It’s 12:15am, Christmas morning. The 11pm Christmas Eve service of the local Anglican church has just wrapped up and people should be heading home so Santa has time to get all his work done. An excited, yet hushed whispering is spreading through the church hall and the congregation is filing out. A suspiciously large portion of the crowd are wearing board shorts and carrying towels. One of them is wearing an ugly pink jacket with a pride well and truly above their fashion sense. It looks like it was plucked from the bottom of a clothing bin in 1982. Maybe it was.
Cars file out, all of them heading east to the beach. No one will admit to it, but its a sort of race. Which way’s quicker – along The Boulevard, the Kingsway, President Avenue? It’s definitely not President. You’d be crazy to go that way. Some stop for sustenance, a last energy boost before the minute and a half of activity that has made better men vomit, but MacDonalds is the only place open at this time on a Christmas Day, so its a bitter sweet pill.
At Cronulla, at a secret and well guarded rock pool (the only one with a light over it, I think), men, women and even children line the foreshore. Anticipation rises as the crowd builds. Rumours get passed around, “I hear Dibbo is going to wear a mankini,” “I’ve been told that Scotty B is going to turn his back on spotting and go for the win,” “AB is a big favourite to take it out this year.” Boys, who will soon be men strip down, men, who are already men do the same, but with more confidence while Pete Bartlett draws a line in the sand. No one crosses it. Except Sam, who was pushed over by Stinky.
12:55 clicks over, and still there’s no sign of last years winner. Will he show? He was at church, we saw that aweful pink jacket, the jacket that has only been worn by past winners, and some fashionista from the early 80s. Where is he? 12:57 arrives and there’s some excitement from the car park. Someone’s running down in a flash of outdated pink! Finally, all is ready.
At the stroke of one, an air horn sounds, an ominous noise that travels over the ocean. Early on Christmas morning, a young New Zealand boy turns his head at a noise half imagined. Back in Australia, it’s 1:00:01am and the calm of the beach has turned to chaos. Bare feet struggle for grip on the sand, bodies recoil as they enter the cold wet and sheer will pushes them on. Almost instantly someone is tackled, hard into the water. A cry goes up from the grass as the spectators reel with the cold calculation of the hit.
15 seconds, or maybe 15 hours have passed. 30 or so blokes a few brave women are splashing towards the pool’s back wall. Already the less prepared are feeling the effects of the exertion. Next to their heads they see only feet, or worse, look into the faces of those already returning. Their lungs are burning and arms feel like lead. What seemed such a small swim only 25 seconds ago now feels like a marathon. Finally the wall has been touched, and they’re half way. The swim back is torturous. As the swimmers look up, already they can see the leaders trying to break through an impenetrable wall. A wall made of steel and determination and blokes who want the eventual winner to have earned that right.
One by one the racers go down. Every tackle is a big hit, no less softened by the water and sand. The fastest swimmers struggle in the chaos and those slower paddlers see a ray of hope, a gap, a chance. Then they’re driven into the sand from behind, such is the cruelty of competition.
It’s 1:00:58am and eventually the defences wear down, and boys who are now men, men who have always been men and the handful of women who are braver than men, reach the sand. Still they are hounded by the wall, but one, just one gets a palm over the line. Cheering erupts from the grass and half the crowd wonder why they are standing in the dark in the middle of the night on Christmas Day to watch a race that lasts only a minute. In the water, the tussle slowly dies down and racers make their way over the line, some to offer congratulations, some to empty their stomachs, all to dream of next year. The wall, that unbreakable mountain of men, relents and calmly swims the course to join the rest. No one doesn’t finish this race.
This is Ironman. And this year I’ll take home that ugly pink jacket.
Until next time,