Hammered into an Ironman

I’m not interested in your job, your income, or your words. I want to know if you can set a goal that scares you into nausea when you commit. And I want to know if you are ready to begin.

Here was mine —  and you’re encouraged to plagiarize this goal: swim 3.8 kilometres, bike 180km, then run 42.2km. Fast. That was my goal, and I did it.  It is the Ironman Triathlon, and I would rather finish another one than win a million dollars in the lottery.

I don’t buy excuses. It’s easy to scour your life for reasons not to be your absolute best possible self. And it’s not hard. Law school comes with its own built-in excuses: you’re excelling just by being there, you want awesome marks to get the job you want, the workload is hell.

I know the workload is hell. I too have survived those hundreds of hours in the library during exam time, emerging afterwards with mole-pink skin that starts smoking when sunlight hits it. Law school is mind-bendingly stressful.  No one will think you’re a silly monkey if you slack in some life areas. So OK. Sure. But that’s not good enough. 

In July 2008, my fellow law student (at the University of Ottawa), and future best man, Ernesto Caceres and I made a pact to:

and irretrievably
and for once
and for all
and forever
and for good
fight the drifting
that we see every day

Our pact was in the form of registering for Ironman Lake Placid together.

We trained for a year. We didn’t go too nuts, but we did go nuts. We trained about 15 hours a week. Getting up early, often under the weather from the law school pub night/pub crawl/Saturday. Cycling on a spinning bike for hours before our usual wake-up time.

In one word: suffering.

Then race day came. Have you ever had a day besides getting married or having kids where every moment meant something to you? We have. And it took everything to get through it. To really experience it, you have to do it. So I can’t tell you much, but I’ll try anyway:

Ernesto and I are standing side by side in the water waiting to start. This is the beginning of emptying everyone’s fuel tank. Although there are over 2,000 athletes, there is almost silence. After all, what is left to be said? There is only doing left. You know that what happens out there will define who you are. An irresistible allure brings you to this moment. Then the cannon fires.

The swim is organized chaos. The bike is a sword fight between your legs and your heart. The run is spent trying to catch your soul because it’s trying to escape from your body. The course is where regular people are hammered into Ironmen.

Even if you’ve done one before, you’re unaware of what scraping the bottom of your soul is going to feel like that day. Then suddenly — you are very aware. You don’t have the energy to swear. You don’t even have the energy to tell yourself to continue. All thought only generates 1,000 reasons to stop. But one reason to continue. Then you finish, and learn a whole lot about life.

The magic of Ironman starts at the finish. The finisher’s chute is a transcendent place where people convert tragedy into tears of joy. My finishing moment told me that David Samuel can train for an Ironman during law school and still get the job he truly desired (with a best friend). But when someone with no legs finishes, it means anyone can do anything.

It’s so rare to see someone’s expression during one of the best moments of his or her life. But at the finish line, it happens every minute. Athletes keep finishing, and dreams keep coming true. You see in their face what they had to sacrifice to get there, and what it meant to them.

I used to be the fat kid. Sometimes, I find motivation in someone telling me “you can’t,” and me saying “I can.” I am no longer the fat kid. And no one tells me I can’t. Those last few kilometres are an intense personal experience. When it’s over, you feel like a different person. And in one day, you’ve become one.

David Samuel is completing his third year at the University of Saskatchewan while training to qualify for the Ironman World Championships.

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