5:34 p.m. It's Thursday evening, two days before the race. I walk out to the beach from the small cabin I’m staying in just south of Oscoda. The water is rough and looks ominous. I have to test the waters.
6:04 p.m. Thursday. Donning my wet suit and water shoes I’m going to get wet and see how tough this will be. I decided to try swimming with my wet shoes on. They don’t have much weight and I’ll need to run a half mile after the swim through town to get to the bikes. It could save some time.
The water is cold. It takes my breath away. I’ll get used to it. The waves are too big. I’m swimming but getting nowhere. I keep getting a mouth full of water when I try to grab a breath. This is bad. It feels like I’m not moving and I can’t breathe. I remove the water shoes - they’re like anchors dragging me to the bottom. It helps a bit but not enough. I leave the water.
12:09 a.m. All I can think about is, "How can I swim in this?" I can’t sleep. I think I made a big mistake. I’m filling my head with fear and doubt. What made me think I could run a triathlon? This is for skinny 22 year-olds that are in great shape. I’m going to die on my first try. That’s just my old teachers fear and doubt. Oh, I can’t think about that now, I have to sleep.
6:10 a.m. Friday - it's the day before the race. I have to go to town and look at the track and the transition area to get acclimated.
7:15 a.m. Friday. I found the beach and the swim course is already marked off. It’s right next to the pier. The water is rough on the lake but the swim course is like glass. A huge weight has just been lifted from my chest. I feel like I can breathe again. I was so happy I ran into the water and swam the whole course. Fear and doubt were drowned in that lake today.
4:00 a.m. Race day. The alarm won’t go off for another hour. I’ll lay here and try not to think about the race, maybe I’ll nod off.
4:23 a.m. It’s not working, I’m getting up. WOW, it’s freezing cold. The hardwood floor of the cabin is like ice.
5:00 a.m. After a quick shower and a bowl of Cheerios, I’m packing the car.
5:31 a.m. I have to use the defrosters to clear the windshield. Car computer says its 46 degrees, but it feels colder. The weatherman said the winds would be calm today, but it’s blowing pretty strong. I hope the waves on Lake Huron aren’t as big as they were yesterday.
5:51a.m. Almost to town. The cold weather is a nice distraction from thinking about the race.
6:00 a.m. I guess it’s true what they say - it’s always darkest before the dawn. It’s very dark now, the end of a moonless night in northern Michigan. The transition area opens. Six hundred athletes have to load their bikes and gear into their own 3’x5’ area. I end up getting jammed into a space about 18” wide. I’m the rookie, I’ll deal with it.
6:17 a.m. I check the start times. There are three races, each with three groups and I’m the last group to start. I have to stay warm for two and a half more hours. It’s cold out.
7:15 The sun is coming up, it’s getting light enough to see. The sky over Lake Huron is beautiful and serene. The water is calm like glass. I cannot feel any anxiety when I look at this. It makes the task in front of me feel small.
7:45 The first group is warming up in the lake and getting ready. The first race to start is the half Ironman. First the men start, then after a few minutes the women, then the relay teams.
7:59 It's start time for the half. I have to watch how they get from the beach to the first buoy. I need an edge. My butterflies have turned into crows. Why am I still so cold?
8:00 They’re off! It’s about 50 meters from the beach to the first buoy. It looks like most of them ran for about 25 meters then dove in. Some of them are standing back up again. The water gets shallow again after 30 meters. The ones who stood back up are going faster then the swimmers. There’s my edge. I have to stay on my feet until I reach the first buoy.
8:15 It has warmed up to about 52 now, I have to get my wetsuit on and get ready to swim.
8:30 The second race is starting. I’ll watch this start from the beach. All athletes have to go through a counting area, then they can start anywhere on the beach. I noticed that nobody has moved to the far right of the counting area which is a straight shot to the buoy. They’re all still standing by the counting area. That’s a longer distance then they actually have to go. I hope my group does the same thing. Another edge.
8:45 I need to get in the lake and get used to the water temp. The water is cold. The good news is that the air temp is still colder than the water, making the water seem more tolerable. The shakiness I feel now is not the cold but the nerves. What am I doing here? What was I thinking? These people are athletes. I don’t belong here racing athletes.
9:01 We’re all lining up to go through the counting area to start our race. They write everyone’s age on the back of one calf. I see a man with a 64 and a boy with a 13, there’s another 49 just like me. These are just regular guys and girls that just want to have fun today. I can do this!
9:03 The counting is done and we’re all lined up. I am way to the right of everyone. One other guy comes over to my right and says “you figured out the math too eh”? I check my heart rate, 109, wow that’s all nerves. I have to calm down. Zen mode. You are not your body just it’s occupant. This is not a race it’s just for fun. You are not a competitor but a participant. Breathe. Breathe.
9:04 Here we go 5, 4, 3, 2, RUN! Keep your legs high, do not fall. Run hard. People are diving now, stay up, run harder. It’s working, I’m in the front. A few tall fast guys are right with me. I reach the buoy with only three guys ahead of me. My heart rate is 171, that’s way too high I’ll pass out if I don’t bring it down! I can’t pass out in the water. OK breathe, swim, breathe, swim. My edges worked. I’m not a fast swimmer but I had a good start. It’s hard to swim with all these guys so close. I have not taken one stroke yet without hitting someone or getting hit. Breathe.
We’re coming up to the turn already - wow this is fast. Now I’m in the thickest part of the group and we’re reaching the narrowest part of the course. There are too many guys! I can’t swim, there’s no room. I look back and there are even more behind me so I can’t stop. This is nuts, someone is going to get hurt. BREATHE. Just keep breathing. I'm almost around the turn and someone grabs the buoy. He’s in trouble! He’s breathing too hard. “SOMEBODY HELP HIM!” The guy on the Jet Ski has him, good.
My heart rate is 166 - still kind of high. Breathe. Get into your rhythm now. Swim, breathe. Swim, breathe. OK this feels good - I’m finally in my own space, both physically and mentally. Only about 200 meters to go now, check line. Oh no, I’m off course by five meters. That’s ok just make a small correction and stay in the zone.
It's the final turn and I’m heading for the shore with only 80 meters left. Heart rate is still 166, a bit high but I feel good. Ok, think...I’m waist deep now, unzip your wetsuit and strip to the waist. Getting out of the water with a heart rate of 171 - I have to get that down.
I run across the timer pad and I’m on the beach. The hardest part is over, my butterfly stomach is gone, and my legs are like rubber. I feel like I’m carrying a backpack full of rocks. I have to get some blood back into my legs. Nothing can stop me now. I grab my sandals I left near the edge of the beach and slip them on. Alright. Now I have to run almost a half mile in my sandals and wetsuit to get into the transition area. A cop stops traffic on us to cross without stopping. “Thanks!” and he nods back.
9:21 I’m in the transition area. Ok, stay focused! There are not too many people in here right now, good. The person next to me is here. That’s ok...focus. Strip out of the wetsuit, wrap a towel around my waist, remove wet shorts, dry a little and pull on dry shorts. I have to sit down to get my socks on my wet feet. Shoes, tie them tight. I pull on my shirt and put on my helmet. What else? What else do I need? I take my bike off the rack and run through the transition area. I’m on the street getting on the bike and...what was that? I heard something fall off my bike. My sunglasses! I have to go back. Ok, minor setback, ride your bike. Breathe. Left turn, go. Check heart rate, 166, that will come down. It’s usually 154 at the most on the bike.
Wow, everyone has such nice bikes. I just have this clunky old mountain bike; it’s like a tank. I can’t go very fast with this thing. HEY focus. Breathe. Your bike is fine. This is not a race. This is fun.
Check speed, 18.3 mph, good. That means I’m on a flat grade and doing well. Twenty kilometeres is easy, a good stretch of the legs.
Five kilometeres down, there’s a bike just up ahead - I’m going to pass that guy. Excellent! Look at me passing another guy on the bike course. Close enough to see the age on the back of his leg now. Thirty-eight. Wow he’s 38 and I’m passing him! Oh, it’s a woman. I’m probably the last guy on this track. I’m probably going to come in last. HEY focus! Breathe. You showed up today; you already won. Just climb this hill and have fun.
There’s the turn around. I’m halfway done with the bike. I ask the guy monitoring the turn around if he had a beer for me. He laughed and said, “I wish”. Check your time. 9:53 I got on the bike at 9:28, ok what’s that make it? Think. Think. Why can’t I do math right now? Focus, I can do this: 53 from 28, no 28 from 53...25..that’s it 25. OK what does that mean? A twenty-five minute split means 50 minutes for 20 K? That’s not very good. Why am I so slow? I feel like I’m going so fast. Uphill! That’s right the course is uphill for the first half. Great, I could get it down to 48 or even 47 minutes. That’s a good time. Good time. That’s right I’m here to have a good time. Who cares about the speed and what time it is?
I’m passing more people all the time now. I give a quick word or two of encouragement to each one. Wow this downhill is nice at 29.4 mph, that’s almost too fast for me to pedal. I’ll rest my legs now. My heart rate is 157 - finally it’s under 160 for the first time today.
I'm back in town now, where is the next turn? I can’t remember. There it is just up ahead, only 3/4 of a mile left now. Wait a minute; my odometer says 12.5 miles already. Did I make a wrong turn? Maybe the course is longer than they said. There’s some course officials ahead, must be my last turn, a quick right then I’m done. “HEY YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY. COME BACK”. What!? Why didn’t they tell me it was straight? Why are they just standing there? It’s alright, just a short detour. Focus now. Last turn, there’s the transition area. Stop, get off the bike. OUCH! My legs don’t work! I can’t straighten them out. Just keep walking. You have to finish this. Find my space to put my bike, rack it, take off the helmet...what else? Focus. Throw on a fresh head band. GO, GO, GO ALREADY!! Ok, grab some Gatorade from the aid station on the way by and run.
10:12 My legs are so tight I can hardly get them to run. That’s ok, it usually takes me a mile to warm them up. This is going to be an easy 3.1 miles. Hell, I can do that in my sleep. My heart rate is 167 - that’s high. But actually it’s been that high the whole race. I feel good, I’m not out of breath, and I still have some energy. I’m going to keep it that high through the finish if I can. I can always back it down later.
This is a beautiful little town, running through the residential back streets, nice lawns and mature trees. There are quite a few people out on the porches cheering on the runners. All day people have been clapping and cheering us on. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to deserve someone clapping. I mean maybe after I finish, it is nice to hear all the encouragement though; especially from the other racers.
It seems like I’ve been running for a mile or even a mile and a half by now; they must not mark the distances on this part of the course. My heart rate 166, but I know I’m not going that fast, it must be just too much for one day. I’m really getting tired now, side cramps, I hate those. Wait, there’s an aid station and a marker ahead. I can’t quite make out the...it's one mile. Ok, that’s not bad I guess. They are handing out water and Gatorade. I can’t cross over there and grab it with my right hand, the cramp is on my right side. I’ll wait until I come back this way and grab it with my left hand. I know I’m dehydrated right now but I can’t even think of stopping.
There’s the turn around. Wow, that was fast. That could not have been a half mile from the station. Here comes that aid station again, good. They don’t see me coming. They’re busy picking up cups from the ground. I can’t miss this one; it’s likely the last chance. “Gatorade me!” I said. Good, they heard me. I wanted water but I know I need Gatorade to replenish my electrolytes. After two more turns I’m on a dirt trail now. It’s quite and peaceful. There’s a kid in front of me. His leg has a 12 on it. That’s great! What a sturdy kid to be running this today, and still going. I chatted with him a bit and then ran on. I’m sure his thought bubble would say, “That’s great! What a sturdy old man to be running this today, and still going.”
There’s another fork in the road, the race official said to go left. LEFT? Now where are they sending me? This feels like the wrong way. Maybe it’s the running course for another race but not mine. The next road sign says 12K. That is definitely not mine. Oh well, just keep running.
There’s the last turn. It’s can’t be more than a mile or so left. "Go right" the official said. “How far?” I ask. "Three-quarters of a mile to go" he said. OK, that’s not too bad I can do that. I can ignore that cramp that’s splitting my side. That’s only three laps on the track back home. I still can’t see town or the finish line. My feet hurt, I know I have a blister on my left foot. I hope it doesn’t pop. It’s taking all of my strength now just to run. I feel like I’m running in sand and getting nowhere.
I can see town now. It must be a half mile to go. Reach down, focus, breathe, just breathe. There’s no one behind me for a long way and no one in front of me that I could ever catch so it’s just me now.
I can see people ahead now and it looks like, is that...it is...IT'S THE FINISH LINE!It’s so far away still, but I can see it. It’s just me and the finish line. It’s always been just me and the finish line. My heart rate is 168 now - I have enough left to go harder. Just pick up your feet a little higher, that’s it. Now swing your arms a little farther. Four hundred meters left, nothing hurts now. It’s right there in front of me. I can hear the race announcer. “Here comes triathlete number 595, that’s Mike Cook from Howell.” I could cry right now. A few more steps...run hard...breathe...breathe...I DID IT!
They handed me some kind of medal and took the timing strap from my ankle. My race is over. I feel no pain. I’m drained: emotionally, physically and mentally drained.My only enemies were doubt and fear. I beat them both today. I’m proud of myself for being here and for finishing.
12:30 p.m. It's Sunday, twenty-four hours after the race. I have no strength, my legs are sore from my toes to my hips. My joints hurt and my body is making strange noises. I'm trying not to walk so as to not draw attention to my feeble condition is all I can do.
I check the results on the internet site. I finished 153 out of 201 participants in my race, not bad. I checked my bracket: 'Men 44-49' I did not finish last in any of the three legs. I was 11th out of 12 men in each of the three legs. The part I was most concerned about, the swim, was my best showing, 119 out of 201 racers. None of this really matters though. I won as soon as I answered the starter’s gun. I cannot measure myself against the others who ran with me today, only the millions who did not; that group that did not try. The millions of people who thought they were too old or it would be too hard. Those who would not face the fear and doubt and overcome it. That group that I was a proud member of for 49 years, but will never be again. Mike CookHowell, MI