One and Done, Undone
August 3, 1986
Bud Light Triathlon
My girlfriend suggested we compete in the Chicago Bud Light Triathlon. At registration no record of my entry or payment existed. I pulled $50 out of a pocket and quickly completed an entry form to secure a position in the next day’s race. At 7am on a sunny August morning I stood shoulder to shoulder with over 3,200 triathletes outside the Shedd Aquarium by Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. A world record number of participants for a single triathlon race. I planned to complete the triathlon, wear a finisher shirt in triumph, and convert back to a runner.
On race day at age 27, I weighed 157 pounds and stood six feet tall with skinny arms, thin wrists, big calves, solid quads, a smallish six-pack stomach, full head of light brown hair, green eyes, a prominent nose, and minimal scars from spikes while running track in high school and college. My clothing measurements were: 31” waist and 33” inseam, 15” neck and 35” sleeves, and 39” slim suit coat with size 10D for shoes.
Not knowing what a real triathlete looked like, I showed up wearing a genuine Speedo swim suit that looked like a pair of fancy briefs underwear. Few competitors wore wetsuits so body fat determined a swimmer’s buoyancy. I raced on a borrowed road bike that never felt my butt before. No one shaved legs except the cyclists turned triathletes. I ran in track shorts and wore the same pair of shoes for the bike, run, and traveling to and from Chicago.
Every three minutes a new wave group shuffled like cattle closer to the starting line. The triathlon included swimming 1500 meters in Lake Michigan, biking 40 kilometers on Chicago’s iconic Lake Shore Drive, and running 10,000 meters along the spectacular downtown lakefront. In standard American measurements the distances were 9/10th of a mile swim, 25 mile bike ride, and 6.2 miles of running. All to be completed before lunch. Being anxious, apprehensive, and scared while standing in line; I openingly wished for the race to start soon and end quickly while thinking, “How did I get from beer to here?”
I competed in the 800 meter race in track during college and four more years of club racing after graduation. Running 1500 meters competitively was a challenge in a track meet. Swimming 1500 meters in a triathlon proved difficult. Twenty years earlier, on a YMCA swim team’s first practice, we swam 220 yards without goggles for the total workout. My eyes burned from chlorine, lungs hurt from breathing hard, and the arms heavy as lead from spinning like a paddle boat. Lacking endurance, skills, and motivation; never went back for a second practice.
After treading water for three minutes our wave started with a blast of air released from the starter’s air horn. Doubts lingered before the start: “Can I do all three activities in a single race, in a single day?” Overcome by anxieties within 50 meters of the start, I hyper-ventilated. My race almost ended within a minute. I panicked, worried about drowning, and wanted to quit if able to swim far enough to reach the shore safely.
For race day, I rode on a borrowed one year-old aluminum frame Raleigh bike that shaved off three pounds of weight. However, a new, white, and over-sized bike helmet that resembled a football helmet sans face mask and team logo added back a pound or two. Once out of the transition area and on to the course of Chicago’s famous Lake Shore Drive, found myself not knowing how to compete in a bike race. My bike gear included running shoes, running shorts, a running tank top, and steel cage enclosures on the pedals. Cadence was quick, endurance low, and competitors passed me who started later in the race.
I laughed at myself not knowing how to race on a bike. Christopher Cross’ song, "Ride Like the Wind" played in my head while pretending to be one of the Cutters from the movie Breaking Away. I rolled back into the transition area after biking 40 kilometers, swung my right leg over the seat and top bar at the dismount line, racked the bike, pulled off the football helmet, and took off running until the first few steps and learned another new phenomenon, jello legs.
Realize triathletes go from fluttering their feet six inches either way for an half hour in the water to rotating them in tiny two feet circles for over an hour, and thinking the legs will stretch out allowing running shoes to start landing five feet apart. Ha! The legs’ natural response at this point in a triathlon was similar to how a mouth responds to a dentist who asks a patient to open wide for a root canal, “Nope, not today buddy!”
Eventually the running legs came around to finish the 10K. At about 800 meters out from the finish line racers could see the colorful banner arch marking the finish: logos belonging to Bud Light, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, BMW, and AT&T plastered all over the finishing area. Racers saw the crowd lined-up on the outside of the finish chute. And everyone heard upbeat music blaring from loud speakers. At 400 meters to go, the music whipped up all finishers’ adrenalin for a strong finish. I picked up the pace for a quasi-finishing kick, though quickly and verbally abused by another competitor. At 200 meters out, the crowd turned into individual people who cheered us on while waiting for other family members and friends to finish. Within 100 meters of the finish line, we heard a race announcer call out finishers’ names, and wanting so badly to hear our names next. And at the finish line, the most important supporters cheered the loudest: my girlfriend who suggested the race, my mother who came in for the weekend to watch, and my sister with her husband; all who yelled out for success and congratulations. At the finish line I became a triathlete and hooked on a new endurance sport.
At 3pm I was on a plane headed home to Kansas City. The following morning, I flew through Chicago for a 45 minute layover to Green Bay for work. The plane took off from Midway airport and flew over the course of Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Drive, and Solder Field. I daydreamed of being a professional triathlete competing in the whole Bud Light race series.
A post card race with results arrived a week later, 69th in age group and in the top 10% overall. Training created a couple more muscles and burned off a couple of pounds. The race provided bragging rights about a weekend achievement along with a race finisher’s t-shirt to wear proudly. And the race transformed me from runner to triathlete.
Brief background of the triathlons and my Tri 50 State Journey
Triathletes, plus the entire group of race directors, race sponsors, equipment suppliers, family, and fans can thank Jack Johnson and Don Shanahan who started the sport at Mission Bay in San Diego, California in early fall 1974. Four years later in 1978, 15 men competed in Oahu, Hawaii to determine whether swimmers, bikers, or runners were more fit, as determined by finish place at the first ever Ironman triathlon. And no, qualifying events did not exist back then for Ironman. Another four years later, on February 21, 1982 the day after my first international track and field meet, I squirmed in front of the television, saying out loud to no one else except the sportscaster, this competitor pushed her limits to the point of fully losing her bodily functions. If I ever competed in triathlons, then Hawaii Ironman race would be on the list though knew it would never happen. Water was best for surfing, bikes were for kids without drivers’ licenses, and running in a race anything longer than a mile on the track proved difficult. Still, Julie Moss looked kind of cute crawling to the finish line. She accomplished her goal as she dug deep, willing her mind to move her body a few more meters forward and earn forever bragging rights at a level that rivals an Olympic gold medal. She hooked me on the sport, though it took another four years to set. My one track running mentality morphed from thinking track and field was the most independent team sport to realizing triathloning was its multi-sport, multi-personality sibling.
"Can I do all three activities in a single race, in a single day?” The answer revealed itself after a single 31 mile race, in the same day along the Chicago Lakefront with a yes. More answers and results to my life’s questions, challenges, and objectives of destiny and fate would be revealed over the next 30 years of racing with outcomes of:
In 1 month I’d be engaged.
In 1 year I’d be married.
In 5 years parenthood started and I earned my 11th position in 10 years of working for a single employer in five different offices.
In 8 years became a parent to a special needs child, 2nd time dad, and started work for a new employer in my 7th state.
In 10 years our second daughter was diagnosed as special needs and we moved to another new state.
In 17 years our family of four moved halfway around the world less than two weeks after being issued passports.
In 21 years after working in my 11th position over 13 years all with a second employer we returned to the Chicago area.
In 30 years we contributed to the growth of our two kids who participated in 8 different sports, multiple learning programs and our now working. Also worked for two additional employers in 7 different positions. And raced 168 triathlons in all 50 states, Washington, DC, in 10 different countries, and across the 6 continents that offered a race.