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Cut-off Time.
Editorial by Tom Demerly, Edited By Ian Kin, N.H.S.


Banda Aceh, Indonesia - Before
Banda Aceh, Indonesia - After
QuickBird satellite photos of Banda Aceh, Indonesia before the cut-off time, and after.
Photos with permission from DigitalGlobe.

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 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, 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 Phuket Triathlon.

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 devastated.

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 lives arrive.

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:
Laguna Phuket relief fund:

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