In late June we traveled to Idaho to root for son Will as he completed his first “Iron Man” triathlon – a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and full marathon. At the time I marveled at so many things – his drive and effort to go from a short jog to running and swimming and biking, and then a journey he has been kind enough to share as he took on events of increasing difficulty. A sprint triathlon, half and full marathons, a “Half Iron” triathlon, Olympic triathlon, and more. We’ve attended as many as logistics and our own schedules have allowed, and have enjoyed all of them from many different perspectives. It’s been a learning experience to watch him and appreciate his efforts, but also to spend time with athletes at each event and the friends and family who support them. It’s changed my perception of what people are capable of, in all sorts of trying circumstances, and elevated my opinion of people in general.
This time we were off to Grand Coulee, Washington, for the “Grand Columbian,” a cluster of events headed (or trailed, if you go by the number of entrants) by a “Super Triathlon.” In this iteration, a Super Triathlon is a swim of three miles in (cold) Lake Roosevelt, a 125 mile bicycle ride, and then a 30 mile run, of those numbers a bit short in the reality of the course. Comparable distances for an Iron Man are 2.4 miles, 112 miles, and 26 and a tad miles. In other words – are you serious? Yes.
The drive over was interesting. Virtually every mile to Wenatchee brings forth a memory. Here’s the restaurant where I ate breakfast on my way back to Minnesota in 1968. Here’s where I got a speeding ticket from a WSP trooper who appeared to be happy to have something to do, bored out of his skull by inactivity. Here’s the custom knife shop I’ve been meaning to stop at for 40 years, although I don’t really need a custom knife. It just looks interesting. Here’s the rest stop I always stop at.
Smoke from a cluster of wild fires in Wenatchee and beyond shrouded everything with a foreboding aspect. The smoke had almost cancelled the event, but reports were that the area around Grand Coulee was relatively clear. “Relatively clear” does little to ease the fretting about such a trying event.
We stayed at the Trailwest Motel in Grand Coulee. Older, and in some need of repair, with a really small room – the sort of place I love. Will and Alida were in the room next to ours, and the first activity, after Susan and I refueled with a lunch at La Presas a couple of miles away, was to drive to the starting area on Lake Roosevelt to attend an entrants’ meeting. This did little to allay the concerns, as it became evident that the Tri-Freaks who put the race on were nowhere near the level of the Iron Man organizers in detailed preparations, numbers of volunteers, and providing clear information. More worry.
Our fears proved prescient the next morning. Competitors were told a shuttle would be present at the finish beginning at 4:30am, so entrants could leave their vehicles in the visitor lot below the Grand Coulee Dam, and get a bus ride to the start a few miles away on Lake Roosevelt. Will called us at 5am as we were getting ready to leave for the scheduled 6:15am start to his event to report that the shuttle had not shown up. Off we went to pick up him and Alida, adding an entrant from Portland who would be in the “Duathlon,” just the swim and bike portions. I told other worried entrants that I would be back. I could fit 4 or 5 per trip in our CR-V if I were by myself, and could probably get them all there – barely – in time.
When we arrived at the start the shuttle had just left, about 45 minutes late. I thought about driving back anyway in case the shuttle got lost, which did not seem impossible, but was talked out of it. Eventually all the entrants got there, but a bit late for competitor comfort.
There was a 2nd competitor meeting at the shore of Lake Roosevelt which provided more uninspiring levels of detailed preparation, but in fairness we are paranoid parents.
I noticed the small number of entrants. Will was #18, and yet there were only 7 bodies lining up. The duathlon competitor was identified with a red swim cap to separate him from the 6 Super Tri entrants. 6? Was everyone else scared off, or too smart to enter such a daunting event with such casual organization? In any case, Will looked pretty cool in his new wet suit, purchased after he lost weight and changed his body shape so much that his old suit fit that a burlap bag. His new “Iron Man” tattoo on his right calf drew admiring comments from others.
With a countdown from the organizer and the assembled family and friends, the “Supers” ran into the water about 10 minutes after the scheduled starting time. One advantage of numbers is no crowding, with little concern of injury from others. We learned from two competitors in another event that the man who died at the Iron Man in Idaho had been kicked in the head during the swim and suffered bleeding in his brain. No such concern here, and 5 men and 2 women settled in to the swim, with Will toward the back as he is not that rapid a swimmer. Compared to serious swimmers that is and not to me, as I doubt I could swim three miles in cold water – period.
Other events would kick off later in the morning. An “Ultra,” which is what you call an Iron Man event when you are not allowed to use that copyrighted phrase (although people did all day), and several shorter events, more than I bothered to keep track of.
The swim course was a 1.2 mile triangle that the Ultras, starting 30 minutes later, would do twice. The Supers did it twice plus a smaller .6 mile triangle, coming out of the water each time they came back to shore and running through the entrance arch to step on a pad that allows a timing bracelet on the ankle to be read electronically.
Will had guessed that he would do each full lap in 45 minutes, but he came out of the water in 39 minutes for the first lap, and 38 for the second. By the time he completed the ½ lap he was 15 minutes ahead of his own schedule, and looked fit and happy. One of the men staggered out of the water on each of the latter two laps, disoriented, and did not look good at all. He recovered during the 2nd two events, to put it mildly, and turned in a total time hours shorter than Will’s.
In the changing tent Will enjoyed bantering with another competitor with shared comments about how stupid they were and how the bike race ahead would destroy them. The 120 plus miles bike race began with a steep hill many miles long that Will had experienced before when he did a Half Iron that used part of the same course.
Unlike the Iron Man in Idaho, we were able to hop in the car and drive ahead to take pictures, cheer, and ring our cow bells (a triathlon tradition) for every competitor. Will’s friend from the tent proved to be an animal on a bicycle and was soon far ahead of Will, just as Will was gapping another couple of competitors behind him. We dubbed the fellow “Crazy Legs” because his seat appeared to be several inches too low on the bike, so he pedaled with his legs bent outward like a manic goony bird of some sort – but was he fast! Each time he passed us he made jokes about our car breaking down – again. He recommended in a loud and cheerful voice that we get a bicycle. On one occasion he offered to stop and help us replace the radiator. Simple humor in good fun – but while racing a bicycle for over 12o miles? Really?
The course went through the small (very) town of Almira three times. After the first pass through the Supers got to add a 9 mile out and back for their extra distance. Each time we stopped the vast emptiness of the rolling wheat lands was enchanting, and daunting. Rolling hills up and down and up and down – seemingly with no end. It was especially difficult for the Supers as, unlike most of these events, there was no other human contact – for hours. You rode alone, perhaps seeing a competitor far in the distance, for with time for a quick hello as they passed you on the way back, but no other human contact. Just you and the bicycle and intense mental and physical strain – forever.
Back to Almira and out to a long and lonely road that lead to another long and lonely road. We stopped by the side of the road for about an hour, and once in a while a bike would come by to be greeted by our cowbells. It was so quiet that the only sound was the approaching whir of the drive chain on each bike. After Will cruised by we raced ahead again and returned to Almira for an aid station. Every competitor stopped at this one, for the provided sustenance and in many cases, to pick up a bag of their own supplies witing for them. When Will arrived he sounded good, but the fatigue was beginning to show, and he still had 50 miles to ride and 30 miles to run! He caught Crazy Legs at the aid station, and left before him. We followed Will out of town and turned with him onto Highway 2 heading west. Will told us later this segment was utterly soul destroying. You’d come over a rise and see the road heading off in a dead straight line for miles, with small hollows and rises along the way, all the way to the horizon. When you got to the top of the hill that formed that horizon you’d ride over and see – the same thing. Again. And again. The wind was present but not strong, and the fire smoke was visible at higher elevations but not a concern. The temperature had risen into the low 80s, but not so hot as to be a serious problem. There were enough other problems.
We drove ahead to Highway 155 to turn north for a long stretch along Banks Lake back to Grand Coulee. We picked out a scenic spot to wait and watch and cheer – for anyone. By this we’d developed nicknames for competitors, for the Ultras and the Supers were now mixed together, at different points of their individual agonies. “Uncle Brian” had a large family waiting for him with matching blue t-shirts. “The English lady” was a Super who was tearing up the course far ahead of Will and had an enormous cheering section, all from British Columbia. There were 9 of 10 of them. Most were riding in a decidedly unrestored 1970’s Cadillac convertible with the top down. It almost dragged its rear bumper; the weight of the passengers in the back seat overwhelming 40 year old springs. The rest of the group were in an older Honda CR-V. Their matching shirts spelled out something, but they never stood in the correct order so I could figure it out! There was also “backpack boy,” “music lady” with tunes blaring from her handlebars (legal here but not in an Iron Man). “the lady with sleeves,” and others, including “the lady in purple,” a Super entrant with a purple top.
Will passed and we noticed that he was still ahead of Crazy Legs, which seemed odd and raised our concerns for a friend we’d not really met. Turns out he had suffered two flat tires, but he came back with a vengeance later.
The bike/run transition was a spectacular sight – the park below the Grand Coulee dam. Will rode by us as we cheered and made noise and said “Let’s go for a run!” Right. Only 30 miles left. By now it was 4:15 in the afternoon. He and the other Supers would finish well after dark.
The run course went along the river and for two legs out and in. It was a graded dirt lane 6 ½ miles and a scoche out and back twice for the Ultras, who were doing a marathon, and 7.5 miles out and back for the Supers. Four extra miles must seem like a thousand when you have come so far.
As Will headed out with a cherry “let’s go for a run!” we took a detour back into town for some Safeway sandwiches, as we really had not eaten much of anything all day, and that was getting to be a problem. Revived as we stuffed ourselves with real food I felt a pang of guilt, as Will would be consuming gel packs and water and so forth all day.
And that was another problem. A big one. The “Heed” electrolyte drinks that the organizers had promised would be provided at each aid station were not. Will has always had problems with his gut on these events, and a lack of electrolytes can put him into real trouble. He skipped the Heed at the first rest stop because it was only one mile in and he did not want to overdo, as too much is almost as bad as too little. By the time he realized there would be no more it was too late. This most egregious lapse by the organizers could have had tragic consequences, including death at the extreme. Now dehydrated with a problem that could only get worse, Will began to slow. He’d been almost a half an hour ahead of his predicted pace, and he gradually lost that and then fell behind his predictions as his body became further weakened. Once dehydrated there is no potential for rapid recovery during the event. Nothing to do but move on as best he could.
There were several places along the river where you could turn from the road into a dirt parking lot next to the trail, so we leapfrogged ahead of Will, cheering him at each stop. We often joined with the crew in the Cadillac as they cheered for “the British lady.” Never did find out if she was actually from England. They were lovely people. At one aid station Will paused to replenish fluids and talk to us, and after he left the Canadian driver of the Cadillac said to Alida “He’s dreamy.” She beamed with a soft smile and said “I know.” My heart melted at both ends.
As Will neared the end of his first lap another irritant arose. The organizers had forgotten to mention that at 8:30 pm all the lights would go off for the famed “laser light show,” where spillways on the dam are opened up and used as a screen for laser projected entertainment. This was awful in several regards. Many of the Ultras were coming in to finish or go out for their second lap. It was confusing to find the chute to the finish with the lights off, and finishers did not get the rock music and emcees shouting themselves hoarse they clearly deserved. It was dark, and confusing, and we were scared for Will.
Will was late. Really late. The woman in purple he’d been far in front of all day came by, and still no Will.
I walked away from the park to where the runners would approach – just to have something to do. As my heart sank I pondered what could have happened. Sprained ankle? Had he stopped” Gotten sick? There is no limit to the fears your mind can ideate in such a situation.
Finally a headlamp appeared and I could guess from the height off the ground it was Will. I turned on my little flashlight to try and guide him through the trees toward the finish gate. His first words when he reached me were “Sorry.” He knew we would be worried. The effects of the lack of electrolytes had gotten to him and he was dizzy and disoriented and suffering stomach cramps to such a degree that he’d spent 30 minutes at an aid station sitting down and ingesting what liquids they had. Now he felt better, but if he tried to run faster, as his legs told him he could, his gut shut him down. He was reduced to a slow walk or a jog. 7.5 miles to go, and he trotted back into the darkness.
We headed back out along the river, stopping at every possible place to cheer him on. It was now heading toward midnight, and there were few competitors left. Eventually, only two Supers were on the course, Will and “purple woman. ” They took turns catching and passing each other. We could listen in at the aid stations as transmissions back and forth concerned #52 – an Ultra competitor who had evidently passed out at least once and was in real trouble but did not want to quit. Eventually the organizers had the man’s wife meet him at an aid station, and she begged/ordered him to quit. He did.
Now there were only two left from the entire collection of events; Will and “purple woman.” She was suffering from massive blisters, but with enormous courage and an ever present smile she simply chose to ignore them. She gradually left Will behind on the final 4 miles to a heroic finish.
At the final few aid stations I noticed Alida would stand back a few yards while we spoke with Will. When he left she would have her own quiet conversation, at the last one walking a couple of hundred yards down the trail with him, supporting him as best she could. Wow.
At the final aid station, our last chance to see him before the end, Will requested a meat pizza at the finish. Usually a full Vegan in diet, finishing an event like this deserves something special! Alas, the organizers fell down here as well. At the Iron Man event there were tables groaning with pastas, pizza, and everything else for the competitors. Here, a mostly empty pan of chocolate mini- pretzels and a few forlorn bananas. Total fail.
Guess how many stores are open in Grand Coulee near midnight on a Saturday? None. Will would have to get by on his recovery shake with chocolate milk and the other foods we had with us.
Back at the finish the lights were back on and the emcees and volunteers were awaiting the final two entrants. When purple lady appeared she got to finish to the theme song from “Rocky,” which was cool. Will was the final finisher of the event. He jogged across the line to “We Are The Champions,” by Queen, and that song will trigger a memory of this event forever.
We packed up his gear and drove both cars back to the motel. Susan and I were both exhausted, and had not run a mile! Five hours later we were up and on our way home. Will and Alida would be along later, stopping in Leavenworth for a massive meal of Mexican food.
During the drive and the rest of Sunday I gathered my thoughts.
• All such events are not created equal. The official and sanctioned “half Iron Man” Will did last year and the full “Iron Man” this year spoiled me into expecting a level of organizational competence not evident here – to the detriment and physical danger of the competitors.
• A word about Alida. Remember the early days of the relationship with the person you’re with now? How would you have done spending 18 hours in a stress environment with his or her parents? Alida was positive, fun, gracious, and up for any challenge all day long. What an amazing young woman! Would I have done so well with Susan’s parents when we were dating? In a word – no.
• From talking to Will, I realize that the hardest aspect of these events is not the physical, and just the physical demands go beyond my ability to imagine. The mental demands are even worse. Will said the running at night, all alone in the dark, varied from peaceful and lovely to utter and complete despair. The same was true of some sections of the bike course. He stated that he did not think he would have been able to finish without knowing we were there for him. I’m not sure that is true, but it’s a measure of the difficulty that he would even say such a thing.
• As a father, this was really hard. It is agony to watch your child enduring enormous physical and mental pain and anguish, even knowing he signed up for it, trained for it, and loves it. These events are giving him much more than they take away, and the same is true for me, but what a toll. I noticed that for the 20 hours we were up for the event I did not eat or drink much at all and never got tired or even drowsy. I was focused on what was at hand, and that lasted, with 5 hours sleep Sunday morning, all the way home. While I was unloading the car my eyes began to flash off and on, like a projector with a loose bulb, and I got dizzy. I was so dehydrated and low on all foods that I needed to sit down – now – before my body sat me down. Restored by a ton of food and drink and a short nap, I felt so much better. Then my intestinal system weighed in with its own unsubtle protest.
• At the Iron Man I burst into tears a great many times, often for sights unrelated to Will. There were so many stories played out of such drama. Of course, when I saw Will in the finish chute and the announcer yelled out “Will Preston, You Are An Iron Man!” I was pretty much useless for several minutes as tears of my pride in him and joy and relief poured down my face. At this event I did not cry at all. Until I wrote this out…
• Will finished 6, of the 6 “Super Tri” competitors. Which is totally irrelevant. He finished in less than 18 hours, even with the lack of gels costing him an hour and a half, easily. That means that, if he were to get an entry, he could actually now complete the Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii. A couple of years ago that seemed a ridiculous thought to anyone, except him. He also WON his age group, which may also seem irrelevant, as he was the only entrant, but it is not.
• Next up is the Portland Marathon in two weeks. Run 4 miles less, without the 3 mile swim and the 120 plus mile bike ride. Last year he finished the Portland Marathon in just over 5 hours. This year should be interesting
• Important to keep in mind he is not doing this to win, to be all that competitive overall, or even in his age group. He is doing it for himself, and he is, in the very best senses of the word, winning.
David Preston Copyright 2012