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.