I had always assumed I would know if my penis was bleeding. Dick trauma, I figured, was one of those things in life—like having sex or getting stabbed to death—that I’d be aware of when it was happening. But after 11 hours of swimming, biking, and running, I didn’t notice that blood was soaking into the padded chamois of my spandex shorts. Instead, I was talking to the guy next to me about the Adirondack Mountains that soared around us. His wife’s family has a camp up there. It’s where they got married. “Beautiful country,” he said, before turning to the side of the road and retching into a blueberry bush.
And so I kept going as he dry-heaved, shuffling away on legs so tired and filled with aches that they were asleep and on fire at the same time.
It is 6 p.m. on July 27, 2014. I had started the Lake Placid Ironman a little before seven in the morning. Then, it was dark and stormy, and the 2,000 wetsuited men and women crowded next to me at the swim start reminded me of nothing so much as my high school friends’ judgmental parents. But with a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and most of a 26.2-mile run behind me—and this guy doubled-over puking, and a woman in an IronGrandma race jersey limping along, beating on her cramping thigh, and all of us dragging ourselves toward the finish line of this idiotic contest—I am patting strangers on the back, urging them forward, shouting and meaning sports clichés I’d never even thought of saying, like, “Finish strong!”
Before we go any further, it’s important for you to understand that I am made of much softer stuff than iron. Until this writing, no group would have voted me Most Likely to Exercise Until Penis Injury. I was not a youth-league all-star. My parents drove me to compete in exactly one thing during my childhood: a monologue contest for young thespians. In college, I smoked and drank and spent my free time trying to woo liberal arts girls with literary theory. In New York, where I live now, I ride my bike to work and run enough to have finished a handful of marathons and some long trail races, but I’m an amateur amateur. I don’t belong to a running club or a swim team. I don’t call food “nutrition” or keep a workout journal, and until a few months before the Ironman, I’d never done a triathlon.
It’s important for you to understand that I am made of much softer stuff than iron.
So what the hell was I doing? During hundreds of hours of training, I thought a lot about that. Difficulty, I figured, was something missing from my life, and so I manufactured it. Or maybe it was an early-onset midlife crisis, something to inject masculinity into my metropolitan existence. Or it could be our bellicose world: America’s endurance exercise booms tend to correlate with periods of military action, so maybe I was feeling some sort of social pressure to act fit or be fit or look tough or show my strength. The Ironman is also an achievable goal—a difficult one, sure, but hundreds of thousands of people have done them—so maybe an underlying need for accomplishment or validation spurred me forward. Maybe. The truth is, big-picture thinking rarely squares with real life. It was probably one or two or all and then some when the interpretative lens of self-analysis pulled back for an establishing shot. Close-up, though, it was simpler: a book, booze, and a guilty hangover.
See, I like to listen to sports memoirs while I run, and one day last summer, I ended up downloading A Life Without Limits, the autobiography of four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington. Her story probably would have faded from memory as fast as the miles it helped tick away, but a few days after finishing it, I went to a friend’s bachelor party. We drank too much and smoked a lot and celebrated into the next morning. Somehow the whiskey and the beer and the Camels came together and fertilized a little seed left behind by that audio book. By the time I woke up with a scale model of the Sahara in my mouth, a bad idea had taken root. That evening, filled with guilt and low on serotonin, I spent 725 non-refundable dollars to register for the 2014 Lake Placid Ironman. That and some Advil, I figured, would get me back on track.
The next day, I pushed aside a legendary bout of buyer’s remorse and googled “Ironman training plan.” There it was—my next year laid out on a two-column spreadsheet. I bought goggles and learned to swim laps. I ran at lunch. Every weekend, I’d spend a few hours on my bike. At first, it was manageable. I just had to get up a little earlier, eat a little faster, skip a night out every once in a while. In time, though, it got harder.
On a Saturday morning in January, coffee and a book and climbing back under the covers is the right way to start a day, but I layered socks and cycling tights and jerseys in the pre-dawn light to head off into the winter wind for bike rides that would have me sweat-soaked and then trembling for hours. Even when the rides were over, as the shower’s hot water stung my hands and feet, I’d shiver from deep inside. Crawling back into bed, where my wife lazed with a second cup of coffee, I’d need slippers and sweats and sometimes a ski hat to feel comfortable.
“How was your ride?”
The rides and the runs and the swims were always fine, because they mostly were, but also, how could I admit when they were miserable? It was my choice. I’d volunteered for every bit of suffering; literally signed up and spent good money to trade spare time for the variety of happiness that only appears in hindsight.
Heading off into the cold to run or bike, or walking through the snow to swim lap after lap at the end of a workday when your wheels feel like they’re spinning can sometimes be a perfect release, but it can also turn to a dark place—a diorama of futility, a mirror for selfishness, a break-up song stuck on repeat. That was just the beginning.
When it warmed up, I’d acclimated to my training, so the volume increased. I went from around 10 or 12 hours each week to 15 and then to 20. That’s on top of a job and a wife and two dogs and friends. What did I do? On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I swam for an hour at lunch and ran for an hour after work. On Tuesdays and Thursday, I’d bike for three hours between six and nine in the morning. On Saturdays, I’d ride my bike for six hours, and on Sundays, I’d run for three more. Every night, I’d stretch my muscles and ice my aches and roll away my pains with a variety of balls and sticks and padded devices that my wife said looked like sex toys.
My body turned from lanky to ropey to muscled. I craved whole grains and lean meats and loads of vegetables. I slept like a log.
There were injuries too. Most workouts came with a niggling twinge or a worrisome pang. Training became a tight rope: I was fine until I wasn’t, and when I wasn’t, I’d fallen. Knees, shins, hips, feet, shoulders, elbows: At different times they each hurt enough to send me to an encyclopedia of athletic injuries, where I’d find new stretches and sex toys and exercises and tweaks to get me back to beating myself up until the next one came around.
Of course, there were upsides. For every dark day, there were 10 glorious ones with sunrises over the city or the perfect song at the perfect moment. My body turned from lanky to ropey to muscled. I craved whole grains and lean meats and loads of vegetables. A beer, maybe two, and liters of water was all I ever wanted to drink. I slept like a log. My mood changed. The little stresses of work faded into the background and a tired calm took the edge off just about everything. At first I thought all the exercise was making me dumb—somehow sapping my mind of the higher-level thought I’d always imagined accounted for my quietless brain—but in time I came to appreciate that a busy schedule and a glut of endorphins were like a guilt-free martini, and it was always 5 o’clock somewhere.
Months ticked by. I ran to meet friends after work. I biked to vacation destinations. I swam and turned and swam and turned and swam some more, and suddenly it was time. I loaded my bike on the car, filled an oversized duffel bag with gear and sex toys, and printed two copies of my registration form, just in case.
My wife and I drove from New York City to Lake Placid on a Thursday. The further north we got, the more similarly burdened vehicles we passed. It wasn’t like a concert, though, or the drive to a state fair or even a terrible traffic jam. We weren’t all in it together. We were competitors already, jockeying for position on the ribbon of asphalt, eying each others’ gear, assessing the testaments of tan lines, searching for softness in eyes hidden behind sporty sunglasses. At 70 miles per hour, I could feel their judgment.
At registration, all of the participants were given blue bracelets to wear for the weekend. I’m sure there were logistical reasons behind that choice but in practical terms, they served as little more than a marker for comparisons: How many has she done? Is that guy tougher than me? Are they as nervous as I am? If you asked, you’d get bluster, mostly.
“How are you?”
And then they’d tell you that they just got back from running this or biking that or swimming some obscene distance before adding that their butt aches or their calves are cramping or that the food or the water or the warm or the cold are adding some unforeseen element to a world that relies on consistency for confidence. The challenge demands it. Ironman triathletes aren’t just organized because they’re A-type tightwads but for the security of it. Routine is a safety net, and when you’re staring at somewhere between eight and 17 hours of swimming, biking, and running, assurances are as welcome as water and food.
The organizers know as much, and they’ve learned to profit from it. Walking through the “athletes village,” which is really just a temporary shopping mall, every item that isn’t memorabilia has a promise at its core: This helmet will make you faster, these pills will make you stronger, that ridiculous set of $800 inflatable recovery sleeves—they’ll make you look like the Michelin man, but that’s good for your butt. It hurts, right?
At a rest area, I stop and get into a port-a-potty just to hide from the wind. The fetid warmth of other people’s excrement decomposing in a plastic shack has never been so lovely.
The village is built on insecurity and sentimentality. A tribe of hucksters sells tchotchkes next to technology next to signs for a prayer breakfast next to a guy in a massage chair orgasmically moaning. We’re all ideal marks at this moment. We want help, we want to remember, we want to be ready, we’re already wearing our bracelets.
Away from the village, it’s lonely. In the hotel room, it’s me and my wife and piles of gear, but I’m really with my thoughts. I’ve sunk so much time and money and effort into this pointless thing, and now there’s nothing left to do but worry. I try to rest and read. I eat and take sips from a water bottle filled with a salty sweet endurance brew. I imagine the day: visualize the swim, remind myself to go slow on the bike, and prepare for the second half of a marathon that I’m sure will feel like it’s grinding me to pieces. I worry more.
I find a YouTube video I’ve watched a few times in the past year. It’s the most famous clip in Ironman history and maybe one of the best known from ABC’s Wide World of Sports: Julie Moss, a 23-year-old college student, is in the lead in the women’s field of the 1982 Hawaii Ironman. A few hundred yards from the finish, with a competitor close on her heels, she falls. It’s not just a tumble, though; it’s collapse. She devolves before an audience of millions. In a few steps, this gazelle of a woman, who’d dominated 140 miles of racing, becomes a helpless fawn. She’s wobbling on uncertain legs, tripping, flailing, crawling, shitting herself, and then dragging limbs toward the finish line. It’s as raw and moving as any video I’ve ever seen, and somewhere inside of it, on the night before this race, with nerves and fear and excitement bouncing around my stomach and a voyeur’s cynical detachment in my brain, there’s another reason for doing this, a reason for people to put themselves into an awful situation just to see what they can do. Because what’s more human than stupidity?
My alarm goes off at 4 a.m. The hotel has an early breakfast planned for race participants, so I slip onto a bar stool next to a long line of men and women who are talking either too much or not enough, tapping their feet, or thousand-yard staring. We’re a grand exhibition of nervous habits stuffing our faces with oatmeal and sipping coffee. I smear a bagel with peanut butter, shove a banana in my pocket, and start the walk over.
The day before, we all dropped our bikes at the transition area, along with color-coordinated bags labeled Bike, Run, and Special Needs. These are filled with the day’s necessities: shoes, socks, creams, and pills, sunglasses, watches, helmets, gloves, extra layers, and nutrition. For the day, I’ve packed five 200-calorie energy bars, six energy gels, a powdered drink mix that’s loaded with caffeine and three filled water bottles. There’s plenty to eat and drink at the aid stations along the way, so that’s not all I’ll have, but I know it’s a start.
In the street, a herd of volunteers mark us. Our blue bracelets have a race number and our age group on them, and these need to go on our skin, so hundreds of men and women are stripping down in the pre-dawn light to have strangers ink their shoulders and calves. From there, we wiggle through barricades and lines and circles of friends and crowds upon crowds of spectators to the swim start. I kiss my wife and walk into a sea of 2,000 wound-up, well trained, and mostly hairless men and women.
We start in waves, so there’s not too much of a crush, but still there are limbs to contend with and bumps and bruises. The first 1.2-mile lap passes. I’m fine. In the second, the rain starts. It’s not gentle, but it’s also not particularly noticeable with my face underwater and arms and legs splashing all around me. By the time I get out of the water, though, I realize that it’s not even eight in the morning, and it’s cold and raining hard. Thunder booms as I jog toward my bike.
Now I’m cold. It’s pouring rain. Everything is soaked and every inch of me is feeling the combined effects of wind and water and an overcast morning in the mountains. My teeth start chattering. Just outside of town, the bike route starts downhill, and for the next 10 miles it descends. It’s never frighteningly steep, but the cumulative effect is speed. If it were dry, I’d be going nearly 50 miles an hour, but I’m too worried about the wet road to go fast and too cold to push myself harder into the biting wind. I start to shake. First, I notice my feet wobble when I leave them at three and nine to coast, and then I see a shimmy in my front wheel. My arms are shaking and so my hands are shaking and so the bike is shaking and I’m zooming down a wet hill wearing an outfit that would make Superman blush. I try to will myself warm. I imagine a ball of energy passing through my appendages radiating heat. I tense all of my muscles. I bite my cheek. I shiver more and realize that if I don’t warm up there’s no way I’m going to finish the race. At a rest area, I stop and get into a port-a-potty just to hide from the wind. The fetid warmth of other people’s excrement decomposing in a plastic shack has never been so lovely, but I can’t stay. I slowly count to 30, open the door, and get back on my bike.
The rain tapers and then stops. The sun comes out. We’re all talking now, laughing at the cold, at the crashes we saw in the storm, at the flapping trash bags people are wearing as ponchos. We’re honest about our aches, about the hours of training, about the missed commitments and loved ones. We’re still racing each other, but only in the strictest sense. Really, we’re racing next to each other now, acutely aware that our real competition is the course and our bodies and minds and this event that is more idiotic and amazing than any of us could have imagined.
The run is quieter; mostly that’s the day’s fault. I’d been at it for eight hours before I started my marathon, and my body and my mind knew it. Running out of town, my legs burned and my knees ached and my whole body hurt.
Two hours later, I was halfway done and well into a new arena of agony. I was empty: empty of energy, empty of sweat, empty of piss, and empty of thoughts beyond the slow trickle of data that kept me upright and stumbling through the narrowing tunnel of immediate world. Truly, I was fucked up. Simple math, like figuring how long it would take me to finish based on how fast I was going, was far too much. Simple thoughts, like how I’d reward myself afterward, were far too distant. Everything was primal. I was going to finish, but not just me: They were, too—all of these strangers in sports sunglasses. I had next to nothing left but enough to tell them to finish strong, to wish them well, to pat them on the back and really mean it. As I pushed myself toward the finish, that was the real surprise.
A few minutes before 7 p.m., 12 hours after starting, I ran into Lake Placid’s Olympic Oval. The barricades were lined with thousands of cheering spectators, yelling for me, for their loved ones, for all of us at the same time because they’d seen us suffer our stupidity. They’d been tolerating it for months, watching for hours, standing in Super Bowl-sized crowds to see regular people pass them at regular speeds for an irregularly long time. I crossed the finish line pumping my arms.
A volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket and escorted me to a folding chair.
“Do you want pizza, water, and chocolate milk?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She checked on me again.
“Do you need the medical tent?”
I wandered zombie-like to get my bags. I saw my wife. She carried my things as I used my bike like a walker to get back to the hotel.
In the shower, I saw the blood in my shorts and the cuts on my penis. Friction, I guessed, but didn’t have another thought to give it.
I woke up early the next day. I hobbled to the hotel lobby and sat with a cup of coffee. Dazed-looking men and women in blue bracelets were already there. Others filed in. None of us could sleep, it seemed. We sat around one of those staged living rooms and talked quietly about the day before, about the lives we were going back to.
In the elevator, we congratulated one another; on the highway, too: At 70 miles per hour, we stretched from our passenger seats to exchange thumbs up. A tiny, final effort.