Many years ago I went with a bunch of friends to work the Ironman in Hawaii. No, for goodness sake I didn't compete in it, we volunteered to work the different stations/transitions in the race. First directing the swimmers out of the water and leading them to their bikes, then 'catching' their sweat and pee soaked bikes (yes, they really do pee right on their bikes while they ride, something I wasn't told until after I grabbed the first bike by the seat as the rider jumped off and made his way to the changing room, my coworker nicely said to me, "You might want to try for the bar, just in case...."yuck) and then finally waiting at the finish line, well into the late night hours, as each triathlete made their way across that coveted "FINISH" line. My job was to catch the runners as they crossed the line, handing them their towels and doing a quick but vital check of their state of awareness and consciousness, being trained by the docs to look for glossy eyes, incoherence and other indicators that the athlete was in trouble and in need of immediate medical assistance and interventions. The docs explained to us the power of the will of these athletes to finish the race, that they literally would at some point lose their mental faculties and go into an autopilot mode that would allow them to continue racing, well beyond what their bodies and minds could handle. They would stay in this state for as long as they needed to get to the finish line and then they would collapse. It was our job to spot those athletes and catch them before everything shut down and they were injured or worse.
In the early hours, they would jog across the finish as easily as if they had just finished a light workout, not a grueling, all day under the burning sun, triathlon. One guy even proposed to me, yes, I did think about calling for the medical team for him, knowing he was clearly delusional, but I let it slide....And then as the day wore on, the first athletes who showed the signs of trouble began to show. It was amazing to me, how strong they looked coming across the line, all the way up to the line even, good posture, measured stride, an outward appearance of total awareness of their surroundings. And then, as they crossed that line, when I would look into their eyes, I could see it, total vacancy. Nobody was home. And it was only a matter of seconds before everything would shut down. Sometimes they would even manage to utter a few words to me, seemingly able to converse, "I did it." and then I would feel their muscles go limp, their bodies literally collapsing on themselves, as I would yell for a medic and a stretcher.
The power of the human mind is an awesome thing. The ability to will oneself to a certain point. A finish line. To be able to mentally see a goal and then to, by sheer force of will, compel your body onward, even when every ounce of you has said no, it's too much to go on, it's stunning really. Because you do it, without even thinking about it. I wondered all those years ago if the athletes really ever knew when they had crossed over into that auto-pilot mode, if they felt themselves slipping and if so, what happened within them to coerce their mind into the takeover of the body. What was the difference between the ones who crossed the line and the ones who collapsed before they got there.
At some point I think, they must have stopped focusing on the steps they were taking, they just kept looking for that "FINISH", believing it must, surely be, just around the next curve in the road. Just keep moving everything the same way and somehow you'll get there. Don't stop, don't look back, don't think about anything else, just keep moving, just keep moving.
I never thought I'd ever see anything like that again, certainly never experience it myself. But I wonder, if I get to my "FINISH" line, will someone look into my eyes and see the vacancy, see that I am on auto-pilot, will someone be there to catch me when this is all over? Because even though I am no athlete, certainly no triathlete, I think I know now, why they call it the "Ironman".