On Gratitude

Dan recently wrote a review of Mike Reilly's "Finding My Voice" that's well worth reading. I just downloaded the Audible version and am looking forward to listening to it on my commute. I was honored to learn from Mike himself, just prior to publication, that he mentions me in the book. And Dan calls out that mention in his review. But the exact details Mike shares are a bit off, and I wanted to take a moment to correct them. Not because the way in which they are wrong matters to me, but because I believe it matters to the message of Mike's book.

The story Mike tells is generally correct, but it merges two separate instances. With however many hundreds of Ironman races under his belt, I am sure that the details blend together. In 2009, I won Ironman Arizona, breaking my own bike course record and the overall course record. And I did indeed return that night to the finish to join Mike in cheering the last finishers across the line. I have always loved the energy of the last hour of an Ironman, mostly because of the magic of seeing these people chasing so hard to realize a dream that so obviously means so much to them. But, with some perspective on the sport after nearly two years away from it, I also realize that there's a massive emotional emptiness that comes after an Ironman, and that being at the finish helped to stave off that emptiness a little longer. I've made some of my worst decisions - and said some of the things that I most regret - in the week following an Ironman, and it's because of the hole left after the race is done. The magic of the finish line keeps that feeling away just that little bit longer and extends that magical feeling that you get when you cross the line by vicariously crossing the line again and again and again. And though I didn't know it at the time, that is why I came back to the line in 2009. I came to take some of that energy as much as I came to give some of it back.

In 2010, I once again crossed the finish line in Tempe. But this time I did not win. I did not break my own bike course record. I finished fourth. And it was then that I returned to the finish with 100 burgers and 50 fries from In-N-Out burger. While it wasn't my best finish, my finish in 2010 was certainly the most emotional of my career. In March of that year, I nearly lost my life in a hit-and-run car accident while riding my bike in Camarillo. Thanks to the kindness and bravery of Sr. Chief Petty Officer Thomas Sanchez (USN Ret.), I survived having severed two jugular veins. And then, thanks to some very good luck, a bit of hard work, and a lot more kindness and generosity from others, I managed to make it back to the starting line in Tempe eight months later to try to defend my title.

There's a classic cliche, "you don't know what you got 'til it's gone." And while that isn't always true, it often is. Certainly, in my case, I did not have a lot of gratitude for my successes in 2009. I was young(er), a lot more arrogant, and a lot less appreciative of just how special it was to be able to make a career out of being a professional long-course (which meant then - and still means now - an Ironman athlete) triathlete. While I didn't always keep it front of mind, I certainly learned a profound lesson in 2010. My accident changed me in a way that only something as life-altering as that can. I was not the same person afterward. Many of what I like to believe are my better qualities were crystalized in that year. And I also developed some new ones. I think, for the first time in my life, I really developed a sense of gratitude.

Gratitude can be a fleeting thing, easily lost in the blur of every day life. But I remember those final miles along Tempe Town Lake thinking over and over and over again, "I can still do this..." And I started to cry. When I crossed the line, hearing Mike Reilly tell me, "You. Are. An. Ironman.", it was an overwhelming experience. What I heard in that moment is, "you still are an Iroman." Finishing that race, with my wife, her parents, my parents, and SCPO Sanchez all at the finish, I was surrounded by the people who had made that return to the finish line possible.

But more than just them, it was everyone in Tempe who had made that possible. The spectators. The volunteers. Ironman itself. And, of course, the other athletes. Without them, the race would not exist. Sitting in the In-N-Out just on the other side of the lake after the race, I had this idea that I wanted to do more than just show up at the finish line to be a part of that late night energy. I know the late night crew gets awfully tired of pizza; it's a long day, and lukewarm pizza isn't a great food in the best of circumstances. In-N-Out burgers - especially fresh ones - are just better. Being in a college town, I figured this In-N-Out wouldn't bat an eye at an order for 100 burgers. And I was right. The cashier asked me one time to confirm that I had just said, "one-hundred" and then told me it'd be about 25min (it was less). Carrying that box of burgers to the finish, and - especially - climbing the scaffolding to give one to Mike in the announcing tower made me really feel like I was giving more back to that finish than I was taking. In that moment, I would say that I found my "voice." While I didn't always deliver burgers (in NYC it was hot dogs, of course, and then when Chipotle sponsored me, we did burritos, and in Tremblant, it was Tim Horton's donuts), I usually tried - whether I won or not - to do something. In many ways, the times I didn't win were the most meaningful to me, because it was a reminder to be gracious and grateful even when things hadn't gone my way, because - in 2010 - simply crossing the line was all that had really mattered.

Mike is one of those people who I don't really know how to express in words what he means to me. He's been an integral part of some of the most meaningful moments in my life. Some magical ones where I felt invincible. And some where I was clearly reminded that I was not. By being the soul of Ironman for the past 30 years, Mike has found his own voice. But he's also helped so many others find theirs as well. And I'm grateful to be able to count myself among them. Thank you.