In 2012 I completed a Half Iron Man in Florida. It was prevalent by the presence of Lance Armstrong, though I did not bother trying to crowd around him like some of the other athletes. I gave him the same space I offered everyone else while setting up in the transition area.
I had trained for nine months. My twin, an athletic trainer and certified triathlete coach, sent me schedules and called me during the week. She was supposed to complete the race with me but was injured a few weeks before the race. My then fiancé ran with me, but he didn’t own a bike. The few times he joined me in the pool at the gym ended with him getting out sore and frustrated. Triathlons were just not for him. He would continue to train in Kung Fu as an instructor. Which is how we met. I came in to class, shy and uncertain of myself. He had been practicing for years. The rest is history.
It was a big year for me. I was to participate in the hardest race of my life. Then join some coworkers to ride in the MS 150: a charity ride for Multiple Sclerosis divided into a 75-mile bike ride down to a camp, then 75 miles back the next day. Finally, in the fall, I would marry the man who constantly challenged and encouraged me to better myself and overcome obstacles.
The morning of the Half Iron Man I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. My twin cut a banana in half, slathered peanut butter on it, and shoved it in my hand. By the look on her face, she was a muscle twitch away from shoving it into my mouth. “I know you don’t want to,” she said as though I were a child, “but you need to eat something.”
She buzzed around me all morning, running check lists off to ensure I had everything in the transition area, shoving trail mix in my hand, and desperately trying not show how disappointed she was that we couldn’t race together.
She maneuvered me over to a lady with a black sharpie. I knew the drill. This was not my first triathlon. Just my longest distance. 70.3 miles of physical endurance lay before me. The lady checked my number and drew it down my right arm, then bent down to my calf to draw a 27 on it. My age on my left calf. “R” on my right.
The world would later learn this was to be Armstrong’s last race. I was waiting on the sand in my group of pink-capped women when I saw him shoot out of the water and tear towards the transition area. The gap between him and the second person was astounding when you consider the level of athleticism in the professional group. I later heard a rumor that he won the race with a ten-minute lead, but I have never bothered to check. It doesn’t matter to me. His lead doesn’t stick with me with way DNR does.
Swimming is my strongest event. Even though my twin insisted we train in open water when we could, I found myself way off course and nearly panicked myself out of the race. The length, set up in bouys the shape of an M from an areal view of the lake, was supposed to be 1.2 miles. I’m pretty sure I swam almost a mile and a half, but I still managed to find my way back to the transition area to gear up for the 56 miles on the bike.
I did not know Florida had hills.
They weren’t small, either. Okay, so I had only been to Disney World, but this race was right next to Orlando, and I didn’t remember driving over any hills to get there. I had nowhere to train for elevation in Virginia Beach, so it was a shock. I wasn’t biking through Mordor, but part of me understood Frodo’s struggle. The heat was intense.
I steadily rode by athletes who had gone off to the side and were off their bikes. Dejection and anger in their faces. I thanked police officers who stopped traffic. I made myself dig into my pouch and eat small handful of trail mix and the gummy cubes all athletes form an addiction to at one point in their training. I drank and drank and drank water.
“On your left!” he cried. A tall, fit man in black bike shorts and a black sleeveless racing top similar to the cut and material of my own. The back pockets of his top bulged with something. Food perhaps? The jerseys were convenient for storing necessities.
“Keep it up!” he called as he breezed ahead of me.
“Thank you, you too!” I shouted over the wind.
My eyes traveled down to his bike. It’s a marvel at what some athletes do to gain even the smallest advantage. My eyes caught his age on his left calf. 54. I smirked. I was being passed by someone twice my age! But then I saw his right calf. DNR.
Do not resuscitate.
I had seen DNR before on the calves of other athletes in my training races. I knew the reality of racing and pushing your body.
I ran my first half marathon with my now husband and a dear friend. We would later learn that a 22-year-old stumbled into the medical tent after crossing the finish line and dropped dead. I feel certain he would have had R on his calf.
I had never considered the possibility of being the one in medical trouble. I had never really, fully considered making that decision for someone. R? DNR? One simple letter on my calf. Three simple letters on his. A matter of life and death.
This biker was young and obviously fit. He had to possess an above average level of health to perform in this race, and he had already smashed the water and was pounding happily down the road on his bike. With enough energy to bestow good will on those he was leaving behind.
DNR? At 54?
I thought of my twin cheering me on in spirit and waiting by the transition area, so I could draw strength from seeing her. She would not be happy with me if I added two more letters on my calf. I thought of my fiancé waiting at home for me to tell him I crossed the finish line, of all the races and Kung Fu tournaments we still had to do together.
DNR had no future. DNR could not start a family. DNR had no dreams.
Did this man feel as though he had achieved what he wanted? Was this race the last item to cross of his Bucket List? Or did he have more? Who was waiting for him at the finish line with a poster and bottle of water? Did they know about DNR?
I made it to the transition area again to jam my bike up onto the rack, throw off my helmet, and change into my running shoes. Running is my least favorite event, and tired didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I set out for my half marathon to the cries of my twin and the other loved ones who gathered to show their support for the athletes.
Perhaps it was his religion. Religious beliefs can lead us to submit to many things to find peace. Perhaps he was afraid of not fully coming back and living a half-life? Maybe someone was already waiting for him and he was willing to not fight to keep this life.
Crossing the finish line was like its own resuscitation. The rush of relief, euphoria, and pride shot energy into my weary body and I felt so very alive. My twin jumped up and down, cheering, and handed me a cold water bottle. Then, she presented me with my very own black shirt with white numbers proclaiming 70.3.
70.3 miles of asking someone to try to save me if they see I need medical attention.
70.3 miles with a man whose secret I will never know.