July 25, 2010
Imagine you’re a kid, five, six years old. The only body of water you’ve been in other than a bathtub is a clear swimming pool. The shallow end. You don’t know how to swim other than a combination dog paddle/crawl along the bottom of the pool. You’re now wading in a river where you feel the current. The water is waist deep on you. You’re an average 3 ½ feet tall. The river is three neighborhood blocks wide. You see the largest bridge ever in your life arching over it in the distance. Barges as long as a train move cargo up and down the water. The river is brown and its bottom cannot be seen. You only feel its muddy, gushy bottom with your feet. You take another step and the bottom drops out from underneath you. You gulp a mouth full of river water before you can scream for help as you go under the surface. That happened the first time I went swimming in the Ohio River in the summer of 1965. As a kid, I learned the scared straight way to never swim alone. I didn’t swim in the Ohio River again until this race the Cincinnati Olympic Distance Triathlon.
One of the teenage boys from the family we visited grabbed me and set me down on the shore. No big deal to him or anyone else other than the event scared the shit out of me. Never told my parents. Figured they wouldn’t let me swim again ever. Forty years later in Bangkok while sitting outside along the neighborhood pool in shorts and a shirt one of the neighbor’s boy, who just learned how to walk, took one too many steps and silently slipped into the pool’s deep end right in front of me. No one else saw him go in. He was not returning to the surface any time soon. I calmly stood up, jumped in beside him, came up underneath and pushed him up and out of the pool onto the deck. First, he looked shocked from the event, then he cried with fear. He recovered quickly. This occurred a few weeks after I met an Australian father whose son drowned at a kid’s 2 year-old birthday pool party. He lost track of him sometime during the outing. No one saw the boy in the pool until far too late to resuscitate him. The father was devastated. I didn’t need to think twice when the neighbor kid went in.
Hayes drove with me to Cincinnati. We stayed in Covington, Kentucky right on a bend of the Ohio River. Our room with its curved design provided awesome views of upstream and downstream plus one across the river of a beautiful inland river city. We walked to a nearby pizza place to load up on some carbs, boxed up a half leftover pizza and shared it with a hungry and grateful bellhop back at the hotel. We also stepped inside a convenience store to pick up race supplies of Gatorade and water bottles in the city center of Covington. The store reeked of cigarette smoke, smelling more like an old bar than a retail location. Just another experience of how state laws change at a different pace across the United States.
On race morning we woke up to a light rain shower locally and a weakening thunderstorm in the distance. By the time we arrived at the check-in area the pavement started to dry out. Hayes came along to volunteer for the race. Cindy, the volunteer coordinator, assigned her to the finish line area where she handed out water bottles to the competitors. I picked up a race packet, added the race numbers to my bike and race belt, and then laid out the race gear in the transition area underneath the racked bike.
As I walked out of the transition area Hayes asked me why I didn’t wear a race bracelet. Explained not every race included a few thousand competitors. She amazed me with her observation skills. Next, we headed over to the finishing area so Hayes knew where to report for volunteer duty and what to expect. With plenty of time before race start we walked over and viewed the river from a lookout area at Sawyer Point. We stood 50 feet above the water level at the River’s flood stage. My dad told me when he was 11 years old, he and his parents drove down to witness the flooded out Ohio River. We would have been 30 feet underwater where we stood when the 1937 flood came rushing down the valley.
The two of us watched and listened to the early morning barge traffic from a park bench that looked over the River. We heard the wake from the tugs as it splashed along the river’s edge. A couple of tugs sounded their horns to ensure plenty of space remained between the passing barges and pilot boats. And there was the constant white noise sound of the droning diesel engines as they powered their loads through the water. Why was one barge full of coal headed upstream while a few minutes later we saw another barge full of coal headed downstream? Most likely both customers felt like they were getting the best deal from their suppliers for the commodities that plied the Ohio River.
More racers came over to take in the river view. One guy sat down on the bench with us. His eyes were filled with fear. We talked. He was 21 years old, a couple of years older than Hayes. This was his first triathlon. He twitched with nervousness. Told him every triathlete experienced fear before their first face. Then added almost all triathletes questioned themselves whether they could finish the race, let alone finish without pain. He asked a few questions. I answered in hopes to ease his anxieties. Not sure my words helped.
I was able to compete in the race because, well think of it this way, I was able to do everything I ever did in life since going underwater and almost drowning in the Ohio River because a classmate friend of my older brothers walked out and nonchalantly pulled me up. I resurfaced coughing, shaking, and scared shitless. No one else saw what happened. Had he not been close I would have slid on down the drudged side of the river channel and drowned. I never went back in the water until I learned how to the swim at the YMCA back home a year later. I did put on a life jacket though before boarding the boat for a ride on the Ohio River.
Some fear still lingered in my mind for over 45 years. It changed a little over the years too. But getting ready for a non-wetsuit swim, in a muddy river, with a slightly scary memory took more effort than usual for the race. But I made it. I stood waiting on the riverbank for the wave to start. You could smell the river water. Definitely different than the ocean smell from two weeks earlier. And once the air horn sounded, we plunged into the river to get a taste of water different from the saltwater of the Atlantic or of the local tap water. Distinct but tolerable. The race was on and I was getting some additional swim speed from the downstream current. I left my fears behind and concentrated on the race in front of me.
Best thing about the bike? I competed on the primary race bike for the first time in three races. We rode mostly on the Columbia Parkway which offered spectacular views of the Ohio River, Downtown Cincinnati and the Kentucky shoreline. Not sure how many of the legendary 7 Hills of Cincinnati we pedaled up and down during the race but there was minimal flat pavement to ride on. We thought the course was closed to traffic but two cars came at me at two different points on the road. The first driver was an older woman who looked absolutely petrified by being the only car out there with all these bikes. She drove slow and unsteadily cautious. She looked as if she was trying to find another car to lead her off the parkway. Not sure how she got out there since all the possible visual access points were blocked. But she was in a place where she was not supposed to be.
A few miles later a well to do woman in a Mercedes sports sedan did not look petrified. She looked inconvenienced when she drove on the parkway. She also looked annoyed by all the bikers riding on her parkway. She was not scared at all but almost looked like she was eyeing bikers to run over to get them back for screwing up her early Sunday morning drive. I gave her a few extra car lengths of space and quickly rode by her and away from her as quickly as possible. Not sure how she got out of there either.
Other than those two near misses the bike continued on without issues or excitement. A challenging course prevented drafting and definitively favored climbers. I rolled into the transition and started the run leg.
The run course winded along the shaded banks of the Ohio River through majestic Friendship Park flanked with gardens and sculptures. At times the course seemed to get congested as people paired up to run together or form mini support packs. I heard more than a few faster runners politely speak up with an “on your left” or “on your right” to announce their intention to pass and encourage the slower runners to move over or look out. We ran an out and back route on a paved path with a quick detour across the Purple People Bridge over the Ohio River to Kentucky before returning back to Ohio and then on to the finish line at Sawyer Point.
Hayes continued to pass out water bottles while the rest of the Olympic and Sprint distance finishers came in. I mingled with finishers then returned to the starting point a mile up the river to collect my warm-up gear stashed in a bush. I knew of the race director from when we both lived in Arizona. He was an elite, nationally ranked triathlete back in the 1980’s and 90’s. We met for the first time though at his race in Cincinnati. I thanked him for letting Hayes volunteer and he expressed his gratitude for her wanting to help out.
On the ride back to Indianapolis to collect Caroline, Hayes and I recounted race stories to each other. Hers focused on the finishers and mine of the events along the race course. Hayes said a competitor with a big belly had his shirt pulled up over his stomach as he came in to finish. Others came in drenched in sweat. She didn’t want to touch the sweaty ones as she handed out water bottles. But she did. She knew they wanted her services and she wanted to help them out as they engaged in their athletic passion. She acknowledged triathletes come in all different shapes, sizes and conditions. Just like her teammates and competitors in the Fox Valley Special Recs athletic programs she participates in back home. She talked about how with her new friends in Cincinnati they worked fast to continually handout water. She spent more time helping the finishers than I did to complete the race. She convinced me her volunteer efforts were more difficult than mine. Hayes was happy but exhausted.
At least three of us started the morning with fear. I started the race worrying about getting over the fear of swimming in the river that once almost swept me away. She worried about whether she would be accepted as a capable volunteer. The first time triathlete worried about the entire race, the ability to complete a sprint triathlon. All of us got beyond our challenges of the morning. After I stepped out of the water onto the river bank, I eased into a steady bike and run pace until a 30 second sprint to the finish. Hayes eased in to handing out water bottles to the well-spaced earlier finishers. Then she and her co-volunteers picked up the pace of handing out water bottles as dehydrated finishers kept streaming in over the next three hours. Each volunteered rushed from ice bin to racer and back again in an ongoing herky-jerky jockeying for position. Hayes fit in and earned the respect of her co-volunteers who treated her nicely. The volunteers were great and the athletes confirmed it with their compliments to the crews. As the morning progressed, finishers continued to arrive. And then Hayes and I watched a first time triathlete, the same guy who sat with us on a bench a few hours earlier, as he crossed the finish line. Hayes handed him a water bottle. He chose to be a competitor instead of a spectator. He nudged himself a bit to overcome his self-imposed irrational fear. He beamed with the biggest smile of the day. Succeeding in overcoming personal fears will cause an effect like that.
Results: 3rd overall. 1st in age group