Time doesn't stop--even if you do.
That thought was stronger than the stench of urine as I sat cramping in a hot,
dark port-o-let about ten miles short of the finish line of the Great Floridian
Triathlon. Somewhere outside, my comfortable lead was quickly becoming
less comfortable as second and third place inevitably hunted me down. I
could hear other triathletes running past, calling for water or coke or
Gatorade. The aid station was in full gear. The volunteers handed out
everything from bananas to chicken broth. And even though I doubted they
had any muscle relaxers, it couldn't hurt to ask, right?
But first I had to get off the toilet seat
I tried again to stand and the flurry of contractions riddled my legs like gunfire. The confines of my private bathroom were making the cramps worse. The heat of the Clermont sun was concentrated in the port-o-let. And last I looked, the finish line wasn't in here. I needed to get outside again. Putting my hand on the only thing I could without contorting into a position which would illicit another cramp, I grabbed onto the lip of the urinal and pulled my body up. My quads twinged, but I was out the door and moving before I could even question again why I was doing another Ironman.
Like most goals in life, my motivation was multifaceted. But I think the main reason I was in Florida suffering through 140.6 miles with my fellow masochists from all parts of the globe can be traced to a statement I made in a moment of bravado: "Don't worry about me, I'm gonna be the first Leukemia Survivor to win the overall of an Ironman." And I don't really know who I was trying to convince--myself--or my family and friends who were watching me slowly deteriorate after a diagnosis of Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. But the constant fear and sadness reflected in their eyes was more palpable than the pain which haunted my bones, and I couldn't begin to heal until that look changed. They had to believe I was going to be o.k. They had to trust that I was going to be around for a while. Dying's the easy part. We all do it sooner or later. It's going on that's hard sometimes. Bound by a memory is no different than being tied to an I.V. So I gave them all hope by making a promise I wasn't really sure I could keep.
But today I was trying.
The race began well before the horn sounded to start the swim. And if you're reading this, you probably know much of my story. So I'll just pick up at the end of lap one of the swim. I looked at my watch and saw thirty-one minutes and change. And even though I had an official in a kayak redirect me back on course as the chop of the water made it hard to navigate, I had been swimming well. The course was long. Well, no worries. Everyone has to swim it. So I trudged up to shore, unable to high step due to cramping in extreme range of motions, and started the second lap one minute down on first place. The next lap was a little straighter, and I exited the water in 1:03--my slowest Ironman swim ever. Strippers (not the kind on the poles) helped me with my wetsuit or I would've had to ride 112 in neoprene--rear delts locked every time I tried to reach the zipper. Running into the changing tent, I saw the leader headed out of T1. You better ride fast, my friend...
Once on the bike, I'm at home. I've spent over half my life racing bicycles, and I've gotten pretty good at pushing pedals. The Parlee I'm riding this year is the best bike I've ever owned. And while my skills on two wheels peaked several years ago, technology has helped me retain some sense of speed. Put me on something like my Parlee, and I feel confident enough to ride with anybody. But this was a race. And I could tell from the first pedal strokes that the sleep loss over the past few weeks and the sickness which began on Wednesday was affecting me. It took me 30mins to take back the two minutes the leader had on me heading onto the bike course. But with a century and a marathon still to go in the race, I was doing what I said I'd do over eight years ago: I was winning the Great Floridian.
Other than a wrong turn on lap two when a cop directed me back onto lap one, the bike was fairly uneventful. I was frustrated with the fatigue I felt during my time to shine but hoped my lackadaisical pacing would be rewarded on the run. Besides, even on a bad day, I'm not going too slow--I just hope it's fast enough to have the gap I'll need for the run. Somehow that discipline has improved to where it's slowly becoming my strength. Crazy for me to say that, as I still don't consider myself a runner. The Kenyans aren't exactly what you would describe as short and stocky. But I don't run scared anymore. I know I can hold off my competitors. But can I hold off the cramps...?
I rolled into T2 where I left off on the swim--slowest Ironman bike ever--5:28. But feeling about the same as before the ride was a good sign, and as I ran out to start the marathon I wondered how much of a buffer I'd have for the marathon. "You have 5 or 10 minutes!" someone yelled. "I'd be happier with more!" I responded. Just then, a cyclist rolled up to escort the leader, and I got a nice pump knowing the leader was me. I felt good--the hints of cramps in my quads were there, but they seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper below the surface with each step I took. The first mile went by in 6:40, and I consciously tried to slow down. The second mile included a pee stop in a port-o-let which would become too familiar a couple of hours later. But it was still a 6:55. "Slow it down, Drew," I told myself. And finally I settled into a pace between 7:30 and 8:00, a pace I felt comfortable with and which allowed me to answer the questions of my escort. It was kinda like we were out for a stroll, and the conversation eventually turned to why I was out there. I told him about my promise, and he showed me the yellow Livestrong band on his wrist he wore as a Survivor of prostate cancer. He wondered aloud if he should take it off with all the Lance crap coming out. I didn't answer him. That decision was his.
I set the time on my watch at the first turnaround to see how much time I had on second place. I kept expecting to see him as the seconds crept slowly by. But it took a while before we saw each other. I analyzed his form as we got closer. He looked good. But as we passed each other, I looked at my watch--over nine minutes. I've got at least eighteen on him with twenty to go. Was that enough? How fast was he running? I'd have to wait till the next turnaround to find out.
At the second turnaround, we repeated the game. Second still looked good, but this time I had twenty-two minutes on him. I'm faster. And with less than eighteen to go, the surreal feeling of leading an Ironman is beginning to--a knife in my right quad, and I immediately stop. My guide rolls on ahead, completely oblivious that cramps have left me frozen on a piece of Florida tarmac. I've cramped at every race I've done since starting chemo, so I'm not too worried. I immediately start doing the math of runs and splits as I try to will the quads to relax--I should stretch them. But I know that lifting my heel to my butt will make the hamstrings catch, and I'd like to keep my rigamortis to a minimum. If second is doing eight minute miles, and I'm not moving...I try walking, but each extension of my knee turns the leg to stone. I close my eyes and breathe into my belly, calming myself. I take the time to sip some water and get some calories into me. And when the muscles relax into tiny, sporadic shivers, I risk moving forward again. The twinges are still there, but they stay just below the surface as I run at a much reduced pace to go find my escort on his bike.
A mile later I make it down a hill without cramping only to be rewarded by both legs locking up. My guide is with me now and asks if I need some water. I tell him I'm on chemo, and this is just one of the unfortunate side effects--especially if you're an endurance athlete. Yawns will cause my face to cramp. Brushing my teeth causes my hands to cramp. I've even had one day on the bike when I waited too long to go pee, and my cremaster muscle cramped. And for those of you reading this who don't know your anatomy, consider yourself lucky.
The marathon becomes a series of spurts and stops as I can't make it through a mile before cramps overtake me. My legs alternate between stiff and stone, and when not running I must look like I'm posing in a bodybuilding contest. Immobilized while trying to leave an aid station, I hear a girl say "look at his calves!"
I somehow get moving again, but now the cramps are moving up to my upper body. I have to put my gel flask in my singlet--my fingers keep fixing in unnatural positions, alternating between modified versions of thumbs up, hang ten, and F-You! Gotta relax my grip, cause I don't want to piss off the locals. And I continually need to straighten my arms as the radiobrachialis on both sides won't let me bend them. But the worst are the muscles in my head and neck which force me into jaw gymnastics trying to release them. I'm nearing the water stop half way up a hill which roughly marks the 10K to go point. The course is filled with competitors on this last lap, but I feel more alone than ever. I'm shuffling more than running now, and I realize this race has turned into a death march for me. And then a brutal barrage of cramping stops even that.
I've cramped every day of my life since starting Gleevec. But I've had more days of life because of Gleevec than many who came before me. Yeah, I have a lot to be thankful for. I think of Team in Training. I think of my doc at Atlanta Cancer Care. The images of friends come as fast as the contractions firing off in my legs, and I look around at the triathletes who run or walk by. I've attracted the attention of the volunteers at the aid station, and they come down the hill with offers of gels and ice. When I don't move, they ask if I need help. My eyes close. Silently, I retreat into my own thoughts as I shake my head so they know I heard them, that I'm lucid. I think about the friends and family who make up my support group and wonder what news they're able to get on-line or via phone calls or texts. Are my boys at Podium Multisport cheering my victory unaware that I might not make the finish line? Are Diana and Declan back at transition, getting the announcement that the leader has stopped. With my eyes closed, I see second place pass me for the lead as I stand petrified in the middle of the road just half a mile from an imaginary finish. The same finish I've dreamed about for eight years. And win or not, I just want to cross that line. But the seven miles of asphalt which lie between me and it seem impossible. I'd crawl if I could. But I can't.
So I run.
Somehow I run. I convince myself to stop running like I'm going to cramp. Quit being tentative and run with my normal stride, unrestrained and through a full range of motion. Forward progress doesn't come easy. The actin and myosin fibers in my legs have been glued together for so long now that any movement feels like I'm tearing them apart. And I probably am. And I'm probably going to be more sore tomorrow than I've ever been in my life. But I'm moving. Slowly at first as I climb up the hill to the turnaround. And as I start my descent, I'm torn between the gift of gravity and the pain of impact as my feet hit the ground harder. Yet, with each stride, I'm gaining momentum. I'm gaining confidence and feel for the first time in several miles that I can actually pull this thing off.
A runner I'm not sure I recognize passes me going in the opposite direction looking strong. Could that be the new second place? I check my watch. It''s been a little over three minutes since I hit the turnaround. I've got less than seven minutes with six miles to go. God don't let me cramp. I run through the twenty-first mile in 8:30. I see the guy who had been in second place a few minutes later and run the next mile at about 8:20. Making sure I grab nutrition, I run through the aid stations, afraid that stopping might stop me. Congratulations are now coming from people who recognize me as the leader. "Bring it home!" they say, or something similar--I don't really hear them despite my thumbs up acknowledgement. I'm half focused on form and half focused on the crazy possibility that I'm not cramping even though every stride is testing that belief.
Somewhere in transition the site of Declan jumping up and down stirs me back to consciousness. I automatically reach down to give him five but pass him and Diana before the thought even registers. I almost turn around but don't want to risk stopping. The guy behind me is probably gaining. And I'm sure my body can't sprint now. At the final turn around, I hear "you got this" and finally begin to believe it's true. The smile I usually wear when racing--my testimony to anybody watching that I'm still alive, that I appreciate the blessing of being healthy enough to compete--makes a belated return to my face, and I realize I'm really going to win. The sign directing runners onto laps two and three or the finish is ahead, and I joyfully head in the direction of my name being called over the P.A. I slow to a walk a few feet from the line and throw my hands in the air. I almost don't want this moment to be over. Yet, just across the line I can see the race clock ticking.
Time never stops in an Ironman.
And neither do I.