A question was asked on my online Tri-club: When did you know you were ready to get married?
What follows was my reply. I post it here because the truth is that I am where I am today with the sport of triathlon because of that very question.
In hindsight, I knew on my very first date with the Ironmate that something was innately special. And she knew it, too. Only her’s wasn’t hindsight; she knew it all along. Me, mine was hindsight because I was too afraid to fall in love and, in fact, never really knew what love was. So although I knew on that very first date, it wasn’t until a few years later when my eyes were opened in a way that was so profound by what I saw already in front of me I broke down in tears. Some of you may remember it. I was out on a bike that day. I was training for Ironman Wisconsin.
Before I go into the story, let me remind you that it was the Ironmate that got me into this amazing sport. She had wanted to do a triathlon but was afraid, so she talked me into doing it with her. During that time, I was noncommittal due to my deep childhood fear of the water. It wasn’t that I couldn’t swim; it was that I did NOT swim. Me and water didn’t get along. It tried to rob me of life back when I was a kid. I never forgot that, nor forgave it. So, before me I had a girl who wanted me to do the triathlon with her.
The day she talked me into doing the triathlon we were on the deck of my father’s home, the same in which I grew up. We were at a family reunion on my side of the family. We were enjoying the company, eating Brats, and drinking beers that seemed to just keep coming. The promise to do a triathlon was part of a drunken dare. But it didn’t end there. She said, and I quote, “Stop worrying. You’ll kickass, and then you’ll go on to do a half Iron… You can do Miami Man. You do the half; I do the Int’l. And it’s on your birthday (she knew I was looking for a trip to do on my birthday, as I do every year).” And it didn’t end there. “Then the following year,” she said, “when we go to Germany for World Cup, you can do Ironman Germany… I already looked at the dates. It all lines up.” I took a step back and revealed to her that she had an amazing insight because, truth be known, I had dreamed of doing an Ironman since I was a kid, only I wrote it off in a sorry state of denial because I didn’t swim.
A few weeks later we did a little sprint triathlon in Rhode Island together. She struggled in the water but otherwise did very well, while I walked into the ocean that day with the very serious thought that I might not come out alive. This was no joke, and no exaggeration. But I was determined to stare fear in the face and take down that son of a bitch and grind it to the ground like it had me for so many years. And she was by my side to help me do it. Because that day she told me I can and in a sense gave me the go-ahead to kick that fear between the eyes. That day we both became triathletes. And it didn’t end there. I had such an amazing time doing the race; I felt free and different than I had in any other type of race. I loved the bike, I loved the dead feeling in the legs of trying to transition to run, and I loved the feeling of flying over that little run course near faster than anybody on the day. I was hooked. The Ironmate was right. I kicked ass for someome who finished dead last in the swim of over 200. I think I placed 30th or something. So from dead last to 30th… I passed a lot of people and had such a fun time, I was hooting and hollering, granting high fives, and celebrating the conquering of a childhood fear.
Months rolled on. I tried to ignore the Ironmate’s plan for me to do Miami Man. She didn’t really mean, did she? Although I never mentioned it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Meanwhile, she – sensing it was on my mind – recalled it all the time. Finally, I signed up for my first half Iron in Miami Man. I was so nervous. But she believed in me. And with her support, I went on to what was truly a magical experience that was capped with me hammering down the finish line chute to an amazing first half Iron time, and feeling good, tears in my eyes, then jumping clearly above ground while punching a fist in the air. It was emotional. And she was there for me. Which meant the world since it was her support that not only got me there but told me I could do it.
During this time and even the lead up to Miami Man, although it may sound like our relationship was blossoming, it wasn’t… at least it wasn’t apparent to either of us. Because we’d get into the wrong discussions all the time. Each of us thought about breaking up. I have no idea why I didn’t pull the trigger on us staying together. We didn’t fight, but something just wasn’t right. While she held on to a belief that something was right with us even though we kept turning each other away.
On the plane flight home from Miami, with my bike tucked squarely under the wing, the happy times faded and the bullshit resumed. We got in a fight. Not yelling, just with each of us completely turned off. We returned home, she departed to her place without as much as a kiss goodbye, mainly because I was an ass and pushed her away for no other reason than she was getting too close and that perhaps I was falling for her little ploy – me falling in love. But I didn’t see it that way. Not yet, at least. That night I went out for dinner and drinks, and when I got home, there, sitting properly on my bed, was a book. It was “Going Long,” the popular triathlon book on long course triathlons. Inside the cover read: “Here’s to making your dreams happen…” My eyes were opened. Slightly, but they were now open to see what I hadn’t before.
That book, and that whole time, with the Ironmate’s support, inspired me to take a shot at my childhood dream. A few months later I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin. She supported me with her words while I started the training for my own Dreams of Iron. It was an amazing few months, as we fought much less; but me, newly driven to train for Ironman, I didn’t see any of it. I kept training and training while she supported me through and through.
Then a dilemma. That weekend she wanted to go to visit her mother in Pennsylvania. I had a 100 mile ride on my calendar that I would not miss. I thought about doing it early, but then I’d have to take a day off of work. And that’s when I came up with an idea. “Would you or your mother mind if I brought my bike,” I asked? No, she said, she wouldn’t mind, and who cared what her mother thought. I pushed a little further: “Would you mind if I got up really early on Saturday, plotted out a route – you can sleep in – and then have you take my car and pick me up at a highway interchange?” It wasn’t a problem.
The week before we went down to visit her mother, I plotted a route that took me from Lancaster, PA, through southern Pennsylvania toward Pittsburgh, our destination, and 114 miles later popped out near a highway interchange. The plan was in place. I would wake up with the sun and start riding. I would have my cell phone but, if she didn’t hear from me, count on being at the exit at 12:30 pm.
Pennsylvania, if you are not aware, is hilly. My route turned out to be much more than was welcome. Up and down hills and through valleys, I cut through a mountainous path en route to the interchange. Halfway through it started getting very difficult. My emotions were starting to run. When I’d start to wonder what the hell I was doing out in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, I cut myself off and instead thought about something happy. The image of the Ironmate would pop in my head. I started wondering what I was doing with my life. Why, I asked myself, at 36 years of age, wanting to marry and have a family, and wanting to find someone I could love and who would love me back… why the hell couldn’t I find it. Suddenly I heard a ring. It was my cell phone, interrupting my thoughts, as if somebody was listening to me, or as if someone knew I needed a hand.
A few miles later, now at a total distance of 68 on my bike computer, I finally punched out of the hilly section and came upon a local grocer. I stopped to stretch the legs and refuel. Just then the phone rang again. It was the Ironmate. She asked how I was doing and where I was. I said I was hurting but otherwise okay to go at least another 25 miles. But it would hurt. “I’m running late,” she said. Good, because so was I, and although I was hurting, I wanted to get this ride in, even if I had to walk.
Back on the bike, restored with good words and happy thoughts, I punched onward. Not long after, the route went back into the hills. Between when the road dipped to follow a babbling brook where the temperature dropped an easy 15 degrees to where the road went up to the clouds steeper than I’ve ever ridden before, my emotions again got a hold of me. What, I wondered, was I doing?
This time the question was very different. It was not, “What am I doing?” as in why am I on a bike, drooling on myself in a sorry state of tiredness, in the middle of nowhere. I knew that answer; I was trying to chase a childhood dream. The question I realized being asked of myself, by myself, was “What are you doing by hiding your feelings, by burying yourself behind yet another obstacle, by denying, even neglecting your own feelings and in turn hurting the one person who loves you most.
And that was just it. I realized that I would say that it was her who loved me – as if she was the one doing the loving – and I’d say how great it felt to be loved, for it was truly in my heart, my head, even my whole body. But this love was not in my words, nor my actions, nor was it something I wanted to see, as if being in love was somehow weak. It was profound. I realized that by ignoring my own feelings I was in turn hurting her. It was a great shame, and I felt embarrassed, even upset with myself, for allowing myself to hurt her in this way, because here I was doing just that. That’s when I realized that instead of seeking greener pastures for love, life, and peace for myself, I needed to open my eyes, my heart, my core, let down my guard, and right in front of me would be a girl who I knew loved me more than anything or anybody. Her actions, her words – all of it – painted the picture. Mine, sadly, none of it. Instead of opening my heart, I turned off the lights and closed the blinds. Good night.
And then it hit. I started to cry. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I pedaled up yet another hill. I saw something quite remarkable in front of me. It was love. This girl would do anything for me, yet I kept her at arms length with my feelings. She supported me through everything, and not only that but she also enabled me when I need enabling, boosted my confidence when I wondered if I could do it, and pushed me towards my dreams and furthered me as a person. And what I saw was I was about to lose it. And what I discovered was that I would be very hurt. Because what I saw was love: my love for her. And if I ignored it, I would lose out.
Amid the tears and flowing emotions, out popped a smile, then another, and before long, it hit me like sudden gust at my back that shot me along 5 mph faster. I had to marry this girl. And the smile was because I knew exactly how I would propose. It all was just too fitting. I would bridge me accomplishing a childhood dream with her amazing support and ability to get me to see the light, to be a better person, and to decide, once and for all, to let myself love.
114 miles by bike in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania was a turning point. It was the day I discovered that what I had been seeking for so long was right before me, there for the taking, and it showed me that I was about to lose it if I didn’t grow up. It was a long ride. But I grew up that day. I grew up. And I found love. It was too obvious. And now I could see it.