*Warning! Long post. Recommended with a beer of choice and a block of time. As many of you know, writing is extremely therapeutic for me and this was one of the most enjoyable things to document. I hope you enjoy!*
So…an Ironman, huh? I don’t exactly remember some defining moment that inspired me to officially sign-up for an Ironman, but I do know now that it was one of the most significant (and frankly, awesome) decisions I could have ever made in my life. An Ironman is no small feat. Deciding to undergo the training in and of itself requires a REAL understanding of such a commitment, or you set yourself up for failure, or worse…quitting. I chose the Coeur D’Alene event because of the timeframe it would allow me to train, the location sounded beautiful, and it was known to be a “great first Ironman” by the triathlon community. What I learned on my journey, from the minute I sat on my bed clicking the “purchase” button in December 2015, to sitting here now typing this recap, a newly minted Ironman, telling you my story, was that Ironman is so, so much more than the physical distances of the race.
Back in my college days, I was a very competitive triathlete on the Cal Triathlon team. My tri roommates and I ate, drank, and slept all things triathlon, from breakfast nutrition to cycling nutrition to, yes, the nutrition facts in our beer mugs. We constantly had suits hanging to dry, spare tubes strewn across the house, water bottles and caps galore, and bike trainers shoved into the corner of any room. I knew every brand of bike, running shoe, bike component, how many calories were in every Gu/bar/recovery drink, and exactly what my 5k race pace was on any given day. We were REAL triathletes, obsessed with the sport, and competitive as hell.
Ok now let’s fast forward back to the beginning of my training, in February, where I haven’t REALLY touched a road bike in, oh, 2 years since my last race and hadn’t been in the pool just as long. I no longer owned a bike trainer, and the styles and types of running shoes had changed so much since my college days. I was re-learning the sport, and not only that, from a VERY different angle. We raced Olympic and Sprint distances, which took mostly under 3 hours, whereas this was A 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run and I was looking at a solid 13 hour timeframe. The endurance game, the mental game, the nutrition game…this was like nothing I had ever tackled before. It forced my loose, free floating, au-natural “I don’t need data to train” personality to buckle the f%#* down and get real with what I was about to take on.
Fast forwarding even further, to the couple of days leading up to the big race. I’m still not sure I was completely dialed into just HOW many miles I was about to do in one sitting (heh), and part of me is thankful my head never fully wrapped itself completely around that or I would have been more of a mental nutcase than I already was. I attribute this partly to my lifelong training as an athlete, which meant a high level of durability and trust in my own body, and part of it was because in certain areas…I was severely undertrained and probably just in denial. And for that, I have slight regret but I also now see it as a huge opportunity to shave a ton of time off of my next Ironman (yes, I said my next one).
With my rucksack, my bag-o-gear, and my bike box (with a relatively sketchy pack job of said bike) in tow, I took an early morning flight to Spokane, WA on Thursday, August 18th where I picked up our rental car for the weekend.
I had the whole day to myself, as Neil and my mom, my amazing supporters onsite for the weekend, were flying in later that night and on Friday. I immediately drove to City Park at Lake Coeur D’Alene, where the race, transition area, and athlete village were located. My nerves were on fire, because showing up and beginning the check-in process meant that this was actually happening. I actually remember telling myself to sloooooow down and ‘just breathe’ at least 5 or 6 times throughout that day. When I parked at check-in, I walked immediately to the lake and was in absolute awe of how gorgeous it was.
It calmed me down quite a bit, and I kept telling myself ‘when it gets hard, just take a look around you. Be thankful for being here. Smile.” I was actually glad I had all day to be solo, to check-in, take stock of the village, purchase a few (ok A LOT OF) things, browse the merchandise shop, and just gather thoughts. I just kept thinking about how everything in my life had revolved around training, planning my training, thinking about training…and here it was. It was race time. Like…there it was, out of nowhere. No turning back now. Excuse my language, but holy SHIT (I said that a lot over the course of those 3 days, by the way. And the f-word. Particularly on the 2nd half of the bike. Stay tuned for that).
At check-in I got my super sweet neon yellow “Ironman” wristband first. What fun it was walking around town that weekend, eyeing other wristband-wearers, and giving them the “nod” aka the look that said “hey good luck and are you scared? Cause I’m a little scared.” I then received all of my bags (you get A LOT of bags), my timing chip, free backpack, and other random crap you will need for the weekend, like meal vouchers and a pass for your family to go get your bike in transition after the race. This cracked me up because let’s be real, when you finish that race, you’re basically a non-functional child-like being and have zero capability of doing things for yourself like putting on a sweatshirt or, god forbid, “gathering your own gear”. You’ve got to love how Ironman realized this, and thus, decided to grant athletes’ families permission.
I had some time to kill after I checked in, so I took my bike to get unpacked by the amazing bike mechanics who had a whole shop set up, and somehow ended up paying them to basically put it together, tune it up, put some super light race-day wheels on it, and install my aero-bars for me. It was actually totally worth every penny I (over)spent because it took all of my bike worries away. I decided that the last thing I needed to worry about was a flat tire, brakes that needed tuned up, or a skippy chain. I wanted a beautiful, functional, fast bike and I got just that. It was perfection.
With even MORE time to kill (Neil didn’t get in until midnight), I went and saw a movie downtown in Coeur D’Alene, ‘Bad Moms’ – I even ate popcorn. Carb loading, ya know? Speaking of nutrition, at this point I was on a mission to drink insane amounts of water and I was peeing every 30 minutes. So even though I only saw, like, 3/4 of the movie, it was still the perfect amount of chick-flick cute and distracting to take my mind off the race for a few hours. I then slammed a personal pizza from a joint downtown, got lost on the internet for a few minutes reading “Last Minute Ironman Advice” articles and other self-masochistic pieces, and headed to my hotel to relax, organize my stuff (again), and sleep before picking up Neil…well I ended up watching the Olympics, painting my nails and giving myself a facial, and not sleeping instead. Go figure. After getting my man from the airport, with THE biggest smile on my face to finally see him, we headed back to get some sleep in our very poorly air-conditioned room. It was sleep nonetheless, and I hadn’t been doing much of that lately.
Friday morning, Neil and I went on a 4 mile easy run through downtown Spokane (which, it turns out, is utterly adorable), and got breakfast at a great little café on the river that served Apple donuts with a brown sugar butter. Perfect pre-race fuel if you ask me. I was truly relieved and calmed by his presence, a feeling that would last the whole weekend and that I attribute to getting to the start point without a panic attack. I was beyond thankful and felt so lucky that he wanted to be there for me. We then packed up and headed to the airport to pick up my mom, the 2nd half of the amazing Team 0.0, and we drove to Lake Coeur D’Alene (again) to check into our hotel, the resort right next to transition and hugging the beautiful lake. A huge shout out to my mom for booking a room here. It made life over the next few days (and on race day) an absolute breeze, it was a beautiful hotel, and they had a hot tub with jets that I gladly took advantage of. 🙂 Needless to say, I was armed and ready with THE best support crew a gal could have ever dreamed of.
Friday night we browsed the athlete village, got some last minute (and some fun) things, had a few beers in the Sierra Nevada tent where we met a few other racers. They kindly offered some first-time Ironman advice to me, and this conversation also helped to calm my nerves. What is the saying, “misery loves company”? Well, nervous loves company as well. There is a strange comfort in knowing that others are experiencing the same emotions as you, just as there truly is strength in community…and that’s something I thought about a lot as I was trudging along during those middle miles of the marathon – “well, we all hurt, and we’re all a little nuts, try to laugh at it.”
That evening was also the Opening Ceremony where Race Directors, Volunteers, and a few athletes gave race details, told stories, and lots of tear-inducing videos were played. When you do long and difficult events like these, there is a big focus on the “why”, and the importance of remembering your “why” is very stressed. The idea is that you’re going to have to call on that during the low points of the event. Many of the participants were running for late family members, in honor of friends with disabilities, themselves, the list goes on. So…what was my “why?” Why was I signing myself up for a world of hurt, willingly, and PAYING for it? Why was I choosing to put myself in a physically and emotionally stressful situation when I could, I don’t know, NOT do that and just work out for fun? I’ll touch on that in a bit.
After the ceremony, we had dinner at a great little Italian restaurant, where Neil “lovingly” rationed my wine intake (“my athlete” he kept calling me, as he’d carry my things to relieve the physical exertion or run little errands for me so I didn’t have to think so hard. What a trooper he truly was). We had a very fun and relaxed evening, and hit the hay pretty early. At this point in the trip, I was glowing. The ceremony left me extremely pumped up and actually EXCITED for race day, I had 2 of my favorite people there with me, and I was feeling physically energized and beginning to trust I had tapered right (now, please note that these feelings would and did change on a dime, and at any given moment I’d become so terrified and so nervous that I felt numb, and freak out that I was over/under trained. All part of the journey, right?)
Saturday was a balancing act of taking some time to myself, getting a swim and a bike in, checking in all of my gear, and trying to just RELAX. We had a wonderful dinner on a floating restaurant called Cedar’s across the bridge from Coeur D’Alene town, a place I’d be passing 4 times on the bike and using as a “thank god you’re almost to Transition” mile marker the next day. We went to bed around 9 that night…for we had a VERY early wake-up call.
3:45am, alarm goes off, and “holy shit” is the first thing that enters my brain (I told you). Neil got up with me and we went down and got coffee and breakfast – oatmeal, banana, energy bar. Over in transition, the nervous energy from athletes running around was as pungent as I expected it to be. Scatter brained, we all dropped off “Special Needs” bags (these magically appeared around mile 63 of the bike, and then again on the run at either mile 9 or 18, with extra “anything” that you decided you might need or want. Mine contained Sour Patch Kids, Snickers, and Potato Chips). After almost losing Neil and my mom in the midst of the madness, I finally found him, threw my wetstuit on, got body-marked, and we made our way to the lakefront where warm-up was taking place. 15 minutes to go. I said my goodbye’s to he and my mom, walked to the beach, put my goggles on, stood at the surf line…and cried.
Literally before I knew it, the wave lines started to form (I was in the first corral, for 1-hour and under), the National Anthem had played, and we were underway! About 5 minutes after the gun shot, I was diving into the water. It was a rolling start, which meant they filed you into the water 2-3 at a time, and that meant very little impact with other swimmers. All in all, I don’t have much to report on the swim – except that it was awesome. The water was a bath-like 71 degrees, choppy water, but I’m a good swimmer and thus choppy doesn’t give me a lot of struggle, PLUS I only had to do the water polo climb over maneuver on another swimmer one time. It was long, but I felt strong and barely used my legs to save them for the long road(s) ahead of me.
I tried to take glimpses around me as a swam, and hold to the advice which was “take the swim easy, enjoy it – it’s the calmest part of the day.” When I was about to exit the water, I mentally prepared myself for the bike – the part I was absolutely the most nervous for. “One pedal stroke at a time…do the thing in front of you – the hill, the turn, the stretch…don’t think about what you have coming, just do the thing in front of you. Enjoy it. Take it easy. Keep your heart rate low. Smile.” 1:06 later, I exited the water. Super happy with that time.
Transition 1: This is fun! Running up the beach into T1 was so exciting, with people lining the chute and screaming like crazy. Adrenaline was at a high at this point. When you entered transition, you got wetsuit-stripped by a few volunteers and shuffled into the change tent, where I, like a jittery and anxious child, threw my bike shoes and helmet on and tried to get re-oriented (swimming horizontally for an hour and then standing/running, you tend to get a little light headed). The paparazzi camera dude followed me running to my bike, where mom and Neil were also standing outside transition and holding such adorable signs that they are sure to make it into the recap video. I took a deep breath, grabbed my bike, waved a kiss to my support crew and ran out to the mount line. Off I went. 112 miles till the next transition. Holy Shit.
The first 56 miles, I felt, honestly, very strong. It made me chuckle a little bit when I hit the 56 mile marker, thinking back to how scared I was about doing a 70.3 race (where the bike distance stops at 56 miles), and how far I’d come. It gave me the boost of confidence I needed to get through the next 56…and boy did I need some help. The course was 2 loops to make up 56 miles, so repeated, you did each loop twice, meaning we rode through the main transition area and passed all of the spectators a total of 4 times, including the bike finish (got that?!). I got to see mom and Neil on my way out onto the 3rd loop, and it was yet another burst of energy I needed to get through the second half. I remember reading about how valuable it can be to just see a familiar face, even if only for a few seconds of those 7 hours, and man is it true.
The 3rd loop (the shorter of the two) went great and my split was only 2 minutes slower than my first go-round, but as soon as we crossed the bridge onto the 4th loop, a 20mph or more headwind hit us like a ton of bricks. I quite literally thought I was never going to see the turnaround. In my depleted, semi-delirious state, I dreamt up scenarios that they had purposefully moved the turnaround just to spite us and I probably cussed out loud at the wind at least 12 times. My nutrition and hydration plan was pretty solid, and though I stuck to the plan really well, at some point (mile 85 to be exact), I stopped caring and just wanted to get the hell back home. My plan was to consume 400 calories and a bottle of water an hour. I did well on the calories, but probably went with around 3/4 of a bottle because my stomach felt really full and sloshy. Compared to the alternative of being dehydrated, I decided I was in a better position. Rounding the final corner into transition, I started to wrap my head around running a MARATHON – I had done a great job of not thinking about it while on the bike, and “focusing on the thing in front of me.” Now full disclosure here, the longest I ran during my training was 17 miles at one time. I’m fine with that, because my overall base is consistently strong and I’m pretty durable, but I started to let it seep into my head that I was undertrained and at that particular moment, I cursed myself for it. I finished the bike in 7:24, about 30 minutes slower than I expected to. Thanks, head winds. THANKS.
As I dismounted from my bike, I feared that my right leg cramps I’d been suffering from for about an hour were going to really limit my ability to run. Luckily I moved relatively well off the bike, and jogged on peg-legs into the run change tent. I changed socks, slowly put my running shoes on (I can now compare severe exhaustion to the feeling of moving at altitude – kind of light-headed, really slow, and in a daze), stretched a bit, and took a cold ice cloth to my neck that a volunteer offered me. At check-in the days prior, they gave us a bright green bracelet to wear that we were to give to a volunteer at some point in our day, when they did something nice or something specific to help us. That cold cloth was exactly what I needed in that exact moment in time, so I gave the woman my bracelet.:) I really loved how that simple act, performed thousands of times that day, fostered the attitude of gratitude throughout the event. Which leads me to saying…the race was put together incredibly. Everything was flawless, the volunteers were all rock stars, and the execution of every small detail was impeccable.
Neil and mom met me right at the Run Out section, and Neil ran alongside me for what I think was about 1/2 a mile. I truly needed that. I felt really good, strangely energized, was not limping (win!), and it was nice to talk to him for a minute and actually speak words for the first time in like, 8 hours, as I started my death march to the finish line. Ok that’s dramatic, the death march only lasted from miles 15-21. The miles leading up to what we’ll call “the dark place” went by in a blur. I ran sub-10 minute miles for the first couple of miles or so, walking all of the aid stations as I was advised to, and while I hurt and had some cramping in my rib cage and legs, it was not unbearable.
As I was finishing my 2nd loop, coming into the 3rd loop, around mile 16, I literally went black. I remember wanting to hone into how I was feeling because I wanted to REMEMBER the pain – don’t ask me why, I’m crazy? The only way I can describe it is that your whole body just feels like its being wrenched, and moving forward feels like the most monumental of efforts. I tried focusing on the gorgeous lake view we got for about a 4 mile stretch, but that didn’t work. Then I began thinking about turning around early…and immediately cursed myself for even having that ridiculous thought. I cried an annoying, wincing cry at some point, even. A friend of mine once told me “you have to say to yourself ‘you could continue this, or, you could quit…’. She, being like me, has the attitude that quitting is simply just not an option. That helped quite a bit.
Then I started thinking about my friends and family, from all over, who were all supporting me and rooting me on. I couldn’t let them down, and I sure as hell couldn’t let myself down. I was (am) in a place where I was actively seeking a way to be happy with me and proud of myself, and by finishing the race with integrity, I would get that. I started to get incredibly thankful. Thankful my legs were still moving, thankful I’d built myself into a physically and mentally tough woman who could withstand excruciating pain, thankful I literally had entire communities of people tracking me from home. I think all of the positive thinking kicked in at the last turnaround, with 4 miles to go, because something inside me literally shifted within seconds…I picked up my pace, found a comfortable (that term is very, very relative by the way) shuffle, and I didn’t stop until I hit the corner to round on to Sherman Avenue and finish the f*#$ing race.
The final stretch. Hoots and hollers from spectators along the course, and shots of cola (life saving, the Coca-Cola shots were literally life saving) were all that got me home for those last 4 miles. I couldn’t wait to run the last stretch down Sherman Avenue, across the finish line, and give Neil the biggest hug. I couldn’t wait to share a beer with he and my mom and tell them stories about my day and hear about their day as my support crew. I couldn’t wait for a hot tub. I picked up my pace even faster that last mile, and soon enough was running down Sherman Avenue…it gives me the chills just thinking about it. The crowd was screaming at me, I wore a plastered smile from ear to ear, and it was like every bit of pain completely disappeared. I finished right at dusk, making the lighting on the lake behind the finisher’s chute absolutely majestic. I saw my mom and Neil along the gates, slapped their hands and ran as hard as I could across the line. I ran/shuffled a 5:04 marathon, finishing the race with an overall time of 13:50:37, 26th in my age group.
I was an Ironman. I cried again.
After gathering my gear (thanks mom and Neil) and limping my way back to the hotel (oh, and having a few moments where I literally felt like I was going to keel over and vomit), the three of us sat around the fire and had cheeseburgers and a few drinks – well deserved by all! We laughed and recapped and told stories about our day – just how I had imagined it. Neil had to leave very early the next day, and I was exhausted (I know, shocking right?), so we headed up to the room and I took a bath before we all turned in. Lying in bed attempting to calm my adrenaline and actually get some sleep, I reflected. A SAFE, successful race in the books, a successful Support Crew with me along the way, and one of the most memorable experiences I may ever have, completed. I’ll be honest, I was extremely sad it was over, but there is very little in this life that is sweeter than lying down after a hard day’s work with the people you love the most right there beside you.
All in all, it was an experience that did indeed teach me things about myself I didn’t even know I needed to learn. I was just a ball of emotion the entire journey, the happiest I had been in a long time going INTO the race, and the level of elation I felt and am still feeling is indescribable. I achieved a dream that day, I did something I quite literally didn’t think I could do, and I did it WELL and with integrity. My love for the sport was completely reinvigorated. I was overcome with gratitude for the incredible help, love, and support of my mom and Neil over the weekend, and without them, I would have had a very subpar experience. Additionally, I was and am still in absolute awe of the outpouring of love and support coming from my friends and family across the country; people were REALLY behind me that day, tracking my progress and sending messages of love and congratulations, and I truly felt that support on a very deep level. For that, I feel like the luckiest girl alive.
My whole life I have identified with being a strong athlete, and triathlon has always been very special to me. It may sound strange, but I feel like “me” again now. This is what I do. This is where I belong. I am excited to return to racing, full steam ahead.
So…what’s next? Well, I have a big month of September on the horizon! After my move to Reno this weekend, my trip to Italy, and a rockin’ music festival for a few days with Neil in Del Mar, CA, I’ll finally get to settle in, settle down (ha, yeah right)…and likely begin executing on my next crazy adventure. 🙂
Thank you again to everyone who was behind me and supported me in this journey, from March until now. You know who you are, and I definitely carried you with me across that finish line!