Monday, August 10, 2009

Postcard from the Ironman France Triathlon

I am not a triathlete. I cannot even come close to being a triathlete, because of a physical limitation that forbids me from jumping up and down, or even standing for more than two hours at a time. (I have a rare and freaky spinal disorder that also affects my brain.) So I have always been somewhat jealous of supremely physical people. And also very intrigued. What drives an endurance athlete? I often ask myself. What would compel a person to compete in an Ironman?
I mean, I, too, saw Julie Moss crawl toward the finish line at Hawaii in 1982. And I am aware that her dramatic finish has actually inspired many an athlete to try the sport. But why would someone be inspired at the sight of someone incapacitated by self-imposed fatigue? I began to wonder: Are all triathletes insane?
Now, one could argue that a non-physical person such as myself can never truly understand the mind of the hyper-physical, and that therefore I shouldn’t even try. One could argue that I should just sit on my ass in front of ESPN and keep my mouth shut. But part of me believes that if I could understand what motivates and drives an Ironman triathlete, I could unlock some secret to the meaning of life.
In fact, I wanted so much to understand the triathlete that, back in 2001, I decided to base my second novel on a female triathlete training for an Ironman. I gave this character a sound body and a broken heart. And I gave the book the title Nothing Keeps a Frenchman From His Lunch, (which has nothing to do with triathlons and takes forty minutes to explain.)
Thus I began my obsession with triathletes—a field study of the species, if you will. I began to watch triathlons on television. I interviewed athletes. I subscribed to Triathlete magazine. My intrigue morphed into true obsession, and I now have a 500-page book. But as of last May I still had not participated in an Ironman, and that made me feel like a fraud (at least from a novelist’s standpoint). So I decided that the next best way to experience an Ironman would be to volunteer at one. So, I contacted the Ironman France race coordinators, explained to them (in my passable French) my quest, and was immediately hired as a volunteer. I also approached an editor at Triathlete magazine, who agreed to commission a piece based on my experiences as a volunteer at Ironman France. And thus I found myself, in June of 2006, at Nice.
Herewith is my experience, in three legs:
The first thing I noticed at the swim leg was not the otherworldly color of the Mediterranean, or the majesty of the grand Deco hotels that lined the Promenade des Anglaises; no, the first thing I noticed were the men. I’m just going to come right out and say it: they are gods. They are prime specimens of human perfection. All of the triathletes—the men, the women—looked so supremely healthy and pure and fit. Their impossible toned muscles had the perfect proportions of DaVinci’s Vesuvius, and their skin had the flawless, even tans of Ken. Here, I told myself, were bodies and minds free of clutter. Here were examples of what we could all become if we just put our minds to it.
I imagined that if I seized one of the men, and kissed him full on the lips, he would taste like the purest of spring water, the very Fountain of Youth, with just a touch of Gatorade. Lemon/lime. But I held back.
The swimmers had begun to line the shore at around 5:30 and at six, a DJ very suddenly began to blast rap music from about 16 giant speakers. The music was outrageously, uncomfortably loud. From what I could tell, no one was enjoying it. Most people blocked their ears. This made for an odd sea of spectators. The DJ kept shouting “put your hands up in the air” but no one did, because they didn’t want to leave vulnerable their eardrums.
More and more swimmers arrived, all of them I huddled closely together. The DJ was now playing a rap song that was particularly lewd. It didn’t seem appropriate for this event at all, but who was I to say? Maybe this was standard Ironman fare. Maybe the synchronized sounds of a woman’s moans motivated the swimmers. Maybe the volume helped wake everybody up. Or maybe it simply made everyone horny.
Then it occurred to me that maybe everyone already was horny, given the sight of 1100 sublime bodies pressed against one another in shiny black suits.
Maybe that is why hundreds of French spectators lined the stands.
Thankfully, the gun went off, and the athletes thundered into the water, a crush of multi-colored caps. Above them, a helicopter hovered—too closely, I thought, because the wind kept knocking the floats over, and the floats landed on top of swimmers, sending them off-course. A cameraman sat right in the door of the helicopter, his legs dangling off the side. I wondered what would happen if he fell in. And landed on top of the swimmers.
After about an hour, the first swimmer, Hervé Faure emerged. He was breathless, but showed no signs of fatigue. I thought: those rocks must be killing his feet. But swimming two miles seemed like a quick morning dip to these people. I hoped in my next life I would be a distance swimmer, so that I could too walk over rocks like a Hindu swami walking across coals. I hoped I’d be, like these athletes, impervious to pain.
Meanwhile, inside the transition tent, a volunteer slathered sunscreen onto Herve’s shoulders while more male swimmers sprinted past, stripping off their suits. I made a note to ask her how she had gotten that job.

My T1 was to go meet my motorbike driver, who was going to take me along the bike course. (I’d been warned that it might be a bit chaotic finding the driver outside Herballife Village. The French have a reputation for being charmingly disorganized (because everyone wants to be in charge), and the Nice Triathlon is still considered to be “very French.” I don’t know if they can ever live down the fact that, back in the 1983 race, the French gendarmeries—quite nastily, from what I heard—sent all the cyclists in the wrong direction at the beginning of the bike leg, forcing everyone to ride the course in reverse. Riders who had been training for weeks up certain hills and around specific switchbacks suddenly found themselves on an almost unfamiliar course. Then there was the fact that the aid stations didn’t have enough water that year, which resulted in a dehydrated and disoriented Mark Allen weaving across the finish. But the good news is the new race organizers, Triangle, are working hard to iron out the kinks. This year there was plenty of water and nutrition at the plentiful aid stations, and volunteers at every turn and intersection instructing riders where to go.
So, at Herballife Village, after trying to communicate with a lot of French men in helmets who were shouting and waving their hands in the air, I finally found my driver: a soft-spoken young man named Jean-Marc. This was his first time volunteering at the Nice Triathlon, and he had taken the job because he loved the views. Nice is famous for having one of the most spectacular bike LEGS in the sport, and, conversely, one of the toughest. My driver and I immediately headed north, toward St. Jeannet, and once we passed through St. Laurent du Var the roads led unrelentlessly uphill. I pitied the cyclists having to do these climbs.
Then I pitied myself, for my driver was going like 100 miles per hour, and I kept begging and pleading with him to slow down, but to a French man, driving slowly is on par with having yourself castrated. He accelerated around corners, weaved between cars and wide delivery trucks, and generally took my life into his own hands.
We zipped past the middle pack of cyclists, then the leads. We zipped past medieval perched villages with melodic names: Gattieres, Chateauneuf de Grasse. I wanted to lift my head and admire then, or stare in wonder at that aquamarine sea, but that meant I would notice that nothing but a two-foot stone wall separated me from a 250 meter drop. So most of the time I could only stare at the back of Jean-Marc’s helmet and pray.
I wondered if the triathletes were able to enjoy the views. Or if their concentration was such that an image of a medieval perched village where Keith Richards was rumored to have bought a château would have been too distracting. Would such an image pull their minds into the 11th century? Or would it remind them that they were only in St. Paul de Vence, and therefore still had another 140 kilometers to go? Time seemed to stand still in those distant golden villages. I wondered if time stand still for a person on a Category 2 climb.
By this time my driver and I had passed all the cyclists, even past Hervé, and I signaled for Jean Marc to slow down. He didn’t seen to understand the concept of slowing down. The point in a journalist following a race, I explained to him, was to observe the athletes, not leave them in the dust. Plus, I worried that we were freaking all the cyclists out, buzzing past them like that. I requested that we stopped in one of those tiny villages to take a break.
Then an inexplicable thing happened. We stopped outside a cafe, and I went inside to use the bathroom, and when I reemerged a few minutes later Jean-Marc, my driver, was gone. I looked for him and his motorbike everywhere. It seemed impossible that he would have ditched me—I was a journalist after all, and he had been hired to escort said journalist, but after half an hour of searching and pacing and asking other volunteers at the cafe if they had seen a large Frenchman with a bike and a helmet, I had to conclude that he really had left.
For the next few minutes the paranoid part of my brain started to list all the reasons why Jean-Marc had ditched me: Had I inadvertently insulted him somehow using my garbled French? Perhaps, in an attempt at friendly conversation, when I had asked him how long he had been a member of the journalist-driving-team, he misinterpreted my casual question as a criticism of his lack of experience. Or perhaps, in my garbled French, my question had actually translated into: “How long is your member?” Perhaps I had pissed him off by asking him to slow down. French men HATE being told to slow down, especially by American women. (I am allowed to say this because my mother’s family were French.) Perhaps I had clung to his stomach a bit too desperately and had caused him a mal a l’etomache. At any rate; I’d been abandoned.
Using a pay phone, I called the race organizers and one of my colleagues at the triathlon magazine and told them I’d been ditched by my driver. No one could quite believe it, and I had to repeat the story to several people, each one a senior to the former, but eventually it was concluded that another driver should be sent.
As I waited, I ate a Powerbar, I stood on the sidewalk and watched some of the strong, kick-ass women pass. I was thrilled to witness Katya Edwards cruising through the village, to thundering applause. At the press conference, the French moderator had held up a picture of Katya in a bathing suit, sitting on top of an elephant. He referred to her as “La Petite American.” But anyone could see that this woman’s talent was huge. The look on her face was calm and vacant, like that of a woman humming pleasantly while she arranged flowers. Her legs were like rocks.
Soon my new driver, Luc, arrived. His motorbike looked faster than Jean-Marc’s. I honestly considered turning around, going back to the safe flat ground of the Promenade des Anglaises, because I knew it wasn’t’ healthy for my already over-taxed adrenals glands to be producing any more fear-adrenaline. But then Mariska Kramer sped past, looking determined, and I realized the only way to cultivate courage is simply to be brave.
This time, I insisted that the driver go only 30 MPH. The experience was much more pleasurable. The air smelled of honeysuckle flowers and hot dry grass. Cows grazed at the roadside, and many of the villagers had seated themselves in little lawn chairs, offering polite French applause. In Gréolières, even the village priest had come out to cheer on the cyclists. As we sped past him, I couldn’t tell if he was waving or making the sign of the cross. But I imagined that the smiling presence of these villagers must be comforting to a lone rider, who is toiling along wondering why he ever thought to enter this grueling race.
At our slower speed, I was able to observe the riders: heads down, muscles straining, cycling shorts filmed with salt. I had the honor of seeing Marcel Zamora, Gilles Reboul, Francois Chaboud. I felt guilty passing them on the motorbike. They’d all look up at me, and attempt tired smiles, and I wondered if they wished they were me, sitting on my ass, having a very valid excuse as to why I would never, ever have to do an Ironman. And of course no triathlete would really think this. But maybe for a few seconds here and there, you question your decision to put yourself through such torture? When the aid station is miles away, and up ahead is the Col de Vence?
Anyway, the grass is always greener, because a few minutes later I decided I would much rather be a triathlete, battling this course for the next four hours, than be sitting on this motorbike. As soon as my driver saw the Col, with its terrifying Category 2 climbs and hairpin turns, he gleefully sped up again, cutting off a cyclist, on a corner, to pass a truck. This, I imagined, was why he had been volunteering at Nice for ten years. I entered the Realm of Terror again and clung to the sides of the bike with my thighs. I do yoga, so my thighs have some strength. I just hoped I had enough to hold on for the rest of the race.
By then]it had begun to rain, making the already dangerous turns lethal. “Has anyone ever died on this course?” I asked my driver, and no sooner had a said that than we saw a cyclist wipe out. Immediately Luc pulled over and rushed over to the fallen man. We were not allowed to assist him, of course, but the driver asked the cyclist, in French, if he was okay. The cyclist nodded, not seeming to notice the blood pouring out of a seven-inch gash on his leg. He took a swig of water and pushed off. Luc nodded in appreciation as the man rode away. “These people are alone out here,” he said. “We need to take care of them. We need to show them the right way to go.”

My T2 consisted of being able to stand on two legs again and praise the earth. Luc dropped me off at one of the marathon aid stations, where I was to pass out cups of water and clap.
Now, I live in New York City, where the New York Marathon is treated like a block party that happens to be about 40,000 blocks long. Runners pass a funk band playing the theme from “Rocky” on Staten Island, then a bunch of drag queens dressed like Flo Jo in Bedford-Sty. In Manhattan, there might be a gospel choir singing about not giving up, or a team of flamenco dancers saluting you with little silk scarves. Many of the spectators wear costumes, and even some of the runners, too. I’ve seen a marathoner in a tuxedo and, last year, two Scottish men wearing kilts. We all begged of them to show us their undergarments, but they waved us off.
Anyway, this is what I am used to as an endurance-sport spectator: loud, louder, and loudest, and lots of New York accents. And day-glo wigs. The volunteers at this aid station put us New Yorkers to shame.
Consider the group of volunteers who handed out the different colored wrist bands to mark the number of times the runners had done the loop:
Little girls in pink t-shirts handed out the #3 bands; little boys the #2 blue. A group of elderly woman handed out the black bands--#1. And I wondered what the implication of that color was, considering the stereotypical use of pink and blue. Anyway, the girls in pink giggled any time they handed their #3 bands to a particularly sweaty and glistening Adonis. The boys in blue kept trying to slip the bands onto the runners’ wrists as the runners passed (rather than just handing the bands out), but the boys missed a lot, which meant the runners had to stop and lose a few seconds. The boys would then snigger and scold one another for dropping the bands.
My favorite volunteer at this station was an elderly woman named Octavia, with long grey hair and perfectly manicured toenails, which she had painted gold. She jogged up to each of the runners as they approached, jovially mimicking their gaits, and blew them kisses as she handed them their black bands. Her face was wrinkled—probably from years of sun and smoking—but her eyes were merry and young. She made each and every runner smile. Later, I learned that she was 72 years old, and that she had been volunteering at the race for three years. “My grandson is an Ironman,” she told me. “I come here for him.” I loved the way the French said “Ironman”—kind of revving up on the “r.” Octavia seemed to be the quintessential volunteer.
Further down, near the water station, three adolescent girls in knee-length IRONMAN FRANCE t-shirts handed out wet sponges and offered to spray the runners with a garden hose. “De l’eau, de l’eau!” they chanted. Their jeans were soaked to the skin and they wore no shoes. One particularly exuberant girl kept squirting the runners square on their faces, often into their eyes. Most of the runners laughed, but the girl eventually got scolded by Octavia when she accidentally blasted the “nutrition table” and soaked all the pound cake.
After two hours I had to sit down. My spine was done for the day (as were my volunteer duties). Meanwhile, some of these athletes would keep going for fourteen hours. I sat on the sidewalk and drank an electrolyte-replacement-beverage and watched the runners stop at the aid station to contemplate the soggy pound cake and then take a Powerbar instead. And I wondered why some of them were not running, or even walking at a slow pace. DID THEY NOT CARE ABOUT THEIR TIMES? On TV they are always running and gulping, but here, at Nice, the runners lingered at the buffet.
Then it occurred to me that stopping to eat was a very European thing to do. The French think it is gauche to eat while walking. They are appalled at how many Americans speed along the sidewalks, dodging around one another while they snarf down sandwiches and pizza or even Chinese food. With chopsticks.
And to drink a coffee out of a to-go cup? Encroyable.
Suddenly I admired the leisurely pace with which the athletes took refreshments. Such good manners. And such a perfect opportunity for me to admire their glutes.
It was after noon. The sun was now straight above us. The athletes cast no shadows, and the sky was so blue it seemed surreal. I watched the way the heat rose off the pavement in waves, and thought of how they said it was ten times worse at Hawaii. Again, I marveled at the masochistic tendencies of these folks. A German age grouper passed very close to me, leaning on a fellow countryman for support. I clapped wildly and told him he was doing great.
Now, I have had the privilege of doing a Native American sweat lodge with a Lakota medicine man. It’s possible to say that the heat inside a sweat lodge is even worse than it is at Hawaii. Yet I’d have to say that that sweat lodge was the most profound thing I have ever experienced. The heat, although unbearable, managed to cook away all my worries and emotions. It cooked away my past, and my future, and left me in the glorious Here and Now. I felt as if I had no baggage—just this moment; I felt like a pure and absolute human being—a human being as we are meant to be: a spirit inside a body, uncluttered with stupid thoughts.
That sweat lodge high lasted four hours. And then I had to go do laundry, and pick up my car at the garage, and agonize over the fact that my imaginary husband Viggo Mortensen had not yet called.
So I wondered: is this what a triathlete feels after s/he has swim 3.8 kilometers, cycled 180 kilometers, and run 26 miles? Are they willing to put themselves through nine, ten, seventeen hours of torture to experience that four hours of bliss?
Maybe it’s that the bliss for a triathlete lasts longer. If you do the math, and say that one hour in a sweat lodge equals 4 hours of bliss, that would mean then 14 hours of Ironman equals 56 hours. Or perhaps, dear readers, your bliss lasts a lifetime.
As I sat there, Emily Deppe jogged past on her sturdy legs. My own legs, particularly the adductors, were still trembling from having clutched the sides of that motorbike in terror. I was surprised that my biceps did not ache from lifting a digital recording device to record details. I shouted to Emily that she kicked ass, girl! And told myself that maybe strength and courage, fear and limitations, are all relative. Still, there’s a reason they use the word “humbling” a lot in all those triathlon books and magazines.
The helicopter was hovering above the finish line now, which meant the leading runners were closing in. I pushed myself off the sidewalk and limped toward the finish line, wondering if someone would mistake me for an Ironwoman. Um, no.
I have heard, again and again, that there is nothing like crossing the finish line at an Ironman, but I am here to tell you there is nothing like watching you finish either. I saw on your faces relief, disbelief, and abject joy. I saw an infant being passed into one man’s sweaty arms; I saw a group of French cheerleaders in fishnets practically pig pile a particularly hunky Austrian man. Then I thought I saw, in a flash, the Meaning of Life. I know this might sound hokey, but standing there at the finish, I felt I was part of your glory, even though I have never walked in your shoes. Or swum, or rode, or ran.
Next, a woman collapsed into her husband’s arms with tears of joy; another did a little victory dance. That DJ was screeching indecipherably in French. Then someone in an Ipswich shirt gave me—me!—a high five. For a moment I vowed not to wash that hand.
Eventually I had to tear myself away from the finish line. Same story: my spine. It was mid-afternoon at that point, and I knew the final finisher might not come in for another ten hours. Just thinking about that made me exhausted. There was no way I could make it in this sun for even another twenty minutes. And so, a bit sadly, and very guiltily, I turned around to leave. The sea was so spectacularly beautiful I wanted to take it home with me. I trusted its beauty would offer comfort to the remaining runners: its aquamarine waves were the very color of hope.
I looked one final time down the Promenade des Anglaises. There was Octavia, still going strong. The runners passed through an allée of saffron-colored Power Bar flags that waved upliftingly, like Christo’s “The Gates.” No, triathletes were not insane; they had grasped the very essence of sanity, which is to have no doubts.
On the train back to Antibes, with my head pressed against the window because I couldn’t hold it up, I thought of the people who were still out there, running, cycling, their skin salty from the swim. I thought of Julie Moss crawling toward the finish line. I thought of that famous Boston man carting his son on the bike course at Hawaii for seven hours with his wheel jammed. And I realized that all my complaints, all my problems and ailments, all that laundry and unrequited love, were really minor compared to what those athletes put themselves through. And maybe that was the point. If you can run an Ironman, there is nothing you cannot overcome. And the more Ironmen and Ironwomen we have on this planet, the stronger this world will be. Hats off to all of you.

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