The Ironcast, Coca-Cola & Aspirin in Kona and a Smile
Most of the time I write about sport performance (movement and technique) coaching - that's my focus as a coach. I've had a long and fulfilling career coaching and look forward to many more years and stories. Along the way, some funny things, thoughtful and life enhancing episodes have happened that I hope you enjoy. With these short-stories I've made an effort to not be too long-winded. I hope you laugh, learn some and enjoy these moments.
In the fall of 1982 I was training for an Ultra-man - a double Ironman. This was an especially unique event for those days in the history of our sport give only 4 Ironman competitions had been held in Hawaii by that time. Honestly, I never understood why I wanted to do this, but I had signed up. Sometimes, I thought I was running away from something deeply personal and other times, I simply, honestly, at my very core wanted to live a bit fuller - challenge myself beyond an ordinary life.
Maybe, that is what is so appealing about triathlon? It is a relatively safe way to express ourselves - live beyond the commonplace without having to climb Mount Everest or something extraordinary. For many, triathlon is a huge undertaking and achievement and along the way we move our bodies in ways that seem indigenous to us. A fitter self feels very natural - we feel more alive and present. It's the way we are supposed to be - it's what we are to become.
On my journey to the double Ironman I planned for a double century (which I did), a marathon and a lot of swimming. Unfortunately, during one wintertime evening run I misplaced my foot onto a curb and my athletic career ended. I spent the next five years having surgeries and never fully recovered to run again - though, I am now happily making a comeback, but taking my time some 25 years later.
That injury changed my life. But I still had something I wanted or was it needed to do. The Ironman was in about 10 months and I knew it would likely be my only chance - the ankle would simply never fully recover - I knew this instinctively. I decided to do the Ironman that fall and share the experience with the dozen or so triathletes I was coaching at the time.
The problem was my ankle would swell to the size of a grapefruit whenever plantar-flexed (toes pointed). This made swimming especially difficult and painful. Cycling was painful too and running was out of the question. Some way or another I figured out I needed a "boot" to "fix" my foot and found a company to make me a plastic boot (my Ironcast) - a prosthesis looking device coving my underfoot to the upper calf and was secured with three large Velcro straps.
It was like a ski boot. I did all of my swimming and cycling training wearing this contraption. My foot would not move and the swelling was now less severe. The race day came and I remember being so happy to be in the water waiting for the starting gun. The first minute of the race I was smiling. I never thought I'd make it - to be actually, starting the race and I remember feeling even after just a few minutes that the race was over now. I'd made it to the line and the rest was simply putting in the time until the finish.
Swimming was hard because of the drag from the cast and my foot was pointed down, but the salty Kona water made it quite a bit easier than the pool. About half way through the swim a competitor or shall I say another participant "thumped" my plastic leg and I stopped. In the middle of the swim I had to explain what I was doing there. The other swimmer asked me what was wrong with my leg and how I was swimming with "that" thing. I kept going!
When I exited the swim there's a photo of me on the ramp and the volunteers are looking down at my leg. It really looked like an artificial leg. I was in the water an hour twenty and it seemed longer, but I was ready to get onto the bike. Our bikes were odd in those days, but I guess every generation of bikes looks funny - antiquated to some degree. The bike was uneventful and seemed to go by in a blink of an eye, but all along and especially, the final 10 miles I knew the run was coming. Oh, I hadn't run in over 10 months - maybe, just a few short jogs, but nothing like running of training.
Off the bike, I removed my plastic foot cast put on a visor, my running shoes and took to the pavement. To my astonishment, I was running - it probably, wasn't too efficient looking, but I remember feeling completely beside myself that I could actually run and feel good doing it. At five miles, eight miles and over Palani Hill I was still running. It was dreamlike. I knew this shouldn't be happening, but I was running and didn't feel like stopping. Until…..!
In the old day we ran past the airport and not into the Energy Lab. And it was then that a friend watching the race came alongside (riding his bike). It was the first time I'd seen anyone I knew and I all of a sudden was "awakened" from my dream state.
Straightaway, I started to gather myself and then my friend spoke, "Marc, you don't look too good". "What" I said in my mind…I feel good, I am running aren't I? This is what I am supposed to be doing. "Here Marc, take these aspirins and drink some Coke…". "What, I don't drink Coke…okay, if you say so…"
About ten minutes later my world is much different. The friend is gone and I am reduced to walking, heaving black Coke and now worried I will be pulled from the race. Alongside the road there were Oleander like bushes and I decided to "take cover". I had over 14 miles to go, but if any race official saw me they'd pull me directly. I decided to wait behind the bushes until either I felt better or it was dark. That would be a couple of hours.
Finally, I came back onto the road and couldn't run as my stomach was incapable of holding anything down. My energy was limited, but I kept walking, walking, walking. Finally, after hours of this march two friends doing the race came alongside and said, "Marc, what are you doing here…we saw you on the run hours ago as we were finishing the bike…"? All I could say was "Don't make me run with you I can't keep anything down".
Those guys stayed with me the next four miles to the finish. As we came down Alii Drive the lights of the finish line could be seen and my friends began to run. I told them to go ahead, but they insisted I come with them - running into the finish. "No, please I can't keep anything down…" But run we did and I am glad, but once across the finish line I released another volcano of black stuff from my mouth that I am none too proud of - sorry, to my friends and those great
volunteers who selflessly helped me clean myself and looked on as I began to feel among the living each moment.
There was something and is something incredibly special about finishing and Ironman. I suppose that's why triathlon has become so popular. People get to feel extraordinary for those moments during and through the finish-line. And it lasts for years - that feeling of accomplishment and of feeling, being and becoming something more than we often are allowed in a normal life.
Being one of the first several hundred people to ever do an Ironman is a good feeling. I wasn't fast that day, but it wasn't the reason I was doing it in the first place. I wasn't a world-class athlete, but good enough to think I could do that race. And like the hundreds if not, thousands of first-timers on many weekends all yearlong nowadays individuals with all sorts of stories and backgrounds are too becoming and achieving something powerful inside. They are like me discovering the reason why they are doing what they're doing - even if a little extra time in spent in the bushes and lugging along a plastic cast - just for the fun of it!
About: Marc Evans was the first USA Triathlon head coach for the inaugural Olympic-Distance World Championships, and coach of two-time Ironman champion Scott Tinley. He has written three books on endurance training (currently work on a 4th) and is the patent holder for the SPEEDO Contour and Swim-Foil training paddles. Marc was presented the "Award of Excellence" from the American Medical Association for his pioneering work in triathlon.