Allow me to reflect on a time some weeks ago. In that moment I was running away from a Portuguese sunset. Behind me was an orange sky and all the demons of an arduous day. A long day of athletic memories. A four kilometre swim and one-hundred-eighty kilometres on the bike. This day didn’t seem real, but I knew from heart and my legs that it was.
My body, sweat-ridden and weary, was performing at its physical peak. I felt magnificent. I was magnificent. With the bike ride complete, it came time for a forty two point two kilometre run – a marathon. This, the hardest part of any Ironman triathlon. In front of me then was just the road and all of my dreams. A dream of finishing. That I knew for sure. And so, I ran.
It didn’t take me long to get moving. Rhythm is to a runner what a fix is to an addict. Hit that rhythm and you’ll be in your stride. Kilometres ticked by, black asphalt my company. On my shoulder, the beautiful coastline, and all around me crowds of people. Then the desolate, lonely part of the course leading to the u-turn. The lighthouse at Guincho. The lighthouse of my dreams. In my world of focus, I could hear my footsteps. My footsteps, along with all those of the other soon-to-be broken athletes.
Back in town then, and the support from the spectators was something I knew instantly that I will never forget. I lifted my pace a little. Two more visits to the lighthouse of my dreams and I’m done, I thought.
With half the marathon ran, I was managing finely enough. I endured another lap through the lonely, arid section of the course. It was torture and then it wasn’t, and then it was. With every aid station I threw water at my face, guzzled a gel, and prayed for salvation. Soon the sun began to sink, and at the final turn of the lighthouse of my dreams I realised it was me against the sun. An orange world was behind me, and pride lay ahead.
After thirty-four kilometres, I saw one of my closest friends, Ollie. A fellow Ironman debutant, I knew he would be experiencing a struggle of his own. But we can do anything, I thought. We can do anything.
“Ollie, we’re gonna bloody do it! We’re gonna bloody do it! Let’s go!”
“I’ll see you at the finish line mate — you’re nearly there!”
And so at two kilometres to go I started to realise that what Ollie had said was real. I was going to finish, and finish well at that. The Portuguese sun had finally set. I started to choke up. I smelt the evening air. I revelled in the significance of the day. And now – right now – sitting down to write this reflection, I find it a difficult sensation to describe. I suppose I can liken it to the way that the weight of the dying sun was letting me know that the Ironman was soon to end. Night’s growth permitted a palpable enough feeling to assure me that glory was near, for Ironman triathlons take all day, and that day was nearly over.
With one kilometre to go, I passed a Brazilian athlete.
He kindly yelled: “My friend, you have to go faster now! You’re going to become a god damned Ironman!”
“Thank you,” I yelled back, smiling through a grimace.
And then my legs. My legs! They carried me forward faster than they had ever carried me before. A man on fire with the final blazes of the day is what I was. The memories of the previous year hit me then. Memories of my life. Of people. Thoughts of strife and toil. My god, it’s all been worth it, I thought, and I felt my lips wobble and my eyes well.
At four hundred metres to go I rounded the old fort and saw the finish line. I was broken but Cascais was so beautiful in front of me. I saw the IRONMAN logo. The white spotlights. Hundreds of people. I reached the red carpet in ecstasy. I heard my own screams of “yes! Yes! Yes! Come on!” I crossed the finish line and listened to those immortal words: “Samuel Hodges, you are an Ironman!”
My first thought then? I will remember this, and I collected my medal, looking to the sky and up past the heavens. And after these seconds in which I was coddled by the gods, I sat and I sobbed. I smiled like an idiot. I unzipped my skinsuit. The job was done. Random people approached me. Handshakes and words of congratulations. Never have I completed an event where the camaraderie and support is so omnipresent. I will tell you now that the emotion it generates can’t be justified by words – you simply must experience the feeling.
Shortly after, waiting for Ollie to finish, I headed to our apartment. On the phone was Dad. I cried. He told me he was so proud of me. Hundreds of texts and messages lit up my phone too. I’d been utterly inundated throughout the course of the day, and for a brief period of time I felt so incredibly loved. What crazed universe is this that I find myself suspended in right now? Is this a dream? I sat and cherished the moment for how special it was. Then another phone call. Mum. “Mum I did it. I did it!” And I started to dissect and describe my race in between emotional fits of joyful sorrow.
Back in town, Ollie had his moment down the finishing straight, and I was there waiting. We embraced, sitting down on the stone floor together. When you are good friends with someone, you often don’t need to say a lot to each other to express yourself. In that moment, it was only joy that we felt. Joy and relief. We sipped our beers, and everything disappeared except for us. I will never forget how proud I was of my old friend.
But now to the present. I (sitting here in jeans, looking very unassuming) am an Ironman. I always will be. It’s odd really. Does it matter? Not really. But that, dear readers, is not why I did it. I did it because I love to do things that represent something bigger than I’ll ever be. When anyone strives to achieve such things, they become a more interesting individual.
In life, we all live with unique interests, skills, opinions, and approaches. We all want to leave something behind about who we were. We can’t just be cosmic particles left to the wind. We are human beings. We have a consciousness. We are loved and we give love. I did the Ironman because I want to be remembered by some of the ones who loved me. And if that is not one of the finest testaments to a person’s character that there is, then the poets and all of their students have been misled on some of life’s finer meanings.
Confront your own challenges and become the person people will remember. If they grant you this, it is the greatest compliment you can ever receive. Vanity, glory, suffering. I guess an Ironman signifies all these things, but like many of our greatest undertakings, there was a degree of love in there too. Love for sport, the process, love and support from others. Maybe love does make the world go around?
Perhaps I shall do another Ironman just to make sure…
~ Samuel Hodges, after Ironman Portugal, November 2021