The following essay is part of an anthology of 15 essays, written by everyday triathletes, about humans doing what they were meant to do.
Read the winning essay below.
By Janna Summerall-Smith
Janna Summerall-Smith is a triathlete and physician. She has completed two Iron-distance triathlons: The Great Floridian Triathlon in Clermont, Florida, and Ironman Florida in Panama City Beach, Florida. She is currently a contented back-of-the pack triathlete, contemplating her next party – that is to say, triathlon. Janna is married to Allen Smith, a fellow triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher. They reside in Waycross, Georgia with their four children and one grandchild.
I paddled my kayak out into the Gulf of Mexico on a chilly November morning. In a few minutes, over 2,000 athletes would be headed my way, beginning their Ironman rite-of-passage. My husband, Allen, was one of them – his fourth Ironman. Having completed two Iron-distance races myself, I was sitting out this year, playing my part in the Ironman drama by volunteering as a lifeguard on the swim course. I was helping bring newbie Ironmen into the fold, herding them through the water on the way to their finish many hours later.
I also helped bring out the not-so-lucky ones in after the cut-off time had elapsed. I sat next to them in the kayak as they floated in their wetsuits, bewildered, as they looked at the shore and realized that their dream was over for that year. We could barely make out the clock on the beach; we could barely hear the announcer herald the final swim finisher. But we knew that time was up. These athletes were 1,000 yards from shore, and the other athletes were long gone. We paddled slowly to shore, the swimmers, the lifeguards and the kayaks, in silence. The athletes exited the water to the applause of the few spectators left at the swim finish; the rest of us brought our boats sadly to shore. These athletes had so much invested in this race; some, more than any of us can imagine.
When you’re sitting alone in a kayak a half-mile from shore at sunrise, you can’t help but become philosophical. You also can’t help thinking about what would happen if you dangled your feet over the kayak at prime shark feeding time. I sat there, with my feet safely in the boat, as the athletes made their way past me, no sound except for the rhythmic splash-splash of the freestyle stroke. I wondered: what are we doing here? Not in the philosophical meaning-of-life kind of way, rather: why triathlon? Why Ironman? Why today? What brings all of these people to Panama City Beach, Florida on a cold day in November?
That man over there, resting and floating on his back, had a heart transplant. That woman just turned 50, and is passing women half her age. That woman, swimming over the other competitors, wants to break the course record. That man, stroking calmly and steadily, just lost over one hundred pounds. That one over there is battling cancer. That man is being pulled in a raft by his dad. My husband is trying to PR the swim, even though our local pool has been closed for two months. So many stories out there this morning.
Why We Race Triathlons
I think that you can make some generalizations about ‘why we Tri.’ For many of us, it’s for pure athletic achievement: a Kona slot, a personal best time, or just to finish before the cut-off. It's really no different than a cross country race in high school, or a college swim meet. For a lot of us, racing triathlon is about much more than racing.
We celebrate triumph over adversity: we’ve overcome some huge obstacle. We’re happy to be alive. We’re overjoyed to ‘be in life’, as my husband would say, and he should know, after nearing losing his life racing. We’re just happy to be there, racing, splashing around in the Gulf, turning the pedals, running or walking into the sunset. We’re the zany ones you see with Mickey Mouse ears on our heads, or crossing the finish line in a tuxedo. We use triathlon to commemorate an important milestone in our lives, to place a marker on the time in our life where things changed, as punctuation. We commemorate an occasion by racing a triathlon. And we usually have the urge to commemorate the occasion with some additional outward symbol of our achievement. Witness the brisk business in the Panama City tattoo shops the day after the race, the athletes poring over tattoo flash demonstrating the infinite number of ways that you can have the ‘M-Dot’ logo etched into your skin (for the record, mine is in pink, and on my right shoulder). We have ‘140.6’ stickers on our trucks. We wear our finishers T-shirts to every subsequent event, even a 5k run. Okay, especially a 5k run.
Celebration and commemoration. I think that triathlon is one of very few athletic events where we do those things, especially those finishing their first triathlon, and those who ‘take it up a notch’ to the more extreme races, like the Iron-distance triathlons. And it extends down to even the smallest super-sprints. Witness those final finishers in any local tri, beaming from ear to ear, on the bike that they’ve kept stored in the garage for years, celebrating their finish after losing fifty pounds. The finishers with ‘Happy Birthday’ balloons tied to their bike rack set up in the local parking lot, racing on their big day. Watch the women racing the Danskin Women’s Triathlon for the first time, afraid that they will be the last finisher, which, of course, won’t happen, because Sally Edwards assumes that role. The women who hear “Congratulations! You are a triathlete!” for the first time in their lives, have a medal hung around their neck, and begin to cry. Then watch them embrace their friends and family, and celebrate!
Finishing a triathlon can be a point at which your old life ends, and a new one begins. By racing, especially Ironman, you mark that point in your life. Finishing a triathlon suggests to some that a new chapter is opening up in their life. If they can finish a triathlon, then marriage will be a piece of cake. Or turning 50 won’t be so bad after all. Allen and I commemorated our own milestone at Ironman Florida in 2006.
He proposed to me after we finished the race together. I was on the race course with Allen in 2004, the Great Floridian Triathlon, his first Iron-distance race after his head injury. On that day we had yet to be introduced. As we looped around Lake Minneola for the umpteenth time, glow sticks looped around our necks or our heads. I was loopy with joy, and pretended to be an angel. Eventually we passed each other, both in our own little worlds. I finished way ahead of him, by the way. A fact that I do not fail to remind him of to this day. Although we didn’t know each other, I believe that I may have sat close to him at the awards luncheon the next day. The person that I remember sat down with a heaping plate full of barbeque, and then went back for seconds. That had to have been Allen, for sure.
We met again, formally this time, in 2005. Both in love with the sport, we quickly fell in love with each other, and began training and racing together. Allen found out that I had registered for Ironman Florida on the day that registration opened via the computer. In the minutes leading up to the opening I was camped out in front of my computer, coffee in hand, waiting to start clicking when the clock hit 10 a.m. East coast time. Allen, on the hand picked up a slot for the race in May, at the Florida Half-Ironman.
We began an Ironman journey again, together this time. Although I enjoyed the time I spent training alone for my last Ironman, I found that training for the race with a partner was a pleasure – as much pleasure as spending eight hours on a bike on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of August in Florida could be, that is There were some philosophical differences in our training and racing, such as, I hate long rides with a passion, and Allen loves them. I could run all night and Allen would be happy if he never had to run again. But we were a team, and we were ready to race.
Race day arrived. We kissed goodbye on the beach and headed out, Allen in the front of the pack, and me lagging behind, in no hurry to get into the water. The day passed with its usual Ironman ups and downs: hitting the proverbial wall at mile 80 on the bike, nearly wiping out when I grabbed my special needs bag on the bike. And that wonderful feeling, halfway through the bike, when you realize that, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing this!”
Late that evening, I found Allen waiting for me on the run course so we could run through the finisher's chute together. I later found out that he was asking for the opinion of some female spectators about his plan to propose marriage. He would say, “My girlfriend is behind me by a few minutes, and I don’t know if I should wait for her or not. I am proposing to her after we finish the race, by the way.” They replied something like, “Ummm… dummy…. wait for her.”
I finished, of course. Although I had suspected Allen’s plot, and I wondered if I was going to get the traditional finish-line proposal, with commentary by the race announcer Mike Reilly. Alas, Allen, very pragmatically, I later concluded, decided against this course of action, as he couldn’t figure out where to stow the engagement ring during the actual race. He was terrified of losing the thing somewhere out in the backwoods of Bay County, never to be seen again.
After I finished the race, we returned to our warm condo, safely out of the cold and the wind. I was dozing on the couch, my feet on Allen’s lap, when he said, “Wait! Before you fall asleep, I need to ask you something.” And then he produced the ring.
It seemed so fitting that we marked our engagement with a triathlon; with an Ironman. Ironman and our marriage were now forever linked. We threw an engagement party in our condo the next afternoon, with our Ironman friends; we dined on pulled pork and baked beans, the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin flowing freely and having dramatic effects on our dehydrated selves. The groom’s cake at our Christmas wedding was a red-and-green M-Dot.
They’ve made it through adversity. Now, they can complete a sprint triathlon: what seemed like an insurmountable goal during their struggle. Or they’ve made it through in such great shape that they can even finish an Ironman- who would have thought in a million years that would be possible? Swimming, biking and running is nothing after what they’ve been through. It’s a joy to be out there doing those things, even if it causes a little pain and discomfort, even though muscles ache and skin blisters.
Allen has an old aluminum Klein bicycle named Fu Manchu, the bull that the character in Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying” rode for “2.7 seconds.” He got back on the bull, and rode significantly more than 2.7 seconds on Fu Manchu when he finished the Great Floridian Triathlon – an Iron-distance race – in Clermont, Florida in 2004. He was celebrating life after he nearly died in a bike wreck in 2000.
Allen was in a rush that morning in 2000. He rushed out of the house to the race venue an hour away. He is not sure if he really ate anything before the race – maybe a Pop Tart, maybe part of a banana.
He was hurtling toward the bike to run transition area at nearly 20 miles per hour when it happened. No one knows exactly what caused the crash. Maybe it was dehydration, or low blood sugar, or an irregular heart rhythm? We may never know. Later spectators noted that he simply fell off his bike. Unconscious, and unable to break his fall, his head hit the pavement, hard. His helmet was returned to him later, cracked in half and covered in blood. He had a seizure lying there on the asphalt, and was taken to the local trauma center, where he remained for days. He has no recollection of the time he spent in the hospital. He was told that he almost required a hole drilled into his skull to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain. He ‘woke up’ two weeks later while shaving. His face was a map of blue stitches in the mirror, and he wondered just what the hell had happened to him. He bears the scars today, has some problems with sensation on his left side, and has a hard time hearing in his left ear too.
Eventually, Allen got back on the bull, cautiously at first. Then, in 2004, he finished the Great Floridian Triathlon. Celebrating life. For Allen, every race is a cause for celebration, even though he is frequently inconsolable for days when he fails to achieve his time goal du jour. He’s alive; he’s healthy; he’s able to continue to perform at a high level after almost losing his life. This wasn’t just a broken collarbone, a cracked rib- this was his brain that we’re talking about.
Finishing the Great Floridian was a celebration for me, too; the race was one big party for me. The run was especially festive, as the sun set on the lake and I used my glow stick as a halo, and as I laughed and chatted with my fellow competitors and with the volunteers. The finisher’s picture sitting in my office shows me at the finish line, beaming from ear to ear, my kids at my side. I was looking pretty grungy in my white bandana and Power Gel stained singlet, but I was ecstatic.
My Fu Manchu was my abusive marriage to my ex-husband. I raced triathlon as a means to bolster my waning self-esteem. Triathlon was also an escape from the problems at home. The hours of swimming, biking and running kept me away from the house and away from my increasingly violent and unstable husband. I persevered, despite his attempts to sabotage me: slamming me against the wall for disobeying him a few hours before my first marathon, and, another time, hurling my Cannondale from the bed of the truck onto the side of the road. He ranted about how irresponsible and selfish I was for training all of the time.
But I knew that no matter what he did or said to me, I was still a triathlete. He couldn’t take that away from me.
Once I finished the Great Floridian – despite all of the obstacles that he threw in front of me to prevent it – I realized that I had enough strength to get myself out of that marriage. It was frightening and heartbreaking, but I got away from him, got a restraining order, and got on with my life.
I was still a triathlete, not only a triathlete but an Ironman, even after all of the ordeals that I endured during my marriage. I was able to mend. I took thrown and damaged bike to the shop and had it repaired. The bruises on my body healed. My toes were in the water at the start line within weeks after I left him.
The psychological wounds have taken much longer to heal. Today, I struggle with depression. I have gone for days and weeks lacking the energy to train, not wanting to even get out of bed. I have had to take pills to alleviate my symptoms, medications which have made my muscles weak and have made my legs ache when I tried to run. I mourn the loss of my fitness during these episodes, and I’m embarrassed to be racing so far back in the pack. But, nonetheless, I am out there. I am still able to swim, bike and run, however slowly.
And I’ll always find yet another reason to celebrate. My first race after my current bout of plantar fasciitis is cured will be quite a party, I assure you. I will be sure to find a race that falls on my birthday the next time that I ‘age up’ to the next age group: it will be my best, and probably only, chance to actually get some kind of age group award for a few years.
I’m sure that you will see me out there soon, whether it’s a local tri or at an Ironman again. I’ll be the one decked out in a rhinestone tiara, running out of T2, happy to be alive and feeling well, and especially happy to be off that darned bike once and for all!