I knew the white doves were a bad omen. A very bad omen indeed. Watching them circle Boulder Reservoir in the early morning sun my stomach tightened and my skin crawled. Why they had decided to release about two dozen doves at the start of this year’s Boulder Peak triathlon was a mystery.
Perhaps the race organizers wanted something different and special to mark the new ownership of the race? Perhaps God wanted to show his hand? Perhaps I was over analyzing this and just feeling my typical pre-race nerves?
It was a wave start and as usual I was in one of the last waves. They put the older competitors in the first wave. I guess to give them a head start and keep them from racing during of the hottest part of the day. They put us buff Clydesdales at the end. I suppose they figure we’d drink all the beer if we finished first.
We waited around for about 25 minutes as the different colored caps hit the water. At last it was our turn. I knew my wife and buddy were a few waves ahead. The water was warm, too warm for a wetsuit and too late now to worry about it. The starter was one of the first racers to complete the Hawaii Ironman. Just as he was about to blow the horn for our wave a speedboat came flying by with an obviously rattled kid screaming “Stop the race! A guy has died.”
Very suddenly everybody got very quit. You could hear the waves lapping at the shore, until the sirens broke the early morning calm. About 500 yards ahead in the water was a rescue boat with wetsuit clad body and several first responders doing CPR.
We stood quietly transfixed, in the early morning sun, as the boat rushed to the shore to a waiting ambulance. No one had signed up for this. There’s no dying in Triathlon, I almost said outload. This was a day for celebration, a day for achieving and surpassing personal goals. A day for putting all the training to a test. A day to enjoy.
Could that be my wife or friend in the rescue boat I immediately thought. My stomach sank lower? No way to know. So we all just stood there watching and worrying. They delayed the start of our wave until the ambulance drove away.
I was still worried and a bit shaken-up as I started up Old Stage Road on my bike. Old Stage Road is the signature hill and feature of the Boulder Peak Triathlon. It may not have a viscous name like the “Beast” in the St. Croix race but it is never the less just as steep and daunting. The reward for climbing Old Stage is a very fast descend down the back side. For us big guys like me it is not uncommon to reach speeds of 50 mph.
As I crested the top, I was ready for the descent. This is where I can make up much of my time.
About halfway down the hill the volunteers were yelling at us to stop. A racer was had crashed just ahead a few minutes earlier. He had slid down the hill, crossed over the centerline, and slammed into, and remained trapped, under a Honda coming up the hill.
The firefighters were trying to extricate him from beneath the car. He was alive but in obviously critical condition as the whirling blades of the flight for life helicopter coming in for a landing signified.
This was turning into a triathlon like no other I had ever experienced. I breathed a small sigh of relief as I went up the hill that marks the start of the run. What could go wrong on the run I thought? It took about 5 seconds to get the answer.
A guy running toward me on the return portion of the run looked drunk. He was weaving back and forth, stumbling over his feat and wheezing. I was about to ask him if he was OK when, with a dull thud, he face-planted on the blistering hot concrete next to me. I stopped and yelled for help, which came immediately, since we were very close to transition.
I continued my race a bit unsteady on my feet as they worked on the fallen runner. I seriously began to wonder why I was racing. Triathlon seemed such a hollow, selfish, empty and pointless pursuit in the big picture. I asked myself why am I doing this? What’s the point?
Today I was finally able to answer those questions. It occurred to me that triathlon, especially the Iron distance, is a lot like life. Both start with a struggle in water. A violent watery beginning where the only sound is that of your own breathing.
Like childhood and the teenage years, the swim is self-centered. You know others are around but you don’t and can’t really acknowledge them. Full of energy you struggle and race as fast as possible to the next phase.
Like the middle years, the bike is the longest and easiest part. It becomes much more fun and social as you start to interact with others around you. A sense of shared adventure is born. It is also the part that can make or break you. Still full of strength and confidence you push ahead as fast as possible to the next phase.
Like the golden years, the run is the culmination of all your hard work. By now, you most likely know how well you’ll do. The run is the most social with a real sense of shared struggle and purpose. While some are still competing, most now encourage each other, measuring each step against a personal and internal goal. Some now looking ahead to the finish, as the run is also the hardest and most painful part. But many don’t want the finish to come. They have realized that they have worked long and hard to make it this far.
And perhaps like death, the finish is the ultimate reward. You can finally stop running, your work is done. You have come full circle back to your loved ones. They are at the finish, waiting for you with hugs, kisses, and an easy ride home.
The runner who fell spent one week in the hospital with renal failure from dehydration.
The biker who crashed under the car was extricated after about 40 minutes and flown to the hospital with numerous serous injuries in critical condition. He survived but remains partially paralyzed.
The 76-year-old swimmer died after being in the water for over 20 minutes before being rescued. He was an avid swimmer, runner and cyclist, who started entering triathlons regularly at age 70. His death was ruled to be from natural causes. The Peak was his 6th triathlon of the year.
I suspect he died on his own terms: doing something he loved. His last race took him on an altogether different course that followed the white doves. And I am almost certain that many of his friends and family were waiting for him at that final finish line with hugs, kisses, and an easy ride home.