When we begin a race, be it Ironman, Half Ironman, Olympic distance or Sprint, we hope for a flawless day. A day without too much wind or too much heat or that the long steep hills with feel easier to climb than ever. This is what we call the “perfect day” or the “perfect race.” Indeed, this “perfect day” is amazing… When it happens. However, what do you learn in that perfect day? Do you learn how to tactfully handle mechanical issues? Do you learn how, despite your instinct, to push through agonizing discomfort and pain that would normally stop you during your training sessions? Do you learn how to push on and carry through with a race that you’ve focused and trained for over the last 6-8 months when everything falls apart in an instant? The answer is no. Although we hope, focus and wish for the “perfect race,” it seldom happens. It is however, when the “wheels fall off”, that we truly learn our character and grow not only as an athlete but a person. When all goes wrong, THAT is when you learn to be a champion. Not a champion of the race, but a champion of the day, and a champion of your mind. You learn that through all adversity that you can push through any discomfort, no matter how great, to accomplish your goal. After this day, you truly can, do ANYTHING you set your mind to. THAT in my mind is the “perfect day” and the “perfect race.” Below is an account for my most recent Ironman in Maryland. I hope you enjoy.
We could not have asked for a more perfect day to start an Ironman. The water was calm, the air was perfect and not a hint of wind to be felt. I stood in the shoot with 10 minutes till “go time” to start doing my dry land warm up: arm circles, trunk twists, squats, deep breathing, etc. The swim is the most nerve wracking for me because over the last 7 months I have been dealing with a nagging chest/rib/shoulder injury that has kept me from swimming much at all. I know I can swim the distance, but can I do it at the speed I need to? As I warm up, I test my chest as it is what’s been hurting the most. It hurts. Nothing I can do about that now, just have to focus and push through. 6:50a.m. – the gun goes off and I enter the water of my 4th Ironman. It is a 2 loop swim. The first loop is relatively smooth. I found a couple good drafts and seemed to be in a good rhythm. Right before the start of the second loop my chest, right trapezius and shoulder all got very tight. Again, nothing I can do but focus on form and push through. On the second loop, the water got significantly more choppy. I found a couple more drafts to finish the swim and exited the water in 1:24:00. NOT the time I was going for by a long shot. My Garmin shows I actually swam 2.74 miles instead of 2.4 miles, and my pace was a 1:56/100m. Thanks drafts! LOL. I am now extra warmed up for the bike :-).
The bike course for this race is 2 loops, 100% flat, and on a calm day, REALLY fast. There is a small bridge that you cross on the bike that is maybe a 4 foot incline…. All jokes aside, the course markers actually wrote “HILL” in big orange tape just before the “ascent” :-). It made us all laugh. The best way to race an Ironman, or any race, really, is to find someone just a bit faster than you and “legally draft.” By definition, that is staying 4 bike lengths behind the bike in front of you. This way, as you approach the “draft zone” you can coast for a few seconds. It may not seem like much but over the course of 112 miles, those few seconds of coasting add up to quite a bit of energy savings. My first lap was almost perfect. I was able to work with 2 other racers, keeping my heart rate and power very low but maintaining a solid pace. That was the goal for this race: go easy on the bike and kill the run. As we were riding down a small road approaching a stop sign, we started passing a group of racers. Literally nothing you can do here but be close together. And that’s where my “drafting” penalty happened. First one in 7 years of racing. I heard the draft marshal ride up behind us and just waited for the moment when we were all together, with no where to go, so he could start doling out penalties. “Racer 110, 4 minutes at the next penalty tent, do you understand?” Oh well. At least I will get to rest my legs for 4 minutes and be that much fresher for the run. Thanks draft marshal.
After my 4 minute sabbatical in the penalty tent, where I sat on the ground and rested my legs, I was off on the second loop. About 5 miles in I had to pee. Typically, in an Ironman, I would just wait for a downhill and go on the bike while coasting. No coasting here. Thinking it would be a quick stop, I pulled over at the next aid station. That was a mistake. Both bathrooms were occupied by racers clearly not in any hurry. After a minute of waiting, with the same draft marshall that gave me the penalty, I looked at him and said “Will I get a penalty for peeing beside this thing? Seriously, I’m not trying to be a smartass.” He looked at me and said “ I didn’t see anything.”. Thanks. Another minute later I was back on the bike. That’s a total of 6 minutes of rest for the run! The rest of the bike was much like the first loop. A bit more wind, but I sat back and stayed patient remembering my goal: be as fresh as possible for the run. Coming in to T2, I was ready to get off the bike but felt very good. On to the run.
As I start the 3 loop run course I mentally prepare for the battle ahead. The game plan was to run the first 13.1 miles at a solid but comfortable pace. Run 14 minutes and walk 1 minute. The next 7 miles were to be a harder push running, 28 minutes and walking 1-2 minutes. The last 6 miles was to be an all out, hard as I can push effort. DON’T STOP. I know this is about to hurt and I remember a text I received from a client the day prior. “Good luck tomorrow. Be sure to find moments to smile. Just little things that catch your eye. You don’t feel pain as much when you smile.” Thank you Mark. Side note: This is one of the many reasons I love my “job.” I get to pour into my clients with guidance and support. In return I receive incredible support from each of them before every race. It is a symbiotic relationship that motivates me to be a better coach every day.
The first mile my legs felt incredibly fresh. I ran relaxed at an 8:08 pace and knew I needed to slow down a bit. Mile 2 was the same. Relaxed breathing came easy and I was holding my perfect pace. Mile 3 I started feeling a bit nauseous at the thought of eating my gel, which happens sometimes. Right after that is when the wheels fell off. The “perfect day” was about to begin. I had inadvertently swallowed some water during the swim. The result of that was me having to visit the “facilities” at each aid station from mile 3 to mile 20 of the run. I would have massive stomach cramps anytime I ran and there was ½ a lap I really don’t remember – just being dizzy and cramping. After the first mile of this I realized my plans needed to change. No more 14/1 or 28/2 run. Now it was shuffle/easy jog for 4 minutes and walk 1 minute. That was if I could shuffle for 4 minutes without my stomach knotting up and getting dizzy. This is the thing with Ironman. You have to be capable of switching from plan A to plan B or maybe plan C at a moments notice. You can’t focus on what should have been or what you’re supposed to do. You can only focus on each step in front of you and what you have to do to make it happen. There is no exception. I now focus on each step. I also focus on the words of another friend that I spoke with days before the race. She has a neurological disease that has left her with no feeling in her hands and feet and very little balance or coordination. She said, “I am racing this one through you. I will never be able to do one so this is my Ironman.” Thank you Joyce. With that in my head there is no way in hell I am stopping. I had Alix, my fiancé, strategically placed at points during the run for support and motivation. She is truly a lifesaver on the marathon. The brief seconds of support from the one/ones you love the most, carry with you for many miles. As I am walking next to Alix a fellow racer on his first lap tries to give an encouraging word or two. “Well if we keep walking this pace we will make it 90 minutes before the cutoff,” he said with a smile. 1- Thank goodness I was on my second lap. 2- Hell no! I wasn’t going to be out there that long. Off I shuffled until the next round of cramps hit. Thanks for the motivation my friend ☺. I continued to think about Joyce and about other people like her who would kill to have the ability to suffer through this day. I smiled like Mark reminded me to, gave high fives to little kids on the side, although I really didn’t want to, and was grateful that I have the ability to do this race when all I wanted to do was stop moving.
As it seems to happen in every Ironman I do, I was given a sign. My first Ironman I saw a group of people cheering from their wheelchairs. This time I saw a man in leg braces hobbling with a cane down the sidewalk. This was at mile 17.34. I take this as a sign to be grateful for my ability. This man would probably kill to be able to do what I am doing on this day. Be grateful and push!
At each aid station the only thing I could stomach was a little water and flat cola. Although it gave me needed energy, it was continuing to wreck my stomach. Then I remembered a research article I read about swishing Gatorade without swallowing and spitting it out. Turns out if you do this, because of the sweet taste, and a few other technical mechanisms, your body acts as if you have consumed the drink. I did this the last 8 miles. Swish, gargle, spit. Repeat with water but sip just a little. It worked! The cramps started to subside and I could actually run. 4 minute run 1 minute walk. Although I could hold a solid pace, without having taken in nutrition for 4 hours, plus loosing whatever fluids I had at each aid station bathroom, I knew better than to push too hard. The last 6 miles went by very fast. I was feeling better and regained a bit of momentum. As I rounded the last corner of the marathon and headed towards the shoot I thought of all that just happened. The hours of cramping, dizziness, and pain were over. I did not stop. I pushed through.
After crossing the finish line I met my mom, my sister and Alix for hugs and kisses. Then I headed off to the medical tent where I spent the next hour getting IV’s for major dehydration and to help with my stomach issues. In all I missed my projected finishing time by 1:40:00. I didn’t reach that goal today. Instead, I reaffirmed my ability to push through adversity and pain. No matter the situation, I CAN and I WILL be victorious. Thank you Ironman Maryland for giving me the “perfect race.”