Aqualung

By Tamara K. Adelman

he golf course sprawls out in front of me, a series of green fairways and paved cart paths. I am on foot, with about twelve hundred other people who started the swim portion of this race together at 7:00 a.m., but, by now, five hours into the half-ironman, are all spread out. Some people have finished already, but those around me are still suffering through the run, and we’re only a mile into a half marathon. There’s a guy, he’s tall, well over six feet and maybe thirty years old, he’s a faster runner than I, but I keep catching him because he is taking walking breaks. It’s so hot, I might be crabby, so I try to keep to myself. But I come up on him, and he says, hey. I don’t respond right away, I’m tough and I like to suffer alone. Actually, I feel pretty good, considering the circumstances, I did train in some heat in the desert Memorial Day weekend, but Hawaii is humid, and this is the hottest I’ve ever been.

Hey, I say back. How’s it going? Okay, he says, but he’s struggling, I can tell. He starts running again to hang with me. Why do you keep walking? I ask. Oh, I have a cramp in my right calf, he says. It’ll probably pass, I say. We keep running and he goes ahead of me, but I am pretty sure I’ll catch him again. It is not a good sign if you are walking this early in the run in a triathlon, it indicates that something is wrong with your training, or your nutrition on the bike portion, a lack of fitness, or biking too hard. I don’t say any of this to him; it is obvious he’s a rookie, so I help him. You’ve got a downhill here and a breeze, I say, so focus on that. Both are subtle, but true. He’s starting to get it. Later I pass him and look back out of the corner of my eye, and I see him pick it up again.

When I pass through the aid stations I take a cup full of ice and Gatorade or water, and I take a cube out and rub it on my skin to keep cool. There are segments of the course that lead out to timing mats where volunteers record our number to make sure we aren’t missing any part of the course. On the way back in from these check points, I still have the cup and people eye it, where did she get that? We’re all hot.

The second part of the run heads out to a highway of sorts, a road to nowhere. It’s a gradual downhill and despite this I am slowing. I’m only at mile seven of just over thirteen. My heart rate is falling, and it is getting hard to lift my legs. I come to an aid station, and I think they have nothing that will help me. This time I am not happy to suffer. People are passing me. If this is how you are running a half-ironman after an “easy” bike, then how are you going to run a full marathon at Ironman France in a few weeks? This is the kind of thinking that destroys athletes: if you don’t believe you can make it, you can’t. Okay, mind, stop, just finish this race.

I do the best I can; but I am faded. Sometimes, when somebody passes me I try to copy their style, to pick it up again. Twice it works, a little, and slowly I start to make my way back to the main part of the course where grass spreads out between the mile markers. With experience I have learned to train better and be smarter, but it always comes down to the battle between my physical and mental limitations and the world, the course, around me.

I’m at mile eleven now, and I plan to enjoy the next two miles as much as possible, something I’ve heard about doing, but somehow have never done. I relish the final short steep climbs, and the drops back down. I embrace the grassy thoroughfares as they give my body a break from rebounding on pavement made for golf carts. The grass is soft, but it sucks me in, taking my energy into the lava-earth beneath the lush green. Everything is starting to tighten up, my connective tissue is seizing, and my range of motion is in a sort of exercise-induced rigor mortis.

What is it about the human condition that loves to break something and then put it back together? It is a human flaw, the part of us that is made pure by suffering, any endurance athlete knows this.

By now, instead of thinking “I love to suffer,” I’m thinking, “life is hard enough without races like this.” Everything hurts. My quads are burning, my calves are screaming, and my lungs are heavy with humidity. There is something in me that is about to crumble but I can’t stop. There is a crowd now, cheering, and I keep going, as if their breath were blowing me forward, through the long lead up to the finish line, which is covered with ginger flowers and greens.

I cross, ouch, that hurt, but in a good way. Are you okay? A volunteer asks as he removes the timing chip that is velcroed to my ankle. I can’t bend my knee to lift my leg up to help him.  Ooh, ooh, it hurts, I say. What is it, cramps? He asks. No, the race. The race hurt. Okay, I’m Okay, it’s only a few more feet to the finisher’s T-shirt, hat, and a medal. I am still trying to get the damp air to satisfy my gasping lungs, trying to cool down.

The young guy I saw earlier comes into the finisher’s chute. He is the sweatiest person I’ve ever seen, but I let him hug me anyway. Thank you so much for your help, he says, he’s Australian. My pleasure, I say. It’s my first half-ironman, he says. I smile because I remember my first ironman, when I was just thankful to finish. I realize that gratitude never goes away.

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Tamara K. Adelman is a massage therapist, triathlete, and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. She has a B.A. from George Washington University. Devoted to training and traveling, she has competed in Ironman races in Brazil, South Africa, the Canary Islands, and Europe. Equally devoted to developing her writing, she has attended the Taos Writers Conference and is enrolled in the Creative Nonfiction Certificate Program at UCLA. As a freelance writer, her work focuses on travel, fitness, and action sports. She can be found most days looking out at the Santa Monica Bay, as she writes the next story or trains for the next race—in passionate pursuit of perfection: the finish line.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review, Ducts, Folly, Hospital Drive Magazine, RiverSedge, This I Believe, Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Verdad, and Waterski.


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