It’s 4:30am and we are driving through Atlantic City to reach the transition area of Ironman Atlantic City 70.3. I leaned my tired head against the van window and observed vestiges of Saturday nightlife stumbling out of dark cavernous enclaves. Out of one of these bars, I caught a glimpse of two women and a man hobbling out; the women were on opposite sides of the man, one hand holding onto him for support and the other hand clutching their high heeled shoes. They shuffled their bare feet along the sidewalk as intoxication hung their heads at awkward angles. It was a momentary observation, but surprisingly, this trio would make an appearance during a pivotal moment in my race.
By the time we reached Bader Field at 4:45am, there was a line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot. The line moved quickly and the hard working traffic guides directed us to our spot. This is my 9th Ironman 70.3 race – I have an entire routine in place when I am setting up during transition. After all the items were set up, I met up with my boyfriend Seth, and headed to my usual, dreaded pre-race visit to the port-a-potty. Darkness and the inability to see anything really softens the trauma of the port-a-potty squat.
Ahhh…the swim. There were over 2,000 athletes standing or sitting on the grass, peeing in their wetsuits, waiting for the start. This is the moment where I start scanning the crowds for The Person. I look around to find someone who looks like they have more challenges than me; either by age or some sort of visible disability — and I draw inspiration from The Person. When I have moments in the race where I am struggling — I channel the memory of their image and remember The Person and think — well, if she/he who has more challenges than me is out here doing it, I have no excuses and need to toughen up.
There was a delay to the start as there had been signs of lightning earlier in the morning. Then, the national anthem is sung and off we go. The self-seeded rolling start is brilliant. With the self-seeded start according to expected swim time finish, we are in a group of coed swimmers that swim similar in speed and it is a much gentler swim.
I like to take my time when I start my swim. I enter slowly and start with slow strokes to avoid having a panic attack and to find my swim zone. My swim zone is always so far out left that I practically bump into the kayakers. I also like to get close to them in case some unexpected unknown medical condition that hasn’t been previously diagnosed decides to pop up and I go under — I feel like they can see me better than if I were in the mix. It’s paranoia at its best, but it works for me and has gotten me through 9 half Ironman swims and one full Ironman swim. It means I swim an extra couple hundred meters but IDGAF.
However, at the T3 buoy, the current pulled me in close to the buoy and I got caught in a logjam of swimmers. We were all clumped together and struggled to move forward. The minute I found an opening and swam into it – I got a huge kick in my face by a male swimmer moving forward of me. I had to stop and tread water to catch my breath and check that all my teeth were in tact. As I commenced the second half, I swam into several jellyfish. Ugh. My hands brushed against them, I felt them drift across my face and I did my best to tell myself it was only seaweed. Only seaweed. That thing that just rubbed against my mouth. Please god. Let it only be seaweed.
When I turned at the last buoy and made the straight shot towards the exit ramp, there was nothing more thrilling in life than seeing that swim exit gate. Nothing. Gratitude, elation, #blessed are all thoughts pouring into my head when I saw that exit ramp. Right after the exit ramp, I laid down and let the young strong volunteer grab my wetsuit with his gloved hands as he ripped it off me in one second. In any other scenario, it would’ve been awkward to have someone I didn’t know, rip my outer layer of clothing off of me as I lay lifeless, staring up at him, on a wet concrete ground. But in triathlon, all sense of what is normal in the world was thrown out when the alarm clock was set for a 3am wakeup this morning.
Seth met up with me at the bike exit and we rode out together. The rain started coming down hard and during the first 10 miles, I struggled. I wanted to cry. I wanted to pull over to the side of the road, lay down my bike, and have a full fledged meltdown. The “closed course” meant that there were cones separating us from the cars speeding past us on rainy wet roads. I was cold, wet, out of shape and I did not want ride in the rain anymore. I was in a bad state. Then, I remembered The Person from the swim start. I brought their image to my mind and thought about how they are currently dealing with more struggles than me and that this is something I can do. I pushed back the tears, became extra vigilant to steer clear of the water filled potholes and water bottles strewn across the road and focused only on the next 5 miles. Nothing else, just the next 5 miles.
In most of my races, I am a solid back-of-the-packer, so I have my cut-off times calculations down to a science. I know the cutoff times on all segments and am constantly doing math to make sure I’m averaging speed that will put me ahead of the cutoff time. Seth, on the other hand, doesn’t know “cutoff life” and he started to panic and worry that we weren’t going fast enough. I had to reassure him that in spite of our slow speed and hundreds of people passing us by, we were good to cross the finish before cutoff. After the first 10 miles were under our belt, the skies started to clear and the sun came out. The last 46 miles were significantly easier than the first 10. And for the last lap of the 2.5 lap course, it was beautiful. All the fast, aggressive cyclists were done and we were left with the partyintheback. Everyone left cycling on the course rode at careful speeds, there was plenty of space for everyone and it was actually fun. Seth and I rode at an average speed of 15.5 – 16mph at this point and we enjoyed our time together.
And now, the 13.1 mile “run”. It was more like alternating between death march and shuffle jog with the hot burning sun bearing down on us. Seth stayed with me and encouraged me to go faster. I put a stop to that positive encouragement at mile 3. I was red faced, exhausted and all I could do was focus on the next 0.20 mile. And I needed silence, not positivity. So, we went the next 10 miles with very few words. But, I felt supported with him by my side and just feeling his presence next to me was all I needed to keep pushing forward. Again, Seth started to panic about the slow pace we were going — especially when he saw a man in his 70s pass us at one point. I had to reassure him that part of my ability to finish 9 half ironman races lies in my talent in doing “cutoff math” even in states of extreme duress. After each mile, I knew the average pace I had to keep up in order to cross the line before the trucks come to pluck you off the course. However, about halfway through the run, I was having a tough time and contemplated sitting down and quitting.
My god, why do I constantly subject myself to this kind of inhuman pain, every race? And that’s when the trio from this morning made the appearance — the 3 partygoers I witnessed this morning, limping out of a bar at 4am. That image of them appeared in my head and I thought about the choices we have in life. We can choose the easy path or the path of difficulty that will afford us the opportunity to get to know ourselves better, to connect with our souls. As difficult as the race is, I am surrounded by people who inspire me, who chose to go through this pain. This is my therapy. There was a time in my life when I got tired of seeing a therapist and talking about my problems — don’t get me wrong, I think self exploration with the assistance of a qualified professional is a very important thing to do — but I was at the point in life where I needed more than just talking. I wanted to live life more fully, to experience more. Ironman races offered me the full spectrum of the human experience that I was looking for – focus, fear, community, humor and catharsis are all part of Ironman training and racing.
When I finish a race, I feel as if I had gone through a thorough cleansing of sorts – the hard work, the sweat, the refusal to quit in the face of adversity and being surrounded by so many dedicated hard working athletes provide the positive energy shift for my spiritual, physical and emotional states. In my past, I have never gone out to a bar and come back late at night and thought — oh I feel so much better for doing that. After an Ironman race, I might be exhausted, but along with the soreness is a sense of pride, accomplishment and experiencing life more fully that could never be served up at a bar at 4am. I hope to see you on the course some day. Seth and I crossed the finish together — the first time I have ever finished with someone by my side. I felt so much love. Next up: Ironman Arizona!