Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ironman Steelhead 70.3 and Me

Three days ago I completed my first  half Ironman triathlon.  I swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles and ran 13.1 miles all in one shot.   I feel elated, immensely grateful and a little sore.

I headed up to Benton Harbor early Saturday morning.  I took advantage of being solo, and thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet (save for the loud music blaring).   Three hours to reflect and unwind.  I listened to the music I preferred, stopped when I needed to, drove the speed I was comfortable with...just me and the open road.  It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day and I was able to just enjoy the ride.  I was feeling happy and excited.  When I arrived, I met up with friends who were already at the hotel, and we headed to the venue.

The day before a big race is always a lot of fun.   There is usually an expo, where packets are picked up and shopping opportunities abound.  Ironman did not disappoint.  The expo and athlete check-in were right on the beach where the transition would take place the next morning.  The water was calm, the sky was clear blue and excitement was in the air.  Hundreds of athletes and spectators milled about talking, shopping, walking on the beach,  and checking in for the next day.  I was taking delight in being part of the excitement.  We sat for about an hour and listened to the athlete briefing, where the race director went over the rules for the swim, the bike and the run.   The announcer's voice echoed in my head.  The nervous energy started setting in.

Could I do this?

We went back to the hotel to unpack, then went out for dinner (italian of course).  Carb-loading is a tradition, after all.  Dinner was fun, but we were rather quiet on the way back to the hotel as we contemplated the next day.    I attempted to go to bed at 10:30.  Tossed and turned.  Bathroom at 11:30.  Back to bed at 11:35.  Midnight, I think I may have dozed off?  Nervous energy.  I was doing the swim in my head and it wasn't pretty.

After a very restless night, race day began at 3:30am.  I opened my eyes, got out of bed and moved in slow motion.  I couldn't believe it was race day.  I brushed my teeth while going through the upcoming race in my head.  I got dressed, packed my transition bag and pumped up my bike tires.  I looked at myself in the mirror.  Blinked.  Reality set in.  I grimaced at my reflection, then smiled and said "let's do this!!!"  I sounded more confident than I felt.  I met my friends in the lobby, and we made the 45 minute drive to the venue.

We arrived at Jean Klock Park at 5:00am.   We were in good company, as hundreds of athletes (over 2,000 total) arrived with us.  The morning air was cold and we were all wearing jackets and long sleeve shirts.  Stars dotted the black sky.  It was a mile walk from the parking lot to the venue.  As we approached the beach, bright lights and music greeted us.  As we walked I heard the melodious voice of the race announcer as he reminded us of what was ahead.  It was the same voice from the athlete briefing the day before.   The voice that had given me such nervous energy during the briefing was now comforting.    I appreciatively used the indoor restroom for the last time that day (port-a-pottys would be my friend the remainder of the day).  And of course we posed for a picture for Facebook.

We made our way to body marking (every triathlete's age is unceremoniously written in black magic marker on the calf, the race number is prominently written on each arm).  Our status temporarily tattooed on our bodies to identify us and to categorize us for the day.

From there it was to transition, where we set up our bikes and our gear for the day.  We will only return two times during the race.  Our haven in the chaos.  We learned the water temperature was 67 degrees, and the air temperature was 55.  A tad chilly!   I shivered at the thought of getting into the water and swimming.   We used the last-chance port-a-potty,  put on our wetsuits and made our way to the beach.

From the transition, it is a mile+ walk down the beach to the swim start.  As we walked I glanced at the water, and eyed the buoys which identified the sections of the swim.  One large red, followed by what seemed to be 100 orange, then in the far distance a large number of yellow, then finally another red buoy.  All in one long straight line.  The second red buoy looked so far away.  The walk to the start seemed endless.  My stomach was doing somersaults.  The sand was freezing under our feet.  I eyed the water again.  Holy shit, we had to swim past all of those buoys!!  Gulp.

We finally arrived at the swim start, and warmed up.  (I didn't know how I was going to swim with my stomach filled with bouncing balls.)  I was so nervous.  The first two waves of swimmers (the elite athletes) lined up, received final instructions and the gun sounded.  I watched as a hundred or so swimmers ran at top speed into the water, then dove into the deeper water and the swim was underway.  As I watched each wave go (they are separated by age group after the elite waves) it seemed crazy to me that I was soon going to be in a mass crowd of swinging arms and kicking legs in the frigid water.  Our turn came and off we went.  I hurtled myself through the air and then dove into the water.  It was madness as everyone around me jockeyed for position.  Every few seconds I was being kicked or bumped, and splashed in the face.  But I told myself to stay calm and just swim.  I moved slowly, trying to keep panic at bay.  One stroke at a time.  I rounded the first red buoy and headed for the first yellow.  As we progressed, the wave spread out and the water calmed.  So did my nerves.  I just swam.

After what seemed to be an eternity, I saw the second red buoy in the distance.  A feeling of elation came over me.  Holy shit I did it!  My hands finally touched sand and my feet touched and I started running (ok, stumbling) out of the water toward the beach.  There were huge crowds of people on either side of the chute cheering as we all made our way to transition.  It was amazing!

I found my bike, struggled out of the wetsuit (gracefully of course), pulled my helmet on, attempted to rinse the sand off my feet (I later learned I should have tried harder) and put my bike shoes on.  I grabbed my bike and was off running toward the bike exit.  At the bike mount area I clipped in and started pedaling.  I didn't even notice the cold as I raced down the hill and out onto the course.  I was on my bike, and for me this is home.  56 miles lay ahead of me.  I felt great.

The ride was fast, and fun.  I saw friends out on the course, and reveled in the crowds along the way.  The hours seemed to fly by.   The only thing that marred the wonderful experience was the thought of the 13.1 mile run which would follow.  I was not looking forward to it.

As we returned to Jean Klock park, we rode through a chute that was made up of Ironman banners.  I literally had goosebumps and a huge smile as the gravity of what I was doing hit me again.  Crowds were lined up and cheered as we rode the slower pace through the chute to the dismount area.  Then it was off of the bike, jog into transition, find my spot and get ready for the run.

The run is my least favorite of the three disciplines of triathlon.  This transition was a bit slow, as I procrastinated the run and changed into my running shoes.  You're not supposed to procrastinate in transition.  The main goal here is speed (hello, it's a race).  I know, I know.  I put on my visor and sunglasses and started jogging out of transition.

It was no longer chilly, and was getting very warm.  The sun was high in the sky and the cloud cover that had been present on the bike was gone.   The thought of what was ahead was daunting, but I just started running.  The first two miles was mostly uphill, and was really tough.  I stopped at the second aid station to use the port-a-potty and to grab some water and Gatorade.   Back to running.   The time seemed to pass slowly, and I was looking ahead for the mile markers.  Every marker I passed was a small victory and I smiled.  At about mile 6, I started cramping in my legs, and I felt several blisters forming on my feet.  It occurred to me at that point that I had not eaten very much, or had enough fluid.  The blisters were apparently caused by little bits of sand that were still on my feet.  Good times.  The miles passed slowly, and I was dizzy.  Slowed at every aid station and drank water and Gatorade and ate what I could.  Kept going.  I passed the 10 mile marker, and my heart soared!  I was almost there!  Suddenly it hit me that the finish line was just 3.1 miles from me.  The last miles were a bit of a blur.   I entered the park and could hear the music, the wonderful soothing voice of the race announcer and cheering!    I entered the chute and ran the narrow path between the Ironman banners with the onlookers urging me on and yelling "you're almost there"!!!  I had a huge smile on my face and my heart was in my throat.  I could see the finish line.

I think I was laughing when I crossed the finish line!   Correction, the Ironman finish line.    The feeling of sheer joy and accomplishment washed over me and I forgot the pain.  I was an Ironman (well half an Ironman anyway).  I had accomplished something that 4 years ago I would have thought was impossible.  So many changes have taken place in my life and brought me to this point.  Crossing that finish line with tears in my eyes was not just about that race, but it was so much more.  It was a new beginning.  Happy destiny was at my feet.  I knew as they placed the finisher medal around my neck that I could do anything I set my mind to.  That day forward.

After the celebration, and the painful couple of days that have passed,  I sit here feeling that same unbelievable feeling I felt on Sunday.  And after 3 days I'm finally writing about it.  The pain has subsided and I'm back to "normal" (as normal as I'll ever be) but the feeling of accomplishment and power remains.

Today I feel powerful.

I made mistakes in this race.  I did not practice good nutrition during the bike and the run.  I did not clean the sand from my feet well enough causing blisters.  I did not mentally push myself as hard as I should have.  I will benefit from these mistakes in the long run because I have learned from them.  The cool thing about being human and making mistakes is the growth achieved when we learn from them and push on.

Did I mention I'm doing it all again in 2 1/2 weeks?  Cedar Point Rev3 Half 9/9/ I come!

Think I'll go for a run...

I want to thank my family for their support with all of my training and for putting up with me when I was crabby and for being patient during the time training took me away from them  I want to give a shout out to my coach, my training buddies (you have no idea how much you mean to me) and all of my friends who supported me.  It definitely takes a village!   

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