For me, 2004 was a wonderful year filled with
fun, travel and adventure.
As I sat down to write up my review of the
year the phone rang. It was my trusted associate Marcie
the Mermaid. We chatted as usual, and she asked me for a
summary of the day’s news events. I went to CNN.com
and browsed the list of headlines, both national and international.
It was as unremarkable a day as possible in these remarkable
times. It was one of those late Saturday nights that always
seem to end up as early Sunday mornings.
CNN reported that an earthquake had hit Indonesia.
“That’s not unusual” I said, “Earthquakes
are fairly common there, that region is part of the ‘Ring
of Fire’, an area with frequent earthquakes and volcanic
eruptions.” And that was it.
What I failed to realize at the time was that
this earthquake was titanic. Some Richter scale measurements
put it at 9.0, an almost unheard of magnitude. I also forgot
the physics of a submarine earthquake in something like
the Indian Ocean.
Picture a stone birdbath, filled with water.
Hit the bottom with a sledgehammer. That’s what happened.
You know the story:
At approximately 7:00 AM local time, a point 100 miles off
the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, or
3.298°N, 95.779° became “The Hypocenter”.
Unimaginable pressure that had built up over millions of
years finally let go.
Several thousand feet below the surface, a
fracture detonated with the force 1,000 times that of the
atomic bomb at Hiroshima. (Some seismologists approximate
the force at ten times that much.) In an instant, a submarine
cliff sixty feet high and a staggering seven hundred and
forty miles long sprang up from the sea floor and sent an
invisible shock wave rocketing outward at nearly supersonic
speeds. When it happened, the entire planet wobbled on its
axis. As that invisible energy reached shallower water at
the edges of the Indian Ocean, it slowed down and began
to stack up water on the surface. In Asia they call it a
tsunami, we call it a tidal wave. The earthquake had long
since passed, but the invisible shock wave lost almost no
strength. As you may know, sound energy travels much better
through water than air because water is denser than air.
This violent, geological outburst was no different, and
the cruelty of physics is ruthless and indiscriminant. The
water of the Indian Ocean took, and maintained the force
with vicious tenacity. The invisible wave of energy took
it’s infamous, devastating form: a wall of billions
of gallons of water, thousands of miles long.
The ocean reared up and slammed into the coastlines
of at least eleven countries.
Early Sunday morning on the festive Patong
Beach in Phuket, Thailand, children marveled at an odd tide
that rushed outward leaving the shallow beaches exposed
with tiny tropical fish flopping around on the damp sand.
With a sense of curious wonder they rushed out onto the
sand to see the secrets of the deep laid out before them.
They had no idea what was coming.
A husband and wife celebrating their honeymoon
near Phi Phi Island, Thailand were under 40 feet of crystal
clear Thai water on a SCUBA diving excursion. The wife reported
she suddenly felt a sensation like “being sucked to
the bottom” and then the visibility in the normally
transparent water became greatly reduced. When the couple
surfaced with their dive master and guide they found the
water filled with debris. And corpses. The tsunami, the
first of three, had just passed over them.
The tiny island of Kandolhudhoo, in the Raa
atoll of the Maldives had a population of 3,500. It suddenly
became completely submerged and vanished from the map. The
entire island was covered with water from the tsunami. Most
of its population did not survive.
On shore, a million stories were being written.
Stories of loss and desperation, stories of heroism and
cowardice, stories of near misses and survival, destruction,
devastation and ruin.
Hotel staff at one resort in Phuket escorted
guests up a steep, muddy hill through the jungle to the
safety of a Buddhist temple where they did their best to
give them blankets and provide drinking water. “Our
hotel may be gone,” Said hotel staff, “But we
will still care for our guests the best we can.” Other
tales told of tour guides who work all day for a few US
dollars but risked their lives to rescue drowning tourists.
In the wake of the tragedy, one of the largest
in human history, there were signs of mutual support and
a willingness to put aside bitter differences in the region
to help one another. A bitter insurgency between the Northern
Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers and the Southern Sri Lanka regime
was set aside as the reigning south quickly sent aid to
the Tamil Tiger controlled territories in the north of Sri
Lanka. A Tamil Tiger fighter said, “The war has cost
us 20,000 lives in many years, the tsunami cost us 20,000
lives in a few minutes.”
As I write this, CNN.com reports the death
toll at 80,000 lives, then 116,000 with a warning that an
equal number could perish from diseases such as cholera,
dysentery, and even plague in the coming weeks. The affected
region stretches 1/8th of the way around the globe. The
death toll, I observe grimly, swings back and forth hourly
give or take a thousand. Think of that, they are rounding
off to the nearest thousand lives, as if that it is an negotiable
margin of error- a thousand lives give or take. It’s
unlikely anyone will ever know the real toll.
I’m sure you have seen coverage of the
tsunami aftermath on the news. It concerns me that many
people view these images as generic. I’m afraid they
think things like, “These people are always on the
news, sitting on the ground, clutching crying children covered
in flies. They are always desperate for something. This
region of the world is very backward- this is not news,
it always happens there.”
That is wrong. If you have visited the region
you know that it is a bustling and vigorous part of the
world. A significant portion of the world’s most beautiful
destinations are located in this devastated area. These
places are busy and vibrant tourist destinations for people
from around the globe. They are centers of agriculture and
commerce critical to all of Asia. This is not a backward
area. Or at least, it wasn’t before Sunday morning.
In November of 2003 I sat on Patong Beach
on the island of Phuket in Thailand. Right now Patong Beach
is awash in rubble and there is a desperate need for body
bags. Tourists have posted photos of loved ones on a wall
in the center of town desperately clinging to some hope
that missing people- hundreds of them- will turn up alive.
In 2003 I visited Patong Beach during the
day to take in the sights and at night to sample the raucous,
legendary night life. This is one of the great party spots
of the world. It has been featured on “Wild on E”
travel show along with profiles of Nice, Ibiza, Rio and
other international party hot spots. I found that Patong
Beach exceeded the TV reports of its festive atmosphere:
It was insane. A showplace of beautiful people doing outrageous
things. It was warm, the music was throbbing in the street
with an odd medley of Euro-trance, ambient, dance, hip-hop
and Asian rhythms. The streets were packed. The food was
hot, spicy, fresh and delicious.
I was on Phuket Island for the 2003 Laguna
Laguna Phuket is a beautiful resort cleverly
built in the embrace of paradise. My trip to Laguna Phuket
came at a time in my life when I needed revitalization.
I was coming off a rotten year. But the sunshine, friendly
people, good food and beautiful surroundings of Laguna Phuket
were much more powerful than any funk I could settle into.
I arrived at Laguna Phuket subdued but left revitalized.
Thailand breathed new life into me.
Somewhat incredibly, by some odd gift of geography
and chance, the Laguna Phuket website says that the Laguna
Phuket resort itself was left untouched by the tsunami,
but not the town of Patong Beach just up the road. It was
In Thailand I looked for tigers in the jungle,
rode elephants, ate delicious, exotic food, made friends
with people from all over the world, saw rare orchids growing
wild and swam in crystal clear waters that were featured
in Hollywood movies as the very example of paradise. Every
part of my trip to Thailand was wonderful, and I came away
from it greatly enriched and truly in love with this beautiful
region. I would be back. At a time in my life when I needed
it most, Thailand had come to my rescue. As a result, this
beautiful place had become a part of my very make-up. A
reason to keep going, keep exploring. The beautiful parts
of the world were real and were out there to explore.
So on Sunday morning, that part took a hit.
And I got off easy.
What’s the moral to this story? It is
the concept of a cut-off time that is kept secret and is
changing all the time.
Think of it this way: You go to Hawaii to
do Ironman, or any race for that matter. This is it, the
big show, you finally made it. In previous years you know
the cut-off time is midnight, seventeen hours into the race.
If you make it by then, you are a finisher, just like the
first guy across the line over 8 hours earlier.
But think of it this way: This year there
is a change of rules. The cut-off time is a secret. It may
be 12 hours, or 10 hours, or 20 hours. But no one knows
when the fat lady will sing and your race will be over.
How will that affect how you do your race?
How you train? What you think during the race?
What if you never knew when your race would
end? How would that change things?
Welcome to life my friend, and this is why
you better make hay while the sun shines. None of us know
when the cut-off time will really come.
After I got back from Thailand I raved about
the country, the race, the trip. I wrote a glowing review
of the event and the trip that was featured on the event’s
official website. I recommended the event to everyone I
could. The entire race, including a beautiful hotel, airfare
and food, cost me less than $2000 US. Quite a bit less actually.
For that I visited Tokyo, toured Bangkok and lived like
royalty in Laguna Phuket going on private training rides
with police escorts accompanied by the best triathletes
in the world.
Quite a few people told me they read the review
and were considering doing the race. There was a little
up-tick in the number of Americans going to Laguna Phuket,
including a buddy of mine, John Sotir from our area.
But the majority of people who talked about
doing the Laguna Phuket Triathlon never went. Like all the
things they are “going to do someday” they never
got around to it.
That makes me wonder: Given the fact that
the cut-off can arrive any time without warning, like it
did on Sunday morning for Laguna Phuket- what on God’s
green earth could be more important? In the grand scheme
of your entire lifespan, what will be more significant than
a few days with the Thai sun on your face, the sand of a
perfect beach under your toes, and the challenge of a great
race just a few beautiful sunsets away. These are the treasured
things you will take to your grave.
Now it’s too late. On Sunday morning
the cutoff time came. For pretty much everybody around here
except my buddy John and I: Sorry. You blew it. Too late.
The Thai government estimates it may take
2 years for the resorts to recover enough to operate again,
and the future of the race, at this hour, hangs in the balance
along with everything else in the region.
So here’s the moral to this story: At
Ironman you may have a finite cut-off time but in life you
don’t. Your opportunity to do something or go somewhere
may be revoked at any minute. There is a cut-off time for
everything, but it is mostly a secret and it always comes
before we expect it.
As I look back on 2004 it was a fantastic
year. Late in 2003 I did Laguna Phuket, perhaps the second
to last edition of the event (I hope not), in January ’04
I raced in the southern Caribbean on Curacao. In March I
finished a goal to race on all seven continents by doing
Ironman New Zealand. After New Zealand I went to Hawaii
for round one of the Race to Athens as part of Olympic Athlete
Sheila Taormina’s crew. As an added bonus, Sheila
went on to become the reigning triathlon World Champion.
Back on the ground from Hawaii I went to the Dominican Republic
for a birthday party with my friend Mary. During the Michigan
race season I did a number of great local races with my
friend Marcie the Mermaid. We always have a great time when
we race together. We both wound up third in the Michigan
Grand Prix Points Standings for our respective age groups.
Then it was off to Nice, France for the last ever Nice Triathlon
and after I got back from there Marcie the Mermaid and I
hiked through desert canyons in Arizona.
So it was a great year, and a year of dodging
the cut-off time on five continents: I made it into the
last Nice Triathlon, the Punta-Cana Resort in the Domincan
Republic was heavily damaged by a hurricane less than 5
months after I visited, and now the terrible tsunamis in
the Indian Ocean that obliterated Phuket Island.
Like a lot of people, I’m kind of walking
around in a little bit of a haze over the tsunami disaster.
I’m not being callous when I admit it isn’t
on my mind around the clock, as though I were there, but
it does cross my mind many, many times throughout the day.
I wonder what became of the pleasant people of Phuket, the
kind and good natured boat men who took you to your own
private island for sun set for $4 US and then came back
and picked you up after dark. I wonder what happened to
the guard dressed in a sharp uniform and white gloves who
saluted each time you entered or exited the hotel front
gate. What has happened to the musicians who played on the
pool deck, only a stone-toss from the ocean. They played
at breakfast on Sunday mornings. Like last Sunday.
I wonder if their cut-off time ran out. And
I’m fortunate that I got a lot done this year before
the cut-off time made it impossible.
Racing the cut-off time is very important
to me, it is the most important thing in life. None of us
know when the last cut-off time will be here, and most of
us will regret things left undone when the midnight of our
I’m trying to avoid that while I run
away from the cut-off time, because unlike the one at Ironman,
you never know when this one is.
Red Cross donation center: https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp
Laguna Phuket relief fund: http://www.lagunaphuket.com/tsunamifund/index.html
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