Has he lost his mind?Can he see or is he blind?Can he walk at allOr, if he moves, will he fall?- 'Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath
The lyric pretty much portrays me as an athlete. I used to run the bases pretty fast, but anything more than a double hurt my knees. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 12 (yes, lots of ridicule from the neighbor boys). And I don’t like being wet. My kids and I have a deal - it has to be higher than 75 degrees out for me to swim with them. They love swimming; they hate that about me.Prairie Creek Reservoir is a lovely stretch of water splashed down into infinite cornfields that could be anywhere from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, though this body lies just north of Muncie, Indiana - home of the creator of Garfield, Jon and Odie. It’s 7:30 in the morning and the first tinglings of autumn chill are making me decide you will never find me in the water under these circumstances.However, there are 1500 folks that disagree and they are milling on the narrow beachfront of a public park. They (mostly) are in wetsuits of different fashions. Boys in neon green swim caps, ladies in pink. I’m not sure if there are gender-fluid swim caps. Further, in this sport it seems nobody minds being called IronMAN. In fact most of the women I talked to insisted on being called Ironmen. Perhaps it is because, unlike other sports, all genders compete together following the same rules:Swim 2.4 miles, peel out of your swim thing into your bike thing and cycle for 112 miles, and then run a MAMA SAY MAMA SA MAMAKUSA MARATHON!! 26.2 miles that legions of trackletes train their lives for - AFTER the first two ordeals. The best time today will be 8 hours and 45 minutes. I did the Mile Swim in Boy Scouts and it took me over an hour. I ran ten miles and it took me 3 hours. So by my math it would take me over 10 hours not counting the 112 mile bike ride.But today is not about me. It is about the inspiring Alice Foeller, who has been texting me daily for months her training results - One day: Swim 2105 yards (1.2 miles) Time 45:22Next day: Cycle 47.34 miles Time 2:29:41Next day: Run 4.52 miles Time 41:46 with a note “Hills. Darkness.”Every day a different workout, each one a little farther and a little faster than have ever been able to do.Now 45 years old, Alice is now in the long line of physical freaks, three by three, in her cute pink cap waiting to plunge into freezing water. This is her second Ironman. Her first one was eleven years ago which she finished in 13.5 hours. Today, she wants to break 13.Every shape of body passes us spectators as they send three swimmers off every five seconds. Big powerful NBA-looking dudes with Greek statue legs, large ladies with wide thighs, aged folks fit and ready to give it another whirl (there is a 68 year old Mexican hombre who has competed in every Ironman location in 40 years - 181 runs). Oh Christ no! There is a rotund guy, at least 260 in nothing but a Speedo! No wetsuit, no cap. Shaved head, shaved baby-round body wearing simply a few inches of nylon, about to become an iceberg. Parts of me still shrink at the memory.The most common body type is short, tight bodies. Alice falls into this category. I don’t know from body fat/muscle ratio or any of those advanced gym metrics, but whatever the best number is, I’m sure Alice is there.She appears in the second big group to go. They send out the fastest people first so the slower ones don’t clog them up. Alice can do the swim in under an hour and a half, she gets into the second group. People will be leaping into the water for the next hour. In fact Mr. 8:45 today will complete his swim in 49 minutes while the last of the competitors will still be diving in.I see Alice in the queue. She is dancing. She told me last night she was a little nervous, but I sensed that she more had a calling to conquer this. She has relentlessly attacked this resolve in a way that shows 5’4” 120 can be a cauldron of fierceness. Just putting aside the physical commitment, let's talk about the financial. A quality woman’s wetsuit is between $300-$800. Quality bicycle shoes run over $400. Running shoes are a little less. Alice’s bike cost her $8000. And the entry fee, travel and other race-weekend expenses are around $800. All this on top of gym fees and special foods and goddess knows what all else. All to reduce one’s body to a pudding of pain and head full of fog for a week after.But this is the thing about Ironman: when I use the word “compete,” only the top few in each category are actually competing against each other. Alice, and I would venture 95% of all the others, are competing against themselves. They need to break outside of whatever limit they possess. This is like a duel with one’s self - this time it’s personal. There is a sign at the station where the racers get on their bikes that says “Shut up legs.” There has to be a raging fire inside when an athlete can embark on easily the toughest event in any sport. Even as the participants hang out with their supporters and laugh, the feeling is solemn and resolved. I imagine the Olympic Village would feel like this. No one is out here clowning, no one has “Free Britney” sewn on their shirt. The most flamboyant thing to see is Alice dancing on the dock. Oh and that friggin’ Speedo.
“Ok let’s take East County 400 South and take a left at South Wilbur Wright Road!”“It says ‘Wibur Wright.’”“I wonder if it’s the same guy.”I am in my mommy-soccer-van with three fellow Alice-fans. Gail is behind me tracking Alice on the phone app for the Ironman. Cool, right? This is how the race tracks the participants’ times, and we get to see Alice’s icon face move across Indiana highways on her bike. We are engulfed in cornfields. Eight feet over the car as I trust Gail to navigate this Oz-like, Children of the Corn-like universe.Gail makes an agricultural observation.“The corn is too wet at the top, they have left it in the ground a long time.”“How do you know that?”“I spent a lot of time on farms.”“I’m scared in the country and I’m afraid of animals.”“What do you do when you’re on a farm?”“I don’t go to farms.”Tara laughs. Tara laughs at all my jokes. I love Tara.Tara’s wife Mo is in the back, silent like our private Buddha.Trying to get ahead of Alice so we can clap at her for thirty seconds has become an obsession. Gail is an excellent navigator, she announces the turns in precise timing with the drive. We catch Alice at a pretty intersection, nice houses ending at a wooded highway. Bikers labor by. She sees us before we recognize her. Alice grunts a wave at us.You see I forgot to mention Alice’s additional expense - gaiters. Don’t look it up - I already did - it’s those throat covering masks that, before the Pandemic, was considered garb for bank robbers in Westerns. Blaze orange gaiters with banana splits and Team Badass Alice emblazoned. I don’t like stuff around my neck, so I’m wearing it on my head like Axl would do.This proved handy for Alice to appreciate our appreciation of Alice. Each of the four times we caught her she saw us first. The final time, she was doubling back on the course as the big guns went by - the actual guys trying to win this thing. The sound of the whizzing bikes electrified us; and their velocity was to the rest of the riders like LeBron James would be to driving the lane past a housecat. After the fourth time we were hungry, got lunch at a diner that is part of every middle American town in the country, and I brought the ladies back to their headquarters. I returned to the hotel room, napped and showered. Meanwhile, Alice was beginning the most difficult run of her life.
Refreshed, and feeling a little guilty about Alice having been going since 7:30 a.m. and it’s 7:30 p.m. now, I picked up the ladies. We headed to Alice’s RV which was parked a few hundred yards from the Finish Line. It had rained. More guilt.In the RV were Alice’s man, Daniel, her brother and an avuncular fan named John. John turned out to be super funny and for some reason I mercilessly picked on him. Later, I found out he was royalty in the ToastMasters organization. So the seven of us Team Badass Alice, all of us kewl in some way, kept checking the tracking app for her progress. It was getting dark and she seemed hours away.Daniel lightened things up by asking the group “What is the single most damaging thing to humankind?”The great thing about the ponderous question was that it gave everyone in the cabin a chance to engage in what was a special truth for each. And our Buddha Mo dove as deep as Daniel wanted to. Very few of us knew each other before today, and it felt like late night college without the dope. And Tara laughed at my dumb jokes (heart hands).At T-minus an hour for our plucky Alice, Gail and I posted ourselves about 500 yards from the finish line. We cheered every runner going by. All of them possessed an intent wartime stare. We were in the dark, but the glow of the Finish could be seen like a halo over the trees. House music was playing loudly, it was like being just outside a concert. And for every single runner that crossed the line, the emcee loudly announced “Jane Awesomechick, from Brooklyn New York: YOU are an Ironman!”Dark figures, some with a headlamp, all with an unknown source of energy, trudged their way toward us. We clapped. We encouraged.“C’mon the worst is over!”A bunch of runners asked “Is that the finish?”“Yep just up this last hill!”“Uggh.”“Oh you've so got this dumb hill!”One girl said “Fuck yeah!” One guy groaned “I wanna go home!” Many thanked us.True to form, Alice saw me first. She called my name like a burp. I ran alongside. She said that was against the rules. So I let her finish the final climb. Even then I had to labor to catch up to see her finish.I was too far behind to see her finish, I wanted a video. I wanted to record her finish and her announcement. About a hundred feet from the Finish Line the emcee roars.“Alice Foeller from Columbus Ohio, YOU are an Ironman!!”And I’m like “No she’s not! I can see her!”Luckily I got a picture of the big tote board that put up each finisher’s name and time:“Alice Foeller - 14:57:00”I knew she’d be disappointed in the time, but was thrilled she beat 15 hours. I had to remind her she did it faster ELEVEN years ago. It was an amazing achievement nonetheless.“I mean Tom Brady is the only human in the universe better at 40 than he was at 30.”She let a weak giggle out. Alice was surrounded by her crew, and dozens more checked in via WhatsApp. The ladies and I decided we should let her decompress for the evening, and meet up the next day for our time with the superstar.People were still crossing the Finish Line at 11 PM as we left a place that seemed strangely holy and alien at the same time. There were 800 more first-timers than the last event, more than double. Perhaps the Plague guided them into their own physical superbness; perhaps the rise of LuluLemon has propelled a whole new demo of edge-seeking athletes. In any case, as the announcements of new Ironmen echoed behind us and the halo set in the west we went home - all of us considering jogging the next day.
Mikko Macchione is a writer, actor and voice coach, currently providing speaking voice coaching to executives, actors and others who want to speak with more power, authority and dynamics both from a stage, in a boardroom, or in individual conversations.