It was 4:30 a.m. on August 27th and I was biking in the darkness on the Lakefront trail on my way to the Chicago Triathlon. My lovely, perfect wife was back home, amidst the throng of pillows she has come to rely on for comfort, sleeping with her rounded belly that contains not one, but two children. Yes, babies. Yes, twins! A boy and a girl who will be born, well, by the end of the month for sure. I was looking forward to my race, but also wondering if it was a good idea or not. Not only would I be away from my phone, we still had lots to do to get ready. I’d been calling this summer “the last summer of my youth” and trying to do as much as I could while I had the chance, but I wondered, is this all right? Am I being immature? Selfish? I also wondered if I was even in good enough shape to race. Navigating my way slowly on the dark trail, I asked myself, why am I choosing to do this? I could be back in bed sleeping. Why am I out here?
But once I got into the transition area and saw all the people milling about, chatting and sizing each other up, I started thinking about racing and put these thoughts out of my mind, or at least over to the side. I racked my bike, arranged my gear, and talked a bit with some of my fellow racers. I’d never done the Chicago Triathlon before and was skeptical about it because of the size of the race. Seven thousand triathletes? How could it possibly not be congested the whole way? I wasn’t optimistic, but it was the only race that fit into our schedule. I’d done the Racine 70.3 in July, but the swim had been cancelled, so I didn’t feel I’d gotten a triathlon in, which had been one of my “last summer of my youth” goals.
The first wave of the race went off at 6:00, but I had wait 75 more minutes before my wave, #17, would get in the water. During this time I ate two bananas, waited in the Port-a-Potty line three times, and watched the earlier waves swimming as the sun rose over Monroe Harbor. I didn’t like the waiting. I’d had adrenaline running through me since I’d gotten to transition and I was ready to go. At the same time, I was nervous. I didn’t have my phone with me so if something was happening, I wouldn’t know and there’d be no way for my wife to contact me. I’d decided the best way to minimize the amount of time I was out of reach was to leave my phone with my bike, so I’d checked it as transition closed at 5:45, then I could again after I got out of the swim, again at the end of my bike ride, and then after the finish.
Besides this, I also had all my regular pre-race nerves. How would I feel? How would my breathing go? Had I taken enough puffs on my inhaler? Had I drunk enough water? Had I drunk too much? I mean, I love racing, I really do, but I’m also always afraid of it going badly. On top of all this, ever since I found out we were expecting, I’ve just been just generally more afraid of dying. I mean, I’m always thinking about it now, when I’m driving (will I get in accident?), when I’m eating (what if I choke?) when I go to sleep at night (will I wake up?). Okay, maybe I’m not always thinking about it, but it’s a lot more than I used to. I tell myself if it would’ve happened before we were expecting, sure, it would’ve been terrible, my wife and my kids would miss me, but they are adults. They’d survive. But now that I’ve got little Luke and Leia (those names might change) relying on me, I suddenly feel more important. They’re going to need me. On the one hand, I’ve got no reason to think my days are nearing their end. I’m healthy, I feel good. But on the other hand, there are people I grew up with that are gone. Me and my old friends, we’re old enough to die and for people to say, “too soon, too soon,” but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
You may be wondering if I’ve considered myself too old to be having babies. Of course I have! My kids are old enough to be having kids (my sons are nowhere near that point in their lives, but they are technically old enough, and I am the about the same age that my father was when he became a grandfather). So yes, I’m maybe too old. On the other hand, Mick Jagger just had another and he’s in his 70’s. Bandmate Ronnie Wood’s wife is also expecting and he’s 68. I’m young compared to those guys. Of course, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to Rolling Stones. I’m no rock star. I go back and forth like this a lot, until inevitably I always hear the voice that says: it doesn’t matter how old you are—this is happening.
And finally, at 7:15, my race was happening too. There were over a hundred people in our wave and I positioned myself near the front of the group as we treaded water waiting for the signal to go. Finally, they blew the horn and we were off. It was a relief to finally be racing! Now I’m no star swimmer, but compared to triathletes, I’m better than most (thanks, knee surgery) and I felt good from the start. The swim course went south towards the Shedd Aquarium about a third of a mile, then we turned back to go past the start and then on to exit the water near the Chicago Yacht Club. The lake was smooth until the final stretch, where the waves came in and hit the seawall and then bounced back out and sloshed us all around. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going around you during the swim, but I sensed I was near the front of my wave (dark green caps) and I had passed a number of neon green caps (the wave that started before us) and maybe a few others.
After exiting the water, we had to run about 350 yards on the carpeted sidewalk to transition. I’d been nervous about running without my brace, and barefoot, but I had no pain and went by a number of people on our way to transition #1. When I got to my bike, one of the guys I’d talked with ahead of time was slipping on his shoes and ready to bike away. But most of the bikes were still racked, which meant I was ahead of most of the people in my age group. But I really wasn’t thinking much about that. I knew there were triathletes of every age and sort much faster than me, and I just wanted to race, give my best effort, and have one more good race before the babies came.
I pulled off my Lava Pants, sat on the grass, and put my biking clothes on. Before I started running my bike out of transition, I zipped open my bike bag to check my phone. I saw I had a message, but it was just my friend Frank, saying: “Good luck today.” All right, thanks, Frank, I thought, and was glad there was no other news. I imagined my wife was still sleeping, or maybe just up and having her first cup of coffee. But whatever, whatever, it was all good and time to ride.
The bike course started north on Lake Shore Drive, with a line of orange traffic cones separating us from traffic. It was unnerving to be riding hard, looking ahead, focusing on getting moving while traffic was going by at 50 or 60 mph just one lane over. I think every biker’s fear is being run up on from behind by an inattentive driver. And you’d think the cones would have made this unlikely, but no, about 5 miles in, I saw a car on the other side of the drive, on the wrong side of the cones! Turns out a driver had ignored them and ended up hitting two bikers who had to be taken to the hospital. It must have happened not long before I’d gone past because there were no ambulances there yet, just a police car, bikers being attended to, and a long line of auto traffic stretched in the other direction.
So I was going at sub max efforts, to keep myself alert (and alive!) and also because I knew from my ride down to the start that once we turned around at Hollywood Avenue, we’d be fighting a headwind and I didn’t want to be spent before that. I wasn’t tracking my speed, just pacing myself and measuring my effort so I could stay strong until the end. I had turned on my Garmin when I started riding and it had beeped at 5 miles and again at 10 but I hadn’t looked down to see what my splits were. The bike leg is my weakest of the three and though I was being passed by some of the stronger, but they weren’t blowing by me that quickly, which I took that as a good sign.
After the 7 miles north and 7 miles south into the wind, the course took us underground onto lower Wacker Drive, where scenes from The Dark Knight had been filmed. This was wind-free and the riding felt fast and easy. Unfortunately, it was also pretty dim and I had 2 of my short-distance contacts in (I usually wear one for long distances but had run out) so I could only see clearly about the next 10-15 feet ahead of me, which isn’t very far when moving at about 20 mph, which is what I was doing. Luckily, the race had spread out by this point. I was passing more people than were passing me even though I was being cautious. My Garmin had beeped pretty close to the 5 and 10 mile markers but once we got underground, the GPS must’ve lost the signal because I stole a glance at it once about 59 minutes in and it said the distance was only 17 miles. That’s not possible, is it? I thought. That would’ve been terrible riding for me. I’d been a little sick the week before the race so it was possible I was going that slowly, but 17, really? Luckily, about a minute later I passed by the official 20 mile marker so I knew I was moving well and that my GPS had just cut out when I was underground.
The last 4 miles of the ride flew by and before I knew it, I was back in transition, jogging in my bike shoes over the grass back to rack my bike. Hardcore triathletes are super-fast in transition, just switching shoes and darting away, but for me getting ready to run was a long process, which meant putting lubricant on the skin behind my knee, pulling on neoprene knee sleeve, then my knee brace, tightening the Velcro straps, adjusting it, pulling on half-tights above the brace, then putting on my shoes, and of course, this day, checking my phone. I had another message. This time it was from my wife, who apparently was tracking me online and said: “Looks like you’re doing amazing! Nearly 20 mph on the bike. You’ll be done in a flash!” So all right, I thought, everything’s good, and I tightened the bungy laces on my shoes and set off.
I’m not sure how others feel about the run portion of the triathlon but I love it. I mean, the swim was the swim, and I enjoyed the hard biking, but I couldn’t wait to run because I knew I’d be in my element finally. I’ve always been able to run pretty well straight off the bike. So even though my legs were a little rubbery and wobbly, like everyone else’s, I was passing people immediately on the run course. And there was a lot of them. By the time I started running, there were people from my race, the International Distance, and people from the Sprint Distance, who had started later all running down the same narrow course. I’d enjoyed the race up to this point but suddenly, I was having great fun! And even though I knew a lot of the people I was passing were really not moving fast, zipping by them I felt I was really fast again, like I was young again!
The run course was out-and back, mostly on the lakefront trail, heading south around the Shedd Aquarium then on past Soldier Field and McCormick Place before heading back to the finish in Grant Park. Besides concentrating on good form, I had to constantly be looking where I was going as there were lots of runners going in both directions. Again, I’d started my watch for run but wasn’t going to check splits. I was in a good rhythm and just told myself to stay there, at that effort, until halfway, and then if I felt good, I could push harder.
Well, when I passed the three mile mark but still hadn’t reached the turnaround, I told myself, okay, no need to get too ambitious, just keep this effort until we head back and pick it up then. I was still passing people, but not in big bunches like earlier. When I got to the turnaround, I told myself again, don’t push yet, just keep it right here. I told myself the same thing when I passed the 4 mile mark–just keep this effort for another mile. So you can probably see where this is going, somewhere along the way I realized I was not going to be able to pick it up, but instead would have to increase my effort just to keep up the same pace. When I got to the 5 mile mark, I was pretty spent. Okay, just keep this up to the finish, I told myself. Just hold on. I didn’t see this as failure, just evidence that I’d been right to hold back. Fatigue always creeps up on you if you are pacing correctly and that was what was happening.
With a mile to go I really had to concentrate–my legs were heavy, my arms were heavy, my breathing was heavy. I wasn’t upset though. I told myself my race was a success, was going to be a success, most of the work was done and all I left to do was finish it. I was still passing people, but much more slowly and whereas earlier, I felt like I was almost just watching them from some other place as I ran by, I was one of them now, struggling, fighting through the pain, wanting to be done.
In this triathlon, like most today, they write your age on your left calf. I guess this is to make it clear who they are racing against for awards and such. Like I said earlier, I had no great ambitions along these lines, but I did notice that whenever I’d pass someone in my age group, I’d pick up my pace a bit. This wasn’t to make any sort of statement, it was more about self-preservation, so they wouldn’t fight back and make it harder on me. It’s true that racing is about pain, and that working through it somehow part of the appeal, but during the race, avoiding pain, as long as it is possible, is still one of the goals and keys to a good race. I don’t think anyone wants the pain.
With less than a half mile to go, I was coming slowly up on a guy in my age group. He was moving pretty well and I thought to myself, oh boy, this one could be tough. Would I catch him? Yes, I could see that I definitely would, but for the first time in the race I thought a little about strategy—when should I pass him? Do I have enough energy if he tries to pass me back? I could sense, from his form and his racing outfit that he was taking this race seriously, and I figured he wouldn’t let go of me easily.
At this point the race was on sidewalk that led under Lake Shore Drive towards Grant Park and it ramped slightly uphill before turning us onto Columbus Drive and the finish. I pulled up behind him and stayed there. When we hit the incline, slight as it was, I could really feel it and hoped I wouldn’t fall apart. Wait until the top to pass, I told myself. Wait. But he slowed even more than I wanted to, and before I knew it, I was going by him. Oh no, I thought, now I have to start my kick to the finish already, which is what I did, and it was tough, everything had caught up to me–the swim, the bike, the 6 miles of running. I didn’t dare look back as I turned and saw the finish line. I was sure this was guy was tracking me, trying to pass me back. Maybe he will, I thought, but I’m going to make him work for it.
The final stretch was slightly downhill, which helped, but still all I could think was: form, form, form. Hold on, I told myself, you’re almost there. Closer to the finish all I could think about was my breathing, trying to breathe, and I kept my eyes on the finish banner, watching it coming closer, closer, closer. Finally, I was coming up on it, then going across the line, and then done. Ugghh, that was hard, I thought, and walked a few steps then stopped and put my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. After a few moments I was able to stand up and look back and my rival was just finishing up, and surprisingly had taken no notice of me. Oh well, I thought, that mad dash was all for naught, but that was a fun way to finish, I’m glad I did it, even if he wasn’t up to race me (later I realized that my knee sleeve and knee brace had been covering my calf the whole run so no one knew my age and every time I’d passed someone in my age group, including this guy, they hadn’t cared one extra bit. Ha!).
I slowly made my way down the long finish chute, guzzled some water, told myself, “good work,” and then before my breathing had even returned to normal, my thoughts were back to getting to my phone as quickly as possible. Any news from home? Was anything happening? I would’ve liked to hang out a bit, in the happy haze of the finish area, but I began to feel irresponsible again, leaving my 8-months pregnant wife at home alone while I was hustling through the morning doing a triathlon! How silly! I hurried through the tent serving food (grabbing a sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry yet, I knew I would be) and began the walk back to the transition area. I felt good about my race, satisfied. I didn’t know my time, but knew I had done well enough on all three parts. But who cares? I thought. We’re having babies soon, two of them! All this triathlon hubabaloo, who cares? This isn’t important! This is not to say I had any sort of revelation and put things in perspective. I’d known this all before the race started, I’d just been able to put it out of my mind, forced it out of my mind while I knew I still could.
As I got close to transition, the last waves of the sprint triathlon were still getting out of the water, so I got to watch people swimming, running to their bikes, and setting out eagerly on the run course. It was strange to think they were just starting out while it was all behind me already. Funny, I used to think that way about having kids too, little ones, at least–changing diapers, feeding them, dropping them off at school, arranging sleepovers, helping with homework, all that kid stuff. Now I’m starting over again! I hope it’s clear that I’m pretty excited, though it’s also true that sometimes I say to myself, or to my wife: What have we gotten ourselves into? We had it so good. Life was easy and we were happy. What if something goes wrong? What if it’s too hard? But I know having and raising kids has been the greatest thing in my life and that’s no revelation either–I’m sure most every parent would agree with that. And now I get to do it again. Lucky, lucky me. That’s what I’m thinking most of the time.
I got to my bike and checked my phone. No new messages, a big relief, so I texted my wife and told her I was done and would be home soon. She sent back a quick “Woohoo” and I felt myself relax. The race was done and everything was good. I changed into a dry shirt, went to sit on the grass a few minutes to stretch and soak it all in, then got on my bike and pointed myself back down the path towards home, the last race of the last summer of my youth behind me. I was glad I’d done it. I was glad about everything.