Last summer, around early June, in fact, I was at Rich and Liora’s wedding, contemplating a second beer and wondering what we were going to have for dinner when I started talking with my friend, Scott, about exercising and working out and all the various and sundry physical things there are to do in Southern California. I’d been lifting weights and riding my bike to work for the past two years, and had finally burned off all the pounds I’d put on in Big Bear. I was feeling svelte, and I was also getting bored.
“You know,” said Scott, “you ought to give triathlons a shot. There are shorter distance races than the Ironman, and I think you’d really enjoy it.”
And thus began the plan to become a triathlete. Scott and I would do a sprint tri together, and, maybe, if I felt up to it, I’d do a few others over the next year. I went and bought running shoes and started saving for a road bike. This would be cool, and I wouldn’t go off the deep end and do something foolish and rash like I always do.
I remembered that fateful conversation with Scott as I stood in line to jump off a perfectly good boat in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The city bobbled off in the distance, a mile and a half away; behind me was Alcatraz Island, up close and personal. I was in the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, and the swim to shore was just the start. After that, it would be an 18 mile ride and an 8 mile run around the northwest end of the city. San Francisco is *hilly*. The Bay is about 57 degrees.
This would be, without a doubt, the dumbest thing I had ever done. This would be a long, punishing day. I was going to be exhausted and in serious pain. I had been out of my mind for signing up for this.
I couldn’t wait to start. I whooped when I leaped out the door and into the water.
I’ve told you before what a triathlon feels like, the thrill of the wave start, the kick and thrash of the swim, the mad rush of transition, the exhaustion, the fight to keep eating and stay sharp, and the high of coming across the finish line, knowing you’re *done*, and that you’ve finished something that few people would think of trying. Even this race, with its unique swim start (from the boat) and unusual distances (Olympic tri distances: .9 mile swim, 25 mile ride, 6 mile run), was like any other: you swim, you get on your bike and ride, you get off and run. It’s still about endurance, about reeling yourself in and making sure you save your energy and spend it a little at a time.
I’ve told you how. I haven’t ever told you *why*, and I’m still not sure if I can.
First off, yes, it hurts. I was out there for four and a half hours yesterday, and there are parts of me that will hurt for the next week. My feet hurt. My neck hurts. My back makes all sorts of frightening popping sounds every time I get up, which I have to do every five or six minutes, because, if I don’t, I won’t ever get up. My legs will rebel and say, “I’m sorry, we moved all yesterday morning. We’re taking a break. We’ll get back to you on, say, Thursday.” I just got up now to get water (which I’ve been drinking constantly since I finished, just to flush out all lactic acid and other fun things that have built up inside my body), and half of my ass just feels kinda funny. I’m probably going to soak in a bathtub full of aloe vera and Ben Gay tonight to take care of sunburn and muscle soreness.
But the pain is evidence that I’ve pushed myself, and that’s a big part of why I do this. It’s one thing to exercise for health; it’s quite another to exercise with a race in mind. It makes all the biking and running seem more meaningful; I am doing this so I can do this mad thing, and being healthy is a side benefit (and I know all this talk about pain doesn’t make me sound very healthy, but my heart has never been in better shape. I got a pat on the head for low blood pressure when I went to the doctor last week, and I’m taking bets for my cholesterol levels right now). I look back over the past few years and think of how I haven’t pushed myself to do much of anything, physical or mental, and now that I’ve pushed my body, I’m pushing my mind. I’m writing more. I’m learning more. I know that I need to strive in all aspects of my life; the body stuff is just the starter.
And I joke about doing this for the food, but I inhaled a burrito, a taco, a Double-Double, a cheeseburger, fries and a package of Fig Newtons yesterday after the race, and it’s probably all burnt away already. According to my heart monitor (which I wore just to remind me to take it easy since my next big race is really the Los Angeles Tri in September), I went through about 5700 kCal yesterday. That’s a lot of fish tacos. Any activity that allows me to cook and eat all the tasty food I want is nothing but good as far as I’m concerned.
There’s also the fact that the pros are on the same course as the rest of us pikers. Yes, they start and finish before us, but they’re out there slugging through the same nasty conditions as me. The waves in the Bay were big and rolling yesterday, the water was cold, and the current was about 4 knots. That’s going to be tough for anyone, even if you can swim like a fish. I didn’t feel that bad about feeling beat up after hearing the pros tell their horror stories. They were just as tired as me; they only happened to get tired before me.
But still, why go and do a triathlon or a marathon or a century or climb a rock or play tennis or surf or dance or play ball or hockey or do anything of this type? Simple: it feels good. It’s fun. It’s a charge. There is nothing in the world like running down the chute at the end of a race and hearing people cheer you, nothing like crossing the finish line and looking back across the Bay and realizing, “Sweet Baby Jebus…I just *swam* from there” and then looking at the Golden Gate Bridge and realizing that I ran under that damn thing and saw views of the Marin Headlands that people don’t see very often. I do it because I can.
And now I’m going to have my second lunch of the day, take a nap, and stretch some more. Tomorrow, I’ll go for a swim and start all over again.