Ironman Lake Placid 2007
Triathlon is a contact sport.
That fact got punched or kicked or elbowed into my head 100m into the first lap of the Ironman swim. My stroke sputtered and my lungs filled with water as I tried to realize what had just happened. In the frothing mass of lake and limbs, I expected my vision to be hampered, but something was wrong. My right eye wouldn’t open. The roaring white seemed to collapse on one side, weighing me down. I drifted out of my body as the melee continued and looked down. The calm of the depths below me began to look inviting.
The black eye I still wear probably saved my race. Treading water in the moments before the cannon fired to signal the start of the 2007 Lake Placid Ironman, I still had tears in my goggles. The truth of how life had so utterly changed since 2004 when I was last in Lake Placid hung heavily on Diana’s face. It contrasted sharply with the innocence of my son as he lay in his stroller. The bicycle embroidered sweater protected him from the cold; the energy unique to the start of an Ironman he sucked in with wide open eyes. I held her like I’d just been diagnosed, and we cried as if no one were watching. The film crew gave us our space, albeit with cameras rolling, and for a brief period I was alone with my wife and son on the beach. I’d take them with me through the bike and the run as well.
The blow to my head cleared me of these thoughts. In an instant I went from sappy and sentimental to self preservation. Fear of drowning brought me back to competition mode, and I started racing again. I could only see out of one eye, so my swim wasn’t straight. But every time I bumped into someone, I figured I was going in the right direction. Out on the beach for the beginning of the second lap, I took off my goggles and used my hands to peel open my right eye. It ached and felt swollen, but being able to see for the next 1.2 miles increased my confidence. I high stepped into the shallows, did a few dolphin dives, and then settled back into my swim stroke. The laws of physics were strained around the return buoy as triathletes tested whether two objects really could occupy the same space at the same time. My space I protected with vicious kicks any time I felt hands trying to grab too much of my legs. But a twinge in my left hamstring told me I needed to worry more about finding the shore than fighting for my five foot four section of water.
I exited the water in 58:44, slower than I hoped but alive. I asked a volunteer how my shiner looked after the long transition to the changing tent, and he told me it wasn’t pretty. Hidden by sun glasses, it got no further comments as I ran out of T1 for the first of two 56 mile laps.
Out on the bike I blew past my family who were stationed 2 miles onto the bike/run course in, ironically, the exact same spot I had finally quit and turned around in 2004.
They cheered like madness, and I tried to show them with my legs that they’d see me again before too long. I had come out of the water in 90th place, so I didn’t have too many of the 2300 plus ahead of me to pass. Still, I tried to ride easy as I knew it would be a long day.
At mile seventy, a Gleevec-induced spasm in my left gracillis (an adductor) warned me to dial back my effort even more. I moved at what felt like a pedestrian pace the last forty miles, frustrated I couldn’t use my strength and weight to my advantage as the road turned skyward. I imagined Jeremiah, the documentary cameraman on the back of the motorcycle shadowing me, thinking that this wasn’t the cyclist he’d seen in footage from Kona or Orlando, and I bit at the reigns, anxious to go faster. But I convinced myself the patience I showed on the bike would be rewarded on the run.
Into T2, I handed my bike to a volunteer and charged into the changing tent. An abdominal cramp as I bent over to put my shoes on elicited a question from a volunteer if I was o.k. I went into a back extension and had enough time to tell him before the muscle relaxed that I had leukemia and the chemo I was on was causing all this. His jaw was still hanging as I hustled out onto the course.
Mile one hurt—all down hill and I got passed by a couple of my competitors. But I knew I would find my legs soon. Before I ran past my family to mouth a tear-choked “I love you” to Diana, I had overtaken both of them. Looking at my splits I realized I was knocking out 7:15’s almost effortlessly. Somewhere around mile three, a guy yelled my name and told me he was Chris Sinkovich from 2XU. I guess I was running focused and fast enough that by the time his statement had registered, he was too far behind me to acknowledge. After all, he was the first sponsor after Chris Pic at Blue Bicycles who believed I could ever compete at this level again. I was wearing the clothes he had given me as one of his athletes, and 2XU was in just about every frame of film being shot for the documentary. I hope that’s enough for now, but Chris, I want to shake your hand next time we meet….
An electric cart drove up beside me, and I looked over to see my friend Skeet driving three guys with cameras. Chris, Jason, and Nick looked like they might be having more fun than Jeff who was trying his best not to run me over or distract me from the task at hand: putting 26.2 miles of asphalt behind me. They pulled over as I ran onto a long stretch of road where a field of signs lined the shoulder of the course like trees. The very first one had been made for me by my family in the days before. “Go Drewdini, #665!” it cheered.
A sharp pain and the forest of signs faded as all my attention went to my left leg threatening to cramp. That damn gracillis again—the only way to stretch it was to go into a side lunge to the right. As soon as I did that, my right psoas and quad turned into concrete and then the chain reaction began. I stood back up, but the gracillis locked down again as random contractions forced me to stop in an awkward position. A couple of volunteers saw me struggling in the middle of the road and came over to help me with words of motivation. A muscle relaxer is what I needed more as I eased into a side lunge once again. I wondered if the camera crew was getting this. Linda, one of the producers, has always wanted to capture this moment. Drama she calls it. Immobilization is what it felt like. I stood there petrified as the two men I ran down a couple of miles back passed me. I tried to move forward when my muscles finally relaxed, but they seized up again. “God,” I prayed, “please just let me finish.” The volunteer told me there was an aid station just up the road. As I looked ahead, all I could see was my competition fading further and further into the distance. I looked behind me and saw Jeff and the camera crew a couple of hundred yards away. They obviously didn’t see me or they would have been circling like vultures. It’s not that they wanted “drama.” But if it happened while they were near, they had strict instructions from Linda to capture it on film.
Parts of my brain’s neurons are filled with the origins, insertions, and actions of certain muscles. I used a few of those to convince me to try walking backwards. I felt stupid doing it, but I was making forward progress for the first time in several minutes. “I’ll do this the whole way if necessary,” I thought. “Hell, I can turn around at the last moment for the finish line camera if I have to.” So I moved forward…while backwards…and talked to the two volunteers as I walked at a 20 minute/mile pace. When I tried to turn around, I was rewarded by no cramps. Eventually, I thanked the volunteers for their company and broke into a slow jog. Twinges brushed across my body like cobwebs, but left me alone if I ran more with my arms and let my legs just be along for the ride. Only when I changed my arm swing to grab nutrition at an aid station did my legs protest enough to alter my stride.
The last half of the marathon I focused on relaxation. My pace fell, but I just wanted to finish what I’d started back in 2004. Push too hard and the finish line might escape me again. But three years, ten hours, twelve minutes, and twenty five seconds after I stepped into the cold waters of Mirror Lake for the first time, I ran onto the Olympic Speed Skating Oval to the sound of my name over the loud speakers. Something about leukemia was said, but I missed it, too intent on scanning the crowds lining the arena for my wife. She handed me my son, and I jogged with him toward the finish as he screamed with displeasure. Over his cries I heard the announcer say his name, too, and I raised one arm in the air as the other cradled Declan protectively to my body. He crossed first, so technically I was the 43rd across the line, but it didn’t matter. I’d made it. And my son had made it, too. Not long ago, neither of these miracles seemed possible. But Ironman has proven to me that anything is possible.
With a volunteer on each side supporting me, I hobbled over to a railing where Diana was waiting. We made a Declan sandwich as we cried in each other’s arms and our son screamed loud enough to show he inherited my lungs. My family was there—mom, sis and brother-in-law, their children, as well as all seven of the film crew, capturing the moment for the documentary. The crowd surrounding us probably thought I was famous with all the attention. But I’m just a guy—a triathlete, a son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a dad, a survivor. I was asked why I put myself through everything it takes to reach the finish. The answer is more complex than I can articulate. But one truth is simple: I cherish all of these roles even more each time I become an Ironman.