Let me tell you a story.
The year was 1989. I was in my first year of college at the Florida State University. I was a walk on on the swim team. I was nowhere near the fastest guy on the team. The coaches put me on the distance squad, because that’s where you go if you are not fast. Hopefully, you will learn endurance. I did. You also learn to let your mind wander as you swim back and forth, back and forth, over and over and over again. We did workouts that I still shake my head at today and think, "How did I ever do that?"
Anyway, one day, our head coach Terry Maul, a Vietnam veteran and a triathlete, gave the swim team a choice. The first choice was a Saturday morning workout of 10,000 yards swimming, about a 2 and a half hour workout. The second choice was to race in the Tallahassee Sprint Triathlon, with distances of 1/4 mile swim, 15 mile bike, and a 3 mile run, about an hour workout.
Most of us chose the triathlon.
Now, being the somewhat reckless and care-free young’uns that we were in those days, the team got together the night before the race and had a party. See, we weren’t having a morning practice, so what harm would there be in living it up a little? How hard could a sprint triathlon be? “Not that hard,” we declared, as we stayed up until 3 am, laughing at the Fates, completely ignorant of the trauma we were about to endure.
Let me point out that this was to be my first triathlon. I had seen the Ironman on TV, and had heard a few stories, like Julie Moss crawling across the finish line, and people passing out on their bikes, or literally puking their guts out. But those were all in the Ironman. We weren’t going to do anything like that. We were just doing a sprint. It would be easy.
The alarm went off at 6 am, and my roommate and I managed to drag ourselves out of bed. I had borrowed a bike and helmet from my upstairs neighbor, and my roommate was going to ride his mountain bike. I really thought I could do well. After all, I was a college athlete. I was on the swim team. I was 18 years old.
I was an idiot.
So we make it out to the race site, a place called the Rez. If you went to FSU, you probably have been there. We somehow manage to put our bikes and helmets in the right place. We find our other swim team members. They look just as bad as us. The race directors line us up at the lake. They ran the 34 and under age groups first, so we were all in the first heat.
The gun goes off, and we barrel into the water. A few of the faster mid-distance swimmers jump to the front. I came out of the water fifth, about two seconds behind my friend Charlie Rose, who is now a swim coach here in Orlando, and who I swim with occasionally. I mean, swim for, as the only reason Charlie gets in the pool nowadays is to play with his dog.
We run to the bikes. I am pleased with how things are looking. I get on my bike and start pedaling. I am having fun, whee. But wait, what is that up ahead?
This is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Another swimmer, a guy by the name of Scott Mundell, is riding a mountain bike. Scott, for the record, is 6’8”, and a big, strong guy, and is one of the fastest ocean swimmers in the world. He went on to win the World Lifeguard Championships swim in 1995.
But what is that on his head? Is that a helmet? Yes, it is.
It’s a motorcycle helmet.
With the visor up.
"Hey, Scott," I say, as I ride up next to him, "Nice helmet."
Scott looks at me. There is a mad gleam in his eye. "Yeeehhaaaaa, Marty!" he yells.
All I could do was laugh and keep riding.
I would also like to tell you something about Scott. About 2 and a half years ago, Scott started getting headaches. He went to the doctor. They discovered that he had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his head. It had been there for at least five years, probably more. Prognosis: poor.
But Scott, God love him, is a fighter. He is the real deal. He is a hero. He went to chemo. He did everything the doctors asked him to do.
What he did not do is give up. He never gave up. He stayed positive and believed that he would be healthy again. The tumor shrank. Then it became aggressive again. Three weeks ago, as a last resort, he had brain surgery.
Scott, my friends, is back in action and ready to go. I know plenty of the folks from the beaches in South Florida will be glad to know that, so if you know anyone who knows Scott, let them know that he is OK. Email me if you want his phone number.
Anyway. So I suffered through the rest of the bike, and wound up coming into the second transition in 22nd place. My legs were in pain. Then I started running. Then I started walking. About halfway through the run, I was in misery. Then, the impossible happened. My swim coach passed me. Terry was about 40 years old at the time. How could he have passed me? I was 18! I was a hammer!
Like I said, I was an idiot.
"How you feeling, Marty?" Terry asked me.
"Terrible," says I.
"Just keep it going, you’ll get there," he said, and then he ran on.
And that’s the truth, in the end. They are words to live by. I finished the race, nowhere near where I thought I would. But since then, I have kept it going. I’ve had my ups and downs, just like everybody else. But I’ve kept it going. And while I may not be a world champion, or a Hawaii Ironman finisher, I can say one thing: I won the Coca Cola Triathlon series. That ain’t too shabby.
‘Cause I kept it going.
Marty Gaal, October 2000