“Only those who will risk going too far
can possibly find out how far one can go.”
As I write this, it has been one month since my Ironman Arizona finish. Perhaps just a touch too long to write a blog about my experience, but it is definitely worth jotting down the details before they completely fade from memory.
It was an epic day, as I knew it would be. My husband and I arrived in Arizona on Thursday before the event. Those few days were spent with a variety of feelings, like awe, excitement, and of course… nerves.
Walking around the Ironman Village, I had this “awareness” of my body. This statement comes from a woman who is both a self-proclaimed and TRUE Athena Triathlete. Being around “Iron people” who are amazingly fit… you can easily get self-conscious. I remember the feeling the first time I did a half-Ironman race. I felt like all the other athletes around me were staring and saying in their heads, “what is she doing here?” This time I had the same awareness of my body amongst the crowd, but 173 pounds or not…I KNEW I belonged there. I knew it because I had DONE THE TRAINING, pushing my body and mind to its limits for 6 long months. I KNEW I belonged there because I was a savvy student of triathlon – reading, studying, living and breathing everything about triathlon for years to get to this place.
(And I’ll tell you a secret. The truth is… none of those other athletes are walking around thinking you’re too fat to race. They’re just not.)
I kept imagining that I would forget something important I was supposed to do, so I kept going through checklists in my head about where to be and when. Bike pick up, athlete check-in, bag drop off, bike drop off… and on and on. Other than those dizzying logistics, I was ready to do this race. “Let’s do this! Let’s get this over with!”, rang out in my head. I was anxious just to race.
I felt like I blew my training the last few weeks. The weather in Seattle was cold, rainy and unpredictable. My outdoor rides turned to spinning indoors on the trainer. And then I was uncertain of my tapering plan. I knew my body needed some repair time, but I didn’t want to lose any fitness by not training… a total conundrum. But in the end it turned out to be just fine. That’s what “tapering” will do to you. Drive you nuts!
2,731 people in a mass start in Tempe Town Lake for the swim. I got in the water early because I wanted to be able to calm myself before the swim and not feel rushed. There was about a 200 yard swim from where we entered the water to the starting line. I was thankful for this — it helped me get used to the temperature of the water and get relaxed. As we were there floating and waiting for the official start, I could hear someone on-shore singing the National Anthem. I could also hear Mike Reilly’s unmistakable voice. There was one of those radio controlled drones with a GoPro camera floating above everything taking pictures. I’m sure the photo/video looked cool with all the bobbing heads in the water with pink, green and white caps. A school of human fish. Mike Reilly started the countdown (this was it!) the cannon boomed, and we were off. Normally in a tri, I’d let the group go and stay out of the melee. This time I knew there was no avoiding it and I read if you just hung in there… you could find some clear space to swim. As expected, people swam over me. I tried to avoid getting punched and kicked. If I did get really close, I’d pop my head out of the water to avoid contact. I was determined to play it smart throughout the day.
Tempe Town Lake is not clear… the visibility is less than the length of your arm, so there is nothing really to look at below you. I tried to distract myself by being conscious of the landmarks I was looking at on the shore. With each breath and turn of my head, I was looking for my husband who I knew had a blue shirt on and a white hat. But then I realized, all the volunteers on the course were wearing blue shirts (and some white hats…), so I figured picking him out from the crowd would be impossible! About 1/3 of the way I did find some clear space and just swam. Heading out on the course we headed right into the sunrise. I just swam… and kept swimming. I didn’t panic at all. I was REALLY proud of my swim. I only had to breast stroke once in the entire 2.4 miles to sight the buoys. It was a little difficult exiting the water. The stairs made it hard to hoist yourself out of the water while people were all around you. The volunteers did their best to assist you. Finally I was up and out of the water. I wanted to finish around 1:30 and I finished in 1:36:26.
I finally spotted my husband coming out of the swim as he yelled my name. He held his camera up and took my picture. I smiled and waved. That was probably the last time I smiled all day… from there on it was relentless focus to try to propel myself forward and NOT STOP.
I did a clothes change in the transition tent. Then it was off on the bike. Maybe 3 miles out on the bike a crazy decked out cyclist with a very expensive tricked out tri-bike screamed up behind me and ran right into the back tire of the guy in front of me. They touched wheels and the guy in back went cartwheeling and crashed. At first I was concerned if he was okay, I thought of stopping to check… but then I remembered that there were people and volunteers all over the course to assist him, so I kept on. I got frustrated thinking about the crash, it was like he didn’t know where is brakes were. What was he thinking?! Was he just caught up in the moment? Did the crash end his day? All I could think of is “dude, if you don’t know how to pilot that bike… DON’T RIDE IT!” The guy in front asked if the he tried to pass him on the right (you’re only supposed to pass on the left). I said, “almost, he ran right up on your back tire… it was definitely not your fault!”
So, I knew I needed to be ready for anything on the day…. it turned out to be WIND on the bike. 20-25 mph steady headwinds going out with gusts that were blowing people off their bikes. It was a 3 loop bike course and the winds were awful. Once you hit the turn around and came back into Tempe, it was like you were shot out of a cannon. For the first mile or so I was looking at my computer and seeing 30+ mph. I’m not afraid of going this fast, you have to be super attentive, however, every now and then a side-wind gust would come through and almost sweep me off my bike. I couldn’t imagine what those side-winds were like for people with disc wheels. I held onto my aerobars so tight, that I has some numbness in my left ring and pinky finger for a long time after the race was over! After the slight downgrade eased up, I was doing 23+ mph on the bike, easing up to 15-17 mph back into Tempe.
On the first loop I said to myself, “okay, got some wind here… they said it might be windy, but maybe this will die down. Oh PLEASE die down!” On the second loop the realization set in… the wind was here to stay. Later, my husband told me that every time people went out on the bike again, they would drop their heads in misery because they knew the winds were going to hurt. After I hit the turn around on my second loop, I stopped for my special needs bag. I had Gummy Colas in there! (Gummy Colas and Stinger Waffles were my special treats for the day! I especially knew the Gummy Colas would lift my spirits.) Each time I hit the turn-around I would happily sing to myself, sometimes out loud. But going into the headwind, I was passing people going only 10 mph. It was pain. I was mesmerized by some pro’s (they have a “P” on their calf so you can recognize them…), they were cutting through the wind and passing most age-groupers with ease. The wind was a bit%h. At the final turn around I said, “I’m going to ride this bit%h back into Tempe.”
The wind definitely trashed my legs more than I wanted it to. I stopped once to refill my water bottles and talked with a guy from Tribe Multisport. “People are going to be talking about this wind tomorrow…“, I said. “Oh yeah, they already are… How are YOU doing? Do you need anything?” (Just an example of the amazing support from all the volunteers.) “I’m okay… just going to keep on going.” I replied.
I don’t know what happened, but I scratched my eye at some point between the swim and my first loop on the bike and was basically blind in my right eye for the rest of the race. Every time I would look into the light… it was just a blur. I thought maybe it was just something stuck on my eye, but I couldn’t blink it away. Oh great, I’ve got a detached retina, I thought! My hands were sweaty and dirty and sticky, so I didn’t want to touch my eye. It was a challenge I didn’t need added to an already challenging day.
Coming in off the bike was joy. The volunteers grabbed my bike…then I ran into the transition tent again for another change before the run. There are amazing women in there to help you. Yes, there is nakedness… like a big ole locker room. Nobody cares. I saw my family (my husband, sister-in-law, my niece, and my brother-in-law) before I went to the tent. (They weren’t all there cheering me on, my oldest brother and my sister were also racing that day.) In hindsight, I should have stayed to talk to them longer, but I felt like I needed to get going. It was late afternoon and the sun was going down.
It took a few miles to get my legs under me for the run. But I DID run for about 1/2 the marathon. After that, I had to commit to a fast walk. During the summer I developed back issues. An MRI showed that I had a compressed disk and bone spurs had formed, cutting into the nerves coming off my spine. I was taking medicine all through the race to help my back. Still, it burned and hurt like hell. I wasn’t really thinking I would be hunkered down in the aero position for the entire 112 miles on the bike, but it was necessary to both stay out of the wind going out and also take advantage of making up time on the way back into Tempe.
The last 1/2 of the marathon I power walked, which I determined was just as fast as I was running with the pain. It was worth it to me to relieve the pain in my back and the twinge in my calf that had flared up by fast walking instead.
I really needed to see my husband the last 1/2 of the marathon. It was a two loop course. I wanted him and my other brother (there to cheer us on) to do the math for me and tell me how fast I needed to be going to finish on time. Somehow I missed seeing them and I was on my own. My Garmin was dying. I just kept counting the hours remaining and estimating my pace, and I had decided I WOULD make it if I didn’t slow down. I was passing all sorts of people on the course that were spent and walking s-l-o-w-l-y. In my head I was cheering them on, “come on, you need to pick it up, let’s go people!” (After all this, you don’t want them to get a DNF.)
About two miles from the finish… there was my brother. I’ll admit, I was super cranky. The course was sparse. I’d spent miles alone in the dark. It was getting cold. The first words I said to him were, “where the fu@k have you guys been!?” (See, super cranky…) And then I apologized and said I was SO glad he was there with me. (Now do some MATH and tell me I’m going to make it because my brain is fried!) My brother walked with me all the way to the shoot. “This is it,” he said. I recognized the finishing chute from the previous year when I volunteered. Up and around the corner and then there it was. (In a weird way, right then I almost didn’t want it to end.) Mike Reilly, the “voice of Ironman” was standing in the middle of the finishing chute carpet. I ran, and high-fived everyone cheering along the edge of the barrier. “Kristine, YOU are an Ironman!” I high-fived Mike Reilly, let out a scream and put my arms up in relief. Then I was done. 16:27:50, before the 17 hour cutoff. About 30 minutes off of what I predicted, but I survived the wind. Some people might be disappointed with that time… I was not. My goals have never been about SPEED, they’ve been about ENDURANCE…. “going long”, as they say. I had done just what I dreamed of for years and I had finished in the last hour when the finish line is a buzz of excitement… filled with spectators in the stands all there to usher you across the finish line of your dreams.
My initial recollection was that a wonderful volunteer put my medal on and wrapped me in one of those space blankets. But after I watched the finish line video weeks later, I realized that it was actually MEREDITH KESSLER (professional triathlete and the women’s winner of the race) that put my medal on me and congratulated me. After that, the volunteer met me with the space blanket. She didn’t let go of my shoulders because I think people tend to fall with exhaustion at that point. It felt good to have someone hold onto me like that. (I wish I could go back and tell her that.) I saw my husband on the fence and went to hug and kiss him.
I was so glad to finish.
My brother, sister, and my friend from Seattle all finished ahead of me. I took a group photo with my siblings. 3 Ironman finishers in one family. After we said our goodbyes, my husband and our friend who was staying at the same place poured ourselves into a cab and went back to the hotel. I took a hot bath to warm up and put on a t-shirt and my fleece jammie pants, then crawled into bed. Done and done.
Somehow with a night’s sleep, the problem with my eye corrected itself.
You know while you’re doing it, you say… “I’m never ever doing one of these again!” But now that there’s been a stretch of time since my finish, I think I would do one again. I will continue racing shorter distances and I look forward to trying out Aquabike races where I don’t have to run. As for a race like Ironman, like childbirth….. you forget the pain and remember the accomplishment. I know I won’t be able to train for another full Ironman until my kids are graduated from school. The time and financial commitment to train is huge. It takes sacrifice and support of everyone in the family, especially your spouse. The guys from Endurance Nation wisely call these “spousal approval units”.
I know there are things I could have executed better that day… so, yes, there is the temptation to try again.
I’m going to spend the winter trying to reacquaint myself with lifting weights to see if I can change my body type. I love to swim, so it’s no problem to get into the pool. I’ll also look forward to when the spring comes and I can get back on my bike outdoors.
Now that I’ve finished an Ironman, I’m not done setting goals for myself… there are new endurance adventures out there waiting to be conquered.