Discovering California as an Ironman
“Why the fuck am I doing this?”
That was the question that went through my head about a bagillion times in the year after I signed up for the 2013 Tahoe Ironman. The most challenging triathlon, not only in length but in scope. I stood at the starting line at 6 a.m. on September 22 in a wetsuit, ice cracking beneath my feet, desperately trying to come up with an explanation as to why I would subject myself to 16 hours of torture: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run. Even writing about it makes my body hurt.
I’m not all that much of a Type A overachiever. “No, you’re really quite Beta,” my training partner Tia would say (and frankly, I know some men who would tell you I’m downright submissive). As I looked around at whom I was racing with — a bunch of crazy, middle-aged executives with something to prove — I realized I had. a janky old bike, hand-me-down gear, and used wetsuit. The tri-geeks clutched their pearls and screamed, “Dear God, his bike frame is ALUMINUM!”
The truth is, this whole thing started with a good ol’ dose of stereotypically gay, body dysmorphia. I mean, I’ve always kept fit, but I wanted to be in “the best shape of my life.” And with that proclamation, Tia (a TV executive, big shocker) grabbed me by the hand and laid out a schedule for what would be the most exhausting year in existence.
• Swim Tuesdays, Fridays, Sundays: Practice with West Hollywood Aquatics
• Bike Thursdays, Saturdays: Distance ride (LA Tri Club or Independent Group)
• Run Mondays, Wednesdays
• Brick (two or more exercises) Sunday (Swim, Run) Thursday (Bike, Run)
• Rest Resting the body is important for training I figured I’d always miss/skip a session at least once a week.
• Training races Malibu Triathlon, L.A. Marathon, Breathless Agony Bike Race (yes, it’s actually called that), Vineman Half Ironman. Ouch.
If was going to take this seriously, and actually put my mind to overachieving I was going to have to sacrifice something. So I gave up drinking. Cold Turkey. If only one beer affects how I wake up the next morning, and I have to wake up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning to bike a 100 miles, there’s just no room for alcohol. Thus, for the next year, I was that loser who, when my friends would call saying, “Let’s go get drinks,” I would say, “Sorry, I got to be up in the morning so… I’m just gonna watch Good Wife and go to bed early.”
And as my distances began to get longer and longer, my absences started to get more frequent. My friends would ask, “What are you doing Sunday?”
“Ooooh, I have swim practice, then I run on Sundays.”
“Bike day, can’t.”
Eventually people gave up and pronounced me dead to them. “Yeah, most of my friends know that when I’m training they won’t see me for like a year,” Tia informed me. “It’s just us now, dude.” Great.
And the occasional times that you did see me in public? I was like a fat kid eating cake. At numerous Hollywood parties where no one ate anything (naturally) the gays would stare as I hovered over the catering table, shoving my face like Cookie Monster, and talking with my mouth full at the same time.
“Why am I doing this?”
As far as I could tell, Ironman competitions are predominantly hetero. After almost a year of sticking to my training schedule, Tia and I showed up to The Vineman Half Ironman (70.3 miles) in Guerneville, Calif. only to find registration crawling with, what I like to call “Tri-daddies.” They are my favorite: salt and pepper, fitness nerds in spandex. It’s painfully hot.
“How about that one over there?” Tia nodded off in the direction of a tall, mid-40s hottie who was shopping for some new goggles. We cruised him for a bit, until our eyes caught his girlfriend glaring back at us.
“Oh God, she looks like Angelyne!” Tia exclaimed. With a disproportionately large boob job, and a Michael Jackson nose to match, Angelyne clutched her Chihuahua so close, it got covered in her white-blonde hair extensions. Her boyfriend was unaware of the stare-down taking place. We broke eye contact and ran off, scared. But alas we could not shake them. For every attractive man I found there was a trophy wife attached. DANG IT!
By this point, I was engaged in what I also like to call “Competition Tourism.” Due to the nature of the amount of mileage I had to clock, and how many races I signed up for in order to “train,” I feel like I managed to see a good portion of California.
• I memorized the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu and PCH
• I jogged from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean in the L.A. Marathon
• Biking the 1 highway from L.A. to San Diego, I got to cross through Camp Pendleton
• I know Griffith Park like the back of my hand
• For Breathless Agony, I saw Redlands to the top of Onyx Summit
• We biked around Big Bear Lake for altitude training
• During AIDS LifeCycle, I biked from San Francisco to Los Angeles
• Ojai and Ventura are lovely in summer
With only two months to go before the big race, and burning an average of 2,000 calories a day, I was officially skinny. However, skinny and pain are apparently a package deal. I was constantly sore, aching and often injured. I made the mistake of not breaking in a pair of new running shoes, resulting in a fracture of my left Tibia, which sidelined me from running for a month.
And frankly, I was kind of getting over it. Spending over a year either in the pool on a bike or running a trail, gets a little old. The corny club remixes on my ipod shuffle were tired. More importantly I was sick of explaining to people what I was doing. “It’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike followed by a marathon,” I would tell people over and over again. “It will take me the same amount of time it takes a jumbo jet to fly from LAX to Dubai.” To which the response would always be “Oh…and why are you doing this?”
I was starting to get cranky. Especially when it came to competing with hot, straight guys. Finally, down at the Russian River, I looked up from peeling on my wetsuit. There, was Angelyne and her Hot Tri-Daddy. But the tables had turned: Angelyne was zipping up her wetsuit and her BF was clutching the Chihuahua. She was the competitor, while he was the trophy wife.
I nodded to her as if to say “I misjudged you Angelyne.”
She nodded back as if to say “Game on bitch.”
“Why the fuck am I doing this?”
The question was definitely nagging me on the beach in Lake Tahoe, four minutes before the gun went off. I was shivering in my wetsuit, my feet going numb. I jumped up and down for warmth.
The night before Ironman, Tahoe it rained and the temperature dropped to 28 degrees. In some parts of the region it snowed. When we showed for the race that morning we had to scrape ice off our bikes, which sat in the transition area over night. I heard more people say “fuck this” there than ever before.
When the gun finally went off, I admit, I had never been more excited to get the race going. Not because I wanted to spend the next 16 hours killing myself, but because the water was warmer than the air and I needed to not die from hypothermia.
The moment I hit the water, I started what was rumored to be one of the most difficult Ironman competitions in Ironman History. Twenty-five percent of competitors dropped out after the first leg of the bike portion. I was finally able to feel my toes at around mile 80. The course map said 6,500 feet of climbing, but our GPS’s read closer to 7,500.
And it was not a happy bunch. I expected the usual nervous chatter. The transition tents were jam packed, people huddled together for warmth. I was sitting on a chair, putting on my bike gear and a man’s naked ass bumped me right in the face.
“So sorry,” he said with a British accent.
“Oh but the pleasure was all mine,” I joked. He totally didn’t find it funny and went to change somewhere else. “Yeesh.” I thought, “tough crowd.”
But it only got worse. On the second loop of the bike portion a competitor decided to piss himself. His urine hit his back cassette, causing it to spray right up in to my face. So naturally I sped up next to him and yelled “You’re lucky! I happen to be in to golden showers!” He gave me a look of absolute disgust and sped off. “C’mon dude!” I yelled after him, “If you’re gonna pee on me, I’m gonna make a joke about it.” I spent the last portion of the race to myself, trying not to piss fellow racers off.
And honestly I thought I had it in the bag. I was hitting all my marks. My swim was a breezy 1:18 (I aimed for 1:20) my bike 7:45 (I aimed for a perfect eight hours); by the time I transitioned into the run I was totally ahead of schedule… until about mile 13. That’s when my well-trained body said “fuck you dude,” and decided to turn off.
I had never felt that depleted. I had never experienced that much “nothing left” in me. My healthy stride slowed to an almost walk. What was supposed to be a 4:50 run started to drag to five hours…then six. It got dark, and then it got cold. Luckily I packed leg warmers and a skull cap in my “special needs” bag. But no matter how many times I stopped for calories, Gatorade, salt; anything to replenish my system…nothing helped. I was puttering out like a leaky engine.
I was never in it to win it, but this was ridiculous. Parts of the trail weren’t lit. I was running in utter blackness. My headlamp a bobbling shard of light in a void of dark. With no reference points, I had no idea how far I’d come or how much farther I had to go. As I started to pass refill stations, the volunteers were packing up, starting to go home; not a good sign. That’s when I heard a young woman’s voice yell, “Three miles to go!” Sure enough I could see the finish in the distance.
It literally took all I had. A real life mind-over-matter situation in which I had to say out load to myself, “One foot over the other….one foot over the other,” until I looked up and realized I was sprinting through the finish. When I stopped, apparently I looked like I was going to collapse as I was rushed by three volunteers, who put their arms around me and propped me up. “Why did I do this, again?” I asked them, in a daze. To which they responded, “Because now you can say you did it.”
Weeks later I got my “Finisher Photos” back. What I had hoped would depict me, in the best shape of my life, muscled out, a total stud crossing the finish line…instead showed me a tired, broken soul, with the look of abject misery on my face. Oh well… I guess I’ll have to do another one now.
CLARK HARDING is a Los Angeles-based writer, traveler, and masochist (kidding about that last part). Read more of Clark's adventures here.