Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Post: Through the Eyes of an Ironman

My wife--a special ed teacher by day--has written an account of her experience competing in her first full Ironman (140.2 mile) triathlon this past weekend at Lake Placid. Since I've mentioned her efforts in a recent post, I thought I'd share on this blog what she's written about her experiences. it is: Through they eyes of an Ironman!

A friend recently told me that ironman takes all of your months of training and carefully laid race plans, smashes them to bits, and then hands them back to you in the form of a medal.  That could not be a more accurate description of my race.  :)

After a 4:00 a.m. wake up, I got ready, tried to eat something, gathered my things up, and headed to the transition area.  My bike and gear bags were all in order.  I dropped off my special needs bags, put on my wetsuit, told Eric goodbye, and headed for the swim start.  It was such a surreal experience to actually be in the moment I'd been imagining for so long! The excitement and anticipation of over 2800 athletes makes for an incredible atmosphere! I had no idea that I was about to have the best swim of my life.


The pros were called into the water and got to their start.  Then, they called for the rest of us to get in.  I went in right away knowing that being in the water would keep me calm.  (That made me smile, as I found my thoughts wandering back to my first triathlon start in 2010 when I was so terrified that I sat on the dock until the last possible moment.)  The plan for the swim was for me to start about halfway back and toward the right of the pack. This position is a little safer and keeps you from getting quite as beat up in the mass start.  As I waited floating in the water, I realized that only about 100 of us were actually gathering toward the start.  Most people had headed toward shallow water around the edges (I guess because they didn't want to float or tread?) As others began entering and trying to do the same thing, the crowd was being pushed back, and I could see that some swimmers were going to be trapped on the shore.  I didn't want that to happen, and I wanted to be in the water, so I just stayed where I was floating with a group of guys and a few girls for about 20 minutes.  We cheered the pros when they started.  I began moving back a little as the rest of the swimmers moved forward, but I still ended up fairly close to the front and much more to the left than intended. Then the cannon went off, and I was there -- in an ironman!

Chrissie Wellington has described the mass swim start as an all out brawl, and that is exactly what it feels like.  Being kicked, elbowed, hit, swam's all a part of the fun.  :)  As we angled in toward the swim line, I planned to stay a bit outside of the line to avoid the hardcore group.  Lake Placid has an underwater cable that stretches around the swim course.  I had been warned several times since arriving that the real brawl happened near that cable, because everyone wants to swim there so that they don't have to sight.  I swam hard to get to my spot before getting too beat up.  I was feeling pretty proud that I'd managed to hold my own with the tough swimmers long enough to get there.....when I looked down, and saw the cable right underneath me.  There was no way to get out, because everyone seemed to be swimming toward that spot.  It was like being trapped in a washing machine.  I realized that I had no choice but to swim there.  I really surprised myself by adapting to the madness.  I figured out who was kicking hard and narrowed my stroke when I was behind them to protect my head.  When elbows next to me were coming up hard, I breathed only to one side to protect my face.  I fought hard to stay on the cable line and not be pushed inside it.  The people inside would have to struggle to get around the buoys at the course turnaround.  In the end, I really only took two hard hits, and they weren't that bad.  After the first loop, as we ran along the shore, I noticed that I was still near a lot of the guys I'd started with, so I decided to hold that position.  But I did swim a bit farther out from the cable on the second loop.  The swim felt great and was over too soon -- always my favorite part.  I wouldn't know until halfway through the marathon that I'd made such good (for me) time.  One other interesting thing happened during the swim.  When I signed up for Lake Placid a year ago, I ordered a new Road ID bracelet.  On the message line, I had it say, "You are an Ironman!"  I looked at it all through my training to remind myself of the words I was working to hear.  It had the strongest velcro of anything I've ever seen.  As I made the first turn of the swim, it suddenly released from my wrist and floated to the bottom of Mirror Lake.  My immediate thought was that it was a good omen.  After today, I wouldn't have to work toward those words anymore.  I would hear them.  Fortunately, I didn't know at that point just how long it would be until I heard them...

T1 (first transition, from swim to bike) went by without a problem.  I didn't have a volunteer that time, but had no problem getting my bag, getting myself dressed, and grabbing my bike off the rack.  On the way out of transition, I saw my brother and sister-in-law and was able to say hi.  I climbed on the bike and was off.  The first loop was great!  I couldn't get the smile off of my face.  This was the part of the race I'd been the most scared of.  I've never ridden on hills like that and wasn't sure how I would do.  It was hard, and I was slower on the big hills, but I had expected that.  I even relaxed my plan of not exceeding 35 mph before braking on the downhills to not exceeding 40.  It was an absolutely beautiful ride through trees, ski slopes, rivers, and little towns.  After the first loop, I was able to see Eric and the kids cheering.  I was still feeling great.  I stopped briefly at special needs to refill my gels and took off again.  The second loop was harder, but not awful.  It was getting hot, and I had some foot cramps, but that's no shock.  My chain dropped twice, but I was able to fix it fairly quickly.  I did have to stop at port a potties a couple of times, but was relieved that my stomach troubles were nothing compared to what they usually are.  (That was definitely a part of the race plan that DID work!)  I took it easy on the second loop to rest up for the marathon -- especially the last uphill section. Overall, it was a little slower than planned, but a good bike.

I had a volunteer in T2 who was wonderful!  My wetsuit had chafed my arms horribly, and she bandaged them so that they wouldn't get worse during the run.  I was getting really excited at that point thinking that I might actually be able to come in around 14 or 14:30. I was very glad that my stomach issues were resolved so that I wouldn't have to worry about the abdominal cramps I always get on the run leg of triathlons.  I started off the first couple of miles at around a 9:30 pace.  That was faster than planned, so I slowed down a bit for the third mile.  After the third mile, I was slammed by the ab cramps again.  In fact, they were worse than they've ever been.  I walked for a bit trying to shake them off, but as soon as I ran, they came back and got worse.  It went on that way through the entire marathon.  I had to walk/run the entire thing, and by the end, I was at a shuffle. I was so disappointed that what had started out as such a phenomenal race for me was obviously going to end in a very different way.  I saw my family after the first loop which lifted my spirits a bit.  The second loop seemed absolutely endless.  The cramping never went away, I was exhausted, and I'd stopped being able to keep gels down after I started walking more.  The funny thing is that some of the most memorable moments of the day came during that loop.  I walked and ran with different people and learned about their stories.  We shared jokes with the volunteers, got frightened by a horse that snuffled out of pitch darkness, worried together over people being taken away on stretchers in the med carts.  My heart hurt for the many people who were still heading out as I came back in. We all knew that there was no way they were going to make the midnight cutoff, but they were still trying.  Finally, I was coming down the home stretch.  Mike Reilly was there, screaming and waving his towel like I've watched him do so many times on the live feed from my computer at home.  Only this time, he was high fiving ME!  I finally heard the words I'd been waiting for!


In the days since the race I have felt so many different emotions. I am humbled and touched by all of the people who left comments and messages that they were following me throughout the day.  I never imagined that so many people (outside of my triathlon friends) would care about the details of the race.  I have felt relieved, elated, disappointed, guilty.  In the end, I have settled on grateful.  I have had an opportunity to make a dream come true.  I have done things that I never dreamed possible.  I wish I could go back to the scared me at CapTex 2010 waiting on the dock and tell her she would be an ironman.  I wish I could go back to the unathletic me who decided suddenly 5 years ago that she'd like to learn to run and tell her that she would do marathons.  I wish I could go back to the 270 pound me of 13 years ago and tell her that someday her thyroid would have less power over her life and she'd be able to make changes.  I'd like to go back to the insecure me and tell her that she would be strong.  Of course, I can't do any of those things.  But I can tell my kids that there are no limits.  I can tell friends that their bodies will do more than they ever dreamed they could.  I can tell my students that it really is possible to reach a goal even when you don't know where to start and everyone around you is so much better at it than you are.  And when those old doubts creep up on me, and I feel powerless to change some situation that seems impossible, I can remind myself that at the end of the long, winding road, I was an ironman.



  1. Replies
    1. Tanya you are as powerful a writer as you are an athlete. Thank you for sharing your story.