If you offer that you are a triathlete, you are often greeted with awe, admiration, and support. It wasn't always that way. The modern triathlete, whether realized or not, undertake their quest cloaked in the safety of fashionability, a luxury afforded them by those who came before: The Tri Bums. They were the burgeoning sport's Quixotes and Mittys that today make completing an Ironman and hearing Mike Reilly's legendary call a bucket-list staple for athletes everywhere.
The Scott's, Molina's and Allen's perceived lapses in sanity for taking on the Ironman and a career in professional triathlon were mostly because of the sport's difficulty. Their beginnings and rise came more by default than irrational lust to be somebody. They weren't off-kilter (most days, anyway), they were just athletic entrepreneurs. The Bums, on the other hand, went all-in, hoping for a miracle. Theirs are the stories of marital destruction, pink-slips, and siphoned life savings. With naive enthusiasm they chased Ironman glory and offered up a willingness to get dirty; to be called fools. Without them, there would have been no one on the beaches to challenge the established few.
I was a Tri Bum. This is my story.
Mom always told me the Larson side of the family was full of crazies. Uncle Johnnie, shortly after showing up in a picture sitting next to Babe Ruth and Bob Musial, got kicked out of baseball for jumping into the stands; beat hell out of a mouthy fan. I'm told Uncle Gus was a handsome drug trafficker, a fine pilot. My namesake, Uncle Jay, lived in the California desert—in a cave—with his wife—and six kids! I suppose I should have understood why mom cried the day I told her I was going to do the Ironman.
In 1982 I was 26 and single. I slept each night to tranquilizing waves crashing only yards from my doorstep in a bitchin little pad on Santa Monica's Ocean Avenue. My car was an equally bitchin little silver 280Z and I managed the bar at the toniest country club in Beverly Hills Each day I served George Burns his Macanudos, poured Sean Connery's 12 year old malt (sorry, he doesn't drink shaken Martinis), and basically kept Hollywood's elite adequately lubed. I could tell you Michael Jackson went too heavy on the rouge and Liz Taylor not heavy enough. Life was bitchin. Hell, I was bitchin!
And then it happened. That same year, like the rest of you, I watched the freckly little redheaded marionette whose strings were suddenly, perversely, snipped, attempt to function unaided down the last few yards of Alii drive. The reaction from most was that of horror, disgust, and even cruelty. How could they let a person, let alone a woman, continue this grotesque display on national TV? I, however, fell into the throws of nirvana, like Walter White Blue-Meth nirvana—"whoa, now this is some good shit!"
Apparently for me, baseball and golf were nothing more than gateway sports to something more potent and addicting. Eyes dilated, palms dripping, I was no match for the lure of a completely ridiculous endeavor such as Ironman. For a chromosomally challenged serial-jock like me, pushing oneself to incontinence and head-on, car-wreck gore is akin to Hannibal Lecter needing a special menu to go with the perfect wine and his finest crystal. There was no choice here. I had to do this, regardless of the consequences.
In late 1984 I rolled into San Diego with no job, no money, no skill, and no effing idea. Ever commit to something you realize will never happen? You know, the ol' definition of insanity...same-same getting same-same. I was about to be its embodiment, the poster boy, the four-time felon fashion-plate, wondering why he keeps waking up in the same shade of orange. I had just bailed on golf because I didn't have the time or money, yet here I was, getting ready to do a cannonball down the proverbial rabbit hole...again!
In the "Untouchables," Costner's Eliot Ness stood over Sean Connery's character Jimmy Malone who was only seconds from death, his body riddled with holes from Frank Nitti's Tommy Gun. His final words angrily bubbled from his lips in a bloody Irish brogue..."what-er-ya prepared ta do?!"—referring to the depravity Ness would have to embrace if he were to end the reign of Al Capone. For most, just an entertaining movie line—for me, a mantra I was soon to zealously employ.
Fast forward a year and a half, deduct thirty pounds, add a quarter-inch of ass callous' and bleeding squamous cell carcinomas, and the gooey, golfing Country Club barman had morphed into nut-brown leathered sinew. I now called myself a pro triathlete although I'd never been to the pay window. Go figure.
At night I was still waiting tables for tips and left-over scraps of fish, chicken and anything without saliva and teeth marks. Didn't have an address most of the time, got run off for lack of rent to establish another. My now-not-so-bitchin little 280Z, part time crib, smelled like a bike shop slash locker room. No matter, my dream was now so close I could taste it.
That summer I entered the pro division of the Huntington Beach Triathlon. Brad Kearns, Michael Durkin, Gary Peterson, Emilio De Soto, and a slew of super-fit fame-chasers would be there. I was sure my time had come and I would win my first pro event, a healthy sum of five hundred bucks, a month's income schlepping steaks.
There was only one problem. The tires on my homeless car were hemorrhaging steel dreads. They could be heard slapping the pavement and new ones certainly weren't in my budget. But all I could hear was the snarling Mr. Connery scolding me..."What-er-ya prepared ta-do?!"
Apparently the answer was anything short of murder. I let my Larson genes keep me in character and did the unthinkable—slapped my check-book on the counter like a credit card—wrote a bad one and sped off up the I-5 on fresh tread. And I would have only hours before the bill came due. Now, if I could just win the following day's contest.
When asked about the pressure of the PGA tour, Lee Trevino always responded, "playing in a five dollar Nassau with no money in your pocket—now that's pressure." I had taken that risk in my golf days, but the worst would be a healthy beating. I could do time for this.
Act One was flawless—I was third to transition. Never did that before. "Now, don't get dropped and don't flat!" My bother was unwarranted. Behind me I could hear the hiss of spinning chain-rings approaching fast. In an instant, a cast of 15 players swallowed me whole. We moved down the highway like a perfectly choreographed Bob Fosse dance-troupe, nipping at each other's wheels. So there I sat, in a 30 mile-an-hour vacuum, praying disqualification wouldn't bring the curtain down early.
Act Three now underway, the troupe, after a wardrobe change, pranced off down the boardwalk in a desperate, lung-frying fight for the coveted, five C-Note booty. Wearing only a Speedo and racing flats (forgot my ski mask), I ran like I'd robbed a liquor store. Now comfortably out in front, I looked over my shoulder, expecting flashing red and blue more than a fellow competitor, still wondering if a DQ would shackle me. Had I compounded one crime by colluding in another?!
After the organizers painful deliberation, the verdict came down—acquittal! I collected my loot and walked in a state of euphoria to my car only to find a parking ticket under the frayed wiper on my Z. Apparently my crime spree wasn't over. Now, if I could just keep from getting a speeding ticket in a rush to reconcile my risky transgression.
A few days passed, the tire company and the ticket were paid and I could now say I was a real Professional Triathlete. But more importantly, I wouldn't be joining Uncle Gus in the hoosegow anytime soon.
Several months later, in Kona, I would stand on stage at the Ironman awards ceremony and collect two checks—one for 11th place overall and one for third fastest marathon. When I got on the plane the next day I knew that nothing had really changed, that I was still going home to continue my life as a Tri Bum, but I was sure of one thing...Mr. Connery would be proud.