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Ironman, the Melodrama: A Diabetic Brother, Oprah Winfrey, a Herniated Disc & an Ironman Challenge

johnnyChen's picture
A few distant friends asked why I quit inline racing. To make a short story long, below is the answer.

Ironman the Journey

I looked at the freshly opened gel pack: is it gonna make me puke or save me from meltdown? My lower back ached at mile 7. 19.2 miles go to. This Ironman thing was hard.

"Midlife Crisis. I can't afford a Porsche."

"Lost a bet."

"Can't find Tour de France on active.com."

I have stock answers to my motivation because I don't know how to describe the reason in under 14 seconds.

In 2000 my brother lost 16% of his body weight in a month. Untreated diabetes can be aggressive. Words like nephropathy were no longer just medical terms to us. ChihYang's weight stabilized weeks after the first correct diagnosis, and the body betrayed at a slower pace. He started running. Exercise and proper diet were 2 of the few things within his control. Muscle cramps made sleeping through the night a rare treat. He increased his running distances. The infant daughter was counting on him.

I told my only brother to build up endurance so we could do Ironman. I didn't think it through; it just seemed like the right thing to say at the time. I was ignorant of triathlon but remembered the Julie Moss 1982 TV clip. I spent the next few days wishing the Ironman promise away.

 

2003: Endurance

A2A inline skate was my "A" event of the year. For the first time in my life I settled into a regular routine and happily caved to the team pressure and attended every practice. Skating was the centerpiece of my days. 78-mile hill skating with a team was a highlight of my life. We crossed the finish line hand in hand after a tough day in Georgian hills.

I wanted to race as a pro master in a couple of years. I'd retire from Cat-1 racing around 2015 and learn to swim and run during end of my inline career. I'd participate in Ironman around the year ChihYang turn 50.

ChihYang reported his running milestones: 5k, 10k, half, marathon. He gained enough weight that he looked like those Kenyan runners in event photos. I was so proud. I planned to run my first marathon around 2013, maybe.

 

2004: Yoga as a Competitive Sport

I was prone to lower back spasm due to a spine injury that happened while preparing for the 1990 Maryland 9-ball Open. I assumed yoga would help. 5 days into 2004, I herniated a disc attempting a pose in the cold studio. Instead of training to race A2A, I spent 6 months avoiding the knife. The road to pro racing ended here.

I sought various treatments, some less painful than others. I started limping in May. I lost control over my life when I couldn't sleep for more than 2 hrs. Confidence was the next thing to go. I went to work at 5am for not knowing what else to do. I was convinced I'd lose my job every time I met with customers. I finally went against the therapists' advice and started interviewing surgeons.

I was overwhelmed by all the tests and paper work. "I just want my life back" I wanted to scream.

I limped badly by this time. I had vague recollections of racing up hills a lifetime ago. Lying on the cold operating table, I dreaded qualifying for the good parking spaces. The surgery went as the surgeon predicted, including not fully regaining ankle strength. I was touched by teammates' and friends' support during recovery. Most of them avoided asking whether I could return to the sport. My teammate Chris won the race I wanted that year; I congratulated him but didn't know how to feel.

After 3-months post-op, the surgeon told me I could go back to all the activities slowly, except running.

"But I promised to do Ironman." I protested like a child.

Dr. Peloza explained the possibility of re-injury and that I'd be a good candidate for the artificial disc soon to be approved by the FDA. "It wouldn't be end of the world, but we advise our patients not to run."

I caught Ironman (IM) Kona on TV while riding on the bike trainer. Between Bowflex and "Fear Factor" commercials, Sarah Reinertsen calmly talked about the amputation but lost her cool when recalling exclusion from neighborhood soccer games. I watched her struggle on bike missing a knee. She missed the cutoff. I cried with her.

ChihYang added bike and swim to his routine.

 

2005: Developed Strong Feelings Toward Stem Cell Research

After 6-months post op, I oscillated between celebration for the freedom to sleep and self-pity from lost opportunities. I decided I would go back to inline racing when my calf regained its size. Lance Armstrong beat cancer; I could overcome a stupid weak joint. I kept crashing. The therapist told me wrist surgery would be a certainty if I couldn't avoid falling.

The neurologist stuck tiny needles into my calf and pointed to the monitor on the other end of the wire. He proudly diagnosed, "Ah, here's the problem. You see, it's not firing right...."

"What can I do about it?"

He hesitated, "Some people find it helpful to take vitamin B-12"

"How much would that help?"

He decided to be blunt and told me my ankle was likely a lost cause. Speed skating was not a high priority when evolution designed the fault-tolerant system. After co-pay, I noticed the habitual lift on the left shoe to mask limping. I looked at the blue parking space and practiced the it-could-be-worse comforting method; I thought of Christopher Reeve.

ChihYang hated his diet, blood tests, and insulin shots. One day we talked about the time he competed in a noodle-eating contest. He encouraged me to eat whatever I wanted because I had the gift of being non-diabetic.

I watched 2005 IM Kona and saw an elated Sarah finished the 112-mile bike with time to spare. She put on the thing that didn't resemble a foot and bounced off like a happy bird. I wanted to marry her.

I went to the last skate race of the season to play domestique and crashed at the finish line.

ChihYang ran his first 100k. An MD volunteer followed him with a blood glucose meter and poked a new hole on the finger every 15k. I wanted to kiss the doctor's feet.

 

2006: Triathlon

Biff from the Texas Flyers called on a Wednesday in May.

"Johnny, Tanisha got a comp spot for the Sunday triathlon, you up to it?"

"I can't swim."

"Neither can I, but it's only 400 meters."

Living in a country where 9 mm bullet was the only common reference to metric system, I had no clear concept of 400-meter swim, but it would be a cool story if it involved a Baywatch-style rescue.

"Sure, what the hell."

I struggled through the swim using breaststrokes, dog paddle-like. I proudly passed 72-year-old Wilson Cozby who didn't look a day over 60. I counted 11 bikes at Transition 1 (T1) and decided I'd pass 100 bikes in 10 minutes. I went all out, oblivious to the uneven downtown pavement. I hit a pothole while gulping Cytomax and landed on my head and shoulders. The helmet made a cool sound against pavement.

"Doo doo, I broke my collar bone."

"Yes, it ain't broken."

"Good thing I'm wearing the old Pneumo, not the shiny Atmos!"

I got back on bike and marveled at my arrogance and cheapness. I tried to get the bloody side into the frame when I saw the event photographer. I finished the race and celebrated having 2 unbroken clavicles.

ChihYang, who medaled in collegiate breaststroke events, hired a coach to learn freestyle. Months later, he declared his breaststroke was still faster.

After weeks of treatments on my wrist, spine, and ankle, I asked my 3rd highly recommended therapist when to expect measurable improvements. She said bunch words reminiscent of Thighmaster infomercial but didn't offer money back guarantee. I gave up when the insurance ran out. After decades of practice, I would never swing nunchucks again. No more Wing Chun. No more axe kick. Life was about limitations and acceptance. Good thing Riverdancing wasn't part of my career plan.

Biff called,

"Johnny, I'm marrying Tanisha and need to be an Ironman, you up to it?"

"I can't swim."

"Neither can I, but it's only 2.4 miles."

"Sure, what the hell."

Actually, I don't remember how Biff talked me into bringing forward my IM date. Or was it Tanisha who convinced me by her 2007 Ironman Coeur d’Alene plan:

"Aren't you pregnant?"

She conjectured 3 months was sufficient between C-section and the 140.6-mile event.

ChihYang completed Ironman Kenting in Taiwan. I was proud and envious. I started my IM prep in October: swim lesson, 24-Hour Fitness membership and White Rock Marathon registration.

"9 months is plenty of time to train," Biff assured me.

 

Swim Lesson

By far my most received advice on swimming was "relax, you'll float."

I initially didn't understand how muscle contraction would change body density but concluded it's possible that relaxation could induce gas hence increase volume and lower overall density therefore promote buoyancy. I never mastered the Taco Bell technique.

In the class I followed the front crawl instruction and ended up ingesting a large quantity of chlorinated water. I felt like the synchronized swimmer Martin Short played in Saturday Night Live.

The instructor got tired of my whining:

"Here, hold your body like this, keep your face up, breath normally," he demonstrated, not looking relaxed.

I copied his posture and sank like a rock.

"Wow, you really don't float."

Why didn't we do this test 5 gallons ago?

"What you really need is boobs" a classmate commented helpfully.

I settled on an asymmetric freestyle. I also learned a less laughable version of breaststroke and managed to swim a whole mile by end of 2006. Bilateral breathing and floating eventually came with a wetsuit.

 

White Rock Marathon, December 2006

Armstrong's New York Marathon story inspired me to train minimally. It's important to stay injury free. ChihYang recommended not running the whole 42 k. I figured 6-hour was a good target. I just needed to be convinced that the spine could take the pounding.

I enlisted another marathon virgin, Mark, to run the Rock together. A few weeks before the event, we learned Oprah ran a 4.5-hour marathon. Our friend Karla thought Oprah was the most perfect human in history, but Mark and I no longer considered it cool to go slower than 4:29:20.

The anticipation at the start line was awesome. Everyone wanted to take off on this 40-degree day. I was pumped and briefly considered sprinting off the line to get on TV. People cheered along the way. "Johnny Be Good," cheered a stranger waving a Mexican flag who had gotten my name off the race number. I felt like a celebrity. I ran with the 3:40 pace balloon at mile 15. I felt relaxed and comfortable. This running thing was easy.

I stopped briefly for a Tanisha hug at the Clif tent at mile 19, adjacent to the well-advertised Hooter Zone. Then I hit the legendary wall.

"Marathon is 20 miles of hope and 6 miles of reality." The GPS swung wildly between 9 and 16 minute-mile. I saw the same Mexican flag guy, "Johnny don't quit." Even he knew I was in trouble. I managed to finish in 4 hours. Mark was also able to check "beat a talk show host's marathon time" off his list.

Thank you, Oprah.

I found numerous detailed triathlon training schedules. I opted for a simple and ad-hoc heuristic: swim 3 times a week, run at least once, and bike when I get the chance. Biff advised, "don't train other people's training." The goal was to finish. No need to complicate things.

 

Half Iron, April 2007

My goals for the half distance event were making the swim cutoff and gauging amount of fuel my body could take. I optimistically assumed everything else would fall into place.

It was a cold and windy morning. I took a few strokes at my first open water swim, looked up, and saw I was 30 degrees off the line. I freaked out. Everything was foreign: cold water, constricting outfit, choppy waves. The HRM wouldn't stop beeping. I tried to peek ahead between strokes like on instructional DVD and tasted the canal water. 1 minute after the gun, I thought of abandoning the event. Then I realized the new wetsuit was doing its job. I breaststroked the rest of the way and had my fastest 1.2-mile swim. It felt like I got away with something.

I took my time at T1. I wanted to celebrate surviving the swim and was looking for a football to spike against the ground. I ate and drank and took pictures for and with the spectators.

I followed Biff's advice of taking it easy on the bike and caught Biff with 4 miles to go on the run. He went too hard on bike. Biff and I discussed nutrition and training and completed the half-distance event together on this beautiful windy day.

I was hungry after the 7-hour race. I ate a tofu pot at 3pm, 7 lbs. of crawfish, then a full vegi rice dinner. The HRM said I burned 4555 cal, which is consistent with the estimate that IM takes about 10000 cal. Kobayashi ate 53.75 hotdogs; I should have no problem with 100 gels.

I felt good about my chance for the full distance as long as I didn't find out Oprah Ironman'd in 13 hours. Karla approved that Oprah influenced my life.

I debated whether to hire a swim coach.

"Don't worry about your swim skill. It's too late." ChihYang told me. He was particularly unimpressed with my 14:33 T1.

Biff and Tanisha made me practice open water swimming and introduced me to Aqua Sphere; I learned swimming was even more possible when I could see. The couple showed me bike course photos and altitude maps 4 weeks before CDA. I panicked. I took the bike out of the house only twice in 2007. I swapped in a 27t cassette and shopped for wheels that were more technically advanced than stealth bombers and cost nearly as much. I peeled off jetstream's sticker to save weight and pondered over scientific questions:

  • How many grams would shaving save?
  • Do I really need both eyebrows?
  • Are there rules against riding naked?

 

Iron Man Coeur d'Alene (IMCDA), June 24, 2007

Swim

Contrary to common sense, the sky seemed bigger from Coeur d'Alene Lake.

The weather was less than ideal, and the organizer offered athletes a way out: skip the swim and do an official duathlon. Biff and I stood at the back amongst other aqua-challenged triathletes like a bunch hesitant emperor penguins. No one wanted the Iron Chicken option. Short of an Australian shark or toothpick fish, I was going in. I felt tremors of foreboding. I was so not ready for this.

The cannon blasted. Thousands of arms and legs propelled. I stayed at the edge of the madness consuming gallons of 52-degree water, unable to time the waves.

Life was all roses when I was entering T1 with 13 minutes to spare. The challenge was half over! The shiver started after the wetsuit came off. The volunteers urged me into the hot tub. I sat helplessly waiting for feelings to return and wondered what ChihYang would say about another double-digit T1 time.

Bike

This was a gorgeous Idaho day. I pedaled with 2100 of my best friends supported by 3500 volunteers. I held my heart rate steady. Gotta save it for the run.

Much of the 112-mile ride was mind and cheek numbing: no teammate to lean on; no wheel to suck. My feet were locked into 19.7-lbs. of mechanical contraption rolling on the endless pavement; the pavement didn't care what my story was.

I carelessly tried to rectify a damaged bottle cage and ended up crashing at mile 20. I got off with a scraped elbow, a giant headache, a ripped jersey, damaged shifters, and an impacted helmet. The Ironman bills continued to mount.

The 2nd loop: Microhammering was allowed. I lost control and went up the first hills like a madman. The quads turned rubbery. I was paying for the training decision made 7 months ago. I shifted to granny gear and resumed the low heart rate cruise.

I saw athletes walking their bikes, not giving up. I felt their determination. The artificial limbs on the course were even more humbling.

A wave of relief swept over me at the dismount line. No more mechanical concerns, no more postage-stamp sized seats, no more crashes. A shower and pizza were only a marathon away.

Run

I walked the first section of course while going through the feedbag: exotic carbs and acids consisted of a bunch of syllables I couldn't pronounce. Real athletes have no simple all-in-1 solutions like Beefcake 2000.

I struggled to hold 12:30 pace. A real runner sleepwalked at this speed. Why couldn't triathlon consist of 3 sports I were good at like skating, pool, and whining?

My running legs returned by mile 2. I fantasized about a comfortable marathon. The bubble was burst at mile 6. Hunger set in. An empty feeling crept throughout my veins. I craved a 72 oz. porterhouse and an Idaho potato with butter and extra bacon. Mostly I wanted to stop. The air temperature dropped with the sun. I tried moving faster to generate body heat. My legs didn't want to go at all. I visualized the pizza at the finish line, which felt further away as I passed each mile marker.

The roadside was littered with runners bending their limbs to work out cramps. A few bent over unable to hold fuel.

"Johnny, you look great!" The couple I met at the 4th Street pho restaurant shouted from the sideline. "I feel great!" I shouted back. I didn't feel great and didn't know how much longer I could keep this up. The wife climbed over the concrete barrier and gave me a big hug. "You'll make it." They could always tell when I lied.

Like a faithful friend, the wall waited for me at mile 18. The 90-90 rule: "first 90% of the distance takes 90% of effort; the next 9% distance requires another 90%." Would this day ever end? The 17-hour deadline now seemed merciful. It was disheartening seeing all the people wrapped in silver blankets reduced to a painful walk. I was on the verge of joining them. I reminded myself how insignificant my obstacles were compared to what Team Hoyt overcame.

Mile 23. Every muscle contraction was a miracle. Spectators shouted encouraging words; I fed off their good will. I found freedom at the edge of cracking. My past and future no longer mattered. My life was about getting to the next mile marker. All over my body, I felt alive.

Did I feel alive despite of or because of pain? But it ain't about pain. The spectators didn't know who I was, but perhaps sensed each of the suffering fools dedicated his body to pursue a promise and a dream.

I thought about ChihYang as a patient, a father, an ultra runner, and an Ironman. I knew he would stay strong for his family: diet, run, dialysis, whatever it takes. I wished my big brother were next to me to share some of his courage.

I heard the crowd roar. I sensed my shoes moving. I saw the finish, the line with mythical power to inspire.

I didn't want to cross.

Comments

eebee's picture

The Most Encouraging Thing...

Hey Johnny - Thanks for posting this! I know I'm probably missing the point again, but most touching and encouraging to me are all the times YOU fell and injured yourself, and got back up again. I also thought they were funny (sorry). A compelling read!  

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