Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Race Within: Races I left behind

Iona McKenzie
I'm preparing a few talks for next week's book tour, and considering the final appearance with Hillary Biscay at TriSports in Tucson, Arizona. As it turns out, there's a women's triathlon camp starting later that day, and Hillary was recently appointed to the board of advisors for Ironman's Women For Tri program. It seems like a pretty natural occasion to talk about how influential women have been in Ultraman and Ironman history. There wouldn't be and Ironman without Valerie Silk, and I personally think there ought to be a statue of her at the Kona Pier (if you read the book, you'll understand why I don't think it should be in front of WTC headquarters). Jane has been at the helm of Ultraman for over 20 years, and Sheryl Cobb alongside her for more than fifteen. Some of the most pulse-pounding finishes in Hawaii in the last five years featured Hillary, Amber Monforte, Yasuko Miyazaki and Kathy Winkler.

That's why I couldn't help but feel a little disappointment a while back during an online exchange with Iona McKenzie. She told me "I trust you, even though I don't know you very well." I felt like I'd failed her a bit, considering the way she totally crushed the race at Ultraman Canada in 2013. She put on an amazing performance in that race, and even though the chapter on Canada is one of the longest, she and the other women hardly get any mention. A little bit of the same thing happened again in Hawaii. Hillary put on an amazing performance, and much of the narrative of that race focuses on the men's competition.

I began the project thinking that the women's race in Hawaii would be the centerpiece. The duel between Hillary and Amber had been so close the previous go-round that an epic rematch seemed all but assured. And it was all but. No one could have predicted that Amber would experience the setbacks in her training that she did. When she told me a few nights before the race that she didn't anticipate to win, I knew the story was taking an unexpected turn. All I could do was go along for the ride and find out where that turn led us.

In Hawaii, it led to Hillary pretty much locking down the win by the end of the second day. Ultraman does tend to be a place where anything could happen, but her lead going into the run mean that several very bad things would have to happen to her for Amber to finish with enough of a margin to regain the overall lead before reaching the old airport finish line. Meanwhile, Miro Kregar was on the precipice between his first championship win in eight attempts and coming in second once again to his best friend and perennial rival Alexandre Ribeiro.

It's a well-known irony in sports that a commanding lead makes for a boring story, while a dogged race, even if it's for last place, can become the most compelling drama. The problem I experienced at each of the three times I covered an Ultraman is that you can never be everywhere at once, and you have to choose your moments and locations very carefully. I honestly don't know how Amy Snyder did it when she wrote Hell on Two Wheels (also from Triumph). She covered a race that moved ten times as far and more than twice as long-- and her subjects didn't stop for sleep. I think my head would have popped from worrying that I was going to miss some crucial element of the story. I'm sure she missed several things and had to fill in with interviews after the fact. That's a huge gamble to take as a writer, and she played that hand well.

In my case, it came down to the cards I was dealt. The men's race in Hawaii turned out to be the more contentious one. I spent less time following Hillary and more on Kregar's incredible triumph. The same thing happened in Canada. The race looked like a dead heat between four extraordinary men-- two of which were prior Ultraman winners-- right up until the middle stages of the last day. Iona went into day 3 with an hour and twenty-eight minute lead on Stacey Shand. I had no idea that Stacey would close the gap to less than 21 minutes by the end, but even if I had the lead men were so far ahead there was no way I could go back down the course, check on the progress in the women's race, and still make it to the finish line in time to see the men's winner. It was a tough choice, and one that necessarily led to an unexpected turn that I couldn't back out of once I took it. By committing to the men's race, I lost the chance to interview the women in-depth afterward. Ironically, the woman I developed the closest relationship with afterward was third-place finisher Lucy Ryan. She'll be attending the book talk at Moment Cycle Sport in San Diego on February 12, by the way.

I don't like that I left Iona's race behind. I wish I'd had another 20 pages to talk about Amber and Hillary's first race in 2010. Like everyone who takes such an active interest and role in a sport, I wish things could always be more fair. But Iona wasn't the only one I left behind. Nick Mallett struggled mightily in Canada that day, and maybe his fight to make the final time cutoff was the most heartbreakingly dramatic struggle. I don't know because I didn't see it. I was somewhere between post-race interviews with Dave Matheson, Jane Bockus, Craig Percival, Lucy Ryan, and all the other men and women making things happen that day.

The first news story I ever published for Triathlete magazine was about minorities in triathlon. I still believe that it's a challenge the sport hasn't acknowledged, let alone begun to address in a meaningful way. I think it's every bit as important for triathlon's growth as the new women's initiative. That piece has always kept me aware of equality issues in sports. I notice that women receive pretty good representation in CrossFit and the Tough Mudder type of races. I also notice they're pretty white bread. Cycling and marathoning have had similar problems throughout history, and I think they suffer from it.

I went to write the best book I could about Ultraman. And, just like anyone who goes out to watch a race, my attention gravitated to where the action was. In 2010, it was with the women's race. In 2013, it was with the men. But still, I think that Hillary, Amber, Jane and Sheryl still emerged as the most powerful characters in the book because their stories were the most poignant. The best thing is that the races really aren't left behind. Not within the Ultraman Ohana. Everyone tells their race story at the awards banquet the day afterward. Everyone gets to hear how the days passed for everyone else, so whether you were at the front or the back of the group, you get that full picture. In the end, no one writer can write the story of an Ultraman so well as all the athletes can tell it collectively. It's just one of the things that makes it such a unique and wonderful experience.

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