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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A Triathlon Is Easy Next to Soviets and Polio

 
 
An Ironman race in Barcelona, May 21.
 
By 

In two weeks I’m competing in a triathlon—on a relay team with my in-laws, Polish immigrants in their mid-60s. My mother-in-law, Barbara, is a three-time cancer survivor who lost the use of one eye because of radiation treatment. She’ll do the 1.2-mile swim in 60-degree water. My father-in-law, Mirek, who had polio as a child, will do the 56-mile bike ride, across very hilly terrain, on his one good leg. And me? I’m doing the 13.1-mile run. But as a healthy 41-year-old, I don’t have any against-all-odds story line.

My wife, Kasia, it should be noted, is doing the entire race: swim, bike and run. This is fine with me because, honestly, she has always been three times the man I am. Kasia was born in 1975 in Warsaw. These were the cold, hard days of communism. She recalls the winter when temperatures dropped to 22 below zero and the school’s coal-fed heating system failed. Put on your coats and hats, the teachers told students, before resuming class. No one complained because it would make no difference.

My wife understood this from birth. Crying infants were never to be picked up between midnight and dawn. Babies were weatherized, left outside in their strollers while mothers shopped at the grocery store, even in the blustery depths of winter. At the dentist’s office, when Kasia got her cavities drilled, there were no painkillers. She recalls, for a second-grade field trip, visiting a charred field where a commercial airliner had recently crashed. Burnt sneakers still littered the ground. The message seemed clear enough: Life is short, sometimes a bit shorter than expected, so get to it.

 

By comparison, my upbringing in America seems pampered: heated classrooms, cable television, ample Novocain, doting Jewish parents. Thank God for all that. Still, there are moments when I secretly envy my wife’s childhood of deprivation.

She seems—as do her parents and her brother—largely unfazed by such inconveniences as hunger, cold and muscle fatigue. They also share a resilience born from a common narrative. They came from Poland, on the great sprawling plains of Central Europe that my brother-in-law once described to me as “Rent a Battlefield.” First the Mongols arrived, then the Swedes, then the Germans, then the Russians. Sometimes I get the sense that to be Polish, at least in my wife’s view, is to embrace a kind of prolonged, quiet suffering.

What is a five-hour triathlon if not that? It’s no coincidence that my wife’s family chose a sport of deliberate misery. They have even persuaded me (at least partly) that pampering sometimes brings a steady, creeping rot—a complacency that corrodes the soul. So I’m racing with the Poles.

Last week I learned that I have an inguinal hernia. It’s uncomfortable, but not crippling. When I visited the doctor’s office, the nurse told me, apologetically, that she wouldn’t be able to schedule my surgery until after the triathlon. But she gave me the green light to run. I envisioned myself tenderly limping across the finish. And then I smiled. It wasn’t the Warsaw Uprising, or cancer or polio, but it would do.