Through stained glass
by Jeff Henderson
published by

I was on the shuttle bus to registration for Ironman Lanzarote, next to a German doing the race for the third time. He glanced at me and asked if this was my first - whether he meant ironman or Lanzarote I did not know. It didn't matter - I had to tell him I was with the press, following the race from the seat of a motorcycle. I tried to interject that I am a triathlete as well, but it didn't matter much... for the first time of many this summer, I was on the outside looking in.

Before Lanzarote I had never seen an ironman in person, and before Lanzarote I had never heard of EmbrunMan. By the end of the May 17th weekend both had captured my imagination. I saw Thomas Hellriegel subjected to pain and suffering; I watched a possessed Estonian very nearly topple him. I fell in love with the exuberance of a Spanish woman competing, and winning, for the last time. But more than that, my eyes opened upon a rhapsody of human emotion I was altogether unprepared to witness.

I saw young men clutching engagement rings tightly in their fists, patiently outlasting the pain of the day to deliver infinite joy. I saw septagenarians outfoxing Father Time. I watched families, and loved ones, and the closest of friends stream across the finish line, oblivious to the clock and wanting to spread their arms around the entire world. I saw tears, and blood, and jerseys stained with the memories of long hours under a blistering sun. I saw a man with no hearing and nearly no vision complete a marathon without walking. I watched a woman shaking as she walked, unable to drink or eat, yet smiling.

There were things I did not see. I did not see one shaking head, one frown, one downcast pair of eyes. I stood at the finish line for hours, until fireworks proclaimed the day over. I took in this scene four more times over the course of the summer, but all the while I was on the outside looking in. I needed to be a part of it, somehow.

A French photographer in Lanzarote told me about Embrun. Forget this race, he said, Embrun is the hardest ironman in the world. The race has to start in complete darkness to allow enough time to finish. The bike goes over the Col d'Izoard, one of the "Haut Categorie" climbs of the Tour de France, as part of its 3,800 meters of total climbing. And the marathon scales an additional 400 meters, normally during the blast furnace mid-day heat. Last year was the first time anyone had done the impossible - finish below ten hours.

As I stood on the sidelines of European ironmans during June and July, Embrun tugged at me. I spent twelve days crossing England, Wales, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands on a loaded touring bike with its ferocity in the back of my mind. I ran further than I have ever run before, each run commenced at noon under a searing sun. And I sought out mountains to climb, the steeper the better. My subconscious was going to make a run at Embrun even if my conscious self disapproved. "You don't need to do this," I told myself. But slowly I realized I did.

By August 15th, the traditional date of Embrun's Triathlon Longue Distance within the heart of the Alps, I was ready to be on the inside. I spent the night in my trusty VW campervan in the parking lot of the lake; nothing was going to keep me from a shot at finishing the hardest pursuit I had ever undertaken.

The race, as always, commenced under a night sky at 6 am. Flaming torches mounted to the backs of kayaks led 900 of us around five buoys twinkling with green lights. By the end of the swim dawn had arrived with pink skies to the east, and I was on the heels of Cyrille Neveu and loving every minute of it. I've never been more comfortable in a triathlon swim - out of the water I popped second in 44:30. In the transition area I smiled at the French announcer as he tried to read my number and figure out who the heck was in the lead pack with Gilles Reboul, Yves Cordier, Neveu, and the other big boys.

The climbing started immediately, 550 meters in the first fifteen kilometers until we were staring down, down, down at the lake we had just paddled around. I took the time to look around me, not once but constantly. Cyclists passed but I didn't care - there would be at least six hours of pedaling and I desperately wanted to see the end. By the time I felt the foothills approaching the Col d'Izoard I was in 19th place. By the time I hit the top, twenty kilometers later and 2,361 meters above the sea, I was in 15th and ready to mount my offensive. One hundred kilometers were done and 88 remained, but more importantly the next 30k would be downhill. I grabbed the feedbag and started descending the switchbacks.

Around the first sweeping right-hander I held my bag of food in one hand and the brake in the other - immediately I knew this was a bad idea. I looked down to throw the bag over my shoulder and then looked up at the road - only to find the ditch straight in front of me and unavoidable at 50 kph. In the eternity of time that transpires before a horrible accident, I considered how this was not supposed to be the way my race would end. My front wheel hit the rocks.

I flew over the handlebars and landed solidly on my head and right shoulder. I lay in the ditch, a crumpled figure trying to determine what parts hurt and what still worked. Five hundred things happened next, each eternally chiseled in my mind but a blur at the moment. Two recreational cyclists looked over my bike, noticed that my rear wheel had punctured, and discussed whether fixing it would be against the rules. A French spectator screamed for an ambulance. A doctor arrived and immediately pronounced my right collarbone broken. A gentle rain fell and I cursed myself, the first time of a thousand, for not securing the feedbag before descending.

I was taken to the hospital at Briangon, x-rayed, and given a shoulder strap to immobilize the right arm. Then I was told I could go, even though I was 45 kilometers from Embrun with no transportation, no money, and not even shoes to walk in (I had arrived in bike shoes). I spent the afternoon hitchhiking barefoot and bloody down the road, arriving at the finish line just in time to see Cyrille Neveu win in 9:59.

The chapter has closed, but the book is not complete. Yesterday I could climb mountains and today my wife ties my shoes. A million thoughts haunt me, with a million yet to come; could I have finished the race? I am still on the outside, still looking in.