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.
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
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
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
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
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
It got worse.
I hit the beach after what seemed
like an infernally long time and looked at my watch: 34:00
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."
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 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
"Got a flat?" I asked
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
I am going
to have to practice that. It would have taken me twenty
"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
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
"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
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
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
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.