By Paul M. Banks
The Sea was angry, my friend. That was my first thought getting into Lake Michigan to begin my portion of the Chicago Triathlon Relay. My second thought, as I entered the cold 63 degree water (still an upgrade from the ridiculously unseasonable 58 degree air temperature) “Why the hell did I sign on for this again?” And why did I not seriously train for this? Well, it is the world’s largest triathlon, with 9,000 participants, and a couple of them are looking about as wide as they are tall; so if they can do it, I can do it. Besides it will make for a good story when the Olympics arrive in 2016.
I had three goals for my first ever organized swim race/triathlon.
1.) Finish – Do not drown.
2.) No hanging on the safety rope alongside the Monroe Harbor course. No doggy paddling or loafer stroke either. The only time I will break from forward stroke progressive motion to tread water is when I have to recognize and deal with any unforeseen hazard which will inevitably cross my path.
3.) Don’t worry about competing or time – but finish ahead of somebody at least. It’s .93 miles (1.5 km) from Balbo to the Shedd Aquarium and back to Randolph street. And I didn’t want to be like Bill Murray’s character in “Stripes.”
“I noticed something, Soldier, you’re always last.”
“I’m pacing myself, Sir.”
WOW, that water is COLD! I can’t believe people are swimming parallel to the Chicago Yacht Club without a wet suit today. This thing is a life saver, and helps me deal with the near whitecap conditions and 6-8 foot waves. When I swim laps at Palos Pool or Turtle Splash in Aurora, there are none of these waves to be found. And the choppy waters are leading me into swimming a much further distance on this day than I need to. Too often I find that the waves have turned me around, and my route is getting more than a bit circuitous.
Speaking of which, a spectator on the shore has to inform me that I have over-swum the turnaround as my misanthropic strategy of swimming away from people has worked too well. If that sounds a bit strange, let me explain.
The organizers start you off in different waves, and the beginning is a hot mess as everyone is just bunched up on top of one another. That can be a bit frightening as you enter water that is 15-20 feet. But as long as it’s way over your head, 20 feet might as well be 20,000 feet. The object of the game is to stay above water, so actual depth doesn’t matter.
But that cold water is actually refreshing once you’re used to it and you get into a groove. And with a safety rope, and ever vigilant volunteers in row boats along the entire course, it’s easy to just relax, chill and stay focused on the exercise at hand. At least it is for me – until I look up and see somebody dry has to jump in to save one of the tri participants about 2 feet in front of me. That’s a bit disheartening, seeing someone pulled from the race directly in your path. Especially when the water is so dark you have zero visibility. The Red Sox victory song, “love that dirty water,” is about Boston, but it might as well be about Lake Michigan. I don’t have one of those aqua ipods yet, so I have to put songs into my head to keep going. Thinking about “Dirty Water” reminds me of the Dropkick Murphys’ cover of the Stendalls’ BoSox paean. Which then makes me think of “I’m shipping up to Boston,” and that upbeat Gaelic Punk ditty gets me moving faster again. And it is right at that moment that I look on shore and finally see my girlfriend Lisa, who I coincidentally met on a plane to Boston last November.
Seeing her, and the sign she made is an inspiration. She wrote (in The Sports Bank colors no less) “Go Paul” “Go Bill” and “Go (name omitted to keep Soxman’s identity a secret)” with a little Olympic event style picture of each of our respective race legs today. Obviously, this sign is a big hit with the crowd at large and the added boost I am looking for. “I finally, found you,” she says. No doubt a big burden was lifted given how concerned she was for my well-being early this morning. I focus back on the swim, as she follows my path on land.Out of the corner of my eye, I catch her using her cell phone and think, “Watching this by myself would get a bit boring; I guess I would get on my cell phone too.”
But she’s not my only cheerleader here; every Triathlon participant hears numerous encouraging phrases from strangers at every turn. As we head into the home stretch, I hear “just 400 more yards” from one of the race volunteers. “That’s a really good passing day for Juice Williams, so not too much more distance.” I think.
And then during the final lengths, Lisa yells to me, “You’re almost there, that’s it, the orange thing.” So I look at her and say, “That’s it, the buoy?” Now for a little trash talk and show time. I yell out, “Time to turn on the afterburners” and start sprinting to the finish. All the while thinking in my head, one of my favorite lines from the movie “Spaceballs,” “Prepare the ship for Ludicrous Speed- GO!” The crowd on shore erupts in laughter from this.
At the end, more volunteers help you out of the water and then direct you to the ¼ mile run (although to me at this point, it was more of a light jog) to the finish line where you meet your relay team mates. I have to do something flashy at the end, so I yell, “Let’s go again! Let’s swim two today,” echoing the most famous phrase of another Banks, Mr. Cub himself. But given how hard this seemed at the beginning, my feelings are more along the lines of Kevin Garnett at the 2008 NBA Finals, “Anything is possible.”
Especially so for Bill Corcoran, who takes the chip to go ride back into a 15-20 mile headwind on Lake Shore Drive. Good luck with that. But he’s an animal. He’s doing the bike part of the relay after already getting up at 4:45 AM to do the entire triathlon individually. Yes, he’s back for more. Needless to say, his time was the best of our team.
But I’m even prouder of “Bruce Wayne-Parker,” the man behind the Soxman mask. He overcame a lot of adversity earlier this year to do this, and it’s his first ever 10K (6.2 miles). Sure he’s done quite a few 5Ks, but this is a whole different ballfield. When we all meet up at the finish line, the picnic is one of the summer’s biggest highlights. With our little medals that say “Finisher,” I will treasure always.
My three goals: done, done, and done. The sea was indeed angry that day. But there was nothing but happiness on shore for our group.