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The Abyss
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly on top of mountain

“If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss begins to stare back.” ---Frederick Nietzsche.

“You can quit if you want, and no one will care. But you will know the rest of your life.” – John Collins.

“No one cares if you do Ironman. It’s only important to you.” – Competitor at start line of 1997 Ironman Canada.

It’s a funny thing about Ironman. Once you enter the thing, the full weight of it starts to rest on your shoulders. And Legs, and back and arms. It is a heavy weight to bare, and the training is tough. I don’t think people realize the full gravity until a few weeks after their on-line registration has been processed.

Ironman has been the Holy Grail of triathletes since the very first one back in 1978. For a lot of triathletes it is a graduation exercise. Once you finish the event, you’ve “arrived”. At least that’s what a lot of people think.

I spend a considerable time thinking about people’s motivation for doing Ironman. No doubt, there are many motives. Everybody enters and competes for his or her own reasons, and everybody takes a unique experience away from it. The factors that would inspire people to put themselves through an Ironman distance race are fascinating. We see so many people come through our door doing their first Ironman, or their fifth, that learning a little about what makes them tick is part of what makes this job fun.

The race is really hard, so it has to be something deeply ingrained that drives you to the finish line. Whether your motives are healthy or unhealthy- constructive or destructive (and who’s to decide that anyway?), they have to be built into every suffering cell of your body when you enter those final ugly hours of pure, unmitigated suffering.

And once you cross the finish line it’s up to you to decide what that means. Did you prove something? No doubt: Absolutely. But what? You reap what you sow in Ironman just like in life. What you prove may say something good about you, or something bad. I’ve met people who have had incredible days at Ironman. It is a magical day of self-discovery, growth, acknowledgement of a lot of hard work and fun. Yup, fun: Even when you are sore, tired and really wanting to be finished you can still think to yourself, “Man, I am in The Show.” Ironman is the big show, and I think many people join me in saying it is fun to be a player in the performance.

For the most part in our lives we don’t get to be a member of a grand performance on a day to day basis. There really is something alluring about being able to say, “Yeah, I’m doing this one…”

Regardless of what it takes to finish the race, what you experience in the race, and then what you take away from it, you have to come to grips with getting ready for it. It is a lot of work. Most of it is good work. The kind of hard, dedicated work that builds you up and makes you feel increasingly stronger. When you finish a hard day of good training you say, “Man, I got that workout behind me. That’s a feather in my cap. That’s one step closer to being ready for this race.”

Then there is the other kind of work. The ass busting, heart breaking, freezing cold or burning hot workouts that tears you apart. Those workouts leave you wanting food, a shower, a couch and a blanket but not necessarily in that order. They are sometimes so long and so hard they make you afraid to train again. They break you, and you have to build yourself up again. I can remember a recent run when I came home, sat down in my kitchen and cried I felt so awful. I made some tea, drank it, got in the shower and felt better. It really hurt. Those workouts don’t make you feel much stronger. They just hurt. Eventually though, the effects scar over and you do become stronger.

So when you sign up for Ironman you also sign up for those things. The good, the bad- it’s a package deal.

Ironman is a commitment, and the way you handle it is indicative of how you handle the other commitments in your life. If you prepare with diligence, courage and consistency it is probable that you will be rewarded with a fine performance on race day. Bad luck can still rear its ugly hand, but for the most part, the race is over before the cannon goes off. If you did the homework, you will pass. If not, you will die a thousand deaths. Oh, you’ll still finish. Anybody can drag his or her dead ass across the finish line given enough time, and 17 hours is enough time. But I think the quality of your preparation and performance says a lot.

If your preparation hasn’t been adequate there will be no place to hide at Ironman. It’s like any other commitment, if you aren’t really prepared for it, it might be better to wait until you are. Some people keep Ironman in perspective. It’s just a race you know, and we are supposed to be doing this for fun. For others, it takes on some huge “meaning”.

Not to be a dick, but I don’t get that. You are the same person before the gun goes as you are after you cross the finish line. Maybe it is just a matter of proving it to yourself. Or everyone else. Ultimately though, you’re no different after you finish than before you begin.

Just like any other commitment there is the “Oh shit” moment when you actually realize, “Hey, I have to do this thing….” That is a heavy moment. Some people handle it with grace, others less so. Some people try to hide from the race until the last possible minute then dash across the finish line and say, “Hey look everybody, I did it!” But the race is bigger than that. You can get away with it, but you will pay out on the course, and you pay with interest. And it isn’t pretty. Good for you if you faked your way through it, but the race had you like a bad dog has a shoe in its teeth, shaking you back and forth until you damn near die. That’s ugly. But if that’s what you’re into, knock yourself out.

I’m getting ready for Ironman right now. I am doing New Zealand on March 6. Some of my real training for Ironman has been done in pretty rotten weather. There is some logic to this plan. I have all winter to train, and winter is the slow season in here. That gives me more time to train. But training in the winter adds another layer of “suckiness” to the tough workouts. To a degree that’s fine, it is like a different experience.

I can tell you that on my eight mile run course, called “Zone of Power” after the surfing vernacular, they don’t plow the sidewalks. I share the snow-caked pavement with homeless people shuttling back to the shelter at night. No one else is out there. Only us, the desperate. They are desperate to find a warm place to sleep and a meal, me desperate to be in good enough shape to avoid falling into the abyss of Ironman. Ironic that such different ambitions are forged on the same terrain. Maybe they aren’t so different after all.

I’ve utterly embraced miracle fabrics. Tonight I ran in a Gore N2S top and Therma-fleece tights with Gore XCR shoes. It was 27 degrees and slushy but I stayed perfectly comfortable. No layers, none of that. That is old school. “N2S” stands for “Next to skin”. You don’t wear anything underneath it. It is entirely breathable and windproof and automatically adjusts to how warm you have to be. It is incredible really, just a few years ago training like that would have been a suffer-fest in this weather. But now it is pretty darn comfortable.

I’ve done Ironman three times before so I was looking for a little different experience this time. When I step off the plane in New Zealand I will have visited all seven continents. When the gun goes off I will have raced on all seven. That was a personal thing I wanted to do before I died.

I noticed this morning on the Ironman New Zealand website there is one of those clocks that counts down to the race date. There are 6 weeks, 5 days and some hours and minutes left.

Damn. That went by fast.

Am I in the shape I want to be in? Tough to tell right now but probably not quite yet. That’s fine because the race isn’t for six weeks. I’ll find out in Curacao next week at training camp. I decided to do my long rides and runs (together) somewhere warm so I’m going to Doug Stern’s Triathlon Training Camp on the Island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, southern Caribbean. A group of our customers will be there so I am looking forward to that. It is always a good group and big fun. Curacao has a strange “power” to me. It is peaceful and secluded. Training in Curacao is a luxury.

Sometimes though, when I step out the door staring an 18-mile run in the face, the whole race kind of stares back at me. It seems to say, “Do you see what you’ve gotten yourself into now?” Then, during that entire run you think, “What will this feel like with 112 miles of cycling in my legs?” Personally, I find it is best to not think about such things. There isn’t anything you can do about it, one way or another; you have to cover the distance. Obsessing about it doesn’t make it any shorter. Or easier. If anything, it makes it harder.

One thing I do know for a fact: Of the roughly 1,500 people on the beach at Taupo, New Zealand on March 6th a very small percentage of them will feel they are ready. Most will be a little like me, thinking, “I wish this thing were four weeks later…” We tell ourselves we’d be in better shape then. Maybe we would. But it doesn’t matter. When the gun goes off you do the best you can with what you’ve got. The quality of your race is not determined on race day. It is in the 24 weeks before that.

If you haven’t done Ironman, I recommend it. Everyone does seem to take something different from it and that is part of the attraction. It is the big show though, and that is fun. When you register they put a little hospital wristband around your arm. When you walk around town you look at other people’s arm to see if they will be on stage with you on race day. If they have the wristband and your eyes meet you give them a nod, a smile, a good luck, a handshake. It’s a nice community. A community of experience.

I can remember Ironman Hawaii in 1986. Of course, it was hot. I was at mile 22 of the marathon. I caught a Japanese man who was running at the same pace. We ran side by side for the next three miles. I don’t speak Japanese except for “Hi”, “Thank you” and “yes”. I can also say, “Do your best”, which sort of sounds like “gan bah roo” As it turns out, that was plenty. At that stage in race we spoke exactly the same language. He handed me a cup; I handed him a sponge. With about one mile to go it was apparent this guy was faster than me. I told him “Gan bah roo!” For a moment he looked shocked. I thought, “Oh shit, I wonder what I really just said?” He thought for a moment, trying to decode my phrasebook Japanese then a big smile crossed his face, “Ah Ha, ganbarou, ganbate! Yackyackyack, blahblahblah…..” He grabbed my hand, slapped my shoulder and off he went.

I’m not sure why that was so significant, but it was. I think about that moment a lot when I am training. When I stare into the abyss of knowing how big this race is, how long it is, how tough it is to get ready. I wonder if the man ever told anyone back in Japan, “I ran with a man from the United States, he said ‘Do your best’ in Japanese to me…” I wonder if that moment was as significant to him as it was to me. I wonder.

One of the interesting things about the Ironman experience is that after you cross the finish line all the difficulty of preparation seems gone. Even the difficulty of the race is gone. It just melts. You only remember the euphoria of finishing. That incredible, intoxicating buoyancy during the last two or three miles of the run when you realize, “I’ve got this one!”

That moment is huge. It is worth staring into the abyss over.