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By Derek Zitko

So there I was, bobbing in Clinton Lake, just outside of Lawrence, Kansas, wondering if this was going to be how it would end for me…

How did I get there and what do I mean by the end? Well, I’ve got my wife to blame for that one. It was long about February that Dawn, my newly-crafted fitness addict, suggested that I join her for the Ironman Kansas 70.3, a race that includes 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking and then a half-marathon (13.1 miles – yeah, the math adds up).  Why I didn’t just laugh uproariously and dismiss it immediately is still a mystery to me today, but somehow (read: Type A military man) some part of me let it linger.

Despite my not being able to swim longer than one length of a pool in December, I had built up to a pretty good distance by February. I hadn’t been on a long bike ride since…oh… 4th grade, but figured that the “it’s like riding a bike…” saying had to have some merit to it. Plus, I had the marathon from last year under my belt. So, after getting a bike and doing a bit of training, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for the event. Between that day and the end of the race, if I had been given a mile for every person who’s looked at me crazy for making a half-Ironman my first triathlon, I could have sat under a tent drinking beer all day and been given my finisher’s medal.  However, it still didn’t seem that daunting.  Though I didn’t work as hard as Dawn did, I put a decent effort into training over the next few months and felt ready when race day came.

Dawn and I left Saturday afternoon for Lawrence, leaving the kids with Dawn’s mom. We arrived at the race site and pushed our bikes the ½ mile-plus to the designated transition area (later we said that the race should have been called the Kansas 71.8 or something due to all the extra walking we did with bikes and bags).  We finished our pre-race meeting, had a nice dinner and headed to our hotel. Upon arriving in the room, we found two double beds and for the first time, we went George and Gracie with the beds. That way, we thought we’d each get the best night’s sleep possible. I was finishing up in the shower when Dawn decided she felt tired and went to bed. I watched TV a bit longer and before going to sleep, started fixing the alarm clocks. Dawn mumbled that she had already set them, but the hotel’s was a clock/radio and, as you probably know, they are not always on a station. Thus, if you don’t change, it the static may not wake you up. Anyhow, I fumbled around for a station and we went to bed. You may ask: why is he telling me this? Well, the alarm clock goes off that morning and we are greeted by a 1970’s song and these lyrics: “Crazy… I know you’re crazy…”  We laughed our butts off.  It’s 4 a.m. and we’re about to go push ourselves through this race.  Yeah, feeling pretty crazy…

We got ready, sucked down our bananas and Ensure (not just for grandparents anymore!!) and drove to the site.  After carrying our bags for that half mile (through a field this time), we stored our stuff in the second transition area (bike to run) and headed down to the first transition area in order to get our bikes ready. Unfortunately, they had an unpublished, early time at which they were closing that transition area so we had to hurriedly throw our stuff down and run out in order to not get disqualified. I had a bit more time than Dawn and was hoping to get into the porta-potty but we had to scurry over to the swim start.

Such excitement – the pros take off and then everyone else goes by age group.  You’ve got music and fans and other fanfare. Each age group had a different color swim cap so I could see Dawn’s group in front of me in green while I slipped my white swim camp over my bald head (hmm… was that REALLY necessary?). I yanked up my wetsuit, adjusted my goggles and eagerly anticipated my entry into the water.  Ah, but here’s where it gets really interesting… Not only was this Derek’s first triathlon – oh no, it’s not enough of a challenge. Due to the bad weather we had in Kansas the week prior to the event, I never got the chance to head out to the lake.  Thus, I never got to experience the feeling of a wetsuit in water while swimming and, worse, I hadn’t experienced swimming in a lake since I nearly drowned in one about 25 years ago. Nice…   Let’s just say that the lake is a wee bit different than the placid pool water with the nice straight lines on the bottom of the pool and the nice lane barriers that keep others from running into you.  All that aside, I was quite positive as I entered the water, knowing that I had swam the distance (albeit in a pool) a number of times before. Unfortunately, my age group was easily the largest group (about 300 dudes) and what had started out as my location in the back of the pack suddenly became the middle of the pack.

Can you imagine how the captain of the Titanic felt, optimistically motoring along in the grandest ship ever created, when it crashed into that iceberg? Yeah, that’s about what I was feeling just moment after that horn blew. I no more took three strokes when the first foot crashed into my right side (picture the old “Batman” sitcom: “WHAM!”). I lost my breath and popped up wide mouthed only to get a wave crashing into my face (“SPLAM!!”), dumping some of its cargo into both my esophagus and my trachea. After a bit of sputtering, I submerged again to be greeted by another foot to my head (“BAM!”), which dislodged my goggles. Thus, I am less than 1 minute into my first triathlon and I want to tap out. I have a minor panic attack, the constricting wetsuit feels really tight, my breathing is jacked and there are still the remainder of the “largest age group in the race” coming around and over me. At that moment, if the kayaker who was overseeing that part of the race had been closer, it may have been all over for me as a triathlete… but that SOB was just too far away for me to get to!

Thus, I got control of myself and pictured my son, Luke, who has latched onto the part of the movie “The Pacifier” where one antagonistic character says “go ahead and quit because quitter’s quit!” as a mantra for why he doesn’t quit anything. Well, I wasn’t about to tell my son that I was a quitter, so I began to breaststroke (NOTE: for non-swim racers, the breaststroke is authorized but highly discouraged because it’s slow and puts strain on the legs you’ll need later). I began to breaststroke for awhile actually. I still could not get my breathing back right, but I looked around and saw that I had some space and there were a couple of other white swim caps still back there with me, so I trudged on.  As I was poking forward, I heard the horn for the next wave and said “OH, <expletive deleted>” because that meant that I was about to get run over again.  Sure enough, here came the orange caps… around and over and through me.  I think at this point was where I was thinking “I hope that Dawn had already reached the shore because I didn’t want my kids to lose both their parents in one day”. But I trudged on, even beginning to put together some strokes now…not usually straight, of course. (I probably looked like Dennis Conner at the America’s Cup tacking myself left… then right…). But, hey, it was me and a couple of white caps and a couple of orange caps, and we fought on… and then the blue caps started to arrive. 

Fortunately, they were spread out enough that they all went around me… except for the one who, somehow (and this could only have happened to me, I think) caught the band holding my timing chip on my ankle on my ankle and pulled it loose.  So now great swimmer Derek flips to his back, kicks his leg in the air and grabs his timing chip so he doesn’t get kicked out of the race. After getting a nice kayak guy to reattach my band for me, I departed again… with a couple of white caps, an orange cap and a couple of blue caps in tow. I think this was the point where I was thinking “my life is too good to be out here doing this.” The rest of the swim was actually pretty enjoyable. With my breath returned and open water ahead, I was able to actually swim like I trained.  I truly regretted not having gone out to a lake with that wetsuit in order to get used to it – chalk that one up to cockiness, I guess.

As I was nearing the end and could see the “Swim Finish” sign, I heard the words that no swimmer in a triathlon ever wants to hear from the guy on the microphone: “Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s keep those hands clapping, we’ve still got 10 people in the water!” Nice, 1,500 participants and I’m one of the last 10 to get out! Anyways, I realized that, as slow as I had gone (ended up 10+ minutes slower than I’d planned), there was no way I was going to catch Dawn on the bike. So, I decided to have a little fun at the end of the swim. I walked up the ramp out of the water to the clapping of the folks around and hit the deck on my knees, yelling “Land!!  I’ve reached LAND!!”  They all laughed and so did I (mostly because I was alive), and I headed to the transition.

As I started down the lonely bike road, I realized there is one good thing about being one of the last 10 folks out of transition if you’re in decent shape:  you get to start passing people.  Ping, ping, one by one I’m picking folks off. Staying positive, I would tell each of them to “have a great race” or some other comment (and after I was past them, I’d think: I’m gonna kick your butt). On this particular day, Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” was playing on my brain-pod (no music players allowed) and I really was maintaining a great clip. I saw Dawn coming at me at one of the turnarounds, and was feeling really good about catching her when, about mile 20, it hit… 

Well, at about mile 20, my stomach made an awful rumbling noise and the cramps were violent. I spent the next 36 miles fighting off said cramps, despite taking four Gas-X tablets. Included in that time were two porta-potty stops, and I still wish I had apologized to the ladies who held my bike while I was busy. To add insult to injury, about mile 40, the reflector on my back wheel came loose and rubbed against my spokes, making a continuous “ting, ting, ting” sound the rest of the way there – not mechanical enough to stop, but annoying as heck. I probably sounded like the redneck bike whenever I passed anyone… In any case, I was very happy with my bike time having fought through all that, but as I pulled into the second transition, the cramps hit me again. I parked my bike, changed, and jogged to the porta-potty on the way to the run start. 

I headed out to the run, which was two 6.55 mile loops, and began to put one foot in front of the other. Unfortunately, the hopes of finishing with my wife were dashed.  Toss together the swim issues, the stomach issues, the fact that I had to burn a lot of “leg” on the swim, plus the state of my stomach preventing me from taking in enough calories during the ride, and I just didn’t have enough juice to get to her. So, other than the two more stops I had to make at porta-potties on the run, I just had fun out there.  I talked to a guy who had driven in from Cleveland, a couple who were just recently married, and a multitude of other folks, including the volunteers (who are always great at these things).

Through gut pain and a bit of quad pain, I started to realize that, more than training or anything else, it does take a bit of “iron” to get you through these things (and maybe some Imodium). All that said, the end was great – with the family there and the medal hanging around my neck, the “sinking feeling” I had 6 hours before had disappeared. I had one other neat thought later in the day. Just after Dawn and I had gotten our picture taken with Chrissie Wellington, the Michael Jordan of women’s triathlon, I started to think about those professional triathletes. Unlike the in the “major” sports, the common man gets to tread the same ground as the pros. We, the people, are slower, of course, but at the end of the day, we’re all at the beer tent together. I think I’ve found my new athlete “heroes”…

So, my last one? Maybe, maybe not (though I can already sense the bug starting to crawl toward me). We’ll have to see what my stud of a bride talks me into next. I don’t see myself following the path of my cousin, Mike, the family Ironman. But I could see Dawn getting there, and I’ll be happy to lead her support team – with sympathy for her pains and understanding for her joys.