Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The gift of Ironman: a sort of race report.

Our story so far:

The heroine/protagonist has trained diligently. A winter spent on high volume running has resulted in a stress fracture,  but, her cycling speed is up, she’s no longer afraid of swim starts and she knows she can go easy on the run training with such a great aerobic base. Oh, and did she mention that she was 6th in her age group in a bike race in April and 4th in a du in June? (‘cause she’s happy to tell you yet again, and again) She is an endurance rock star!

The morning of the race looms. Mostly the iron husband and I have been anxious. I know that I’m ignoring the fact of the race hoping that arriving in Tempe, at the expo, will put some fire into my iron heart. I does, a bit. It’s great to see Molly, Ms Speedy Gonzalez again, to meet Mr Gonzalez  and to get some dog time with Max, Stanley, and Puck. Such good boys all of them.

I had 3 realistic goals this race.
1.       No backstroke, face in water, front crawl the whole way
2.       Honestly, finish in under  17 hours
3.       Eat the post-race fries and eat at Denny’s afterwards. This implies a GI tract that was un-ravaged by the race.

I won’t leave you in suspense. Goal one was achieved. The swim was a constant of beer bottles falling, and alternating views of green/yellow water and blue sky. Temple Town Lake was rumoured to be 61 degrees but I wasn’t at all cold like last time. I pick up a few minutes over 2009 and head to the change room – which is packed, no chair, no helpful dresser. I’m playing with the main pack this time and it feels good to have to sit on the grass and get ready for the ride.

Ironman is about dealing with boredom, managing nutrition and overcoming pain. As the day progresses the boredom declines, nutrition becomes more and more critical and pain becomes the dominant feature of your day.

Arizona is a flat course. In some ways a flat course can be seen as deceptively easy. Those of you who ride, pick your poison, hills with a rest on the way down or a flat course with wind and no real chance to give the legs a break. The swim finds an anxious mind that can go to scary places in the absence of stimulus but the boredom on the bike leads to a lessening of effort as the mind wanders. As well, no climbing gives you no natural need to get out of the saddle and the body tightens up and pains sets in.

So, I’m sure you can appreciate how happy I was to hand Doris Day over to a stranger and head off for that little marathon thing.

How am I feeling at this point? So kind of you to ask. Well, I’m pretty sure I smell, my new racing skirt (same size as 3 others from the same company) feels too small, and my shoes are unhappy with their arrangement of arch support.

As an aside, I had agonized about how to best manage my stress fracture. I had gone back to neutral shoes from the minimalist ones I had been wearing, only to find out my orthotics were too short for the new shoes. A gap between the tip of the orthotic ended at the mid-point of my toe pads and that was a recipe for disaster. Too late to get new inserts I took very good advice and cut the orthotics off to the arch support and put a thin Dr. Scholls over it. The problem with the Dr. however was that he was a slippery fellow and as the run went on more and more energy went to stabilizing my foot in my shoe.

New things on race day are always a good idea!

But, all things considered, I run most of the first of three laps and I assume I can continue at a decent pace.
But, here’s the kicker, I just don’t have that iron fire and I’m having a tough time, quite honestly, getting motivated. Lap 2 of 3 finds me bonking physically and I decide to concentrate of getting food in, absorbing all that water, sugar and salt, hoping to find myself re-energized. I know people have often found the middle of the marathon to be the toughest with a triumphant return at the end.

I eat, my stomach pops outs and I know I’ve taken in more than I can process. I skip a couple of aid stations, gut happiness returns. The fire doesn’t show up however and I’m in a pretty dark place when a stranger yells out “Susie”. The Arizona run course has several places where you are running one way on an upper trail around the lake with others on the lower. I look for Alex at all these places but I’m not looking any more when he sees me and the aforementioned stranger between trails acts as a go between calling out to me. I tell Alex that I can’t bear the heartbreak of worrying about making the midnight cut off and we both agree that we just don’t want to go long ever again. We part and I continue to the end of lap two.

Ahead, at the end of the lap is the left turn to the finishing chute and everyone else, seemingly, is finishing. I’m congratulated on my finish by spectators, I look finished after all, but another 14k waits for me out on what I know is a dark and lonely pilgrimage. I break down on a bench just after the turn off and an aid station volunteer hears me sobbing, “I don’t know if I care” over and over again and asks me if I need a hug. I do, of course, she sits down beside me and tells me that I can turn my chip in at any aid station and get a sag wagon back but she wants me to be sure of my choice. I tell her I had seen my husband and he told me to keep going so I will. I’ll decide again, I say, at the next aid station. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my last Ironman but I’ll finish. I stop at special needs and get my food and my envelope that I put together for inspiration. In it is a picture of me at my first try-a-tri and my finisher’s picture from 2009. The change in my body is very apparent, you can’t picture the change in my mind but I can see it. I also have a picture of the finishers’ chute and a copy of a letter from a new friend thanking me for inspiration. I sit and sob some more.

I go forward working on changing my mindset from defeat to appreciation. I decide I’m ok with walking because that gives me a chance to look around, take in the atmosphere, and connect with people.

And what wonderful people there are around me. These aren’t the $10 000 bike people, these aren’t the egos that filled the expo, these are the midnighters giving it all just to make 17 hours. I meet one man who missed the cut-off and is trying again, a woman with Team in Training who has multiple ribbons attached to the back of her jersey representing those she has lost to blood cancers. I think often of Jerry F, and Jon Blais, the Blazeman. My feet hurt more than I think they have ever hurt but my stomach is happy and I calculate and recalculate that I can make midnight by walking. I hand the picture of the finish line off to someone struggling.

At last, and honestly after a seemingly short walk, I come to the finishers’ chute. A young, impossibly perky guy with a big M-Dot on his chest grasps my hands, congratulates me and reminds me that this is my moment and I should enjoy it. I walk into the chute and connect hand on hand with the spectators. I think, this is the last one, the last Ironman chute, this chute is the gift.

I am wrong, the gift is still waiting. I finish, I don’t even know my time but I have the French fries and a sprite and look at my watch. It’s 7 minutes to midnight. We can see the final athletes; we can experience a midnight Ironman finish line. We work our way over to the bleachers, climb up and see the impossibly perky young man signal to the announcer that there are 4 athletes still to come in. To come home to the finish. Time seems to stand still, we all stop breathing and they start coming in. It is incredible, the last woman is supported by the announcer -  assisted forward motion rule be damned. I love Ironman all over again because the impossibly perky young man was wrong. It wasn’t my moment, it was ours, athletes and spectators.

What does it all mean? Well, there is no one more alive than an Ironman finisher or spectator. Those of us in the back, I think, both received the gift of the crowd’s support and gave the gift back to them of an affirmation of life, of living.

Ironman 2.0 was so tough because I forgot that endurance sports are a team effort and I tried to go it alone. My ego wanted to go under 15 hours, physically I should have been able to but Ironman wouldn’t let me. Not because Ironman is cruel, but because the race calls us all to participate in order to educate us. The heartbreak of struggling to make midnight really was the gift of that struggle and the more I slowed down and connected with the other midnighters the more I received the gift of Ironman.

The clock strikes midnight, Ozzy sings Ironman, “Is he alive or dead”, and I, very much alive, throw my hand up in the air in a devil’s horn on the walk to the car.

And then we go to Denny’s.


Apollo Creed “Ain’t going to be a rematch”
Rocky “Don’t want one”

But then they did go on to make all those movies.


  1. Damn.

    so good.

    Am I a wussy for shedding a tear?

    I'm trying to work here!! uggghhh... office people staring at me haha!

    I dont know what to say. But I'll leave it at:

    You are awesome!

    at least for now...


  2. You're awesome! I can't say much more, to be there is more then most will ever do.