I’ve been asked by a number of people “Why do an Ironman? That sounds crazy”. I think to best answer that question I need to take a step back and take a quick look at my life as a whole leading up to this decision. I will warn you in advance – this is quite a long post so make sure you’re comfortable… I promise they won’t all be like this but I want to first remind myself how far I’ve already come and second to give you some background about me and how I started this triathlon “journey”.
Until four years ago I had never done any sort of cardio or strength training ever (or did I have the desire to do it). I participated in gymnastics in elementary school and horseback riding in middle school and high school so I wasn’t inactive, but it never crossed my mind that people actually worked out for fun. Once I started college and then moved on to “adult life” I was pretty much inactive. Other than horseback riding I never really had much experience in sports and I had never set foot in a gym. None of my friends exercised and working out of any sort was just never something that I had ever considered. By the time I turned 30 I realized that sitting on the couch was not going to cut it and I needed to stop spending money on gym memberships I would never use.
I finally joined a gym that offered only one on one personal training and was begrudgingly introduced to the “joys” of strength training. And yes I am being sarcastic when I say joys. It was hard; I was lazy; it was expensive; I was always sore. I saw working out as a chore for a long time, but luckily on the day I joined I paid a boat load of money for a number of personal training sessions. I was pretty much stuck with it whether I wanted to go or not. As the weeks passed I started to feel a little stronger, a little less sore and a little less like dying at the end of each workout. I still considered a five minute leisurely walk on the treadmill a significant warm-up because only crazy people ran and only really insane people ran on treadmills. The only time I would actually get moving on the treadmill was when I had one of the trainers standing beside me pushing the buttons to increase the speed or the incline.
In the spring of 2008 one of the trainers convinced me I should sign up for a local 5k – The Diva Dash. To this day I’m still not sure how he managed to convince me to sign up or how he thought I would survive the race! I don’t think I had even managed to work my way up to running a mile on the treadmill yet and I’d never run outside. Running to me was something that was only done if you were running away from someone else. Why would you run basically in a circle to start and end at the same place for what seemed like no good reason at all?? I signed up for the race anyway and was scared out of my mind all morning. I remember my hands shaking while I tried to put the timing chip on my shoe. (This is where I should point out that I came from a really small town and I don’t even think I had ever watched any sort of road race, much less participate in one. I had no idea what to expect). My memory of the actual race is a little hazy and I’m chalking that up to the fact that my brain is blocking out the painful bits to save me from the trauma! What I do remember is that I walked A LOT of it, I never knew 3.1 miles could feel like such a long distance but there were people out on the course cheering for all of the racers. I don’t really remember crossing the finish line but I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt at the end. Running a 5k sounded like such a daunting distance back then but I actually made it across the finish line! And there were people I didn’t even know cheering for me and my accomplishment.
I had a sense of powerfulness and strength that I carried around with me for weeks after that race. During this time I was reading through a magazine from Trek that I found somewhere. In this magazine I saw something about a sprint distance triathlon. The run portion was a 5k and now that I knew I could drag myself across the finish line of a 5k I thought I was ready to tackle this triathlon. (Again I will point out that I had never even watched a triathlon at this point so I’m not really sure what was going through my mind). I brought the magazine to the the trainer that convinced me to do the 5k though and told him that I wanted to do a sprint triathlon next. That conversation went something like this:
Trainer: “Do you know how to swim?”
Me: “I don’t drown when I get in the water.”
Trainer: “Do you ride a bike?”
Me: “I did when I was a kid. Fifteen miles doesn’t sound that far.”
Trainer: “You’ll have to learn how to swim.”
Me: “Eww – that means I’ll have to wear a bathing suit.”
I didn’t know it at the time but this trainer was a triathlete and a swim coach at the local YMCA. He eventually talked me into signing up for the master’s swim class he taught and told me I had to go buy a bathing suit, cap and goggles. Finding a bathing suit was the worst (and I still hate it)!!
When I started swimming I looked ridiculous flailing around in the water (And I’m not just being self-deprecating here. I really was awful and I have video to prove it)! During this time I also got talked into signing up for a 1/4 marathon training program put on by by the local Fleet Feet store. I vividly remember that first run. It was cold and snowing. I didn’t know anyone in the group and I was terrified of being the slowest or having to walk (because now I was going to be part of a “running” group). I think that first run was supposed to be about two miles. I convinced myself before the run that I wasn’t going to walk and I didn’t! I was slow, but found that there were others who were my pace. I wanted to walk (and later found out that there were other who did too)! After the run the group of women with which I was running all met at the local Starbucks to warm up. Most of them had known each other from a No Boundaries 5k training program they had done previously. I remember feeling intimidated that they had all trained for a 5k already and was shy about trying to join their group. They were an amazing group of women though and welcomed me. As we continued with that training group we all got to know one another pretty well. We are different ages, come from different backgrounds, have different jobs and interests, but it’s amazing how suffering through some long, tough runs together can bond a group! Our 1/4 marathon training started in May of 2009… I had this same group of women over for dinner last night and we still plan runs together whenever possible.
I had the same sense of accomplishment the first time I swam a full length of the pool without stopping (25 yards), the first time I swam 50 yards, the first time I ran three miles without walking, the first time I ran five miles without walking (there were a lot of first time milestones back then). And I will pause here for just the briefest of moments to reflect back at just how terrifying a five-mile run sounded. That seemed to me like the pinnacle of my training – a five-mile run. Just thinking about being able to do that made me feel like a rock star at the time! With each new milestone distance I hit and each finish line crossed I felt both a sense of accomplishment and the desire to challenge myself even further. I would think to myself, If I can run 5 miles, let’s see if I can run 6…
I finished my first sprint distance triathlon in July of 2009 using a road bike that I borrowed from one of the running ladies. My parents and brother drove all the way out from NY to watch the race. Given my prior athletic endeavors (or lack thereof) I think they were a little dubious when I first announced I would do a triathlon but they have always been very supportive and encouraging.
And now we finally come to the whole purpose of this post… Why Tri? Why Ironman?
1) When I crossed the finish line of my sprint triathlon I was tired! I had just done an hour and forty-four minutes of physical activity. That was pretty much unheard of for me at that time. But I was still standing! After the race I thought about what I had accomplished and what it had taken to get me across the finish line. By this time my trainer had become a friend and I had found a group of women that I could run with and were all very supportive of each other. I kept thinking to myself “If I, the person who had never even watched any sort of race a year ago, can finish a triathlon what else can I do”? Since I started exercising I have always been amazed by what I can actually do if I put my mind to it. When I accomplish what once seemed like such a daunting task it motivates me to push myself just a little further to see what else I am capable of doing. I have now trained for, and finished, races of varying distances – 5k, 10k, 1/4 marathon, 1/2 marathon, sprint distance triathlon, a half-Ironman and a 90-mile bike race. An Ironman seems like the next big hurdle to for me to tackle. I know it will be a huge mental, emotional and physical undertaking and I’m finally ready (and excited) to push myself even further and see what my body and mind can really do. (And someone please remind me on those tough days that I said I was excited to push myself)!
2) The trainer that I was working with back in 2009 was doing Ironman Wisconsin in September of that year. His girlfriend was out of town so I helped him out by driving his family around to the different areas of the race. This was the first triathlon I had ever watched and my introduction to the world of Ironman distance triathlons. I had never seen so many spectators at an event like this. The races I had done certainly did not have this many fans. The pageantry of the entire day was amazing; if you’ve never watched the start of an Ironman race it really is worth getting up that early and getting out there. I had been to downtown Madison and Monona Terrace plenty of times since moving to WI, but I had never seen it so full of activity. On race morning the place is packed! Thousands of people, who are normally in bed at that hour, are out to cheer for and assist their friends, family and loved ones. Large groups of people are wearing matching shirts, carrying homemade signs, carrying cowbells and noise makers and some have even colored their hair to stand out in the crowd. There is constant movement and a nervous energy in the air but just before the athletes start swimming there is a quietness and calm that falls over the crowd. And when 2000 athletes all start swimming at the same time there is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over the crowd. Being at the top of Monona Terrace to watch the swim start is a great vantage point. I know it looks a little different being in the water or watching on the same level, but looking down on the action it looks like a very powerful and peaceful group moving through the water. They are all moving toward the same goal and they all just seem to glide through the water. The entire day is filled with the sound of people cheering and noise makers trying to get the attention of the athletes. It is an exciting day filled with amazing sights, sounds and inspiration.
I didn’t really know what to expect at the finish line either. I had seen the finish lines at the local races that I’ve done but the Ironman finish line just blew me away. Again, thousands of people, most likely the same group that was at the swim start 12+ hours ago, are cheering for each and every athlete that comes running down the chute. Some athletes are crying (usually tears of joy), some celebrate, some just hope to make it those last few steps, but each one has that look of accomplishment in their eyes. They have just reached a goal they have been working a year or longer to complete. Many of the spectators are also crying and feel that same sense of accomplishment for the athletes. Family members congratulate each other on the sidelines because they all survived the Ironman training together. Those who also become a little Ironman obsessed will also know the voice of Mike Reilly. As each finisher crosses the finish line he announces their name followed by “You are an Ironman”. It brings tears to my eyes just typing it now! That one sentence seems to be the perfect reward for all the hard work, sacrifice, tears, and joy that have been Ironman training. Once you cross that finish line and hear those four words it’s something that can never be taken away. You have worked your ass off to get across that finish line and it’s something most people wouldn’t even attempt. Everyone watching my friend that day was amazed by his accomplishment. I would guess that a majority of people watching the athletes cross the finish line thought that they were crazy for submitting their bodies to 12+ hours of swim, bike and run “fun”. I watched and knew that even if they were a little crazy, I wanted to be part of it. Most major goals that we accomplish in life are celebrated to a degree with a toast, a graduation party, a card or gift. When you cross the finish line of an Ironman there are thousands of people cheering, music is blaring, horns and bells are ringing… It’s a party for each person across that finish line. They are all racing for a different reason, but they are all getting the same party. From watching that first Ironman race I knew I wanted to be part of the magic of that day; I wanted to do something amazing; to across that finish line and hear Mike Reilly announce that I too was an Ironman!
3) I’ve always tended to gravitate toward activities that come easily to me. I was fairly good at horseback riding, school was pretty easy, getting my MBA required time and effort, but it wasn’t difficult. As with most people, I think we tend to shy away from activities that are difficult or challenge us too much. Swimming, biking and running have never been easy for me. I still struggle up hills on the bike; I still struggle on some of my 3 mile runs. It’s still easier for me to stay in bed on cold mornings or lay on the couch after a long day at work. There are a lot of days when it’s still hard for me both physically and mentally but despite all of that, I really do enjoy the sport of triathlon. It’s important to me that I stick with this even though it’s not easy. I’ll talk more about my half-Ironman race and my 90-mile bike race in future posts, but during both of those long days I remember thinking more than once that I was having fun. There is the lazy couch potato in me that still can’t believe I find 6 or 7 hours of physical activity enjoyable and that makes me smile even more when I’m out there enjoying myself!
4) And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also doing it for the tattoo. It’s a tradition among many Ironman finishers to get the Ironman logo (A.K.A. the M-dot) permanently emblazoned on your body somewhere. I think I’ve spent more time deciding where the tattoo should go and what it will look like then I spent deciding if I really wanted to train for this race. When I cross the finish line I know I will want a permanent reminder that I learned that I am physically, emotionally and mentally stronger than I once thought I was. And yes, I do want other people to know that I accomplished this amazing task. (I may just take out some ads in the newspaper, get a bull horn and announce it every where I go, and live in clothes that say I am an Ironman finisher) 🙂
If I learned one thing during my training for the half-Ironman it’s that getting to the finish line of an Ironman race will be just as hard, if not harder, for me mentally and emotionally as it will be for me physically. I have already learned so much about myself during my training. I’d like to think I’ve become a stronger person and I can only continue to improve. I will also admit that my secret dream is to trade in my muffin top for a six-pack, and actually look like the image of a triathlete that I have in my head, but if that doesn’t happen I’m trying to remember that my body (no matter how it looks) has already changed a great deal and has been strong enough to help me reach every goal I’ve set for it so far. For that I should be thankful…
As I get ready to post this “book” of a post I will promise you that not all posts will be this long, not all will be this introspective (although some of my close friends will tell you I do think A LOT), and not all will be positive (some days I really do hate getting out of bed and having to run and I may have to share that). I will try my hardest to keep up with this blog and that’s purely for selfish reasons… I want to be able to remember this training and how far I’ve come. My bad days tend to stick in my head much longer than my good workouts or milestone achievements; if I write about them here (and do a little bragging) I hope to be able to look back on the good days when I’m questioning why I continue with this training. I have never been one to celebrate my achievements. I tend to cross the finish line and immediately look toward the next goal. I’m trying to remember that what I’m doing is pretty great, especially for those of you that knew me before triathlon. I want to start celebrating my achievements and being proud of what I accomplished. I’ve realized that embracing my accomplishments helps me feel stronger and fuels my desire to reach my next goal. My next few posts will probably be about the races I’ve done this summer since I want to remember those feelings of pride and the sense of awe I have of myself so that I can pull from those experiences on the days where I do not feel as strong. I have also made great friends since I started to get off my butt and exercise. I still know relatively few people that understand my desire to go out for a 5-hour bike ride or run for 2 or 3 hours though. Don’t get me wrong, I have awesome friends who think what I’m doing is great, but they probably still think I’m pretty crazy! Through this blog maybe I will either connect with others who understand the craziness or convince others that I’m really not crazy.