Editorial by Tom Demerly.
Ironman Canada 1998. My memory
is a bit fuzzy, so I'm taking editorial license, but
the basis is fact:
A woman enters the final
block of the race, only a few hundred feet from the
finish line. The clock says 11 hours and change. This
has been an excellent performance for her. Most of the
racers are still on the course and she has had a fantastic
race under difficult, hot, windy conditions.
She has about 50 feet to
11 hours. That's pretty darn
good. She was way up there in her age category from
the looks of things. This almost guarantees a spot for
After all the work she had to do, all the time
she put in, all the schedule juggling, the pain, the training
in bad weather, when she was tired, when she was sore, when
the water was cold. Anyway, she did it all and with some incredible
inspiration, desire to race and perform exceptionally well (not
just finish) and a lot of skill or experience. Most thirty-five
something females don't just walk onto an Ironman course and
knock out an 11 hour race. Clearly, we were dealing with an
As an elite athlete, you can make certain assumptions
about this women. She was tan and fit, obviously. She wore racing
clothes with a few sponsors on them so she was obviously highly
revered and recognized where ever she came from: Maybe San Diego,
Boulder, Vancouver. One of those places good athletes come from
and live the athletic lifestyle. Despite her impressive finish
time she looked entirely composed as she began her final steps
toward those marvelous gates of Heaven, that set of white arches
with the finish tape across it- The Ironman Finish Line.
And for her this would be an incredible finish.
11 hours. You know she had a special bike, worth thousands.
She had done the rides, the strength training, the speed work,
the diet. I know, you already know that.
Then she had to do the race. Ironman Canada is
not an easy course. No matter how good your preparation you
will still die a thousand deaths out there on the course as
you push through a constant labyrinth of personal barriers.
Funny things happen to you at Ironman. Things
from your past come back to haunt you as your ego and ambitions
are slowly stripped away by the heat, the hours, the continuous
torture of slow, non-stop movement. You are distilled. Distilled
to your basic elements and the things that truly make you, you.
You better be comfortable with them too, or be able to beat
them back down inside yourself if you're not. Your inner character
can either be a limitless fuel tank of power and inspiration
at Ironman, or your greatest demon depending on what kind of
person you have chosen to be in your life. If you have children
their faces will come to you in your mind during the eleventh
hour to accompany you. You will picture their proud smiles as
you near the finish. If you are married or in love the promise
of a hug will levitate you over the final miles. If you are
a doctor who has lost a patient that person's name and face
may return to you once your ego has been ground away through
abrasion with 140.6 miles of pavement. If you are a soldier
who has seen the eyes of a life you have taken you will see
those eyes again. So the sum total of what has shaped who you
are will surface, good, bad- all of it. It will either slow
you down or speed you up. Depends on how you use it and what
you've done. Ironman is like rewinding the videotape that is
your entire life- then fast forwarding through the whole thing
in the last two hours of the race.
With 50 feet to go this woman knew she had it
in the bag. The work had worked, the training paid off and now
it was party time. Massage tent, hot tub, pizza. Everything.
Only 50 feet - a few seconds.
If you've done this you know how that last 50
feet feels. Your heart is drawn out of your chest and held in
the clouds. It is a feeling of blissful, undiluted absolute
perfection like none other in life. Just for those few seconds.
I imagine it as taking every narcotic simultaneously and then
having a massive orgasm while winning the $300 million dollar
lottery and then being knighted. Again, if you've done it, you
know what I'm talking about. It's huge.
So, this woman: 35 feet from the finish now. The
bleachers are packed, the crowd is going nuts. People are on
their feet. Waving banners, flags, the music is loud but the
crowd is louder. A large part of the crowd is doing that thing
where a hundred people are bouncing up and down simultaneously
in one unified, massive celebration of movement and noise and
reverie. The finishing stretch is all manner of jubilant riot.
Her form is good, her footfall straight and sure.
She holds her upper body high and still looks strong and fast.
If the race were another 10 miles I doubt it would have been
a problem. She does not look destroyed, and a smile crosses
20 feet to go.
There is a plastic chair off to the corner of
the finishing stretch right before the finish in front of the
crowd barrier. One of those cheap, molded orange plastic chairs
you wait in while at a government agency. A tired race volunteer
or finish line official may have used it to rest before the
first finishers came in, but now everybody is on their feet
so the chair sits empty and forgotten, off to the corner.
As inconspicuously as possible the woman spots
the chair, veers left and heads for it. She is less than 15
feet from the finish tape. The girls at the finish line are
holding the finish tape for her to cross the line. The race
photographer has his camera up to shoot her finish photo.
The woman runs to the fence and sits down in the
chair, no more than six feet from the finish.
She actually sits down. After eleven hours and
change, a perfect race, months of training, you know- all the
rest- she reaches the finish line and sits down. After all that
work, all that pain.
For a moment the crowd is quieter. Those who notice
her point her out to others who don't. Oh my God, she must be
delirious. She must be going to vomit, or pass out, or keel
over or mess her pants. Clearly her composure was a façade.
Now she is sitting in the orange plastic chair in front of the
finish as the clock does that ruthless thing it does when it
turns over the seconds with all the empathy of an IRS auditor
or a hangman in a black hood. All those seconds she fought for,
all that time she worked months to save. Now it is carelessly
squandered as she sits in that damn orange chair. 11:12:13,
She gives the seconds away as
though she did not have to fight months for them.
Today her heart has beat about 99,000 times during
the race at a rate of about 150 beats per minute. That is more
than most people's heart beats in a day and a half, all in 11
hours. For every one second she is in this race (all 39,600
seconds) she has trained at least a full minute. Do the math,
this woman has devoted a year of her life to save seconds in
her race. And now she sits in a chair six feet from the finish,
letting it all go.
The crowd can't understand it. But another finisher
rounds the corner and they turn their collective celebration
toward them. The music is still loud and crowd still riotous
so the massive Mardi Gras that is the Ironman finish goes on
for the long procession of finishers that continue to, with
increasing frequency (but decreasing athletic ability) cross
the finish line.
And the woman still sits in the orange chair.
She watches the now constant stream of finishers with a little
smile. I notice a person in the crowd has handed her a bottle
I went to the bathroom and came back. It was over
an hour later. People finished the race with babies on their
shoulders, kids in tow, waving flags. You know how it works.
I was in a different place now but I checked:
The woman was still in that chair. She had given away nearly
two hours now. The crowd has forgotten her. I briefly considered
walking up the road, trying to cross the street, wind my way
around the back of the crowded bleachers, fight through the
crowd to the fence and ask her, "Ahh, excuse me, but I
was just wondering why you did an 11 hour race and have been
sitting six feet from the finish line for 2 hours while your
Hawaii spot, age group award and awesome finish went out the
.?" But then I thought she's probably some
kind of nut case.
After all the commitment it took to get to the
finish in 11 hours she sits 6 feet from the finish while the
clock ticks away. She probably would have been on the first
page of results with a finish like that, but now she slides
farther back with every second that passes, every person that
crosses the line in front of her. She even claps politely for
A man rounds the left-hand corner. He is slightly
gray, super fit, but obviously the day and the course and the
distance has worked the guy over. He is in the hurt locker.
This will not be a graceful finish, and the crowd knows it.
He has the slightest "list" in his gait. He's a little
crooked. A little bent over. His face has an expression of desolation
on it. He has used what he had and is now running on fumes.
The crowd cheers him, as they do everyone. Another man rounds
the corner, passes him quickly and thrusts both arms up as the
finish line comes into view. Our man, the gray man, keeps ambling
forward in a slow, painful shuffle of a trot.
The woman in the orange chair sees the man with
the gray hair. She stands up and runs over to where he is trying
to maintain some version of a running stride as he slowly closes
on the finish. He sees her and is like a young Marine called
to attention. His back straightens, his arms come up, his head
becomes higher and his face is luminous with a smile of recognition
and longing. He runs the fingers of his right hand through his
disheveled hair to make himself more presentable to this woman.
Now they are running along side each other. She
is trying to say something to him but he is beaming now, taking
in the crowd, waving, and holding her hand as they run, now
hand in hand, to the finish.
The crowd sees this. The forgotten woman who was
in the orange plastic chair who came around the corner over
three hours ago, the once tired man, now revitalized, hand in
They go bonkers. The volume is cranked up three
The woman in the orange chair, who rounded the
final corner a block from the finish in around eleven hours,
waited for the man with the gray hair. She waited for him so
they could finish together. So their names would be together
on the results page. And finish together they did. Hand in hand,
big smiles on both their faces. An experience they own together
now, forever. In the final hours and minutes of their lives,
when they reflect back on regrets and things they treasure,
surely this day will be at the top of both of their lists. "Remember
when we finished Ironman together?"
Training for Ironman is a huge commitment. Like
many huge commitments, like going to college, serving in the
military, starting a business, buying a house. It is right up
there with the biggest commitments you make in life. It's huge.
But her commitment to him was greater than her commitment to
the clock or the results book or her training. As she demonstrated
with her quiet, dignified vigil at the finish, her commitment
to him was greater than her commitment to her own ambition.
But the woman in the orange chair knew something
not everyone realizes, and for those paying attention, she taught
this lesson on that day:
Commitments to people are bigger than commitments