I sat in the changing tent in the second transition. I had just finished the 110-mile bike section of the course. To say that it had been a bit rough was a massive understatement. Cycling is my weakest area anyways, but somehow, on this day, I hadn’t even been able to settle into my normal (slow but steady) rhythm. My legs lacked energy and then my gut decided to resist the replacement calories that were so crucial. I scraped and clawed my way back up the long climb from Pemberton and back into Whistler, all the while focused on the sole goal of completing the bike.
Well, now I had completed the bike. It took me all frickin’ day but I had done it before the cutoff. But now, instead of relishing that victory with what I truly felt like doing (which included sitting/laying for 20-minutes in a zombie-like state, followed by a brief walk back to the hotel, a cool shower, power nap, and lavish recovery dinner), it was time to peel myself off that hard plastic chair, get my butt out of the tent, and go run a marathon. Yes, literally 26.2-miles… Deep breath… Okay, several deep breaths…
We arrived in Whistler, BC on Thursday evening. Friday morning we had a 20-minute group swim at Alta Lake, as well as a brief individual bike ride, mostly as a tune-up to make sure there were no last minute mechanical issues with the bike. We also started the process of required prep before the race itself on Sunday, which included: packet pick-up, a mandatory race briefing, and picking up a few items we needed at the expo. Saturday we finished prepping our race bags, dropped them in their appropriate places, as well as checked in our bikes at T1 (the first transition) over at Alta Lake. According to the website there were about 1400 entrants for the full Ironman and about 1500 for the half, which ran concurrently. Each participant probably came with at least 1-2 family members or spectators. Put it all together: there were lots of people and lines everywhere and for everything. Fortunately we had planned our time accordingly and had nothing, other than race prep, on the agenda. It was also oddly fascinating to see the complex machine that comes with the Ironman brand name. They have certainly done their homework to determine how to organize and pull off a complicated major event (even if, as a first-timer, it took a long pre-race meeting and a couple reads through the manual to keep up with all the rules and regulations involved).
A quick aside, on Friday morning after our swim at the lake I unknowingly met and had a brief chat with the eventual female race winner, and one of the top long distance female triathletes in the world. I was looking for a place to sit and remove my wetsuit and saw a picnic table with a bag on the bench. I slid the gear over and sat down and a minute later a gal came to retrieve her gear. We had a brief, friendly exchange as I pointed out that I had moved her stuff. Then someone from our group excitedly came over and started chatting with her. She then attempted to take a selfie with her and I politely offered to take the photo. I then walked around the picnic table and Jeff whispered to me, “Is that someone famous?” In a surprising twist of social skills, he had picked up on the second gal’s fan-girl behavior, to which I assumed they had been pre-existing besties (actually, I just wasn’t paying that much attention). We then asked our coach, who informed us that this friendly gal was indeed Linsey Corbin, whose name I immediately recognized, but apparently did not know enough about to recognize face-to-face. The eventual female race winner had wished us luck for the race. What other sporting events do the recreational participants get to rub elbows with the professionals in the field? Though I were to finish hours behind, we get to compete on the same course, the same day, with the same crowds and under the same conditions as the elites in the sport. Just another fun reason to get into endurance events!
Both Jeff’s and my parent’s made the trek out from Florida and Seattle, respectively, to cheer us on. We met them for dinner Friday night, discussed the race course and plans for possible viewing spots as well as anticipated finishing ranges. My Aunt Sue and Tio Jack were also on the way up to Whistler to encourage us on race day. It meant a lot that we had so many people make the physical trip up to support us. Not only is it expensive to travel to and stay up in Whistler, but triathlons, especially long ones, are not spectator-friendly events. They’d have to wake up before dawn to trek out to the lake to see us start, then wait over an hour to get a glimpse of us as we exited the swim, then wait another hour or two and hope to get a glance as we flew by on the bike, then wait a few more hours for us to return to the Village to transition to the run, then another several hours until we finally finished. The longer the race, the more variable our estimated times for each section and the longer they’d potentially have to wait to hope to see us (Ironman does have an App to follow a specific racer’s progress but it turned out not to be the most reliable come race day). Spectating at an Ironman is a bit of an endurance event in and of itself.
Race morning we awoke around 4:15am, ate a light-to-moderate breakfast, double checked our remaining gear bags then lugged them, along with ourselves, over to Olympic Plaza (T2) to catch the athlete’s shuttle over to the start of the race. It was about a 15-minute bus ride on circuitous roads, but about a 2-mile walk from the Village, which was the route the spectators would have to travel if they wanted to see the start.
We arrived with ample time to stock our bikes with our nutrition, check our tire pressure, wait in line to use the facilities, and put on our wetsuits. I didn’t feel rushed but before I knew it they were counting down towards the start. I had wanted to hop in the water to test out my new goggles for leaks and clarity and have time to swap them for a back-up if they did not perform. I barely made it in the water before they ushered the participants back onto shore and into the starting corridor. The goggles seemed fine. Meanwhile, Jeff was adjacent to the starting area waiting for a family member to arrive and receive our morning clothing bags before entering the chute himself. Separated by a fence and a wall of participants, we communicated through shouts and gestures, and determined where to drop the bags so he could get ready for the race start. Our family must have had difficulty weaving through the walls of spectators to get to our designated pre-race meeting spot.
They announced the female pro athletes and fired a cannon to signify the start of the race. The age-groupers (us) had another ten minutes to go before our start. It was a rolling start, which started on shore and was ordered by estimated swim times with the fastest near the front. Once our cannon went off, the front would be released and the racers would funnel through a gate, entering a few swimmers at a time, before hitting the water in hopes of reducing the pandemonium of a mass start.
This was it. Months of preparation and training, years of admiring Ironman and dreaming of completing one of my own someday, I was actually standing at the starting line, ready to make that become a reality. I was oddly calm. As our cannon shot off and the age-groupers began to funnel into the water, I leaned over and gave Jeff a smooch. Then I caught a glimpse of my parents, who had arrived just in time, standing off to the side. I maneuvered my way through the crowd to get their attention and we waved to one another as I funneled towards the start of the race.
I passed through the gate, marking my official start time, then waded into the water before plopping down to start the 2.4-mile swim (I think the elite triathletes dive and dolphin kick their way in from shore, I did not perform anything nearly that efficient or graceful). I started out at a reasonable pace. I breathe comfortably every couple strokes, which means I’m always looking to the same side unless I consciously change, which I try to do every few minutes to avoid straining my neck repeatedly to the same side. I started out breathing to my right, my preferred side, but after a couple minutes changed to my left. Upon changing to my left, I noticed a small amount of water had leaked into my left goggle lens. It began to irritate my eye and I was afraid my contact lens might fall out. I switched back to breathing to my right and it didn’t bother me. I debated stopping to remove the water from the lens but, still being near the beginning of the race, I would have either gotten mowed over by participants behind me or had to swim a bit out of the way to clear waters, and even if I did fix it, I was not confident that it would not just leak right back in. Only a couple minutes into the race and I’d already modified my race plan: I decided to breathe to my right for the rest of the swim.
Small leak aside, these new goggles were crystal clear. Every several meters was a giant yellow, or orange on the return trip, sighting buoy and on the four corners of the route were even larger red triangular buoys. I did not have any significant concerns about losing sight of the course. I did have a healthy level of concern about being kicked or smacked in the face as triathletes at this level seemed to swim a bit more aggressively and were less fearful of contact. I didn’t mind bodying up to someone but did keep an eye out for the flailing feet and strong arms in the vicinity of my face.
Lap one went well, I made a slight detour around the fourth turn buoy mostly due to distraction. First off, I wanted to sight the route we’d be entering back onto shore for the next lap, and secondly, I was kind of inattentively following some guy in front of me. As a result, instead of making a direct 90-degree turn to start the second lap I angled more obtusely. By the time I looked up to sight again, instead of the yellow buoys being directly in front of me, they were a bit to the left. Dang it. Hard to tell if the sighting snafu cost me 30-seconds or 3-minutes, but given the difficulties in the ensuing legs of the race, it certainly did not make or break my race.
By lap two, I was beginning to feel a bit strained. I was swimming slightly faster, as well as longer than normal, but figured that was okay given that the remainder of the race would use mainly lower body muscles. It may have behooved me to have slowed down my pace a bit but I was still riding high from adrenaline: I’m doing an Ironman, I’m really doing this!
I exited the swim, flipped up my goggles, extricated my arms from my wetsuit, and was ushered over by a couple volunteers to sit down so they could assist in taking off my wetsuit. I’d never done a triathlon where there was assistance for this. Usually I jog over to my bike then awkwardly contort my torso and legs to squeeze out of the remainder of the suit, 50:50 on whether I would remain upright in the process. For this race, I sat down, and FOOSH, one volunteer pulled on each side, off flew my wetsuit, awesome! That was worth a good chunk of the race fee right there. Every race should have wetsuit strippers, I’m just sayin’. I stood up, they handed the suit back to me, I grabbed my bike gear bag and ran into the changing station at T1.
My heart was still racing as I slowly remembered what I was supposed to be doing. Okay, right… dry feet with towel, put on socks and bike shoes, apply generous amounts of Chamois Butt’r, put on helmet, sunglasses, use Porta Potty, go get bike. On the way to grab my bike, I saw my parents and Jeff’s dad cheering for me. I also heard over the intercom that “Scott Joyce” had exited the water. I presumed that Jeff had finished the swim before me.
I walked my bike out of transition, over some uneven ground and railroad tracks, and towards the mounting line, which was on a slight incline. I had been forewarned and had put my bike in an appropriate gear so that I wouldn’t lose momentum. Clip right foot in, pedal, clip left foot in. And I was off on the second, and by far longest, stretch of the race…
The first several miles of the bike I was focusing on slowing my heart rate down and taking in some nutrition to recover from the swim. My swim time was faster than I had anticipated, some of which could be attributed to the benefits of drafting behind other swimmers, some of which may have been adrenaline from finally participating in the big event and the rationalization that it didn’t matter if I went out hard in the swim because neither of the other events relied on upper body strength. Anyway, I’m not sure how much, if anything, my strong swim had to do with my poor performance on the bike.
The bike route headed North from the lake before making a right turn South onto the major highway (99). It then coursed several miles before taking a right onto Callaghan road, a steep incline, up to the former Olympic Village and ski jumps. I had ridden this section twice before and was ready for the climb. I rode slow and steady, focusing on regularly sipping my Gatorade Endurance and taking some sort of solid nutrition every 45-minutes or so. A ways into the ascent I saw Jeff fly down the other side of the road and we exchanged waves of encouragement. I was surprised to see him on the return route so soon and was happy to see him doing well, but also hoping he didn’t go out too quickly.
I summited the climb without undue distress and was looking forward to the descent. When people ask me which of the three disciplines (swimming, biking, running) is my favorite, my immediate non-answer is: not biking. But I suppose there is an exception: I love going downhill. The road was closed to vehicles, so you didn’t have to worry about staying on a narrow shoulder, although you did have to be aware of other cyclists, who were still rather dense on this section of the course. But seriously, going downhill is a blast. My inner child was yelling, “weeeeee” as my speed climbed towards 45-mph and I passed a number of riders on the descent back towards 99 (downhills are about the only time I ever pass anyone on the bike).
We then took a left onto Highway 99 which we would take back towards Whistler and on to Pemberton. This was my first inkling that the bike section might not go so well for me on that day. I was barely past a couple hours into the bike section, and my neck and shoulders began to complain. This is not unusual but usually happens towards the end of a ride, not less than 1/3rd of the way through. Maybe it was because I strained my neck more from only breathing in one direction during the swim? I began to consciously relax my neck and shoulders.
Approaching Whistler I began to look up more in anticipation of seeing my family. Sure enough, right near the turn-off for the Village I saw our faithful crew. They waved and shouted as they spotted me and I whizzed by. This encouraged me for a few minutes but then reality hit: I was not feeling well and I had a long way to go. My neck and shoulders ached, my stomach was beginning to resist my nutrition, and my legs, though always lacking in cycling power, were struggling to keep up their normal easy spinning.
My brain flipped into management mode: Break the course into pieces, manage those pieces. Past Whistler it’s a net downhill into Pemberton, there were a few sporadic uphills and flats but several nice descents, we like descents. But despite trying to put a manageable spin on things, there were definitely stretches where I could have maintained a more positive attitude. I was used to getting passed on the bike section of triathlons and am generally able to more or less ignore it and ride my own race. But this section of 99 was shared with the 70.3 participants, who, riding only half our distance, converged and multiplied the rate at which I was getting passed. This was not kind to the psyche on a day when I felt slower than my normal, slow self.
Eventually we hit the turnaround for the 70.3 riders and the cyclists thinned out significantly. At this point I was also nearing the out and back in Pemberton which was a long, flat stretch and I was mentally preparing to spin out my legs and regain my energy for the tough climb back to Whistler at the end of the course. I turned left into Pemberton and shortly thereafter passed a volunteer calling out my race number. This indicated I was likely approaching the Special Needs stop on the bike course, which we were told would be at mile 60. Looking down, my bike monitor said that we were only at mile 55. I turned the corner, and sure enough, there was a young girl, no older than 12, running out to meet me with my Special Needs bag. I stopped and replaced two of my four bottles (I had meant to replace 3 but had only drank 2 of them by this time), grabbed some Vaseline and a bite of cheese puffs (a last minute bag entry as I’ll explain later…) and sped off.
Confused, I looked again at my bike monitor and realized that it was frozen. The running time and distance had been stopped for at least the last 20-minutes. No wonder I was behind on my fluids at the exchange point. I had clearly zoned out to have not noticed that time was standing still and it was quite likely that instead of sipping every 5-minutes, like I had planned, that I had gone 25+ minutes without drinking, as well as missing my last solid food intake. Bravo Danielle.
Given that my stomach had already started objecting to the Gatorade drink before my lapse in attention, I knew that I shouldn’t try to quickly replace the nutrition I lost as this would almost guarantee distress to my gut. So I tried to settle back into my frequent sips and supplemented this with additional water. Unfortunately my gut was still reacting aversely to the Gatorade, so I increasingly cut the amount of Gatorade and replaced it with water and salt tablets (which I had never previously used but brought with me for just-in-case scenario). Meanwhile, my legs, which were supposed to be settling into a nice easy spin on the flats, were uncomfortable and conscious of every motion. This was not going as planned.
I saw Jeff as I was heading out towards the turnaround and he still looked strong, I estimated he was at least 45-minutes ahead of me at this point. Several minutes later I saw Scott who, unlike Jeff, looks just about like every other male triathlete competing and was a bit harder to spot. I eventually hit the turnaround myself and was somewhat relieved to see that there were, in fact, a few participants behind me as I made my way back towards the highway.
I remember during our training camp, that this stretch came easy. Though it looks flat, it’s really a slight downhill, and I remember catching my second wind and riding smoothly and easily back into Pemberton. Not on this day. I couldn’t get comfortable, I was popping between aero and upright positions. On a couple occasions I let go of the handlebars to sit upright and stretch my neck and shoulders. I’m typically comfortable riding for short stretches with no hands, but on one of these occasions I lost focus and my handlebars veered abruptly to the left. Fortunately I was able to grab them and adjust before falling, but it gave me quite a startle (but undoubtedly provided amusement to anyone behind me).
I eventually made it back to Pemberton and made the right turn back onto 99 towards Whistler. On a good day the upcoming section of the course was tough. This was not a good day. Though about 80% of the way through the bike course in distance, a significant amount of elevation gain awaited. This was not going to be pretty…
There is ample time to reflect in such a long race. I had long aspired to complete an Ironman, in my mind one of the ultimate tests of endurance and strength. Well, now I was in that moment and realized, perhaps I was more in love with that dream than the actual act of doing it. Because now I was doing it, and it sucked. I felt nauseous, my mouth salty and dry, there were nerve pains in my neck and shoulders, my legs were fatigued, and let’s not even talk about the sharp twinges from the pressure sores in my nether regions (oops, guess I just did). I did not feel strong. In fact, climbing those hills out of Pemberton, I felt overwhelming weak. Weak to the point where I mulled over a variety of scenarios which would result in an immediate end to this misery: An unfixable mechanical failure on the bike; a bike-crash resulting in an injury significant enough to pull me from the race, but not so significant that it would cause any long term difficulties. Even a broken collar-bone seemed like a small price to pay for an abrupt halt to hours of suffering that I knew would follow. Of course prospectively and retrospectively, I shuddered at the thought of anything pulling me from the race, but at times on the bike, in the moment, those thoughts certainly arose. The one thing that I did not, could not, consider, was stopping on my own accord. No, I was not going to let the dream die that way.
It was rough, and it definitely wasn’t pretty, but, believe it or not, I actually passed a few people on the climb up from Pemberton. Granted, the first couple were walking their bikes up a steep ascent, but I’ll take it. It was oddly reassuring to know that I was in fact pedaling slightly faster than a slow walk, and to know that there were other’s out there suffering just as much, if not more, than I was. Time was deceptive during the most challenging aspects of the climb. At moments it stood still, but in retrospect it passed more quickly than other, less difficult areas of the course. Perhaps because I was so intensely focused on each moment, each pedal stroke, to progress my slow-ass steadily up each hill. I wasn’t thinking back to the rest of my miserable ride or ahead to the run. A couple days before at the mandatory race meeting the race director gave us the phrase: don’t stop, don’t quit, don’t give up (#DSDQDG). I brushed it off as a corny, social-media-friendly, mantra. Well turns out, on the final climbs, with each pedal stroke I found myself chanting: don’t stop, don’t quit, don’t give up. The race director also said something about preparing for the unexpected and that your race will definitely not go as planned. Turns out the race director knew a thing or two about the race.
At the last aid station before the village, I stopped to get another water bottle then racked my bike to use a Porta Potty. I’m not sure why, seeing as I was dehydrated and didn’t have to pee. But in my semi-exhausted, not making the most sound decisions, state I decided it important to check my deficiency of urine to see just how dehydrated I was. Could I squeeze a bit out? Would it be brown? This was somehow important to know. Or, I just wanted an excuse to get off the bike for a couple minutes before the last stretch of riding. In retrospect, my lack of urgency at a few times during the race (yes, it took all day, but it was still a race) was a bit disappointing…
Anyhow, as I racked my bike for this totally unnecessary pit stop, a man stepped up beside me and calmly racked his bike next to mine. Next thing I knew, I looked over and he was lying spread eagle on his back on the ground as a volunteer rushed over. The supine man insisted he was okay, but his body did not seem to support this statement. He remained motionless, with the volunteer radioing to medical, as I exited the Porta Potty and remounted my bike. We signed ourselves up, and paid good money, to do this…
I eventually conquered the last of the climbs and true to form for the day, continued to struggle on the remaining flats and rollers back towards T2. Like an old beater sputtering along, my legs pedaled spastically as I made slow but gradual progress. As I neared Whistler, I could see part of the run course paralleling the road to my left. Prior to the start of the race, I had thought I would have been a few miles into the run as well at this point. I observed, not without a bit of jealousy, the runners out on the course. Were they on their first lap or second? They were much closer to being done than I was. I wish I were faster… I tried to push those idle thoughts aside and focus on an ever-approaching positive: I was about to finish the bike!
I was expecting a left off 99 and straight shot into T2, but apparently had not looked at the map very well, and followed the meandering course around multiple turns for the last mile or so until finally entering the transition area. Approaching the dismount line I looked up in anticipation of my family. I always appreciate seeing my family during races and it gives me an extra boost. But for some reason, for the first time I can recall, I felt like I really needed to see my family at this point. I’m not sure if it was to let them know that I was okay, since I had taken considerably longer than anticipated on the bike. Or if it was, in some sense, a way to let myself know that I was okay: that they were here for me and believed in me.
I continued to scan the crowds as I handed my bike off to a volunteer who seamlessly took it and racked it appropriately. Had I been less physically and emotionally distressed, I probably would have marveled at this smooth transition, seeing as all the other triathlons I’d ever done I had to run alongside my bike and rack it myself. At this point, I didn’t really care. A highly trained monkey could have taken my bike and I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye.
As I entered the transition area, I finally spotted my family; despite my abysmally slow time they had waited for me, there they were! I wanted to tell them how tough my experience had been on the bike and that I was sorry to make them wait so long. But they were behind a fence, and I still had a marathon to run. Besides, I knew that they didn’t care about my time or the perfect race and were just happy to be there for me. I soaked in their love and encouragements as I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the changing tent.
So there I sat. I had taken my time gulping down a couple cups of water hoping to rehydrate and settle my stomach. I had swapped my biking shoes for my running ones. I had my race belt and visor on. I looked physically ready but I sat there an extra couple minutes to mentally refocus. I could think of several, seemingly adequate reasons to panic: You’re about an hour behind your anticipated schedule. That bike just about did you in, how are you supposed to run a marathon? Even on fresh legs you aren’t prepared to run this marathon, you haven’t run more than 30-minutes at a time for the last 5-weeks because of nagging knee pain… But, in that moment, I worked to quell those excuses… I’m going to just start running and see what happens. The human body is capable of incredible things, as long as I can keep my mind calm and focused, my body will lead me home, time to see what she can do!
I exited the tent and think I made another unnecessary pit stop (I really can’t remember) before heading off at a trot. My legs really didn’t feel too bad at the start of the run, I think they were just happy to not be biking anymore. And I was going very slowly. My mental strategy was to run as much as I could, and I felt that I gave myself the best opportunity to accomplish this by starting out at a snail’s pace. A snail’s pace run was still faster than a walk. I had comforted myself on the bike by telling myself that once/if I completed the bike section I could walk the whole marathon and still finish. At times, I even convinced myself this was a viable option to avoid causing distress over the anticipation of many more hours of discomfort. But now, I was on the run and I knew that I wasn’t going to let myself tune out and walk the rest of the way.
I made several turns out of transition and joined the main loop of the course, which I would have to complete twice before finishing. As I swung onto the main loop I met up with a gal who looked a bit bewildered as to where I came from. She asked if I was on my second loop and I told her, no, unfortunately I had just started. She seemed confused and said she was on her first loop too. I paused (she was clearly on her second), then she responded, “Oh no, that’s right, I’m on my second…. I think I’m getting a little loopy.” Yes, perhaps, I thought to myself. Did she somehow forget the previous 13-miles she ran? I wished her luck (and a bit more mental clarity) as I trotted past.
The first part of the loop headed up to and around Lost Lake. There were no major hills on the course but several annoying rollers. As one steep, short hill approached, the participant in front of me started walking. Maybe this would be a good strategy as well, I thought: Walk the short hills and jog the rest (I quickly abandoned this strategy and moved to one I’ll explain in the next paragraph). I slowed to a decent walk. Of course, as soon as I stopped to walk, there sat my coach on the side of the trail. He asked how I was doing and I said something to the effect of, “the bike was rough” (although, surely he had been following my time and had already determined as much). He emphasized the importance of continuing to rehydrate on the run as I ambled past.
Yeah, so about replenishing on the run… Generally, I digest things easier on the bike than on the run. Seeing as my stomach was already upset from the bike, this was going to be interesting. I decided to walk through the aid stations, both as a way to conserve energy and give my stomach a better chance to settle and digest the copious fluids, sugars, and electrolytes that I had to continue to force-feed it. My replenishment strategy was such: Take water at every aid station, eat a Clif gel at every third, and supplement with salt tabs as needed. If I needed to slow down or make a pit stop to handle GI distress I would do so. It might be slow going and uncomfortable, but the alternative of replenishing less could be catastrophic meltdown (of which I was reminded of as I passed a side lying, minimally responsive man being attended to a few miles into the run).
As I finished the jaunt around Lost Lake and headed back towards the Village and a stretch that headed North paralleling 99, I caught my first glimpse of Jeff. He was jogging back to begin his second lap and was with a gal that we had met at our training camp. Barely 60-seconds later I passed Scott behind them. I was pleased that they were all still jogging, which was about as best that could be hoped for at this point in the race. They were jogging and none of them had the look of extreme misery on their faces yet, good sign.
The first several miles my legs felt surprisingly okay. My mind was focused on counting the aid stations to stay on my replenishment plan and ducking out every 3rd or 4th one to use a Porta Potty. I passed someone holding a sign that said, “Never trust a fart beyond this point” and I took that advice to heart in the execution of the rest of the race. My GI was giving me waves of unpredictable rumbling, especially several minutes after the ingestion of each gel. I determined that I’d rather add a few minutes onto my finish time than risk soiling myself. I’m not that hard core. Around the 10-mile mark my legs started asking me if we were done yet. Nope, 16-miles left. “Not even half-way?” they wistfully asked. Nope, quiet down.
In retrospect, I think I did a much better job of mentally preparing myself for pain on the run than on the bike. This was twofold: 1. I reasoned, the run, being the last of the three events, would require the most mental and physical focus because exhaustion would be highest at this point. I had actually mentally rehearsed scenarios of discomfort with running and how I would push through them. And 2. I had much more experience with running and confidence that I could endure extreme amounts of discomfort because I had, to various extents, done so in the past. If I were to participate in such an event again, I would definitely integrate these strategies into training and performance on the bike. Yes, part of my poor bike time was reflective of physical limitations, but I don’t want to deny any mental contributions.
I passed Jeff and co. again on my way back towards completing the first loop, they were a few miles into their second. At this point Scott was running with them as well, and we all waved at each other, seemingly pleased that we were all still moving along at a steady pace.
As I rounded out my first lap I approached the Run Special Needs stop. A young volunteer scurried over with my bag and I reached in and grabbed a caffeinated gel shot that I stuck in my shirt pocket as well as a small bag of pretzels. (I had hoped to use several of the caffeinated shots throughout the day as I’d discovered in training that caffeine often gave me a noticeable boost while working out. Unfortunately, it was also prone to irritate my stomach and seeing how that was an ongoing issue during the day I planned to save this shot for just the right time.) I opened the bag of pretzels, grabbed three or so, returned the rest, then headed out. The pretzels had been a late addition. The race director had recommended spending a couple bucks to throw in something rich or salty in the special needs bags. On the bike I had some cheesy puffs (I had wanted Pringles but couldn’t find a small container). On the run, I didn’t think I could digest something real fatty, so I chose pretzels. All the other race nutrition is sweet and after hours upon hours of replenishing with sweet and gooey products, something salty seemed like a brilliant idea.
Not a brilliant idea was trying to eat dry pretzels in the absence of water. For some reason I had assumed the special needs stops would be at an aid station and I could wash them down with a beverage. No such luck. I ran off carrying my three pretzels and one by one placed them in my mouth, willing my sparse supplies of saliva to kick in and help them down. It probably took me about a mile to eat those three pretzels, but I welcomed the distraction, and hoped the decelerated eating process would ease in their digestion.
By the next aid station, my stomach was once again rumbling. I grabbed a cup or two of water then headed into a Porta Potty. I popped out and decided to walk for another minute or so, in hopes of calming my GI a bit. I ended up next to a hobbling gentleman and we started chatting. He asked how I was doing and I told him my GI was not the happiest. He told me every time he started running his legs would cramp. Fun times. We chatted for a bit more and started jogging again, at which point his legs seized up about 100-yards in and I kept going. A few minutes later I caught up with a gal and asked about her experience with Ironmans. She had plenty and told me she was doing two or three more of their full events this season. Holy crap. I would definitely not be jogging right now if I were doing another one in a month or so. I had nothing else on the docket after this so I was prepared to destroy my muscles in the process…
Somewhere on the second lap around Lost Lake, I found myself in a bubble with no visible runners ahead or behind. It was quite peaceful, until I remembered that this area if frequently visited by black bears. By this time it was late evening, the perfect time for a black bear to wander down towards the lake… I scanned the trees to the right and left. What’s my bear pops out on the trail plan? I pondered for a few moments… nothing brilliant came to mind. Maybe a bear would not feel threatened by my sluggish state. But maybe it would feel more threatened by a zombie-like, lone human… At this point, I reasoned, if I was attacked or offed by a bear then clearly, this whole Ironman thing was not meant to be.
I completed the final portion around the lake and, thankfully, no highly improbable bear attacks occurred. As I returned towards the Village to start the long out and back for the last time, I could hear the announcer at the finish line, “Blankity Blank… You… are… an Ironman!” Tears began to well in my eyes. I was still several miles, and well over an hour, from finishing myself. But it was becoming a reality. There’s the finish. I was going to get there. They were going to call my name! Then I began to ponder what I would actually do at the finish line. Being that just the thought of hearing my name brought tears to my eyes, the likelihood of me sobbing like a little baby seemed a high probability. Was I going to be able to hold it together? Did I want to hold it together?
Soapbox alert: I get a bit indignant when someone learns about what an Ironman entails and immediately responds, “Oh, I could never do that.” I could understand, “I would never want to do that” or “I would never choose to do that,” fair enough. I’m not implying that everyone should go out and complete an Ironman. But, in my opinion, saying “I could never do that” is a bit of a cop-out. It’s like they’re somehow saying that people who complete an Ironman must have some innate strength or advantage that enables them to do it and that they lack this trait. This imagined disparity can then be used to explain away the point of even trying. Sometimes I think people would rather place someone on a pedestal and explain their accomplishments in that regard rather than admit to themselves that through hard work and perseverance they could achieve the same thing.
Let me give you a short list of some people who have completed an Ironman: Dick Hoyt, Rudy Garcia-Tolson, Charlie Plaskon, Sister Madona Buder, and Jon Blais. Dick has completed several full Ironmans, pushing, pulling and dragging his adult disabled son through the entire 140.6 miles. Rudy was born with a congenital abnormality, had both legs removed, and has completed his races wearing above knee prostheses. Charlie was born blind and was 69-years old when he completed his first Ironman. Sister Madona (aka The Iron Nun) didn’t start running until she was nearly 50, and finished her last Ironman at age 82. Jon Blais signed up and completed his Ironman after being afflicted with ALS. None of them started on a physical or genetic pedestal, in fact, they completed their events from points of significant disadvantage. There are countless more names of people who have completed an Ironman under incredible and seemingly impossible circumstances.
So please, humor me, and don’t trivialize words like never and can’t. Don’t sell yourself or the human spirit short. No, you don’t have to devote yourself to train for and complete an Ironman if that’s not a goal you deem worthy (but it is pretty awesome, if I say so myself). But the same traits of hard work, perseverance, and courage can be applied to infinite other life goals.
I began to tear up at the realization that I was going to complete this race because, to me, hearing my name announced as an Ironman would affirm that this divine human spirit, that motivates people to do amazing things, was alive in me as well.
Just after passing the Village and turning north, I passed Jeff for the last time. This time he was jogging at a slightly increased pace, and looking heavily strained. “You’re almost there!” I shouted, though I’m not sure if I said it aloud or merely in my mind. I then entered into the final stretch. I allowed myself to walk for a brief moment through each aid station as I grabbed a cup of water or gel. But resuming jogging after each break was getting progressively harder. After each walk interval it was like my body was fighting through rusty metal to get moving. I received an especially large cheer from some spectators after one such resumption and knew that I must be looking about as strained as I felt (I’ve learned that, generally, the worse you look or harder it seems like you’re working, the more cheers you get). I can usually work fairly hard without looking visibly strained but obviously, by this point, my effort level was exceeding my capacity for any semblance of outward tranquility.
On my return from the final out-and-back, a volunteer handed me a glow-stick necklace to wear until the finish. Crap, it was getting dark. Since I had anticipated finishing earlier I didn’t think I would be running after sundown and hadn’t planned accordingly. The cute little glow necklace was nice to locate me but did diddly-squat to illuminate my pathway and help me see things. It also made me feel like an idiot as I struggled to fit it over my visor and around my head before the elementary-aged volunteer showed me the joint in back to undo and reattach it around my neck.
As the miles wore on, every footstep felt more and more labored, yet oddly enough, my stomach began to finally settle down. Really stomach? This was a complete reversal of expectations, now would have been the time I would have expected distress. Whereas calm the previous, oh, I don’t know… Eight Frickin’ Hours… would have been nice. Oh well, better late than never. Now was not the time to reflect on previous parts of the race, now was the time to focus on the present…
The miles were ticking down. It was getting so painful to resume jogging after walking that it almost seemed easier to take out the walk breaks all together and just soldier through. I also may have watched motivational videos at some point in my training (hey, I spent several long sessions on an elliptical while recovering from my knee injury, what else are you going to do?) and suddenly one of the clips started playing through my head. It was the husky voice of a man who sounded like a charismatic reverend imploring me to “Run after your destiny. You can’t walk after your destiny. You can’t stroll after your destiny. You gotta run after your destiny. You gotta ruuuuuuuun!” Damn, that dude was zealous. I felt like if I kept walking at this point he was going to personally pop up and call me out, “You gotta ruuuuuuuuun!!!”
So, combo of fervent spoken earworm, and the adrenaline of only being a few miles from the finish, I suddenly caught my second wind (although, probably more like 52nd by this point in the race…). I then pulled out the secret weapon that I had been strategically waiting to use at mile 23 or 24: a highly caffeinated gel shot and BAM, I was like a slowly dying Mario that suddenly bumped his head on a brick and received star power. I started passing more people as I inched closer towards Whistler Village and the finish line. I spotted the 39-kilometer sign and sheepishly asked someone how many kilometers were in a marathon. I’d thought it was close to 40 and was a bit bummed when they replied 42.2. Okay, self pep talk time: about 5k left, I’d made it this far, I had my star power, I was good to go!
I neared the Village and approached a fairly large group of teenagers spectating to my right. They were politely cheering for individual runners when I heard one of them yell out, “Do the arm thing!” I heard it repeated a couple more times, not really comprehending what “the arm thing” meant. As I ran past, I spontaneously threw my arms up in victory formation and they absolutely exploded in enthusiastic cheers. I had no idea if that’s what they had meant, but their unbridled cheering felt amazing and spurred me on even faster towards the finish.
The last couple kilometers meandered around the Olympic plaza and sent me down a few unlit pathways that I hoped were well marked. I couldn’t always see a runner in front of me and there were a couple intersections where I called out to a nearby volunteer (or spectator) to confirm if I was going the right way. Normally this last stretch to a long race would have been tortuous but somehow, in my adrenaline infused/potentially near delirious state, I welcomed each new twist and turn with acceptance. I could just keep running forever, no biggie. Finally, I made a right turn towards the plaza that I thought was the final stretch before making a 180 up and over a bridge and away from the village once more. Again, instead of being irritated, it was like time and effort was suspended as I continued to run and soak in the applause of the now, much more dense pack of spectators. I took two more lefts and then, suddenly, I faced down the long finishers’ shoot.
I caught a runner ahead, who asked if I was going to sprint. I chuckled at the impossibility of actually sprinting, but it was clear that I was going at a faster pace than him and somehow conveyed as much. He graciously yielded. It went unspoken: after this much, we both wanted our moment at the finish.
And finally, here was this moment. Almost 15-hours from the start of the swim, hundreds of hours of training, years of pondering, what was supposed to happen in this moment? In that moment, the potentially sobbing Danielle was overcome by a joyous, celebratory Danielle. If I were alone, the weight of the accomplishment and exhaustion would have undoubtedly led to tears. But the rapturous feeling at the finish line was palpable and I couldn’t help but feed into it. Spectators lined the sides of the chute and they were cheering, cheering for me! Several stuck their hands out over the sides and I ran along the edge to complete their high-fives. A few strides from the line I did my interpretation of “the arm thing” as I heard, in a loud, booming voice, “Danielle Joyce… You… Are… An Ironman!”
I was somewhat shocked to end on such high after experiencing so many lows over the course of the day but hey, I’ll take it! I had finally done it. I had accomplished what I set out to achieve. Many elements of the day had gone much differently than expected. I responded well in some areas, and less well in others. But I kept moving forward (even after a couple of the unnecessary pit stops). And I progressively and painfully edged my way towards the finish-line. At times, it wasn’t very pretty. And it was far from perfect. But such is life. We have to persevere through the valleys to get to the mountaintops.
Thank you to everyone who has followed along with me on this journey. I hope, more than just learning more about me and triathlons, it has inspired you to believe in yourself and nourish your capabilities to strive towards challenging and worthy goals. #DSDQDG may be corny, but it is real folks. We are capable of doing amazing things!