July 30, 2016
I had only slept an hour and a half. It turned out that the final lesson the Ironman had in store for me remained for the night before the race. My own destructive thoughts kept me awake. “You are still afraid of the water! What will happen to you in a 100-feet deep lake with 700 real athletes kicking you around?” There were moments when I found myself out of my body, watching my own struggle; I was the main actor in my own drama, fully identifying with the role. “I have to complete the race within 12 hours. With this much preparation, that is the minimum. At least that’s what they are all saying; that is what I have been told. I am sure my teammates will all do it…but what about me?”
A vivid flashback from my childhood included the careless words of my mother. “If you quit karate, you’ll amount to nothing and simply become a small-time nerd lawyer.” I did quit karate when I was 13. Now, 21 years later, only a few hours stand between me and the start of an Ironman. “Am I doing this to prove something? If so, to whom, and why?”
My heart was thumping so hard that any chance of sleep was completely gone. My nervousness subsided for short periods of time when I realized that I did not have to compare myself to anyone, and it did not matter what the others were going to do. I only needed to focus on myself. Based on my preparation, there was no question that I could complete the race. Despite a few moments of calm, my time goal and the continuous comparison of my performance with that of others kept an overwhelming pressure hovering over me.
Since my half Ironman race, I have put in eight and a half months of systematically planned preparation and managed to put roughly 500 training hours under my belt. The work has been done. I am good enough to complete an Ironman. “But when will I be good enough for myself? When will I allow myself to enjoy what I have been working for?” Everything is decided in one’s head and I still have a few hours to get things straight upstairs.
And then – just like the bell that saves the boxer after a round more difficult than planned – my 4 a.m. alarm signaled that the lesson was over, the teaching had been done, and it was solely up to me to make use of the realizations learned during the night. The alarm also signaled the beginning of a brand-new act; the actor in the main role had a job to do since the Ironman was not going to complete itself.
I didn’t even know what an Ironman was when I decided I must become one. The ever-so-knowledgeable Google shed light on its definition and made it clear that in order to earn such a title I needed to complete a triathlon. At the time, I could barely swim, I had last sat on a bike when I was in my teens, and as for running… well, actually, I could run pretty well – for the better part of about half an hour. But it was too late to ponder all that now. I was saved by the “bell.” I realized that it saved me from my own thoughts, but who would save me in a few hours’ time when it would all be over and it would be declared, “Dávid Sólyomi, you are an Ironman”? And make no mistake, it would be declared, that is for sure. I have no plan B. I never have had one and all I’ve ever achieved has been approached that way. When it’s all over, I will have a whole lot of time on my hands to face all the things I’ve learned instead of hiding from them behind the challenge ahead.
For now, though, I have to put all that aside and come back to it later. The longest day has arrived and I have a job to do.
The Buried Manuscript
The preparation for my very first Ironman did not start at a level ground zero. Both mentally and physically, I started from a point lower than that. Professional athletes keep a training log. I, on the other hand, kept a record of my thoughts through my years of preparation. I had no idea whether I was going to actually reach my goal – the red carpet of the Ironman – which, at the time, seemed totally unattainable for me. In spite of that, I still felt a very strong urge, time and again, to write about the things I came to realize during my practice sessions, or in any other extreme situation I stumbled upon on the road – and let me tell you, as you will soon find out, extreme or even comic situations were not sparse on this journey.
Following the completion of my first Ironman, this diary-like manuscript laid untouched for two years as I was unsure whether I should turn it into a book. The shift in my indecision came one evening at a friendly get together where a girl I trained with in our triathlon club spoke to me about such profound feelings connected to her Ironman dream, a dream she has not yet realized, that it got me thinking: perhaps what I had to say about my own journey might speak to her as well. I put off sending her the manuscript for weeks because I clearly remembered, even though two years had passed, that my writing was not even close to a collection of various pieces of professional advice written to help a first-timer attempting the Ironman. Rather, it was about an emotional journey of an ordinary human being, including some details which, in hindsight, I must say I was not really proud of. Eventually, I did hit the send button. Reni gave me the final push to make the manuscript into a book because, as she later explained, she got so immersed in it at times that she occasionally got lost in Budapest on the public transport while reading it. When she told me that my lines often brought tears to her eyes, and in the next moment some of my stories also made her laugh, I decided that if others could get a fraction of what my hidden pages had given her, I would gladly disclose them to the public.
What you are holding in your hands is by no means an Ironman training handbook. It has not even been written by a professional triathlete. I have completed only two long-distance triathlons so far; the first one in 11 hours and 33 minutes and the second one in 10 hours and 49 minutes. Neither of these times would make me competitive in the professional field nor do they empower me to give expert advice in triathlon training. I am not knowledgeable in this field which is why I asked for professional help in the later part of my preparation. (Had I gone to someone for help earlier, my book would be short a good number of comic stories.) You will not read about the optimal pedal cadence nor will you receive information about the ideal nutritional plan in the pages to follow. Nevertheless, I am willing to risk that, regardless of what you may expect, you are in for a surprise. The Ironman preparation gives the skeleton of the story and I did my best, wherever possible, to detail the discoveries and thoughts that emerged during my journey of self-discovery.
You may see this adventure of self-discovery wrapped in a sport costume as an entertaining read, but if you are brave enough to dig deeper, you could find numerous personally relevant and sometimes quite uncomfortable questions on the pages to follow. In the right hands, this book can become a harsh but honest mirror, and I am certain that looking into that mirror is immeasurably harder than participating in any Ironman race. Or perhaps that is the very thing that makes the Ironman so difficult (for a hobbyist like myself): before crossing the finish line, first you must face yourself.
Ádám Diószegi, a yoga instructor, said, “The best way to decide whether a man has truly looked inside himself about a given situation is to see if he eventually discovers something he is not quite happy about.” I have discovered much as I have walked the path lain down by the Ironman, and since I did not flee from the challenges, all aspects of my life have changed. What you gain from the pages which follow is entirely up to you.