By Mitch Pollack
As I stood on the barge drifting ever so slightly on the Hudson River I looked down at the murky waves and remembered why I was there. I was moments away from going overboard to begin my 2.4-mile swim, to be immediately followed by a 112-mile bike ride consisting of two loops up and down the Palisades Parkway, to be immediately followed by a 26.2-mile run. The run begins in Palisades Park, climbs out of the park across the George Washington Bridge and ends at Riverside Park.
My real journey began a little over two years ago after getting hit with a life-changing one-two punch. My father died that day. I left his body at White Plains Hospital to rush over to my urology appointment to receive the results of a prostate biopsy taken the week before. I left the doctor’s office dazed. I lost my father and received a cancer diagnosis all within four hours.
I have raced a number of marathons, qualified for Boston a few times and tinkered with triathlons for a number of years. I always prided myself on my fitness and dreamed of doing an Ironman distance race. As I sat on my couch in front of the television less than a week after having my surgery, I decided that an Ironman triathlon would be my next goal. I looked down at the catheter and stomach drain exiting my body and promised myself that I would regain my fitness and reclaim my life.
Last June, Bill Carpenter sent me a text letting me know that registration was opening for Ironman NYC. With little hesitation I was on the computer and registered for the race. Now here I was standing on the edge of the barge and ready to jump into the river. The much-maligned Hudson River was recently in the news because of a raw sewage spill. There was some talk about canceling the swim. If the swim was cancelled I would have felt cheated. I wanted to complete an Ironman – anything less would be unacceptable. Fortunately, the state authorities cleared the river for racing so over the side I went in feet first. Almost immediately I fell into a rhythm and cut through the water at a good pace.
I picked up some current about 10 minutes into the swim and began moving quickly. I passed the 1.2-mile point and realized I would end with a fast swim time. The next thing I know I’m approaching the first transition point (T-1) and getting ready to exit the water. I enjoyed the cooling swim on such a sweltering day and was sorry to see it end. The hard work lay ahead.
I climbed out of the river, dropped to the ground and had my wet suit removed by one of the wet suit strippers. No, not that kind of stripper; just a volunteer who helped me get my skin-tight wet suit off of my waterlogged body. I jogged to the gear area, picked up my bike bag and went to the change tent to get ready for the next 112 miles.
The bike portion began with a steep three-quarter-mile climb up to Hudson Terrace. I was familiar with the climb and the route from training at the park and putting in hundreds of miles along Route 9W. I had hoped that training along 9W would simulate at least a portion of the Palisades course profile.
We were fed onto the Palisades Parkway to begin the focal point of the ride. The ride went by in blur. I was focused on staying in the aero bars for as much as possible and drinking and eating at set intervals. By the second lap, the heat and humidity were stifling. At about mile 60 I developed a pain behind my right knee that I couldn’t shake despite constant position changes on the saddle. The second lap brought a little rain but unfortunately no relief from the climbing heat index. It also brought a strong headwind to add another dimension to the challenge.
The road, while mostly smooth, had some nasty potholes, rough patches and a number of misaligned seams. I hit one seam and my water bottle flew from the front cage. There were water bottles, sunglasses and other equipment strewn over the parkway. I also saw a number of racers changing flats and a couple of bad crashes. One young woman was on her back surrounded by medical staff, blood flowing from her face. Seeing this had a sobering effect and reflexively I slowed down for the next few miles.
I was ready to get off the bike when I exited the Palisades Parkway. I paced along Hudson Terrace and re-entered the park. Coincidentally, as I proceeded down the steep hill to the bike/ run transition (T-2), I met up with a racer from California. I had started the day with him on the first ferry out to the barge to begin the swim. Here we were 7 1/2 hours later entering the park together. My new friend was a multiple Ironman finisher who had recently completed a 100-mile running race and had been part of the support crew for the female winner of the grueling Badwater race. We smiled and wished each other luck as we began to mentally prepare for the upcoming marathon.
Immediately I could tell my electrolytes were off as I dismounted from the bike. I was a little nauseous and my calves began to cramp. (I would later learn that despite my best hydration efforts, I lost over 10 pounds of water weight during the race.) Once off the bike I was famished. I shoved an entire Clif bar into my mouth. I’m still unsure whether I removed the wrapping from the bar before eating; nonetheless, I washed down this treat with a large cup of an electrolyte solution. I slowly changed into my compression running shorts. My tri-shorts were soaked. I then poured two cups of water over my head and one down the front of my shorts and drank another quick cup as I began jogging from the changing tent. The run portion in the park was the toughest part of the race for me. It was made up of a series of steep, unrelenting rolling hills. I completed a half-marathon in the park earlier this summer and did well. It was quite a different story with 112 miles already on my legs. The heat in the park was also brutal. The tree covering which I thought would keep the sun out merely captured all the heat without allowing in any breeze. While in the park I lived on ice chips since I had trouble keeping down more than a mouthful of fluids at a time. I stopped at each aid station and poured a cup of water on my head, sipped as much as I could get down and pushed on to the next mile. I saw many familiar faces both in the race and along the course. My greetings consisted of nods or slight hand gestures; I was too tired to talk.
When we finally exited the park, the GW Bridge was a welcome site. The climb up the stairs to the top level of the bridge, which I was dreading, was actually a relief since it allowed me to use some different muscles on the climb. The cool wind on the bridge was also refreshing. Once I crossed the bridge I knew I would be able to meet my goal of sub-13 hours. The next 10 miles went by quickly as the course flattened out. The winner of the race, Jordan Rapp, was quoted as saying that the run portion of the race was the toughest Ironman run course that he ever raced.
As I crossed the finish line I realized my goal by completing the race in 12:45. I was immediately met by a “catcher” who guided me into the athletes’ village as another volunteer placed the medal around my neck and the finisher’s cap on my head. I didn’t need the medal or the cap to signify what I had accomplished. I just thought back to that day in my family room some two years ago, and knew that I had traveled a lot further than 140.6 miles.