Mr. Bill has learned that he’s in for a merry dance, when I take the lead; which is what led to our misadventure, in the 2013 Ohope Beach, Ironman Challenge.
Standing alongside Mr. Bill, gazing wistfully at the colourful banner, announcing the Inaugural Ohope Beach, Ironman Challenge, that had appeared overnight on Mahy Reserve, I longed to be a competitor. Organised team sports for girls did not exist, when I was growing up; only boys played Little League Baseball and Midget Football. No matter, there was plenty of opportunity for exercise. I climbed trees, biked, jumped rope, swam and walked the half mile to school (uphill both ways, as the old joke goes). Mothers were ever so lucky, that we returned home for lunch in the sixties and luckily, I had an hour off mid-day, to walk the additional mile. We had neither playground nor gym class, at dear old SPS; there simply wasn’t the need. The chance to finally don a team uniform, would have to wait until I attended Bay View, an all girls high school or so I thought. Adolescence brought asthma, ending my dreams of athletic glory, with a wheeze. There was no fear of missing out, I knew I had missed out.
Mr. Bill is fortunate; he knows the joys of competing. His Little League team won the District Championship and he played soccer and basketball in high school. Now he can be spotted, pounding the pavement in Ohope. Our four children are lucky as well, for they all played sports, sons and daughters alike – times have changed for the better. To further that end, I became the number one driver to: tee ball, softball, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, swimming, cross country, track and golf. Finally, I was involved in athletics! Although cheering from the sidelines, was as close as I would come to playing. Yet, like Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, in the movie, “On the Waterfront “, there were times, that I wanted to wail and scream, “I could have been a contender“!
Still a bona fide, Iron Man Competition, was coming to town and it would be exciting to watch elite athletes, compete in the charity event. Scanning the poster, the particulars for the bike rally segment, caught my eye. They were allowing amateurs to enter! To ride in an Ironman race, what a pipe dream that would be! I shared that ludicrous thought with Mr. Bill, expecting a chuckle: instead he floored me when he said, matter of factly, “you could do that”. Had he taken leave of his senses? I explained, amateur or not, I couldn’t possibly bike that far, alongside ‘real’ cyclists. Mr. Bill looked at me with surprise, adding, “you bike further than that every day”. I did? Who knew? Not me.
Living in New Zealand has rejuvenated me. Tagging along with Mr. Bill when he became a locum tenens, surgeon at Whakatane Hospital, I felt like a kid again, with the freedom to ride my bike , all over Ohope. I was just having fun. I had never bothered to measure the distance travelled, but Mr. Bill had. Our fates were sealed when Mr. Bill encouragingly added, “you enter, I’ll do it with you and you can set the pace”. Done. Challenge accepted.
Race day dawned fine, with clear skies and cool temperatures, perfect biking weather. I was a bundle of nerves but Mr. Bill was relaxed, as we stood in line with our bikes, to register for the bike rally. When we ticked off amateur on the form, we were given a shorter route, for the ‘non-competitive ‘ racers. I was crushed. This was not mentioned in the Ironman prospectus. Now, instead of feeling like a kid again, I felt like a baby, not allowed to play with the big kids. Not fair! I wanted to do the real 14- kilometre race, not a wimpy 8-K route. This was my one chance to test my mettle. Knowing that I was about to start sputtering, Mr. Bill, who wasn’t upset in the least, by the shortened route, gently reminded me, that it was for charity and paid our entrance fees. We pushed our bikes to the staging area, on Mair Street. The competitive cyclists were already there, with their flash bikes and wearing sleek spandex. We amateurs were a motley crew, with our push bikes and leisure attire. Surreptitiously, I eyed the competition; a mother and her two young children. I felt confident that I could beat the little girl and boy but wasn’t sure about their Mum. I was much older. However, she was much heavier. What was the winning ratio between age and weight? Did I have an edge? I had no idea but I was determined to give it my all.
The race director took one look at the assembled rag tag, non-competitive entrants and announced, that the competitive racers would go first. Apparently, we didn’t need a head start or more likely, it was feared we’d cause chaos on the course. The countdown began, the starter’s gun went bang and the pros were off like a shot, never to be seen again. We five, shuffled over to the starting line, doing our best not to bump into one another. A few encouraging words, a countdown, the starter’s gun fired and away we all went. I sailed onto Pohutukawa Avenue. By standers were clapping and cheering. I was in the lead! Mr. Bill was right behind me, just as he said he would be. Students from Whakatane High School had volunteered to be race marshals and were blocking the intersections for us. What a thrill, I was stopping traffic! What an ego trip! It’s a wonder that I didn’t need a bigger helmet, to contain my expanding head. With no need to watch for cars, I flew down Pohutukawa, smiling at my adoring fans. It was exhilarating. If this was the high, one got from competing, I wanted more. Then disaster struck. The little girl passed me, grinning from ear to ear, with her blond ponytail streaming behind her. I was gutted. Beaten by a child. She was triumphant; she had bested an adult. She had speed, I’ll grant her that. Yet, soon her mad pumping began to wane and she slowed down. I decreased my pace as well, not wishing to hit her. When she slowed yet again by Ohope School, I wondered what the race etiquette was in an amateur event. Would it be churlish to pass a child? The mother and grandmother in me, wanted to let her win but the newly awakened competitive spirit in me, wouldn’t allow that. I passed her. Poor Mr. Bill was mortified by my actions but true to his word, he stayed right behind me and shamefaced, he passed her as well. (After the race, Mr. Bill admonished me saying,”I can’t believe you passed that little girl”!)
My confidence shaken, I redoubled my efforts but there was a desperation to my peddling. I felt the little girl nipping at my heels but I didn’t dare turn to look, lest that should cost me some speed. The grade had changed, after turning onto Harbour Road and now, I too was in danger of slowing down, as I approached heart break hill, leading up to the Port Ohope Store. Something else had awakened in me-my long dormant asthma. I was gasping as I rounded the corner at the top of the hill and turned onto Anne Street. I stole a look over my shoulder, Mr. Bill was right behind me, that was a huge relief. I heard the roar of approaching motorcycles. The noise grew louder and louder, until a trio of bikers sped past, reduced their speed and dropped in front of me. I had an advance team. I should have been thrilled but I was dying. My lungs were screaming for air and now I was choking on exhaust fumes. Still, I simply could not lessen my pace and allow that child to pass me again. On we rode down Ocean Road, soon a Saint John’s Ambulance came alongside Mr. Bill and the driver asked, if we were in the race. “I think so”, was Mr. Bill’s reply and with that, the ambulance tucked in behind him. We were escorted by the bikies the length of Ocean Road, to Te Akau and back onto Pohutukawa Avenue. Finally the end was in sight. With the three motorcycles leading me to glory, Mr. Bill behind me and an ambulance bringing up the rear, I crossed the finish line, wheezing and gasping but nevertheless, proud as punch. Standing there eating sausages, was the fat mother and her two children. This time the little girl was not grinning, I swear she was smirking! How?! How had they all beaten me? Blinded by my ambition to win, I had missed the turn off for the amateur course and had raced the competitive route instead. Loyal to the end, Mr. Bill had my back, as promised. (No wonder a search party and ambulance had been dispatched.) Chagrined, I congratulated the winner. I found that I didn’t mind losing after all, for I was secretly pleased, that I had done the competitive course- a proper race indeed.
At the prize giving, the non competitive division was announced first. I clapped loudly for the little girl, who had won. In fact her family made a clean sweep of the awards, claiming second and third place, as well. Mr. Bill and I applauded for the winners of ‘our’ competitive division. Three buff Ironman sprinted to the podium, on the deck of the Surf Club, for their prizes. Then came the shock announcement of the day, “First Place in the Woman’s Division is Iron Lady, Maureen Longo”! I had won! Mind you, I was the only lady, but it’s offical and I had to certificate to prove it. I am an Iron Lady, fit for purpose.
And Mr. Bill knew it along.