May 19, 2013

Triathlon Blues

Rap. Rap. Rap.

It is my 14-year-old son waking me. “What time is it?” I ask him groggily.

“It’s 4:30. We have to leave soon.”

Friday morning and it’s even too early for the birds to sing. Bleary-eyed, I shuffle to make a coffee.

My son is dressed and has his gear ready for his first triathlon; bathing suit, towel, goggles, bike helmet and running shoes. We swing his bike atop the car and race towards Netanya. The sky is a pinky-orange swirl as we arrive at the beach, gleefully pulling into the best seaside parking spot ever.

As soon as my son arrives with his bike, I see the officials scramble around him, shaking their heads and pointing to their clipboards. No. He is absolutely, certainly, 100% not allowed to use his mountain bike in this race. Regulations.

“Drafting is allowed in this race and your bike is dangerous,” they explain.

“Didn’t you read the application? It is written on every page.”

Hmm. I let my son sign up for this race on his own. I guess 14 year olds don’t read small print. And certainly Anglo moms like me don’t read forms in Hebrew. Looks like he is disqualified before he even starts.  His face drops, his lips tremble. He came here to win.

A small Russian woman with a clipboard takes his hand and walks over to some bikers, asking if someone will lend him a bike. The mini sprint for the young athletes starts earlier than the adult race so maybe, just maybe, someone will take pity on this poor, unequipped boy.

The clock is ticking and the junior race is about to start. No bike. The athletes here look like they’re from another planet. They are all muscled and sleek and are wearing skin-tight garb. Their bikes are as trim as the riders. In my mind, I know this competitive bunch would rather give away their spouse than part with their bikes. They too are here to win. I bite my lips and look around.

They are all writing on each others’ arms and legs with thick black indelible markers: left and right forearms and calves are inscribed with a number, type of race, sex and age. In such skin-tight gear, confusing male and female is next to impossible, but, hey, those are the regulations-- and they too must have been written on every page of the application. Mothers are plaiting their daughter’s hair into perfect French braids. This, I understand, is no fashion statement as it is the best way to keep long hair tightly back for the swim, bike ride and run.

Finally, an older man in his sixties generously offers his bike. Shaya leaves his gear at the transition station (this is a new word for me and is triathlon talk) and heads to the beach. A few minutes later I see my son running back to me and my heart sinks again.

"What now?"

"My goggles!" he sobs.

I hand him his goggles and he heads to the sea. He must swim straight out to a row of buoys and back again. Huge waves crash against the shore. I see the other junior sprint triathletes are already way out to sea but my fearless son will not be disillusioned. He runs into the water and crashes into the waves, his small arms trying to surge past the foaming crest. He rides the waves and is pushed back. I spot his black swimming cap bobbing in the waves as he slowly makes his way out.

The others are on their way back at breakneck speed, flying out of the water like lemmings and running up the ramp to the transition station. I have never seen a more determined group of 14 and 15-year old kids in my life.

I watch Shaya’s little cap slowly make its way to the buoy and then back. My heart is in my throat. A crowd gathers. The adults are now getting ready to jump in and start their race. Little Shaya fights the waves with determination and finally gets out of the water. He is not last. He is dead last. But he will not give up. Yet. He is told where to go next and runs to the bike. He has never been on a fancy road bike and doesn’t even know how to work the gears. But he pedals on.

Meanwhile, his competitors race and draft as their fancy biking shoes crunch down the pedals, their eyes slits behind fancy blades, their mouths pursed, their teeth grit into a mantra of  “Win, harder, faster, win.” The mini athletes’ parents stand on the curbside screaming, “Chazak, chazak.”

They dismount in perfect triathlete fashion, pulling their feet out of their stirrups and shoes ahead of time and running their bikes back to the transition station. Shaya still rides round and round, now being joined by the super-competitive adults who pedal so fast and ride so close together, I feel queasy just watching.

He eventually finishes the bike ride and is directed to the run. We stand by the side and clap and cheer. Despite his late start and challenges, he perseveres. With tears in my eyes, I run the last few meters with him, proud that he has stuck it out and excited by this big accomplishment. And he is not dead last. Four others come in after him, his consolation prize for a lousy late start.

The day is still young and as we get ready to leave, we soon realize our parking spot is so good, it is part of the race, tied into the course with police ribbon.

“You are stuck here for the duration of the race. Maybe another four hours,” an official with a clipboard says.” No parking zones are probably also written up somewhere in the regulations.

We are stuck here in triathlon land to check out the tight suits with special bike padding, to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over rippled muscles and feel like big fat slobs beside these super achievers who swam 1500 meters in crashing waves, sped 40 kilometers on a bike and ran 10 kilometers. 

We entertain ourselves by reading the athletes’ ages scribbled on their calves as they cross the finish line but feel sobered when we see that one super athlete is 74 years old, a few others are in their sixties and many are above fifty. Shaya is fortunate to get an early start in what seems to be a big part of Israeli culture. 

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