Growing up, I spent my summers on Washington Island, and I learned to swim at Schoolhouse Beach. My first crush was on someone a little older than me, who let me try his new ten-speed even though it was too big. During that year, we didn’t keep in touch, but by July, we were right where we left off, riding our bikes to the ferry dock, or running through fields under stars that lit up the grassy airport runway at night.
Now Schoolhouse Beach has fewer rocks, even though the water level is low and there is now a $25 fine for taking one. Rounding the swim buoys more than once, I feel good about my readiness for triathlon camp. I haven’t seen my old crush for years, but he hasn’t aged at all. He’s become famous, his name has been trademarked, and I’m so passionate about racing that I decide to make the Ironman my invisible boyfriend.
It’s just a short race, but I pretend it’s the real thing, based on what I’ve read in magazines. Strategizing my transitions—the time spent in between swim, bike, and run—I obsess. Will I need a pair of flip-flops for anything? Should I change into running shorts or just wear a bathing suit the whole time? The race is a blast, except I’ve never run that far before, so that part is hard. My face is as red at the finish line as if I’d just received my first kiss.
Two weeks later I try another race, this one a little bit longer since I had so much fun running through aid stations and throwing cups in my wake while avoiding sprinklers in the humidity at the first one.
My boyfriend inspires me to run.
I chase a chocolate PowerBar with orange Gatorade, ignoring my distaste for both. This is not just a snack. This is the beginning. Some may call it wishful thinking, but I call it destiny. I now have experience, so I move on to a half Ironman, where I am feeling confident about the swim and bike portions.
Arriving in Lake Geneva in time for the pre-race dinner, it’s a dinner date, and I, who never before liked pasta, have a second plate. I feel at home. Anxious, I listen carefully to all the questions the other athletes ask the race director. We should expect a hot, hilly, hard run, he says. Underprepared in my training, I struggle through the first loop of the run. I may not finish the race. Suffering, I almost don’t recognize “my boyfriend,” who is running right next to me, sweaty and breathing hard.
“Good job, keep it up,” he says. I will never do this again, I say, but I finish with a headache and leg cramps so bad I have to pull over on the way home. I have accessed something in my genetic code. I think the Ironman and I were meant to be together.
I stick with half Ironmans as a way of getting to know him better. We’ll still see other people while I work on becoming a better runner. After six months, he invites me to go on a trip with him to Pucon, Chile, for a race I finish just inside the time limit.
“Train with some intensity if you want to get faster,” he tells me. He is really smart, and probably would have gone to an Ivy League school if he was a real person.
“Let’s do something different,” he says. “Let’s go climb the volcano while we’re here.” Relationships are a two-way street, so even though I am tired from the race, I acquiesce. At about 8,000 feet, the Ironman’s instinct takes over, and he pushes the pace, racing toward the top. Having reached my limit, I sit down on the side of the volcano, open my backpack, and take out some food.
“Wait for the slower group and go to the top with them,” he calls back to me. Thanks, you asshole. The wind increases and cloud cover moves in. I could be blown off the side of the volcano, but the Ironman doesn’t care. He just keeps going. This is a major red flag to me, and I will be sure to tell my mother when I get home. This man doesn’t respect my limits, and I wonder if I can trust him. I somehow thought an invisible boyfriend would always be there for me, as my architect boyfriend was not, but I act the same. I figure if I keep showing up for him, one day he will show up for me.
After a while I forget the bad and try to focus on the good. My mom would call it denial, but I like to think of it as forgiveness. I will try again and this time try a little harder. We go to St. Croix for another race, and I’m pleased with this result. I wish I could spend the day with him floating on a raft in the ocean close to shore, trying not to get our books wet as we read. I try to imagine what he would look like dangling his feet next to mine—he would probably be just about to lose a toenail. In real life, his feet would be really disgusting, that’s for sure.
I’m two years into having the Ironman as my invisible boyfriend, and despite a slight injury, he asks me to move to California, where the training climate is great. He’s not ready to propose, but why don’t I sign up for Ironman Brazil? A full Ironman seems serious, and like so many women in relationships, I long for more commitment and sign up for the race. Spending all our time together, we get up early every weekday and swim more than two miles before breakfast. Weekends, we ride our bikes all day, sometimes going to dinner and a movie after. The next day we run long, up to four hours, and fall into bed exhausted.
“Your goal should simply be to finish,” he says. His opinion means a lot to me, so I work at lactate threshold for him.
Once in Brazil, I am tormented by currents on the swim. On the bike, I am seasick from the swim, and I never go to the large chain ring since I’m saving my legs for the run, where I think I will magically start passing people. Twelve hours into the race, I’m left behind with only a few stragglers.
It’s May, winter in Brazil, and it’s been dark since five o’clock. My loneliness is unimaginable. Feeling a lot worse than I ever did on the volcano, I dig into undiscovered places to go on. At mile twenty of the run, he shows up. He’s finished his race and has come back for me on his bike, riding beside me as I run.
“I am here for you,” he whispers, which is just enough to get me to finish, but then he is gone.
The finish line is nothing like I heard it would be at these Ironman races. It’s quiet. I lie down on a cot, and he shows up, having sorted his gear and taken a shower. He gives me a wet kiss and a plate of food. Maybe he wouldn’t be such a bad father after all.
I’ve been told the secret to a good relationship is to be willing to turn over a new leaf, so I sign up for Ironman South Africa the following year, where I have a much better result. But he is still distant, and I overcompensate by signing up for an early season race in Malaysia, where he ends up ditching me on the bike course. It’s my first DNF (Did Not Finish), and I am so mad at him that I spend the whole next day avoiding him and crying about the relationship since it causes me so much pain.
“Ironman, I need you to express yourself better and stop pulling these passive-aggressive stunts,” I tell him. “I’m tired of chasing you all over the world.”
On the plane home, there’s just an empty seat next to me. I wish we had better communication, but like a lot of couples who have been together for a while, we barely speak. If only I knew by his resting heart rate how he’s doing.
I love him, but we can’t be together. We take a cooling-off period for a few months, and I date other men, all known quantities. While we are biking, I have to wait or go back for them. By the time they wake up, the pool is closed. One complains about his knees when we go running. I just don’t have the patience for it. Nothing compares to the Ironman, who never complains or says I’m fat, unlike Jon, from my triathlon club, who asks me why it is, after all these years in the sport, I don’t have more of a triathlete’s body.
The Ironman never wants me to be more Jewish; he just wants me to practice six days a week with one day off. His religion is simple, based on a triumvirate of swim, bike, and run.
“It will teach you to believe in yourself,” he says.
My family is polite, but eventually they stop asking about him because he is never at any of our family events and he’s always out of town on my birthday. I think they are on to me, but they are kind enough not to say anything.
My friends want me to get a real boyfriend: a boyfriend who is available. My therapist and I discuss the nature of the relationship in our sessions. We agree on one thing: He is the kind of guy who will swim, bike, and run with you, but that’s it. It turns out the Ironman has his limits. I wonder if I have an addiction. I read self-help books. The harder I try to control him, the more he pulls away.
I give up and go back to him by signing up for Ironman Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, the hardest race in the world. I train extra hard in the Malibu hills and change my running style for this race. It’s worth it because we have the race of our lives, and we’re closer than we’ve ever been, so we do a second Ironman that year, this time in Arizona. I don’t need him at all during the swim or on the bike course, but I have demons on the run, and I can’t find him anywhere. I fall apart during the second half of the marathon and curse the Ironman with every blister-filled step. I’m ready for it to be over now. If I didn’t know how bad it felt to DNF at Malaysia, I’d quit.
There’s a dirt path that runs next to Tempe Town Lake, and I walk and run my way on the third and final loop until I hear crowd sounds getting closer. Surrounded by bright lights, loud music, and lots of people, I high-five and zigzag my way through the chute. Smiling, I stand with a banner in front of me and reach my arms up high, as the Ironman, who has been waiting for over fourteen hours for me to show up, places his medal around my neck. It feels good to be validated. It’s not a fast love, and won’t qualify for the world championship, but at this finish line, I am fulfilled by a love that doesn’t give up.
Tamara is a massage therapist, triathlete, and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. She has a B.A. from George Washington University. Devoted to training and traveling, she has competed in Ironman races in Brazil, South Africa, the Canary Islands, and Europe. Equally devoted to developing her writing, she attended the Taos Writers Conference and completed the certificate program in Creative Nonfiction at UCLA. As a freelance writer, her work focuses on travel, fitness, and action sports. Tamara can be found most days looking out at the Santa Monica Bay, as she writes the next story or trains for the next race—in passionate pursuit of perfection: the finish line.
Ms. Adelman’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Crack The Spine, Ducts, Foliate Oak, Forge, Hospital Drive Magazine, Intentional Walk Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Penmen Review, Slow Trains, This I Believe, Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Tower Journal, Verdad, and Waterski. Additionally, her story “The Finish Line,” was featured in the Literary Mama blog, And I Ran.
© 2014, Tamara Adelman