By Christopher Cudworth
The beach in Racine, Wisconsin must be shockingly cold in wintertime. There is nothing stopping the winds from the northeast with 300 miles of cold and sullen lake to put a murderous chill in the wind.
But in July the sun comes up to warm the day, and happy chop ripples the surface and dumps mumbling waves on the shore. It is a peaceful scene to those standing on the deep sand looking out to the water. Waves are nothing to those standing safely on shore.
It’s different when you plan to go out and swim in them. All that wave action near the shore on the lake can be unpredictable, even terrifying if it is your first time competing in a triathlon. You stand near shore and realize there is a mile of open water to cover from the lighthouse down to the breakwater, and it suddenly strikes you that despite the chirping sound of families splashing in the shallows near shore, the lake is not that friendly a place. It is something else. Reality perhaps.
Swim or sink
The idea of stuffing your head under the next wave and embarking on a 1.2 mile swim can bring on actual waves of nausea and wide-eyed fear. But if you’re lucky, some other competitor will sense your trepidation, pat you on the shoulder and say, “You can do it.”
But there are no guarantees. Open water swimming is nothing if not unpredictable. When you’re running a marathon you might fall down from exhaustion or sit on the curb to recover when the wall hits. But if you sink in an open water swim, you lose in more than one way.
That is why a line of life rescue workers and volunteers sits in the lake about 200 yards off shore. It is there, where the lake bottom starts to slope toward an eventual abyss of several hundred feet, that is the defining line between innocent paddling and serious swimming. It is a cultural shelf, of sorts, for to swim in open water requires both practice and some healthy brainwashing. Otherwise no one would do it.
Usually there is some sort of open water practice for every triathlete getting ready for a race like the Racine 70.3 Half Ironman. It’s part of the initiation as a triathlete. It makes you realize just how many people have real courage, when it comes down to it.
Which means the bulk of competitors (both literally and figuratively) on the morning of the Racine Half Ironman make it through the swim and the extra 15-30 minutes required to finish on a day when the lake seems to want the upper hand, sloshing water into the mouths of all those who dare, by habit or by chance, to breath on the left side, where the waves break over you.
Evolution of purpose
Spectators stand near the transition zone where a subtle selection is occurring. A very few athletes emerge from the lake and then grab their bikes and walk off the course. The $225 entry fee no longer matters. Nor do months of preparation. If the body and mind aren’t willing on the day of the race, there is nothing you can do about it. None of the many forces of the cosmos can compel you to continue. Nor God. Nor family.
It’s a fact. Circumstance can be cruel. It is nature’s way, the process of elimination in a triathlon. Natural selection of a metaphysical order. A choice is made, and an opportunity lost. The triathlete necessasrily evolves or devolves in the moment. All that can be passed along to the next “generation of self” is that thing we call experience. Or failure. Often they are one and the same. Most triathlons contain a healthy dose of both, it seems. That is the challenge.
The race is for the strong, and so many! The first athletes out of the surf after 30:00 or so of swimming are the buff pros. They crawl up from the whooshing waves as if they were formed from powers of the surf and water itself. Dripping and stripping as they go, they tug wetsuit draw strings like land-based ripcords as they sprint over the sand and cross under a big inflatable marking the Swim Out section of the course.
Following the pros are competitors in the age groups, starting with the oldest, who will need the most time to complete the race. You are shocked in some ways to see people who do not look anything like real athletes crawling out of the water, because some are actually overweight and others have no muscle definition other than the body parts that shake and flex as their bare feet cover the sandy ground.
The bike zone is raided by competitors after the swim. They all look like they’re stealing their own bikes, hustling to assemble their gear and put it on. Before it’s all over at least 2 million dollars worth of expensive tri-bikes and retrofitted road bikes are surreptitiously absconded from the transition zone. The competitors seem to sneak out of the transition zone and try to clip into their pedals below an uphill section of the course, which responds like a slap in the face. “This is not going to be easy,” the hill seems to say. “I won’t let it be.”
From the massive bike field the competitors continue to emerge like plovers out of a deep field. Or, they are mimicking the metamorphosis from caterpillars in wetsuits into cycling butterflies on brightly colored bikes. One spectator stands by the zone where the cyclists are emerging. Her eyes are bright with lust for a new bike of her own. “It’s like a candy store,” she enthuses.
By the time the cyclists return from 56 miles of riding, spectators have downed late breakfasts or an early lunch and have settled in to sit in the sun and wait for the chance to cheer on their favored participants. Some express guilt lounging around during the wait. Others think ahead to their own competitions, including a few future full Ironman participants. These people take measure of the sensations, wondering perhaps who will be tending to their efforts on that day, much longer, and filled with pain.
There are families everywhere. As his father approaches on the bike, a little child responds to the call for “more cowbell” by shaking his bell with a Cheerio-caked fist. Young parents corral their kids and wait for their spouse or partner to come by. The little children get high- fives as their parent (or both parents!) head out for 13 miles of running.
It’s a process of support we spectators offer. You need to move around to see the race, or at least portions of it. A community forms at every stop, asking who everyone else is cheering for. So you share that moment, and learn how long the participant has trained, and why they’re there.
Time out of mind
But it turns out there is no “there” there. The triathlon is both a highly visible and invisible event. The person for whom you’re rooting exists in another dimension for those six hours away; swimming, running and riding. You can’t really share in what they’re actually doing out there, other than by cheering or slapping a hand.
It can get a little lonely as a participant, so the cheers do help. But progress can be incremental. Every footstrike counts in your favor. But the doubts work otherwise. You drift between two worlds, the tangible and the intangible. Those who know the sport recognize this. They see themselves in other competitors. Time out of mind.
Transience of the triathlon
It can make you wonder why anyone does it, if it is so transient. But that is the point. In fact it seems the entire point of a triathlon. You own the parts you remember and enjoy, and try to forget the parts that hurt or caused you fear.
Coaching can help. The triathlon teams that bring participants to races provide support and guidance before and during the race. In Racine a team from Experience Triathlon had 10 or so participants. Each had their goals mapped out, even to the nutrition schedule mounted on a bike top bar. Joe LoPresto of Experience Triathlon works with athletes of all abilities and speeds, from elite to beginner. Each is on that most personal journey of what it means to try your hardest at something.
Takes a team
The triathlon as an event may be transient against the broader spectrum of the elements it traverses, but inside your head it lets you know you’re alive and not stuck in time. You may struggle and falter, or you may fly and transcend, as liberated as the gulls above the surf, where waves will roll up again and again, on the morrow. The race will be said and done, and the clouds will cover the sun.
But those who have been able to claim the day for their own will have owned something precious in concert with all of nature. And with human nature. The triathlon exists in the space between.