RACING WITH FRIENDS Ive got triathlons on the brain this week. Not to say Im remotely near the physical fanaticism required to participate in one of these widow-makers. Asking me to swim 2.4 miles would most certainly kill me, as my swimming skills can best be described as those of a person who would otherwise drown immediately were it not for the flailing of limbs that merely postpones the inevitable. I love a nice gentle swim across the pool . . . only because Id otherwise wind up at the bottom of said pool. Swimming as competition? Yikes. Add a 112-mile bike ride and -- clutch your chest here -- a 26.2 mile run (which alone killed the Individual who originally accomplished the feat in delivering a war-time message to Marathon, Greece)? You might as well ask me to leap the Morgan Keegan building in clown shoes. The 20th annual Memphis in May Triathlon will be held this Sunday, and 1,400 competitors are expected to participate in the event (not quite an Iron Man, the MIM triathlon is the same distance as an Olympic triathlon: .9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride, and 6.2-mile run). I had the pleasure last month of attending the wedding -- in Carmel, California, no less -- of an old college buddy who prides himself these days on his triathlon achievements. Tamio has already completed -- survived? -- the Florida Iron Man and shows no indication of backing off this superhuman hobby of his. He goes so far as to claim merely running a marathon doesnt light his fire, so to speak. Imagine Neil Armstrong asking NASA for permission to continue toward Mars. Been to the moon . . . done that. In spending time with Tamio -- and another dear friend I hadnt seen in nearly a decade -- I began to blur the distinction between the requirements for a triathlon and those for a lifelong friendship. Absolute devotion. Stubborn desire. More than a little flexibility. Versatility. Tirelessness. The ability to stay upright when so many elements say, Lay down, silly one. Taking the allegory a step further, you might view a long friendship as having a similar pattern to a triathlon. Stage One can be a little messy, a lot of kicking, arms akimbo, bumping into one another, gasping for a breath or two, maybe even choking a little now and again. But always with the same destination in mind. You complete this shortest of the three stages, drip dry as you head for Stage Two, ready to eat up some course. Which is where things get dangerous for good friends. You hit a period where -- metaphorical bike underneath -- you may feel as though cruise control has been reached. The wind in your face feels good, the scenery passes at a steady rate, your legs are pumping those pedals like a clock in perfect rhythm. Only problem is, you look up and the crowd you started with is no more. New faces, new structure to the wheel-spinning pack. Before you know it, your legs have pumped, your lungs have burned for 112 miles . . . and youre back on your own. Stage Three: a marathon to the finish line. In other words, the hard part. The pace slows, muscles begin to ache (if you can feel them anymore), and every breath comes at a premium. While Ive never been there myself, what Ive heard from athletes who have stayed on their sneakers for 26.2 miles is that one element takes over all others as you near the end: focus. On the finish line, a favorite memory, a favorite song . . . a best friend. Focus. For your body to remain on target, your mind has to stay alert. Its at this point where the myriad distractions we allow to cross the path of our daily lives become all too ancillary. And the elements we hold dear again become a part of us. I should have begun by saying I have friends on the brain this week. Good friends. Who knows how long each of our triathlons will be? Im not sure precisely which stage of friendship Ive reached with my college pals, though Im fairly certain all three of us are pumping through Stage Two. The best part is, thanks to Tamios wedding last month, I found my original pack. And Ill keep pumping.