With Ironman Arizona just around the corner I thought it might be a good time to get leg shaking, stomach churning, head swooning nervous and scared. In less than two days I'll be starting another Ironman, and I'm already terrified of the start.
I’ve been lucky enough throughout my sports life to compete in a number of different sporting events.
In college I both rowed and skied for my school. I also raced bikes on a local team and played tennis.
I’ll never forget the day my tennis career ended before it really began. I was in my last year of High School when my coach finally stated the obvious (after too many years of private lessons and summer tennis camps). “Let’s face it Roman,” he said, as I plucked at strings of my tennis racket, “you’re no Gazelle out there.”
I’ll also never forget what it feels like just before the start of my various sporting events. By far the easiest was a tennis match. You just sort of easy into it. There’s not much pressure, as first or fifth or fifteenth serve will not determine the outcome of the match. And if you fault, you always get a do over server to make up for the one you just screwed up.
On the other end of the pressure spectrum is the start of a slalom ski race. You only get one chance to get it right. You stand in the little hut freezing and shaking and staring down the course at the dizzying labyrinth of colorful gates. You know that the next 90 seconds will determine whether you just wasted the last 90 days of training.
Your entire day, week, month is compressed to about the time it takes you to blink, for a blink will be the margin between the first and last place. You are keenly aware of this as you stare down the course. You wonder how you can shave a half a blink from your best possible time without catching an edge, blowing out of the course or blowing out of your knee.
The start of regatta is something completely different. I used to row in a heavy weight eight-man shell. We spent hours practicing the start of the race as it often determines the end of the race. The start of this race is all about teamwork. You and seven other big guys have to work as one seamless unit.
The eight oars have to catch and release the water at the exact same time while keeping the boat perfectly set-up. This means you have to keep the racing shell balanced on a knife-edge as they do not balance themselves in the water like your typical boat. In fact, without the oars a racing shell would more likely than not flip over.
When you get the start right, the boat practically leaps out of the water as all eight guys strain with their quads to rocket forward. With every stroke the shell surges ahead like a sixties muscle car on a weekend stoplight drag race. Except the engine burning rubber is you and eight other guys working in perfect harmony to make this start happen.
When you get it wrong, one of the boys will catch a crab. This means, in non-rowing lingo, his oar gets stuck in the water as the boat surges ahead. The entire boat shudders as if you’ve just hit the emergency brake. The guy who caught the crab can be knocked unconscious and/or knocked out of the boat by the caught oar as it tries to sweep past his body.
The start of any longer running endurance race is pretty casual affair. The gun goes off, I click my stopwatch, and I try to pace myself the first mile or two until my body gets used to running. Depending on how I feel, I’ll make this day one of my best, or sometimes one of my worst, race days.
But the start of a triathlon for me has always been the hardest starts of them. For it consists of a moment that embodies a lifetime of sheer fear and unholy terror. In all the starts, in all the various races, I have never been more scared or close to death as I feel during the first five minutes of any triathlon.
And the real kick in the ass is that I’m not afraid of the swim. In fact, it is probably the best part of my race. I don’t come from a swimming background, but I seem to take to it naturally, and so I spend lots of time in the pool swimming laps.
But all this is completely irrelevant when I start the swim, because within about the first two minutes I know that on this day I will drown. There’s something terrible that happens to me that I simple can’t control, and I believe this something it is the ancient fight or flight response.
I start the swim full of confidence and bravado. I don’t hang back and I’m not all that bothered by somebody swimming around, under or over me. I don’t even worry about getting kicked in the face or other more sensitive parts of my body. This part of the start is all good.
The part that is all bad is when about two minutes into the race, I begin to hyperventilate. At first I notice only my heart as it beats as if it is trying to explode in my chest. Next I start to breathe hard and harder and harder. Now I start to get dizzy and for the first time I realize that I’m actually think about drowning. This always comes as a complete surprise since I never think about drowning in the pool.
At first I think to myself that this is silly, and keep swimming, except that I can’t seem to get enough air. I start gasping and gulping for air like a dying bass flopping around on the floor of a bass boat. I have no choice but to stop. So I do and somebody immediately starts to swim over me, and somebody else kicks me a more sensitive part.
I feel the tightness of my wet suit as it clings to my chest, squeezing the air out of me like a huge black python from the deepest and darkest part of the Amazon. And still people keep swimming over me.
The first time this happened I swam most of the 1500 yards on my back. The reason for this is that once this basic primal fear sets in, it is all but impossible for me to stick my face under water.
The mere act of turning on my belly and submerging my face fills me with the dread and illogical terror.
Over the years, and with much practice I have trained myself to swim through this terror. For once I find my swimming groove, and my heart rate and breathing settles down, I can build to a descent swim. I have done this by starting out slowly, and not kicking, to keep my heart rate low.
But no matter what I do, I know that I will always come as close as possible to meeting my maker at the start of my next race. And that’s why for me, the start of a triathlon, is always the hardest start of them all.