This past weekend I did something crazy. I woke up on a Sunday morning at 3:30 am, had breakfast, put on a bathing suit, and went down to the banks of the Ohio River and jumped in. No I am not suicidal I am just one of those ridiculous people who signed up for Ironman Louisville. For any of us who do not know what an Ironman is it is a triathlon that consists of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. 8 months ago my boyfriend Sean, my friend Tyler and I all had paid the unbelievably expensive entry fee for the privilege of putting our bodies through 140.6 miles of blood, sweat, and chicken broth (you cringe, but it is the best tasting thing ever after 13 plus hours of being out on the course in the heat.)
I realize I have not posted a blog post in a LONG time so I’ll catch you up on what’s been happening with me. Was able to cycle off my beta blockers and began training during the winter like a maniac after signing up for ironman. Was in fantastic shape and looking forward to race season as spring rolled around but then, of course life happened. In April I developed a stress fracture in my leg and had to give up running for the year. I also lost both my grandfather and my aunt that month within two weeks of each other. In July I was diagnosed with skull base tumor number 4 and began another cycle of beta blocker therapy. This made training for Ironman even more difficult. So let’s just say as I stood in line on race morning that I was less than confident in my ability to finish in the 17 hour cut off time. Sean had reassured me that after the swim which I would most likely finish ahead of the boys he would find me out on the course and that we would finish together. I had my doubts that he would stick to this promise because I would need to walk the marathon. Yes walk. All 26.2 miles of it. Sean is a runner. I knew he had the best of intentions but that would be like asking me to dog paddle the swim. I was not sure if he would feel so committed to walking next to me after being out on the course in the Kentucky August heat for more than 13 hours.
We watched the sun come up over the river (which looked almost clean and not filled with sewage in the morning light). Both the National Anthem and My Old Kentucky Home were sung and then the trumpet signaled the call to the post. The canon fired and it was time to jump off the dock into the murkiness of the Ohio.
I took the plunge first with the boys right behind me and once I jumped there was no turning back. The water was total chaos. Filled with swimmers who were not comfortable with open water, thrashing arms, people clinging to kayaks like survivors of the titanic. As soon as I came up for air I got kicked in the face, knocking my goggles off. Only to have them knocked off again a few moments later by a stray arm that was fighting the water trying to get the swimmer to the next buoy. I headed for the inside of the pack closest to the island which was in the center of the river and made kind of a swimming lane that corralled all the swimmers and tried not to think about the fact that most fish, snakes, and any other critters were probably hanging out over there away from the throng of people in the middle of the lane. I lengthened out my stroke and tried to conserve energy while dodging in, out, and over top of other swimmers. When I got out past the island I did a few strokes with my head up to try and see the turn around buoy. The sun was in my eyes so I was having trouble siting the straightest line to get there. From behind me I heard, “the buoy’s over there babe” and wouldn’t you know it there was Sean looking fresh as a daisy! That little guppy had drafted my feet and used me as a lineman to take him through the swim lane. Drafting is legal and it was a smart thing to do but I won’t lie I was a little jealous. I was tired! I’d catch my breath soon though because once we turned the buoy we were in the current. You could float and the river would carry you in as long as you pointed yourself in the right direction. I flew like Michael Phelps for the last 2/3’s of the swim! I emerged from that nasty water singing Jethro Tull’s “AquaLung” in my head, waved hi to my parents who were on the sidelines and checked the clock. 2.4 in under an hour, I was ahead of schedule! Sean was right behind me so I trotted down to the transition area, grabbed my bag and headed in to the tent to change into my bike clothes. It took me awhile to get changed and then I took a restroom break so I figured Sean was already out there. I grabbed my bike and was off to pedal 112 through horse country. There was not a moment to lose, Ironman has a cutoff time of 17 hours which starts at 7am and ends at 12. I was like Cinderella at the ball. At the stroke of midnight the spell would be broken.
The thing about Ironman is that while you are racing the clock, trying to get in before midnight you find yourself out on the course with quite a bit of time on your hands. Lots of pedaling which for me turned in to lots of thinking. As the miles, and the hills, rolled by I found myself thinking about 2012. About biopsies and angiograms and skull base tumors and surgeries. About doctors and nurses and bosses and insurance agents. About stress, and sadness, and heartbreak and fear. I thought about all that I had been through and all that I had lost. When I really took the time to think about all the things that had changed in my life in just two years I became almost overwhelmed. The life that I live today is a totally different life than the one I was a part of two years earlier. I reflected on the fact that change was possible. But that change had not come without loss. In order to grow into the person that I am now I had had to let go of the person that I once was. That had been hard, just like the miles I was pedaling now.
Around mile 60 there was Sean in his American flag kit! He had finally caught up to me and we finished the bike together. As the bike turned into the run the day turned into night. Sean and I walked the marathon because I was still recovering from a stress fracture and as a result we were out on the course with many other Cinderellas who were simply trying to get in by midnight. I saw so many people around me struggling with the heat, fatigue, and some their own inner demons. All of us were fighting for the will to keep moving forward. All of us were hurting. But all of us were still in it. Many of us with smiles on our faces and still others offering words of encouragement to others on the course. The people out on the course at night do their best to make the most of it. You have to be positive or the pavement and the heat will force you to the ground. It was out there in the dark that I realized that it’s not the load that will break you down, it’s how you choose to carry it. You can stand tall, grin and bear it, or you can slouch over and groan and complain. Neither gets you there any faster but it’s a choice. One pill makes you taller, the other makes you smaller. My friend Mary dubs the people who are out on the Ironman course after the sun goes down “Survivors” and I realized that this was where I belonged. I was not someone who coasted through life with minimal resistance arriving at the finish line early and with my hair done, clothes clean and pressed, I was someone who slid in vicariously, knees scraped up, and clothes all muddy.
Come what may.
At mile 25 of the run you can begin to see the city and feel that the finish line is within reach. It was during this last mile that I thought about recovery and strength, family and friends, starting a new career and leaving the negative things in my life behind, I thought about the man who had said he would walk beside me and kept his word, I thought about the future, I thought about how far I had come.
and I’m not talking about the 140.6 😉
As Sean and I ran the last two blocks together and crossed the finish line hand in hand I smiled wider than I believe I ever have. I heard the announcer say those magic words,
“YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
the words that I had fantasized about since I was a teenager and watched coverage of Kona on TV.
We stayed to watch the clock count down to midnight and watch the other Cinderellas sneak in before curfew. But what was truly amazing about that night was not my new identity as an “Ironman” but the realization of who I am and will always be: