Wednesday, August 30, 2017

There was a sign near the Lake Sonoma boat launch ramp, erected, no doubt, by concerned park rangers. It read: “Lake Sonoma Drownings This Year”. And the next line had one of those removable-amendable placards currently reading the single digit: “1”. And then it was followed with an earnest tag line: “Don’t Be Next!” 

I didn’t want to be next, but the only way to honestly guarantee that would be to just not do the IronMan altogether. And here I was taking my chances. And now I’d been warned.

Those bright red floating pylons extended clear out to a distance where you could barely make them out anymore. If you, in fact, survived the swim all the way out beyond the dock, curving out to the right and under the big bridge, and then stroked all the way to the marina on the opposite shore and around the two buoys, and then made it all the 1.2 miles back to the boat launch ramp… well, then you had to do it again. It seemed impossible, and yet here I saw a select few Ironmen out swimming it, for kicks, the day before the race, and I marveled at them. I really wasn’t sure I could do it, and by “do it” I mean, actually swim that far. I remembered how scared I was swimming that 500 meters, beyond the breakers, off the coast of Camp Pendleton a year ago, and the lifeguard on a paddleboard, eyeing me diligently, calling out with a serious voice: “ARE YOU OKAY?” I responded yes, because I wasn’t drowning. Yet. But I intended to paddle on. And here, looking out over Lake Sonoma now, standing next to BG -ex-lifeguard, ex-swim instructor, ex-surfer, my neighbor who talked me into this: BG- I tried to keep a cool grin going, and remember that I swam at the gym a couple weeks ago for two full straight hours, with no significant breaks… but that was a pool, four feet deep, and this was a lake. A lake where THE LOCAL OFFICIALS COUNT THE DROWNINGS EVERY YEAR. Still, I had that thin buoyant neoprene swim skin to rely on. My wet suit. That cool looking black, sea-lion hide, with reflective stripes, that my loving wife bought me for my birthday. I’m still not sure if she did it to encourage me to take on the challenge of the Ironman, or because she was worried about me, but either way I appreciated the gift of that 3/8 inch of air-filled plastic that interceded between me and drowning. Between me, and some anonymous public servant having to go out one summer morning and morosely change up the number on the sign, demarcating my mid-life, with this pant-shitting endeavor, and labeling it: “2”.


It was all BG’s fault. He talked me into it, although, in his defense, it had always been in the back of my mind. I’m up to 22 marathons, and was perhaps getting a little bored with the challenge. I’d known several people over the years who had completed the challenge of an Ironman, which is a triathlon event consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a full 26.2 mile marathon, completed in under 17 hours. It sounded “fun”, but I was always a runner -I’ve never owned a bicycle with more than a single gear and I didn’t learn to swim until I was in my teens. (I have a thin build with little to no body fat. I can run, but I float like a handgun.)

BG, on the other hand, describes himself as something of an ex-soccer player/lifeguard/tango dancer/helicopter pilot, and his general enthusiasm knows no bounds. He ran his first marathon with me a few years back, and seemed to love every second of his back-of-the-pack 5+ hour race. So, when the idea of the IronMan came up, there was little hesitation: “Yes! Let’s do it!”

It sounded fun. Of course, you don’t just roll out of bed and swim a few miles, and then bike a hundred more, not to mention the running. There was training involved. A serious time commitment. We both have kids, spouses, businesses, extraneous obligations. I didn’t have any of the proper equipment. Something was going to have to give. But BG is smart. He knew he needed someone to share the commitment with, someone to share the blame when he disappeared for weekends at a time on those century rides. And here I was. I was The Mark, he was the Hunter, and we were both going to go down. BG’s my neighbor, so it was easy for him to show up at my house every few days , while the kids play. He’d bring a beer or two, rest on my porch deck, pour out a bottle into a pint glass and hand it to me, and then nonchalantly bring up the idea, “So… what do you think about the IronMan?” 

But, hell, I’d always wanted to do it, was approaching mid-life, and it was kinda on my mind, so he was more of a ‘predatory fisherman’ and I was an easy carp. I flopped over and signed up for a short one.

We began with that little local triathlon on Camp Pendleton. “Semper Tri”, as it is called. It consisted of a short 500 meter ocean swim, a 20 mile bike ride, and a 3 mile run. Three miles! That was something I do every other day! No problem. I pulled out my old, dusty surfer wet suit (I hadn’t surfed since before I had kids -maybe ten or eleven years ago) and rolled out my mountain bike, a Father’s Day gift from a few years back, when the kids were learning to ride bikes, and got up early on race day. BG was there out front, all smiles, and we threw the bikes in the back off the truck and headed down to the beach.


“A mountain bike. That’s hardcore.” a woman said to me as I set off into the pack. Well, backof the pack. The swim had slowed me down somewhat. Remember, I had the lifeguards worried. And as I jogged out of the surf, clutching my soul and thanking God I had survived, I noticed I wasn't precisely dead last. There was another man, perhaps ten years older than me, jogging alongside in the sand. He shook his head, laughing in my direction. “Well, that was a helluva thing! Like a washing machine!” And he was right. There were waves. Real waves. Every other arm stroke slapped the chop hard on top, with the others feeling like they missed the surface of the water entirely. Your body felt like it was moving up and down more than forward, and emerging from the surf I found it difficult to run in a straight line, on the sand…