For two days I’ve been in Lake Tahoe getting ready for my second Ironman race, Ironman Lake Tahoe. It’s been nine months of focused training and I’ve done 99.99% of the workouts laid out for me by my coach. The few that I missed I either made up for or gave myself permission to slip a little due to the compounding pressures of life and work. Training benefits the mind as well as the body, those long workouts that built in intensity and duration create a platform on which to cap it on race day. Race day is One Hard Day but there were several Hard Days in the past that teased the edges of the unknown. And yet, even with that preparation, there is still fear.
I love doing things where I don’t know or can’t predict the outcome. Somewhere in the unknown is where discovery lives – discovery of self, experience, and sometimes even being able to plant a figurative flag in the ground to stake a claim. The love of the discovery is not enough to assuage the fear of the unknown. In training and preparation the fear subsides because there are practical tasks to be done. Yet there are times of quiet and calm where the fear creeps in up the neck. Wondering if I did not train hard enough on hard days, do that one massive thing that stretches me that much further than before.
For my first Ironman I did several training days that were designed to break my notions of the possible. Three miles of swimming. A hundred and thirty miles on the bike. A chest bursting pace half marathon. Even with those under my belt I was still venturing into the unknown on race day, putting it all together was new and there were many points in the race where I had to push through my ideas of what I was capable of to reach the other side.
For this race my plan was distinctly different, using a coach and a plan that emphasized sustaining race pace over longer distances, pushing my physical threshold higher and further without cooking my system and also respecting the new life I had with a toddler, wife, a demanding small business, and a new venture that was growing in time and responsibility. No one event is the same as the last. I have placed my trust in my coach and plan, and thus far it has worked. With three days to go in the quiet jittery place of the taper, my mind reaches out into the dark space of the unknown and with trembling fingers finds the fear.
The cashier at the Safeway, seeing all the athletes in line stocking up their rentals, said, “I hear they’re calling this the toughest one”. That has been the chatter on the message boards as well. Maybe that comment was supposed to make us feel better but it just let those frosty fingers of fear flick the back of my neck. She was making small talk, but it goes in the realm of things you cannot unhear. Giving fear any toehold is too much. Yet everything about the days leading up to a major event where the outcome is not guaranteed, the terrain new and uncharted, is a war against fear.
I have feared my own death since I was nine years old. Ironically, dying will likely be the easiest trip into the unknown I ever take. Dying is an act of surrender to the unknown; my actions are usually voluntary leaps into the void. When I have taken those leaps I am rewarded in the riches of discovery. When I hesitate or allow fear to hold me back I give it dominion over me, control, and it inhibits my growth. When my wife and I decided to have a child it was because we were able to allow the desire to be parents of a new person to overcome the fear of lack of resources – time, money, space – and the reward has been an amazing little girl who has reshaped our lives and reality. She challenges us every day in ways we could not have imagined, and has shown me aspects of myself I dared not face in the mirror. My tiny tyrant, whom I love above all things on earth, also fills me with new fears that I must push through to find uncharted territories. Right now, a dear friend sits in a hospice room with his dying father who is not expected to survive the day and will certainly pass. My thoughts drift to him, and I recall vividly my own father’s death just a few months after my Ironman race. Emotionally I link Ironman with death, and the permanent change that comes with touching mortality.
Driving the course, watching youtube videos of the course, pouring over maps, data, it both helps and scares. There are three distinct climbs on this course (the bike route is 2 1/3 loops, meaning we do Dollar Hill three times, Martin Camp and Brockway Summit twice), and Martin Camp is closed to the public until Saturday. Inside lies is the unknown. The temperature has been dropping steadily – 27 degrees this morning lakeside. I’m no longer able to handle the cold as well as I used to, maybe it’s that I am no longer fat, maybe it’s just age, or my ability to withstand cold has disappeared. My hope is my hands don’t shake too badly coming out of the water so I can get to my bike and get rolling quickly. The altitude hasn’t seemed to be a factor for me so far, but that has yet to be known until hours into a grueling course. Patience, experience, and control will be key elements for the day.
I do not journey alone on this path. I have the unyielding support of a partner, family, and friends who all want to see me succeed. Sometimes that helps, and sometimes it creates external pressure that is too much to think about. On Sunday, I will have to make conscious choices about how to think about the eyeballs watching me from afar.
The unknown is a dark abyss, a cliff high above the cloud layer, obfuscating what lies below. The noises that come from beneath are distorted, from up here it sounds like screaming, filling me with fear and disquietude, uncertainty and doubt. But I force myself to step off, leap into the unknown, and trust that when I break through the cloud bank and open my wings the sound I hear is the rush of wind as I take flight.