While running the marathon of the Ironman, two runners asked me why I was doing this. I can’t remember if I asked them why they too were completing an Ironman or not because that would have been polite (and I was beyond polite at the time). My memory is foggy at best through the delirium I experienced on the run, but I remember replying to each one of them: “I just don’t know; I should have that answer in a week.” So, if you’re looking for an inspirational blog post about my revelations before, during, and after Ironman Maryland: this is not that kind of post.
And, It’s been a week.
Well, more than that, and I still don’t have an answer to that question. But I do know that I would like to do another. Maybe I’m just out to punish my body– to escape responsibilities in exchange for training– to wake up at 4am to train — to ride for hours on end on Saturdays– to swim endless laps in the pool staring at the black line (actually, I like this part)– or swimming loops around swim buoys in a lake for hours, flicking seaweed away– to run on exhausted legs every. single. day. where every run is absolutely a punishment and all of your running friends leave you behind— or worse– to ride for over five hours on a trainer.
Not all training is grueling. I’ve met some Ironmen who have trained with me on the bike or run, and I adore the masters swim team I train with three times a week, and I’ve met the BEST people while preparing for the Ironman.
In any case, here’s my Ironman story. It’s not pretty, but neither is the Ironman.
Four hours from Chattanooga, Lacey sends me a text: “The swim is cancelled; I’m so pissed.” She was checking in on Thursday for Sunday’s race while I was in the car en route. My heart sank. I was devastated: a year’s worth of training and now the swim is cancelled? How can I call myself an Ironman (silly, I know) if I don’t do the swim? The swim is my best sport of the three. With the new staggered time trial bike start for Chattanooga, I wasn’t sure if I would make the bike cutoff, or if I would get pulled from the course at some point. I vented my frustration on Facebook and to my friend, Catrina, racing in Maryland. Lacey received many of these texts too. Catrina sent a message saying that the race director for Ironman Maryland is doing walk-up registrations on Friday from 10am-1pm and that I should consider changing course and race Ironman Maryland instead. There were 30 slots available.
For many of you who do Ironmans, a walk-up registration the day prior to the race is almost unheard of. Phil and I deliberated in the car for over an hour while parked at a gas station four hours from Chattanooga. I texted family and friends and talked to Cathy for awhile. We decided to take the chance and drive to Maryland. It was five o’clock on Thursday, and we pulled into Cambridge, MD by midnight.
The next day, Phil and Sophia slept in while I drove to the transition area for Ironman Maryland. I arrived by 8am and started asking around about the walk-up registration. One volunteer didn’t think they were doing that–it couldn’t be! I was still determined and hung around, watching athletes practice their swim in the Choptank River. I spoke to anyone who would listen and felt like a total outsider. I didn’t belong here. What was I thinking? Did I throw away Chattanooga for nothing?
I headed to the bike in/out for transition when I noticed more activity. An athlete there spoke to me and mentioned that the race director, Gerry, was the guy in the pick up truck right next to me. He knocked on the window, and Gerry eased my concerns when he said that they are doing walk up registrations at 10am where they were setting up tents. Finally! I hugged Gerry too! I was able to sign up, got my green Ironman band, and then proceeded to panic since I had to race on Saturday instead of Sunday. I had to get all of my gear ready and dropped off by tomorrow. Back to the hotel!
Race day came before I knew it. Phil drove me to transition while Sophia stayed with his parents (they were kind enough to head to MD to watch the race after being so close to Chattanooga). I handed my gear and special needs bags to the volunteers and carried my swim bag to the swim start where I still needed to get a timing chip, or this whole thing would really be for nothing. While waiting for volunteers, I forced myself to eat something more, but ended up dry heaving in a trash can near the swim start. I found Catrina and Dylan and calmed down chatting with them and getting my wetsuit on. Soon, Catrina and I lined up for the swim ready to go.
In the corral, I talked to experienced Ironmen and calmed down again. I was ready and still had to pee, which I couldn’t possibly do in my wetsuit. All of that vanished in the rolling swim start–I got my head wet, adjusted my goggles, and swam for the buoys, one at a time. Waves lifted me up and down as I swam forward. My wetsuit felt tight around my neck despite cutting it lower. I flipped over on my back three times before the first turn buoy 500 meters away just to breathe. I thought about quitting and searched for a kayaker. The waves were choppy enough that sighting was difficult, but I told myself I am a good swimmer, I won’t drown, and I have a wave of people who support me coming along for this race. I closed my eyes and pictured all of them following me like geese in formation. I am not alone. I held this image throughout the swim for all 2.4 miles. Whenever I hit sea nettles with my hands that bubbled up from the deep, I pictured my friends and family with me. As I prepared to exit the swim, my calves seized up, and I wan’t sure if I would be able to stand let alone ride my bike. I flexed my feet to stretch out before getting out of the water, which seemed to help.
In the changing tent, a volunteer helped me with my cycling gear while I drank a protein shake, swallowed a salt stick capsule, and ate some gummies. I found a port-o-potty on the way to my bike. Phil found me and cheered me on while I ran with my bike to bike out.
The bike course was fast, flat, and windy. So many cyclists passed me in the beginning, but I stuck to my plan and held my pace and heart rate to prevent burning out later in the race: I ate every forty-five minutes, drank a bottle of Tailwind every hour, and stopped to pee. Around mile 50, I knew I was going to have GI issues, so I stopped again, ate a banana every time my fingers tingled–that happened three times on the ride. Overall, I thought I was going to be OK for the run. By mile 70, I could no longer sit on my saddle and adjusted my position every few minutes. I sang songs out loud to myself and passing cyclists. Wind pushed me around when I was in aero, but I tried to enjoy all of it–even the last 42 miles of wind, wind, and more wind. I smiled for the sports photographer, watched a blue heron land, and traced the ripples on the water as I rode by. I wanted to be here, and I’m lucky to be here.
As I entered transition to prepare for the run, I saw my support crew, which made me feel really happy. I started the run strong with the intent to walk as needed. My stomach was still uneasy, but I ate some pretzels and drank some Gatorade Endurance upon leaving transition. I felt good. Bring on the 26.2 miles!
The first 8 miles went well, then GI issues were back in full force. I went through cycles of feeling hungry, dizzy, and dry heaving, to full for a few minutes, followed by severe stomach cramping that stopped me in my tracks. By mile 16, I could no longer run because of my stomach. All I could eat was chicken broth, pretzels, and water. The aid station made me want to vomit with its cookies, gels, bars, and Gatorade. Just give me chicken broth, please.
The cycle of nausea, temporary relief, and stomach cramps stayed with me for the rest of the marathon. I saw Catrina and Dan twice on the run through some of the most desolate sections of the course–seeing them gave me the motivation to keep going. I tried to speed walk, did calculations in my head to see if I would make the cut offs, felt utterly alone in the darkness when the crowds went home, and when my friends were ahead of me. If I passed out, who would find me? Should I go to medical? All would be lost if I did that, so I continued anyway. At the last turn around, the bright lights made me dizzy, so I looked at the blood orange moon instead. I heard Mike Reilly calling out names of athletes who finished, and I desperately wanted to get to that red carpet.
I passed the last cut off, so I could walk if I needed to. This was such a relief. I heard a song that reminded me of Sophia’s friend, Hope, who beat cancer, and began crying as I ran to the last turn around. How many people are able to do this? How many people have the financial means to do so? How many people have the luxury to train and the family support behind them? I walked faster and maybe even ran. I don’t remember.
After the last turn around, I started to see people behind me, which made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Thank goodness. At the last aid station, I ate an orange, possibly the best orange I’ve ever tasted and kept speed walking. When I hit that red carpet, “Stayin’ Alive” was blasting from the speakers, I sang, I danced, I shook Mike Reilly’s hand, and I became an Ironman.
To answer that question about why I was doing all of this, it’s because the challenge is there, and I can.
Thank you to my coach, Mary Kelley, without whom none of this would have been possible. She make schedule changes, told me when to take a break, and pushed me when I needed it. Thank you to Phil and Sophia for putting up with all of my training days, cleaning the house, cooking dinner while I napped, and for being supportive even when I was hangry, which was all the time. Thank you to my family who had to work around my training while I visited and watched Sophia on the long rides–I took my bike everywhere I traveled this past summer. Thank you to Jan and Clint for driving to Maryland to watch me race and to Aunt Nancy for making so many phone calls to secure lodging in Cambridge. Thank you to Friends Central Masters Swim Team, coached by Kerry, for making me faster and for the friendships there. Thank you to all of the Ironmen I know: Cathy, who got me into this sport in the first place, Dan, Mary, Mary, Lacey, Amajit, Lou, Catrina, Dylan, Bill, Sue, Steele, and John. For being .01% of the world’s population who have completed an Ironman, I know a lot of you! Thank you to all of my running friends near and far: Kim, Marianne, Caroline, Gene, Mira (my running twin), Jen, Megan, Hua, Kelly, and the running pups: Moose, Marla, and Packer! Thank you to my friends all over the place who never doubted that I could do it–Becky, Vince, Angela, and Amanda. I’m sure I missed someone, so thank you everyone!