Thursday, September 11, 2008

Just Tri-ing to Understand

Last weekend, George and I left our boys at home in the loving care of my mother and went to Madison, Wisconsin, for five days so George could participate in the Ford Ironman Wisconsin Triathlon.

You see, I married a totally insane man whose idea of fun is to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon. That’s another 26.2 miles, in case you didn’t know. A total race distance of 140.6 miles. All in one day.

Did I mention he’s insane?

This was year four of George’s Ironman (IM) career. The first year, 2005, he did not finish IM Wisconsin, though he made it through the swim, bike, and half the marathon before quitting. It was hot and windy that year, and he was in good company—over a third of the participants did not finish, a record for that course. George had gone by himself, and it broke my heart thinking of him, miserable and alone, driving back to his hotel room with a DNF (Did Not Finish) by his name.

In 2006, he finished IM Wisconsin with a time of 13:25, well within the Ironman race limit of 17 hours. He did this race alone, as well, and the joy in his voice as he recounted his experience to me over the phone made me ache to think I was not there to celebrate with him.

In 2007, we took our family vacation to the Adirondacks so George could race in IM Lake Placid, but around mile 130 of the course, a nice, sensible police officer called an ambulance to take my husband to the medical tent, where he joined hundreds of other people who were hooked to IVs and wrapped in warm blankets. He was eight pounds light from dehydration, completely white with the salt he had sweated out of his abused body, shivering uncontrollably, and slightly disoriented. A few bags of IV fluid and a gallon of chicken broth later, he walked out of the tent and into my arms.

I’m not sure it helped him having us there, but at least he had a shoulder to lean on and didn’t have to drive himself back to the hotel alone. I went out to get him a Big Mac and fries at 11:00 pm. It was the least I could do. Actually, it was all I could do.

My aunt asked me last year if I understood why George felt the need to do this to himself. I answered honestly, “No, I don’t understand at all.”

So this year, we left the children with Grandma Dianne and drove to Madison together. I hoped that without the distraction of the boys, I would finally understand why an otherwise intelligent, stable, sensible, 43-year-old man would do this to himself. Again.

I paid close attention, took in everything I could from the experience, and kept detailed mental notes. I still don’t get it, but I did learn a lot this year from my careful observations.

1) It’s now patently obvious to me that I am not alone. Last year, I was too busy keeping Nick occupied and chasing after Jack, who for some reason felt the need to run in a huge circle around the finish line over and over through the crowd. You can’t do much observing under these circumstances.

This year, I noticed lots of other people—men and women, young and old—wandering around with the same bemused look on their faces that I saw on mine whenever I looked in the mirror. These bemused people are sometimes referred to as Iron Sherpas or, if we’re married to the crazy ones, Ironmates. Many of us carry bike pumps around on race day, looking like husbands stuck at the department store holding their wives’ purses, not quite sure what to do with them. Not one of us understands why the men and women we love would do this race, but we love them enough to carry their bike pumps anyway.

I saw a woman about my age hanging out at the finish line on race day wearing an Ironmate shirt that said “Just tri-ing to understand.”

I wanted to hug this woman as a long-lost sister.

2) It’s also obvious that George is not alone. This year’s race started with 2,207 athletes. Many of these people, including George, had already pre-registered to participate in next year’s race. As I waited to cheer George on at the transition from swim to bike, the man next to me admitted that he was checking out the race in hopes of doing it next year. I hope he got in because the morning after the race, general registration opened for just a few hours. The line of hopefuls wrapped around the Convention Center, and the race filled quickly. There are just too many people who, for some unknown reason, want to do this race.

3) It takes thousands of dedicated volunteers to make this sort of race happen. Imagine the number of people it takes to activate race chips, repair bikes, register racers, set up and tear down the finish line, mark the course, patrol the course, keep non-participants off the course, keep participants on the course, ride in kayaks to make sure no one drowns on the swim, staff and supply aide stations, smear Vaseline on chaffing spots during the marathon, provide medical care for a bunch of crazy people…. The list goes on and on.

At the finish line, the video and race photos only show the victory of crossing. But I watched what happened after participants crossed the line into the chute of rubber-gloved volunteers ready to “catch” them. One volunteer’s only job, as far as I could see, was tearing off reflective silver blankets from huge rolls and piling them onto tables for the volunteer “catchers” to grab and wrap around the race finishers. Other volunteers handed the finishers medals, t-shirts, and hats as the catchers continued to hold onto them so they would not fall down. Many volunteers escorted a number of finishers straight to the medical tent where even more volunteers put IV fluids into them.

I wanted to hug each and every one of the volunteers, too.

4) The finish line is incredible. I can’t express the thrill of watching crazy person after crazy person finish this crazy race. As each racer crosses the line, the announcer calls out his or her name, and yells, “You are an Ironman!”

I knew no one else participating in this race, but I tell you, I loved them all, cheered them on until I was hoarse and my hands hurt from clapping. I desperately wanted to know the story of each and every one of them. Was this their first IM race? How old were they? What made them do it? How long had they trained? What did it mean for them to finish this race? Why were they here? I would put up with Bob Costas’ penchant for melodrama if only he would tell me these stories, but I think he just shows up for Ironman Hawaii.

Why do these triathletes push their bodies so hard in three sports? I don’t know. Why do they spend hours, weeks, months, years training to do a race that they may not even finish? I don’t know. Having been there, paying attention, I think it may have something to do with that finish line and the announcer saying, “You are an Ironman!” There must be something about that experience to make all the pain worth it.

As George tells the story of his race this year, he lost the will to live around mile 16 of the marathon, but after some salt pills and Gatorade and a few miles of walking, the leg cramps stopped, and he thought he could finish it. He did, with a personal record of 12:41. I ran to the end of the finisher chute and caught him as he stumbled toward me, wrapped in a silver blanket and wearing his finisher medal and cap, holding his t-shirt.

I am still trying to understand why he does this to himself, but this much is now very clear: I’ll be proud to carry his bike pump next year, and the year after, and the year after, because…

George Raihala, you are an Ironman! Again!


  1. What a great write-up. Your recount reminds me very much of my mom - she will never understand why I do this to myself. I may never understand either :)
    Thank you for writing that. It was great!

  2. susan that was great. i have ridden lots of miles with george, along with several other of the cincy express (which is a local bunch of crazies) tri team.

    after emailing with you, and seeing his PR, i thought maybe this is the last one, he will go out on the proverbial top. but, that is an answer for a normal person.


    i love your recount, it was really fun to be on the remote sidelines and get your emails as well. you guys are an awesome couple.

    joanne gerwe from

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. It is beautifully written and does great service to every person who participated on that day. I am grateful for your updates and tech support during the day so my family and I could watch on the internet and cheer George on. What a feeling when we heard his name (though hard to identify the way the announcer mangled it). To the announcer's credit, he did an incredible job of showing great enthusiasm for each person who crossed the finishing line. We watched for over an hour and his excitement ddn't wane (and he had been announcing for a long time).

    Thank you again for including us all in the excitement of the day. And congratulations George.

  4. I have never done this before, but i just had to write. Thank you for your story - it was exactly what I would have written after watching my husband. I felt so relieved to know that I am not the only one who does not understand why their husbands do this! So thank you, and I will be having a t-shirt made up that says "just tri-ing to understand". From your soul mate sister, Kerry

  5. Susan, you never fail to move me with your words!! Great story!!

  6. Hey.. thanks for the wonderful post! This year will be my 1st year doing an Ironman race and it'll be in Dec in Western Australia! My wife who knows me like the back of her hand, does NOT understand why I'm doing this to myself. LOL! I showed her your post and she smiled... she said, yeah... I remember holding that bike pump last year (when I did a IM 70.3 event).

  7. Being a triathlete that is also not understood by his surrounding, this text almost made me cry! I wish my wife would write something like this about me. But I also wish she knew that I am a triathlete because of self-determination, perseverance, fun and pride. It is really simple. Thank you!

  8. As a mom to 2 kids and also an "Ironmate" -- you are a kindred spirit! You've captured the wonder, amazement and pride many of us feel as we watch and wonder from the sidelines.

  9. Congratulations to George and his Ironmate!!!! What a great recap Susan. Tell George he is a great inspiration. I am in awe of anyone who trains for the IM, not to mention finish it!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!