I read somewhere that the best person to tell you about the person is the very same person. It’s not like they are going to say, “I’m sooooooooooooo fabulous!” or “I will be an asshole to you so stay away” but it is in their anecdotes and sometimes in what they don’t say that says so much.
I took the ferry out from Cozumel at 5 pm and as I waited to board, I noticed several people arriving and looking very green.
That was a definite sign.
The 40-minute ferry ride pitched a bit more than usual and to say that some looked like screaming in Technicolor was an option is a bit of an understatement. Since my bike was loaded onto the front of the barge, I had to wait until all the passengers disembarked to get off. As I waited, the boat rolled and people staggered forward and back. As the last person stepped off the boat, a man in a wheelchair came up to me and started chatting me up. It turns out he is an inspirational speaker, part of the entertainment of the cruise ship that was in port at the next dock over.
He asked me if I was on the island for the Ironman.
“To watch and cheer people on,” I replied.
I went on to explain that I do triathlons but I don’t feel like it’s in me to do a full Ironman.
“I don’t know you but I feel your spirit and feel that you can,” he said.
The words struck me in a way that I didn’t quite understand until later (and perhaps even now). In a moment of absolute serendipity, a person I had never expected to meet, says something I never expected to hear and in passing, made me marvel at the beauty of a chance meeting. I asked if he would like to grab something to eat but his ship sailed in half an hour.
And just like that, a person I had not known for more than half an hour changed me ever so slightly and then disappeared over the horizon.
That next morning, the current was misleading and the swim started out as normal as could be. Until the turn. And many athletes were stuck looking at the same spot on the ocean floor for five minutes. Some hung onto the buoys like fleas on a dog, the waves bucking around them.
When I got to the bike course, many were looking terrible by the second lap. Many cramped up when they got off the bike, wobbling across the burning asphalt to the transition tent. Thomas was so sick to his stomach, he could not pedal. A pro triathlete by the name of Maki Nishiuchi felt so weak from the cold that still plagued her that she dropped out as well.
And as I waited around T2, I met Ken Glah, an absolutely iconic triathlon legend.
“The Great Ken Glah,” I had said.
“That was a long time ago,” he replied.
The comment made me think a little. Here is a man who has done the Ironman World Championship in Kona (the granddaddy of all triathlons) 29 consecutive times and normally finishes strong or in the top 10. How hard do you have to be on yourself to be able to say that your greatness has long since passed when you do what very few can?
I rode out to the bike course and stopped at an aid station, where I watched athletes look for food and water. There were people milling about, fielding water bottles to take home with them. And one particular boy, portly and ill coordinated, was screaming at athletes for them to throw their bottles to him. In one such moment, the bottle landed near three children (among which was the screamer) and the one who got there first was a girl.
The boy started screaming at his father, telling him that he should have moved faster and because he didn’t, that little girl got his bottle. And in a gesture of good will, the girl went up to the father and with some words and a smile, handed him her prize.
I wasn’t having it. At all.
So in a voice loud enough for the girl, boy and his parents could hear, I told her that she shouldn’t give that little boy a bottle because he has so many already. Another bottle flew and landed several feet from where she was.
“That’s yours,” I told her. “Don’t you be giving it to that little boy.”
Back in town, the run was well underway and many were walking it. A Spanish triathlete told me that the bike was so hard at points that when people got to the run, they had nothing left.
So I marveled at the fact that while he sat reading “Anna Karenina”, a bespecled man was waiting for his 54-year-old wife to finish her 8th Ironman.
Then in wobbled Greg. He gingerly sat down: his right knee was in pain, the soles of his feet were blistered and the top of his foot had skin stripped off from the friction with his shoe. And all he thought about was his mother, who had felt a little ill and was taken back to the hotel. When Aline asked if he would like her to call the hotel and find out how she was doing, he replied with a very controlled, “Yes please.” And when it was reported that his mother was being taken care of, he held up his finisher’s medal slightly, gripped the ribbon and cast his sight to the floor. And I saw for a moment that look of relief and guilt. Relief because his mom was okay and guilt because he feels that it is his fault that she was in that situation, for coming out to cheer him on.
It isn’t your fault.
He took off a shoe and showed me where his kids signed. For good luck. He told me how in IM Canada, they were at the swim start, the exit, T1, saw him on the bike three times, on the run and at the finish line.
I couldn’t help feeling moved. And I thought how lucky his sons are to have a daddy like him. So that they can grow up to be men. Just like that Ironman dad of theirs.
And on the way home, on the noisy ferry where I tried to sleep, in the freezing darkness of the bus to Cancun and on the bike ride back to my house, I thought about all the people I had met and how all their actions painted their canvases. From Bratty on the bike course and the woman who hit me on the arm to wake me so that I could make room for her daughter to sit on the ferry (who sang along with the onboard entertainment all the way to the port in Playa del Carmen) to a humble triathlete star and the IronDad who raved over the use of the plastic bag filled with ice water and “why don’t they use them in the States?”
I thought about the human spirit, in all its uneven perfection. The sheer beauty of it and how it humbles you in the most profound ways imaginable. And I realized that its perfection is based on one simple thing:
Reaching out to another.