A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

I never wrote a race report for Ironman USA 2003. I did write a short Xtri piece, but that was it. There was so much going on outside of IM—so many things—I had no business being there.

I've never written this out but, after 5 years, I think I can probably talk about the backstory. Some of you know, but most of you don't.

After IMC 2001 I had decided with Lynda that I wasn't going to go back to IM until we'd had a baby. That after 4 years of racing IM's every Summer, now it was time to step back and be a regular person for awhile. We'd just bought our house, and it needed lots of work. She'd been an Ironman widow every year in June, July, and August, since we were first dating, and now it was time to finally give the big stuff a rest.

Until Tupper Lake 2002. We spent some time in Lake Placid after Tupper Lake, and I got sucked back in. Hanging out there eating ice cream while watching people train all around me, I wasn't strong. I didn't even try to fight it. I turned right back around on everything I said and promised and asked, "Can we come back?"

There was no baby yet. We'd been trying for 8 months, but it would work out sooner or later. The house still needed lots of work, but there I was, asking to go right back into the Ironman summer once again, as if everything would magically be okay. That somehow I'd be able to work the hours of training into everything else we were already doing.

Of course, St. Lynda said yes. She knew it mattered to me, and even though I still think she didn't want to say yes, she said yes.

It would be great. I was determined to make this one great. I rented a house, and filled it with friends. We'd do it right. We'd have a great time.

When Spring of 2003 rolled around, there was still no baby. The house still wasn't done (foolishly, I hadn't yet learned that the house is never done). The stress level was picking up. Questions were starting to come up more and more. "What's wrong with us? Why isn't this working?" It wasn't helping that friends all around us were suddenly pregnant, and always asking, "So what's going on with you guys?"

It should have been easy. It should have happened already.

We started going to doctors, looking for answers, all while I was trying to train. Trying to focus. Trying to find energy that was suddenly no longer available, because there were too many things fighting for my attention.

In May I seriously started to think about bailing, but I just couldn't. I couldn't imagine that not starting an Ironman would be better than finishing one, even in bad shape. So I pushed on, even though I was starting to hate the workouts. It didn't help that it was a brutal Spring; record rainfall. Every ride was wet. Every run was wet.

The training was not an escape anymore—the training was a sentence. Something to be endured. It wasn't fun.

But I stuck with it. I had to. I didn't know how to back off. I didn't know how to stop. I saw the signs, but ignored them, foolishly thinking that if I just kept going, everything would be fine. It was one of those strategies that, while fine for a race, often backfires in real life.

So race week finally arrived. We had a house full of friends. It was going to be great, yes? Of course it would. Eric and Amy, Tricia Richter and Skippy, Katie Hobson and her Mom, Matt Hennigan and his girlfriend Tracy. Eric and Amy had their newborn son, Benjamin, all of 8 weeks old.

Lynda and I spent a lot of time looking at Benjamin. Holding him as he slept. Watching Eric and Amy hold their little new life.

Lynda and I also spent a lot of time upstairs in our room, crying. Wondering. Asking, why? Why is it do easy for everyone else, and so impossible for us? What if that will never be us?

It was then that I realized that I'd taken us completely down the wrong road.

I had no right to be here when my life needed more attention in a completely separate direction. I had been selfish, stupid, shortsighted, and completely forgotten the most important thing—family comes first. And now it was too late; there we were, with nowhere to go. Stuck watching two close friends hold their new son, wondering why nature was turning her back to us. Stuck with no way to back up time and say, "Do over!"

When the rains came on race day and we were all out there fighting through the endless waves of wind and downpours, all I could think about was Lynda, Matt, Tracy, my Mom, Rich—everyone I'd brought there, and for what? So they could stand out in the rain for 14 hours, watching me come completely unglued? So they could watch me have a personal worst? So instead of counting out time to our first child, they could stand there and watch a countdown that mattered to no one, not even me?

On the second lap of the marathon, way out in the far reaches of River Road in the darkness, between the spotlights, I finally had the nervous breakdown I'd been waiting for. I was so far back, it didn't matter. There wasn't anyone to see it. I just curled up in a little ball of Mylar at the side of the road, and lost it. I just went to the zoo and let it all flow out. Screams, sobs, knee-hugging, meltdown.

For the baby we weren't having. For the group of people I'd brought there for such a miserable day. For how I'd managed to completely lose the plot for my own selfish goals—and I didn't NEED it! I'd finished 5 Ironmans already! What the hell did I want with another one when there was so much more I needed to be paying attention to?

It wasn't more than 40 seconds or so, but it had to happen.

For years Ironman had been the thing that had built me up and made me believe I could do anything I wanted. But now Ironman was showing me that I'd gone too far, and asked for too much.

IMC 2001 had left everything on a high note; I'd PR'ed. We'd had a great vacation in Olympic National Park. It was our "last trip" before the baby would come.

IM-USA 2003 would be the race that would burn all those good memories to the ground.

I had no business being there. I hadn't been able to train or concentrate. I wasn't ready to race, and never was going to be. The rain just served to drive that point home. I never should have gone to the start line that year. I didn't have the right mindset, and didn't have enough room in my life to try and squeeze in something as all-encompassing as Ironman. But I didn't think about it—I just assumed that everything would get out of the way, like it always had before.

Stupid, selfish, short-sighted. A mistake on the scale I hope to make only once in a lifetime.

I did finish that day—I had to. Once I made it to the second lap, there was no quitting. After dragging Lynda through another Summer I promised there wouldn't be, a DNF would not be worthy. It was a personal worst, but ironically, it turned out to be my best finish picture of all my Ironmans. I think it was the only time I smiled all day.

The next day, the sun came out. The sky was a beautiful, clear, perfect Adirondack blue. Eric and Amy packed up little Benjamin and headed for home. We would head to the awards dinner, but I don't remember much of anything. I just wanted to get out of town, and forget about it all.

We didn't know it, but there would still be two more years of torture to go, 24 more months of heartbreak on the 28th day of each month. We were stuck in what our doctors call "The 2 Percent Club," where there is no known reason for it—you just have no luck when it comes to being pregnant. With each failure, I thought back to the months leading up to Ironman USA; what if we'd had a chance there, and missed it?

Of course, Katie would find her way to us. She was a last-chance baby. After 4 years, we were surrendering to the fact that it wouldn't work for us. And you all know how that turned out; she's so much baby, she's kept us awake for most of her life to make up for lost time; an embarrassment of riches, so to speak.

I know I'm lucky to have her. I know I'm lucky to have Lynda. Above everything I do in racing and training, I know they come first. From that brutal Summer of 2003, I have learned to look at the balance of life first—to look at the long view and ask, "Can I really do that?" I'm training less, racing less, but going faster. I'm having more fun.

It took the worst Summer of my life to learn, but I like to think that I have gotten better about it.

So in the end, for all my histrionics about weather, I know I can handle rain.

I don't think I could ever handle being a disappointment to my wife again.