For some reason this was post was still in “draft” mode. It’s the long overdue conclusion to my experience of what is was like watching Racer K at Ironman Louisville. Our coach, Robbie, also raced, but I didn’t know him yet. Since the post is so late, I’m dedicating it to Wasky, who is training with us now and who is pursuing his first Ironman in Louisville.
The conclusion of my three part series on spectating Ironman Louisville 2012. Jim and I traveled to Kentucky to watch fellow Fab 5’er, Racer K, go after the gold.
Finally, within 30 minutes of the bike cut-off time, we saw him coming down the home stretch. I was shooting video, but suddenly felt guilty about catching such a painful moment and turned off the camera as Racer K rolled by on his way to the run. He made it and we were back in support mode.
We ran to the “run exit,” prepared to run alongside him for the first mile or so. After about 10 minutes he emerged like Stallone in the 15th round of Rocky I. He was a battered man and I had nothing to say. I had never been in that position and more than anything feared saying something I would regret, so I ran silently as he and Jim shared thoughts on the run.
We rolled along at a decent pace, considering what preceded him, then Jim and I peeled off as Racer K began to ascend the massive Ohio River bridge.
About 50 yards into that bridge, Racer K started walking and he wasn’t alone. I was actually shocked at the time by how many racers walked in Ironman. In retrospect, I am no longer amazed by this, but at the time I thought something about it seemed wrong.
The run was an out and back on the bridge, so we waited for him to come back and about the time we saw him, he lunged into a slow jog and ran past us into downtown Louisville.
He’d be out of range for a while, so Jim and I grabbed something to eat and had a couple beers while we waited. It was getting late and Racer K would run the majority of his marathon in the dark, which was probably a relief from a heat standpoint, but I kept trying to imagine how it would feel running down strange streets in the darkness. Alone with your thoughts. Alone with your pain. Wondering why you would do such a thing as an Ironman? Would he justify it to himself? Would he make it?
Louisville’s run course, like Wisconsin’s is essentially two loops of the same route and the most painful part of that is the second loop starts one short block from the finish line. By now it was about 9:00 and the music played while “You are an Ironman” rang through the PA system. One after another people crossed the line and crumbled in pain and self-satisfaction. Overwhelmed by the accomplishment. I stood at the split for the second loop and watched the faces of those with another 13.1 miles to go. Rarely did they even look at the finish line. A half marathon stood in their way of glory.
That’s about the time Racer K came through and Jim sent a text to let me know. It was dark and we were both tired for different reasons. Once again, I was faced with a potential discussion about something I didn’t really understand.
The whole thing seemed so fragile to me. I didn’t know what to say and, at no level, could understand what he was going through. It’s like waking a sleeping giant. Are they mad, or will they be happy to be awake. Racer K seemed mad.
I mumbled something about “we’re here for you, man” but it seemed so lame. I asked how he felt and he understandably told me he felt like shit. I walked by his side in silence as he refueled with water and fruit. When we reached the corner he finally said, “I think I’m gonna make this fucker.” And with that, he started jogging into the darkness.
At this pace, Racer K was cutting it close. He had until midnight before Ironman pulled the plug on spotlights and sucked the air out of the floating finish line. If he came in one second after twelve a.m., he would simply have the pleasure of completing 140.6 miles, but no Ironman badge. It seemed cruel, but gives genuine value to the accomplishment.
I found a stool inside an Irish Pub and ordered an American beer. I was cooked and drinking my second when an older woman sat near me at the end of the bar. I was too tired for conversation but shared a couple pleasantries about Ironman and the long day before noticing she put a gym bag on the bar. I was in a daze, but eventually noticed “Racer K” written on the side of the bag. Racer K? That’s that’s my man!
“Excuse me, who are you hear watching?”
“What’s his name?”
“Thee Racer K?”
“That’s who I’m watching, too!”
It was quite a moment of serendipity. I immediately felt the tension in her heart. What must this be like for her?!? Having a son, still out on the course in what seemed to be absolute misery? I couldn’t believe it.
I told her I just saw him and he looked good. I think he’s got it!
She calmly said she knew he would make it, too.
We sat in awkward silence for a moment and my mind drifted to the excitement of sports. The roller coaster rides we’ve all been through as athletes and fans. Rooting for your favorite team (or triathlete in this case) can be a grueling endeavor. The time ticks away on a clock and the best you can hope for is a way to figure out how to win. And when the clock strikes zero, the jubilation can be through the roof, while the disappointment can drag you through hell.
What is it about sports that can take us to the highest place where primal screams and childlike behavior become the norm? The final out, the shot at the buzzer, the last minute touchdown . . . they can all throw a fan over the edge. And make no mistake, on this day I was a fan. Screaming inside as Racer K summoned every ounce of energy he had left. One mission, one goal, one focus . . . to cross that finish line before midnight.