So this happened on Sunday. 🙂
As I’m sure you could tell from my last post about the FREAK OUT I had when my bike flew off my car three freakin’ days before the race, I had some serious anxiety about this event.
Completing a Half Ironman was a goal I set for myself earlier this year because, quite frankly, it scared the hell out of me. I had already completed a few sprint and Olympic distance triathlons (which are typically less than a mile swim, around 12-22 miles on the bike, and a 3-6 mile run), but I knew this was a whole different animal and I would be in WAY over my head.
Nevertheless…I really wanted to do it. It’s sort of my thing — after all, I didn’t just sign up for my first marathon, I registered for the Dopey Challenge (the race challenge in Disney World where you run a 5K, 10K, half, and full marathon in the same long weekend). So I bit the bullet and signed up in May and basically killed myself all summer training for this race. And here’s my (looong) recap. 🙂
Todd and I arrived at Bader Field in Atlantic City first thing on Saturday morning (um…to get my hands on some sweet IRONMAN merch, not gonna lie…).
After a few hours at the expo shopping, racking my bike, and attending an athlete briefing on the many, many rules of an IRONMAN-branded race (for example, if you come within six bike lengths of another cyclist, you have to go sit in time-out for five minutes), we spent the rest of the day at the beach and an early dinner at Ri-Ra at the Tropicana.
On Sunday morning, I was up by 4am and out the door around 4:45am, and we made the easy 15-minute drive to Bader Field (we stayed outside of Atlantic City to save $$$). That meant I had a LOT of time to set up my transition area with all of my race day essentials and visit the port-a-potty multiple times (I apparently have a nervous bladder).
The start of the swim was going to be a self-seeded start with only 6 athletes entering the water at a time. I lined myself up in my rightful place towards the back of the pack. That meant it was about an hour before it was my turn. Which gave me PLENTY of time to panic about what I was about to do.
Truthfully, I wasn’t really nervous about the swim at all. I busted my butt to participate in group ocean swims all summer with a local triathlon club, and I had covered the 1.2-mile distance multiple times in training. Plus, this swim was in the bay, meaning the water would (theoretically) be calmer than the ocean. And I’ve done the Atlantic City Triathlon twice, so I already had experience swimming in this particular bay.
What I WAS nervous about was the bike. I knew it just came from the shop, but would it hold up for 56 miles? Would I get a flat? Would my brakes malfunction? Would the wheels fall off? Would the entire bike just fall apart right from under me? One of the hardest parts of a triathlon, in my opinion, is having to rely on a machine for such a long portion of the race. In the swim and run, it’s all you…but on the bike, any technical malfunction could leave you sidelined and unable to complete your race. And I am NOT a mechanically-inclined person who can fix any sort of bike-related snafu on the road.
So after panicking about that for an hour (while Todd goofed around and tried to make me laugh with his corniness), it was approaching 8am and it was finally my turn to jump in and get this race started.
I have to tell you, I felt GOOD. The first half-mile or so flew by. I felt smooth and strong, and because I had started so late, I felt like I had plenty of room to swim and not get kicked and punched by faster swimmers.
And then I reached the turnaround buoy to head back and realized just why I was feeling so good. Apparently, the current had been with me going out. Now, suddenly, every stroke was a struggle. I knew I’d have to fight the current the entire way back. I tried my best to focus on my form and breathing and not let myself get into my head, but my pace had slowed significantly and I was fighting the urge to freak out about not making the swim cut-off time.
The last half-mile or so felt like it took FOREVER. And I kept feeling something slimy slipping between my fingers…which I later found out were jellyfish. UGGGGGHHHHH GRRROOOOSSSSSSSSS.
My Garmin told me the swim was longer than 1.2 miles, but nevertheless, I had finished in under 55 minutes. Which was A-OK by me because the swim cut-off for this race was an hour and 10 minutes.
And my ultimate goal for my first 70.3? Finish in ANY time under 8:30 — the official cut-off time for the race.
The first leg of my race was COMPLETE!
I climbed out of the water and had my wetsuit stripped by volunteers for the first time. Which basically means a team of people spin you around and throw you on the ground to yank off your wetsuit for you. I actually thought it was fantastic…it takes forever to get the stupid thing off sometimes.
I raced into transition to get ready for the bike leg. Now the fear was setting in.
The bike was always the portion I was most afraid of because I’m just so new to cycling. Obviously I can ride a bike, but taking a leisurely ride through the park is a hell of a lot different than cycling in a race. And now I had this extra layer of panic on top of it all because I basically had to trust that the mechanics at the bike shop fixed everything that needed to be fixed after my little bike rack incident earlier that week.
I took a deep breath and rolled my bike out of transition, and hoped that everything would be OK.
I sat on the bike and started pedaling…gently…carefully…and not gonna lie, I had tears in my eyes for the first 2-3 miles. I was in full-on anxiety attack mode because I really, truly was convinced that my bike was going to fail me that day. I berated myself for being such a baby and for letting my fear overcome me in that moment. THERE’S NO CRYING IN TRIATHLON!
But after a few more miles ticked by and I calmed down, I started to realize that my good old Specialized Dolce was functioning normally and I might actually be OK. I kept talking to myself – as I often do on long rides – and telling myself that the bike was fine and I had trained so hard and I was going to complete these miles. I could do this. Quit being a baby and GET IT DONE.
The bike course was 2.5 loops, which included the Atlantic City Expressway and some back roads outside of Atlantic City. I started verrrry conservatively, and I’m pretty sure held my breath the entire time I was on the bike. I was overly careful and aware of my surroundings. When I wasn’t making sure to stay far to the right to get out of the way of the fast cyclists, I was staring at the ground to make sure I didn’t hit any potholes or bumps or obstructions or anything that could cause damage to that bike.
Despite my nerves, riding on the Expressway was freakin’ cool. Not only is it flat and smooth, but you get to ride through tollbooths without paying. So at least I had some distractions out there.
I had a little bit of a newbie freak-out moment when, after I passed the mile 5 marker, I continued on and soon found myself approaching a mile sign with a 45. DID I MISS A TURN-OFF SOMEWHERE? AM I GOING TO HAVE TO FIND A RACE OFFICIAL TO TRANSPORT ME BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THE COURSE AND START AGAIN? AM I AUTOMATICALLY GOING TO BE DQ’ED FOR ACCIDENTALLY CHEATING?!
Yeah, I know. Stupid. It’s a multiple-loop course and they’re not going to have mile markers at every mile. I felt like an idiot when I soon passed the mile 10 marker and breathed a sigh of relief. What a dumbass.
The whole time I was biking, I was just trying to keep a nice, steady, comfortable pace. I’ve only done 50+ mile rides in training, and always with lots of stopping for traffic lights, stop signs, bathroom breaks, etc., so I wasn’t 100 percent sure what pace I was capable of holding. I had done 16-17 mph in some Olympic-distance triathlons earlier this summer, but I wasn’t sure I could maintain speed that for 56 miles.
I seemed to fall right into a 15-16 mph pace, and I was feeling good. Other than the fact that every time I saw a bottle in the road or a piece of glass or a rock or ANYTHING that could cause physical harm to me or the bike, I would swerve or slow down significantly and fight the urge to have an anxiety attack.
So, yeah…it was kind of a stressful ride.
By the time I was on my second loop, I had settled down and was starting to feel like I might just survive this ride. Plus, I was waiting all morning for the sun to come out and for it to get blazing hot…and yet…it was still cloudy. No way. Would it possibly stay cloudy and (somewhat) cool for the rest of the race? How joyous that would be!
My pace was consistently hanging on around 15.5 mph and my mind was drifting on to other things. Like how funny all of these people with their scary wheels and alien helmets look to me (I laugh now, but I’m sure I’ll join them someday), and how much longer until I could enjoy my next half of PB&J Uncrustables sandwich…my fuel of choice on the bike.
I tried my very best to stay out of the drafting zone and pass people within 30 seconds so I didn’t have to spend any time in the penalty box…’cuz I saw a LOT of other cyclists being sent to time-out, and I knew that in my race, every minute counted because I needed to finish under that 8:30 mark.
After mile 40, I was struggling, but at the same time I was also starting to feel like I might make it. Just one more weekday “easy” 15-mile ride to go. No big deal. All of the crazy fast cyclists had completed their race by that time, so it was just me and the “normal” people out there on the course.
I was even getting comfortable enough to take some water from the volunteers at the aid station (my bottles were now depleted)…which was no easy task when I’m still super shaky when riding with one hand.
My legs didn’t feel too bad, but I kept shifting in the saddle and was struggling with a lot of discomfort. I opted to just wear the tri shorts instead of pulling on bike shorts with extra padding in transition. (I’ve tried that before and it actually made everything hurt even worse.) My ass hurt, my lady bits hurt, and I just wanted to be OFF. THAT. BIKE.
Then my bib got caught in a wind gust in mile 54 and one of the holes ripped, so it almost flew off on the Atlantic City Expressway and I had to maneuver it back around my waist with one hand. Running without a bib is against the rules and there was NO WAY I was going to get off my bike and chase a stupid piece of paper on a highway to avoid a DQ on the run course.
Mind you, I didn’t realize that basically NOBODY wears the bib for the bike portion of the race; I felt like a huge dork, but at the same time, I got a lot of encouragement from cyclists who were passing me and cheering me on by name. I know that with my bright blue running sneakers and beginner pedal cages and entry-level road bike, I might as well have “NEWBIE” stamped across my forehead. So I appreciated the more experienced cyclists whizzing by with words of encouragement and I was actually sort of glad I made the rookie mistake of wearing my bib on the bike. 🙂
Those last miles took forever, but somehow – FINALLY – I was approaching Bader Field again and heading back towards transition. It had been 3 hours and 45 minutes, and I was actually thinking I couldn’t wait to start the run just so I didn’t have to sit on that damn bike seat anymore.
I couldn’t wait to see Todd because I knew he was tracking me the entire time and crossing his fingers that the bike held up. He had decided to do his long training run on the boardwalk while I was on the bike, but I knew he’d be done by that point…and I also knew he would be just as relieved as I was to see the bike portion of the race come to an end.
I rolled into transition and dismounted my bike. I MADE IT! To me, the mental anguish portion of the race was over. My legs felt wobbly and rubbery as they always do after a long ride, but by the time I finished ripping a new hole into my bib to re-secure it to my race belt, the feeling was already starting to go away a little bit. My back also felt a little stiff, but I figured the feeling would go away once I started running.
Now all I had left was a half marathon. Just 13.1 miles to the finish. It was a distance I’ve covered hundreds of times, and running is my “original” sport. No big deal.
It’s “just” a half marathon. I’ve got this.
HAHAHAHAHAHA. Good one.
I started running (well, more like shuffling) and was almost immediately hit by a crippling wave of pain in my lower back. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for training-related back issues for at least 2 years now and had just had an adjustment that Friday. I didn’t have any major issues throughout the entire training cycle for this race…just some neck/shoulder pain from swimming and minor aches in my mid-back after particularly hard weeks.
So you can imagine my surprise when here I was, on race day, and I couldn’t even make it out of Bader Field before having to stop to walk and try to massage my lower back and hope to God that this wasn’t going to continue for the entire race. This was NOT a normal pain for me. WTF?!
SERIOUSLY? I had come this far and I was NOT about to fall apart in the run. I frantically started trying to calculate just how fast I’d need to run in order to meet the time limit. If you don’t complete the course in 8:30, you may get your medal…but you’ll receive a DNF as your finish time with IRONMAN. And that would pretty much shatter my life.
I realized I had about 3:30 hours to complete the run and still meet the cut-off. My fastest half marathon times still hover right around two hours, and I had originally given myself a conservative goal of 2:30 to complete the course.
So I was fine. Right?
I told myself I would do a run-walk and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s what I did. Pace be damned. Just keep moving forward. One step at a time.
I made it the first few miles out and onto the boardwalk, and my back started loosening up a bit. I was still uncomfortable, but the sharp pains were starting to fade a little bit.
I was walking at every mile marker and aid station and feeding off the excitement and energy of the volunteers, who really were amazing. They had YUMMY COCA-COLA in addition to the usual water and Gatorade and were giving us handfuls of ice, which I promptly dropped into my bra and down my back.
Running on the boardwalk was nice, and around mile 6 we got to run out onto a pier, which was probably my favorite part of the run course (other than the finish line, obviously).
After I passed the halfway point, things started to go to hell. The back pain was coming back. Bad. I knew I was bloated and dehydrated because I had the uncomfortable urge to pee but after stopping in multiple port-a-potties and boardwalk bathrooms, nothing was happening. While on the bike I fueled promptly at every 45 minutes, my fueling on the run was all messed up because I was so focused on the pain that I kept forgetting to take my Clif Bloks. I kept telling myself it was “only” a 10K to the finish but in that moment it felt like I might as well be running across the entire state of New Jersey.
I knew I’d be seeing Todd soon because he told me he’d wait for me around Caesar’s, so that kept me going a little bit…but I was really hating on myself for falling apart at that point. It made me so mad that my legs felt pretty good, but my back was giving out and there was nothing I could do about it. I have no idea what my pace was at that point because I stopped caring.
Just one foot in front of the other. No matter how much it hurt, I knew I had come too far and worked too hard for this moment to fall apart now.
This course takes you back down the boardwalk towards the finish line, where you literally pass the finish line festivities and go around it onto the sand. Which suuuuuccccckkkks. I got to see everyone relaxing and having a grand old time, and meanwhile I still had about 5 miles left to go. Plus…who the hell wants to run on sand?!
Fortunately, I saw Todd shortly thereafter, and in true “sherpa” form, he was there to snap a zillion pictures of me that I didn’t especially want at that point, lol.
Those last 4-5 miles were hell on Earth. Really. The only thing that could have made it worse was if the sun had come out. I kept looking towards the sky and bargaining with the weather gods to please, oh please, keep the sun behind those clouds for just a little while longer. It was warm, but with the breeze from the ocean and the cloudy skies, it was tolerable.
I had just a few more miles until the turnaround where I could head back towards the finisher’s chute. I knew I was looking at well over a 2:30 half marathon at that point, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be done. I was continuing to have to stop to walk to relieve some of the pressure in my back, and I was getting frustrated that just a few miles could take SO. DAMN. LONG.
To me, it felt VERY MUCH like those grueling last six miles of marathon, and I felt like such an idiot that I assumed I was so well-prepared for the mental/physical demands of this race. HA. I thought I was just so special. “I’m a marathoner, so a Half Ironman shouldn’t be SO hard…” WROOOOOOOONG.
I could tell that other runners were seeing me struggle because they kept saying things like “almost there, stay strong, the turnaround is up ahead, you’ve got this…” and I definitely needed the encouragement at that point. It was incredible to feel the support from complete strangers all around me, first from the cyclists on the bike course and now the runners who were watching as I pathetically tried to massage my own lower back and walk through the pain.
Finally, I was at the turnaround. Less than a 5K left until the finish. And I had HAD it. I summoned everything I had left and tried to pick up the pace as best I could. No more stopping. Just keep going.
I felt like the Hunchback of Notre Dame at that point. My back was killing me and my form was a mess and I knew I probably looked like a hobbling idiot, but I didn’t care. Time to get to that finish line.
I saw Todd again and told him this was PURE HELL and he gave me some much-needed encouragement.
The finish line is just up ahead. It’s right there. Go get it.
Finally…FINALLY…I saw the glorious IRONMAN red carpet ahead of me. Nothing has ever looked so beautiful to me.
I could see the finish line. The clock said 8:40, and since I jumped into the bay an hour after the official race start, I knew my finish time would be around 7:40. My half marathon time would be around 2:45.
I had made the cut-off with 45+ minutes to spare. I had it.
I saw Todd was already there cheering. I had made it and in that moment nothing hurt and there was no more fear or pain or anxiety.
Just sheer joy that I somehow managed to pull this off.
All of the 6am ocean swims and the 4-hour bike rides and the soul-crushing long runs had culminated in this moment where I was about to accomplish something I never, ever, EVER thought I’d do.
A year ago, I was afraid to swim in the ocean. It took months to summon the courage to ride my new road bike in the street. I had to learn to swallow my fear and do things that scared the ever-loving shit out of me over and over again.
I endured countless “bricks,” testing myself time and time again to see if I could mentally and physically withstand multi-sport workouts.
It was HARD. The training was exhausting…in some ways, even more so than marathon training.
And now I was about to finish a Half Ironman. And, suddenly, it was all worth it.
There are no words.
I crossed the finish line, was handed my medal by a volunteer who saw I was on the verge of a breakdown, and she asked if I needed a hug. I then proceeded to ugly sob all over her. She squeezed and hugged and congratulated me for what felt like an hour before passing me over to my husband.
I didn’t think anything would ever top the feeling of completing my first marathon. But I gotta tell you…this came pretty damn close.
I got celebratory smooches (from Todd, not the volunteer…) and then went to find some food. They had a food truck set up for us with burgers and fries, in addition to a tent with bacon, soft pretzels, fruit, etc. SCORE.
Todd and I sat on the ground to eat for a few minutes before taking some more pictures with my AMAZING medal.
I couldn’t have asked for a better first Half Ironman experience. This race director (Delmo Sports) has to be the absolute BEST in the business in terms of organization and communication and perks, IMO, so combined with all the bells and whistles of an IRONMAN-branded race — plus the AMAZING weather — it was everything I could have hoped for.
Oh, and the sun didn’t come out until about 3 minutes after I crossed the finish line. I’m convinced those weather gods were looking out for me that morning!
At the end of the day, I know I’m a mediocre triathlete. I’m a middle-of-the-pack runner, a slow swimmer, and a fearful cyclist. I know I’ll never win any awards. I know I’ll never be the leanest or the fastest athlete. And I know I’ll probably always be among the last finishers in a triathlon.
But I don’t care. I know this is technically a new blog and a lot of you reading this (if you’ve made it this far…BLESS YOU) don’t know my story from my previous home at The Final Forty, but suffice it to say that after a lifetime of being obese and hating everything about your body, crossing the finish line of a 70.3 mile race is a feeling that I can’t really put into words.
I feel like I have to keep doing things like this. I have to keep reminding myself of the reason I put my body and mind through the stresses of training for marathons and triathlons. Truth be told, I am so desperately afraid of going back to the person I used to be. I probably always will be.
As much as this race hurt (let’s just say I’ll be spending some extra time with my chiropractor), I finished feeling strong. I felt so very grateful for what my body could accomplish. I looked at my race pictures and didn’t see a “formerly fat” girl…I saw an athlete.
It was yet another way for me to make up for all the years I drowned myself in food and let myself be so incredibly self-conscious and miserable all. the. time.
To go from weighing 265+ pounds and not being able to walk a mile to achieving an athletic goal of this magnitude means more to me than any finish time or medal (even the beautiful, GIANT medal I just earned) ever will. I spent the first 25+ years of my life doubting myself and being afraid and not going for what I want, and crossing that finish line on Sunday was just my way of proving to myself yet again that I’m not that person anymore.
What I AM is a Half Ironman finisher. 🙂
Thanks again for reading.
What was your proudest moment as an athlete?