Mind Over Mileage

It was right about the time I broke the third commandment that I heard the word of God in the distance. It came echoing through the pines on a misty Sunday morning in a soft South Carolina drawl. “Hunger not for the things of this world, for they are fleeting,” the voice said, “hunger instead after righteousness.”

Except I did hunger for the things of this world. Terribly. I hungered mostly for the granola bar pinched between my fingers and still sealed in a wrapper I could not tear. I was more than 40 miles into the bike leg of the Augusta Ironman 70.3 triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) when my stomach began to gnarl and moan. And now, my sweaty hands slipped uselessly on the cellophane, the only thing that stood between my lips and my lunch. I struggled to focus on the road ahead while wrestling with the wrapper and praying I wouldn’t drop the only food I brought with me onto the pavement. Sustenance so near; so absurdly far. Hunger can turn even the the most abstemious person into an irritable prick, but hunger when you’re holding the very thing you crave and yet cannot have, that invites a rare kind of rage.

“God. DAMMIT,” I barked.

Paul Want

Paul Want

The sermon grew louder as I pedaled closer until the road bent, and the voice was revealed. A preacher stood on a makeshift pulpit wearing a suit and tie and testifying to the parade of triathletes. He held a Bible in one hand and a microphone in the other as the speakers of a public address system throbbed with a pious fervor. The front lawn of the Baptist Church had become an open air sanctuary, and we were a kind of ad hoc congregation. As we pedaled past he breathed fire into his microphone, “Y’all think pedalin’ that bicycle up this hill is hard work? Fix your mind on Jesus carryin’ that cross up Calvary Hill! Made to carry the very instrument of his own execution so that you might have everlasting life!”

Miracles do happen. Sometimes the dead do rise. Sometimes a wayward sinner is afforded little mercies, and sweat soaked fingers find their way into a Nature Valley wrapper. The granola bar, however, suffered for it— collateral damage in my battle with its packaging. But we were caught up in the spirit at the Church of Endurance, and a fractured biscuit with a swig of Gatorade would be my Holy Communion.   

Fortified and all prayed up I charged through the remaining miles to transition, then laced up my running shoes for the last leg— a half marathon through downtown Augusta. Prior to this race I had run 13.1 miles exactly once in my life. And I had never run close to that distance off the bike. What started as energetic run, faded to a heavy legged jog and had, by mile 9, devolved into a catatonic shuffle. Your head becomes a foreign place in the final miles of an endurance event. The body threatens mutiny while the mind tries to reason with your muscles to just push through...just push through. I came into the final quarter mile overjoyed though I didn’t have the strength to show it. In all of my training day fantasies I always saw myself celebrating the finish line with some exuberant show of victory like a fist pump or maybe a heel kick. In the moment though I could only muster an anemic finger point at no one in particular, like a drunk waving a pistol. But I had done it. I had finished the race, my first half Ironman. 6 hours, 5 minutes, and 49 seconds.

I wandered through the crowd in a post-race stupor looking for my family like a lost child at carnival. When I finally caught sight of their bright eyes and waving arms I choked up and lost all composure. I had no words; only tears. Not for the pain. Not for my time. But for the accomplishment. For a goal realized. Because there was a point in the race where I doubted whether I would make the finish line, where the final mile seemed too far away, requiring too much. And that point was only 60 seconds after the start.

Sgt. 1st Class Gerard Brown

Sgt. 1st Class Gerard Brown

The amygdala, the brain’s primary component for processing threats, does not like being thrown into a river with hundreds of other swimmers who are kicking and clawing and pawing for position. It’s like swimming in a blender. At the crack of the starting gun the surface of the Savannah River broke into a full scale riot, a tangle of appendages boiling on the river. My skull met the sharp point of a stranger’s elbow while I gasped for air but swallowed water instead. Turmoil begets confusion. Confusion invites dread. Struggling for a clear path I felt a certain unease begin to swell, its presence like an unwelcome race partner matching me stroke for stroke. Anxiety is a subtle thing. Until it’s not. It is a box of crickets in your head with an ill fitting lid. Those noisy and erratic and distracting thoughts that you fight to keep contained will, if they loose themselves from the dark, tip a balance between reason and fear. Then the trap is sprung. Panic wrapped its icy arms around me and squeezed. That constricted sensation was only made worse by the rented wetsuit I wore. Treading water I pulled at the collar trying to loosen its rubbery grip on my neck. “Breath,” I told myself. But my lungs would not listen.  

I veered toward the nearest support kayak and groped at the hull. My body bobbed in the river as I clung to the bow line limp and defeated, questioning my commitment, questioning everything. Six months earlier I had thrown what was left of my needles and vials of insulin into the garbage. No longer diabetic and 40 pounds lighter after a radical shift in lifestyle, this race was a test of the new me. And I was failing. My heart thundered in my ears, and I watched as the maelstrom passed. I was reminded of summer evenings on a dock in Maine where we watched the schools of mackerel come in. The surface of the harbor would sizzle as the entire shoal moved with a sort of frenzied grace. This roiling fit of fins, a daily ritual they are born to. Such little things in such a big ocean, untroubled by their place in it. My breath and mind slowly steadied, and I let go of the bow line, eased back into the current, and slowly, deliberately worked back into a rhythm.

Six hours and 70.3 miles later I was salt streaked and sweat drenched and empty. As I threw my arms around a cheering wife and children the heavy finisher’s medal that hung from my neck swung like a pendulum: hunger and fulfillment; faith and doubt; Gatorade and beer.