It was late in the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 28, in Penticton, B.C., 10 kilometres into the marathon portion of Ironman Canada, and I was in trouble. The sun shone heartlessly from a still, cloudless sky, as it had done since I had begun the race at 7 a.m. Now, more than nine hours later, I was baking like a potato.
On the six-hour-plus bike ride that preceded the marathon, I had had two flat tires, and sitting in the hot sun changing them, I had become dehydrated. Now my body was shutting down, one muscle at a time, one organ at a time.
The hot air covered my body like a second skin. When I tried to run, I felt like I might throw up or pass out, or both. I knew these were classic symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion. And I still had more than 30 kilometres to go. I started walking.
This was my seventh Ironman since my first one 10 years ago when I turned 50. I have also completed a lot of shorter triathlons, more marathons than I can easily remember and many long-distance bicycling events.
I have grown accustomed to the bemusement with which some of my friends and relatives view my long-distance athletic pursuits. Reactions have ranged from a bland “Good for you,” as if I had just finished eating all my lima beans, to the more common, “You guys are nuts!”
The physical stress of doing an Ironman can be uncomfortable. Swimming four kilometres, biking 180 kilometres, then running 42 kilometres amounts to a full day of non-stop exertion. Yes, there can be pain. But for me, an endurance event is not just one day of sore muscles – it’s a whole season’s worth of training, planning and dreaming. I get a lot for my entry fee.
It’s fine with me if everyone doesn’t embrace my philosophy; we are all different. But just once I would like to hear someone say: “I’ve tried to understand why you do this stuff and I just can’t see it. I guess it’s not for me,” rather than, “You guys are nuts!”
Are we any different than someone who sits in a room all Sunday afternoon sticking used postage stamps into an album? Or someone who, although he possesses not one iota of musical talent, heads out every week to sing in a church choir?
At the halfway point of the marathon I sat down on the curb and considered my future. It was getting dark and I felt alone and dispirited. I had thought I would be finished by now.
In the twilight semi-darkness I became aware of someone sitting next to me. He asked me how I was doing. Without looking up, I complained a bit about feeling nauseated and lightheaded, and not having the strength to move at more than a walking pace.
“Then just walk it in,” he said. “But walk with purpose and determination. You’ll get there.”
It was only when I looked over to wish him well that I saw his face and body were covered in fresh scrapes and cuts. His arm was bandaged and one finger was in a splint. He had obviously had a bad bike crash earlier in the race and must have been in a universe of pain. I heaved myself up off the curb and started walking again.
Edmund Hillary said that people do not decide to become extraordinary; people decide to do extraordinary things.
In all honesty, my body is about as ordinary as they come. I am not innately muscular or fast. I have no genetic predisposition for athletics, and I could no more win a bicycle race than Lance Armstrong could sing Handel’s Messiah. But I love the process of training my mind to ask my ordinary body to do extraordinary things.
This process for me is not so much about physical achievement as it is about setting a goal to try something new and exciting, planning the steps to accomplish that goal, then working to execute the plan. Goals are beacons for me and I would be lost without them. I move forward in my life by moving toward my goals.
On the road, I walked in darkness from one aid station to the next. Between each one I was able to drink exactly one cup of Gatorade and eat one pretzel. This was not enough to sustain life, let alone fuel me to finish a marathon, but it was all I could stomach without feeling sick. An old Ironman affirmation became my mantra: “I’m alive, and I’m moving forward. That’s all that matters.”
It was now late and the cool night air moved past my body like black water. I walked back into town thinking of all the athletes who had finished before me and all who would finish after me, each of us locked in negotiation with our dreams and realities. I thought of the injured man who had inspired me to get back on my feet. When I finally reached the bright lights and cheers of the finish line, I had been walking for nearly six hours. Incredibly, it was not my slowest Ironman ever, but it was far from my fastest. And now, it was accomplished.
We are not nuts, we athletes. And contrary to the finish line spin, we are not made of iron. We are ordinary people who try to turn a dream into a reachable goal. Whether you are planning to scale Mount Everest or to run your first 5K, I believe there is a kind of quiet heroism in setting goals, in finishing what you start, in doing what you said you would do, in keeping the promises you made to yourself and to others, and in honouring those who do the same. Is that really so crazy?
Christopher Cameron lives in Toronto.