I signed up for the Wauconda Olympic Triathlon and was excited to have an opportunity to swim a mile in open water for the first time. My time trial in the pool last week saw me finish 1600 yards in 31:00 or so. That’s a pace of 1:55 per 100, which is good for me. My cycling test went just as well, with a 19.6 average for 26 miles, about 80% effort according to my Garmin data. And my running has always been solid. That meant all signs were go to get to the Finish Line.
So I drove the hour up to Wauconda on Saturday for packet pickup and posed at the literal FINISH line with the wind whipping the banner above my head. It was hotter than hell outside for the third day in a row. But the weather called for an overnight cooling breeze and rain. So all signs were go.
But there was a disturbing factor affecting my hopes for Sunday. While my training has gone reasonably well, I have been dealing with the Tooth From Hell the last month. Visits to the endodontist have helped in some ways, but the soreness and pain are acute enough at times that I’ve lost sleep several nights. It all results from some poor dental work done about six years ago during a transitional insurance period, and that has spelled doom for the molar on the back left side of my mouth. I can’t wait to get to the Finish Line of that treatment, whatever it may be.
But thinking positively, I went to bed Saturday night and set the alarm for 3:30 to rise for the race in Wauconda. Transition would open at 4:30 to park the bike and set up. It would close at 6:00 a.m and the race was scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m.. Great summer planning. But overnight, a series of storms blew into the Chicago area and the morning radar showed a band of thick clouds passing directly over the region of the race.
And my tooth hurt pretty badly all night.
I considered my options at that point, and there were several factors to consider. I’d read that the water temperature in Bang’s Lake for the swim was 86 degrees.That is the last temperature point at which which wearing wetsuits is even allowed, much less legal relative to race regulations.
And I’ll confess that I wasn’t excited about doing my first mile swim in open water unassisted by a wetsuit. I’m simply not that strong a swimmer yet and lack the confidence to go “naked” into the water for more than a mile, which it surely would have been with my somewhat wavering ability to sight properly.
All these factors converged in my mind at 3:30 in the morning when the alarm sounded. The weather. The tooth. The concerns about open water. So I gave it some hard thought, rolled over and told my wife that I wasn’t going to race. “There are too many uncertainties,” I told her.
She understood. Yet there was one problem still to confront. I had picked up the race packet and timing chip for my sister-in-law Julie. She was staying with a friend thirty miles north in Lake-in-the-Hills. So I got dressed, jumped in the car and drove north to give her the race numbers and chip. That was a finish line of a sort.
It started to rain in Elgin fifteen miles north of my home. The rain came straight down, hard as heck. The streets shone with running water. Arriving at my morning destination, I handed over the packet, gave a short explanation of my departure from the race and started driving home.
By then I was hungry and stopped at a nice-looking gas station mini-mart to get a can of tea and a Honey Bun, the world’s worst junk food according to every stadard known to human nutrition. But damn those things taste good at 4:15 in the morning when you’re all alone and seeking texture and sweetness in one frosted item. And to some degree, I felt I’d earned it.
Walking into the well-lit gas station mart I was surprised to hear what sounded like video games blaring at full volume. There were people seated at each one eight video slots machines inside the station. I thought to myself, “It’s four o’clock in the morning! Don’t you have a home?”
The participants were fixated on the slots. I asked one of them, “Is there supposed to be someone working the counter?” She pulled her eyes away from the machine momentarily and stared back at me. “There usually is,” she flatly stated.
I found the guy in his little uniform cleaning the iced beverage machine. He didn’t say a word as he followed me back to the counter to check out my items. I thanked him and walked back out into the poring rain with the hood of my golden raincoat pulled up over my head.
I tried to process what I’d just seen. We’re not supposed to judge others for their vices. Who is to say that I’m not the worse person that morning for planning to get up at 3:30 and participate in an athletically self-indulgent event only to chicken out at the last minute? Where is the supposed character in that?
But I let the moment wash away behind me realizing that slot machines are the Honey Buns of American Hope. Junk food for the cash-hungry. Symptom of the disenfranchised and desperate belief in Get Rich Quick. The naked ambition of the gambler reduced to the blaringly false hope of digitized odds. The Fake News of the American economy. The syntax of sin tax. Video slot machines. There’s an oxymoron in there someplace.
It stopped raining by the time I was halfway home. I could see lightning still flashing behind me in the rear view mirror. The sun was just hinting at the eastern skyline as I pulled back into our driveway. Our new puppy dog gave a little whimper of acknowledgement as I came in the front door and walked back upstairs. I stripped naked and slipped under the sheets. My wife laid her hand on mine and whispered quietly, “My sister just texted. They cancelled the race.”
A long sigh fell out of my sore face. I’d taken one more 800 mg Ibuprofen pill and hoped to a little more sleep before rising for the rest of the day. I pulled the handle on my mental slot machine and my brain came to rest on a bed of sevens, the pillow beneath my head. Sleep at last. Thank God Almighty, I was asleep at last.
And not the least bit guilty about it. It always pays to reach a finish line before you start a new day.