I AM AN IRONMAN — and it still feels surreal. My friend is racing Ironman Boulder this weekend. As I read her Facebook status update about the difficulty of the race, I thought, “Wow, I could never do that.” I wonder when it will sink in that, oh yeah, I already did…
There is so much I could say about the race. I’ve hardly begun to process how much my life has changed in the last year, much less am I able to write about it succinctly. If you’re just here for the race report, you can skip ahead to the prep+race by clicking here or all the way to race day by clicking here.
The Ironman has been on my radar for a long time. It wasn’t a realistic goal so much as much as a crazy dream. When I did my first triathlon in 2010, I was 150 lbs overweight and I clearly remember going to the gym for the first time and dying on the elliptical for 10 minutes on the easiest setting. I remember looking over at my friend’s machine next to me which was set for 30 minutes thinking, “Seriously? She’s going to do this for 30 minutes?!” So the Ironman? Not exactly something that felt possible. (Spoiler alert: anything is possible!)
I had several unsuccessful seasons of triathlon. I’d sign up for races with high hopes and goals of training a certain way, or losing a certain amount of weight, but I could never get myself to do it. After an extremely difficult Olympic triathlon, I seriously asked myself “Its time to choose – do want to be out of shape, unhealthy, and miserable for your whole life? Or are you going to put in the work and make the commitment to change your life? Are you really ready to give up on your Ironman dream?” I felt so defeated. I decided I would sign up for the same Olympic — if I could successfully train it, I would sign up for a half Ironman. And if I could successfully train for that, I’d go for my Ironman dream. If not – I’d know I didn’t have what it takes, and I’d be done forever.
With God’s grace and strength, I did it! In 2015, I lost 40 lbs and finally got in control of my eating and weight by overhauling my diet. I made a commitment to training — getting up early, staying up late, getting in the workouts however and whenever I could. It was the first time in my life I had actually trained for anything and truly prioritized my health and fitness. I knocked over an hour off of my Olympic distance PR, successfully finishing the same race that had brought me to my “now or never” decision point a year before. I wrote “This is just my victory lap” on my arm for the Olympic because thats exactly how I felt. The course I had struggled with so much was now to the final celebration of a long journey.
(2014 vs. 2015 @ the Lifetime Maple Grove Triathlon)
I was feeling so good, I changed up the plan and moved my Ironman goal up a year. With much fear, panic, and adrenaline, I signed up for IRONMAN VINEMAN! I didn’t have a coach. I followed a plan in a book. When I signed up, the longest distance I had raced was Olympic and I only had a few successful shorter distance triathlons under my belt. I didn’t have a good bike, I’d never clipped in, and I had no understanding of race nutrition. As I trained for the Ironman, I felt like I was picking up new skills weekly (or discovering things I had no idea even existed… hello, chamois cream!). I completed my first half aqua bike in May 2016 (the same race as my first sprint!), then my first half iron distance in June 2016.
As difficult as training was, it was nothing compared to lessons I was learning in my personal life. I wrote in my previous post that my physical journey paralleled my emotional journey: around the time I began training for the Ironman, I found myself completely overwhelmed and drowning in years and years of unresolved and unacknowledged issues and emotions. I was pulled out and pulled through by the most amazing community of family and friends that I could not be more grateful for (a few in particular did a lot of heavy lifting). Ironman coincided with a journey of learning to love and trust myself and truly accept love and care from the wonderful people in my life. The race itself became a celebration of freedom and healing, a serendipitous exclamation point. My legs have never been heavier and lighter than they were for those 17 hours. Every single step forward felt like the physical expression of the freedom and joy I was feeling inside — the knowledge that I had already tackled such tough challenges and overcome; acceptance that I am incredibly, overwhelmingly, and amazingly supported, cared for, and loved; the freedom and confidence that comes with learning to trust oneself; thankfulness for the journey that the Lord so clearly laid out for me in His great love.
I arrived in Sacramento on Wednesday. Thank you to my friends who took care of my puppy and got me to the airport! My mom and I drove down to Windsor on Thursday morning. It was nice to have a few hours of time together to chat before things got crazy. Since it was my first WTC event, I don’t have much to compare the check in experience with. Compared to other races (both unsanctioned and USAT), I felt it went smoothly. I didn’t intentionally check in during an athlete meeting, but thats the way to go — zero waiting because the place was deserted!
Ironman Village was average. To be honest, I was expecting more. I was anxious to get my bike from Tri Bike Transport and then get my wheel set from Race Day Wheels. But just two tents in, I recognized my friend from our wonderful online Athena community! We had to take a picture in front of the Ironman wall, of course. My Athena tribe has become one of the best parts of triathlon for me. I’ve never been one for online socializing, but these ladies are amazing! I’m inspired and encouraged by them daily. I hope I inspire and encourage them in return!
Got settled into the condo. Meant to be more productive, but I was exhausted. So Friday, the next day, ended up being a huge day of prep, more than I planned for it to be. Picked up my beautiful bike from Race Day Wheels. Agonized over my nutrition plan and my race day outfit. The outfit I had planned didn’t end up working out so I bought a Vineman Zoot jersey. Its a little taboo to wear gear from the race on race day, but there was no way I was going to buy a generic jersey vs a Vineman jersey just because of a little social stigma. All these decisions on food and clothing stressed me out way more than they needed to. But I was hyper aware that just one wrong decision could ruin everything. And there were so. many. decisions. Here’s what ended up in my five gear bags:
Bike Special Needs:
Run Gear: I totally forgot my running shirt!! I have no idea how I missed this. Ended up doing the marathon in the cycling jersey, which wasn’t a huge deal, but of all the things to forget, you’d think I would have noticed I was missing a shirt!
Run Special Needs:
We went down to Guernville, the site of the swim and T1. Racked my bike and then checked out the water. Later we estimated that T1 had at least $9.5 million worth of bikes! I really hadn’t been too nervous until I dropped off my gear bags and bike. Maybe thats when it got real — the next time I’d really be handling that equipment would be with the clock ticking on race day!!
I had meant to bring a swimsuit to get a short swim in, but I forgot it. I was genuinely disappointed I couldn’t jump into the Russian River which I took as a good sign. I couldn’t wait for race day to get a crack at that gorgeous OWS!
Throughout the day, my cousin (who was also racing) was a huge help in figuring everything out. My mom was amazing in doing absolutely everything I needed and asked of her. I am so grateful she was by my side every step of the way. Having several other cousins there and meeting new friends made the weekend so sweet. In addition to those with me physically, I felt the support of my family and friends across the county. I had 13 people (!!!!) donate to my online fundraiser benefitting FREE International, an organization that rescues sex trafficking victims. I am overjoyed that $1,170 was raised and am thankful to my family and friends who supported a cause I care so much about!
Friday night I got a message that my church family had organized continuous prayer for me, 16 people taking an hour each. Thinking of it still brings me to tears. I am so grateful for their support. So many times on the race I thought, “Theres no way I can do this,” and I would think of those prayers, who was praying for me, and I felt compelled to keep going. Toward the end of the run, there was a man really struggling. His support team and several volunteers ran with him (on the sidewalk) for a mile or so, offering quiet encouragement and orders to keep on moving. Aside from seeing my family a few times, I was alone on the run course, but I truly felt like everyone was running right next to me just like that, carrying me, keeping me moving forward.
Got up at 3:30am. Felt great except for an inability to eat anything. Choked down half a bowl of oatmeal. Rode down to the Russian River with my cousin and friends. Traffic was awful — we got there really early but I felt bad for the athletes that were stuck in the traffic jam. There really should have been shuttles for the athletes. Since all we had with us were special needs bags, this would be an easy way to drastically cut down on traffic and stress that morning.
We dropped off our special needs bags and then dispersed into the transition area. I pumped up my tires and chatted with the sweet girls at my rack. One huge adjustment I had to make in my thinking was that a lot of people on the course truly just wanted to finish before midnight. We were all facing a daunting task, and more than any other race I felt like we were all in it together. I can’t express how badly I wanted everyone I met to get across that finish line! Its been fun post-race searching for the people I met and reconnecting!
After I checked, rechecked, rechecked, and rechecked my bike, I headed down to the swim start. Got my wetsuit on and connected with mom. It all felt surreal. I was too nervous to really socialize. Mom was so encouraging. Just before I had to line up, I took out the first of eight letters from family and friends. I bawled reading a six page letter from one of my best friends. Her words replayed through my mind for the rest of the race!
The swim was self-seeded. I’m not scared of OWS at all, but my heart rate sky rockets when all the athletes are pushing and jockeying for their positions in the water while swimming. I was glad to be able to skip that part. I seeded myself at 1:30-40:00 with a goal of 1:40:00. My last HIM swim was 53 minutes, so I wasn’t sure if this was too optimistic. The downside of the rolling start was that I actually began at 7:12am. While I still had 17 hours to finish (12:12am the next day), this was problematic for two reasons: 1. the intermediate cut off times were still the same. Even though I was starting 12 minutes late, I still only had until 5:30pm to finish the bike, and there were four more cut off times on the run. Cut off times ended up being a huge factor for me and having 12 extra minutes would have been huge – thats an extra mile on the run!! And 2. the midnight cut off is famously the end of almost all Ironman races. I knew it would stress my family and friends who didn’t know I had started late if I crossed the finish line after midnight.
(I’m the pink cap behind and to the left of the green buoy.)
The swim was magical. There was still mist rising off of the backdrop of evergreens and redwoods. As the sun rose, I could see the water change color as the light began streaming through. Parts were so shallow that some people stood up and walked. I only did this once because my goggles and swim cap needed adjusting. Sighting was great which was a huge win as I had really struggled with this in past races. I felt strong and in control the entire time. I went into the race with certain ideas about what I wanted to think about or how I should feel, but as I swam I made the conscious decision to stay mindful the entire race. If I felt terrible or thought negatively, I would let myself do that without judgement or catastrophizing. If I felt peaceful or joyful, I would enjoy the moment and run free. If I wanted to think about the entire journey toward Ironman (which had been my original plan because I thought somehow that would make the experience more meaningful), I would think about that. If I didn’t want to think about anything, I would let my mind go blank. Staying mindful was key to my race: I was able to both let go and stay in control the entire time.
I came out of the water at 1:38:09. Thats an 8 minute PR – from a half ironman swim! I was so excited to be ahead of schedule. My T1 was 10:20. Wetsuit strippers were an experience. I cramped up immediately after standing. You can see in this picture how I’m holding my foot up a certain way to keep my calf from seizing. Next year, I hope Ironman lays green carpeting from the river to T1 and also inside the changing tent (not that I’m planning on going back lol). Sharp rocks and then muddy ground weren’t pleasant in the after-swim chaos. I can’t say enough about the volunteers in the changing tents. They were phenomenal!
There’s a saying: nothing new on race day. Unfortunately, I was breaking that rule in a major way by testing out a new saddle for the first time that day. My well worn Adamo had been causing pain about 2 hours into long rides. The guys at Now Bikes (major shout out to them by the way — they could not have been more helpful and supportive as I prepared for the Ironman!) and I decided on a new, untested saddle. The thinking was that I was guaranteed pain with the old one. At least a new one gave me a chance to avoid it. Turns out that I would have loved guaranteed pain at 2 hours in because with the new saddle I was in pain at mile one. This is going to be a really long 8 hours, I thought to myself. My second note of the day was very helpful in keeping me positive! I could only see a little of it tucked into the cell phone part of my bento box, but I had it memorized and must have recited it a hundred times over the course of 8 hours.
8:13:53 to be exact. The ride from Guernville was beautiful. Aside from the pain, I was in heaven. I felt like I was making great time. My brake pads weren’t changed out for the carbon wheels and no exaggeration, every time I braked it sounded like a tornado siren was going off. Every time I stopped at an aid station, I could see all the volunteers jump back, and inevitably one would rush over with a very concerned look on their face. I can only assume they thought my bike was about to explode lol. I was really nervous about my bike. I’m not good at changing flats and I honestly wasn’t sure if after 8 hours I’d have any brake pads left. There was NO wiggle room and absolutely nothing could go wrong. The only real problem I ran into was around mile 30 when my right contact flew out of my eye. I stopped and found it on my sunglasses. I managed to get it back in after rehydrating it with my water bottle (gross), but then a few miles later I lost it for good. Every time I needed to read something, I just closed one eye lol. I finally got the left contact out in T2 but by that point, my eyesight was the least of my physical complaints.
The first lap of the bike went great. Chalk hill was rough the first time but spectators lined the hill and were cheering which made it fun. Around this time, I began to get familiar with my back of packers who I would see many times the rest of the day. Getting my special needs bag was a great boost. I was off track with my nutrition and having a minute to collect myself was helpful. Biking past Windsor High and the few miles between the high school and rejoining the looped course was unexpectedly tough. Maybe it was because I was riding next to the pros running their marathons. Theres an Ironman quote from the 80’s — one of the first Ironman participants was asked “How do you know if it was a bad race?” He answered: “A bad race is when the newspaper comes out the next morning with the results from the race you’re still running.” Thats about how I felt.
(Seeing Mom around mile 65 was a huge boost!)
The second loop would have been great had I not been in so much pain. Mile 87 was significant — it marked the longest bike ride I had ever done. Miles 90-112 were psychologically the most difficult of the entire race. I was really tired and those miles contained the most climbing: mini-chalk hill and Chalk Hill. I walked up Chalk Hill the second time. I probably could have biked up, but I was afraid of falling and knew I had a few minutes I could spend there. Walking was worth it. I knew after mile 100 that the last 12 miles would be a breeze, but I had to mentally prepare for a marathon. My longest run to date had been 14 miles. Already at the end of my strength, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of 6+ hours of running. As I did the head-math to calculate pace, I knew I had to jog the entire thing. It felt devastating. The only thing that got me through at that point was thinking of my friends and family.
I came in around 5:15pm, just 15 minutes before the cut off (though I was still owed the 12 minutes — this was my biggest issue with the race!!). Despite how awful I was feeling, I was so happy to be done with the bike! My cousins were at the bike-in cheering for me. Naomi said, “I love your bike!” And I told her she could have it lol. I was so. done.
Volunteers took my bike and I headed into T2. It was there I discovered that I didn’t have my Minnesota shirt! Seriously — how did I forget to pack a shirt? I stayed in my bike jersey, which wasn’t ultimately a huge deal, jammed two more notes into my pockets, and headed out.
The run course was three 8.7 mile loops. I began speed walking to loosen up my legs, bargaining with myself on what I would intervals I would force myself to hold. I knew I could afford a little walking, but I was really stressed about those cut off times. I calculated and recalculated my times multiples times a mile. By my calculations I was about 15 minutes ahead of all the cut offs. Then around mile 6 my watch died. This was bad because I didn’t have any idea how fast I was running, but it also kept the pressure on which was probably overall a helpful thing. Have I mentioned how much I wanted my 12 minutes back??
While I walked, I read two more letters. One was from my younger brother. It was the perfect mix of sweet and encouraging and “ninja warrior blood flows through your veins so push yourself until that blood is on the pavement.” The other was from a friend who has become like my older brother, guiding me through some very challenging periods this year. Both letters were incredibly meaningful. It was also a huge boost to see mom again just out of T2, my cousin and friends on the run course, and around mile 5 when two of my non-racing cousins rode next to me on their bikes for a few minutes! I was feeling really good that first loop and ended up jogging most it no problem. One thing that kept me very entertained was singing the entire Sound of Music sound track in my head. I was dreaming of post-race life watching that movie on the couch eating the worlds largest pizza. I was afraid to take in much on course nutrition, survived mostly on water and gels, and pounded Base Salts like no other.
Lap 2 was a slap in the face. Compared to how good lap 1 felt, lap 2 rivaled the end of the bike course in terms of psychological difficulty. I had to continuously remind myself: “Don’t panic. Its your emotions that are tired, not your legs. Your body feels fine.” And it was true – physically I felt fine. But emotionally, I was struggling. The sun was setting. I was barely ahead of the cut offs. Most athletes were on their third laps and headed toward the finish line. I knew I still had an entire lap left once I made it around the second time. It was a low point. I knew if I could get through those 8.7 miles, being on the last lap would be psychologically easier. I was so grateful to find fellow runners on their second laps as well.
As I came in from the second lap, I saw my dad and Tracy. I knew they were coming, but it was a huge surprise and boost to see them and it snapped me out of my tunnel vision. I don’t know if they thought I was headed toward the finish line, but in that moment, it felt incredibly important for them and for everyone to know I still had one lap left but that I was going to make it. I told them I’d see them in 8.7 more miles. As I hit the turn around I saw mom. She was as worried as I was about the cut off times (maybe more so because, unlike me, she had no control over how fast I was moving). Apparently I told her with absolute certainty that I would see her at 11:45pm and I was convincing enough that she stopped worrying. I told her to tell everyone that I was feeling strong and was going to make it!
The run special needs stop was severely under-manned and I didn’t have time to stop for long. I also began cramping as soon as I stopped moving. A volunteer (I think the only one in the area!) helped me find my bag. I grabbed my headlamp. Ideally I would have put on a long sleeve shirt and grabbed my final three notes, but I knew there was no time to change or to walk so I could read. I have to mention it again — the volunteers were phenomenal!!
Don’t I look convincing as I head out on lap 3? I knew I had just enough time to walk the uphills but had to run the rest of the 8.7 miles. The far cut off time was 10:55pm. I was on track to get there around 10:40pm. I knew I wouldn’t be able to relax until I made that far cut off. My heart broke for those I knew were going too slow and would miss the 10:55pm cut off. I cannot imagine making it 138 miles only to be stopped 4 miles from the finish line. I tried to encourage everyone I saw. It was pitch black dark. I was afraid to eat and only drank water and chicken broth. Everyone was hurting but in good spirits. There was great camaraderie out there — we all wanted to finish, we all wanted each other to finish, and the more miles we ticked away, the more we realized… this was happening! Tonight was the night we would hear “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I cleared the final turn around right on schedule. I began the final 4.3 miles back. I knew I was going to make it! Almost 16 hours down, one hour to go. For most of that hour, I kept repeating out loud “Tonight, I will be an Ironman. This is my victory lap. This is a celebration of how far I’ve come.” I reminded myself of every lesson I had learned in the journey. I reminded myself of how much I had grown and changed. I told myself that if I could just keep running now, I would finish and I’d never have to run ever again. I named all the people waiting for me at the finish line. I named all the people who had prayed for me all day. I named all the people I hoped I was inspiring. I named all the people I knew were watching me, who I wanted to show that anything is possible. I felt every one of those people with me as I ran alone in the darkness. I wanted to cross the finish line for all of them as much as I wanted it for myself. I was in so much pain, but I felt so much joy!
I could hear the finish line around mile 24, the echoes of the announcer telling people “You are an Ironman!” A few of the people around me knew they would finish if they walked and backed off a little. I don’t think I could have made my body stop running if I wanted it to. I ran downhill and took the right turn into the park. My two cousins found me on their bikes, they sounded very surprised when the found me running at mile 26. Apparently, my GPS tracker failed for 18 minutes around this time and they thought I hadn’t made a cut off, had been injured, or quit for some reason, explaining why they were so surprised and happy to find me so close to the finish line! It felt so good to run straight to the finish – right past that second and third loop turn around. Its all I had wanted to do for 6.5 hours!
THE FINISH LINE.
I had been told to savor the finish line, to slow down and take it all in. I had been told there would never be another experience quite like it. My family and friends seemed to pop out of the darkness as I ran down the finishers chute, I didn’t realize they were there until I was right next to them. After running for hours in the dark, the bright lights were a slap in the face, somewhat stunning. It was surreal, dizzying, overwhelming. I remember thinking, “this is it! Remember this feeling!”
But as I paused and tried to memorialize the moment, I realized that the feelings of joy and exhilaration weren’t really any different than what I had been feeling that whole week and that whole day. For a split second, I was disappointed it wasn’t somehow sweeter, but then I realized – this was better. Because my journey hadn’t culminated into one blissful finish line moment that would be over and done with in a flash. Everything I had done, everything I had learned, everyone in my life who carried me through, and the strength I found inside to keep going — none of that would end at the finish line. This is my life, this is who I am, and I could not be more joyful or feel more blessed!
Right after I crossed, the volunteer who caught me put a medal around my neck, turned me around, and told me, “look at the finish line. Look at what you just did.” I stood there and just let myself cry. It was hard to process that I was standing on the other side of the finishers line. After a while, the volunteer turned me back around and I saw my family. We hugged over the railing. This post-race celebration was what I had been looking forward to for nearly 17 hours!
Huge congratulations to my cousin who finished with a huge PR! And to our friend who became a third time Ironman that night! I was so happy to see Dad and Tracy. Dad remembered that I really wanted a lei and he brought me a beautiful one!
My body immediately seized up as soon as I sat down. My cousins had to help me walk to the car. We made it back to the hotel where we ate pizza and all hung out for hours. Being with my mom and cousins was so wonderful! Cheering and supporting for days is not an easy task — they worked hard and sacrificed for me and I am so grateful! Later I read the letters I had had no choice but to leave behind, one from my best friend and one from my spiritual father. While they would have been encouraging to read on course, in some ways it was even sweeter to read them post race. It was so much fun reading texts, checking messages, looking at all the comments and likes on Facebook that had rolled in as I raced. I didn’t realize until that moment just how many people had been watching, cheering, celebrating, supporting. I was honestly awestruck, it was hard to wrap my mind around. I couldn’t help but think how heartbreaking it would have been if I hadn’t made it. If I hadn’t run the marathon or pushed myself the bike. The feeling that lingered was an amazing sense of relief — I AM AN IRONMAN!