Thursday, October 05, 2006

This Strange Drug Called Ironman

Time for a rerun! Here's one from last October......

It’s like a drug, this Ironman thing. You don’t realize it until you start coming down from your peak, with the new found freetime leaving your body idle but your mind busy with thoughts of what you have been doing for the past few months and questions of what’s to come in the next few weeks. It’s the ultimate high, a greedy attention getter, a one way to ticket to instant superfit stardom.

Last week, I was finishing up a 4500 yard workout walking away from the pool when Georgia grabbed me. This past winter, I passed a lot of Saturday morning master’s swims in a lane with Georgia. On this day, she was teaching an aqua fitness class for women in the therapy pool all busy jumping and moving water back and forth with large foam noodles in their arms. She snagged me as I walked by and said, “You see this woman?” In my Ugli suit that looks like a bad version of a tablecloth straight from the 70’s, I’m sure they couldn’t help but see me. “She’s smaller than me and she’s doing the Hawaii Ironman.” Georgia proceeded to tell them the distances making up an Ironman and in a polite and pride-filled gesture, they began clapping and waving their noodles with one woman in the back generously shouting “You go girl!”

Ironman is like that. It turns you into an instant celebrity that leaves even the most unaware or unathletic amazed by your attempt at something so large. No matter who you are talking to, where they are from, what they have done with their own freetime in life, everyone seems to know that Ironman is something big and something worthy of praise. Now, I’ve been competing in triathlons for years and up until now it’s just been something I do with my time, perhaps even a waste of time and money to some. But this Ironman thing, this is different. This has even captured the attention of my mother-in-law, a woman who has expressed time and time again that time spent working out is probably time spent better at work. Even she seems excited that I’ll be in Hawaii competing among the best in the world.

Not surprisingly, Ironman finds it’s way into conversation at least several times a day. After awhile, you try to avoid it but it is the other people that pull it into conversation. Case and point - the other day when I called a co-worker. We were talking about a work-related project when the conversation turned to Ironman. “So I hear you’re doing the Ironman,” she commented. I responded with a “yes” but in my mind I wondered how she became privy to this information. After all, she worked in a building on the other side, at least ½ mile away, and I see her about once a month. Ironman is like that. Word gets out, gets around, and it travels quickly, quietly to the far reaches of even the most unknown people or places.

But I’ve got to admit, who doesn’t like attention? Like I said, you can compete in triathlons all summer long and people brush it off or question you for spending your time sweating under the sun. But sign up for an Ironman? Well, that’s the smartest thing you’ve done in years. All of a sudden, people are curious, impressed, interested in you. They want to know how your training is going, how long until the event, how you are feeling. The same people who didn’t care are now your biggest fans. You are like the Paris Hilton of the local triathlon world – you’re doing nothing other than being your dumb old self and it’s getting you attention that even Hilton-esque money couldn’t buy. Your $450 race fee has purchased you instant fame. Sometimes I feel like you wouldn’t even need to do the event, just signing up and putting the money down is effort enough.

It’s a crazy drug like that. I can see how people get addicted to doing this year after year, race after race. You start to feel important. Couple that with the superhuman feeling that has settled in your lungs and legs and it’s a dangerous combination. You go out for a 1 hour and 45 minute run and think, this is it? You sit on your bike for 1 hour and think why bother. You hop in the pool and want to swim 4000 yards. You feel like a superhero and you don’t even own a cape. You look in the mirror and you see your body is changed. You’re bigger but smaller. Your legs are huge, your shoulders are broad. You know that after this you’ll come back stronger, braver than before and the possibilities which have always been infinite have just expanded exponentially. If that’s even possible.

But like all drugs, there are drawbacks and downturns. A friend that recently finished Ironman Wisconsin admitted that life after Ironman simply sucks. She likened it to post-partum depression. You’ve built yourself up for something so big, so monumental and then in less than a day it’s disappeared and you find yourself laying on the couch with fitness, power, endurance slipping away. It makes me wonder if there’s a biological component to Ironman training. Is it like withdrawal from the most severe, extreme of addictions? After all, who spends 7 hours smoking crack non-stop? 7 hours on the bike has got to be far worse. After months of mindless hours in the saddle and following the black line, does our brain actually need this, hunger for, wait for the next sick fix? Does it crave the hours, the distance, the bars, the gels, the sports drinks?

This past weekend out in San Diego, I think I had an episode of Ironman-induced withdrawal. I had finished a run earlier in the morning and was scheduled for a swim. By 4 pm, I was antsy, annoyed, cage-pacing with the swim still hanging over my head. I spent the next ½ hour on the internet searching pools, fees, and aquatic schedules of all of the YMCA’s in San Diego County before finding the one pool that was open past 5 pm. I told Chris I had to go, it was something my body needed to do or else it might quite possibly be overtaken by the delirium tremors, dry mouth, or a pounding headache. He knew better than to say no and instead joined me. After an hour of swimming I felt a huge relief. I had gotten my fix. I had gotten it out of my system and felt normal again. I was ready to start the day. At 6 pm.

This is Ironman training, at it’s best, at it’s worst. You feel like you need to do more because you are used to doing more and can do more. You have an excuse – hey, I’m training for Ironman. I finally have a legitimate reason to spend all this time doing what I like to do. But you feel the flipside, too. You see your days slip away wearing nothing by spandex and a jog bra. You find yourself finally showered and dressed and it’s 4 pm. The day is over before it even begins. The house is neglected, the refrigerator stays empty. You are spending so much time doing what you “love” that you miss out on time for other things that you may “like”. You’re not even sure what you like to do anymore because you never have the time.

And then there’s the thoughts, the questions and scenarios that are spinning and playing out in your head. Now that I’ve garnered all this fitness, it leaves me thinking about the next big thing. How do you top Hawaii? Do you go back and try to better yourself? Better your time? Better you plan? I haven’t even finished the race yet and I’m already thinking about the next time, the next goal, the next big thing. Is there a bigger thing?

You start to think – dear god – maybe I should do another Ironman. I was warned about this. Standing at the awards ceremony at Buffalo Springs, a man started to talk to me. He had done several Ironmans, including Hawaii. He looked at me at one point and said “There’s something about it, it gets under your skin and it makes you want to go back.” At the time, I thought to myself that no way, once was enough and surely I wouldn’t need to go back. But now I’m not so sure.

Like any drug, it hooks you. You want more, you crave more, biologically you start to need more. So be warned. It will get under your skin, and into your head. It will become who you are and what you do. So if you find me buying a one way ticket to the Betty Ford clinic come November, you’ll know why. You might just find me in a corner, strapped to a chair, waving my arms freestyle to no end. Just be sure to come visit every once in awhile. And bring a bar because if I don’t eat every so often I might just get the shakes.

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