Happy Endings: Ironman Wisconsin Race Report

When I wrote this blog two years ago, I said there would be a happy ending to this part of my story. Today, I get to write about that ending.

September 9, 2018. I awoke at 3:52 am after a restless night. My alarm was set for 4:00. I washed my face, braided my hair, ate my breakfast, and donned my Zoom Performance tri kit. By 4:45 am I was on the way to the start of my redemption race, along with my family. I don’t know if I was nervous. I don’t know what I was. Floating outside my body, I think.

With some encouraging words from my Coach and hugs from my family, I made my way to the swim start. A rolling start this time, I lined up according to my expected swim finish time (ok, a little faster than my expected time). Due to recent flooding in Madison, the swim start was moved, and frankly was a little sketchy. Entering the water was a muddy slide into a drop-off. Surprisingly, I found the spread-out approach to the swim to be rougher overall than the mass start I experienced in 2016. With a sharp elbow-bang to the top of my head in the first 400 yards, I was beginning the day I had trained for.

There was a bit of wind that morning, and a good amount of current in the wrong direction on the longest stretch of the swim. Luckily, it was not even close to the chop we swam in at Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 in June, so I was more than ready for this. Even though I know it slowed my time by a few minutes, I was able to finish 6 minutes faster than in 2016. It was the fastest race swim of my life, and I was thrilled as I climbed back out of the water, up the muddy wall.

Running past my crew with the first of many hilarious signs on the way to transition, I found myself more out of breath than I expected going up the helix. I took a little extra time to make sure I had my wits about me before I tackled the 112-mile bike ride that once broke me.

In all of the difficult physical moments of the entire day, the most difficult mentally was probably, oddly, the first few miles of the bike. The entire day, that is the only time I can really say I wanted to not be doing this. I knew what was ahead and the course was narrow and crowded at first, which, next to wind, is my most disliked difficulty. The voices said, “you’re already tired; how are you going to make it through the next 14+ hours?”

Once I got past the first 16 miles and to the start of the two hilly “loops” of the course at Verona, I was in my comfort zone. I have ridden that loop countless times. I know it. I have literally ridden it in my dreams. I suddenly felt amazing. I was riding strong, faster than usual, and confidently. And then I got just past Mt. Horeb and turned east. The wind was ENE that day.  The bit of wind from the swim had become more than a bit. Headwinds and crosswinds and headwinds up hills were the special of the day. Did I mention that wind is my number one most disliked difficulty? Regardless, I still felt strong on the first loop. I now understand why I had to train through all those windy days on Iowa hills. I saw my family as well as my incredible, relentless, amazing friends, and Coach at mile 47 and was lifted. Linsey Corbin, the leading female pro also passed me on her second loop at this time–that was cool!

All those incredible people in my life were still on the same hill as before, at mile 90 on my second loop, giving me strength because now it was HARD. The last of the three major hills, lovingly referred to as “bitches”, was directly into a headwind. And every athlete got to do it twice. Even better, the 16-mile mostly straight, but not flat, ride back into Madison was directly into that lovely headwind. It took a toll, but I still finished very close to my expected time for the bike. I was surprised that I thought my abs were sore. I hadn’t ever gotten a really good core workout on the bike, that I noticed anyway.

I knew I would feel victorious when I completed the bike. I did. My family was waiting for me at the dismount line. I broke down into tears, and so did they (the girls, anyway). My beautiful daughters wanted to be at that spot, to see the victory where defeat had previously penetrated the air. In transition I cried some more and hugged dear friends who were volunteering, and possibly strangers.

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As I ran out, I felt cramping in my belly. I threw up a few times before I got off of the top of Monona Terrace. The “core workout” I thought I was getting was not so much that, but was my gut beginning a war. Colitis is a jerk and you just never know what it will do or when.

I saw my Coach, friends, family, team, all within the first two miles of the run and kept attack-hugging everyone. I had to be reminded to keep going multiple times in the first few miles. I was just enjoying it so much. The signs my people made–oh my goodness the hilarity! I love them all so much.

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By mile 5 of the run, I thought I had worked through the gut issues, but I was sorely mistaken. I’m extremely thankful that Coach told me to hold strong the last half of the bike. I had time for the run. Time that I didn’t expect to need.

I found every single porta-potty on the run, I think. I didn’t say this would be a pretty story–I said the end would be happy.

At Run Special Needs I got some much needed medication, salty snacks, and a long-sleeved shirt, because it was getting so cold at my snail’s pace! Shortly thereafter, I ran past the Zoom Performance tent again, seeing my crew. One of my favorite people and most-respected endurance runner teammates looked me in the eyes and told me that this is exactly what I signed up for. His words echoed in my brain for the rest of the race.

In the back half of the second loop of the run, the course is a trail. It’s very pretty during the day. I’ve run it many times. I ran it on the first loop, in the daylight. It’s along Lake Mendota and the sounds are soothing, like the ocean. But after dark, the sights are anything but soothing. They aren’t even really “sights”. I’ve never run in such pitch black, ever. I knew about this. I heard about the need for a headlamp. I didn’t heed the warning.

My watch was dead. The last time Coach saw me I told him I was just doing math, getting it done. He asked if I knew the pace I needed to keep to finish. I did. And then my watch died. And it was dark. SO DARK.

I was trying to move forward at some kind of running pace on the dark, gravel trail. I exclaimed outloud, to no one around, “Holy shit, this is dark”.  Evidently there was actually someone around.

From out of seemingly nowhere, came an angel in the form of a young man named Jared, wearing a headlamp. He was about to pass me, and then he asked, “unless you want me to stay here for a little bit?” I agreed, and we ran together, with his light guiding the way. We didn’t talk much, but I learned this was his first IM and he learned a little about my story and redemption plans. After an aid station I ended up ahead of him, and it got dark again. The trail was turning and I couldn’t quite see where to go. It turned faster than I expected. I twisted my ankle off the trail and let out a little yelp. Again came a voice from behind. “You’re ok. You’re ok. Here, take my hand.” Jared pulled me back onto the trail and kept me going. We were stride for stride until mile 23 when I made one last porta-potty stop and we separated. I am so thankful for that kind human and I will never forget those miles.

With a dead watch, I asked a spectator the time. 10:26. I had three miles to go. I could literally saunter to the finish and come in before midnight. But wait. If I learned anything during the long day, it’s to take nothing for granted, and due to the rolling swim start I didn’t know exactly what time I started, so I might need to finish before midnight. Without the gut rebellion, I should have come in about an hour earlier on the run at this point. So, dead watch or not, just move as fast as possible.

Those last three miles, while taking nothing for granted, I couldn’t stop smiling. They were the most painful and slow yet most exhilarating miles of my life. In the late hours, there is camaraderie. There is reassurance that we will make it. There is acknowledgement that another is clearly in pain, but assurance to keep going. You pass, you fall behind. It’s irrelevant. We are all winning.  The chicken broth must have special properties.

Running toward the Wisconsin Capital Building, the constant beacon of the day, a chorus of frat boys cheered as I ran up State Street. Coach found me and told me where my family was at the finish line. Friends cheered me toward the end. Strangers told me I had done it, I was an Ironman. “Not quite yet”, I thought.

I took the finish slowly, savoring every moment. I hugged friends on the sidelines, and on the carpet–the beautiful, glorious, coveted carpet–I found Mike Reilly. I’m so blessed to finish as late as I did.  Mike Reilly comes out for the end. He high-fived me and pronounced me an Ironman. I hugged my entire family on the sidelines, and I finished with a fist pump.

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The people that surround me and have surrounded me throughout this journey are extraordinary. During training days, or through words of affirmation, or on race day–I have been overwhelmed trying to process it all. There is too much love to try to describe. I often feel unworthy and don’t understand the backing I have.

My hope is that in my story, others find their own “impossible”.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Power of Showing Up: Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 Race Report

It’s not a unique concept, the idea of showing up. We do it for work, we do it for our kids, we do it when the sink is full of dirty dishes. Whether we feel like it or not, some things simply require us to be there, good day or bad.

When it comes to training, “just show up” has been my mantra more than any other this season (since Oct. 1). Tired? Who cares. Unmotivated? Completely irrelevant. Feeling a little sick? Pay attention, but give it a shot. Down in bed by doctor’s orders? Ok, take the time needed to heal. The point is, outside of extenuating circumstances, my goal has been to just show up for every workout, do everything in my power to win the day, and see how it goes. Sometimes the days I feel the worst end up being the best in terms of results.

When the morning of Ironman Wisconsin 70.3, my training race for Ironman Wisconsin, arrived last Sunday, it wasn’t the day anyone expected. Showing up became a bigger challenge than expected. Thunderstorms rolled in overnight, and at 4 am hadn’t stopped. By the time I was dressed, the announcement was out that transition was closing a little late, but the race was still scheduled to begin on time. Ok, show up for the next thing. Eat your breakfast. 

Instead of hanging out in the pouring rain at the race site, the family and I chilled in the hotel for a little longer. My super smart and experienced husband suggested I go ahead and put my wetsuit on in the hotel because doing that in the rain is HARD. I pulled it up to the waist because I could finish the job in the car at dropoff. Get out of the car, walk to transition, and see what’s next. 

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“Setting up in transition” is a phrase I use loosely. It was pouring and the grass was already turning into mud. Inside my transition backpack were one plastic grocery bag full of run gear and another full of bike gear. There they remained, inside the bags. My backpack got covered with a poncho I had planned to wear, but didn’t need since I was in the nice warm wetsuit. Transition is closing. Go show up at the swim start. 

The rain continued to come down and the race was delayed twice, totaling an hour. Thankfully I found athletes to talk to and then my family and friends ventured to find me. I set my mind for the day. For me, this was a training day for the full IMWI and I wasn’t willing to lose a weekend of training lightly. I told my people I would go as far as I could, but it would be a slow day if the rain and wind continued. My spirits were lifted, and I was ready to go. Show up to swim. 

The swim was choppy and reminded me of swimming past the waves in the Gulf, but it felt good in spite of being slow. I pretended I was in the ocean and before I knew it I was turning for the shore. Slightly annoyed with my time but aware of the conditions, I ran for the next thing. Show up at transition and put on your bike gear. 

Transition? Um, more like Tough Mudder course. By this point the rain had slowed and mostly stopped, but everything was completely wrecked. Every moment was a brand new decision that had to be made quickly. My plastic bag served as a place to momentarily rest each foot for balance as I wrestled on my gear. I was trying not to get my bike cleats caked with mud for fear of not being able to clip in. As you can see in the photo, I ultimately failed miserably at keeping my shoes mud-free. Mount your bike, show up on the course, and go as hard as you safely can. 

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The first 35 miles of the bike course were chilly and windy at times, but do-able. I climbed well and did better than usual descending the steep hills. We did ride through some pretty large puddles in the first 5 miles, though! It was a matter of riding smart and safely. At that point, I got a flat. My rear race wheel flatted and I struggled with changing it. Trek support was very busy and didn’t get to me. Forty minutes later, I got it done. As I went to re-mount my bike, my chain still wasn’t quite right. I got lucky and a couple of “randoms” ran up to me. It was so unexpected to see a teammate and my husband right then out of the blue! They encouraged me and got me rolling. There was no panic, but I still didn’t know how the day would play out. Keep riding, show up for your supporters at the end of the bike and just try to make the cutoff. If you don’t, go run anyway. This is your training day. The rain did start again, but it wasn’t extreme.

T2 was no better than T1. Mud everywhere, I traversed it as delicately as possible in hopes of not burying my feet again. I didn’t know how much time I had lost with the flat, as I was not attentive to my watch, so there was really no way to know if I had time to finish. At the time I guessed 30 minutes, but discovered later it was closer to 40. It doesn’t matter. It’s time to run, so run your heart out and enjoy the fact that this day is absolutely EPIC. 

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not the fastest kid on the block, in any of the disciplines. The run is not a place where I’m going to make up a ton of time, but I’m determined. I went out a little harder than I thought I could and held it as long as possible, which was more or less half of the course. The last half of the run my body just stopped moving forward at that pace. I slowed but I didn’t stop. Once I got out of the hills and back beside the lake, the wind was nuts, so there wasn’t much relief. Only walk aid stations, don’t give in, keep fighting. You don’t know how much time you have left.

In the last mile, my husband and daughters found me and gave me the push to finish with everything I had left. I later found out I finished with 9 minutes to spare.

Keep showing up in every minute. You never know. You just never know.

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Jinx, Buy Me A Coke

I wasn’t going to talk about Ironman 2018. At least not a great deal. Last year went so smoothly, as did this fall and early winter. The difference, I decided, between this season and those prior, was my relative privacy about it all. “Don’t speak, just do”.  And I did. Since October 1, I had the most consistent training to date, with the biggest gains of my tri life.

Then,  I opened my big damn fingers. Shortly after my last blog on January 7, a big pot of life that had been simmering for some time came to a boil and bubbled over. Family, work, business, health. It happens, and sometimes it happens all at once. Sometimes you push through, and then sometimes your higher power says it’s time for a break and doesn’t give you choice.  It really pisses me off when that happens. Like, A LOT.

My personal health took me fully out of training for three weeks (and I’ve been reduced to extremely modified training since then–but I will be BACK soon), and mentally, I feel like a big pile. Of something. It feels like I’m starting over and it’s everything I can do to not let myself slip back into the “PTSD” of the aftermath of the February Vertigo of 2016.  I mean, February in the Midwest is pretty much always drain on the system, I guess.

And this, friends, is when discipline becomes key. Thank God for the discipline I’ve built in the last year, because motivation is nowhere to be found. This becomes the time to just show up, and do what you can TODAY. We all find ourselves drained, served with an overdose of life, and out of touch with ourselves–physically, mentally, emotionally. When the mind isn’t fit, for the love of Pete, don’t quit. Quiet your mind as much as possible and just move the body while listening to it.  Likely the mind will catch up.  And eventually, the mind will repay the body by being the pilot when roles are reversed.

Life doesn’t stop. Life doesn’t stop for Ironman. That’s part of what makes this journey so beautiful. Getting to the start line truly is a gift, all on its own. I didn’t used to get that. I might have said it, but I didn’t get it.  Every day of ability to train is a gift. To toe the start line is a gift. To finish will be a treasure beyond measure.

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Redemption Song

“Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.” — LL Cool J

Taking on Ironman Wisconsin for a second time in 2018 is a given, right? After all, I have unfinished business. I surprised myself at how close I came to being 100% OK with walking away from it.

In the midst of a really great, healthy season of short course racing in 2017, the annual Zoom Performance Epic Camp happened. And, wow, was it EPIC. Three days of athletes immersed in the sport we love on the Ironman Wisconsin course–swimming, biking, running, repeating. On day one, the weather radar was red with thunderstorms. In the interest of safety, about 30 (was it 35?) of us found our places, shoulder to shoulder, sweat bead to sweat bead, in a hotel meeting room to ride our trainers, intermixed with short runs in the rain, for about 3 hours. It was pretty incredible, actually. That was the warmup day.

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The next day, getting back out onto the bike course I have come to know so well, I conquered countless demons at the milestones along the way. Every driveway where I had previously stopped, every neighbor’s house that offered help, every climb where I cramped, every steep downhill where I feared for my life with my head swimming…check, check, check.

I felt great about all of that. Coach challenged me to face every one of those checkpoints, and I did. The bike course was still daunting and painfully slow. That particular day was only 4o-ish miles of the ultimate 140.6 goal (112 on the bike). The pain of that day made me think that I really didn’t need to go back for redemption. “I’m good. This is stupid. No need to try again for the finish.”

And then, a couple of months later, it dawned on me that I don’t quit on myself. I can’t. So, the day registration opened, I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2018. 9/9/2018.

Redemption, yes. Comeback…not really. I never stopped. But this time is different. I’ve been actively training (and continuing to race) since October 2016 with a regained Ironman focus as of October 2017.  There is, however, a notable difference in my perspective than in my previous Ironman attempt.

While I do love to visualize the finish line, that’s not my focus right now. If I had to pick a word to be my intention for 2018, it would be “present”. Life takes me out of the present so often. Life swirls around us. I am an avid, admitted worrier, even when I try to pretend I’m not, always worried about the next thing. Priorities flail. I become unhealthy in my lack of grounding.

My goal is to place intent on each day of life. Family, training, work, etc, in varying priority depending on the day. In terms of this crazy Ironman journey, this time around I’m going in with much more intention on each day.  Fewer guns blazing, more discipline.  Less neurosis, more focus. Learning from my yogi friends, to just “show up” and let it be what it is. Although, some days you have to pull more guns out (like this morning when my legs felt dead, ahem).

Whoever said Ironman is all mental is a liar. There is a major element of mental toughness in there,  but if that were all that mattered I would have finished in a blaze of glory in 2016. Training matters. Doing each day consistently matters. A certain level of health matters. I’m not a hero, and I’m taking each up and down day as they come.

There are no guarantees. And if there were, it wouldn’t be as appealing.

The Other Side of Crisis

“Because one thing she’s learned through all this is that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid.

If you’re not afraid of it, then it’s not real change.” —The Nix,  a novel by by Nathan Hill.

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I read those words and suddenly it all made sense. I found a turning point in a novel, of all places, not a non-fiction or self-help book (my go-to literary genres. Are those even “literature”? I don’t know. I like to read them). This is not just any novel. It is quickly becoming one of the all-time greats, so if you haven’t read it, do so immediately.

In the 10 months since I experienced and thereafter wrote the story of my Ironman DNF, I’ve seen the collision of professional and athletic life in a more punctuated way than ever before. Once I pulled myself out of the emotional gutter in the months that followed Ironman Wisconsin 2016, a new career opportunity came my way. After 10 years in the same place, I not only changed companies, I did a complete 180 into an industry that was brand new and utterly foreign–but fascinating–to me.

Leaving a department I thought of as my baby, no longer having the opportunity to work with some of my very best friends every single day, leaving my Mac for a PC (gasp!), and diving head first into a highly complex field was enough to, for the first couple of months, push me to the edge of sanity and make me question everything. Crisis.

The professional change led to many personal changes, including the need for a new chiropractor. While I loved my downtown Dr., the location would no longer be an option. I stumbled across a new practice near my home, Infinity Chiropractic, or rather my husband found it and sent me there.  Thanks, Eric. All the months of trying to find relief for my vestibular disorder that ultimately led to the DNF and so many other life issues, and changes would finally start to happen with my treatments here. Functional neurology. I didn’t even know it was a thing, but it is changing my life.

I’ve only briefly referenced my vestibular issues in writing, because frankly I want to send the message to the universe that I am healthy, not sick. In a nutshell: I’ve always been clumsy. I have had multiple bike wrecks. I have myoclonic epilepsy. One day my brain just kind of “blew up” on an airplane. The world started spinning and didn’t stop for weeks. When it did stop, the balance issues and intermittent vertigo persisted.

What Dr. Josh Madsen discovered that no one else could find, is that I have an incredibly weak cerebellum, a weak/damaged vestibular system, and a primitive reflex that is supposed to disappear by the time you are six months old. When it doesn’t, it causes big problems. My treatments and at-home exercises for the past 5 months have been similar to how a child with developmental delays is treated. I never would have known to seek this out. Thanks, new job. Thanks, Crisis.

When I read the words from the above-referenced novel, an immediate mental shift happened in regard to the Career-Change-From-Outer-Space-Crisis. I know how to do Crisis. I have started my life over as a single parent. I have lost my family to a religion. I have survived Ironman Training through friggin’ vertigo. I have survived the devastation of not reaching my goal. This is just another Crisis. Thanks, The Nix.

I have also seen the other side of crisis. I survived single parenting, and I don’t have to do it alone anymore. I have a new extended family of friends. And the vertigo, the balance, the training–it’s all improving. I’m settling into the career too. I have a Coach, a team and a community of triathletes and friends who have stuck by me even if they didn’t think I’d get very far. Thanks, Zoom. Thanks, all of my triathlon community friends. Crisis ends, and things get better.

I have been able to get back onto my legit triathlon bike in the past couple of weeks as my brain function improves. Today I comfortably, even happily, rode in the aero bars for two hours. This is something I haven’t been able to do in two years. There was room in my mind for thought and even daydreaming (and writing), not just overwhelming anxiety. It will keep getting better.

When I was four years old, I nearly drowned in a swimming pool in Branson, MO. Magically, that day did not make me afraid of the water. It made me feel like a superhero. Under the water, clawing for the surface, I don’t remember fear. I only remember I was pulled out by a smiling friend who made me feel safe. There has never been a day in my life when the water scared me. I want to feel that way on the bike. The brain can’t be bullied by sheer will, so I’ve learned. (If it could I’d be a very different athlete.) It has to be gently trained to function properly and subsequently told it is safe. While I ride, I’ve decided to treat my brain like my smiling friend treated me, pulling me from the water, saying, “wasn’t that fun?”

I have been asked why I didn’t just quit training through the challenges, or at least quit riding a bike. My response has been “Because that’s not what I do.” A better answer is, because it’s just a Crisis. And the other side of Crisis is so very, very beautiful.

 

 

Ironman Wisconsin 2016: The DNF

This story has a happy ending. I won’t be writing about that today because it isn’t the end yet.

The in-between parts have a LOT of happy too. Some of them, however, are raw and real and dark.

My husband and I arrived at the scene of Ironman Wisconsin in Madison on Thursday, 9/8/2016. We went through athlete registration and briefing and did some shopping at the expo and Ironman Village. We had a leisurely dinner and were way ahead of schedule. The next two days were similar. Aside from our light workouts, we had one major race-required thing to accomplish each day and then had time for whatever we wanted, but mostly we spent time with our feet up in our room.

To say we were calm is an understatement. We were zen. It was freaky. Being fully prepared and ahead of the crowds was huge for our state of mind. We met up with friends, attended the athlete banquet, received cards and gifts of support.  By Saturday, bikes and bags were checked in, our daughters had arrived in Madison thanks to the care of an amazing Sherpa, and we met up with our huge Zoom Performance team for a bit. I felt complete. And, completely ready.  We even ran into and chatted with Mike Reilly in line at Starbucks. He promised to wait for me at the finish to call me in. I was on cloud nine.

The nerves kicked in more on Saturday night.  I lost the ability to answer simple questions and started to feel anxious and easily annoyed. All normal stuff for the task at hand. A good friend and training partner came by briefly with some love and well wishes in the evening. It’s just what I needed. I relaxed in an epsom salt bath and lights were out by 8:08 pm. I slept surprisingly well for 6 hours. By 2 am I was pretty much awake for the day but I stayed in bed until the 4 am alarm.

We were ahead of schedule yet again. By 5:30 am we had been into transition, pumped bike tires, placed nutrition on bikes, and had some time to kill before going to the swim start. Back to the room for a few more minutes of feet up time and an opportunity to put wetsuits on in the room. The convenience of staying in the host hotel was worth the cost, although based on the hotel service and food during our visit, I wouldn’t recommend it unless that convenience is your priority. It was for us.

Walking down to the swim start, the excitement was building. Pink and green swim caps were everywhere; excited and supportive spectators drowned out the deafening silence of nervous athletes focusing on the journey ahead. We found our team, our family, our friends, and the calm started to return. Coach told me that my Superhero “S” was going to come out today. In a way, but not the one I expected, he was right. More on that later.

2881 athletes registered to participate. Somewhere between 2500-2700 made it to the start line of the most amazing swim I have ever experienced. Wisconsin is one of the few IMs on the circuit that still does a mass start. That is exactly what it sounds like. All 2700 (give or take) athletes filter slowly into the water and find a position then tread water or stand, depending on location, and wait.

At 7 am, Mike Reilly boomed into the microphone in his iconic voice, “Have the best day of your lives!” and the cannon sounded. We were off. Like freshly fed Koi in a zoo pond, we were off. It was violent, it was fierce, it was a washing machine, it was glorious. I planned to stay further away from the most violent part of the crowd, but cut my line too sharp or got pushed in, I don’t know which for sure. I know this probably slowed my time in the beginning at least, but I’m not disappointed it happened. It was a blast, and I was able to find my rhythm in spite of it. I felt confident and knew I could handle it. I took in plenty of water that initial 800 meters to the first turn, but coughed it out and breathed on, every three to five strokes, keeping sighting to a  minimum, catching drafts when I could, fighting my way through bodies, claiming my space and moving forward in the pack. At the first turn buoy I almost forgot to engage in the traditional “MOO-ing”, but I did remember and got in a little “moo” of my own.

On the long, straight back half of the course, I hit every sight buoy faster than I expected. Things happened out there. Things like literally being grabbed on the shoulder by a woman twice my size and being pushed down, as if she was just trying to crawl over people instead of swimming. I don’t know, maybe she actually wanted to drown me, who knows. I thrashed at her, let out a yell and moved on. Things like my right goggle being kicked against my face so hard I couldn’t open that eye. I swam like that for awhile, then it got annoying. I flipped over on my back, adjusted it and kept going. I found my true happy place about a mile or so in. The crowd had spread out a bit, I was warmed up, and I had a little more space but was still close enough to find some good wakes to draft. I believe I literally smiled while I swam. When I reached the last turn buoy I was sad it was close to over. The time FLEW. I know a lot of people who had times close to mine thought they were horrible and slow, but I was proud of what I did for me, and that’s that.

When I made it past the swim exit and wetsuit strippers and started running up the helix (a tall, cylindrical, winding parking ramp entrance leading into the changing area) I felt like I could fly. I was grinning ear to ear. I had previously worried about running up this area in bare feet. Pfft. What feet? The spectators were so thickly lining the helix you couldn’t see past them. With cheers of dauntless support from complete strangers and seeing my friends and kids along the way, the energy was so strong I made myself take it down to a slow trot and enjoyed the moment. I looked around, I took it in and thanked people. I do not regret one second of it.

Past the first transition (I knew that part well–I volunteered there last year so it was really cool being on the athlete side and knowing how hard those volunteers were working for us) and running for the bike racks, I screamed “1128!” over and over again as I ran toward my rack and a volunteer brought my bike to the end of my row. THAT was a special thing. In shorter distances you’re on your own for this part. No way was I losing my bike location this time, even in the massive number of bike racks.

I mounted and was off. One of my favorite memories early on the bike is a nod to my last training ride. My coach had taken the time to ride with me and help me gain confidence with my handling skills–my absolute weakest area. We rode through several tunnels that day, which really mess with my vision, and he had me singing “Daylight come and me wan go home!” to relax me. The early part of the Madison bike took a trail in the city and went through one short tunnel. What did I do? Oh yeah, that song got belted out, and I didn’t care who heard me. A lot did!

Getting out of town, I followed my plan. Steady, my pace, ride safely and let the faster cyclists get past. The way people were riding I admit I ended up getting a bit bossy out there. I noticed and experienced several people getting impatient with the crowds and either pass or try to pass on the right (where I already was riding) in way too small of a space. When I heard wheels coming I just started yelling, “Pass on on the left please!” I deterred a more than a few potential rule breakers, and probably pissed off a few others.

As it goes with Ironman, you never know what you’re gonna get. In nearly every case, not everything goes to plan. I had no room for error when it came to stops. Due to some nagging health issues that started in late February after I was well into training and fully committed to this special kind of crazy, my neurological system just doesn’t currently allow for the speed I would like to have on the bike no matter how strong my legs may be. At mile 12, I stopped to help a group involved in a bad accident. STOP. At a mile 40, I reached a particularly steep hill that I had climbed in training and had no intention of walking on race day. Many made walking that hill part of their race plan, clogging the road on the right. No problem, I’ll go around. But then, spectator cars (on a supposedly closed road–grrrr, thanks for the support but DON’T do that ) happened to be lining the left side of the road when I arrived, making it practically impassable. I had to hop off and walk. STOP.

Halfway point…YES…made the 1:30 cutoff with plenty of time to spare, whew. Special needs shortly thereafter was a planned stop, but still a stop that I no longer had time for. My nutrition was in that bag so it was non-negotiable. The clock was ticking and the wind was picking up. The combination of wind and downhills on my personal neurology at this point of my life is tricky to say the least. My speed was slowing. I couldn’t say at which mile, but a teammate came up beside me at one point when I was doing a little mid-bike vomiting (it happens) and gave me some words of encouragement. I am so thankful she showed up when she did.

At this point I could no longer safely reach for my bottles of INFINIT to refill my aero bottle without stopping. STOP. STOP. At mile 80-ish, when I stopped to refill, my balance was so jacked up that I tipped over when I went to re-mount. I lost my solid foods all over the road and had to pick them up. An athlete kindly stopped to help me. Yes, there were still a few behind me! I looked at the time and said, “there’s no way I’m going to make it by 5:30, I don’t know what to do”. He said, “Train harder next year, that’s what I’m going to do”. Little did he know the fire that would light in me. The next 10 miles I spent riding in anger: “I did train this year!  I trained my ass off and a lot of miracle-working people did everything in their power to get me here!” 

At mile 90, I hit the last really significant hill of the day. The first time around it was lined with people, Tour de France style. By this time, people were sparse and the race sheriff was slowly riding my tail in his car,  just waiting for me to stop. Any time now…tick-tock. I did not expect to see some of my support crew at the bottom of that hill. The verbal lashing that ensued was a barrage of words that are a complete blur. What I know is those were the most loving f-bombs to ever come my direction. I truly had no intention of quitting, but again I was saying, “I don’t know what to do.”  I was not thinking clearly but still knew time was running out.

Ultimately, the words that really set my mind in the right place again were “Your girls are still up there at the top. Now go show them what their mom is made of”…and then something about being made of nails and maybe rocks…I’m not sure.  I had no idea they were still out there on the bike course, waiting. For the last 8+ hours. I assumed they were in downtown Madison watching the run at this point. I was moved beyond belief.  By the time I reached the girls I was moving as fast as I could and screamed, “I love you and I’m not getting off this bike till they make me!”

This, friends, was when I think the Superhero “S” came out.  I knew that unless a tornado carried me back I wasn’t making the cutoff time, but I was going to get as far as I could and see. Just see. There was no quitting, no stopping to “not put myself through it”. This was my IRONMAN day. I was seeing it through for every minute I was allowed. I blew through the last aid station to cheers from volunteers like I have only heard at the midnight finish line. I knew that barring a miracle my day would be done soon but I still had plenty of legs left and with no highly technical moves ahead I was gunning it. I was giving it all I had with no realistic hope of finishing in sight. For me, this was the biggest mental victory of the day.

And then, at mile 101-ish, when I dropped my chain with less than 20 minutes till cutoff I had to get off the bike to fix it. The race sheriff was there again but this time got out of his car. When he politely cajoled me into agreeing that it was over, I was still working on fixing my chain. He helped me. He called the sag wagon and sat me down with a couple of volunteers who had a chair on the side of the road. (Seriously, where did these volunteers come from out of nowhere? Madison is amazing.)

When the sag wagons (two pickups, full of people and bikes) arrived and showed me to a truck, one very nice man from Race Day Events said, “I’m sorry, but I have to take your timing chip”. Well, isn’t that just a punch in the gut. Believe it or not, the tears didn’t really start until then. Before he bent down to remove it from my ankle, he spoke words that indicated he has done this job before: “Can I give you a hug first?” I bawled like a baby on his shoulder before he took my chip. This can’t be happening. I was SO close. I have plenty of legs left to run. I WANT to run. I would finish. I would finish well before midnight! I just ran out of time!

Thinking back, I have to laugh at my little silent denial/protest/whatever it was. I sat on the side of the road for quite some time, then got in the truck, and still hadn’t removed or even unclipped my helmet. USA Triathlon rules state that if you even touch your bike with an unclipped helmet that’s a DQ. It’s burned in my brain to not touch my helmet until the bike is racked. This was serious denial.

From here, the rest of the day took another, completely unexpected turn. Sitting in the back of the sag wagon with me was an accomplished Ironman athlete who had a bad day on the bike course. He had already been going through his own personal hell. We commiserated, shared stories, and I told him that today, because of this,  I would finally be able to watch my husband finish a race. We generally race the same races, and he is faster.

My new friend had been raising money for the Ironman Foundation this year. As part of that, he was gifted a medaling package. His girlfriend was to be at the finish line waiting to place the medal around his neck. As that wouldn’t be happening now, he chose to give this massive gift to us. Arrangements were made and just like that I had a new focus for the day. Find Eric’s location on the run course and be at the right place at the right time to make this happen. Our girls even got to slip into the finish line area on the sidelines to watch up close. This. Was. Priceless. Amidst the tears and the beginning of my grief, we got the most beautiful moment we could never have planned. I watched from the ideal location as my love ran into the finish chute with Mike Reilly (even pronouncing our name right) shouting, “Eric McGarrah, You Are an Ironman!”

My feelings since have been mixed up, full of deep searing pain and grief, tears beyond measure; happiness and pride. I can’t say any of those are gone yet. Feelings of worthlessness, anger, fear of having disappointed so many who have supported me…and yet the proud wife of a man who finished his first Ironman with a great big smile, tremendous attitude, strong and healthy! I have immense gratitude for the way the day ended and feel relief and comfort in falling back into the arms of my loving family and dear friends.

There really aren’t words to describe how much a DNF hurts when you’ve put your heart, mind, soul, and body into something for this long and sacrificed so much to get there. From what I’ve learned in speaking with others, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or your 5th, the pain is real and deep.

Now it’s time to keep putting one foot in front of the other, deal with the grief, and reconnect with things and people that I miss. Will I try it again someday? If you have ever met me, you already know the answer.

 

 

 

 

Four Days Out

Four days. In four days I will toe the line at Ironman Wisconsin. I will tread out to the swim start, the cannon will sound, and my 140.6 mile journey will start. I will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 technical, hilly miles, and run 26.2 miles before midnight.

Current mood? Scattered mess. Don’t get me wrong; I’m fully prepared, packed, all appointments completed, out of office reply is humming, and I’m ready to load the car and drive to Madison tomorrow. But I’m a flibbertigibbet. One minute I’m crying for no reason–and lots of reasons–the next I think I desperately need to purchase and hang long overdue bathroom curtains tonight. It is time to sit, collect my thoughts, center, and calm down. And BREATHE.

Knowing I’m saying goodbye to my kids tonight and won’t see them until Saturday night for pre-race dinner has hit me with a big fat dose of reality. I’m hugging them like there’s no tomorrow and thanking them profusely for their support and love this past year. Teen/pre-teen girls could have been horrible about all this, but they are not horrible girls. They are great, and they have been beyond accommodating with our training schedule and the odd meals that sometimes end up being served. I can’t imagine doing this without them.

While we are on the subject of family, can we just talk about how incredible it has been to go on this journey with my husband? While our training plan and pace is not identical, so we don’t exactly train “together” all the time, at least we can discuss every exquisite/intricate detail of our pace, watts, and SWOLF (What the heck is “SWOLF”, you say? Read more here.) after workouts and have the other on the edge of our seats hungry for more details. We understand each other, and we cut each other slack when we know it’s needed…because we have been there or are there currently as well. Aside from the occasional couch night because one of us is too sore to sleep (ahem, usually me), this has brought us closer as we have seen each other in the heights and depths that training brings. That said, I am really looking forward to reconnecting in other ways post-Ironman (wait, what is POST-Ironman???) and remembering what other things interest us.

Am I ready? That is the question on repeat. I don’t know; I’ve never done this before. Here are the facts. Since November 1, 2015, my data shows me the following:

I swam 100 miles.

I biked 2103 miles.

I ran 562 miles.

I have torched 156,018 active calories.

Honestly, I was surprised at these numbers. It felt like more. Add in prep time, drive time, recovery time, and cooking/eating for refueling, and you’ve at least tripled the hours involved. I simply took one day of training at a time, and somehow I’m told it will all come together.

My Coach, Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Massage Therapist (“The Miracle Worker”), Chiropractor, Acupuncturist, and M.D. have all signed off that I am physically ready for the final 140.6 miles of the journey. Yes, that’s a lot of people, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the village it takes to make this happen.

So, looking at the facts, my answer has to be YES, I am ready. My body feels good. Taper has done its job of repair and recovery. I am filled with emotion and am eager to arrive in Madison and feel the buzzing energy of a city filled with athletes, volunteers, and support crews.

I am excited, anxious, nervous, confident, pensive, terrified, grateful, tearful. On Sunday, I’m leaving it all on the course, and will cross this glorious, beautiful finish line:

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