As a self-appointed scribe of the back-of-the-pack age-group triathlete I feel compelled to write about my first experience of one of the phenomena of my chosen sport.
But where to start?
The Ironman is one of those sporting events that, if you take the time to think about it, just plain defies logic. A standard distance whenever it’s raced throughout the world, it’s revered by those who know enough, and are brave enough, to imagine what it’s like to complete one. To those who know, The Ironman is the only explanation that’s required.
Everyone who attempts an Ironman is at some stage given the advice to “soak it all up”. A sentiment that’s probably largely meant for the finish chute. That moment crossing the line is a very big part of the Ironman Dream.
But for many it all starts at 6am in the morning. And rightly so. As the hooter goes, the athletes already have the rock star treatment laid on – a helicopter hovers overhead, thousands of spectators line the banks of Wallis Lake, and the beats of U2’s “Beautiful Day” transcends it all.
“what you don’t have you don’t need it now… what you don’t know you can feel it somehow…”
It seemed to me that, if asked to write a song for an Ironman start, Bono couldn’t have got it more right.
But, I digress. This time, my Chronicle isn’t about the Triathlete. This time it’s about the rest of the “field”. The spectators, supporters, the “loved ones”. The forgotten significant others of Ironman athletes the world over.
Just like the competitors, your day starts at 6am.
As you gather at the swim start with a few thousand of your new best friends, you feel personally proud of the 1547 triathletes that have gotten this far. Months of training, thousands of grams of carefully calculated carbohydrate intake, and every spare moment that prior to taking on the task may have been spent with you or socialising with friends, had instead been saved for a precious afternoon kip.
And all these sacrifices have come down to this one day in their life.
For a spectator, it’s an equally big day. You know how much your “loved one” has put in – and given up – and how much this one day means to them. In recent months you’ve seen way less of them than you’d like, their preferred company being training partners. You’ve watched helplessly as they’ve counted those carbs and felt neglected when they spent Saturday afternoon napping. (And then felt horrendously selfish and needy for feeling neglected!)
When you give them that last kiss or hug before they make their way into the water, you imagine you are transferring to them anything you have that they can use. Positive energy, a sense of calm. And an unconditional belief that they can achieve what they want from their Ironman.
There are no words left to say. They know that, regardless of how their day unfolds, you love them, and you’re proud of them.
And in that, there’s just a hint of helplessness – because buried somewhere under your sense of calm is the knowledge that if their day doesn’t unfold as they’d like, nothing you have, nothing you can say or do, will make it any better. No matter how much you feel, regardless of how it’s expressed, nothing will take away the disappointment, the envy, the bitterness that would follow.
And this is just the start. As your day progresses, there’s a whole lot more where that comes from.
You feel so proud of the last guy out of the water, who showed up on the day with an injured shoulder he can’t move. God only knows how he got through a 3.8k swim, but he did, and as you follow his progress, you find he got through the 180km cycle and the Marathon too.
You can’t help but feel genuine affection for the oldest bloke in the field. At 76 he reckons that with each passing year – this is Ironman number five for Jack – the 15.5 hour cutoff becomes more and more significant in his race plan.
You even find a kindred spirit in the guy who comes out of T1 with a family block of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate hanging from his aerobars.
You reserve a special cheer for “Ironbee”, who races in a bee suit and raises money for charity, and the guy who, rather than take his competitor number of 666 as a bad omen, had some fun with it by dressing up as the devil.
It’s all bittersweet though, because in some ways you feel even more helplessness each time your loved one passes. Part of you can’t yell loud enough, another part wonders whether all the yelling in the world will really make a difference. This is their day, and their day alone.
All too quickly, you’re waiting at the finish. Not all of your thousands of new best friends are still there. Some of them are dotted around Forster and Tuncurry, giving their encouragement in the dark, lonely parts of town. The tough parts where it seems noone else cares.
For some their day is over – and if they’re lucky their loved ones’ Ironman dream is complete, for this year at least.
Some are still there alongside you, waiting faithfully. Some are outwardly anxious of their loved one’s whereabouts. Some have tears in their eyes, some can’t wipe the smile off their face. They’re soaking it up too.
Whatever you’ve heard about the finish line at Forster, it’s probably true. The music pumps, the lights are blinding and the thousand or so people there are all cheering like their life depended on it.
And then, there’s Mike Reilly. When it comes down to it, it seems to me the Ironman finish chute experience is all about this guy.
Like you, Mike Reilly started his day at 6am. And even though Mike doesn’t know your loved one, and for that matter he probably doesn’t know any of the finishers at this time of night, you wouldn’t know it.
From the time the first pro crosses the line until the official cutoff at 9.55pm, every person that ran, walked, skipped, crawled or leapt over that finish line was a “winner”.
Every “winner” had their own story told with as much enthusiasm as was shown for four time winner Chris McCormack, who crossed the line more than seven hours earlier than the final “winner”.
And every first time Ironman was told emphatically, that… “you are an Ironman”.
Even as a spectator, you can’t help but buy into Mike Reilly’s enthusiasm. Every winner that enters the chute becomes personally important to you. The kindy teacher from Perth, the past Mr Universe champion from Queensland. The guy who walks across the line with a meat pie and stubbie of VB. (You can insert your own pun here about a “hard earned thirst”!)
You are enveloped in a range of emotions that somehow are simultaneously both deeply personal and collectively shared. Somehow you just know that what you’re feeling is unique to this moment, and exclusive to this particular group of people. People who you’ve never met, and will never meet. But will, like you, look back on this moment with a special sense of togetherness.
I wish I’d been there to see 76 year old Jack Gubbins cross the line. I wish I’d been there to see the only two Forster 20-timers cross the line – fittingly they finished together.
But by the time those Ironmen were making their way down the blue carpet, my day was over. As a spectator, your day revolves around your loved one, who, in my case, had crossed the line. As the rest of the winners were making their way down the blue carpet, my place was with my loved one.
The first moment we saw each other after the race will remain in my memory as if in slow motion. It was one of those visions where everything else just fades away.
Almost like an extension of my experience by the finish chute, that moment together was a swirl of emotion both intensely personal and yet intimately shared between us.
Unlike that morning, where I wanted to give everything I had, I now simply wanted to take in the range of emotions we were both feeling. To “soak it all up”.
Reminiscent of that morning, there were still no words to say – nothing I could have said could have made that moment better for him, or worse. My loved one had lived his dream exactly as he’d, well, dreamt it.
For my part, I’d shared the dreams of every one of those 1547 athletes. And found the courage to begin the journey towards my own Ironman Dream.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe