October 08, 2010

Ironwoman, a novel (Part 1)

Introduction to Ironwoman, a novel: As an author of three non-fiction books and a soon-to-be-published collection of poems, I have written very little fiction, and certainly none that has been published.

But in 2005, after quitting my job as a reporter for Bloomberg News after more than seven years to take time off and compete in three Ironmans in Australia, Germany and New Zealand respectively over a period of 11 months, I felt inspired to try fiction.

What if a woman were to win the Ironman World Championships outright?

The idea was sparked in part by the performances of women ultrarunners Ann Trason and Pam Reed.

I began writing, using both my vivid imagination and my experience with the sport I’d been involved in as an age grouper since 1999. After creating 12,747 words I stopped.

Two years later, I was in Kona to watch my partner Tim compete in his first Ironman World Championships. That was 2007 and I also watched a then unknown win the woman's championships title. She's since become a household name, having three successive wins in Hawaii. This Saturday she's poised to make it four.

At the time of my first fiction attempt with the working title Ironwoman in September and October 2005, the fastest Ironman time by a female was 8:50:53 set by Paula Newby-Fraser in Roth in 1994; this record was not bettered until the Dutch Yvonne van Vlerken did so in July 2008—a whopping 14 years later.

Since then women have sped up though none more so than Chrissie Wellington who has made Ironman even more exciting, as she redefines what’s possible—not just for women but also for men. At Roth in July this year, she improved the fastest Ironman time for women to 8:19.

Now women are within half an hour of the men. The men’s Ironman record is 7:50:27, set by Belgium’s Luc van Lierde in 1997, also in Roth. When I saw a Daily Mail article on the Xtri.com website yesterday, in which Chrissie is quoted as saying that it is only a matter of time before the women beat the men, I thought of what I had written five years ago, revisited it and decided to publish this unfinished draft in short instalments, before fiction becomes reality.

I want to re-emphasize that I wrote this two full years before I, and most people in the sport, had heard about Chrissie. I want to make clear that the character I chose is entirely fictional and has absolutely nothing to do with any specific female triathlete.
At the time I simply wanted to explore a story about something that seemed impossible—a woman taking the overall crown in Kona and what impact that would have on the discussion of the sport. My inspiration was the eternal quest for improvement in sport, as in humanity.

I believe that in the young sport of triathlon, Ironman, athletes have so much more potential. And in 2005 I believed that women particularly had a lot more to offer to this sport. I still do.

I wanted to explore how we look at athletic performance, especially that of women. It was only 1972 that women were first allowed to run the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest, and only 1984 until women could compete in the marathon at the Olympic Games.

I also wanted to explore how our perceptions of performances have been cast into doubt by the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in any sport. Most of all I wanted to explore how I, as both a writer and an avid endurance athlete, would approach the subject.

If I let her win in the opening scene, would I as the author allow her to be a superb athlete, a hero, or would I turn her into a villain?

Disclaimer: Although inspired in part by true incidents, the following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event. And I repeat, I wrote this draft in 2005.

Ironwoman  (part I)

“She is about to do what no other woman has ever done. And something only a few men have done. This is history in the making. This is … this is … She is breaking the tape now. She has done it.”

Mark Rally, the Ironman World Championships announcer, then falls silent for a moment. He seems unsure of what to say next, something that rarely happens. He must be thinking what most other people at the finish line of the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, are.

How can a woman win this race, this exhausting triathlon in one of the most humid places on earth that takes the fastest as many hours as most people’s work day in the office? Is it possible for a woman to beat the best male endurance triathletes in the world without any help from performance-enhancing drugs? Should they expend energy celebrating this unbelievable win?

It wouldn’t be the first time that a triathlete has been found guilty of drug use to go that extra bit faster. In fact, it happened last year when Norma Klaus crossed the line as first female and was crowned accordingly before a positive drug test showed it wasn't simply hard training that had gotten her there. Norma admitted to using erythropoietin (EPO) and the real winner, Nadia Brehmen, received her title of Ironman World Champion.

It was Nadia's fifth time winning that honour and she did not appreciate missing out on the celebration at the finish line, and the post-race awards the following night. But what was done was done. There was no repeating that particular moment.

Triathletes don’t earn that much. Winning an Ironman race outside of Hawaii gets them no more than US$10,000. It’s hard enough to win one, let alone a second one during a year. The Hawaii Ironman, on the other hand, pays the winner US$100,000 – both male and female. The added prestige helps increase sponsor money too, so for many long distance triathletes Hawaii is the most important race of the season. Winning it is a big deal.

The race has only been held 29 times*. The gap between the winning times of the men and the women has narrowed but it had never before come even close enough for people to imagine one day a woman would take the overall win.

Yet, that is exactly what Tara Wiesner has done today.

Instead of the usual party in an emotional high-energy atmosphere at the finish line, there was the sound of polite clapping filled with disbelief at what spectators had just witnessed. A woman broke the tape first. Before any man.

It had happened in the Life Time Fitness triathlon, where Bianca Lindsay came out the overall winner two years in a row in the three years the pros raced in an equalizer format in which men and women were given a handicap intended to even out their starting time differences.

And Miranda Johnson once beat all the men home at a regular half Ironman event. Without disrespect to the men who raced there or devaluing Miranda’s superb time there, but it wasn’t like she raced against the elite of the elites like Patrick Road and Neil Strong.

Today’s first man was a couple of minutes away. His arrival at the finish helped announcer Mark recover. “Here we have the first man approaching." Mark halted for a minute, because it sounded so bizarre. Then he pulled himself together.

“Christian McDougal, from Australia, has finally overcome the cramping issues he suffered in the previous three years and shown that he can talk the talk, and walk the walk.” 

Christian looked pained. He, too, seemed incredulous as he lifted the tape, knowing that this tape had been lifted less than five minutes before—by a female. He was chicked at the biggest event of the year. That probably wasn’t how he had imagined his Kona victory, which he always had believed would come one day. He seemed a bit angry too, probably at the fact that someone had stolen the spotlight from him in such a major way.

Who was this Tara Wiesner anyway? Could she really have won outright? How could she be so fast? Had the prospect of winning—the prestige and the money—led someone to cheat? Surely she’d know she would be tested. This race was the biggest triathlon deal of the entire season.

Tara sat on a chair behind the finish line. She looked exhausted but very content. Tara didn’t appear shocked as most other people did. It seemed like her incredible victory wasn’t as big of a deal to her as to most others. A few journalists started making their way towards her.

They looked unlike reporters today, shy and unsure of the questions to ask. The usual post-race questions would have very unusual responses, no matter how there were phrased. The reporters waited, hoping someone else would ask the first question. Nobody seemed keen to be that person, another far cry from the usual shouting match with the loudest question asked usually being the first one answered.

Most of the reporters here had never even heard of this pro triathlete before today, and had to guess at the spelling of her name. So Megan decided to take the lead. “Tara, congratulations on your … incredible… performance. How does it feel to win this race outright?”

To be continued...

No comments: