Ironman: Angels, Demons, and You

This October I was fortunate enough to be able to compete in, and finish, my third full Ironman (although my second one was shortened due to bad weather/flooding). For those of you that aren’t familiar with Ironman, it’s a long distance triathlon: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile run (marathon), all completed in under 17 hours.

Ironman is a special kind of race. Ironman tests your body, mind, and spirit in a way that few other races do (at least for us mere mortals). When I completed my first marathon I thought, “I’ll never do Ironman.” It seemed absolutely ridiculous to put myself through that much pain after having already swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles. I’d have to start running a marathon 9 hours into an already grueling race (at least that’s how long it takes a 46 year-old middle-of-the-pack age group female to swim, then bike Ironman.) 10 years ago it seemed impossible. But, as Ironman proudly proclaims, “Anything Is Possible.”

Somehow with steady determination and a lot of physical therapy, massage, and foam rolling, I’ve managed to get myself through Ironman #3.

October 7th was a day I will never forget.

Have you ever heard that “you shouldn’t try something on race day that you haven’t tried in training?” I pretty much live by that rule… except this year during Ironman Maryland.

This year’s race had amazing weather– for the spectators. It turns out that temperatures in the 80’s are really different than in the 60’s for those of us trying to propel our bodies through 140.6 miles. I have to admit that I kind of freaked out. I’m a very salty sweater and I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t have enough sodium intake on the bike. I could see myself becoming hyponatremic in the blink of an eye. So, I reasoned to myself, I should increase the concentration of the electrolyte solution I put in my water bottles.

I suggest that you never do that in a race.

I had not trained with increased electrolytes in my water. My stomach had not trained with increased electrolytes in my water. My stomach rebelled. I was at my stomach’s mercy.

I tried to counteract the super-concentrated solution by drinking extra water from the aid stations. It was too late. My stomach was not having it. Once the nausea hit, that was it.  I tried to force in fluids just a few sips at a time, but my tank was super low, and my body felt it.

That’s when the demons started to rear their ugly heads.

Here’s what demons sound like: “You dumbass, you didn’t even follow your own rules!” “Your training sucked.” “Nice try, but you’re getting too old to keep trying to balance work and family life and training.” “Hahahaha you’re going to DNF!” “What makes you think that you belong in this race? Can’t you see that everyone is passing you?” “One year of training and this is what you have to show for it?”

An Ironman gives you the “gift” of many hours in your own head. You get to face these demons head-on. You face them when you’re 90 miles into the bike (Woo Hoo!! Almost done!) and realize that you still have another hour and a half on the bike and THEN a marathon. You face them when the chafing from being on the bike for 7 hours in a wet tri suit starts to take on a life of its own (“Hello, chafe spot. I see that you want all of my attention. I see that you are insistent and not to be denied. You need to STAND DOWN!!) And you face them when you’re debating whether you should quit and just have a paramedic take great care of you.

I thought that I was going to require EMS this year.

I left T2 (bike-run transition) fully Vaseline’d up (those chafe spots were roaring!) and started to run… except that I quickly realized that I could not run. “OK, I’ll just walk a little bit, then I’ll run.”

Nope.

Oh oh.

I hobbled to the first water station and through my blurry vision a volunteer offered me some water. “Yes, please,” I said, then recognized her. Katie, a friend from my son’s middle school, who was volunteering with her dad through Annapolis Tri Club and handing out water. “I know you!” I said, then promptly started to pass out. “How can I help you?” she asked. “I just need a place to lie down.” She helped me to a nice grassy spot that was covered with a tent; a perfect shady, flat, soft, wonderful place. “Maybe I could just take a few hours’ nap” I thought to myself. Thoughtful, lovely people started to bring me cups of water and ice. Then a volunteer masseuse came over and rubbed out my sore hamstring while I downed the water and the ice.

Those were the angels.

And there was a hell of a fight.

Angels and demons wrestled and tore at each other.  Every time a demon would scream at me to quit, a real-life angel would show me a kind gesture and encourage me to keep going. The demons were convincing. “You’re going to cause serious harm if you keep going,” they’d say. Then the angels would step it up to retort, “Just try standing up and see if you feel OK.” Demons: “You’ll never be able to finish.” Angels: “One step at a time.”

I told the demons to fuck off.

I stood up. So far, so good. I started to walk. Then I started to jog. Oh my goodness, I felt OK!

As the night wore on and the temperature fell I felt better and better. Ha! My training was good enough. Take that, you naysaying demons!

Despite spending almost an hour on the first 5K of the run (my husband tracking me said that my projected finish time was 2:30AM) I ended up getting a PR by a full 10 minutes. It was glorious!

I then hobbled over after the finish pictures to the curb where I promptly threw up.

The demons tried to get a last jab in, but to no avail.  I am an Ironman!