with your one WILD and PRECIOUS life?
- Mary Oliver
My friend Elizabeth posted this quote the night before ironman and, like random voices and words tend to do in the last few hours before a race, it came along for the ride. One of the many truths about ironman is that taking a shot at it, that is rare. It isn't a 5K where I can race another one next weekend if I choke. Months of preparation and many many dollars go into a single day, and I will be lucky enough to stand on this particular line very few times over the course of my life.
Part of my race plan included wearing my little hydration pack. I did all my long runs with it, I had the idea that if I could avoid aide stations and be entirely self-sufficient, that would be a contributing factor to my success (despite the fact that I feel like a giant dork with it on; as my friend Scott said, you'll be the giant dork that gets to the finish line the fastest). It had everything I needed - at least three hours of OSMO, chews, emergency bag, chapstick, inhaler, snacks. And as I ran out of transition, I already knew that I probably wouldn't be able to use any of it.
Something I have learned this year from the wisdom of Stacy Sims is that if the bottom half of your digestive system is freaking out, sugar is the worst thing you can add to the mix and plain water isn't really any better. As I got started on the run, I told myself, run three miles, don't put anything down and then evaluate. So I ran three miles. They were good miles, definitely the fastest ones I plugged into the day, and I hadn't stopped into a potty yet, so I sipped on some OSMO. It only took about ninety seconds before it ripped through me, and I stopped to empty from the bottom once again. OSMO was out.
I kept running, jogging actually, and the bizarre thing was, EVERYONE was walking. In all of my ironman experiences, the first loop is generally full of runners steadily chipping away at the miles left between them and the finish line. The second loop is where it starts to more closely resemble the zombie parade, but I saw people walking straight out of transition, walking at mile two, dejected, clutching their stomachs, walk walk walking, and it was weird enough that I noticed it through my haze of troubleshooting. It was warm and sunny, I was desperately thirsty, I wanted to drink, I knew I shouldn't but I kept cracking and sipping OSMO and then I'd be back in the potty three minutes later. I was putting ice chips into every corner of clothing I could reach, up my shorts down my shorts in my bra down my back, I was so thirsty I kept pulling them out and sucking on them, and that was wrecking my stomach. I felt like an addict, I knew I was banging my head against the wall, THIRSTY, don't drink, drank, stomach explosion, don't drink, THIRSTY, I was stuck in a bad spiral and couldn't stop myself.
I ran a lot of the first eight miles. I took in no calories and kept making pit stops, my watch was showing me splits but they didn't mean a lot to me because I didn't have a good grasp on how much running I was doing and how much all the sitting with my head in my hands was dragging me down. When I came back from the second out-and-back, the really bad no-shade boiling hot one that went up and over the parkway, Sonja was there, and I motioned for her to come run with me so I could let her know what was going on. I told her, and she said all the right things, most of them I was already doing, and that everyone was suffering. For some reason that helped.
I walked, not far, but up to the next aide station where I collapsed in a porta potty for what felt like the 100th time. There was a long line of potties and they were all empty, and I decided as I watched the seconds tick by that I was going to sit and let my gut do whatever it wanted for as long as it took.
I was in there for eighteen minutes.
When I came out, I felt a bit better. I knew that part of the problem was that I was bonking terribly, which on top of a gut bomb was making my head a tough place to manage, so I put on my what would Stacy Sims do hat. Salt and plain water, okay. I grabbed a cup of potato chips and a cup of water and walked and put it all down as I headed north to the third out-and-back. Bonking. Walking. Eating. But no longer violently ill. Maybe the TUMS finally kicked in, or maybe the immodium, maybe the minutes in the potty NOT sucking the seductive lifeblood off the OSMO tit and killing my intestines with sugar made a difference. I don't know what it was, but as I chewed and walked, there was nothing in my head except what had been lost already, it was a brief moment, and only one, but it was there, and that was when I bumped into my friend Philip.
He had been behind me at all the turn-arounds so far, I had seen him a few times and waved as we both fought through our own miles, but he must have passed me while I sat. He was someone who knew very clearly what I wanted out of the run and it was obvious, I am sure, that I was losing that fight. As he ran by, I looked at him and silently shook my head. And he went on, but a few seconds later was back, standing in front of me, shouting, WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU ARE WASTING YOUR DAY. And I was so frustrated with myself and my body that I yelled at the top of my lungs, three inches from his face, THIS IS WHAT GIVING UP LOOKS LIKE, SO FUCK OFF.
(For the record, we've gotten a great deal of pleasure out of telling and retelling this story over the past two weeks and yes we are still friends). I spent every minute of the first ten miles trying to keep my shit together and stay calm and now I had to deal with someone shoving it right at me, that was it, the dam burst, nuclear explosion. He yelled at me, and I yelled right back at him (choice phrases include I'VE BEEN SHITTING MYSELF FOR THREE HOURS and IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW SMART I AM IF I CAN'T STAY OUT OF THE FUCKING PORTA POTTY), and I'm sure we looked ridiculous standing in the middle of the bike path shouting at each other, but eventually he departed with one last FIGURE IT OUT over his shoulder and I stomped up the path in the other direction. Fuming, viciously chomping on my potato chips and muttering under my breath like a psychopath. And when I crossed over the mat at the top of the hill, I started to run.
And my gut didn't rebel. I came back through the park, I ran straight through the aide station, I didn't stop. I grabbed my special needs bag as I went by but immediately handed everything off to the poet. I didn't look at him or say anything, I simply threw my handheld and bags of chews and snacks, I was moving again, I was so angry, furious, but moving. I got through another mile and someone came down through the overly-crowded path backwards on a bike, it registered on the outer edges of my awareness, enough for me to think moron, and then a few minutes later the bike came back up beside me and I realized it was my friend slash body magician Charlie.
He started talking to me, asking how my day was going, and I am sure I shot him the dirtiest look I could scrape together at the moment. I didn't say anything as I was completely absorbed in being totally fucking pissed. (He told me later when I rode up and passed you I didn't even recognize you because of how mad you looked). When I got to the next aide station I realized it had been about thirty minutes since my potato chips and nothing had ruptured in my intestines so I grabbed a cup of coke and drank it right down.
I threw some more cups of ice chips into my top and shorts, water down my back and on my arms, and got running again. Charlie was still there, riding next to me, telling me about how hot he had been doing his workout at noon (seriously), how he'd been tracking me all day, telling me about my bike split, chattering away and mostly I kept running because I was hoping that if I could move fast enough he would just shut the fuck up already. Fifteen miles into the ironman marathon there isn't a lot that hasn't been scraped off the surface of who you are. I was so angry at everyone and everything, I was angry at him for being there, for witnessing my rock bottom, a rubbernecker driving slowly past the car crash of my race. I was angry that someone was casually in audience to raw vulnerability that I couldn't hide with sarcasm or laughter, angry because he was yet another person who knew - because I said it out loud, to him, not four days before the race - what the fight should have looked like for me in ironman and I was fighting but it wasn't even in the same zip code as the battle I had hoped to wage. And I was angry because here was one of so many who have put their time and energy and love and support into me, my brain my body my training my life, and I was letting him - all of them - down. I was failing, and I couldn't hide under my visor or hope that all of my people were in a state of blissful ignorance about it because he was right there, spectating the exposure of very worst pieces of my soul, attentively watching me writhe around on the floor of the deepest well I have, the ugly, the violence, the hatred, the breakdown, the loss.
But I was fighting. And I suppose there, that is the difference in the day. On paper, it looks like no achievement, but I spent the last two hours of that marathon livid. And hauling. Sometimes walking, once puking, shuffling, heel-striking my way through a strong back half after yet another weak start, but not giving in. Even when I yelled at Philip THIS IS WHAT GIVING UP LOOKS LIKE, I knew that wasn't what I was doing, that's not what was going on, that was fierce rage talking, not defeat. I KNOW what submission looks like in ironman and not once did that dull roar of hopelessness wash over me. Instead, I stayed pissed, and while I don't think that hopping mad (I'm running out of synonyms for I WAS SO GODDAMN ANGRY) is the best way to spend 5+ hours at the end of a race, it's certainly better than the desperate misery of quitting, the quiet moments of surrender than you cannot get back.
Charlie stayed with me for miles and for that I was desperately grateful (don't worry, I'm buying him lunch tomorrow). He kept up a steady stream of chatter as I plowed my way back through the field at a blazing ten-to-eleven-minute-mile pace. I slowed at a few aide stations to suck down more coke, I couldn't get up and over that goddamn overpass without some walking, but I was passing people every mile. I didn't talk to him, if I said anything at all I'm sure it was some pissypants bullshit, I let myself be furious, every time I noticed I was mad I told myself it's okay to be mad just be mad and keep moving. Philip passed me a few more times on the out-and-backs, and each time we passed me he shouted TOUGH AND SMART over and over until I was gone in the other direction, but I didn't need that, not anymore.
We came back through the transition area one more time, and the spectators were starting to thin out, to head home, to pack it in as the sun went down, to move the party over to the finish line. I got through mile 22 and Charlie said something to me about me having it and peeled off. I threw my sunglasses and some other shit at the poet as I passed him by and headed up through the park one last time. Over the final mat, down the hill, and finally to the blessed sign: 2ND LAP TURN RIGHT.
I don't really remember much after that, the last few minutes are a blur, I tried to smile but race photos reveal more of an exhausted grimace, I put up two fingers on each hand (I think my thoughts were ironman number 4 bitches but it turned out more like bleary bonking woman throws gang sign) and then I was over the line. Done. Raw, empty, sore, exhausted. Yet somehow, whole.
Run: 26.2 miles, 5:23:28, 21st AG/98th F
My mom was volunteering at the finish line so she put my medal on me, my family was there, I got some water and did all the things you do once you cross the line which mostly consist of a lot of what in the actual fuck just happened and eating anything you can shove in your mouth. I got my shoes off somewhere and finally saw the raw and bloody blisters that I had been running on for well over five hours, I housed some pizza, I borrowed the poet's phone to check in on all my people, I finally saw all my own splits for the day, and I gently released my anger and my concentrated mind into the universe.
140.6 miles: 12:33:13
Days before the race, I proudly and loudly declared that the one thing I wanted most in the world was to put together a solid marathon off the bike. I had no idea that I could find so much success in a day where, by all accounts, I failed to do so yet again.
I have made it a hobby, a habit, a practice, to study vulnerability and shame. I have devoured books, lectures, TED talks, everything I can find and absorb on the subject, anything even remotely related to developing resilience, trying to create a body and mind that are not even strong as much as they are built for a life of anti fragility. This year in particular, I have had uncomfortable conversations, I have written hideously revealing (and overly wordy) blog posts for the internet, I have placed myself in situations over and over where I feel awkward, too big for my britches, too grotesque for beauty, too noisy for grace. Again and again, I have uncovered fear, shame, and hate and done everything I can to run directly at the situation or emotions that I did not want to face. I have sought out vulnerability, and plenty of times, I have failed. I have crashed and burned, I have experienced rejection and irritation, contempt, humiliation, all of these things, and I have absorbed my own reaction and tried to grow from these moments.
A day or two before the race, when I returned from spending some time alone with my thoughts and emotions, I had a conversation with the poet about ironman, and about the veritable destruction that this distance can do, not just to the body but also to the mind. I told him, I am clear about where I am, how I feel, and that is this: if I do not find progress in this day, it may be time to step away from ironman for a while, possibly forever. Because three times I have gone out looking for success and three times now I have given it up, willingly. I have let any chance at personal victory fall from my limp hand and be lost in the shadows, and I have had to live with those decisions in the aftermath, and that is ugly, and hard, far more difficult than running a marathon with an upset tummy or a broken arm. And as I stood in my kitchen, I said to him, I know I keep repeating this quote about bringing it forth, but I honestly believe that if I don't find a way to do so on Sunday, this will actually destroy me. I am not strong enough to keep chasing, failing, and continuing to coexist with this particular strain of shame. My voice broke as I said it, in part I am sure due to the hormonal imbalance that accompanies taper, but also in part to how much absolute truth there was for me in that.
Many things have changed for me this year, and even though I've rolled through ironman I am certain that these changes will continue to waterfall. My job changed, what is in my pantry changed, the amount of weight I can pick up off the floor with my ass, a lot of things have changed. The aftershocks of these changes have shown up in my race results, certainly, but I could give a flying fuck about those. Instead I am celebrating the aftershocks that have shown up in my life. My actual life, I say it all the time, this is my actual life and I am not going to waste it. Every distance I've raced this year, shit, every LEG of every distance, I've found a way to carry my body through those distances faster than ever before, and that's fun. It's really spectacular to finish ironman and to find your husband at the fence and for him to say with big eyes, I am pretty sure you just PRd every leg. But there are things that are more fun. Finishing a race and not walking around for days - weeks - with the sharp pinch of shame in my heart, that's fun. Sleeping soundly at night instead of keeping myself awake in self-flagellation, that's fun. Crashing my mountain bike a billion times in France and then celebrating with a huge piece of chocolate cake and a Guinness and quoting Caddyshack at masters and filling my house with people and forcing them to eat until they explode and careening down the side of a mountain singing at the absolute top of my lungs, those things are my particular brand of happy. Meeting people, feeling the spark of human connection and driving these people crazy until they cave (FINE I will ride bikes with you Jesus) and become my friend, well, that is how I goddamn roll.
Finally winding down. Certainly there is more to say about the rest of the night of ironman, about taking a cold shower while drinking whiskey out of the bottle, about drinking tequila with Charlie - also out of the bottle - at the finish line until midnight such that someone saw me and told the entire masters swim the next morning, about the massive tequila and sugar bender I went on for the next five days, about how I made it less than 36 hours post-race before I cracked and started eating vegetables again, about all the happy fallout that comes now that ironman has passed and life returns to the state once known as normal.
For me, personally, ironman has always been a vehicle, causation of change in my life. My good friend Gloria published an excellent essay a few days after the race about all the changes going on for her, and one of her lines nailed me straight to the ground. In discussion about her France family, she says, Watching them hustle and gun for their dreams like we all had just one shot at this thing inspired me to push harder and take more risks, too. My dreams, my hustle, my goals, those things are fluid, constantly evolving. Some days I will ride perfect two-minute intervals at 900 watts and some days I will turn the Garmin upside-down and try to convince someone to be my friend (and I will think that I have failed miserably and then he will turn up at mile fourteen of the ironman marathon and prove me wrong). That is a dynamic life, that is my own particular brand of normalcy and I embrace it for all the flaws that it may accompany. But the reminder, the ice cold truth, is that we all get just one shot at this thing. One shot. I've been lucky enough to take four shots at ironman, each time knowing it could be my last, each time wondering if I would ever be able to stand on the line again, gratitude in those last moments before the cannon fires, grateful that my life has made it possible for the answer to be, so far, yes.
I could look back at this year and say, I spent seven months training for ironman, seven months of 5am alarm clocks and swimming in zero degree weather, time on the trainer and in the wind and the rain and all the feelings that go along with running, hours in the gym and a thousand angry needles in my everywhere body and who knows how much spinach and sweet potatoes and saying no to margaritas and frozen yogurt and chocolate cake, and from all of that, I got 46 minutes. 3 on the swim, 36 on the bike, 7 on the run. Was it worth it? In that context, I don't know. But then, I can put on a different pair of glasses. I can instead say, I spent seven months embracing vulnerability, fighting shame, stalking resilience, slamming my delicate heart against every surface I could find to make it strong, tough, tenacious, relentlessly durable, and out of those things, I found success. Courage. Grit. Even, defiance. So to answer the question, was it worth it? More than any victory I could ever hope to define.