It happens: sports and the Tao of Poo
[Editor's note: The following story appeared in the 2010 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine. It kicks off Playbook's weeklong salute to David Fleming's ... ummm ... "Undercarriage Trilogy." Enjoy!]
AFTER RACING NEARLY 140 miles, first through the ocean, then across the blackened lava fields of Kona, Hawaii, Julie Moss crested the final hill of the 1982 Ironman Triathlon alone in front, hovering near delirium. She was also about 45 seconds from becoming, as she remembers it, "the ultimate, giant, chocolate mess."
Since the 16-mile mark of the marathon, Moss, a vivacious 23-year-old with a shock of red hair, had managed to hold back the field as well as the considerable contents of her intestines. Suddenly, like a beacon in the Pacific twilight, a Sizzler steak house appeared, cool and inviting, atop the hill on Palani Road. Almost a half mile from the finish, Moss had a gastronomical gamble to make. She gazed back and forth, evaluating her options -- relief by way of the Sizzler bathroom in front, an evaporating lead in the inky darkness behind -- all the while contemplating the ultimate unspeakable taboo almost every elite athlete faces at some point.
Do I stop? Or go?
Exhausted and dangerously dehydrated, Moss was losing control of her body with every step. But she trudged on, pushing herself toward victory. The legs went first. A quarter mile after passing the Sizzler, Moss wobbled, then her knees buckled inward and she telescoped to the ground like a dynamited building. The moment she hit the pavement, her bowels cut loose, emptying against her will. The torrent breached her dainty, light-blue running shorts and moved down her legs, where the hot, acidic fecal matter stung her skin and the putrid stench tattooed the inside of her nostrils.
Overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness, Moss sat on the road for more than two minutes. She was panicked, embarrassed, horrified. And yet, in some inexplicable, scatological way, she felt transformed. As she explains it now, "What you're weighing, looking at the bathroom and the finish line, is: Can I ask more of myself, can I give more, can I suffer more? That's what sports is. How fine of an edge are you willing to dance on? What kind of a mess can you live with? But you learn the answers only if you're willing to go beyond your limits to that Star Trekkie place, where, you know, no man has ever gone before."
• Also see: Flem File -- The agony of intestinal failure
Wednesday: Call of Booty -- Backsides and sports (Body Issue 2012)
Thursday: Flem File supplement and outtakes from Call of Booty
Friday: David Fleming chat, 3 p.m. ET
Follow David Fleming on Twitter @FlemESPN