The Butterfly Effect

It’s hard to believe that it was just over a week ago that I showed up for my Ironman with no place to stay, no wet suit, no experience and almost no money.   Save some slight soreness in my Achilles tendons and the remnants of my bike accident, there seems to be little physical evidence that the Ironman ever took place. Even the memory of it seems faint.  Still, I remember very vividly the Friday before the race.  After I’d stuffed my face at the Spaghetti dinner, it should have been time for bed.  Unfortunately, my only shelter for that rainy and windy night was my tent (actually the tent wasn’t mine …. I really should never use the word “mine”). So instead of heading to bed like a reasonable competitor, I headed off to the bar.

I chose the 3 Mariners, a bar that, in truth, I had never given a penny to, but that had already given me food, drink, internet and a place to keep my bike.  It was karaoke night and two singers dominated the stage.  One was an elderly man missing most of his teeth and wearing thick glasses that made his eyes too large for his head.  He was like a Simpson’s character come to life and enthusiastically provided one of the most entertaining karaoke performances I’d ever seen.  The other singer was the type that makes no one else want to sing: beautiful and with and excess of musical talent.  As it turned out she was part of a group that made up most of the audience, an extended family that was celebrating an upcoming marriage.

As few of the other 1,300 competitors in town thought drinking before one of the world’s most challenging races was a good idea, I had little competition for the attention of local people interested in the crazy athletes who had invaded their small town.  I soon found myself enjoying talking to the aunt of the talented Karaoke singer and it wasn’t long after that the matter of my accommodations came up.

“A tent?” I’d heard shock in people’s voices so often by this point that it seemed normal.

“It’s not bad.  I’m used to worse actually.”

“Yeah, but you have an Ironman on Sunday.  You have to sleep well,” she argued.

“Well, I have rather limited options at this point, but really, it won’t be a problem.”

She would have none of it, and neither would the rest of her family.  Soon, three sisters were engaged in a debate as to who would have the dubious honor of being my host for the weekend.  The sister that won turned out to be the mother of the singer and happened to live right in town.  In the end, it was better than perfect.  Not only did I have a great place to sleep, I was fed, babied and fussed over.  It was like I had been adopted.  The result was a well-rested, well-fed and very happy me that still only just barely finished the race.

This past week, I’ve received an amazing amount of support and positive feedback. More importantly, I’ve received numerous messages from people who said I had inspired them to try and finish their own race, but it wasn’t only me.  I did a little math and if I had been even .8% slower on my bike I wouldn’t have finished.  Meaning that if I hadn’t been fed so well or slept so well, anything really, I wouldn’t have finished.  If that one wonderful family hadn’t helped a complete stranger, I wouldn’t have finished.  There’s no need to stop there either.  I didn’t realize at the time, but when I got back to New York I didn’t even have enough money for subway fare.  .8% and 0$, it doesn’t get much clearer. If any of the countless people who gave me their time, money or encouragement hadn’t been there, it would have been game over.

They say that stepping on a butterfly in New York and change the weather in Hong Kong just days later.  Be that as it may, we rarely have the opportunity to trace the impact of our actions beyond a day or two.  The slim margin by which I succeeded in my race gives us a rare opportunity to see just how big a difference our actions can make.  I’m sure finishing an Ironman will continue to change my life and hopefully the experience will continue to inspire others as well.  Even so, thank you all again for the amazing support you have given me.  Small or large, your actions have changed the world.

Wales, the beautfy of nature was matched by the beauty of its people.

Categories: Ironman, Journeys, Words | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments


Prior to my Ironman, I had never run a marathon.  Actually, I’d never run in a race of any kind, no triathlons, half-marathons, not even a 5k.  Yet as I hopped off my bike, a strange confidence filled me.  I had come this far. I would see this to the end.

In the transition tent I slipped into my running shoes and started stuffing my face with gummy bear.  Unlike my first transition, there were a number of people in the area this time.  That worked out particularly well since I was as unprepared as ever and needed something to prevent chaffing.  The guy next to me had what I needed and I was ready to go.  I asked if he was ready too, but he didn’t feel well.

“Come on, you can do it.”

“I don’t know, my body’s given out on me.” He was clearly in pain, but self-inflicted torture tends to have that effect on one’s body.

“You have six and a half hours.  You can walk if you have to.”

“I don’t think I can.”

I didn’t have time to argue, so I left him with a few more words of encouragement and went to grab my jacket.  I couldn’t imagine stopping after having come so far. It saddened me to think of anyone not making it, but it must have been more common than I thought, because as I grabbed my jacket one of the workers asked if I was going back out. “Of course I am.   I don’t know how to quit.”

A beautiful shot of the beautiful support staff (photo by Alistair Mackay)

The run was four laps along a very hilly course that passed through town.  While the hills were a challenge, the laps were perfect.  I’d been alone almost the whole day.  Now, I was surrounded by racers and supporters.  Even though my legs felt like soggy spaghetti, I felt strengthened by the support of the people around me.  At first I could only jog for a moment and then walk, but I passed person after person who helped me.  I passed the family I was staying with, who had all come out and waited patiently, hoping I was still in the race.  I passed the bike store owner who remembered my singularly unimpressive bike.  I passed person after person I had met on the street or in a bar, and to my amazement, they all remembered me and cheered me on.  I was even cheered by some of the race workers who remembered me from the mornings swim.

It made all the difference.  I had walked half of the first lap, by the second I was jogging, by the third I could even run.  I had no watch, so I was worried about another close finish.  After a little more than two laps another runner gave me the time.  It was 8:20.  I was shocked.  I’d run more than half the marathon in two and a half hours. It’s not an impressive speed, but it was just as fast as I ran in practice, rested.   It wasn’t going to be close.  I was going to finish.

I ran a while longer and the rain started coming down hard.  The winds picked up and the sun had long set.  Most people still on the course had slowed to a jog or a walk.  I was too happy to keep to myself and began talking to a woman who had been at my pace for some time.  She was running each lap dedicated to a member of her family.  I wasn’t the only who’d gotten their strength from others.  We slowed to a walk, knowing the time no longer mattered and enjoyed the anticipation of finishing.

My adopted family was waiting for me at the finish line.  It seemed the perfect end to the perfect day.  I had made it.  I was an Ironman.   If I’d had the strength I might have cried, but as it was I could only smile.  As we talked, someone called out to me.

“Hey! Hey!  Look I finished!”  At first I didn’t know who it was, but then it came to me.  It was the man from the transition tent.  “I wasn’t going to go back out, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what you told me.  I didn’t think I could do it, but I finished because of you.”

Mission accomplished.  Dream realized.

“When I cross that finish line, my hope is that people will change their minds about the impossible, that at least one other person will stop believing in it.  That one person will be bold enough to venture out and find what I found: that anyone who pushes through the shadow of learned limitations and impossibility will find the darkness doesn’t end with a towering wall or an insurmountable obstacle, rather they will find a world of great possibility, one full of hope, dreams and opportunity.” 

 My own goal as stated in Impossibility.

Categories: General, Ironman | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments


Biking was the one area of the race where I felt some confidence.  Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on biking with tired legs after drinking two liters of sea water.  I was sick and tired and had eight hours to cover 112 miles (180km) of extremely hilly ground on a very windy day. Before I could even begin to worry about that, I had to get my bike from the transition area, which was about 1km away from the beach. The only problem was that I had no spare running shoes so I had to run barefoot.  It could have been difficult, but I was far too excited to have finished the swim to notice.  In fact, I felt exhilarated as the crowd continued to cheer as the commentator talked about me and my bare feet.

In the changing area a wonderful women who’d given me a ride in her caravan earlier in the week was there to help me with the transition.  I truly felt surrounded by friends, old ones in my heart, new ones beside me and future ones among the crowds.  I wrestled my way out of my wet suit and slipped into my casual bike shorts, the only ones I had.  As I biked out, I could hear the commentator again, “He’s wearing baggies!”  The crowd cheered, I waved and the crowd cheered some more.  Then I was off.

You know it's not me because there's more than one bike in the picture. (Photo by Bymez )

If there is one advantage of being in dead last place out of 1,200 people, it’s that no one can pass you, but you can pass them.  Still, I was far behind and passing anyone was going to take some time. Most people had beaten me out of the water by at least 30 minutes, which is quite a head start.  It took me almost an hour to catch another racer, but as time went by I began to catch more.  My stomach hurt and my mouth was dry from the sea water, but my spirits were high.  I tried to conserve strength in my legs for the marathon, and focused on drinking fluids to flush out the salt.  Hours came and went and one by one I continued to catch other racers.  Even so, at the six hour mark in I realized I was barely on schedule to make the cut off.  Even worse, I’d failed to take into account that the last part of the course was the hardest with numerous steep climbs.  I needed to hurry.

With about an hour to go I knew it would come down to the wire.  The rain had started falling and seven hours, even at a moderate pace, is tiring.  I needed to go faster not slower or I wasn’t going to make it.  As I pushed on, I tried to guess how many miles remained and what my speed was.  Calculations and estimates were spinning in my head, but what I should have been thinking of was how wet the road had become.  When I turned a sharp corner with 30 minutes to go I felt the tires slip out from underneath me.  Gravity took it from there and I skipped across the wet road like a rock across still water.

Race marshals had been posted at all the corners.  The two at this corner had taken shelter from the rain in a van, but came running out as soon as they saw me fall. Like someone who’s just woken from a bad dream, I was dazed and confused. They asked me if I needed an ambulance, there was only one thing I needed.

“How far?”


“How far to Tenby?”

“About five miles.”

Could I bike five miles hurt, tired and on a damaged bike in 30 minutes?  The support and faith people had shown in me raced through my mind again, excuses didn’t matter.  It wasn’t a matter of being able to, I had to. “I can make it. There’s time.” I got back on my bike.  The front wheel was bent and I was bleeding, but those were concerns for another time.  I had people counting on me.

I pedaled as hard as I could and soon found myself at the beginning of the hills.  The crowds by the road, which had been amazing the whole day, had grown intense with the knowledge that the cutoff was approaching.  At one point, a man yelled out encouragement and counted down the meters to the top of the hill.  My legs were on fire, but his voice burned in my ears.  I kept pushing.  The crowds seemed uncertain about the time, but still I pushed. The town and finally the finish came into site, but the crowds had moved to the running course.  Was I too late?

I don’t remember much from the last 500 meters, but as a I pulled into the transition area I must have looked like a lost lamb, because a race marshal read my race.  “You made it,” he said.  “Only four minutes to spare, but you made it!”

I don't like photos of myself, but this is a special occasion. Plus you had to see the "baggies" 😉

Categories: General, Ironman | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments


I know I’m not a very good swimmer, but it wasn’t until the start of the Ironman at 7am Sunday morning that I found out just how truly awful I am.  Actually, for the first two or three minutes things seemed to go ok, but then I caught a hard kick to the face from another swimmer.  It not only hurt, but alerted me to my situation.  I was slow and falling behind.  Soon I noticed something else.  I’m not sure if it was my bloody eye, the large waves or simply my appalling lack of skill, but the one thing that was clear was that I couldn’t swim straight.

Mass swim starts are an Ironman tradition, but something very new to me.

I kept swimming anyway, but no matter what I did I only seemed to fall farther behind, way behind.  After what seemed an eternity, I found myself floating half a kilometer off shore all by myself, like an empty plastic bottle that’s drifted out to see.  I could barely make out the main group in the distance and the buoy that marked the first corner of the first lap hardly seemed to be getting any closer.  It was becoming painfully clear to me that I had no business swimming in a competition like the Ironman.

If you ever compete in an Ironman, countless people will tell you that you’re only doing it for yourself.  If that were true my race would have ended right there.  I wanted to be on dry land, not drifting out to sea.  I knew I was too slow to make the cut off and floundering around in the water for another hour would only make me more miserable. All I had to do was simply put my hands in the air and one of the rescue boats would ferry me to shore. Yet as thoughts like these began to run through my head, I remembered all the support I’d been given, all the people who ran with me and biked with me, all the people who had donated money, time and effort.   I remembered all the emails and messages, and I thought of everyone who would be online waiting to see my progress.  I thought of the wonderful family that had opened their home to me in Wales and that had come to cheer me on.  I thought of the words I’d written on impossibility and I knew I wasn’t doing this for me. There was nothing to do but to keep swimming.

Progress was painfully slow, but eventually I passed one buoy after another.  Eventually, people began to lap me.  Not a great sign on a two lap course, but I was happy for the company and kept going.  After what seemed like an eternity I staggered onto the beach.  The crowd was cheering enthusiastically for people as they finished, but of course, I was only half way done.  Again I had doubts, I knew I could walk off the beach with everyone else and no one in the crowd would know.  The course leading back into the water was already shut and I didn’t want to get back into the water anyway.  I called out for the time and one of the workers responded: it had taken 1:04 to complete my first lap of 1.25 miles (1.9 km).  There was still hope, but only a small one.  Totally rested and swimming with others, I had used almost half of the two hours twenty minutes allowed.  I wanted to stop, but people were counting on me. I asked them to open the gate and let me through.

I really did not want to get back in the water... (phote by Philpp Reiner)

The second lap I was alone from the beginning, except for the occasional lifeguard who thought I must be hurt or drowning and who would offer to pull me out of the water. Never, I would swim until the time was over.  One of the lifeguards must have heard my resolve, because instead of simply offering to take me to shore, he shouted directions at me and told me which way to go. Not only that, but he started to paddle his surfboard alongside me and would call out to me when I strayed too far off course.  As I rounded the first buoy he was still next to me and he pointed to the next.  I asked him if I could make it, and like so many other people before him, he told me I could. I kept swimming.  By now he was telling me how much time I had left.  I was exhausted, but when I’d stop he’d tell me I had to keep going.  I did.  When we rounded the final buoy it was a straight long swim back to the sure.  He pointed and told me I had 20 minutes, but that I could do it in 10.  It took me 12.

There aren’t many moments in life you know you’ll never forget, but coming out of that cold sea was one of them.  Tired and exhausted it took me a moment to realize that there were hundreds of people cheering as I came out of the water.  It took me another moment to remember that I was alone. Those hundreds of people were waiting and cheering just for me.

Categories: General, Ironman | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

$30 and a Dream

For most competitors Ironman Wales will begin at 7am on Sunday the 11th.  For me it began Sunday the 4th when I left Glasgow.  I had a bike, $30 and my gear.  I was up against 400 plus miles, nearly continuous rain and a persistent headwind.   I had no places to stay and no tent.  I didn’t even have a map actually, but when you’ve come this close to catching a dream, obstacles like that are no obstacles at all.

The biking was the simplest and the hardest.  You move your feet in circles and you move forward.  All you have to do is not stop.  Fortunately at this point my legs are pretty strong, unfortunately sitting on a bike seat that long leaves me feeling like a eunuch.  It’s mind numbing as well, especially as I did the ride solo.  The roads I took were heavily trafficked, which would make listening to music akin to Russian roulette.  The result, a lot of time alone with your thoughts in the rain, is as hard on the mind as those persistent circles are on the legs.

I was lucky in regards to shelter.  Between the two endpoints, where I had friends waiting to help, I relied on the kindness of strangers.  Miraculously, I found someone to give me a place to stay every night, even if sometimes it wasn’t until midnight or even 2am.  Still, the amazing hospitality of these kind strangers inspired me, and more often than not even provided me with bodily sustenance.  I was fed pumpkin curry, fresh baked banana bread, crumpets and pancakes.  I even had my lunch packed for me!

One of the lovely places I was lucky enough to call home for a night.

I often had to stop for directions, but some people went so far as to print me maps.  When I needed water, bars always refilled me. Even the infamous Starbucks and McDonalds did their part, providing me with free internet.  Like making a cake from a box mix, just add concentrated power of will.

At least I know it's downhill from here.

My body hurts everywhere, everywhere I can still feel that is, but here I am.  The Ironman is just three days away and the forecast for that day is storms with high winds.  I like a challenge.  It’s possible they’ll cancel it if there’s thunder and lightening.  Even that doesn’t really matter.  There will always be another race to run, another mountain to climb.  In the end, it really is the journey, not the destination.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

T. Roosevelt

Categories: Biking, Ironman, Journeys, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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