Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The Triathlon, Part VI - or - Fried Chicken at Thirty Thousand Feet
I’d packed light: running shoes, bike gloves, swim goggles, athletic bra, tank top, running pants, bike glasses, a rented wetsuit, and everything else I’d need for six days were crammed into a wheeled carry-on bag and a backpack. I printed my boarding pass at an easy check-in station and went through security, unpacking my compact bags into no less than four different bins like a strand of DNA unraveling in a black hole and reassembling itself on the other side. I was hungry already when I saw the sign for BJ’s Market in concourse K. One side effect of all this training it that I’m hungry pretty much all the time, and not just for any food, but for high fat, high protein items. BJ’s makes a mean fried chicken, and the more I thought about it the hungrier I became. My flight was about to board, but I didn’t think I could make it until I landed in Logan Airport two and a half hours later before eating. I walked to the counter at BJ’s with purpose.
“Can you put it in a container that I can carry with me onto the plane?” I asked the bespectacled server. She nodded patiently with a look in her eye that let me know I wasn’t the first customer to ask this. “Great, I’ll take a quarter chicken,” I said.
“What sides would you like with that?” she asked.
“Mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes,” I said.
“You want gravy on you mashed potatoes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.
“You get a corn muffin with that too,” she said. I couldn’t have been happier. I paid for my meal and rolled to gate K19, where boarding had begun.
“This is a full flight,” a woman announced, “passengers are allowed one carry on item and one personal item. If your carry on bag is too large, or you have more than two items, you may be asked to check your bag.” It dawned on me that my fried chicken might send me over the number of items allowed onto the flight. I didn’t have time to eat it before getting on the plane, but I wasn’t going to let anyone take it away from me. I stood up and arranged myself so that I was wearing my backback, pulling the rolling carry-on with my right hand, and holding the box of fried chicken in my left. I draped my sweatshirt over my left arm, concealing the fried chicken container. I approached the gate with my fried chicken-bearing arm dipped below my waist so that the man who scanned my ticket wouldn’t see it. I passed him without incident, and walked down the length of the ramp to the airplane. I found my seat and put the fried chicken container in my lap, and continued to conceal it with my sweatshirt. I was on the aisle sitting next to a pair of blonde, teenaged girls who were traveling with their mother and younger sister seated one row ahead. I was at risk of becoming part of their travel story, I could picture their father picking them up in Boston and asking about their flight.
“The woman sitting next to us came on board with a box of fried chicken," they’d say, and then maybe roll their eyes or pop their gum or put their hands on their hips, “I mean, who brings fried chicken onto an airplane anyway?” Then their father might say “really?”, or he might tell them that there’s all kinds of people in this world, or maybe he would say that if the worst thing that happened on the flight was that a woman sat next to them and ate fried chicken with beastly voracity that they should consider themselves lucky. Then the teenaged girls would sigh, and sit behind their parents in a car that would be driven to a house where they’d eat their own dinner, and forget that we ever crossed paths.
The plane took off, and once the fasten seatbelts sign dimmed a number of passengers opened containers of food that had been bought in concourse K. Sensible Caesar salads and loose meat sandwiches were being consumed throughout the cabin, but I didn’t see anyone else eating fried chicken. I glanced over at the girls on my left, they had both adjusted their seat backs into a reclining position, their eyes were closed, and they had covered themselves with Winnie-the-Pooh blankets. I released my tray table and pulled my box of fried chicken out from underneath my sweatshirt. I probably filled the entire cabin with the smell of fried chicken, but I’ve never had a more satisfying in-flight meal.
Muggy picked me up from the Barnstable stop on the Plymouth & Brockton bus line, and was impressed with how little I’d brought with me. We drove to Thuan Loi, a Vietnamese restaurant in South Yarmouth, and when I walked in the owner greeted me with a warm “Hiiiii, long time no see,” although it was my first visit. The owner’s son, an inquisitive boy of about seven years old, was drawn to my purse because it had an image of a bicycle stitched onto it. He stood between me and the dining room asking about it until his mother intervened.
“He asks a lot of questions,” she said. She waited on our table, and when I ordered a lime soda, she jotted something onto a pad of paper and said “number four.”
“Yes, and, um, number twenty four,” I said, reading the number next to a description of a bowl of noodles with fried tofu. Muggy ordered number eighteen, which was the same as mine only with steak, and I wished I’d ordered the same after I tasted it.
We finished our meal and drove to Muggy’s art-filled apartment in Eastham. Muggy is an upholsterer by trade, works part time as an accountant, and has an artistic bent. Her own artwork and works by friends of hers adorn the walls of her home, she has so many that some are in storage. A fish sculpture is fixed onto the wall of her bathroom, and several canvases and prints cover the walls of her living room and bedroom. She’s part of a small population of year-round dwellers on Cape Cod, and I generally visit her off-season when we have the whole peninsula to ourselves. There’s one highway that runs the length of the Cape, Route 6. On Friday evenings in the summer it gets jammed all the way from Boston to Provincetown, and the traffic runs nonstop all night long outside Muggy’s apartment. I unpacked my things in her workroom, where she keeps a working antique sewing machine and a whiteboard to keep track of her upholstering assignments. Above the whiteboard someone had written on the wall in script: “Muggy, always remember: do your best, fuck the rest.” It made me feel good to sleep under this message on the nights leading up to the triathlon.
In the morning we biked to First Encounter Beach, named for the spot where the pilgrims and Native Americans first encountered one another in 1620, so that I could have an encounter of my own with my rented wetsuit. I’d tried it on in Chicago to make sure it fit, but hadn’t actually tried to swim in it yet. The suit is made of black neoprene, covers me from my ankles to my neck, and has sleeves that go to my wrists. It zips up the back with a zipper attached to a long strip of fabric that enables the wearer to get themselves in and out of it. I began sweating immediately under the bright morning sun, and it was a relief to immerse myself in cool, salty water. I quickly discovered that the suit made me buoyant, which was a great relief. I’ve been a little nervous about the swimming part of the race since I signed up; I can always stop biking or running if I get tired, but I can’t stop swimming. I tested what would happen if I remained motionless in the water, and skimmed the top like a waterbug moving in the current.
From there we stopped by Idle Times Bike Shop, where I’d rented a racing bike and helmet for the weekend. The shop is owned and run by a mutual friend of Muggy and mine named Peter, and he let me take the bike Friday and return it Monday even though I’d only paid him for two days. Peter’s largesse is pronounced in the summertime, when his shop is open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and is always busy. Last summer he gave me a pair of Chrome Shins free of charge, originally he was going to sell them to me at wholesale price but when I came to the shop to pick them up he refused payment. I sent him a reproduction vintage cycling poster when I got back to Chicago as a thank you, and he had it framed and hung on a wall of his shop.
I’ve never ridden a racing bike, so I took it down to the bike path near Muggy’s apartment to test it out. It weighed less than a bag of groceries, and seemed to read my mind. If I so much as thought about turning left, it did so. I called Peter to ask about adjusting the seat, and told him how amazing it was to ride.
“It should be, that’s a two thousand dollar bike,” he said.
“Well I’m taking pictures then, because this is the only time I’ll be riding a bike like that," I said. I began to wonder how much of athleticism is a matter of having the right equipment.
We met up with my co-triathlete, MamaVee, and her family for a pasta dinner at her in-laws house in Welfleet. I’d met her in-laws once the previous summer, and was convinced that her father in law, Dan, wasn’t fond of me. He’d asked me about my job, and seemed put off by my answer to a question regarding the salary of the CEO at my organization. He seemed not to remember me and asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m unemployed at the moment,” I said.
“Are you in town on vacation?” he asked.
“I’m doing the triathlon with MamaVee,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “you’re doing that?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Uh-huh,” I said. In the tradition of carbo-loading before a race, he’d made spaghetti and meat sauce, and baked two loaves of bread. MamaVee’s husband Ben added to the feast with a large order of barbecued ribs and fried chicken from Marconi Beach Restaurant. I sat next to Dan at dinner, and we talked about the race.
“We signed up in February,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “when you were still working.”
“When I was still working?” I exclaimed, “Wow Dan, I should call you every morning for motivation.” The skin around his eyes crinkled, he reached his hand out and lightly touched my arm. It occurred to me that perhaps he didn't dislike me, that this was just his way. MamaVee confirmed this when she told me what Dan had said to her in preparation for the race: "Good luck. You'll need it."
After dinner Muggy, MamaVee, Ben, and I studied the map of the race site. It started at 7:30, and Falmouth was about an hour drive from Eastham, so Ben and MamaVee would pick up me and Muggy by 5 a.m. with their car and a rack that held four bikes. We’d have time to find parking, bike to the race site, and check in before the race.
I set my cell phone alarm for 4 a.m. I wanted time to stretch properly, eat something, and maybe even drink some coffee. I went to bed at 10 p.m., and woke up in the dark. I fumbled for my cell phone and read the time: 11:15 p.m. I'd only been asleep for an hour and was already waking up in anticipation of the alarm. I woke up again at 1:30, 2:15, and finally got out of bed when I woke at 3:20. Muggy was up too, I put on some coffee and started my stretching routine.
It was dark when Ben and MamaVee arrived, but already there were birds singing. Ben loaded the bikes onto the rack, and the four of us piled into the car. We flew along the near-empty highway as the sun rose, giddy with expectation and sleep deprivation. We arrived at the race site by 6:15. MamaVee and I headed to the registration table, Ben and Muggy went to find something to eat. I was assigned number 394, MamaVee was 343, and we were given corresponding chip timing devices to wear around our ankles. We parked our bikes onto numbered racks, and got our bodies numbered with black marker. Our race number was written on our right arm, and the letter E was written on our right calf, which corresponded with the 35-39 age bracket. All around us people with numbered and lettered limbs milled around, and it was strange to know just by looking at someone’s leg what age group they belonged to. Waiting in line for the ladies room I stood behind a D and an E, and later I spotted Gs, Hs and Is. It was unsettling at first, but then became an interesting point of demographic study. There were people of all ages at the race, and all body types. At first I only noticed the fit, elite athletes in skin-tight, aerodynamic clothing, but there were types of all kinds represented.
We walked onto the rocky beach and assembled ourselves into swim waves, MamaVee was in wave number 4, I was in wave 5. A race organizer called the first wave into the water and they ran in, sending a spray of water three feet into the air. Three minutes later wave 2 was called, and three minutes after that wave 3. I looked out at the floating orange markers in Nantucket Sound, the masses of people swimming furiously through it like schools of fish, and the wet-suited, swim-capped people waiting for their turn. Standing on the beach in my green swim cap that indicated my status as a first timer, my stomach began to sit low in my body. Wave 4 was called, and MamaVee ran out into the water and started swimming like a pro. I joined wave 5 at the tide mark, and waited. I ran in when my wave was called, swam a few strokes and had to stop for air. My adrenaline was high, and I couldn’t get my breathing under control. I tread water and did a weak version of the breast stroke as I took fast breaths. I put my face back into the water and swam a few more freestyle strokes, then had to stop for air again. A woman in a white cap a few feet ahead of me spotted my green cap and asked me if this was my first triathlon.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re doing great, keep going,” she said. I swam in this manner, starting and stopping, for the entire length of the race. At the end I saw Muggy and Ben on the platform, Muggy was jumping up and down and yelling
“Come on champ!” I climbed out of the water and ran past the timer, and a high pitched noise emitted from it. I ran to my bike, unzipped my wetsuit and wrestled my way out of it, switched my goggles for glasses, dusted the sand off my feet, put on my socks, sneakers, bike gloves and helmet, and headed for the bike race start.
I went so fast it felt dangerous. In my mind it seemed that the physics of it couldn’t possibly work - the bike was so light, how could it keep from flipping over? I passed by an injured athlete off the side of the road being tended to by a medic, and it seemed like a warning. There were hills that made me stand on the pedals and push with all my strength, something I'm not used to as a flatlander, and valleys that made me go so fast that at one point I started pumping the brakes. My experience of biking is through city streets on a commuter bike, negotiating traffic, red lights and stop signs. This was entirely different. People along the side of the road had come out to watch, some of them sitting passively in folding chairs, others on their feet clapping and cheering as we sped past. Ben and Muggy were at the finish line again, cheering me on. I crossed the timer and walked the bike back to the rack.
I unstrapped my helmet, removed my gloves, and took a few minutes to stretch. We’d been given goodie bags containing a water bottle, a t-shirt that I’ll probably never wear, and an assortment of energy bars. I grabbed a tube of something that claimed to provide instant energy. It was liquidy and sickly sweet, and tasted like raspberry yogurt. I sucked it down and went to the run start line. Ben and Muggy were at the race start, cheering me on still. The run was flat, and I began to zone out with the repetition of putting one foot in front of the other behind a long line of other people doing the same. At one point I felt like I wasn’t actually there in the moment, that I was recalling a time when I’d run down a stretch of road along a beach. I had to remind myself that I was still in it, experiencing the race as it unfolded. Halfway through I caught up to MamaVee, she’d just made the hairpin turn at the midpoint of the race and was heading back. We held out our hands and high-fived each other. During the last mile and a half the crowds of onlookers had thinned, but the few who remained were enthusiastic.
“Come on number three ninety four!” One woman yelled as I ran past, “looking good, almost there!”
“Thank you!” I said, and kept going. At the race end, I crossed the final timer, and having read my name from the information on the chip, an announcer's voice said:
“Number three ninety four, J. Palmer from Chicago, Illinois!” I clasped my hands together and threw them high above my left shoulder, and then my right in a victory dance as I ran under a digital clock readout. A staffer stationed nearby watched my dance and said:
“Okay, hand over the chip showoff .” I reached down and released the Velcro grip from my ankle, and handed her my timer. “Did you come here on vacation?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“This isn’t how to spend a vacation,” she said. I chuckled and moved on.
I found MamaVee, and we exchanged a sweaty embrace.
“How do you feel?" she asked.
“I feel good," I said.
“I feel weirdly okay," MamaVee said, and I nodded in agreement. “I would do this again."
“Yeah, so would I." I said.
After rinsing off under an outdoor shower and stopping for coffee, the four of us loaded back into the car and headed back to Eastham. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and the main event of the day was already over. We spent the afternoon at a pond with Tuber and Girlpie, Mamavee and Ben’s kids. The still, clear pond water was cool and relaxing.
The race results were posted online by Sunday night. Here’s the breakdown: I swam 1/3 of a mile in 12:23, biked 9.25 miles in 47:38, and ran 3.1 miles in 35:01. My overall time was 1:35:04. MamaVee's times were 10:39, 45:18, and 39:55, with an overall time of 1:35:53. We finished within a minute of each other.
Not bad for first timers.