I attempted the Vineman Ironman in Sonoma County, California.
Six weeks prior to the race I was in a bike crash in New Delhi, India, where I train. A bus stopped right in front of me and ejected a passenger, no allocated bus stop or anything of course. I went flying into a ditch and lay bleeding. I sustained four injuries: shoulder inner tissue damage, elbow and forearm, left thigh, and right ankle ligament sprain. Initially even a routine flight from Delhi to Bangalore would instigate tears from the gentle jiggling on my shoulder due to normal turbulence. The injury meant, also, that I could not train at all.
I had just met a lovely swim coach at Talkatora, where I swim, who was the youngest coach out of India with the highest credentials: Aayush Yadav. He just gave me a 5 km workout, when this happened. I tried getting in the pool, and did 100 m using my left arm. Each time I’d do a stroke, my left shoulder would pop.
As I got closer to the race, I had to get to Toronto to host a festival, then to California for the Ironman. Even in Toronto I wore a shoulder brace.
Three days before the Ironman, Marilyn applied tape to my shoulder and back. It was clear I was in a lot of pain even then, because gentle pressure from her hands on the tape would cause me to cry. She also applied TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation)* therapy – with electrodes on my injuries to disrupt pain messages from my injuries to my brain. I decided I would race, and try and sneak past my body through an Ironman.
I just wasn’t sure I would complete. I asked Priya Sreedharan, a dear friend, who is an engineer and a dancer, ‘will I complete the Ironman?’ She said, treat it like a prayer. What will happen, will happen.’ Another friend saw that I was panicking, and took me to Chinese restaurant in Union Square, handed me a fortune cookie, and said, this is about your race. Read it. I opened the fortune cookie, and it said, ‘Do not worry about getting a high position. Focus on form.’ As I was driven at 5:15 am to Guernville by Marilyn, I was eerily calm.
So I stood at the start line at Johnson’s Beach, Guerneville, at 6 am. The temperature of 57 deg F, most people were in their wetsuits, I wore my trisuit because I have difficulty breathing in a wetsuit. The water was warmer, thankfully – a balmy 70 degree F (21 deg C). We all huddled together, grateful for the warmth. And we got talking. I met Dexter, who was 71 years old, and was doing the Ironman. And I had a burning question. WHY do you have lipstick on, I asked. She said, oh, that’s my adventure lipstick, I wore it when I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I think at this point several of us raised our arms heavenward.
We played the national anthem, then got into the Russian River, which was green from all the algae. I kept running into things to the right of the course because I’d do a proper stroke with my right arm, and a doggie paddle with my left, like a boat with one stronger oar. The water was green, therefore opaque. Rivers are not meant to be opaque, and this one wasn’t feeling too well. About 100 m in, I said, I can’t do this, swam over to a kayak, and said I can’t do it. And he was so kind. He said, are you sure? What’s going on? I said I have injuries. He didn’t accept that, and went directly to the real issue: he said, the beginning is rough with all these people in the water. You get kicked in the face, you touch people and are touched by people, you can’t see where you are going, and neither can they. He said, go under the bridge, about 100m on, and you’ll be able to stand. I got over my nerves, and swam the entire way. It took me longer because I ended up swimming more than the course. The course was 3.8 km but because I kept swimming off to sides and coming back, I ended up swimming 4.6 km. Towards the end of the course, this kayak lifeguard rowed beside me to give me company. I looked up and asked, ‘are you the escort service I ordered?’ He laughed.
I got out of the water, and wasn’t too tired. The volunteers in the tents helped get my bike gear on. There were volunteers who were ‘wetsuit strippers’ too. They’d help you get off your wetsuit. The announcer previously had told us during the briefing, ‘please make sure your shorts are on tight under your wetsuit, because our wetsuit strippers might.. well, we want them to come back the next year.’
I got on my bike, and biked up a short hill. Many people had walked it. The course was rolling hills, but hills are hills. A few days ago, I’d changed my bike gears from 53/39 to 50/34 in the front, and 11/23 to 11/25 in the back, having discovered that my bike was geared for professionals, and even professionals wouldn’t hope to do San Francisco hills in those gears. I took my bike to the Sports Basement in the Presidio, and now, every time I tried to change gears it would take 30-50 pedal strokes before my poor bike would change gears. They would also lock up, forcing me to hastily unclip my cleats in case I fell on the hills being unable to pedal.
The story was: every time a professional rode past, most of the time, they would find it in their breathing to say ‘good job’ to people they’d pass. Perhaps just me. The Budget van guy would slow down to tell me the top of the hill is ‘just up there’ to encourage me. One spectator said, ‘Come on! Good job! I will RUN alongside you to encourage you!’ on a hill. Absolute strangers. They saw how hard I was working, and did their best to encourage me. It brought tears to my eyes. The volunteers at the aid stations would hold up bottles of gatorade, water and half bananas so we could take them without dismounting. They would mindfully keep a safe distance, reach into our bike path with only the bottle or the banana so we could take it safely and carry on.
At the midpoint, 56 mi or 90 km, they said turn right! Bike finish! And I turned in. I shouldn’t have, since I had done only one lap. I stopped, and said, I can’t, I have done only one lap, and turned around. The sensor registered that I have completed the bike course. On seeing me turn around so close to the bike finish, one man started pointing to me and yelling, ‘winner of integrity right here! Winner of integrity!’ What he was referring to is, no one would have been the wiser if I finished my bike course then; the sensors registered me as having finished the bike course. But we don’t come to the Ironman to take shortcuts.
I stopped at 102 km or 63.75 mi, because my shoulder just couldn’t take anymore. It was hurting even in the aero position. I wasn’t exhausted yet, but I draw the line at worsening my injury. So I stopped. I AM an Ironman. Just not today.
There is a code of honor. Among Ironmen, similar to the code of honor among the armed forces. This unsaid code says, I will bring all of me. Whatever it is: broken, whole, and offer up myself in entirety. Because I did that, I can hold my head up high. I might not have completed the Ironman, but I found it in me to uphold the honor of the Ironman.
And this race is about the grace of the American people: who cheer on strangers, regardless of their nationality, race, gender, entirely on the dint of their effort. They recognize that all effort is sacred, and they will do all in their power to support you. This is the United States I know and cherish.
I bow before you, and I’ll be back next year to complete the race.
*Thank you for correcting me, Gautham Naidu