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Confessions Of An Age Grouper: Iron Distance Derangement

Let’s face it: During and after a continuous 140.6-mile race, we’re a far cry from normal.

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The medical tent at any iron-distance race is a fascinating place. It’s packed with athletes, some who have crashed on the bike or otherwise sustained injuries, and others who suffer from overexertion and all variety of associated issues. But what of the nonphysical ailments that afflict long-course triathletes? Beyond the walls of the medical tent lie far more fascinating phenomena, mostly psychological in nature. I’m talking obsessive-compulsive disorder, overwrought imagination, borderline insanity and all range of other psychoses.

There are things we flat-out forget, attributable to in-the-moment amnesia. One year my roommate was passing under an inflated arch on the run course during Ironman Lake Placid at the same moment that an ambulance drove toward her. The ambulance was too tall to clear the arch, thus taking the whole thing down and deflating it in the process.

The flowy tent trapped Laura, who fell to the ground while spectators screamed, “Get her out!” Somehow she disentangled herself from the fabric tomb and went on to finish — only to forget the entire trauma until several days later.

That may be an extreme (and extremely odd) example, but there are numerous things we block from our memories from one race to the next. Maybe this forgetfulness is simply a self-preserving mechanism so that we don’t forever forgo future start lines? There’s the undeniable discomfort of spending five to seven straight hours perched atop a bike seat (I don’t care how ergonomic or anatomic the saddle design). There’s the chafing of body parts both public and private, no matter how much Body Glide you slather on for protection. There are the hideous post-race cankles that cloak your normally defined calves and feet in puffy padding (I was silly enough to pack high heels and a short dress for my last iron-distance awards party, forgetting how heinous my legs would look). And there’s the eventual moment during every race — regardless of how well you’ve prepared and how often you’ve visualized, meditated or prayed that you’ll feel on top of the world the entire way — when you hit a bipolar-like low and languish in thoughts of abandonment.

Post-race, long-course dementia always kicks in. During the race you repeatedly swear you’ll never do this distance — not to mention any race of any distance — ever again. Yet less than 24 hours later you begin plotting improvements for your next performance, one that will surely be perfect. The dementia may be so severe that you wait for hours in line and fork over a hefty fee — the morning after your race — just to relive the same schizophrenic swing the following year. But re-upping is the only solution to yet another post-race affliction, the unavoidable depression that hits once the event is over and the thing that has been your singular focus for several months comes to an abrupt end. Why suffer the pain of withdrawal when another race entry provides a quick fix for your addiction?

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Hypersensitivity is also highly common on any iron-distance course. In 2010 at Ironman Canada I was heading up the final cycling ascent amid rain and hail when I saw a friend and fellow competitor stopped on the side of the road and wrapped in a space blanket. “What are you doing all the way back here?” he asked. If I hadn’t been consumed with climbing (albeit apparently slowly) I would have stopped to smack him upside the head — or at least crafted a snarky comeback related to his own obvious DNF. Until then I thought I was having a strong race, but his comment stuck in my craw until T2, causing me to question my speed and skill. I nearly needed anger management counseling.

This year on the same climb during the inaugural Challenge Penticton race, a man on the sidelines literally bowed down to me. It was the sweetest gesture — and one that took all of two seconds, yet stayed with me throughout the day. It was a much-needed reminder of how lucky I was to be racing, and how much respect that man had for my effort and ability. He may as well have dropped to one knee — I fell a little bit in love with him in that moment, developing a race-induced attachment disorder toward a total stranger.

Delusional thoughts are another symptom of long-distance mental sickness. On race day in Penticton, despite posting a pride-worthy performance, I was disappointed in myself for swimming, riding and running the combined 140.6 miles slower than I hoped. I felt a failure, rather than fluffing my tail feathers for successfully swimming, riding and running 140.6 continuous miles. Oddly enough, the very next day I boasted about my skill in descending two flights of stairs in my rental accommodation without begging for a piggyback ride from my boyfriend to assuage my sore muscles. I certainly suffered a skewed perspective.

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Some endurance-induced behavioral extremes are commendable, however. It’s no secret that athletes often have enlarged hearts — it’s a common sports-related condition. But it’s also a figurative fixture of many long-course athletes, best illustrated by a friend’s recent experience at Ironman Japan. Gus was partway through the marathon and running a quick pace when he dropped one of his gels. He heard the foot strike behind him abruptly halt, then scurry off in the opposite direction. Moments later a sprinting athlete approached; it was Gus’ rival who had run back to retrieve the gel for him after seeing it fall.

So you see, not all iron afflictions are unhealthy, especially not those that highlight the human spirit and the intense — if bizarre — bond that we all share. So don’t be deterred by the long distance, despite its many associated manias and abundant emotional traumas. It’s certainly one of the most rewarding ways to spend a single day — and a perfectly suited stage for your own brand of crazy to prove A-OK.

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