Saturday, September 17, 2016

Race Report: Ironman Wisconsin, 2016

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." --T.S. Eliot

This is a tale of two races, a decade apart.

I always knew I wanted one more shot. I just wasn't sure if I'd ever get it.  So when my friend Andy wanted to do an Ironman I put out the feelers to Matt and he didn't say no said yes so I went for it.

The second time you do an Ironman is a little like the second time you head to the hospital for labor. You know what you're in for this time. It's going to hurt. A LOT. But the end is pretty unreal and definitely worth it.

Training for an Ironman while working full time with two kids at 39 is a lot different than training for an Ironman while working full time at 29. For one thing, RECOVERY. Like, wow.  It made a huge difference this time and I would feel the workouts for days. Luckily I had Coach Emily to keep me on track and help me walk the fine line between wrecking myself and getting in high volume. I trained as most people juggling too many things do--seemingly never enough and at odd times. Running laps around the pool and park while the kids were at swim team; finishing my long rides at the baseball fields so I could watch Jackson play, swimming while my kids played on the diving boards.  But I got almost everything in, and I felt super fit going into the race.

I knew, however, how difficult this bike course was. Because I had been there before. And I knew that there could really not be a bike course more perfectly set up for my weaknesses.  But, the timing of this race was perfect for school and life so I sucked it up, because, Ironman. It's not supposed to be easy, anyway. And call me a brand snob, but I wanted the next (only? last?) full I'd do to be an Ironman-branded event. They throw one hell of a party, and I wanted in.

So Ironman Wisconsin it was.

Most normal people arrived Thursday but I only get three personal days for the ENTIRE school year and I just couldn't see using two of them in the third week of I left after school Friday. Here's how it went: caught a one-way plane to O'Hare. Graded APUSH essays on the development of identity in the colonial era. Bought a bus ticket from Chicago to Madison. Graded more APUSH essays until I was carsick and felt like hurling.  Arrived in Madison at 8pm CST or 9pm EST. Collapsed at Rob's house.  Matt and the kids drove after school Friday and stayed in Chicago to sleep, then met me in Madison the next day.

Oh, forgot to mention we bought a house and had to clean our entire house so we could show it while we were gone. The week before Ironman was the most exhausting week I can remember. I was looking forward to Ironman SO I COULD RELAX. That's kind of sad, but it's the truth. (Also, we sold our house while I was on the bike course--so it worked!)

Spending time with Rob's freaking adorable family was so fun. I miss my Evotri teammates and it was so good to see him!  He kept me laughing and relatively calm while I got my copious amounts of bags together.

My family grabbed dinner that night and I was so energized from having all of them there--it meant so much to me that they all drove out so far just for one day!

Race morning I got up, tried to eat as much as I could (nervous, so it was tough), and then we headed up to the race. The weather literally could not have been more perfect.  It was a far cry from 2006, which you can read about here, here, and here.  I was excited to get it all started.

Except I was terrified.

See I knew, really knew, what I was in for this time. The lows would be really low. I knew it would hurt, I knew I'd doubt myself, I knew there would be times when I wanted to quit. But I also knew how amazing that finish would be.  I knew that if I could finish, then I would show my kids that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

I wanted to get to the end so badly but as I stood there and tears welled up in my eyes, I knew that in Ironman, there are no guarantees.  You just have to trust yourself to deal with what the day gives you and hope you are strong enough.

It was scary. I said bye to Rob and tried to bat away a few tears that snuck out.

I headed to the water, said a prayer, heard Mike Reilly say, "Have the best day of your life!" and then heard the cannon go off.

The day had begun.

The trip to the first buoy was chaos, but this time I was prepared. I got kicked, punched, my butt got grabbed (what was that all about?! STOP IT PEOPLE), my goggles got punched. I stopped often to let people go by who were way too aggressive.  I "moo-ed" at the first buoy, because that's what you do.  As I turned to head across the LONG way of the lake, I got in a little more of a rhythm, but was still pretty constantly surrounded by feet and arms.  It seemed like the lake was never ever going to end and in my head, I was thinking I wasn't going to go any faster than 2006 and it was going to make me mad but oh well.  I expected to see something around 1:30 when I finally got to the shore. Blarg. I was gonna be mad.

Except I didn't see 1:30. I saw a 1:18!
This is me, happy with a triathlon swim, for the first time in 15 years

I have never been so happy in a triathlon swim before! I am a notorious underachiever in open water swims and for the first time ever, I felt like I did what I actually could do.  I saw Rob and all the wetsuit peelers and I screamed "ROB I ACTUALLY HAD A GOOD SWIM" mostly because I was completely shocked!

Ran up the helix in my Wonder Woman swimsuit which got lots of cheers and laughs!  T1 was full of amazing volunteers who helped me get all my clothes ready, shoes on, and nutrition in order.  Those volunteers in Wisconsin are UNBELIEVABLE people. I'm telling you, Ironman may be the evil empire, but they sure know how to throw a race.

All smiles on the bike as I started!
Getting out of downtown was a little dicey as we had to go through a city parkway with hairpin turns, bumps, and a LOT of people.  I was so afraid of getting busted for drafting that I took it super easy on the first 14 or so miles until we got to the "loop."  This loop would be two times, but due to construction, a little different....there was this hill called "Barlow" that everyone was nervously mumbling about.  I know I trained on mostly flat terrain, because, life, but I did get some hills in and knew I made progress on them.  What was this Barlow? I asked Rob, would I know it when I got there?

HA! I remember asking the nurse in my prenatal appointments if I'd "know what a contraction was" when it happened.


Barlow was every bit as tough as everyone said it would be, but the crowd support was amazing. I made it up about 1/3 of the way, but when I saw I was making literally no progress compared to the approximately 75% of people around me who were walking it, I said a few bad words and then said "NOT WORTH IT" out loud, got off my bike, and walked it. And did not feel one iota of remorse.  It was barely mile 40, and I knew it would be a long day.

The first loop was tough, but I took it very very easy.  I came back to Verona and saw my family, and got a hit of energy just from knowing they were there for me. It made the doubt temporarily subside.
Little shadows, waiting for me

 Because there was some doubt creeping in a little; I know what I can do on flatter courses and let's just say it's a good 4-5 mph faster than I was doing on this course.  It got me down. I thought, "maybe I should have done Rev3 and been done with it."  But, I chose this. I wanted another shot. This course was not about my fastest time ever, this was about a journey ten years in the making. This was my choice; this was about my family, this was about showing myself how far I have come and what I can do, and showing my children that you can do impossible things if you put your mind to it. It was never supposed to be easy, but the relentlessness of the hills and my own doubt started to really get to me.

Miles 70-95 were a dark place. First, there was a creepy clown hiding in a remote field that honked a horn and menacingly said, "Go faster."

Actually, that was hilarious. Thank you, creepy soul-stealing, serial-killer clown.

Other than that, I was full of doubt and pain and cursing the seemingly endless false-flat back to Mt. Horeb.  I started to hate everything: every breeze, every hill, every person there to cheer on the course (how dare they tell me I'm doing good! stop it, you nice people!) every cow, every piece of cheese I've ever encountered, and the entire damn state of Wisconsin.

Around mile 80 or so, I knew I needed to shift my focus. I said, out loud, "GET OVER YOURSELF" and focused on my dear friends Jeff and Mallory, Mike and Amy, and Sam and her mom Ginny, who are dealing with MUCH more than a stupid hilly bike course. It helped...a lot. I said a few prayers, I reminded myself I chose this pain and so many others don't get to choose it.

Back to Verona and turning off the loop to head home made me smile. I was going to be okay; the worst was over. There were a few rollers on the way back in and I was, quite frankly, out of steam. I thought "just keep moving forward" and knew my split would be slow--over 7 hours--which made me respect 29-year-old me for doing the course in the pouring rain at 8:14. Suddenly, I'm less ashamed about that.

Can I ride a course faster? Of course. But not this one. That was the best I could possibly do to set myself up for a marathon--yikes, a MARATHON--and I came into T2 smiling to more amazing volunteers and Matt and my brother Mike snapping a really inspiring picture of me:

Yeah, thanks guys. :)

This run. This run is two loops and you are almost NEVER alone. The weather was absolutely perfect and led to college kids hanging out on their front yards, massive waves of people along State Street, and Zac Efron. Yes, apparently according to my students, his brother was doing the race and I must have ran right by him, so now we're best friends. It's legit. I checked.

As I started the run, I heard Robby yelling numbers out at Run Special Needs, and as he saw me he stopped to say into the megaphone, "Sara awesome." It was a great way to start the run!  Thanks, bro.

The first ten miles were tough. I was moving but hurting, and I seemed to keep slowing down. There's a few hills on campus that are just tough when you're already depleted, and I walked them and every aid station. But I felt like my stomach was okay...I was just running out of steam. Right at Mile 10 I walked an aid station and this nice girl said to me as I must have looked completely dejected, "I know it doesn't feel like it, but you're doing amazing."  I nodded weakly and said "thanks." And then I saw my ENTIRE family--just at the moment I really needed to:
Fact: hugs from your Dad make Ironman less painful

high five to Emmy

The girl in the red was the one who had just tried to cheer me up. Thanks, girl in the red. :)
It was the boost I needed. I shuffled past Robby who gave me another shout-out at special needs, turned around right at the finish line, and knew I'd be back. Did a little math in my head and decided I wanted to see a 13 at the end.  That was going to keep me going.

So the weird thing is that although my splits show me slowing down, I FELT better and better. Food was staying down although it was getting harder to eat and drink, and I could keep moving.  Lots of people around me were running out of steam and I didn't seem to be, and that felt good.  There was still steam, it was just a tiny bit. Enough that I could smile, though.

Right around mile 18 or 19 I saw Beth--she was walking so I told her to keep it up--she was injured so badly last spring that even doing this Ironman was in jeopardy, so for her to finish it as strong as she did is simply amazing. So proud of my friend!

As I hit the last 10K, I entered the "barf zone" where I felt like I was most assuredly going to hurl.  It was a matter of time. So I tried to take small sips of water and gatorade, but Gu actually made me I switched to potato chips. WHAT? I don't even like potato chips. But they sounded AMAZING and it worked, so there you go.

Miles 21-25 were a blur. I just kept shuffling and hoping that I didn't barf. It was getting dark and the sunset over the lake was beautiful. I kept thinking of one of my favorite Hamilton lyrics, "how lucky we are to be alive right now!" while I "ran" slash shuffled.  It was slow, but I was making progress and every step got me closer to the end.

The last mile I had a big stupid grin on my face. My watch had died sometime on the bike so I had no idea what I was doing pace-wise, but I felt like it had to be good enough for a 13.  I turned the corner around the capitol, and I got tears in my eyes. I was going to do it. I'm a mom of two kids who works full time and I have no business even attempting something like this, but because of love and support---NOT talent, because I honestly don't have much of that--love and support and my unwillingness to ever quit, I was going to do it. Again.

The tears that threatened to come out as I rounded the capitol stopped and were instantly replaced by laughing. I could not stop laughing, and I put my hands in the air, high fived everyone I could, and just screamed like a complete lunatic.

I got to be in this finish line again--a place that I can barely put into words, but I tried ten years ago here:

"I have never felt more alive in my 29 short years than I did in those 20 seconds.

I felt so aware of being. Of seeing light and feeling wet and hearing laughter. Of feeling my feet ache and loving my husband and adoring my friends and feeling unwavering gratitude for my parents. The smell of rain and mud and sweat all around me...the squish of my shoes on my feet, the feel of my hands holding my head in disbelief, that this body--this collection of bones and nerves and cells could do this."

It's something like that.

I saw Matt and I yelled to him, saw a 13--13:54.21, to be exact, let out a huge yell, and hit the dab for Jackson.

I still can't put into words why I wanted to do this or what I feel. In many ways, I'm more proud of this finish than any other race I have ever attempted. In other ways, I'm even more proud of myself for finishing this course 10 years ago in pouring rain.

This is like the biggest smile I have possibly created, ever
I broke every single conventional rule of training and did this my way, on my own terms. And for that to work and for me to take 98 minutes off my time is something that I will be forever proud of.  But I think the journey of getting to the start line can't be underestimated or under-appreciated. I picked a course that timed up with my career--and Matt's--so I wouldn't sacrifice what I need (and want) to do in that classroom. I started almost all of my rides at the sunrise and leaving from my house, so I wouldn't miss time with my family. I missed training on hills like I probably definitely should have, but I got to see some amazing sunrises; I got to swim while the sun came up, too.  My children watched me train all summer and I think they are old enough to really remember this...and I hope I set a good example for them of aiming high and daring to do something a little crazy.
My little bro!
Robby and I look like we were just crowned Homecoming King and Queen of Spandex High School
I am forever thankful and grateful to my family for their support, without which I would never, ever have been able to do this.  This was not me; it was them, and that's the truth.

Gratitude isn't possibly a word that's big enough for my amazing coach, Emily. I started working with Emily when I was about 8 months post-baby with Jackson...and since then, it's official: I have had every single PR in every. single. distance.... 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, sprint triathlon, olympic triathlon, half ironman, and now, full Ironman.  Thank you, Emily, for always knowing exactly what to say and how to help me fit this love of triathlon into one busy life. Your advice and your friendship means so much to me.

I am grateful to dedicate my race to my friends battling cancer and to the Village Project, where I was able to raise over $1,000 to help support families in my community as they struggle with something much harder than I can imagine or than I felt on that course.

It was an epic, perfect, painful, love-filled day, and I could not have asked for a better Ironman.


Robyn said...

Congratulations, and thanks for the awesome race report! It was a thrill to check back to your blog and see this post. You give this 41-year-old endurance athlete hope that the best is yet to come :-)

Carolina John said...

Fantastic! Congratulations again Ironman! You made the best out of what the course gave you on that day, and that's all we can hope for. Bask in the glow of another big finish line.

and fwiw, I've done both branded and non-branded iron distance races and sort of prefer the non-branded. Rev3 CP is a beast of a swim, but all of the support is still there. If you want to do another one, try both - come on down to Wilmington for Ironman North Carolina. The WTC just bought out Beach 2 Battleship so the same (flat, fast for you) course with the same 3000 racers and 4000 volunteers, just under the brand.