Sunday, July 31, 2005

I ran a triathlon in the fine city of Lowell two weeks ago (.9 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 6 mile run). I've done that distance before, and it was actually my second "olympic" distance tri this year. The twist, however, was that in the two months leading up to the race, I was also working on version 2.0 of Tamale's flagship product. Since I barely had time to sleep for the past several months, I wasn't exactly prepared for the triathlon. Luck being what it is, the weather on race day was perfect for an out-of-shape irish kid: temp in the low 90s, humidity in the high 90s. Swimming is by far my weakest sport, so I always fall behind in that leg. This race, however, was a river swim. We had to swim a half mile UP stream in the mighty Merrimack. The swim course was about a quarter mile from the historically significant and locally famous Pawtucket Falls. To give you a feel for the strength of the current -- those falls were the energy source for the Industrial Revolution. [Aside: Right after Francis Cabot Lowell stole the textile mill designs from the hapless Brits, he and his family bought the Brook Farm and founded the city of Lowell. A pretty ironic start to the America's rise to world power, given how riled up most business owners are over Chinese flouting of US intellectual property. {Double aside: Don't get me wrong, I work my face off to produce novel software, I'd be riled up if it got ripped off}] So it took me about an hour to swim to the turn around buoy. The last five yards seemed like a mile, because the course ran straight, while the river bends. That means that the turn around buouy was actually in the middle of the river, where the current is much stronger. Not that it slowed me down more, but the river is also filthy. So the whole time I was stroking, flutter kicking, counting my breathes, and wondering what horrible microbes were seeping into my eyes, ears, nose, throat. Luckily, the race was run by the YMCA, so there were almost as many lifeguards as swimmers. Being absolutely dead last, I was escorted back to the beach by two motor-boats, two life-guards on rescue boards, and about 50 people walking the park next to the river who could not figure out why the hell I was swimming in the Mighty (filthy) Merrimack. The bike route was two laps on a 12.5 mile loop, that ran from Lowell to Tyngsboro to Dracut and back to Lowell. It was cool to ride through home territory -- my parents and my brother and sister-in-law all live on the course. What was slightly less cool was realizing that the course was essentially marked by package stores, bars, strip clubs, and bad roads (My brother joked that they would be handing out 40s instead of water bottles at the care stations). Again though, what they lacked in scenery, the organizers made up in effort. They actually closed some of the roads, and again being dead last, I received a police escort for the better half of my second loop. Just in case any of the 100,000 inhabitants of Lowell didn't know there was a triathlon running, and were further unaware that I was dead last, I had four cops on motorcycles controlling traffic. So, after all of that humiliation, which lasted about 3 hours, I still had to run 6 miles. At this point, I think I was almost crazy. I say almost, because by the time I got to the run turn-around, I know I was completely crazy. Running is actually my best sport of the three, so I usually try to manage the race so that I can enjoy the run -- meaning I complete the 6 miles without wishing for death. This day, I wanted to croak after one step. The swim had so completely destroyed me, that I was past the 3 hour limit of my total endurance. Pretty much after 3 - 3.5 hours of exercise I fold up like a cheap lawn chair. The DPW was following me along the route, picking up the road cones and mile markers behind me. The only reason the water stations were open was the individual mercy of this one woman who drove ahead of me and waited at each mile of the run with 4 cups of water. She kept saying, for what seemed like 35 iterations, "I'll see you at the next mile". It really is hard to count when you are clinically deranged from fatigue. Anyway, about an hour and fifteen minutes, I was running (hobbling?) the last quarter mile to the finish. The line was in Heritage Park, which is a biggish field with a stage. As I came up to the finish, I noticed that the awards ceremony was underway (I was a bit late to collect my Most Hilarious Looking Triathlete award). So, of course, the announcer let the crowd know that the last finisher was coming in. Is it cheering when a crowd claps for you because you suck so much? My brother was there waiting at the finish line, and somehow, managed to make me laugh until I nearly vomited. He also carried my bike and bag back to the truck because I was trying to tell him about the small gnomes that were all along the race course. So, that was the Lowell triathlon. Since then, I've been running in another endurance event: software release. The analogy runs pretty deeply. There are three big phases -- design, implement, and quality assure. Again, the last is my strongest event, and again I am so completely toasted from the first two legs that finishing the QA leg is taking more determination than I could have imagined. Luckily, there is a whole team of people working with me. I remember when we hit our first growth leg, a very well-seasoned executive on our board suggested that we do some team building exercises. He explained that the strength of the team would get us past the inevitable bumps and bruises of creative production like software development. It made academic sense at the time. Now, I have a slightly different opinion. The absolute focus and absurd level of effort required to make a product perfect is the kind of geniune challenge that forges teams. Three months ago, we were a bunch of strangers. Now, we know one another's limits and strengths. We also have a bag of inside jokes, good stories, and on-going design debates that provide a common backdrop. We also have about two more days of work before we are done. So I guess I will get back to it.