On the morning of the Des Moines Certified Piedmontese 70.3 Ironman, the rains thumped the roof of our hotel and race delay notifications buzzed on our phones. The lightning storm was a dire threat to anyone caught out in the open or in the water. The rains also made cycling a difficult proposition at best.
So we sat in our hotel room at 7:00 a.m. with bit of breakfast culled from the offerings at the Fairfield Inn. I brought back eggs and sausage, but one bite from that gray-looking pat of meat was enough to realize that it had no taste and the texture was soft and mushy.
“No thanks,” I thought. I warned other folks at the hotel about the flat-tasting sausage, and word got around. “Did you have the sausage?” people asked with a laugh. Ah well, nothing’s perfect in this world.
Everything else about the weekend was pretty darn fun. On Friday night we dined at a restaurant called the Angry Goldfish. One of the appetizers served is a bowl of sriracha powdered Goldfish Crackers. They were spicy little mites, so we washed them down with a cold draft of locally brewed beers.
Saturday morning my wife Sue had a pre-race swim-bike-run to do, so I linked up with a friend and former college cross teammate that lives in Des Moines. We’d seen each other a few weeks before at the funeral service in Indianola for our mutual friend Keith Ellingson. I mentioned that we’d be heading back to Iowa for the triathlon and we agreed to meet up for a bike ride if time allowed.
In between, we talked about an artwork that he wanted for his condominium in downtown Des Moines. His favorite bike path goes through a restored covered bridge deep in the woods south of the city. He sent me a photo of his bike leaning inside the structure and I painted an acrylic for a spot he’d identified in their home.
During our 26-mile bike trip we rode through the covered bridge after miles of pleasant riding on shady trails. I’d worked from a photograph to create the painting so it’s always a treat to see the real thing. After the bike ride we unveiled the painting with his wife and it now hangs where they can see it from their living room sofa.
After that fun rendezvous I met up with Sue back at Gray’s Lake, the center of action for the triathlon the next day. We got cleaned up and had brunch at Mullet’s, a great joint overlooking the river south of Des Moines with a fine view of the downtown skyline. The food is excellent (I had chicken and waffles) and the vibe is laid back and welcoming.
Before walking into Mullets I struck up a conversation with a cyclist standing next to the trail. It turned out to be a Des Moines local legend named Carl Voss, for whom a new section of bike trail is named. He’s one of the leading figures in regional recreation for running and cycling, and it was an honor to meet a guy with so much history and influence in the state.
The afternoon got warm on Saturday and there was some serious trekking required to check bikes in transition. The participant and spectator parking was a mile from Water Works Park, which itself is a big property, even larger than Central Park in New York. So we hoofed it over there in the heat, but on the way back on the long walk, my wife felt like she was starting to melt, and I was concerned about her experiencing an energy drain after all that training and prep.
The only thing I could think to do as she started to complain was listen and make a few encouraging jokes about how long it was taking to get back. Before we’d left the parking lot, her new Mitsubishi Outlander had rolled slightly backward as I turned off the motor and a warning sign appeared on the dash. “Immobilization…” the words said. I looked up the cause and the Mitsubishi website says…”The electronic immobiliser is designed to reduce significantly the possibility of vehicle theft. The purpose of the system is to immobilise the vehicle if an invalid start is attempted. A valid start attempt can only be achieved by using a key “registered” to the immobiliser system.”
I’d called the Mitsu dealership service department in Des Moines when the problem first happened and the guy had never heard of the immobilization deal. But it had been ten minutes since I’d tried to start the car before calling him so it started right up again when I tried it with the key fob. “See, all you have to do is call me,” he laughed.
Such is life.
That incident symbolized what was about to take place with the race the next morning. The storms caused a series of stops and starts, and the entire Ironman enterprise was immobilized for ninety minutes while the rain pounded Des Moines. It was a much-needed rain, however. The grass in town was all torched and brown from early summer heat. The river is so low the city is concerned about water supply for residents, and Gray’s Lake where the triathlon swim was scheduled to take place had a big dry ring about the edges.
Finally the gun went off and the pros came storming out of the Swim out. From there, the race when off well, but the bike segment had to be shortened for logistical reasons. My wife rode fast and came in with a smile on her face. “That was fun…” she said. That was a smile coming out of the water and a smile coming off the bike. We were two-for-two on the day so far.
The race ended in downtown Des Moines where happy crowds of hopefully vaccinated people gathered to cheer on the finishers. The energy of a triathlon finish area is always a bit manic. You have the exhausted Sherpas milling around and looking for their road warriors to finish the run. There are moms and dads with baby strollers and dogs of all breeds panting in the sun or shade. The announcer calls out the names of the bedraggled and the triumphant alike. The same inspirational music that’s been playing at races for the last forty years blares over the loudspeakers.
I stopped for a quick drink at a pub before Sue completed the course. The air inside felt cool and welcoming. A solid Jack and Coke hit the spot.
Then she came trucking down the block with yet another grin on her face. She’d had a good run to go with her swim and bike. “That was great!” she told me with shining eyes under a bright white Zoot hat to match her can’t-miss-it Zoot triathlon kit.
Fortunately the rain dissipated and the city of Des Moines got to show off for the crowds. The local news channel estimated that the event would bring $6M in revenue to the city. Between its investment in bike trails and the little food and bar joints and cultural attractions, the city has much to offer. “It’s the New York City of Iowa,” my friend offered.
Thanks to my Sherpa instincts, we were parked just a block from my friend’s house so my wife got to shower before we headed home. On the return trip we passed through major storms through eastern Iowa and across most of Illinois. Lightning flashed and heavy rains blasted our windshield. Then we hit a short stint of hail and slowed to 55 mph to avoid hydroplaning on the wet roads.
Somewhere near DeKalb we both happened to look north when a lightning bolt struck something large on the horizon. A massive greenish flash and halo of light rose up from the strike point. What it hit we’ll likely never know, but the weather reports stated that there were more than 263,000 lightning strikes in Illinois as well as a tornado that mowed down houses in Naperville and Woodridge.
These big weather patterns are so accentuated these days. It makes you wonder what it must have been like to live on the prairie before all this civilization planted itself across the Midwest. In any case, it’s here now. Des Moines finally got its day in the sun, and it showed off pretty well. Thanks to all who organized and managed the event. Nice job.
And by the way, those burgers served to athletes at the finish line? My wife grabbed me one and…they really were delicious. I guess Iowa beef is legitimately better.