Later than most, I entered the area reserved for transitions. In a fog, I lined up to undergo an ominous-sounding procedure referred to as “body-marking.” Already anxious at the thought of swimming a half-mile in the Pacific Ocean in another hour and a half, the term made me imagine a body adrift in the surf, in need of recovery.
Twenty stories above the beachfront bluffs, the spotlights atop the revered Villa Riviera evaporated enough fog for the oxidized copper spire guarded by its Gothic-Revival gargoyles to emerge – the only landmark tipping participants off to the fact that they had, indeed, arrived at the strand of sand known as Long Beach on this misty morning. Also on Ocean Boulevard, but out of sight in that mist, was the fourteen-story Breakers – one of the first ten Hilton hotels, famous for the Art Deco opulence of its swanky Sky Room, where the “Sexy Ex-y” and I had shared our first kiss on the polished parquet where stars such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and John Wayne had danced during the Depression.
Difficult to picture: the perpetually pigeon-toed “Duke,” dancing. Almost as difficult, perhaps, as picturing a man of similar stature finishing his first triathlon. However, filling out the registration form for the 2010 Long Beach Triathlon, I had discovered that there is a specific classification for big guys who want to “tri.” Instead of being categorized according to our ages and genders, as everyone else is, those who weigh 200 pounds or more compete as “Clydesdales.”
So, when the woman with the marker wrote “310” on my shoulder before inscribing my age, “32,” on my calf, inner insecurity made me wonder whether I should start clarifying for everyone else that the former was my race number – not my weight.
In an attempt to test my readiness for the triathlon the weekend before, I had run around Naples Island and then swam through the surrounding waters of Alamitos Bay. That same morning, after returning to my apartment to shower and dress, I had to take out my pocketknife to punch a new hole in my leather belt in order to pull it tight. I felt at least a little fit.
But then I went to try on wetsuits. In the fitting room at the triathlon store (Who knew?), I felt like a whale – specifically, a black-and-white killer whale. Fashioned of black neoprene, the only rental left in my size was sleeveless. Since I had spent almost all of my summer grading students’ essays, the shoulders and arms that extended out of it were white enough to earn the orca comparison.

And, as an added bonus, my impressive paleness made me feel like the black numbers that didn’t indicate my weight stood out even more prominently on my shoulder. As I was struggling into the skintight suit after returning from the body-marking station, the next indignity manifested itself.
“Excuse me?” I asked the heavyweight triathlete who was racking his bike next to mine in the Clydesdale corral. “Seems like an inappropriately personal favor to ask a total stranger, but … could you please zip me up?”

“Except for my wife, no one has ever asked me that,” he chuckled. “But, sure.”

Mumbling an embarrassed “thanks,” I silently lamented – not for the first time – the absence of the Sexy Ex-y. Sighing, I turned my attention to figuring out which side of my color-coded Clydesdale swim cap was the front and which side was the back. Continuing the trend toward positive spin, the big guys’ caps were not referred to as simply being “blue,” but rather “royal.”

A random memory fluttered forward: One of the Sexy
Ex-y’s childhood chums – on meeting me for the first time at a party – drunkenly declaring, “Chad looks like royalty, like a king.”

“Who, Henry the Eighth?” I quipped, shouting out everyone’s favorite turkey-leg-as-a-scepter sovereign. Then, slightly less than sober myself, I warbled out a couple lines of Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.”

“I’m Henry the Eighth, I am,
Henry the Eighth, I am, I am,
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before,
And every one was a Henry (Henry!);
She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (No Sam!).
I'm her eighth old man, I, Henry,
Henry the Eighth, I am!

“Second verse, same as the first …”

Anyhow, as I was starting to wonder whether swim caps even had fronts and backs at all, a young girl traipsed up to my next-door neighbor.

“Daddy,” she asked, spreading her arms to encompass the sparsely populated Clydesdale corral, “why is there so much more space over here?”

“Because, baby,” he answered, “great big guys need great big spaces.”

Thrashing through the breakers with the rest of the royal-capped Clydesdale “wave” a little later, I was wishing that all the rest of those buoyant boys had heard those words – and taken them to heart. I was used to having some more space.

Even though the Sexy Ex-y and I only lived about 11 miles from each other, we could’ve conceivably been called a “long-distance” couple. As singles, we had run marathons; as a couple, we ran half marathons. We went out for a total of three years, but we had briefly broken up after the first two. Before reuniting for the third, conditions were established: We would work toward a more constructive form of communication, as evidenced by our participation in couple’s counseling; and we would lead a healthier lifestyle, as evidenced by our participation in at least three half marathons and one sprint triathlon. As she had been a swimmer and water-polo player in college, the Sexy Ex-y assumed primary responsibility for preparing me for the sprint triathlon’s swim. The 2009 Long Beach Triathlon was set for the fall, so we started swimming in the summer. We would share a single lane at the Belmont Plaza Pool, swimming side-by-side.

But even that intimate experience hadn’t properly prepared me for a crowd of Clydesdales crashing into one another as they attempted to paddle past the competition at the 2010 triathlon. Wanting some more space, I decided to tread water for a while next to the buoy marking the first corner of the course.

“Sir!” shouted a lifeguard sitting astride a surfboard the instant I stopped stroking. “Are you all right?”

Ironically, another lifeguard – instead sitting atop a high chair at the end of the lane – had asked me that exact question during one of my sessions at the pool with the Sexy Ex-y the previous summer. As if I hadn’t already been a bit embarrassed that my pretty partner was churning out five lengths of the pool for every two that I was gulping my way through.

“All right,” I gasped out this time. “Just slow.” To prove my point, I promptly rolled over and began backstroking toward the next buoy.

A lot can change in a little time. It was at the end of my second year with the Sexy Ex-y, in the fall of 2008, that I transitioned from my second career as a professional writer to my third career as a professor of writing. I started out as a “part-timer” at two local community colleges, teaching composition courses that always seemed to start either at about 7 in the morning or 7 in the evening. In-between, I was struggling to keep up with the responsibilities of my “day job” as the editor of a modest movie magazine up in Hollywood. The ratio of the number of “energy drinks” I was consuming to the number of hours I was sleeping a day was approximately the same as the one above – say, five to two.

The Sexy Ex-y started to wonder, out loud, if workaholic tendencies such as those would allow me to be – in the future – a suitable husband and father. During our triathlon training at the tail end of the 2008-2009 school year, when I had taken on first a second, and then a third, summer-session comp course, I started to wonder, out loud, if they would allow me to be – in the present – a suitable swimmer.

Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to endurance events, the challenge is most of the attraction. But if, in the midst of a 26.2-mile marathon or a 13.1-mile half marathon along the Pacific Coast, the challenge became too great … well, my feet were still touching the shore. Instead of running, I could walk. I could stand. But if I left that shore, if the challenge became too great in the midst of a half-mile swim …

In the composition curriculum I was still stitching together that summer, I was asking my students to not only read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, but also watch Sean Penn’s movie version. Early on in that beautiful film, our hero Christopher McCandless – whose fear of water will later contribute to his death in the wilderness of Alaska – nonetheless splashes out into the Pacific Ocean somewhere on California’s Central Coast. In the voice-over narration for the scene, he reads aloud a passage from the short story “Bear Meat” by Primo Levi:

The sea's only gifts are harsh blows and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong. Now, I don't know much about the sea, but I do know that that's the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.

On that one occasion, I didn’t feel strong enough to measure myself against the harsh blows of the sea.

The Sexy Ex-y, deeply disappointed, did the 2009 Long Beach Triathlon without me. I was still supportive, positioning myself at spot after spot along the course to cheer. My brother and sister-in-law were there at the finish line, as well, to congratulate the wonderful woman they had started to treat as their sister. Because it showed all four of my Midwestern mother and father’s so-called “California Kids” (with palm trees in the background, no less), the photo we took together at the end of the race course was sent out with the official family Christmas letter. It was still hanging from my refrigerator door.

I supposed it was silly to be thinking about my mother and father’s family Christmas letter as, blindly backstroking, I bumped into the buoy at the last turn in the swim with my royal crown. But I was.

The paragraph devoted to their “Number-One Son” this season will likely mention that I am in my first year as a “full-timer” at one of my community colleges. If I am feeling a bit boastful at the moment I email the paragraph out to my mother, it may inform my family that I beat out 135 other candidates to earn that shot at the tenure track. If I didn’t drown that day, I predicted that I will likely type an additional line about finishing my first triathlon. I will likely not type these short sentences:
            Chad is single again because his career comes first.
            So Chad works too much.
            So Chad works out too little.
            And she got tired of waiting for that to change.”

Since my face was covered with saltwater, anyway, nobody noticed a tear or two. At that point, it had been about six months since our breakup, but that was the first time I had simplified the primary reason for it into such succinct statements.

As much as I would duly enjoy my Clydesdale-style stomp across the finish line after first the 11-mile ride and then the 3-mile run that were still to come, the most satisfying single step I took during the triathlon was the first instant that my foot touched the sand underneath the surf at the end of that half-mile swim.

“How do you feel?” one of the volunteers shouted as I staggered out of the ocean.

“Strong,” I responded. “Slow, but strong.”

In triathlons, as in life, the secret to success is in managing the difficult transitions from stage to stage. Although getting my land legs back after the swimming stage didn’t take as long as shucking off that skintight suit, I subsequently staggered like the proverbial drunken sailor when I tried to run after the cycling stage. I got through it, but my times for the transitions were slow.

My brother and sister-in-law were there at the finish line – to take a picture of the three remaining “California Kids” for the family Christmas letter. It was after that, when I had trudged back into the transition area to retrieve my rented wetsuit and borrowed bicycle, that I received the text sent by the former fourth.

“Did you wind up doing the triathlon?” the Sexy Ex-y’s text read. “I was here to cheer, but I didn’t see you. Waited around as long as I could, but then I had to leave.”

At the 2010 Long Beach Triathlon, it turned out, I had missed the Sexy Ex-y in both senses of the word.

“Yes,” I tapped out on my slider. “Had a difficult time in transition. Finally finished, though.”

As I walked toward the exit of the area reserved for transitions, a Clyde without a Bonnie, my phone vibrated. I paused at the gate to read her response.

“Yay! You made it!” she had said. “So proud of you.”

With the fog gone, I could see past the Villa Riviera as I stood at the exit; I could see all the way down Ocean Boulevard to the Breakers. It seemed far away.
# # #

Chad Greene is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He is an assistant professor of English at Cerritos College. His writing has appeared in 1000 Words, The Binnacle, Cuento Magazine, Journal of Microliterature, Nailpolish Stories, Nanoism, Oblong, One Forty Fiction, One-Screen Stories, Paragraph Planet, The Portland Review, Postcard Shorts, RipRap, Seven by Twenty, Six Word Stories, Southern California Review, The Southlander, and the flash-fiction collection Book by Authors.