I recently ventured to Whistler, British Columbia to watch my dad complete his sixth Ironman triathlon at the spry age of 66. Let me tell you something about Ironman if you’ve never seen one in person: the entire gamut of human emotion is on display during the race. Ironman is an exhibition of strength and fortitude as well as an arena of pain and suffering. Witnessing that spectacle put me through a cycle of emotions, ranging from feeling inspired to disturbed to pure jubilation. The whole thing left me so exhausted I’d rather race an Ironman than watch another. Despite my weariness after the race, I was energized and awe-struck by the sheer determination on display through the forested mountains around that majestic place.
My dad and his buddies arrived a few days before me in Whistler. When I walked through the door of our condo I wasn’t greeted by a group of anal triathletes in compression tights obsessing and whining about the intricacies of the course. I was treated to a glass of vodka and orange juice followed by a dip in the hot tub with my dad for a heavenly post-travel soak. We did that again the night before the race, laughing, joking and drinking. Not exactly what I’d consider ideal race prep, but my dad didn’t go to Whistler to win.
Here’s the thing about my dad: he races for fun. He competes not to win, but because he can. It’s an amazingly simple, yet simultaneously profound concept that can get lost amongst the obsessive-compulsive, Type-A triathlon crowd who count their calories and calculate their pace down to the second to qualify for Kona. He lives a healthy lifestyle and racing Ironman is a representation of that culture. Triathlon isn’t just a sport in my family; it’s a way of life. My dad instilled that mantra in my brother and I from a young age and we’ve grown up loving endurance athletics because of the example he set. He’s not trying to beat anyone or prove anything. He races because he loves it and I have unlimited respect and admiration for him because of that attitude.
There were a few tense moments as we waited near the finish to spot my dad as the Midnight deadline crept closer. We were expecting him to finish around 15 hours but he was pushing the 17-hour cutoff. My brother and I camped out in a dark corridor lit by the fluorescent gleam of glow sticks littered across the ground. We could make out the faint roar of the finish line and I wondered if my dad could hear that same rumble and would feed off that energy like a moth drawn to a light.
After about 10 minutes at that spot, I announced out loud, “Dad will be the next person we see.” Seconds later, a figure emerged from the darkness, his determined gait bounding toward us. Sure enough, it was the old salty dawg himself, as my brother calls him, speed walking his ass off, striding toward the finish with vigor and confidence.
We screamed with excitement and flanked him the last mile to the finish. I had to jog to keep his pace. He’s had to master the art of speed walking since his 66-year old knees are now void of cartilage. Spectators shouted words of encouragement, yelling things like “you’re almost there” and “you can do it.”
“You can do it,” my dad snarked in a sarcastic tone. “Of course I can [insert expletive that rhymes with truckin] do it, I didn’t come all this way not to finish.”
After walking 26.1 miles, he broke into a magnificent run for the last tenth of a mile because there was “no way in hell” he was walking across the finish line. He crossed the line in 16 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds.
Ironman is full of inspirational stories. People race to honor loved ones, because they defeated cancer or overcame a drug addiction. Some people race to win and some just to finish. What inspires me most about my dad is his recognition that triathlon brings out the best in him and brings our family closer together. It strengthens friendships and fortifies bonds. My best friends, like my dad’s, are the ones I’ve met through triathlon. You get to know someone pretty well on a five hour training ride. I love seeing how much he enjoys racing and it inspires me to pass that stoke along.
His dream is to do an Ironman with my brother and I. After witnessing the steady stream of elated yet defeated bodies hobbling across the finish, I have to admit, it’s hard to picture myself racing an Ironman. I’ve done hundreds of Olympic races and one half, but Ironman is an entirely different beast. But if he can do it, I know I can too, and I’m sure it’ll be agonizing and awesome.