Sunday, October 22, 2006


I just got back from another visit to a foreign land - Kailua Kona, Hawai`i. It's so close ... and yet so very, very far away.

I went with Russ to volunteer on the massage team for the Kona Ironman. The race is insane - a 2.4 mile ocean swim from the Kona pier, a 112 bike race to Hawi and back, and then a full 24 hour marathon. To even qualify you need to win an ironman.

I'm in absolute awe of the athletes. 1800 ran this year. All were amazing, but the top couple hundred were almost supra-human. It was like watching some other species of Homo sapiens compete - all these thin men with tiny waists and massive thighs and bulging calves, like an army of Popeye’s turned upside down. Only three of the 1800 had any body fat on them at all, and the drawn faces and prominent cheek-bones gave everyone a vaguely Germanic air.

One guy told me that he didn't find the look attractive. He was lying. These men were hot, and in a way that almost went beyond physical desire.

It does twist your sense of what's normal, though. After three days of looking at perfect legs and asses - legs and asses the way god made them to be - it's hard to come back to the civilian world and realize that most folks just don't look like Ironmen. And between the Ironman, the Moloka`i Hoe, the Triple Crown [and we have the North Shore house again!], and the Circuit Boys, I have a very twisted sense of normal. I tested out at 12.3% body fat Saturday morning, and though I know that that's pretty awesome for a 40 year old part of me thinks, I want to be under ten! And still over 200 pounds!

Back to the race. The Massage Team was organized by the Big Island School of Massage. Good people, all of 'em ... but not my people. They were perfectly nice, but I had a sense of standing apart the whole time. It was a sense of, this is not my tribe & subconsciously everyone knows it. There's nothing bad there - we all know & recognize our tribes.

The team - and Kailua-Kona overall - are almost all refugees from the California la-la dream world. Luckily they were far more down-to-earth than the new age millionaires who've infested Kohala with their healing spas and $500 a night pseudo-Hawaiian spiritual retreats [and it's a good thing the rich never want to volunteer for the dirty work, 'cause otherwise we'd have had some trouble]. They were a curious mix of the cool and the bourgeois - a left-of-center version of Salt of the Earth. They left California for a new life in Hawai`i, but they've reproduced an LA suburb on the Big Island. They have Tibetan prayer flags on their lawns, but eat at Denny's. They do massage, but are so hetero-normal that they don't even suspect that they have gay men in their midst.

They're also the community volunteers who keep society running, so I need to lay off a bit. I absolutely love working with them on the race.

I'm a shitty spectator. I hate watching sports. I need to be part of it, and being on the massage team makes me part of it. And I can't even begin to overdue the superlatives - the athletes on this race are unreal. We never see the first dozen racers. The elite, the ones who finish the race in eight to nine hours, are whisked off straight to the hotel where they are tested, prodded, zapped, massaged by private therapists, and given blood transfusions from 14-year old sacrificial Sherpa virgins.

OK, the last bit is just a rumor.

We get our first racers in the massage tent at 4pm. The ones who finish in nine to ten hours are unreal. They walk in relaxed and calm, as if they've been hanging at the beach all day. Some took the time for a shower and a beer before they came to the massage tent. We check for knots in the muscles, but rarely find any. We check for injuries, but they only ones we find are pre-existing. The athletes are awesome, but they are also slightly loco. One Brazilian on my table injured his back in a mountain biking accident, but still ran the Ironman. Next week he does the XTerra in Maui.

This group is fun - they have amazing bodies & unreal musculature. I got to speak French with an athlete from Dijon, compare King's Cross stories with one from Oz, go through a who's who on the North Shore with a guy from Sao Paulo, and discuss the benefits of a post-race beer with an athlete from the Nederlands.

Next the rush comes, and everything becomes a blur. Hundreds of racers cross the line, and the massage queue winds down the beach. We are told to limit our massages to eight minutes - which is a shame, as these are the racers that need it most. I lead a body to the table, do what I can, and send 'em on their way. This group is a mix of men and women, elite and amateur. It's also when we start to see race injuries. These guys will pull a muscle on mile one of the bike ride, and yet finish the race. Like I said, awesome and loco all at the same time.

I was massaging a woman from Austria when the storm hit. I tried to play it off & call it watsu, but it came down too hard - and we didn't have enough shelter. The masseurs and athletes all tried to crowd under one tent, and things got tense. The racers arrive in a state of physical shock. Part of the reason for the massage is to ease them out of it. The problem was, the racers we had were getting wet and cold. A good number were coming down with hypothermia, and we ran out of dry sheets and warm clothes for them. And all the while, new racers kept coming in, not comprehending that we were on the cusp of an emergency & only wanting their massage.

The storm finally eased after an hour. I managed to find a dry table & started working again. The next group I had was in rough shape - one case of hypothermia, one cramped calf & loose patella, and one lower back sprain. Luckily there was a doctor working the floor. Another night, and I might have suspected that she was a chiropractor & gone off on my standard spiel on quack medicine. Saturday night I was a bit more humble, and more than thankful that she was there to help us.

By eleven pm most of the massage team had gone home - there were maybe a dozen of us left in the storm-wracked tent. There were only a few poor racers left on the course, and we started getting folks who had just been released by the Medical Team. There was a bit of pretty, to be sure, but most of this group was elderly.

And damn I know I'm shallow sometimes. I had just worked on a couple of over 60 year-old racers, and I wanted to end the night with some muscle. I saw a black guy walking up from medical, all buff and shiny from the rain. I thought I could time it right & get him. I whipped off the old sheet and dressed my bed with a fresh one in record time. I spun around and held out my hand to find ...

... not a big muscled stud at all, but a 75 year old doctor from Slovenia. And though I know I was wrong to feel let down, part of me was. I just didn't know how wrong I was.

We all come to work on the top racers, and it is an incredible experience - but this is the man that I will remember until I die. He laid down on my table, and Russ took one side while I took the other. I asked if he was the oldest racer, but he took gentle offense at that & let us know that there was an 80 year old who finished last year and a 79 year old this year & that he was not the oldest, not at all.

He then gave me training tips when he learned that I refused to do triathlons because I hated running.

When it was time to go we offered to help him up - most athletes at this point need help standing. He insisted he do it himself ... and then slowly rolled onto one arm. Then pushed one side up. Then swung the other arm under. Then slowly lifted himself to sitting, and all the while looking shockingly infirm. I have no mobility, he confessed. No one would guess if they saw me racing, but I have no mobility.

The fires of life burn stronger in some people. We should all learn to be as strong.


Sue said...

you dope, the ironman includes a 26.2 mile marathon, not a 24 hour run. what do you think those people are, supra-human?

gary said...

wow, what's up with this sue? you previously state it's a 24 mile run (not 26.2 miles), then made one typo transposing the word "hour" for the word "mile" and now you're a "dope"? i wanna proof HER blog...