Once upon a time, in 1982, a young man watched Wide World of Sports and saw a woman named Julie Moss lose control of her faculties on a road in Hawaii just a few yards from the finish line of the Ironman World Championships. She finished, she staggered, fell, walked, crawled, cried, refused help and she finished. The young man wondered why anyone would want to do that - no matter how cool it seemed. How unbelievable it was that a human could do all that in one day - a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and then a 26.2 mile run - and live to tell about it. Once a year, from that time, that young man watched the Ironman World Championships and was awed by the athletes that conquered "the toughest day in endurance sports."
And then one day it happened, the offhand comment by a stranger in a locker room planted a seed, that germinated and was harvested at a micro sprint triathlon a few months later. One thing led to another and then in 2009, I completed my first Ironman in Arizona. It has consumed me. I think of Ironman every day. Last year, I completed Ironman Florida - another 140.6 mile journey in less than 17 hours. I cannot begin to describe what the finish line feels like - if you have done it, you know you can't put it into words, and if you haven't done it, well, you wouldn't understand anyway.
Two weeks ago, I once again found myself in Tempe, AZ, a few days from starting my third Ironman. This one would be different. Due to a new job in July and a relocation in September, my training was almost non-existent. Not a good thing and certainly not recommended. You hear people talking about training 20-30 hours a week and you realize that you have hardly trained that much in total (not really but it was almost that bad). I knew what to expect, I have total respect for Ironman and I knew it was going to be a rough day. But I was going to give it a shot - I was going to work through the day and if I ran out of time - well, I would just have to deal with that. I didn't know how I would feel about it, but I knew disappointment would be an understatement. In the few days leading up to the race I attempted to stay calm, I knew I couldn't afford to expend any energy in any non-productive ways. There were four of use from the "You Are An Ironman" book there as well as Jacques Steinberg, the author, we did a panel on Friday afternoon that was a blast and then signed books in the merchandise tent for a few hours on Friday and a short time on Saturday.
And then I was awake at 2am on Sunday morning eating. Yep, breakfast at 2am, and not because you have been out partying - my party was on Sunday. So it was sports drink, banana and peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then back to bed and awake again at 4:45. Shower, dress, grab the final checklist and stuff and off we go. Body marking, airing the tires, filling the bottles all went well and then it was over the the little tree for Mark and I to meet up with Debbie and Mark's wife and daughter. Shortly thereafter, we squeezed ourselves into our wetsuits, kissed the girls goodbye and began to make our way to the swim start area. I wanted to get in the water in time to easily get out to the start area without rushing but I also didn't want to get in too early as the water was COLD. The report was low 50 degrees water. I believe the report.
BOOM! Off go the pros and then very quickly thereafter, BOOM!!! and we are swimming. Mark and I were right together at the start and that would be one of the few times I saw him that day. It was on....work the swim....bumping....smacking....hitting....getting hit....minor kicks...down the first leg I go. All the "washing machine" stuff is real, but it has never really been that bad for me. I am a pretty slow swimmer so maybe I am just behind it all very quickly and never really feel it, but there are a lot of people around and that can be a bit unnerving at first. Halfway through the swim I checked my watch and was pleased. Just a couple of minutes slower than the last two years. Just keep working and keep your heart rate down. The second half of the swim was long and uneventful and I think they kept moving the bridge further and further away from me. Finally I turn toward the steps and grind my way across Tempe Town Lake to be pulled from the lake by a great volunteer. I cannot say enough for the volunteers all day - and half the night - they were all great. Got the wetsuit stripped off and headed to the changing tent, pretty cold.
Changed clothes, had a great volunteer helping - it was steamy in the tent but I was still pretty cold. Headed out to get my bike, got rubbed down with some sunscreen, there's my bike - okay, let's see how this part goes. A quick aside here, the winds had been light all week - beautiful, Ironman weather really, but we had seen forecasts as low as 3 mph for the wind up to 34 mph for the wind. It seemed even the meteorologists didn't know what was coming. Out through the technical part in town I go, headed for the Beeline and whatever wind awaited. The wind actually was blowing in town (not a good sign in my experience) and when I got out to the Beeline Highway, the wind was in my face. I got up to the turnaround and came flying back down the slight hill with the wind back toward town feeling good about my ride so far but bad about my gut. Nausea is not a good thing on an Ironman day. Stomach squawking, gut spasms...shut up and ride. Nothing you can do about it...get through it. Making the turn around in town to start the second bike loop, I knew what was coming. The second loop is a tough mental loop. Gone is the excitement of loop one and the relief and exhilaration of loop 3 is a long way away...shut up and ride. Positive thoughts. Heading out of town I realize the wind is blowing harder, and from a different direction - we are going to climb out with the wind, and come back to town with the wind in our face, negating the slight downhill on the way back to town...shut up and ride. Made it to the turnaround in pretty good shape but the ride back to town was just tough. Very tough. Control the mind. There are a lot fewer people out here now, the neck and shoulders hurt, the seat hurts, the legs hurt...shut up and ride. I get back to the turn at the transition area and it takes EVERYTHING I have to turn that bike around and head back out. I know Ray is volunteering out on the Beeline at an aid station so maybe I will get to see him this loop, shouldn't be too much traffic. The wind is the same direction and a bit harder but not that bad - hey, there's Ray. He tells me later I did not look good, hey, I know that. I FINALLY get to the turnaround and head back to town, elated to be headed in but I know time is beginning to be a factor. I will make the bike cutoff but I am worrying about how much I will be able to run. I do NOT feel well. Shut up and ride...see how it goes. On the way back, Ray yells at me "are you alright, buddy?" My response, "I don't know." I get off the Beeline and then it seems to take forEVER to get through town. I make the turn onto Rio Salado, there is like, no one still out here - everyone is on the run - well, almost everyone...hey, Mike Reilly is calling someone an Ironman...I still have a marathon to run. Shut up and run...
I reach the dismount line, get off the bike, get my land legs back, give my bike to a great volunteer and go over to pick up my bike to run bag...there sure aren't many bags left - makes mine really easy to find. Jacques walks up and asks how I am, I say sick, he says "you don't look very good", "I don't feel very good" - he comes into the tent with me and we talk a few minutes as I change. I am beginning to feel a bit better...he takes my picture...and asks me if I am going to go out on the marathon...oh, yeah...I don't know what will happen, I don't know if I can run but I am doing this race in honor of Lyman, who is battling ALS, and I am also carrying a bead for Team Beads of Courage - for a kid who is undergoing cancer treatment - I cannot just quit - I will not just quit - I may run out of time but I will be moving when it happens.
Out I go, it is 10 minutes until 5, I have just over 7 hours - I start doing math and start walking. I am feeling better...what...yeah, I am feeling better. At the 1/2 mile mark is an aid station, I take in a few calories and a bit of water and I feel like I can run. Take it easy cowboy - a bit at a time here - run a bit, walk a bit, see how it goes. Then I am to the bridge, coming back on the other side of the lake...and out on the second part of the first loop. About 2:10 for the first loop...I am looking better on time, keep moving like that on the second loop and you will be able to walk the whole third loop if necessary. Go.... First part of the second loop goes well - hey look, there's Ray - we move together for a few minutes, laugh about how I looked on the bike and he tells me "you got this" - I know he is lying - I still have a lot of work to do and I am trying to put time in the bank for the third loop but the second part of this loop is tough...I am about 1/2 way through the marathon - it feels like I am further along but I am not, shut up and run...this loop will end and then you are on the last loop. Get it done. I grind through the rest of loop two. Mark is getting close to finishing...he is going to finish well under his goal. I feel good - happy for him and thinking I am in pretty good shape.
As I near the end of loop two, I come to the place where the volunteer says, left to finish, right for loops 1, 2 or 3....this is my last time to be forced to go right. I tell him I will see him in a couple of hours. He'll be here. I catch up with two ladies talking about the time, they are worried, it is their first Ironman, they are slowing, I tell them, "come with me, we will get there"...I am confident in my math and my pace. As long as nothing goes really wrong on this loop...shut up and move....we walk, we jog a bit to stretch our legs and we walk some more. We talk, one lady lost her husband to cancer 5 years ago, she needed something to fill her time...I thought a dog would have been an easier alternative but we talked about what he would be telling her right now....emotional...cool...we keep moving...coming over the bridge toward the park I see Debbie....ah, it has been too long..."how are you?" "It's going to be late, but I will make it, and then I am going to medical." We turn out of the park and head out for the last 5.5 miles...we are going to make this. We overtake another lady who joins our parade and I ask the ladies what their finish line celebration is going to be...they all say "we are finishing together" and I explain we are not...we are going one at a time...so they can OWN their finish line...not share it with anyone...it is THEIRS. I will cross last...I am going to roll the Blazeman Warrior roll and I also want to watch each of them become an Ironman. We grind through the back side, most of the party is over back there, people are cleaning up, time is waning, a few hard core volunteers still congratulate us and give us treats. I love volunteers...thanks to all. We see several people headed out to the back part of the loop and one of the ladies says "are they going to make it?" and the reality hits that the rest of these people have very little if any chance of finishing inside the limit. We move...and head over the bridge, about a mile from the finish. "Bryan, is it okay if I get emotional now?" as tears are rolling down her face. "yes"...this is one of the really cool moments of my life, watching this happen. We approach the cut off to the finish, I stop and hug the volunteer, the young man returns the hug. I explain we are going to veer left, go through the parking lot, a few steps on the street and a left turn into the finishing chute....slow down....SLOW DOWN....OWN IT....ENJOY....take it in - you will NEVER have another first Ironman finish line. I watch as each is proclaimed an Ironman...my smile is huge....fist bump for Mike Reilly...and then THE ROLL....a moment I have thought of for a year. I even got off the ground unaided. A great hug from Deb, then Bob and Mary Ann Blais were there and then Jacques was there - it's been quite a journey my friend. Pictures were taken and then I saw her, a newly forged Ironman, tears in her eyes, "I will never forget you." Me either.