<
>

Jokes help ease the Ironman pain

Editor's note: Robert Alfert, an attorney from Orlando, has been writing a column for ESPN.com on preparing for and racing in the Ironman in Hawaii. This is the fifth and final piece in the series, on what he learned Saturday during one of the toughest races in sports.

In the final half-mile of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, I was greeted as a rock star. Thousands of people lined Ali'i Drive along the bay in Kona, many of them pumping their fists and offering high fives as I ran by. Bright, stadium-style lights flooded the finish line, as loud, adrenaline-inducing music brought me home.

"Robert Alfert, attorney from Florida ... you are an Ironman!" the race announcer bellowed, his gravelly words heard by anyone within two miles. The man was so serious.

I got news for you -- Ironman Kona is one big joke.

The only way I made it through this 140.6-mile adventure was with humor. This race was so grueling, the conditions so barbaric on Saturday that the only way to survive -- for me -- was finding lighter moments during the 12 hours, 37 minutes and 39 seconds that it took to complete the odyssey.

As a litigator, I've used humor to relieve the stress that naturally comes with significant trials. At moments when my colleagues are tense, I'll start reciting Ludacris lyrics, telling jokes, anything to diffuse the tension. These are among the tools of my trade.

Never did I think I would need to make humor part of my race plan.

Then I saw the Duct Tape Man. A small Asian man in his late 30s, he was covered with foot-long strips of light brown tape -- on the sides and backs of his legs, on his lower and middle back and his elbows. As we entered the water together at the start of the race, I laughed to myself, thinking maybe this is symbolic of Ironman, that it takes special effort to hold it all together.

Turns out I was stuck to Duct Tape Man for the first 131 miles. We traded places mile after mile, until I lost him in the darkness. I missed him, as his presence gave me something to focus on other than the pain -- what exact purpose did that tape serve?

And trust me, there was plenty of hurt. The wind resistance on the 112-mile bicycle segment, which followed the swim, was so severe that when the 35-mile-an-hour gusts whipped across the largely treeless lava fields, we had to lean into the wind to avoid being toppled.

"Fine day for sailing, eh?" I said to several competitors, as we all keeled and tacked to prevent getting knocked off the course. Most responded with stone faces, but I got my chuckle each time.

Even pros were dropping out. At one point, I passed the pre-race favorite, Simon Lessing, who had obviously quit the race. He was off his bike on the side of the road, sitting in the dirt with elbows on knees, waiting for a race official to pick him up. He looked demoralized.

Bike is my best discipline. I love the bike so much that I barely used my legs for the swim, which translated into a slower swim time but a great warm-up. I left the water after an hour and 20 minutes but passed more than 300 competitors on the bike course -- all the while trying to find Ryan Sutter.

Sutter, as any consumer of reality television knows, was the romantic choice of Trista the Bachelorette. A former University of Colorado football player, he was granted a media pass into the race (as was I). He took considerable flak from the triathlon community, as did the race organizers, for getting a slot in Kona, which is dominated by elites and pros who must qualify at regional events around the world. Unlike me, he had never finished an Ironman before.

Even one of my triathlon friends told me in the weeks leading up to the race, "If you don't kick his backside, you'll never hear the end of it from us." Little did anyone know how fast this big guy was. I beat him out of the water by 13 seconds and never saw him again. He finished about an hour ahead of me.

Maybe Trista can call my friend to charm him into leaving me alone.

The run was especially brutal, coming on the heels of the bike. But again, humor bailed me out. Around Mile 9, just before reaching a hill that reduces runners to a snail's pace, I veered over to a runner's aid station, grabbed a large cup of ice and poured it down the backside of my skin suit -- forgetting that all that ice would go straight to my reproductive organs and sit there until it melted. Hello!

This was the part of the race commonly known as the Death March or, alternately, the Ironman Shuffle. My legs were so strafed by the pain and effort that I was moving like a penguin. But I tried to stay in the game by keeping it light.

"Got some Guinness?" I asked more than a few volunteers.

"How 'bout some pizza?" I asked others, trying to find amusement in the fact that the food stations were offering such bland fare as chicken broth, stale rolls and Fig Newtons.

"Hey, how'd you find the fountain of youth?" I inquired of a 66-year-old man as he passed me in the Natural Energy Lab, a notoriously hot area of the course that draws its name from a nearby government facility -- and from the irony that this section sucks the life out of runners when they need a boost.

The old guy just laughed.

And I got my boost.

By Mile 23 of the run, my body was shutting down. The relentless pounding had taken a toll on the soles of my feet, my ankles and my knees. My thighs were seizing, and my gut -- having already thrown up for most of the bike course because of swallowing too much sea water in the swim -- was wracked with cramps. Madame Pele, the mythical Hawaiian volcano goddess who had tortured the field with her wind and heat, was bearing down on me.

Willpower would take me the rest of the way. But it was humor, my new race friend, that deserved credit on this day for showing me how to dig into the deepest part of my spirit.

Robert Alfert can be reached at ralfert@broadandcassell.com . His complete race results can be found on ironmanlive.com.