Let me be very clear on this point – of all the hobbies one could chose to indulge in, Iron Man training is a particularly selfish choice. By its very nature, the long hours – some weeks as much as 20 or more – Iron Man training takes your focus away, at least to some extent, from your family, your job, any chance of meaningful community volunteerism and the basic human need for rest and relaxation. Not to mention the monetary bloodletting demanded by the sport. It is easy, while training for an Iron Man, to become singularly focused on oneself. Your world revolves around the mind-numbing triviality of continual performance analysis, focus on sleep, diet and injury prevention that borders on paranoia and other incomprehensible minutia that go along with preparing oneself for swimming, cycling and running 140.6 miles. You find yourself asking (aloud to anyone who will listen, but mostly silently and to yourself while sitting absentmindedly during the immeasurably long waits at traffic lights) “do I need to buy more gels?”, “is my bike saddle a fraction of a centimeter too high?”, “why did I feel so tired on that 8 mile run yesterday and how am I going to run twenty six?”, “am I eating enough/ too much/ the right things?”, “what is that weird pain on the top of my big toe and should I be worried about it?”, “what exactly are the accumulated effects of a gallon of swallowed Caribbean salt water on one’s GI system?”
It’s exhausting and self-absorbed and ridiculous, but that is life as an Iron Man in training.
My focus changed drastically this morning. While reading ESPN on-line before heading off to work I ran across the story of 20 year old Mississippi State University defensive end Nick Bell. Bell, a 6’3” 265 pound sophomore from Bessemer, AL died yesterday from an aggressive strain of brain cancer which had spread throughout his body despite optimism following his initial diagnosis in September and surgery on October 1. This was not a sickly young man – he was the very picture of youthful vigor, athleticism and seeming indestructibility. He had actually started two games this season, the last of which was September 25 during Mississippi State’s victory over the University of Georgia. That was forty days ago. Nick was alive and pursuing his dream of playing Division I college football and doing it well. His life, what should have been seven or eight decades to come lay out before him like some vast, uncharted and thrilling new territory. He no doubt celebrated that victory over UGA a month and ten days ago even as he looked toward that bright future. Who could have known what was to come on that happy late-September Saturday in Starkville, MS? Bell will be laid to rest over the coming days as his family and Bulldog teammates attempt to grapple with this unfathomable loss.
I thought about Nick Bell throughout the day today. And then I thought of all of the men and women Bell’s age who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years. Young people lost in the prime of their existence, robbed of the myriad of experiences that make up a life – the joy, pain, achievement, disappointment and love, the good times with friends past and present, the warmth of family and yes, even the aches, pains and general goofiness of triathlon training that, for whatever reason, I have had the opportunity to experience for so much longer. And suddenly, Iron Man seems less fearsome than it did only yesterday. Not that it won’t hurt like hell, because it unquestionably will, but in the grand scheme of things it all amounts to this – we will be in a beautiful place (Cozumel), surrounded by supportive friends and supported from afar by even more friends and family, and we will spend the day swimming, cycling and running – three things we loved to do even as children. And even when the pain speaks to us in that shrill, urgent voice that refuses to be ignored in those late, dark, suffering hours of the Iron Man, it will only mean that we’re alive, and it will subside soon enough. And I’ll be thinking of Nick Bell as, God willing, I cross that finish line sometime before midnight in Mexico.
Life is short and we’re guaranteed nothing. Seize the day, friends.