picture of me and Michael Boehmer, my brother’s long lost twin, with a mega check for $250. And then we headed home. But not without the signature stop at Starbucks. “Get me a Green Tea Frappucino,” she said, “I may not have raced but all of that walking has to be worth something.” We walked around the grocery store and she convinced me that I also needed some salt and vinegar chips because obviously I needed the salt and secretly she liked them.
And so we drove home, sharing a post-race Starbuck’s, and a salt meltdown after a very sassy but successful day.