Palm Trees Ahead

By Doug Morris | May 05, 2016, 4:34 p.m. (ET)

Doug and Chris MorrisTriathlon is a fantastic sport throughout the U.S and all over the world. Along my journey I met wonderful volunteers, outstanding race directors, generous sponsors, and some of the most dedicated triathletes on Earth during races in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and on the six continents that offer a triathlon.

If fishing is for the athlete that wants to do nothing, then triathlon is for the athlete who wants to accomplish a lot. Heck, it took three significant sports combined to create a triathlon. In 1986 my girlfriend suggested we sign up and compete in the Chicago Bud Light Triathlon. She was a swimmer. I was a runner. My first triathlon ever was almost over within a minute of when it started. I jumped into Lake Michigan, started swimming, then hyperventilated, panicked and thought I might drown. I finished though. Somehow I became hooked. My one-track running mentality morphed from thinking that track and field is the most independent team sport to realizing that triathlon is its multisport, multi-personality sibling.

Over the next 30 years I competed in over 150 triathlons from sprints to full IRONMANs. I started close to home in Kansas, Missouri and Iowa — all states where I lived over the next four years. I ventured out to a race in Indiana where I grew up. In the mid-90s we moved to Seattle, so I knocked off Washington and Oregon.

A couple of years later we moved to Arizona, and I raced in the Tinfoilman triathlon in Tucson. From Phoenix, I did destination races in California, Nevada, Utah and Idaho. I experienced top competition. I witnessed more finishers cry with tears of joy than smiles for personal fulfillment from finishing something they never thought attainable. I drank beverages and ate food that never appeared on a restaurant menu anywhere. I felt more pain, more satisfaction and more alive than watching or participating in any other sporting event. And I heard from a man who became my favorite person in the world for three seconds when he said, “Doug Morris, YOU are an IRONMAN!”

After living in Phoenix for seven years, we moved to Thailand in 2003. My first Asian triathlon was at Laguna Phuket on a resort island. At the post race dinner our family sat with a Japanese triathlete, his wife and kids. All of us smiled, nodded and quickly realized that neither family knew the other’s native language. We did recognize, though, that smiles were universal and that triathlon competition allowed for a common bond. It turned out that my table companion and I competed in the same age group as we learned when sharing the stage together when the awards were presented.   

At Laguna Phuket I qualified for IRONMAN Australia. On the way to the airport my oldest daughter asked how the long the flight would be to Sydney. “About 7 to 8 hours,” I said. “That’s not long,” she responded. She had turned into a seasoned traveler in less than a year living overseas where our semi-annual, 20 to 22 hour flights to the U.S. with a single layover became our new norm.

Time is all relevant though. Mentally committing to a 10-hour race in a single day became my new norm. Competing in an IRONMAN-distance triathlon, I basically convinced myself, “That’s not long.”

From the island continent I went to race on Hawaii’s Big Island. After Kona I really lost motivation. Now what? I would be the first triathlete to race in all 50 states. However, later that day I did a quick Internet research and learned that Shelia Isaacs and Dave Mandelkern already achieved my goal. Since I already completed races on three different continents, I decided to extend my U.S. goal to the world. I raced at IRONMAN South Africa on a rented bike with more rust than my childhood bike that sat outside year-round in the Hoosier heartland.

My first race after moving back to the Chicago area was the Olympic-distance “Memphis in May” in 2008. I talked about the journey but did little to begin the trek. Finally, my wife told me, “It’s time to sign-up and race, or you’ll be a bitter, miserable middle-age man regretting a missed opportunity.” The race is a great celebration of participation in triathlon: lots of competitors, lots of volunteers, lots of food and plenty of free beer afterwards. Even Elvis competed sporting full sideburns, white framed shades and a race kit that was a styling jumpsuit. Middle age has its privileges, bitter or sweet, dead or alive, legend or not.

The following year my oldest daughter, Haley, chose to join me and volunteered at the Lifetime Fitness Olympic triathlon in Minnesota. She handed out water bottles to the finishers and enjoyed a front row view of the top three male pros. For days afterwards she enjoyed telling others about her experience of volunteering at this triathlon. She smiled while gesturing with her arms the closeness of the finish and how the whole crowd cheered them on. And she always added in, “Oh yeah, my dad raced too…”

I did the Nation’s Tri in 2009. I learned when researching about races in Washington D.C., that race directors needed to lobby for a law to be passed to allow swimming in the Potomac River. On Monday morning I went for an easy, early morning run down by the Mall and saw about a dozen other triathletes in business attire riding their race bikes, now repurposed to commuter bikes but still labeled with race numbers: a proud badge of honor that communicated, “Hey, I raced yesterday!”

At midpoint of my journey, I raced at the Pat Griskus Olympic Tri in Watertown, Connecticut. The race director requested the race announcer to interview randomly selected finishers. Rick, one of the triathletes selected, was a former training partner of mine in Chicago. Somewhere along the way we lost touch with each other. I had kids, he had kids, I moved (multiple times) and he moved. We had been out of touch for 16 years. We talked for almost an hour getting to know each other again. We raced together at Nationals in Milwaukee in 2015 and may see each other again in Cozumel this September if all goes as planned.

I met some amazing volunteers during my journey. In 2011, my first triathlon scheduled was in Virginia on May Day. Haley came with me to volunteer. Two days before the race I received an email from the volunteer coordinator who apologized for a delayed response in Haley’s assignment. “I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. Our power was out for a while after yesterday's tornados.”  I responded to her that she owed no apologies in keeping herself safe. Few of the triathletes had a clue that Carter, the organizer of the volunteers, stayed focus on caring more about helping them for the race than on herself after a tornado.

For the triathlon in Maryland, my bike never showed up at the hotel. It was somewhere between Oklahoma and Cambridge. No one could tell me where. The Race Director opened up a door to a local bike shop that didn’t rent bikes to get me a set-up after begging unsuccessfully at the expo’s front door for a spare bike. After the race while pushing my rental bike with a flat tire, lose handlebars and vintage style cage pedals; I enjoyed an unexpected encounter in a one-on-one conversation with a very humble female pro, Mirada Carfare. I asked how her race wen, and she said she “did alright.” I had to press to learn that she won. 

Doug Morris and Team WadeIn 2011, I raced in the USA Triathlon Nationals Age Group National Championships Olympic-distance race in Burlington, Vermont. The night before the race I became an honorary member of Team Wade enjoying the camaraderie of triathletes. The team included a husband and wife with the last name Wade and a couple of guys by the first name of Wade. One of those latter guys was the triathlete that convinced me to race in my first IRONMAN in Utah nine years earlier. And Mr. Wade, who I met in Provo, inspired me to be forever resilient to personal setbacks. On the following day, having gained some endurance over the last decade, I raced in Timberman IRONMAN 70.3 and checked off the New Hampshire box of my journey.

The following year, in Pennsylvania at the Philadelphia Insurance Olympic-distance triathlon, I met the future of America. I rode on the bus to the race start beside a first-time triathlete and Yale honor student who was very passionate about his genetic studies. He swam a 20-minute 1,500m. He has even more potential in his profession to help all of mankind.  

A couple months later the U.S. portion of my journey ended at Lobsterman Tri in Freeport, Maine — my 50th state. While there, my wife and I also celebrated our silver wedding anniversary in the same place that we honeymooned at 25 years earlier. My wife was that girlfriend who started me swimming in 1986.

In Europe I was met by a Brit, James, who I first raced with a few years earlier in Thailand. He and I competed in IRONMAN France in Nice in 2013. During the bike leg on our last significant climb of the race, we entered the small village of Coursegoules, well over 3,000 feet above sea level with a population of about 500 people. I climbed up a short street then turned right into an alley with buildings probably older than the U.S. itself on either side and about as wide as the hallway in your local health club. As I popped out, the view of a lifetime opened up. In the distance, but easily seen, was the Mediterranean Sea while behind me were the Alps. This quaint mountain village laid out to my sides, and to my immediate right, a small bistro with outside seating who’s customers and I shared high-fives as I pedaled by.

And in a turnaround of travels, the world’s best triathletes journeyed on their own to my quasi-backyard of downtown Chicago last September at the WTC World Championships. For one lap, I ran just off the shoulder of a soon-to-be age-group champion. He seemed a bit ill at ease until he realized that he spotted me a five-minute head start in Lake Michigan. Once he relaxed, he dropped me.

My journey ended in Pucón, Chile on January 10th this year. I raced with over 1,500 triathletes primarily from Chile, Argentina and Brazil, but there were competitors from all over the world. Pucón is the outdoor adrenalin junkie playground of South America — an appropriate end to a journey for a triathlete who thrives on competition, confidence and comradery with a shot of adrenalin.

I traveled with family, friends, coaches, strangers and by myself to these triathlons. I raced with teammates that I didn’t know and against competitors that I knew better than myself. I raced 2,656 total miles: swam 58.5, biked 2,176.4 and ran 521.2. During my trek I ran out of frequent flyer miles and free hotel stay points but never did I run out of fun. Along the journey, I did races that people only dream of and with people they only dream about. I feel very fortunate to be involved in a sport that offers so much to its participants.

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