A story idea struck me when watching my older brother compete in an Iron Man triathlon. For those not in the know, an Iron Man is a race that starts with a 2.5-mile swim, continues with a 112-mile bike ride, and ends with a freaking marathon to run. My brother accomplished this in 12 and a half hours, the same amount of time it takes to convince me that the gym is giving out gluten-free pizza to the runners. Though my older brother declined against this idea later, he wanted to watch the midnight finishers of the race, arguing that they’ve gone through the most pain, therefore accomplishing the most out of the participants. So here’s what I’m thinking- how far can I stretch that? How would people react to a runner that took two days or more to finish the course? Would he be a hero or a loser? Would the town hate that she was blocking up traffic? Of course, to best write this, I need to know what it’s like to complete an Iron Man. And already Meatloaf tells me “And I would do anything for love, but I won’t burn fat.” How does one write about an experience one has never undergone? The first step is talking to someone who did. My brother keeps a triathlon journal, and logged in his experiences. Here are some choice quotes from it:
- “A race this long is more of a mental game then (sic) anything else…”
- “Everyone becomes friends on the bike and run, but there are no friends on the swim. I got punched twice in the face…”
- “By the second length my mouth was so dry I had to keep swallowing to retain the moisture in my mouth and keep from vomiting…”
- “It is here (the biking section) that you become extremely conscious and even a bit anal of the number of people around you.”
- But Papa Bear (hill) is lined with dozens of spectators in funny costumes cheering us on, and you feed off their energy…”
- “My bladder is rebelling and will no longer stay quiet.”
- “I am ‘banking’ hard, which means I am losing it and ever pedal stroke hurts. My headache hurts more, I am dehydrated, and all I want is to get off my bike.”
- “I flash my family a smile so they won’t know my pain.”
- “Around mile 3 (of the run) I feel like barfing so I walk it off for a bit.”
- “I begin to think about everything that has brought me to this point and I begin to get emotional. I shut it down because it’s only mile 4 and I have 22 more to go.”
- “About mile 7 however I can’t handle another gel/GU (nutrition pack) and give up on those. Two miles later I can feel my tri shorts rubbing hard against my shin under my groin and know… I am chafing…”
- “I am so tired and my feet hurt so much and I don’t want to move.”
- “My legs feel that fresh desperation that comes from knowing the finish line is within sight.”
- “As I begin to round the corner and hear the cheers I have to cover my face and stop myself from crying.”
The driving takeaway from all this? Emotional strength in the midst of absolute physical and mental despair. There’s a lot more details to this event, of course, but we’re interested in what can be applied to our characters. Now “write what you know” is clichéd and not-often-useful advice. I love instead the variation “write what you know about what you don’t know, and write what you don’t know about what you know.” Well, brother, I don’t know what it’s like to run 26 miles, but I do remember 3. And when in depressive episodes, I learn to listen to emotional states rather than treacherous mental and physical feedback. So what’s it like when I run?
- Metal rods in your legs that shake with each slam of your feet
- Try to sing with music in head
- Burning gut
- Sweat dripping over eyes
- Try to think about writing
- Intense shooting neck pain.
Yeah, that last one’s why I’m not going to do an Iron Man anytime soon. What about depression?
- Exploding emptiness sensation
- Headache, fatigue, chills
- Sore joints
- When bothered to feel, only painful feelings
- Time moves too fast and too slow.
- Intense desire to distract myself with Internet/substitute
I think somewhere between these two states I’ve found out what I know about what I don’t know. I boldfaced the brother quotes that’ll be most useful to this exercise. Let’s combine all this, and find out what it’s like when I’m at the running portion of an Iron Man.
Step, step, step into the spikes. I throw a black hole of a stomach over pieces of gravel and twig, a black hole so dense that it moves to consume the universe. But I can’t think about that. A neck of broken glass supports a head that will soon float into the sky and explode after leaving the atmosphere. But I can’t think about that. What can I think about? ‘Watch’ as a character needs work because he both wants to be responsible for others and wants them to be independent so maybe he’s caught up on what he has to do so in the end does he realize that he doesn’t have to do anything or maybe that he has to TREE. I swerve left, back onto the road. No walking allowed yet, it’s not on a mile divisible by 3- but you made an exception on mile 4 so are you including 1.33 as divisible by 3 or OH GOD MY EVERYTHING. My bladder aches, maybe I could piss my entire being out and be washed away. That is, if it comes out piss and not more sweat. The road here will never be longer than these woods.
I wipe the sweat from my eyes and look to the volunteers sitting in the shade. A “…need to kick start my car part…” fragment of conversation floats by as I stride along.
Kick start my car part.
Almost sounds like “Kickstart My Heart”…
No. Do not go there, Nick. You need to take it easy can’t let a surge get to you yet but I’m too weak to acknowledge my weakness and here I go WHEN I GET HIGH I GET HIGH ON SPEED! TOP FUEL FUNNY CAR’S A DRUG FOR ME, MY HEART! MY HEART, KICKSTART MY HEART! I SEE THERE’S 19 MILES TO GO-O, CAN’T LEAVE THESE WOODS IF I TAKE IT SLOW, MY HEART! MY HEART, KICKSTART MY HEART!
Step, step into the beat. The mind’s where pain runs deep.
So that’s what I imagine running the marathon section of an Iron Man is like. Looking back, this turned out sillier than I conceived, but sacrificing mental cohesion for emotional intensity is a fitting tradeoff to describe such an experience. I tend to be emotionally reserved in my writing anyways. I suppose this segment also requires the reader to know Mötley Crüe’s greatest song, and I can’t always put a link in my books (seriously, click the link, it’s a lifelong treasure). That’s a risk I can take- universal songs are hard to come by, and I’m not going to run to a round of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Also, the last two lines may be too cheesy.
I’m not that good at evaluating my own writing. Y’all will have to do it for me.
Let’s try this again from the perspective of an original character, like Beard, on the biking section. This’ll allow us to distance ourselves from the subject and give more of an example of how I might write this event in a novel or story.
Hikmat picked up a gel pack with his handlebarless hand and ripped it open with his teeth. He put the triberry scent to his mouth. His tongue languished out for it, until the tongue pulled back for Hikmat to whimper, “fuck,” and throw the pack to the ground. Each pedal was a step over a mountain range. If Hikmat had energy, he’d scratch the chaff in his groin until his skin turned purple and shed like a boa constrictor finishing digestion of the Twitter follower who suggested this goddamn race to him. At least he could undo the straps holding his beard in place later if needed. Scratching somewhere else helped ease other itchings. Didn’t make sense, but to Hikmat, him at his least sensible could total party kill the brightest of the ‘moderates’ he saw online.
Up ahead, he saw a blue tent under the shade of wooden restaurants. Then he smiled. Someone dressed up as Barney the Dinosaur. There was also Whitney Houston, Captain Ahab, and Liberace, drinking and cheering on the bikers in front of him. Hikmat’s smile, which required all his body to strain and tense up, vanished when he saw the costume greeting party retreat to their coolers after the bikers in front of Hikmat passed. None of the other spectators on the street cheered for him. So Hikmat raised his hands up and cracked an even bigger smile to shout, “Let’s hear it, bitches!” And yes, they let him hear it. That egg-avatared follower was right- Hikmat’s claims of innate greatness demanded a backup. And, as he pushed on on his perfect tuned bike, he heard how he needed others to find it in him.
This was a more conservative effort to capture similar feelings, and I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than the previous one. What do you think?