Three thousand and eight hundred meters swimming.
Portion number one.
Them, the others, already did 400, then 500, then one thousand.
I’m standing on the lake shore, with the eyes lost in the red buoy reflection, tied to the athletes so that the rescue boats can find them, if needed.
That artificial light beam, made by man, brightens the black surface of the Livigno lake. They look like a flock of warriors, who set of shoulder to shoulder to conquer something. Something shared, and yet personal, which is rooted in an ancient and unique reason, which has probably not yet been completely understood.
The same road for everyone, and yet a different reason for each one of them.
And behind all the “whys”, there’s the power a common will.
While they are being swallowed by the dark water and the mountains, remind me of the Chinese lanterns freed in the sky, which, despite being launched by small hands, challenging the enormous horizon, they fill you with pride until you lose sight of them.
Whether they went out behind a cloud or they reached a planet, it doesn’t matter: they travel alone, left to their fate.
I leave in an hour.
I do it because I want to make a feat.
And the result of that feat will convince people to make a donation.
It’s the only thing that matters, today.
Behind me, giant loudspeakers echo notes that are almost a non-music.
A heartbeat masked as melody vibrates with deep bass, and if you listen while looking at the mountain profiles lit by a slice of moon, it almost seems like that is the heart of the Earth.
It beats to the minute.
Because the Earth is gigantic and its heart is as big as a city.
Scattered along the entire starting line, the fire tongues tear the air, burning it and projecting small lava sparks into the atmosphere, which light up the air of the people present like small light confetti and then die on the ground.
I feel alone.
I’m not warm nor cold.
I’m surrounded by my team, by the people I love the most, who talk to me, take pictures of me, and make me laugh with a joke.
But I feel alone nevertheless.
There are no alternatives to selfishness to complete the hardest Ironman in the world, and today I am no exception. If anything, I am the rule.
I would be no one and I wouldn’t achieve anything without the people who love me, but, in the end, when it’s time for the truth, I feel alone anyway.
I’ve been feeling like this since I woke up.
I’ve been feeling like this since yesterday.
I’ve been feeling like this for a year.
Inside a bed that is too cold, where I sleep sideways to feel bigger, like before the 12°C water that is waiting for me: it’s the same, nothing changes, except for the surroundings.
I’m full of doubts.
Because this race was our race, because I’m at home and everybody is looking at me, because I want to do well to do some good, and, in brutally speaking, because I haven’t even finished the last Ironman.
In Copenhagen, ten days ago, I left things halfway done, I stopped for the first time in my career, during the final marathon. Her breath in my breath, the earth under my feet becoming heavier, glue-like. And the pain crossed me all of a sudden, like I hadn’t allowed it to do until then.
Until then, I’d never dropped out of a race, I’d rather finish it on my elbows, because getting to the finish line was the only way I knew to honour what we had done together, Carlotta and I. The only way to still feel like she was here.
Instead I stopped. I reached the point of no return, I truly did, to discover that, in the end, nothing happens.
Life goes on and I was the most disappointed of them all.
This is why being here, with my feet soaking in the lake, with the stopwatch almost hitting zero, is absolutely not granted, and in the loneliness I’m experiencing I feel the right level of discomfort: the fear I won’t make it, the expectations of my people, a goal that is bigger than me.
Small and naked in front of the greatness of the most beautiful mountains in the World.
The light of a kayak accompanies me. Everything will be dark until dawn, whether you are below or above the water line. The only guide: the artificial light way back there, a wanderer’s beacon in a journey that started at night.
One hundred and ninety-seven kilometres.
Portion number two.
I already surpasses 19 runners, and for each person I was passing, I wondered about their motives, the reason they tested themselves like this. Many, if not most, are after-work athletes, simple enthusiasts, who put their bodies at the service of their soul. And this makes us all brothers, in some way.
I take off the wetsuit and get on my bike. The sun is timidly peeping out over the valley, and I know that over the next hours I will be cold, then hot, then cold again.
Pedalling is the thing I like most, and our program is to make a difference here. Many struggle to get the pace right and warm up their chill bodies right after coming out of the water; however, my team planned everything down to perfection, and we turn like a pocket watch.
197 kilometres and 5000 thousand meters of gradient are no joke.
As much as you like biking and mountains, this is a route designed especially to dig into your soul, to put you in front of the monsters you have inside and the make-up-less and panting face of struggle.
I want to win, and I want to do it because if I win and surpass everybody else, we will collect a lot of money, we will give new life to “Il sorriso di Carlotta” no-profit association, and, above all, I will true to what I feel in my heart, and not just in my legs.
Biking is my favourite portion, and after a few minutes pedalling I already know how the day is going to end. My legs turn alone, for once faster than my thoughts and I burn the asphalt, kilometre after kilometre.
I catch up with the others, hill after hill.
I look at their painful expressions on the steepest sections: will is contagious and we are all conductive of this power.
The magic of hairpin bends makes someone far seem closer, and seeing a swinging silhouette in front of me, just a short distance from my wheels, gives my that little bit more energy that is always welcome.
Our plan entails me reaching the group of the best riders on the Foscagno Pass - which is not a favourite of mine, and, for this reason, at the beginning of the summer, I did it times and times again, trying to steal the tricks to those who only do that for a job, and whose home is up here. People like Viviani and Consoni.
But I won’t need tricks today.
My mind is calm, my muscles alive. Even if everything surrounding me - the valleys, my friends, the looks, the memories - has a huge weight, today I manage to be pleasantly unemotional.
I manage to control my emotional involvement and focus on being aware of my gestures.
On the Stelvio downhill, I draw a few perfect curves.
I reach 100 kilometres an hour.
I don’t even have time to think.
I passed everyone and now I am alone.
The charity piggy bank is full and clinking on my back, I feel like I’ve conquered the competition. But now I need to finish it.
Portion number three.
The hours start to be too many and the cold is back. The day we saw rising is now switching off, little by little, and I’m left with the fatigue of a mountain marathon to win the hardest competition on the Planet.
I get off my bike and I start running. The first minutes are pure happiness. This is the taste of freedom. After hours being trapped in a concentric movement, my legs loosen up in the eccentricity of running.
The pleasure is so big I have to be careful not to overdo it, or I’d risk running out of energy. The enormity of 42 kilometres, after over 8 hours o fatigue, cannot be confronted directly. It needs to be broken down in small pieces. Digestible bites that reduce “everything” to many “little pieces”, transforming an endless road into a staircase.
Twenty minutes, the first step, and then I eat something.
Another twenty and there’ll be the hill I like so much.
Something like that.
The path leads us into the heart of town, for the first time.
A town that slept at night and followed us online in the morning, watching our GPS tracking.
Livigno who adopted us and continues to cuddle me, surrounds me with a warm embrace, and, meter after meter, the loneliness of the start melts into a happy smile. Many families and onlookers are waiting for me on the corners of the streets, well spaced out from each other. They cheer me on, calling my name. They smile at me.
The fear of disappointing them, the fear of replicating Copenhagen once again, the fear of not collecting the money I so wanted: everything has disappeared like a shadow far in the distance.
It’s like the community, behind each applause, behind each cheer, took a piece of my fear, one kilo each.
I come across a child, maybe six or seven year old.
He asks me if “I’m really Molinari” and I say yes.
He starts running along me.
10, maybe 15 meters, and he is happy, yet respectful in keeping his distance.
And so I make a detour, get closer and give him a high five.
Invested of a new responsibility, like if he were the next runner, the little boy speeds up. He overdoes it a little and then stops. “Go on, Giulio” he yells.
I feel at home.
Everything is in the right place: my team is perfect at every change, every request, there is no man or woman in front of me, just the road.
The emotion of seeing the places that were ours, mine and Carlotta’s, is muffled by the love of the people.
The pain is there, but it doesn’t hurt, it runs alongside me like an old companion.
The kilometres before the last climb, toward the Carosello 3000 finish line, are so light they pass even too fast.
Silence and noise, the chaos inside me and the calm of the mountain, the calmness of passers-by.
I do it for me.
I do it for me and for anyone who loves me.
It’s a time like many others, except for those who are competing.
It will take days to dissipate this feeling of greatness.
It will take years to learn how to manage the undertows.
The ending climb is almost like getting back to the start, with nature that wants to take back its space for another personal opinion. It starts raining. The athletes behind will end the race under the beats of an hailstorm.
I barely avoid it.
On the last dirt road hairpin bends I come across some Irish cows, the hairy ones, that look at me distractedly. When I will come by again, in the freezing winter, they will look at me with the same hazy look.
I get to the last hundred meters, worn out by 12 hours of struggles, and yet with a much lighter step than the start. I leave the sticks and the backpack to my team members and try closing on a high note.
At the top.
If you win Icon, you don’t cut the finish line, you lift it up, so that anyone who gets there after you - and some will get there in the middle of the night - can lift it as well.
Many people surround me, all the people I love, all those who know the extent of my suffering and my loneliness.
Those who have been around me for a lifetime.
I’d want to thank them one by one.
But I can’t, because they say it first.
All those who tackle the hardest Ironman in the world, do it to answer a deep need that other people can’t see. It’s something that knocks from the inside, that maybe you cannot put into words, and you can achieve only with silent struggle.
My need has a first and a last name, a testimony that is hard to pursue.
But today is the perfect day.
I’m the one going back home with his backpack full, a bigger heart and weary eyes.
Because, despite everything that happened, I’m still lucky.
GIULIO MOLINARI / CONTRIBUTOR