I have a very vivid memory of the first time I joined a group run with the Des Moines Triathlon Club because of the courage I had to muster to show up. My inner middle-schooler-in-the-back-brace hadn’t ever fully moved on from repeatedly being the last one to finish the forced torture of the mile run on the track, walking and vomiting along the way. A group run, on purpose, with other people I knew very well would outpace me by a long shot, was quite a leap and overthought beyond belief, but it was the beginning of truly understanding this amazing triathlon community.
Training for Ironman Des Moines 2022 was all about that community. From the long indoor winter trainer rides with my team at Zoom Performance, to finding new levels of tough in unspeakable early spring Iowa outdoor training conditions, we did it together. The long indoor rides were a treat for me; they extended the time I was able to ride side by side with athletes of different paces who I wouldn’t be spending much time with once we got outside. It also allowed me to torture my sweet and tolerant friend Deb (who is so badass that she did those long rides even though she had no races on the calendar) with the endless thinking aloud about the minutia of my nutrition plan.
Toward the end of the season, the addition of a couple of athletes to our Zoom team who shared long rides with me at a similar pace was a refreshing and welcome experience. Several long rides with Coach Matt were invaluable for my development as a cyclist. Somehow being on the same swim schedule as a couple of other teammates who I never made plans with but could almost always count on seeing in the next lane or the hot tub regularly delivered a little shot of endorphins that I really needed during the grindy-est part of the grind.
The unprecedented amount of life that has been ramping up in my world didn’t derail my training, but did add overall stress for my body and mind. Rebuilding my core and managing hip issues after a hysterectomy in late 2020 wasn’t nothing, but overall my training stayed on track. My actual run miles were pretty limited in order to be smart and limit the impact on my hot spots, but Coach never fails to figure it out for me. Going into IRONMAN #2 (or 3, I never really know how to acknowledge the one with the DNF), the only thing that felt like a huge question mark was how long my body was going to hold up on the run, having completed no training runs longer than 8 miles.
As the forecast made it clear that race day was going to be a hot and humid one with no time to acclimate, every athlete had to add heat management into their race plan. Iowa weather never fails to throw in an extra challenge. But we were in it together.
Early race morning was a blast. I got an acceptable amount of sleep, and since we had guests staying at our house, I had another participating athlete at my side. There are some serious perks to the privilege of a hometown race. We managed to get a drop-off right at transition with a ride from the always-baller-status MoMo, who had an all-access pass. The entire Zoom crew ended up at swim start together. We’d come this far together, it was only fitting that the universe ensured we had each other right then.
The swim went off without much hullabaloo. My swim pace had been “ok” lately, so I didn’t expect a huge PR, but I was a little disappointed that I missed my previous best by 4 minutes. I like to swim close to the buoys and that usually allows me to find plenty of bubbles to chase (aka draft, which translates into faster pace), but this time it seemed like a lot of athletes chose a more outside line. I seeded myself accurately in the 1:21-1:30 pace group, but still couldn’t find a draft for long. This race added a brief run across a peninsula twice, which was very new for me. The additional exits and entries into the water didn’t do my any favors. The swim is my favorite part of the day, and I like to get in a rhythm and stay with it (it’s a swim, don’t make me run yet!) Regardless, I came out of the water running from the swim exit, found exactly who I was looking for to peel my wetsuit, got a fist bump from my pleased-looking Coach, and moved on.
Transition included a long barefoot run across Fleur Drive and what felt like an even longer trek pushing the bike before the mount line, but this was no surprise. It was a gorgeous morning. The winds were light, we had cloud cover, and I set out on a familiar ride through Water Works park and out of town. It was nice for awhile. The sun came out, the winds increased, and the bike got long. I managed my nutrition very carefully, knowing the heat was going to take an even bigger toll later. I had added BASE Salts into my plan along with increasing my UCan Hydrate-these two things became critical.
Time aside, I’m proud of how I rode that day. Riding downhills with speed, in aero, carrying momentum…it all happened, even on hills that hold scary memories where I left a piece of my soul during the Vertigo Years. I tend to prefer heat over cold, but heat still has an impact on performance. By mile 100 I was asking the most amazing volunteers at aid stations to spray my back with water, and they willingly accommodated. I rolled in with a longer bike time than Ironman Wisconsin (HOW???) but feeling proud of the day so far regardless.
By the time the run began, the sun was beating down and it was time to dig in and get it done. Early on, I started putting ice in both my top and pants at every aid station, and I carried ice wrapped in a towel in each hand for many, many miles to manage the heat. The walk breaks started early and came often, but I was moving forward. The three loop run allowed for plenty of crowd support. The home court advantage of seeing so many familiar faces (both athletes and spectators) over and over was such a boost! There wasn’t much to talk about at first. I was quietly managing both the mental and physical game. The sun going down was the BEST. The chicken broth came out and I got to have that beautiful sodium boost twice.
On the back side of a hot portion of a trail, the Tri Racers of Iowa had set up a tent with music. At the other end of that trail, Dimond Bikes sponsored an aid station that had plentiful ice, experienced volunteers, loud music, and ridiculous costumes. On the other side of the lake, my amazing friend, fellow athlete, and favorite wetsuit peeler Dennis had moved on to running another high energy aid station with plenty of everything, including free hugs.
And in the heart of downtown Des Moines, about 1.5 miles from the turnaround/finish, was my core group, my team, my family, my tribe. Zoom Performance and Des Moines Triathlon Club were set up with tents in the Sculpture Park. Every time I ran past gave me encouragement and energy. My husband, daughters, besties…all there. Their presence helped me center and reminded me I was at home, just out on a long stroll through familiar territory. I learned that one BFF that was going for a sub-12 achieved a goal-crushing 11:47. Bambi Legs, you’re my hero.
I witnessed fellow athletes getting taken down by the heat, whether they were strong runners forced to walk or even stronger runners needing medical attention. I knew they had the help they needed, and I tried not to let it get in my head for too long. Checking with my own body’s status, I just kept plugging along. I was getting sick from time to time, but with my history of gut issues, it was overall minor. I know how to dry heave and run at the same time. I wish I didn’t need to know that, but it’s a fact of my life.
But the clock was also ticking. The day had turned into another very long Ironman day, and around Mile 22 I was walking again. In the darkness on the loneliest part of the course, Coach Matt appeared on his bike. This began the rally of a lifetime that belongs to my entire tribe. I asked “Am I going to make it?” He answered, “yes….you’re going to have to put in some work”. I’ve been working with my coach for quite a few years now. I know him pretty well, and we are friends. He was 100% LYING TO ME. He may fight me for saying this, but that dude absolutely did not believe in his gut I was making it. I heard it in his voice. I can’t blame him. The odds were definitely not in my favor. Nevertheless, I wasn’t giving up and neither was he. He knows me better than that, too.
I started counting steps, counting light poles, taking measured fast walking breaks, and managing more closely. Then another teammate showed up on his bike and tried to tell me what a beautiful night it was. I believe him, but I couldn’t really see it. The two of them started cracking jokes, I kept run/walking and trying not to laugh or fall on a crack. Bobby (that other guy!) told me that as I get ready to move to Florida, this is me leaving Iowa with a mic drop. Ok. Time to go, then.
I stopped looking at time and started increasing my time running and picking up my pace. As I climbed the short hill by Exile Brewing Co. one last time, it happened. ALL. THE. PEOPLE. I know who some of them were, others are just voices in my head. One of the voices yelled “Look at that kick!” What? Really? I had a crowd so big cheering me on that I had to ask for some space. My daughter was holding a speaker blaring “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood. When that was over, my other daughter called next song and played “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. Those songs have been go-to training songs for a long time, but I’ll never hear them the same again. I had a singular focus and didn’t break my gaze. My pace continued to increase. I know I wasn’t technically sprinting, but I was giving absolutely everything I had left, which was more than I ever expected. I heard my husband say “you just sealed the deal with what you did the last 10 minutes”. I believed him, but didn’t totally trust it, so I didn’t slow down. When I rounded the last little corner before the carpet, I yelled “excuse me!” to a person walking it in. The only person in the finish chute I took time for was Mike Reilly, who gave me a finish high five and called me in for the second time in my Ironman career. There are some perks to finishing in the final hour!
I burst into tears the moment I crossed the finish and collapsed into the arms of even more friends who were volunteering at the finish line. They brought me a wheelchair and somebody must have removed my timing chip. I don’t even remember how that happened. I was ok, and I made it with a finish time of 16:55:18.
It took some time to process what I did and how. It would not have happened without the amazing community that surrounded me. You can’t buy that kind of experience and I’ll never forget it.
Going into this race, I had one other special mission. In 2019, a member of the triathlon community lost his life following a cardiac event during the swim of a local sprint tri. He was new to the sport and although he was a legend in his own world, he didn’t have a triathlon family, so he chose one. I was part of it. Two days before his final race and final day conscious, I met him at the lake to help with his wetsuit and provide him with a spotter for a practice open water swim.
I have been haunted by Larry’s death. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have done something differently to help him prepare, or help him more than I did. I know this is not mine to bear, but I have. In a lot of ways, I always felt I could understand him. He was an unlikely triathlete who fell in love with the sport and was obsessed with someday completing an IRONMAN. He didn’t get that chance, so I did what I could to make that happen symbolically. I printed the photo I had taken of him in his wetsuit, wrapped it in plastic wrap and clear packing tape, folded it, and put it in my pocket. He went with me all 140.6 miles. That finish had to happen. I was carrying two people across.
Before the race, the only person I told about this was Larry’s brother, in the event there might be a small trinket the family might want me to carry. We went with just the photo.
This one was all about the tribe, and for Larry. And it was EPIC.