Watching an Ironman in person felt almost as grueling as participating in one. Or at least a Half-Ironman! You're outside, on your feet, in the sun, for upwards of 15 hours. Scoping the perfect spot to cheer for your friend or loved one. Hoping you'll be in the right place at the right moment. Hoping he or she will acknowledge you. Just for a few seconds as they run, bike, limp or jog past. Those moments are the only thing you have to break up a whole lot of waiting. Then, after hours upon hours, from dawn to dusk, you watch your buddy triumphantly run those last 100 yards to the finish. Arms raised. Broad smile. Sweat pouring.
And then it's over.
I'm not sure who is more bummed that Vineman Full is finished; my friends who completed it, or me. I was merely a spectator, but I felt -- I feel -- so invested in their success that for hours after my friend Rusty crossed the finish just shy of 13 hours, I found myself wondering one thing:
"And now what?"
"And now what?"
Seriously, after the race it could have been December 26, or January 2. Massive buildup, a triumphant, sudden conclusion, and then wham! The clock stops, your Ironman ends, you go to dinner to celebrate, and the day is over. The next day comes, you celebrate some more, and then it's back to reality.
The rapid finality of my friends' Ironman experiences shocked me. It drained me. It taught me. It's almost unfair because to those who don't know, it's "just" a mind-boggling athletic accomplishment.
There's so much more though!
Nobody can understand all the solitary hours of training unless they do it for themselves. The inconveniences. The sacrifices. The physical anguish and mental fatigue. That's what makes an Ironman special. That's why I got teary-eyed (again) watching men and women cross the finish line. Total strangers. The race is the crowning achievement of a challenge few people choose to endure. The race is the finale. The culmination. The validation. I think it's that knowledge of their struggle that connected me to all the athletes on the course this weekend. I knew what each of them was thinking because I've been there myself. "Just a little bit more." "Damn it I hurt." "I'm thirsty." "I want to quit."
But they don't. They won't. They can't. They shuffle forward. Alone. With runners and supporters all around them. Each engulfed in their own narrative.
And all us fans see is that five-second glimpse of our loved ones. We try to assess their performance in that moment. How do they look? What's the pace? When will they finish? Did they even see me? Meanwhile, on the inside, the triathlete is enveloped in self-analysis. One lap down. Two laps down. Need more fluids. No cramps yet. Will that blister pop already?
How strange it was this weekend to have lived in both worlds of the Ironman, spectator and participant. Yet I didn't quite feel immersed in either. I ran one lap of the marathon course as part of my weekend training and biked part of the course as well. I avoided the competitors as much as possible to ensure the race officials didn't think I was pacing anyone. I didn't accept anything from any aid station, despite several volunteers offering. This wasn't my Ironman. No thanks. That's bad karma, as far as I'm concerned. And, as a spectator, I was gone for hours at a time training on the bike or chatting with other friends. I didn't sit or stand in one spot in the summer heat, like so many other dedicated fans. I could take a break.
I was in triathlon purgatory. I loved it. I hated it.
At the same time, I learned so much. First and foremost, I didn't realize how glib I was when I referred to my fiancee and me as Team Schneider because of how dedicated she has been in supporting my journey. After experiencing what she goes through on race day, I haven't come close to describing how important it is to have that kind of partner. And how hard it is to be a supporter in this sport. I'm atoning for that here. I've also realized that it's not the Ironman that makes Ironmen special. It's the work that goes into becoming an Ironman. The work nobody sees. If you don't savor those quiet, exhausting moments, if you don't appreciate the journey itself and every single lonely workout, then the day after an Ironman could become the hollowest of days.
Because "And now what?" is an unanswerable question. Rather, it's an insatiable appetite.
Maybe that explains why I'm always so damned hungry.
110 days and counting.