When you decide to take on something as daunting (at least for me) as an Ironman race, you tend to try and read as much as you can in order to try and prepare yourself as best as possible. I have done a lot of reading about other people’s experiences in an effort to try and prepare myself both mentally and physically for the challenges that I will face in November when I jump into the water in Arizona for the full Ironman. Last Saturday was the midpoint of my journey, where I completed a half-Ironman in St. George, and what I learned was something very different than I expected and nothing I ever read in anyone else’s race recap. I can honestly say that I learned more about myself and my perspectives on the world in those 7 plus hours than I ever expected. I have mentioned previously that for me, running, biking and swimming have a calming effect on me that allows my irrational, anxiety prone brain to slow down and my rational mind to take over. This, combined with the emotional highs and lows that I experienced over those 7 plus hours allowed me to crystalize perspectives in a number of areas. I’ve tried to capture these in my own recap of the day.
As my father drove my brother-in-law and I around St. George on Friday to make final preparations for the race the next day, he said something that struck me, “The thing about a race like this is there is no cheating. It’s not like a team sport where if you haven’t put in the time you can get away with it, or ride the coat tails of others. It’s just you vs. the course.” That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. A wave of doubt and anxiety ran through my brain immediately. I could rely on no one to get me through the day and I would have to rely on nothing more than what I did or didn’t do for the six previous months leading up to the race. Had I done enough? Would my knee hold up? Would the difficulty of the course and the heat of the day get to me? What would I do if I couldn’t finish? What would I say to people? Those thoughts ran throughout my head for the rest of the day, throughout the night and into the next morning.
Saturday morning was a blur and to this moment I still am not sure how I got from my hotel room to the lake. My first real recollection is getting on the shuttle bus and realizing that I had forgotten my water bottles. A brief wave of panic set in before I calmed myself down with the realization that the first aid station was only 10 miles into the bike. As I prepared my transition area, slid my wetsuit on and headed for the water, a brief moment of calm came over me. It was brief. As the freezing water filled my wetsuit as I waded into Sand Hallow Reservoir, I could feel every doubt I had ever had about the race hit me all at once. I shifted my mind to what I knew I could control, focusing on my form and breathing, and let go of everything else. I made it out of the water with no troubles whatsoever and had a very comfortable swim. I transitioned to the bike, excited to see my wife, kids, parents and family that I knew would be waiting for me at the first aid station, about 10 miles in. As I made my way to the corner where they all were, my spirits were immediately buoyed as they cheered me on. As I passed them, I couldn’t wait to see them again, another 15 miles up the road. The next 15 miles passed quickly and it wasn’t long before I saw them again, just as excited and supportive as before. I felt confident and happy. It would be the last time until I crossed.
Shortly after I left my family, my stomach began to churn and I began to feel extremely nauseous. The cool of the early morning had worn off and I was beginning to feel my body slowly heat up and the hills that I had climbed in the first 25 miles had left my legs burning. I still had 31 miles to go on the bike (including a four mile climb up Snow Canyon) and a half-marathon to run and I felt awful. I began to focus on how horrible I felt and how much I still had to go. “There is no way I am going to be able to run a half marathon feeling like this.” “How am I even going to make it up the climb up Snow Canyon?” “I should have paid more attention to nutrition during my training?” I felt dejected and hopeless. My pace on the bike slowed and my legs began to feel even worse. It was in that moment that I thought about what I wrote in my post right before the race. I committed to giving my best for eight and a half hours no matter what the outcome was. No matter how horrible I felt or how much it hurt, I would not let my doubts and fears get in the way of meeting the commitment I had made to myself. I knew the suffering that I would feel for the remaining five hours would be nothing compared to how I would feel if I quit and let my doubts get the best of me. I would carry that pain for the rest of my life and I knew it.
I also knew that the family was waiting at the base of Snow Canyon and couldn’t wait to see my wife’s face. It always gives me strength and helps calm me down and I would need all the strength I could get as I began the brutal four mile ascent. I could see her up ahead, standing ahead of the rest of my family, waiting for me. She knew. She always knows. We made eye contact and I could feel my spirits immediately rise. Just like every challenge I had ever faced since we met, she gave me the look that meant she believed in me, she was proud of me, and she had no doubt that I would be successful. As I passed my daughter and son my spirits continued to grow as I could see their excitement, Victoria frantically taking pictures to mark to occasion and Ian cheering in that “laid back” way of his. Neither of them with any resentment or anger over all the time I had to spend training, but supporting me because they knew it was important to me. My children inspire me every day, and certainly did on that day. My parents, who have always supported and sacrificed for every single dream or goal I have ever had no matter how big or small, were still there for me, my biggest fans, even at the age of 36.
There is not much I can say about the climb other than it was physically painful. I was able to shut my brain off, grit my teeth and suffer. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. The good news is, it ends. And the canyon did end. As I made the right turn at the end of the climb, I knew that the rest of the bike was mostly all downhill. I enjoyed it, knowing that the next thirteen miles of the run would test me. I began praying for my knee to hold up.
As I rode into the transition area to begin the run, I was tired but I had prepared myself mentally to suffer. I was on the last event and the end was near if I could just power though. My only concern was my knee. Most of the first 6.5 miles were uphill, so I knew that they would be the most difficult, but once I made the turn from home it was all downhill, both literally and figuratively. I stopped at each aid station, putting ice anywhere on my body that would hold it, drinking, and thanking the amazing, enthusiastic volunteers that had come out to help. I kept waiting for the smallest twinge in my knee to signal an oncoming inflammation. I neared the turn and the whole crew was there waiting for me, again, having spent their entire day in the hot sun following me around so that they could catch a quick glimpse of me and give me a word of support. “The next time we see you will be at the finish!” I had made the turn, it was all downhill from here.
My legs were spent, so even the final 6.5 downhill miles were challenging, but nothing like the first. I spent the time reflecting on what I was about to accomplish and everyone that had helped me along the way; everyone from my wife, children and parents to my friends and colleagues at work that sent messages offering words of encouragement. In a way my Dad was right, I had to physically conquer the course on my own and I couldn’t cheat it. But I had an entire support team of hundreds of people that helped me every step of the way, in ways both big and small.
As I made the final turn that led to the finish line, the street was lined with people on both sides. I could see the finish line and every tired muscle gained new strength as I began to pick up the pace for a strong finish. In hindsight, I should have slowed down and taken it all in. It was an amazing moment. In the finishing chute a hundred arms attached to beaming kids reached out for high fives and I swerved from one side to the other, slapping as many as I could. Up ahead I could see, right in the front, my amazing support crew, ready to welcome me home.
I crossed the line and had a few moments alone to reflect before my family was able to catch up with me. What went through my mind in that moment I will not share, but it was a moment of clarity and satisfaction that I have rarely experienced.
A few thoughts on the day…
Doubts are toxic and debilitating. None of the doubts I had before or during the race helped me to accomplish anything. In fact, they only made things more difficult and stressful and impacted my ability to perform. Accepting the pain and hardships and focusing on what I could control made all the difference.
You can only be the best “you” that you can be. I got passed by a LOT of folks during the race. I mean A LOT. In the past that would have really bothered me and been a huge hit to my self- esteem. If I would have focused on that, I would have spent the race justifying why they were faster. “They probably have more time to train.” “ That guy has a nicer bike.” Instead, I focused on doing the best that I could on that day. Nope, when I finished I definitely wasn’t the fastest, but I may have been the happiest.
My family is the BEST. Not only have they supported me through all of the training, they’ve encouraged it every step of the way. Instead of being annoyed by my time away, my wife has worked, even when it has added to her already crazy schedule and workload. My kids have been my greatest fans at every step of the way. I am blessed to have their love and support. I have also been blessed by amazing parents who have always been, and continue to be, models of selfless dedication, love and commitment to their children and one another. I would not be the man I am today without them. My sisters have always been so much more than sisters; they have been my best friends since birth. During many challenging times in my life, they have been there to lift me up.
To this day I cannot explain why I felt no pain in my knee. Only one week prior to the race I ran six miles and I began to feel extreme pain at mile four. It may have been that I rested the knee for a week, or that my therapy finally kicked in just in time. It may have been all or any one of those things, but I just feel like there was something else. We all need to form our own opinions about what that “something else” is or isn’t but for me, I know a whole lot of people were praying for me that day.