Homecoming of a Different Kind

Five years in 2:31:38

I woke up at 3:45AM on Sunday morning to race in the Chicago triathlon.It wasn’t until Thursday that I made mention to my wife that I would be rising well before dawn to leave the house on our Anniversary. First Anniversary, in case you were wondering.

I smoothed the transgression over with the logic that the race would be over so early that we would have plenty of time to spend together, which was true. Amelia also realized that I, technically, was receiving a much worse punishment in waking up so early that a further reprecussion was somewhat meaningless.

I rode my bike to the start line. I packed up my gear in a backpack, loaded up my water bottle cages, and biked through the streets of Chicago at 4:15AM. Plenty of people were still coming home from the bars. Pizza delivery vehicles parked with hazard lights on added some mood lighting. I sailed down the otherwise empty streets, still seeing no sign of sunlight on the horizon.

I pulled into the corrals at 4:30AM, probably a bit earlier than necessary, but I was also not the first to arrive. A squadron of eager beavers was descending on the Transition area in full force.

I found my wave, 10 or 38, and started setting up shop. I triple checked all of my gear:

Part 1: timing chip, wetsuit, goggles, cap, hoody, flip flops
Part 2: timing chip, socks, bike shoes, helmet, bike (duh)
Part 3: timing chip, socks, running shoes, fuel belt, race number

I had everything neatly arranged under my bicycle. Mise-en-place.

To my surprise and delight, a dear friend who was also racing found me getting ready. She had just completed an Ironman in Copenhagen and was at the race for a glorious victory lap to all of her training.

She set back to finish her set up. I listened to Chance The Rapper and laid down in the grass, looking at the stars. My mind was void of thoughts, profound or otherwise. It was quiet.

At 5:30 AM, I pulled on the bottom half of my wetsuit and set out to the lake.

We athletes looked like a penguin parade. An army of people from all over the world looking smooth and round in our wetsuits. All of the definition and musculature earned from months of training hidden beneath black neoprene.

The first wave went off at six, and we huddled and paced as we waited for the other eight waves to go.

When we were set to stage, the other white-capped (as in, swim cap) men ages 30–34 crowded onto steps that left us ankle-deep in water. In a few minutes, we would be sent in to wade as a huddled mass before the sound of the gun.

The first few moments in the water were exhilarating. All of the pent up energy from the morning finally had a place to go as our bodies reacted to the cold water. But then we had to wait.

This was the stuff of nightmares.

150 bodies all pushing and edging toward the start line. The swipes of hands and feet against my wetsuit happened more and more frequently. You could feel the anxiety in the water.

After an obligatory photo, the gun sounded. Chaos erupted. The water churned and limbs flailed as everyone set out to get top position, which would inevitably change dramatically within the first five minutes of racing.

Despite many warnings, I was not kicked in the face. But I did get my ankles grabbed. And felt people pulling at the water between my arms and my bodies as they jockied for position. Establishing any rhythm or calm in the water was impossible. Big, rolling waves lifted and dropped us in succession as we continued to claw for open water.

After about 400m, things finally began to settle. At which point someone swam into me head first. His green cap indicated that he had already made the first turn and was headed for the exit — he just happened to cross the buoy line.

The rest of the swim was smooth. I felt my panicked, t-rex arms loosen up and start to pick up big scoops of water. I started to see the neon orange caps from the wave in front of us, and then green caps that from wave eight. With 200m to go, I found myself back with the leaders of my wave — a wall of white caps dashing for the finish line.

There was a tremendous sense of relief when I finally grabbed the hand of the volunteer who pulled me onto the steps.

I stripped off my sleeves over my wrist and began jogging the quarter mile back to the transition.

Despite a lack of training, I’m pretty quick in transitions. It’s probably just from the unhealthy sense of urgency learned in restaurants. As soon as I found my bike, I hit the deck, tore off the wet suit, slipped on my sox and shoes, grabbed my helmet, swigged a water bottle, and set out running to the bike course.

I dashed to the mount line, clipped in, and went immediately into a short climb up Lake Shore Drive.

As I crested over the hill, right at Ohio Street, I suddenly remembered that I was in Chicago. The towering skyline and the never-ending lake offering parallel boundaries to the paved course ahead. I immediately tucked into the aero position and started jamming on the pedals.

Despite a very long workout the day before, I felt strong on the bike. My legs did as I asked them and I found a comfortable cadence quickly. Due to the traffic pattern, which included live automobile traffic to our right, passing rules were reversed: ride left, pass right.

I used what I learned at Pike’s Peak and passed opportunistically for the first eight miles. When people slowed on hills or reached down to grab a drink, I pounced.

We turned around at Hollywood and started the deja vu trip back to the transition, watching the buildings rise and fall in reverse order.

When we returned to our starting point, we took a sharp left and curled into Lower Wacker. Most people know these streets from the Batman movies, but I know them from catering deliveries. I’ve driven every weird driveway and turn of that place.

The race turned into a video game. The myriad lights from on ramps and loading docks changed your shadow by the minute — you could watch a montage video of your race in real time.

The air was hot and still, trapped below the concrete, and it made everything feel fast. People embraced the lack of wind resistance and leaned into the pace to push it further.

Finally, we burst out of the tunnel and headed to the bus lanes that snuck commuter buses around some of the trafficked areas in the city. I had never been on those roads, and likely will not see them again unless I repeat the race.

When there were less than two miles to go in the bike leg, people started to get impatient. Passing lanes got tighter. Gears went higher. People dropped their heads to gut out the last stretch.

We flew back to the mount line, jumped off, and performed the awkward bike-shoe run into transition for the last time.

Land the bike. Ditch the shoes. Put on sneakers. Tie the laces. Chug some water. Grab the fluid belt. Hit the road. My second transition was less than two minutes.

I popped onto the race course, completely thrilled at the prospect of running a 10K. Most of my training for the Ironman has been AT LEAST 10K, if not significantly longer than that. This middle distance is a strength of mine — I just lock into a speed and keep the throttle open until the finish line comes.

Perhaps all athletes feel this way, or perhaps I’m sadistic. I love to reel people in who passed me earlier in the race. Doesn’t matter where, or when. But if I saw your number pass me, I relish the opportunity to return the favor.

Save for a few athletes who were clearly gunning for a top spot, I was comfortably moving through the field of runners. I used each person as a mini-goal before moving onto the next person.

Two miles in, I implemented a newer strategy of mind: mid-race gratitudes. When I am inspired to do so, I try to spend time during the race thinking about how grateful I am to be out on this particularly day, healthy, doing something that I love.

I thought about how glorious the weather was and what a perfect day it was to race. I thought about all of my training and my lack of injuries for this entire season. I thought about all of the joy and growth that I had experienced in Chicago.

I even thought about how awesome it was that I was wearing a Qalo ring, which meant that I could wear it while I race. I thought further about how I should really post about them more as I love that I can wear my ring while I do anything.

Then I looked down. It was gone. On my Anniversary. Almost assuredly lost in the swimming scrum.

“Well, fuck.” I thought to myself.

I crossed the halfway turnaround and saw ‘7:04’ flash on my watch. Faster than I expected!

I took a big swig from my fuel belt, a gnarly mix of Skratch Labs and Red Bull. Essentially, a powerful dose of sugar, electrolytes, and caffeine. I call it Jet Fuel.

I felt my heart rate start to climb as the distance ahead became shorter and shorter. Two miles to go. One mile to go. Two tenths to go.

The end of the race snakes through several corrals before spilling out into an open lane with the big finish line one tenth of one mile ahead. I cut loose.

I let my stride get longer and pushed a little bit harder with each step. The announcer, to my great amusement and appreciation, said, “And here comes Drew Davis, who is not slowing down at all!”

For a split second, I thought to myself:

“Who the fuck slows down headed toward the finish line?”

Regardless, I plowed forward and sailed over the timing strips before pulling up to a stop. I had no idea what my time was. Didn’t matter. I felt great.

I found Amelia immediately, who wasted no time to inform me that I had, again, missed her at the finish line. I argued that even the announcer acknowledged how hard I was sprinting. Then I remembered that she is always right, and stopped arguing.

After an ice bath, two bananas, two bags of potato chips, and a gatorade, I was feeling quite good. I checked the times: poor swim, good bike, GREAT run. I was in the top 10% of the field and just outside of the top 10% of my age group.

On a day to commemorate my marriage, my year, my progress, and my life, this was a pretty darn good one. I left the race feeling full of gratitude and good juju.

Now, it’s head down until the big dance in Louisville.