My father said that the reason he married my mother was that when they met she could name all the Montreal Canadiens. I'm pretty sure that it was, in fact, at least a contributing factor. His love of sports not only helped him choose a life partner but also raise his children, and before I could drive I had been lucky enough to attend sporting events of all varieties across North America. As a young buck I saw the Habs play at the Forum (spiritual), attended more college and pro football games than I could count (educational), and watched minor league baseball in Albequerque (random).
But among the plethora of live events I attended, nothing was ever quite like the Ironman triathlons I've witnessed in my second hometown of Lake Placid over the past decade or so. Indeed, a full Ironman event is something that has to be seen to be understood - from the cannon going off at 7:00 a.m. and seeing two thousand people clawing and thrashing in a turbulent 3.8km white-water ballet, to the geeks in their aerodynamic helmets hammering their way through the 180km bike, all the way to the final stragglers gritting their teeth and trying to finish the full 42.2km marathon before the midnight cutoff.
And it is that midnight hour that I find always the most inspiring. Watching a pro cruise across the finish line in nine hours is impressive and all, but there is something special about watching a grown adult on the brink of losing control of his bodily functions or forgetting her name, being cheered on by a couple of thousand pumped up spectators in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in the middle of the night. Those final competitors are trying desperately to make it over the line in time to avoid the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) that is given to anyone who does not complete the entire 226km (140.6 mile) race before the clock strikes twelve.
The crowd becomes an integral part of the Ironman experience as midnight approaches. Competitors who finished earlier in the day, families, friends and locals number into the thousands as they convene at the outdoor speedskating oval that doubles as the finishing stadium in the center of town. They stand on the bleachers or recline on the hill that leads up to the old stone high school that overlooks the festivities. Music pumps from the P.A. system (the same top-40 and oldies soundtrack that you are likely to hear at Uncle Sal's third wedding or watch awkward politicians dance to at a convention) while Mike Reilly - "the voice of Ironman" - rallies the crowd to cheer on those remaining few athletes who are trying to finish the run-come-death-march. And there are prizes. Not for the athletes this time, but given to the audience as the organizers rely on that universal truth of spectator sports: nothing makes white people yell and scream like the promise of a free t-shirt thrown at them by a marketing intern.
The prizes aren't altogether lame, though. Four years ago I had a hat land at my feet. As far as baseball caps go, it seemed exotic to me at the time: made primarily of white mesh with a terry-cloth type of sweat band sewn into it and adorned with the name of one of the race's sponsors, it was probably the first ball cap I had ever seen that wasn't made entirely out of cotton or wool. It was more a piece of gear than a casual adornment, and it was of the ilk that the day's rock stars - being the 2,000 athletes competing - wore as they completed the run. Since I was twenty five years old at the time and not, say, seven, I won't recall that I was altogether enamored with the hat. But I was suitably taken that I picked it up and tucked it under my arm, deciding that while I didn't have use for such a hi-tech piece of head wear at that point in my life (I was still rocking my foam/mesh "Earl" trucker hat on a full-time basis), I might have occasion to use it at some point down the road. I took it home and tossed it onto my desk before bed that night.
I have changed residences several times since then, and have always taken the hat with me, finding room in a bag as I've been in transit or on a hook in someone else's apartment as I've squatted for a few months. All the while I've resisted actually putting it to use, instead deciding that wearing the hat was something that I would have to earn, and day dreaming in the back of my mind of the day when I would cut the tags off and bring the hat's place in my life full circle. It may seem like a reach, but as I've found it in the bottom of my designer suitcase (read: hockey bag) or glanced at it buried on a closet shelf, the hat has been a constant reminder of a goal that has at times seemed larger-than-life, but has loomed closer as I've honed my swimming, biking and running chops over the past few years.
And so it will be this Sunday, in that mountain town that I love, where I will be part of the early morning white-water ballet, where I will power through that half-day grind on the bike, and where sometime before supper I will slip on the crisp, white hat as I seek to be among those who finish before midnight. While there is much that will be out of my hands come race day, I can rest well until then knowing that I have the perfect piece of head gear.