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Lemonade
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Tom meets king.
Dammit.

I fly half way around the world (literally), train for three months, build a new bike and spend a couple thousand bucks on the trip and guess what: I get a nasty chest cold and a bad back.

Dammit.

At the start of the 2003 Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Phuket, Thailand I was ready for at least a pretty good race. Sure, I had the chest cold the week before I left, but no big deal. I get a cold every year. Standard deal. Just deal with it. On race morning I popped some cold medicine and inhaled some steam and put my race clothes on. I didn't come this far and train this hard to watch the race. I've been watching far too many races over the last couple years. It was time to get back in the show.

Beautiful start to this race. Everything surrounding this race is beautiful. I'm convinced that when a triathlete dies they just come to this race and do it over and over again, every day. It's triathlon heaven.

We're all lined up on the beach, 405 of us give or take, some of the best pros in the world- everybody starts at the same time, one big wave running down the beach into the water. This is old-school triathlon, triathlon the way it should be. No mamby-pamby wave starts, no stupid "stagger" rule on the bike course. This is the straight deal.

The gun goes off and off we go. Thundering down the beach like a heard of Thai elephants to the beautiful, warm, crystal clear Andaman Sea.

I did my homework, I knew what I had to do to win my age category here, and I think I could do it. I had done it and more in training. I just had to finish in around 3:10:00 or 3:11:00 based on previous years' age category winners. I could do that. A win looked pretty good, top three was in the bag. One way or another, I was going to the stage at the awards ceremony. And I was looking forward to it. Trophies to the top three in each age category. Cool, I had room in my duffel bag for mine and some bubble wrap in my bike case to keep it safe on the flight home. Usually I don't keep race awards. I give them away or they just wind up in a box somewhere. I've kept a few, and this is one I was going to keep. This was the big comeback, the return to the old Tom Demerly who won all the time. It was good to be back.

Splash, I hit the water. The swim is starting. I did this swim section a couple days ago in under 30:00. My swimming is coming around. I started scooping handfuls of thick, salty ocean water behind me and I watched the rippled sand on the bottom underneath me begin to accelerate. You know that good feeling you get when you can pull yourself through the water effortlessly and you can feel the power in your shoulders? I totally had that.

Then "kink". This weird twisting sensation in my back and a burning sensation in my butt and in the back of my legs.

I hurt my back years ago in the military. It was a pretty serious injury, what back injury isn't? I survived it and recovered 99.99%. But today was that .01% that bites me in the ass about every three years like clockwork.

Dammit. I knew it right away. Not today. Not this race. Please.

There is only one thing to do in a case like this. Swim harder. So I started digging. And it got worse. I backed off a little. And it got worse. I decided to go for the slam-bang finish and swam with everything I had.

It got worse.

I hit the beach after what seemed like an infernally long time and looked at my watch: 34:00 and change.

Dammit.

When I stood up I was like, "Whoa, this doesn't feel right…" My legs were going numb. There was a :30 second run across a section of beach then another 300 meters of swimming across the lagoon to the swim finish. I hit the lagoon and started swimming again. Standing up and running across the beach hadn't done me any favors. It really hurt now. But more worrisome than that, it just felt weird.
That kind of weird when you know there is something structural going on but you can't specifically identify it.

When I stood up at the timing matte I hit my Timex Ironman watch at 44:16. That was it. There went my age category victory, just like that. I needed to be at least four minutes faster (minimum) to still be in the hunt. I went from contender to pretender. Actually, I wasn't pretending at all. I knew what this meant. I would be lucky to get through the bike.

I did get through the bike though. I left the transition area after a pretty leisurely transition and headed out toward the Tiger's Back, the series of three tough climbs that make this race an ordeal. Today I was going to be feeding the Tiger. He'd make a meal out of me.

On the very cusp of the orange cat's back I knew this would be ugly. Standing, sitting, my easiest gear: I couldn't get out of my own way. And my back hurt like hell now. Both my legs felt like they were asleep. My feet were completely numb.

Not good. Dammit.

I started to think (always a mistake), "You know Tom, it has been a long life. You've lived the life of three regular people and you should be dead three times over. Maybe this is nature's way of saying 'enough'. Maybe you should wheel over there to the side of the road, cheer some people on, wait for the sag wagon and call it a career."

Fuck that.

Sometimes you have a rotten day. This is a tough sport. I have been through hell, especially this last year, but I'll be damned if I'm hanging it up now. Not like this. We had a saying in the military, and I believe it to this day: "There is something to be said for dying with your boots on." We used to listen to this Iron Maiden song to get pumped up: "If you're gonna die, die with your boots on!"

The cat would have to bite harder than this. I stayed on the Tiger's Back.

It was interesting what happened though. I started looking around. A lot of people had passed me and a lot more were passing me now. They were struggling too. I was really hurting now and asked a passing Australian guy for an allen wrench. I thought, "If I raise my saddle a bit maybe that will force me to stretch my legs out longer and loosen my back up some." I'd loose power output but I didn't have any of that right now anyway so no loss.

"No problem Mate." He said, and he pulled an allen wrench out of his seat pack and handed it to me. I stopped and raised my saddle a full 7mm. It sort of helped a little. I could go 16 M.P.H. on the flats. It was pretty humiliating. I should be going 22 or 23 M.P.H. minimum.

Looking around I began to see other people's experiences in the race. They were still racing. Even the people back here near the middle and back of the pack; they were still keeping their head down, a look of concentration on their faces. I had to sit up; it was too uncomfortable for me to maintain the aero position. I rode bolt upright with my hands on my elbow pads like a dork. I made some kind of transition in my head, in my mindset: I though, "Hey, I'm just going to enjoy the race. It is warm and sunny out; I'm on a good road in the jungle in one of the coolest races in the world. This is still pretty much top of the heap."

Here's my point in telling you all this: People do triathlons and endurance sports for different reasons; some of them "bad", some of them "good". Some have an axe to grind, something to prove, or are just plain bullheaded. Good for them I guess. It isn't my place to pass judgement on their motives.

However, there are a lot of potential endurance athletes out there who may watch Ironman or the Tour de France on TV, be inspired and enthused but never make that epic journey from the couch to the pavement to act on their inspiration. When you ask them why they say, "Oh, I could never do that." They are wrong. They could do it.

When you delve deeper into their mindset they start to tell you things like, "I'm afraid I won't do well. It will be embarrassing." Well, they're right about that. There are times when they won't do well. That happens to everybody. It is part of the sport. And there will be times when it is embarrassing. In the first triathlon I did 21 years ago I was second from last. In the next one I was second overall. You have good days, you have bad days. It is part of the sport.

One thing I can say is that at some point people make a decision to be an endurance athlete. This sport is not so much a sport as it is a lifestyle. Depending on your involvement it can be pretty consuming. For some people, they own it: For others, it owns them.

When I was feeling the disappointment of not doing well in Laguna Phuket the sport owned me. The clock wasn't telling me my performance wasn't any good. I was telling myself my performance wasn't any good. Then I took ownership of the sport and my performance: "Hey, I'm having a bad day. I'll have better days. I haven't raced in a while and I'm just getting back in the saddle. This is what I do though. I am an endurance athlete and today I have to pay some late membership dues. There is no better way to pay them than under the hot Thai sun in the middle of paradise during my hometown off-season. This is a valve I have to pass through. I might as well enjoy it"

The entire race took on a different perspective right then. I became a tourist. I was on vacation. It was fun.

And I was an endurance athlete again. "Welcome back Tom Demerly" the race seemed to say, "Now here's the ass-kicking you so rightly deserve after a year off."

This is not to suggest that ripping your guts out and tearing over the top of the Tiger's Back and wrestling the cat to the ground then leaving it in the dust wouldn't have been big fun too. It would have. Being fit and having a great race is killer. It is a day in the sun. But this was just a different experience. I had some inkling that this type of experience existed within a race, but I had never really experienced it too much. I had done some racing over the past couple years but nothing really serious where I actually trained specifically for the event. It was just kind of like, "enter it and do your best". I hadn't done my homework in a long time though. This did feel kind of weird though. This time I showed up for class with my homework done and I was still only getting "C" at best. But maybe I should be grading myself on a different scale today. Hey, at least I was back in the fight. There is something to be said for that. And I still had my boots on, figuratively speaking. After this past year, losing my best friend, surviving a $1 million lawsuit that lasted two and a half years and the crappy economy and a bunch of other bullshit, that was some kind of accomplishment I guess. And besides, who says doing this has to be any kind of "accomplishment" anyway? Nope, starting right then, I was off the clock. I was on vacation. Bad back and all. I was taking it easy.

I saw a guy up ahead on the left (you drive on the left side of the road in Thailand) with a flat rear tire. He was doing that thing people do when they try to get their rear wheel off but don't really know what they are doing. I stopped behind the guy and got off my bike.

"Got a flat?" I asked him.

"Ahh, yeah."

He just stepped aside. I pulled his rear wheel out and he just handed me the tire levers, inner tube and Co2 inflator that were in his hand. I changed his flat.

"Man, see… I am going to have to practice that. It would have taken me twenty minutes."

"No sweat. Have a good 'un."

I got back on my bike. He was already pretty far up the road. A few minutes later feeling starting returning to parts of my lower body and with it the very clear indication that I had to pee. Normally in a race I would do the "Tour de France" thing and pee off the side of the bike and full speed. But what the heck. I wanted to check out one of these rubber plantations I had heard so much about. So I stopped again.

Each of the rubber trees had these little holes in them and a funnel wired to the tree. Presumably the tree somehow disgorged the rubber fluid from inside its trunk and the rubber farmer collected it in a bucket. At least that is how it appeared. I have no idea why the stuff was just running out all over the ground. Maybe the trees produce the rubber sap for a while and then stop or the farmer has to drill deeper into the tree or whatever. There was no one around to ask. I finished peeing and got back on the bike.

I got off another two times to try to fix my back but it never got much better. I figured I might not be able to even start the run. I had no idea what would happen when I stood up off the bike and started running.

In T2 I changed shoes pretty leisurely and cleaned my new prescription Oakley Half Jacket XLJ's so I could see where I was going on the run. Then I took those first few steps. It wasn't bad. I could run about a 9 or 10 minute mile pace. I just jogged along. A couple guys passed me. I passed a guy walking who looked like he was in much better shape than I was.

I started settling into the run and actually was getting into it. It felt like I was at the end of a 100-mile run though. My body was hammered. I started thinking about the $8 massage on the beach. That was going to be one of my first stops after crossing the finish line. Crossing the finish line. I have done over 200 of these things in my life and never failed to at least cross the finish line. Man, I hope I'm not jinxing myself by saying that here. I ran into a couple guys I knew from here and there and starting shooting the breeze with them. They are pilots and we were talking about airplanes, flying weather, etc.

"Well," One of the guys said, "I better get back at this. Damn, It is hot today. I'm glad I'm not flying today. It would be like flying in a milkshake."

He started running again and I figured, "what the heck. I'll run with him too." And started running again myself.

One feature of this tenth anniversary of the Laguna Phuket Triathlon was a 1-mile run on the beach. As race director Murphy Reinschrieber put it at the pre-race meeting, "People save money all their lives so they can walk on this beach, you guys get the chance to run on it…"

I'm good at running on sand. I've done it a lot and I think it is an excellent surface to run on if you know how to do it. We ran down onto the beach and I have to tell you, this was ridiculous. I mean, this was like something way out of a movie. It was absolutely incredible. The water was dead calm- the surface still and glossy in the mid day heat. It was as clear as sparkling clean glass. There was no color to the water except way out on the horizon. It was just the luminous, sun baked white of the sand on the bottom. The water was a glossy veneer over the top. The beach was utterly pristine: White sand (of course, this is a movie set), perfect slope, the sand in the tide zone packed firm and moist. It was excellent footing. Awesome. I actually made up some ground on this section. I caught Laura Earley of Taiwan, a customer of ours, and we ran together for a while. Laura was having a pretty darn good race. We vowed to finish in under four hours.

One thing about that beach run though, I'll tell you, it must have been over 100 degrees on that beach. It was a furnace.

We ran through an aid station at the end of the beach and up onto the road and I could hear the loudspeaker from the finish line about a half-mile away. This one was in bag. Another one down. I was gonna make it. Good.

The finish venue is at the Banyan Tree, a resort once voted the "Best Resort in the World" by Conde Naste travel magazine. The resort is beautiful and they really rolled out the red carpet for the finish line.

Around the corner and there it is. I cross the finish line, they say my name, a bunch of photographers take my picture, a couple people say "Good job Tom." And then I'm done.

I like being at the finish area for a few minutes. There are athletes sitting around on the grass. They give you a nice little lunch in a box and I eat everything in there and drink a couple bottles of ice cold water and two freezing cold Cokes.

I had a bad race but a good day. I'm back in the fight and it feels good. A bad day in Laguna Phuket is better than a great day anywhere else.

And besides, this gives me an excuse to go back next year. As if I needed one.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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