Mist rises over the lake as the pre-dawn full moon catches wisps of fog. Birds begin their morning chatter as the eastern sky begins to glow orange, lighting the low peaks of the Pocono-mountain landscape. Dew covers the ground, bending blades of grass with the weight of droplets. And nearby, 1,000 people are lined up to crap¹ in port-o-potties while others rub anti-chafe cream² between their ass cheeks and I begin to encase myself in the membrane of my wetsuit.
Ironman races are a pretty silly hobby. Why 2.4 miles for the swim? Why not just 2.5miles? And a 112-mile bike race? Why not 100 or 115? Then a full marathon at the end? It takes well-trained people (meaning super-fit non-professional athletes) 10 or 12 hours to complete the course. A half-Ironman race splits those distances; it’s called an Ironman 70.3 (for the number of miles you cover during all three legs). That’s the race I completed last Sunday. So I’m not a real Ironman, I’m a demi-Ironman. I’m Ironmanish.
But why do it at all? I guess it’s the old “because it’s there” argument. I was hyped up for this race. I couldn’t wait to get in the 64-degree lake water (on a 48-degree morning). I was clapping and rallying my fellow athletes, who probably thought I was nuts. I was stoked to hop on my bike, and was especially excited for the 13.1-mile run, which I anticipated would be my strongest leg (it was). And after I crossed the finished line more than six hours later (6:24:02), I was still excited — but for different reasons.
Turns out, a half-Ironman is about the best opportunity you’ll have to cycle 56 miles on car-free country roads. I’ve ridden that far several times, but until I hit the serene backroads of the Poconos mountains, I hadn’t realized how stressful it is to share the road with cars in New York City. Not once did I worry that the jackass in the SUV in front of me would make a sudden stop, that the Chinatown bus would cut me off with an un-signaled right turn, that the jerk double-parked in the bike lane would decide to open his door in front of me.
I pedaled a thrilling 4-mile descent that could have been a ride at Six Flags — I had to be doing 40 mph. I spent the next 22 miles on mainly flat roads, watching the sumac and locust trees starting to turn colors, whizzing by purple aster, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace along the roadside. The gurgling Delaware river paced me for a good 12 miles. I passed horses at pasture, run-down red barns, fields of spent corn stalks, ponds full of geese and swans, and pretty country farmhouses. The aroma of honeysuckle and burning wood mingled with the scent of the crisp fall air. And all along the road, wooly bear caterpillars,³ inched and wiggled, seemingly trying to cross the road (bad idea during a bike race, guys).
At around mile 26, the flat road became a twisty, hilly country lane — some of the hills had us out of the saddle and in our easiest gears. As we passed through the outskirts of Stroudsburg, people had pulled out their lawn chairs and set up camp to watch the race. Some barbequed; some brought props and were banging on skillets, washboards, cowbells. Kids jumped up and down, waving furiously.
The run portion was no less scenic, with lots of hills. We passed several run-down Poconos resorts; their heydays clearly peaked sometime in the 1960s. At about mile 7, a slim fellow named Josef pulled up beside me: “You’re running a great pace — mind of I tag along?” We chatted a bit; he told me that he used to weigh 240 pounds, than running and cycling literally saved his life. I left Josef behind when we hit an uphill section. He said he hoped to catch me on the downhill. And sure enough, just as I crossed the finish line, Josef again pulled up alongside and we crossed together.
Sure I love the competition, the racing, the aches and pains. But what’s better are the moments out of time — the joy of cruising along on a bike, free to peek at the beautiful scenery around you, of meeting other crazy people like you, of feeling your legs beneath you, your feet on the pedals or pavement, your breath regulating as you settle into your swim stroke. And then it’s over. You cross the finish line and life picks up where it left off.
‘Til next time.
1. There were not nearly enough portable toilets at this triathlon — only about 16 of them for 1,350 people, all of whom really need to get some things out of their system before sitting hunched over on a bike for three hours. Gastrointestinal distress is a killer — even professional athletes have dropped out of races for that reason.
2. Three hours in one position on a bicycle, plus another 100 minutes of running does some interesting effects on your body. Things that don’t bother you at all for everyday runs become bigger problems. My right running shoe is just the tiniest bit to narrow; doesn’t bother me at all on normal days. But I ended up with a blood blister the size of a quarter after the race. And my left pinkie toenail is going to fall off — it’s not a question of if, but when. On the cycle leg, I spent so much time in the drops (the lower curved handlebars) that the back of my helmet cut through my skin at the nape of my neck. I only noticed it later in the shower when I felt the matted blood in my hair. But chafing between the butt cheeks is probably the most common complaint. It stings like hell.
3. These are really amazing little caterpillars; I always see them in the late summer and fall. They are so fuzzy, with their rust and black fur. These little guys hibernate over winter by literally freezing solid — their tiny hearts actually stop. Then in spring, they wake up, spin a cocoon and emerge as a tiger moth.