I’m writing this on Sunday, a few hours after my friend (and fellow Brooklyn resident) James completed the 2008 New York City Triathlon. The race consisted of a 1.5 kilometer swim (in the Hudson!), a 40 kilometer bike ride around the Upper West Side, and a 10 kilometer run around the loop in Central Park
James’ wife, their families, and their friends joined thousands of spectators in unusually high heat and humidity to cheer him on. We were supporting him for two reasons: first, his amazing transformation. The James I knew from college was a beer-drinking foodie who spent many an afternoon doing nothing more strenuous than reaching for a bag of chips from his perch on the couch. Now he was swimming, biking, and running further and faster than I’ve ever attempted.
The second reason is more complicated. This contest wasn’t just about surprising his friends with his hidden athletic ability.
I have decided to do this triathlon for another reason as well. As many who will end up reading this blog know, in the spring of 2007, my wife’s mother passed away after a long battle with lung cancer. It has left a hole in our collective families that will never be repaired and is, without question, the saddest thing I have ever been through in my entire life. From a personal perspective, going through this process has been incredibly frustrating. There is nothing you can do, nothing to do, except be there. For a person who always wants to be able to “fix it” there is nothing worse than just “being there.”
Towards the end, when she was very sick, my wife and I were at the house and for whatever reason the conversation turned to charitable giving. With what little strength she had, my mother-in-law gave a passionate description of the lack of interest in, and thus lack of financial support for, lung cancer research. I thought, now this is something I can do. I decided that for my wife’s birthday, we would make a donation to lung cancer research in [her mother’s] honor. Sadly, between that conversation and [my wife’s] birthday, her mother passed away. I also came to the realization that I wanted to do more than just make a donation. I wanted to raise awareness, and I wanted to make a LARGE donation. Enter the triathlon….
I am going to be competing in the triathlon to raise money for lung cancer research and awareness….
So this is for me, this is for Ilene, and this is to try to help make it so that others don’t have to suffer the pain and loss that my wife’s family has had to over the last 3 years.
As of last week, James has raised over $6,500 for the Lung Cancer Alliance. The donations made in his name have been so numerous, that the Development Director and other employees of the Lung Cancer Alliance paid him a visit to thank him in person.
So today was race day. James’ parents flew in from Minnesota. His wife made a t-shirt (above; the front reads “Go James Go!”), I made a poster, and there were three sets of buttons with James’ face superimposed over an athlete’s body for us to wear: one for the swim (“Swim James Swim!”), one for the bike ride (“Pedal James Pedal!”), and one for the run (“Run James Run!”).
But things didn’t turn out as well as we’d hoped. James’ wife called me early this morning to tell me that James had been disqualified. He’d panicked, swallowed water, and couldn’t breathe during the swim. He also miscalculated by getting into the water first instead of letting the faster swimmers go ahead of him – so he was literally getting run over by other swimmers. When the medics removed him from the water, that was it. But the loss of an “official” race time didn’t stop him. Once cleared by the medics, James finished the swim and got on his bike.
We stationed ourselves, our posters, and our pins on 72nd Street to catch him during the last leg of the race. His wife spotted James about 100 feet away, and she ran with him for half a block as we cheered and screamed and waved. The second she returned to our group, his wife burst into tears – of happiness, disbelief, grief, amazement.
We chose another spot about 500 feet from the finish line, and even after almost six miles over hills in 90 degree heat, James was still going strong. He finished the triathlon in 3:32:19. In true James fashion, he made sure to hug each and every one of us tight to his extremely sweaty body.
Afterwards, we had a little celebration for him at a local restaurant. James was already talking about next year’s race.