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Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom crosses bridge in difficult territory

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 go.

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 Hawaii. Awesome.


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 elite athlete.

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. Total bedlam.

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 her face.

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, 11:12:14, 11:12:15…… 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 of water.

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 window….?" 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 them.


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 hand, together.

They go bonkers. The volume is cranked up three notches.

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 to things.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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