Excerpt from Chapter 7
[...] Race morning finally arrives. The hurricane-like winds that I experienced on arrival are a distant memory. The weather is great, temperature in the mid-50s, low humidity, just a little breeze. It seems like I landed in Brazil years ago but it has only been three days.
It’s a solemn group in the men’s changing tent. Everyone has finished their pre-race preparation. Most have slipped into their wetsuit and are waiting for the start. Nobody is laughing or smiling, many look worse than me.
There is no doubt a very difficult day is in store. There will be pain and suffering in varying amounts for absolutely everyone. No one gets a pass in an IRONMAN® Triathlon.
I spend much of this time praying to the Lord to help me survive and finish. My faith is plain and unsophisticated, I’m not above bargaining. If He wants me to drop those long Sunday morning runs and start spending more time in church I’ll do it. If the money for my new running shoes needs to go in the collection plate, so be it. I’m very open to divine intervention.
It’s going to be a long day and I need all the help I can get. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
The swim course is made up of two laps separated by a short run on the beach. Each lap is supposed to be rectangular in shape but it’s really hard to tell. The buoys are small and not in a straight line, making them difficult to follow. I decide to stay in a crowd; I feel as long as there are a lot of swimmers around me, I should be okay.
More than 1,000 athletes are off at the sound of the gun. I wait near the back of the pack and soon find a comfortable spot. The swimming is easy, this is the first event and I’ve had lots of rest in the last few weeks, so I have no reason to be tired. Soon, the butterflies are gone; this is the best I’ve felt since I arrived in Brazil.
The location of the buoys still has me a little confused so I choose the longest route to make sure that I don’t cut the course. I’m not taking any chances. I’ve been behind the curve since the day I arrived. I’m afraid of making a mistake.
The first lap is done in around 52 minutes. I had hoped to be a little faster but I’m glad I still feel fresh. I’m about to start the second lap when the two race leaders emerge. They have completed two laps in the time it took me to finish one. These Big Guys strip off their wetsuits in no time at all and vanish up the beach. I wobble on unsteady legs before heading back into the water.
My second lap, not surprisingly, is worse than the first. A strong cross current develops and keeps pushing me laterally. If I want to reach a buoy straight ahead at the 12 o’clock position, I have to swim in the 2 o’clock direction. It becomes a chore to keep swimming in a straight line. I find I’m trying harder but going slower.
I’m delighted to see solid ground when I finally finish at 1 hour, 56 minutes. This has been a pretty hard swim and quite a few people missed the 2 hour 20 minute cutoff time and had to drop out of the race.
Soon I’m out on the bike, aiming to stay out of trouble. I’ve still got flat tires floating in my brain. It’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago I wasn’t even sure that I would have a bike to ride. Now I’m riding smoothly, almost on cruise control.
This leg of the race takes forever, sometimes even longer if you have a flat tire. Each of the two laps has three nice hills going out, a tour of downtown Florianópolis, and then the same three hills coming back. It’s late morning on a pleasant Saturday in May, and many people are out and about shopping. The roads are full of traffic and there is just one lane blocked off for cyclists. Everyone in Florianópolis is tending to their own business; no one seems to notice the triathletes.
The first 56 mile loop goes by quickly. I’ve got fresh legs, they’re working fine at present, but in the back of my mind I know they could reach their expiration date at any moment.
I’m really worried about getting dehydrated. Everything I’ve read and heard says drink, drink, drink, so I really press the fluids, alternating water and Gatorade™. This results in three pit stops on the first lap alone with no toilets available on the route. I stop on the side of the road, act like I’m alone in the Amazon rainforest, and go about my business. The passing motorists all honk; maybe they are paying attention after all.
One or two miles before the end of the first lap, the two leaders pass me on the bike. They’re finishing the final lap. It’s a very impressive sight. They are escorted by eight fully uniformed motorcycle police. The Big Guys, separated by a couple of bike lengths, are flying. Lights are flashing, sirens are sounding, these boys are moving. It’s like the tortoise and the hare, but I’m under no illusion, this tortoise has no chance. The hares will win today.
As I head out on the second lap, I seem to handle the trio of hills surprisingly well. I’m some eighty miles into the bike leg and I’m still feeling decent. I think to myself, maybe I’m in better shape than I thought, maybe sixty really isn’t that old. Each month I read the AARP magazine and learn that seventy is young, just a brief interlude before those exciting eighties. Still, I keep getting solicitations for a strange variety of products— long-term care insurance, hearing aids, trousers with expandable elastic waist bands. I wonder, will I ever need those old-timers goods? The way I’m feeling now, I could ride this bike all the way to the great transition area in the sky.
As I turn around and head back in for the final 30 miles or so, the reason for my burst of energy and optimism becomes obvious. A nice tailwind had popped up on the outward bound leg of the second lap and pushed me along. Now I have to fight the big hills coming back directly into a headwind.
I’m beginning to get tired; it’s a long struggle, the hills are much steeper, there’s no one to draft on. My seat is sore. When a senior citizen like me really needs help, where the hell is the AARP?
I glance down at my odometer, ninety miles in the bank. Hang in there. I ride and ride and ride. I must be near the finish. I look again at the odometer, 91.5 miles. The miles go by so slowly. Will it ever end?
It’s around 4:00 p.m. when I finally arrive back at the transition area, some nine hours or so after I started. On the bike, I pass lots of runners, some heading out, others close to finishing. The winner has been done for about 30 minutes.
I hand my bike to a race official and head into the tent to change into my running gear. My back hurts, my legs feel like rubber. I’m all hunched over. I wish Daniela was here to help me, but I know she is probably back at the hotel preparing for Martin’s post-race massage.
I struggle onto the run course and continue to encounter runners headed toward the finish. This is very discouraging. Why can’t I be fast like them, why can’t I be a Big Guy? Fortunately, I do see some other cyclists returning; at least I’m ahead of a few people.
Eventually my back loosens and I’m able to stand up straight. I’ve lost the hunchback shuffle, I no longer look like Quasimodo’s long lost brother. The sun is setting and the air is crisp and cool as the shadows fall. It’s very beautiful in Brazil. I run a few miles to the first aid station and stop for food and drink. I start up again, go for a short distance, and then stop.
My gas tank is empty; I don’t have the energy to go very far at a time. I’m reduced to running a hundred yards or so and then walking for about twenty yards. There are still twenty-four miles to go and I feel awful. Run and walk, run and walk, there’s no relief. My agony will last hours and hours; the hardest part of the triathlon has just begun.
So I putt along, trying to take food and drink, but my appetite just isn’t there. Bits of bananas and swallows of water and Gatorade are the best I can do. As the night lengthens, things get progressively worse.
At one aid station I grab a cup from the table. It turns out unexpectedly to be a warm, thick chowder and I reflexively spit it out. The aid station workers laugh and laugh, this is probably the most interesting thing that has happened to them all day. This crazy old American doesn’t know how to swallow his food, what’s he doing in an IRONMAN® Triathlon? Take him back to the nursing home.
The miles click by at a glacial pace. Every step hurts. The course is marked in kilometers, and I have trouble converting the distance to miles. It’s a very simple mental calculation but my mind is foggy and works no better than my body. I’m in survival modes and I really don’t know what finish time to expect, maybe 15 or 16 hours, I just want things to quit hurting.
Eventually I turn onto the main street, with just one kilometer to go. I make a determined effort to run the full distance. As I head into the finishing chute, there are a few dozen people milling around, a handful yell words of encouragement and a few clap.
That’s it. I’m done. I’m an IRONMAN finisher—14 hours, 20 minutes, 15 seconds. [...]
Excerpted from Against the Odds by John L. Pendergrass; Foreword by Brett Favre. Copyright © 2013 by John L. Pendergrass; Foreword by Brett Favre. Excerpted by permission of Hatherleigh Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.