You can choose courage or you can choose comfort but you cannot choose both. -Brene Brown (duh, who else)
A lot of athletes in ironman feel fantastic off the bike and then blow up 13 or 15 or 18 miles in (or so I've read on the internet). I’ve never had this problem. I have always believed that feeling great off the bike was a myth concocted so that everyone could collectively deny how much it blows and lure in other suckers to try it out (I feel the same is true of childbirth). Because every time I’ve started the run, my body feels like a sackful of broken bones still vaguely in the shape of a bicycle plus bloated and sunburned and kind of annoyed that I've exercised for like seven hours and I'm not even close to being done. For me, the hardest miles have always been the first few. I have been able to rebound into some great second halves, but in the past, the beginning is where things have fallen apart, and as I left transition and started running I told myself today is the day we erase that tape.
And that first mile felt fucking amazing.
I actually needed to hold back, which was ridiculous and brilliant, but I felt so cautious. I didn't trust how good I felt; I didn’t want to jump straight from the “blow up in the first hour” disaster to the “go out too hard and blow up at mile 18” shitshow. It took monumental effort to keep my pace in the high 9s. I lapped my watch at the first mile marker and thought, 25 more of those and this is a day to remember.
I had my bottle of OSMO from transition, so I ignored the aid stations other than to happily smile and wave at the volunteers. There were already people doing some walking, and as I trotted by them, I warned myself not to get too cocky, that had been me in the past and it could easily be me again today. The second mile turned over and I let myself work down a bit into the low 9s. At some point I fell in step with someone running about the same pace as me. After a few minutes, we started yapping (Hi, Josiah from CA, I hope your day was brilliant), but only just a bit, working together. I came back through the transition area and saw the poet, I don’t think I said anything but I was still smiling, and then we went past an aid station and the song that was blaring was the goddamn Coldplay song about the trapeze, and the second verse was starting, and I said to Jo, this is my favorite verse of one of my favorite songs of all time and he said no shit and I said yes shit! and I sang MAYBE I’M IN THE GAP BETWEEN THE TWO TRAPEZE, but not at the top of my lungs, kind of softly under my breath. And every mile that went by, I quietly celebrated in my head with a this is the best I've ever felt two miles into ironman. Three. Four. Five. Erasing my tape. Terrified that the blow was just around the next corner, caution in every step, but every mile plopping straight into the bank of a successful day. (How's this for a demonstration of amazing running form?)
My stomach started grumbling as we crossed the bridge to the other side of the lake, enough that when we went through the aide station I ducked into a porta potty for a pit stop. And it was a productive pit stop but I wasn’t sick, I took an immodium just in case, got some more OSMO down and then popped right back out and kept running. I knew that my stop would mean a slow split was going to appear so I ran a bit too fast to the next mat, hoping that I could make up the time or even just send out a message to the poet (and anyone else tracking) that said I’m not falling apart! I’m FINE! I swear! I'm okay you guys! I just had to POOP!
Miles 1-6: 9:40, 9:27, 9:12, 9:22, 9:13, 10:36 (potty)
The out-and-back on the far side of the lake was long enough that my starting-to-not-work-anymore brain didn’t understand how two laps of this would equal 26.2 miles and not more like...40. My body started to hurt, it stopped feeling like springy joyfulness and started feeling hard. And Krista had told me about her marathon at CdA in the spring, and how she felt great for 17 miles, and I thought WTF I AM SUPPOSED TO HAVE ELEVEN MORE MILES! The loop brought us back and then up a little hill and around, we hit a short but very sweet downhill into the aid station under the overpass and another one of my favorite songs from this year was blasting (I have embarrassingly bad taste in music) and I let my cadence pick up and started smiling again and sang right along with it IT'S GOING DOWN I'M YELLING TIMBBBBERRRRRRR.
I came back over the bridge, the BASE salt guys were there and they were rocking out and offering their snake oil to everyone and I said yes. I was starting to feel desperate and also in the zone in a way I recognize from late in a 70.3, where you are so tired and focused that you start throwing shit in the general direction of your mouth and it doesn't at all matter what it is only that it is the closest thing you can reach. So he tried to teach my how to lick my thumb and shake the thing and I did but I didn't cover it up right and instead threw salt all over the road, he tried to show me again but I finally just poured some straight into my mouth and stuffed the little container in the back pocket of my top, the sad graveyard of hopeful but rejected nutrition. Also known as "shit I throw at my husband every time I see him in a race." (This picture is why I try to fix hip extension in runners everywhere not to mention myself. Sigh, sorry Kevin).
Miles 7-13: 9:35, 10:05, 9:56, 10:43 (potty), 9:44, 9:47, 9:55
But I kept on trucking. My tummy was a little grumbly so I was spacing out calories more than I probably should have, a few times I was definitely dancing with the bonk but then managed to get coke or a banana or even a few more chews down and bring it around. I came through the half split, I was happy to see the poet but didn't stop because I was starting to be afraid that if I stopped, I wouldn't get going again. There was another bottle of OSMO waiting for me in special needs so I stopped for it (and actually managed to get most of it down over the next few miles) and then shuffled my way forward. And once I finished that first lap, everything I saw on the course, I was saying farewell to. I know it sounds insane (like a lot of shit I post) but this is what happens inside your brain. Mile 15 sign I WILL NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN! Dancing guy in the bacon outfit SO LONG SUCKER! Underpass aid station BYE NOW!
In the week before the race, I had a bit of a realization, and it is this. The reason so many people walk in ironman? I think it's because they've stopped caring. That's why I've walked, in the past. Sure, nutrition and being sick and broken bones, but what's really going on is I do not give an actual fuck. The swim happens, the bike is long and hard and by the time you get off, you are tired, mentally and physically, and that's when the race plan goes sailing out the window. Forget 9:20 pace, I don't give a shit anymore, all I want is the finish line and some fucking pizza and a few weeks off. I spent most of the run reminding myself to step back, to stay out of the way, trying not to think at all, I never want to try and convince my body this is fun! when the truth is this is really hard and it kind of sucks because that - convincing myself - sounds exhausting. I would rather let my emotional mind be empty and let the logical mind do the work, worrying about calories and hydration and whether that grumble in my intestines is just a grumble or a warning shot. But every once in a while, I could feel the no I really don't give a fuck let's just walk trying to creep back in, and the truth I was able to come up with was I still care. I wasn't trying to convince myself that I was having a blast, instead, I was reminding myself why I was out there. To run well. And 17, 18, 19 miles into the race, that thought burned hard, and I repeated that for miles against the rhythm of my footsteps. I still care. I still care.
Miles 14-20: 10:14 (SN), 10:33, 13:10 (long potty), 11:05, 10:57, 11:01, 10:33
The mile 20 marker was a relief. I knew that I had about an hour left, I had absolutely no idea what time of day it was or how long I had been running, but I can count down miles. I had lap pace showing on my watch and I was trying to keep it in the 10s, the low 9s were long gone but the 11s felt like a gateway drug into giving up and if there is one thing I did not want to do out there, it was give up. Other than three stops in the porta potty and one stop at special needs, one pause to bitchslap my left IT band and a couple of 5-6 steps slowdown in the later miles to gather things at aid stations, I ran every step, start to finish.
The last few miles were ugly. I stopped eating and drinking because I knew I was close enough to not need calories anymore, but I still had the (irrational?) fear that it wasn't too late to blow up and walk it in. A lot of people have said that when they are focused, they count their steps, 1-100 over and over again, so I started counting my steps but I couldn't make it past ten. The idea of even thinking a word with three syllables in it - eleven - seemed insurmountable, it was impossible to ask my brain to do one more hard thing on top of all the work it was already doing. So that was what I did for four miles. I swung my arms, I tried to press from my toes and reach with my foot, and I counted to ten in my head. Over and over, probably a thousand times, against my footsteps on the path. Up to the bridge. Over the bridge. Turn left. The mile 25 sign. Looking at lap distance and realizing I only had a half mile - two laps of the track - to go. Going past my husband, who started running with me and yelling, you did it! to which I barked back I have two minutes I haven't done it yet like a crazy person. And I felt my watch vibrate with the last mile and turned past the sign splitting the runners into lap two and finishers and somewhere in that moment it hit me. I had done it. I hadn't blown up, I wasn't going to blow, I had run every step, I ran hard, I ran well, and the thought was in my head less than a second before I burst into tears.
(Seriously so embarrassing, I really hate it when people cry).
I ran down the chute with one hand over my mouth, trying to stifle how ridiculous I felt, thinking wildly and randomly of my friend Sarah and watching her ugly cry her way across the finish of her first ironman and how proud I felt of her in that moment, hearing the poet's voice over the entire crowd yelling my name, he is always the best and loudest spectator of my life, I wanted to be smiling and joyful and explosive, I didn't want this to be how I finished but I was completely unable to stop sobbing, shaking, the finish loomed up and I pumped my fists and threw my arms into the air, as hard as I could, because I fucking did it, me, I did it on my own, I did it - I can do it by myself! as my friend Jen says - there are a lot of things in this world that can be taken away but this is not one of them, finally. Finally. And it is true that I am lucky enough to have a huge village of support in my life, some people that have made a huge difference in my life over the past few months, but I still have to be the one to go out and execute it. I've never done that before because I've never felt strong enough to do it on my own, I've never actually believed that I could. Until now.
Miles 21-26.2: 10:50, 10:40, 11:02 (IT band), 10:31, 10:20, 10:17 + whatever is left for Garmin gibberish = 26.2 miles, 4:31:52
Nutrition: 2 bottles of OSMO, 2 packets of Honey Stinger chews and oh god I literally have no idea.
140.6 miles: 12:08:19, 20/119 AG
There are a lot of things I've done well this year. Changes I've made, for shit's sake that is all I've talked about in relation to training and racing, change. And there's a lot of little crap that we fuss about as athletes, so many things that seem important in the fishbowl of our ironman existence. But here's the truth, when it came to racing, when it came to THIS ironman, none of those things mattered. It didn't matter how many hours of sleep I got the night before the race (three) or how many pounds heavier I was than IM Boulder (almost ten) or how much ice cream I ate two weeks before the race at the tail end of a meltdown (no comment). It didn't matter that I skipped my last long ride because my hormones were a Vitamix'd disaster, it didn't matter how many hours per week I trained or how many miles I ran at what heart rate, or that I was wearing shoes with only six miles on them, or raced in a kit that I have never trained in before or I dropped my bag of chews or forgot my lucky socks. What mattered was me. My demons. Hunting and eventually, slaughtering them - not with triumph, not with burning, or leaping, not walking through the fire but by quietly standing aside and letting my body execute what has been inside me all along. My day wasn't a success because I had race wheels or a pink aero helmet or rocked some random long run six weeks out or have one of those signs that says "DAYS SINCE SUGAR CONSUMED" hanging up in my brain with a triple-digit number next to it. My day was a success because I believed it could be. Finally. And people have been telling me that for years, this is not brand-new information, but until I knew it, I never could have known.
Courage or comfort. All this time, I thought I could have both. I thought if I trained hard enough, this would feel easy, and then I would be able to whack it out of the park. But that's not true, and understanding that was key for me. I wasn't confident going into this race. I know I've mentioned a few times that I've had a rocky fall and I came off IM Boulder feeling burned out and I had a few races that I scribbled meh next to in my brain once they were done. It's the complete opposite of how I went into Boulder, at the end of July I felt like I have never been so physically ready for an ironman, I felt shiny and tanned and strong and healthy. In the days before Arizona it was more like well let's just see how this goes down. None of that mattered either. I had some flat spots in the swim, plenty of flat spots on the bike, but all day, underneath, there was an itch to get to the run and find out what was there. And now I know.
Is there more? Well, that certainly has been the most frequently-asked question in the days that have passed since I crossed the finish line. I can answer it two ways. Do I think that I could put together a better race than this one, do I think that I could, as my husband so kindly put it, actually put together a single day that consists of a strong swim AND a strong bike AND a strong run instead of rotating through them one at a time? The answer to that is yes. I think there is plenty more, I think I could keep making progress at this distance, with time and effort and patience and strength. But the real question is whether I am willing, am I even interested in finding out? Right now, I don't know. This is the first time I've ever crossed the line and said, that's it, I am done with ironman and two-plus weeks later, I still feel slightly uncertain. I don't know what the future will bring for me, I know better than to say never on the internet but I do know that whatever happens, for a lot of reasons, 2015 is going to be a completely different year.
For right now, though, I feel at peace. I've thought often about the days before IM Boulder, and when I stood in my kitchen and told the poet, I honestly believe that if I keep failing at ironman, the chase will destroy me. And I've found ways to be content with the four times I've toed the line at this distance before, I've been able to pull positivity out of my race, I'm been able to see growth in myself as an athlete even if I have been left hungry and unfilled time after time. Now I have found success - the version of success unique to me and my path - and there is nothing more satisfying that that. Collapsing in the grass, shivering inside a space blanket and sobbing - that was so hard holy shit that was so hard - into the phone, shoveling down the pizza because I felt so light-headed that I thought I was going to pass out, quietly collecting all the detritus of the day and hobbling off home, still feeling protected, padded, in a bubble, separated from the athletes around me, moving silently, invisibly through the last few hours of the day just as I moved throughout the week before. My race needs no explanations, no qualifiers, no excuses. I believed I could. So I did.