So they ride 180.2 kilometres and then make their final transition. You’ve probably seen them dismount, then jog along holding their bike and rolling it to a ‘parking spot’. There they quickly change their footwear and set off on the final leg of the Iron man event: the marathon.
The marathon has long been regarded as the most demanding of running events, requiring athletes to run a total of 42.2 kilometres – or 26 + miles. These guys do that after having swum 3.8 Km and ridden 180.2 kms!
In the 2007 Hawaiian Iron man event there were around 1700 competitors, ranging in age from teenagers to 60 years plus. The final athlete to finish took SEVENTEEN HOURS to complete the event. I watched the one hour video documentary of the event, and was moved almost to tears by the rousing cheers that greeted that lone runner as he crossed the line 17 hours after the race had begun. And I realised something: the Iron Man event isn’t about winning – it’s about pushing your body and your will and your spirit to keep going. It’s about a simple kind of heroism: the heroism of not giving up. He was the final athlete to cross the line, but it didn’t matter; his fellow athletes and friends and family cheered him on as if he were winning the event. Which, in a sense, he was.
My son has competed in nine Iran Man events in all, including two Hawaiian Iron Man contests: in 2006 and 2008, and he’s hoping to make it again in 2010. He’s in his mid-late 30s. In 2006 he finished beside the winner of the Women’s section, completing the course in a tick over 10 hours.
His slowest time for the event is 10 hours and 40 minutes. His fastest was 9 hours and 31 minutes. On that occasion he won his age group and was 10th overall.
In the International Iron man championships, his best time was 10 hours and 1 minute; he was 64th in his age group and 313th overall.
My son needs to produce a quality performance each time he competes. In the case of The Iron Man event, a quality performance is completing the course; a high quality performance is doing it in a creditable time. What makes a creditable time is not the time itself. It’s whether, given the conditions on the day – the heat or cold, the head wind or tail wind, the stillness or the chop in the water – and his level of preparation [whether he is well prepared or underdone} - the time is a good one.
I can’t imagine putting myself through such a physical ordeal. I’m blown away that anyone can do it. I’m immensely proud of the fact that he is committed enough, obsessive enough, mad enough to do it.
He probably thinks the same about my writing.
My body and mind have been in training for just such an event, so I was up for it, and I was to it. My body/mind knows how to produce a creditable performance on the day. My son has been working, day after day, to improve his swimming stroke, to increase the strength of his kicking, to deal with choppy water and still water, to judge if he’s going too fast or not fast enough, to keep his mind on the endlessly monotonous task of swimming five kilometres.
But more ‘crippling’ than these are the ‘mental’ barriers. In the poem Journey of the Magi T.S. Eliot wrote of the journey of the three wise men to be present for the birth of the Christ. One of the Magi narrates the tale:
A cold coming we had of it,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
And for many writers, that is probably the hardest part: keeping going, despite ‘ the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly’. Why do we bother? What’s the point? Who will read it any way?
Maybe it is all folly. But – and I speak only for myself - it’s my folly of choice; it’s the folly I choose in preference to the other follies that others pursue. I’ll leave my son to his folly – I’m not up to it these days, and probably never was; he can do the swimming and bike riding and running - I'll just keep writing. And teaching. For a while, at least.