I have always loved individual sports. Swimming. Running. Wrestling. I found some success in events that pitted me not only against others, but also against myself. I guess I never really had the patience for sitting around on the sidelines and waiting my turn. My attention span is shorter than a lot of other people, and I also have difficulty focusing on one sport; I get bored pretty easily. And for a number of years I gave up sport entirely. I got lazy. And fat.
Fast forward 20 years or so. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I knew I had to do something, so I started walking. After some pounds had disappeared, and my stamina had started rising, I started riding my bike. Before long my energy level increased. But I needed a goal to press toward for motivation. I looked for an event that would challenge me and I found it in the Tour de Cure, a 100-mile bike ride to raise money for the American Diabetes Association.
I remember feeling pretty strong for the first 50 or 60 miles. I was confident. When I got to around mile 90 I felt as though I could do no more. My legs felt like cement pillars, hard and heavy. And yet I continued to press on despite my suffering. The final miles seemed to go on forever. But I kept my pace steady, determined that neither the course nor the miles were going to get the best of me. I endured rain, hills and wet cobblestones before I reached the finish. But I reached the finish.
In the days that followed I reflected on the event. I found my self image had improved. I was beginning to see that I wasn’t a failure. I wasn’t unable to see things through. I wasn’t a quitter! I found out that my body is capable of so much more than my mind ever imagined. I decided that I was going to try triathlon (Go big or go home, right?).
I hadn’t swam in over 30 years. My body rebelled but adapted. I hadn’t run in over 20 years. My body rebelled but adapted. I was feeling better than ever when a bike crash put me on the sidelines for months with a shattered collarbone. A plate, 7 screws, and what seemed like a lifetime in recovery severely challenged my resolve.
It’s not easy to hold tightly to a goal when you are physically unable to work toward it. But, it was during this downtime that I signed up for my first triathlon, an half Ironman event. A 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and a half marathon run (13.1 miles) back to back in 8-1/2 hours or less. I needed a goal to get me back on track and I wasn’t going to set the bar low.
Triathlon has several different lengths. Among them there’s a Sprint distance, an Olympic distance, the half-Ironman and the Ironman. The former two, in my mind, are all-out races. The distances are relatively easy. The latter two are endurance events. They are about pushing yourself and your perceived boundaries. They are about pushing your body to its limit and then blowing past it. They are as much mind game as sport. The distances are difficult enough when done individually, but to put all three together and back-to-back is a genuine test of one’s mettle.
I felt reasonably confident going into the event. I had put in the training. Average temperatures are usually in the low 70’s in the first part of June. I was prepared for that. What I got was 95° without a merciful cloud in the sky.
My first problems came about 25 miles into the bike. Even though I was constantly hydrating and fueling my quads started to cramp. They weren’t bad on the flats, but there were very few flats. This course is particularly hilly. It occurred to me that I had a long way to go with not a lot of energy left in my tank.
It’s at moments like these that the endurance athlete has to dig deep to find a reason to push through the pain and exhaustion. I prayed, “God, if it’s my day to go, I’m okay with that. But please let me cross the finish line first!” Although I was unlikely in danger of dying, that would have to come before I quit.
I was still having a lot of problems with the cramps and some trouble breathing when I started the run. And I couldn’t run very far before having to walk. But walk I would. I knew that if I stopped my forward progress I would likely not be able to start again. I walked the better part of the 13.1 miles. I managed to run the last 200-300 meters into the finish line, though, and I even managed a smile.
Without a doubt, this was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally. In the last 4-1/2 hours hardly a minute passed that I didn’t have a thought of quitting. But I just flicked the little “me” in the red suit off of my weary shoulder and renewed my commitment to carry on.
They say that in order for muscles to grow and strengthen they need to be challenged. In fact our efforts create small tears in the muscle fibers, and when they heal, they heal stronger. While physically exhausted, the greatest strain of the race was mental. In fact, I felt as though I had torn my brain to shreds! But a funny thing happened. I became a stronger person. My excuses for not chasing my dreams fell by the wayside. I started making small positive changes in my lifestyle. Now I’m getting up 2 hours earlier to journal, read and write. I’m researching my first book. And I’m training for a full Ironman.
Ironman made me realize that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
That’s why I love Ironman.