I spent the first 10 minutes of my very first Ironman clinging to that big red buoy just a short 100 yards from the shore in which I entered. (See above) And I know exactly how I looked.
I had no delusions of gradeur going into this. I knew it would be hard. I am merely an amateur with no other goal than to simply finish in the time allowed. But this?!
I can just see myself floating there, my face wide-eyed and troubled with the overwhelm of it all, desperately looking around at all the badass athletes swimming, swimming, swimming past me, toward their dream.
I'd been chasing the Ironman dream for 5 years. It’s been said that, "When you want something, the whole universe conspires to make it happen."I remember with vivid detail the night I sat in a friend's living room, criss-cross-applesauce in her green arm chair, declaring to myself, to my closest friends, and to the video camera in front of me that, "I want to be an Ironman."
Don't get me wrong. I worked hard to get to that moment. I joined a team. Went to team practices. Went to more team practices. Practiced on my own. Did a sprint triathlon. Then did an olympic triathlon in which the swim was cancelled, which meant I'd have to do it again because that totally doesn't count, does it? I continued doing this for another two years. I kept training. I did another sprint, and another oly and more sprints and another oly.
THEN a 70.3 that felt so good it was ridiculous! (Thank you Coach Carrie!)
I'd never committed to anything in my life, but I committed myself to triathlon. And I attribute part of it to that one night I told the universe what I wanted.
So there I was, doing my first ever Ironman, clinging for my dear life, to the very first buoy I could doggy paddle to, while gasping, wildly, for air that I just could not breathe in fast enough.
How is this happening right now?!
It had been three years since my last triathlon. In the space between, I hadababyitsaboy. At his birth we discovered he had a congenital heart defect and had open-heart surgery six months later. All of this is another story, but needless to say, my world changed direction very quickly.
When I decided to come back to the sport in early 2016, the impulsive "go big or go home" dreamer half of me eagerly clicked "submit", committing my more rational "what the cuss did I just do?" half of me to swimming, biking, then running 140.6 miles of coastal North Carolina in just 17 hours (which ended up only being 84.6 miles in 14? hours, but again, that’s another story).
As wild and capricious as registering for IMNC might’ve seemed, the truth is, I had some unfinished business to take care of. I was supposed to have raced the Ironman Texas in 2014, with some really great team mates of mine, but I chickened out. A month or two before the big day, self-doubt barged its way into my brain, set up camp and just would not leave. So I bailed. I deferred to the Ironman Louisville race in October of that same year.
But as life would have it, I pulled my hamstring while trying to water ski over the 4th of July weekend. That, coupled with a huge, move from Texas to Virginia made it super easy for me to DNS at Louisville. Here's some good, yet seemingly obvious advice: never try a new sport while training for any big race.
But luckily, this time around there were no injuries. Training for North Carolina had gone well enough despite not having my team, my tribe, to help ease the emotional oxymoron that is training for an Ironman. I followed a good training plan, pretty much. Not as much as I could have or should have. But just enough. Enough to know that I’d make the bike cutoff, and probably the run cutoff. The swim was the lone question mark. I knew I could swim 2.4 miles. But I didn’t know if I could swim it fast enough. Add to that not having the chance this season to train in open water, and never ever having trained in the ocean, home to my Trinity of open water fears.
SALT. WAVES. And SHARKS.
I knew that come race morning I’d have to face those challenges, along with the fact that I didn’t even really know if I could make the swim cutoff. Yet despite all this, I had a lot of confidence that I could do it. I have an uncanny ability to, at times, be grossly over confident.
On race morning I did not get anxious until right after they played the Star Spangled Banner. The gun went off and I walked toward the start.
That moment stood dizzyingly still. Everything a blur. I couldn’t hear anything, but I could hear everything. Then…
I crossed the start line. I think that’s when I started hyperventilating. I walked a few steps out where the drop off forced me to begin swimming.
So then I was swimming and hyperventilating.
Which just means that I was flailing.
I managed to flail myself to the red buoy, grabbed hold of the anchor ropes and did not let go. And there I was. Trying to catch my breath and fighting back tears, I took off my goggles.
A good many thoughts went through my mind as I hung there, clinging, the minutes ticking by. But in those miserably pathetic 10 minutes of thought, there was also a little magic. Magic that I didn’t understand until days after Mike Reilly announced me an Ironman.
- It’s better to look pathetic while chasing dreams, than it is to look perfectly fine while not. I know how ridiculous I looked. I realized there might’ve been some volunteer or participant who rolled their eyes at the chubby lady who, through their lens, did not train properly enough to even go 100 yards. But you know what? I showed up. I was there. In the water. Trying. In the end, it doesn’t matter what other people think of you, it’s what you think of yourself that will consume you.
- Listen to your body while training so you can make good choices on race day. During the first 20 minutes of the Ironman I couldn’t believe how tight my wet suit felt. It felt so tight that there were many times that I considered taking it off. But I didn’t. I trained in that very wet suit for the past 3 months and I knew that it could not have suddenly become too tight. I likely felt that way because I was panicked.
- Your mind is the strongest muscle in your whole body. I don’t care how much you can lift or bench press or squat. If your mind isn’t strong enough to pull you out of the depths of panic and doubt while you cling to a red buoy, the strength of your leg muscles won’t matter.
- Bad training days are actually good training days. I used to really hate my bad training days. But what I’ve discovered about those bad training days is that they’re not really bad training days at all. They’re just days in which, instead of getting stronger in your swim, your bike or your run, you strengthen your mental muscle. And come race day, it’s the muscle that will matter the most.
- Don’t give up too soon. The thought of quitting must’ve went through my mind hundreds of times while I was hugging that buoy. I could have chosen to listen to that voice any one of those hundreds of times. But then I wouldn’t have known if I could have done it. And I certainly would not have been called an Ironman later that evening.
- Know your WHY. Why are you doing this? What is driving you? For me, each time the thought “I should quit” went through my mind, almost simultaneously the thought of my husband, or my kids, or my family and friends, or my coach, or that time on my bestie’s couch, or a montage of all of my training days, would also. Each of them a reminder of why I was out there. And why I should not quit.
- Live in the moment and for that moment. After I was able to catch my breath, I felt like I could swim again. So I did. In that moment, I knew I could swim a few strokes. And in the next moment, I felt like I could do a few more. I didn't think about 2 miles, just each moment and each stroke until I finally fell into my rhythm. I finished the swim by breaking it down, one moment at a time, one stroke at a time.
- Doing hard things makes you better at doing hard things. The Ironman is hard. But training for the Ironman should be harder. If I hadn’t pushed myself while training, I wouldn’t have known what more I had left to give beyond a certain point. I wouldn’t have been able to ask myself for more. To put my goggles back on. To try that one more stroke that led to more strokes that led to finishing the swim before the cutoff.
- It’s okay to take a minute or two, or ten. Even when you think you cannot possibly go on, if you give yourself a minute, you might find a little extra “I can” hiding in the shadows of the “I can’t.”
- Give yourself a break. Sometimes those 10 miserably pathetic minutes can magically transform into 10 singularly triumphant ones.