It’s 4am, and the alarm sounds. Am I dreaming? I can’t gather my senses just yet. I turn over and see that no glimmer of light peeks through the curtain. I see my husband sitting at the hotel room table. He’s eating a bowl of… something… I can’t make it out, a piece of toast and a cup of coffee.
“Go back to sleep,” he says. “We don’t have to leave til 4:45.”
I search to gather my wits, taking in all the information that is available to me; clothes neatly set on the bed, a pair of swim goggles on the nightstand, plastic bags, filled, color-coded and labeled with a number. I soon realize that this is no dream. This is not my imagination. This is Ironman morning.
Ironman. I laugh now when I think about the first time I heard this word. I had just started dating Massimo. He had said one day as we chatted on the phone, “well, I’m training for an Ironman.” I pondered for a moment and responded with a very perplexed ok. I was picturing him doing one of those Strongman competitions, you know, where they pull cars and lift boulders and stuff like that. But it didn’t quite fit. I mean, he wasn’t the biggest of guys. He was certainly fit as a fiddle but there was definitely no Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron going on.
It wasn’t til a while later that I finally asked him to elaborate a bit more on this so-called Ironman that he was so passionate about. And it was then and there that I first heard the story of Ironman, this ultimate triathlon, a sport comprised of three events: swimming, cycling and running.
For those who have been on another planet for the past few years and have not heard of Ironman, it is a triathlon made up of a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and a 42km run, respectively, consecutively. It is an unfathomable concept for me. Yet, triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports on the planet and those who have competed in the sport can attest, it draws you in, it takes you over and then it’s got you.
To be the companion of an Ironman is a commitment in itself, not only to endure the actual event in its entirety, but to support and sustain the athlete throughout the intense period of training.
Being an IronCompanion means spending half your weekend on your own at times because your partner has to ride his bike for 6 hours on Saturday and then ride his bike AND run for about 5 hours on Sunday. Being an IronCompanion means sometimes eating dinner after 9pm because your partner has swim training after work. Being an IronCompanion means that it is likely your vacation or weekend getaway will coincide with a race, which also means losing precious cargo space in order to fit that bike and all the gear in the vehicle.
The actual day of the Ironman, you get up at about 4am. You quickly throw on clothes, eat something that somewhat resembles breakfast, and run out the hotel room door to be at your Iroman’s side as he makes his way to the race. If a race starts at 7am for example, athletes would have to be present at around 5am. You can find us companions standing at the fence which encircles T-1, the transition zone. We’ll be there peeking through the holes, making a desperate attempt at finding our dear ones as they organize their gear in a sea of 2000 people, all dressed in similar wetsuits; not an easy task, especially while still half asleep.
Once T-1 closes, there is a period of time that the athletes wait before taking the plunge at race start. We patiently wait as they stand in line to use the extremely stinky porta pottys, usually lined up for what seems like miles. We help them rub anti-chafing stick under their armpits and around their neck to protect them from the wetsuits. We help them apply sunscreen and help them zip up their suit. And of course, we help them calm their nerves. They are about to embark upon the most challenging physical feat they have and will ever be faced with. And they are scared.
The gun goes off. The race begins. The crowd roars. The music blares. The heart pounds. And I cry, everytime.
The next 10 hours (if you are lucky!) will be spent chasing and waiting, running and hoping to catch a glimpse , even for just a second, of your Ironman as he races by. It gets hot. It gets sticky. It gets wet and rainy, cold and windy. And you still wait, and hope. And you wonder: how are they able to do what they are doing in these conditions? And in that moment, you come to the realization that you have to be there, you need to be there, despite feeling tired, worn and ready to pack it up, they need you to be there for them.
The average age-grouper (non-professional triathlete) will start training for an Ironman about one year in advance. It is a year of escalation; an escalation of hours spent training, of planning preparative races, of tensions and emotions. There are highs and there certainly are lows. There are successes and there are failures. However, what I have learned through my experiences in this environment is having a support system can sometimes mean making or breaking it.
Family, friends, husbands, wives, children, parents, and all those who are often called the “Support Crew” will be the faces you see lined up along the course of the Ironman. They will be at the shores of the swim leg, cheering, blowing their foghorns, wearing t-shirts with their Ironman’s name printed on it. Large signs, chalk drawings and messages written along the bike and run paths, words to urge the tired athlete on, are just a fraction of the gestures of encouragement prepared by loved ones. And when the sun has gone, and the runners run on, and the pitter-patter of their tired and blistered feet begin to slow to a walk and the crowds begin to dwindle, they will still be there, the support crew. Til the end. Til that moment that their Ironman takes those final paces towards the finish line. They will be there.
And that is what it is all about.
The moment your Ironman crosses that finish line, they will look at you with eyes of love and gratitude, relief and disbelief, exhaustion and sheer happiness. Glory. Everything they had done, had worked for, had bled, sweat and cried for over the past year, climaxing at this very moment.
And I cry, every time. It was all worth it, being there for him, supporting him, in the good, the bad and the ugly moments that are sure to play roles in any Ironman journey, just to share this moment with him.