"Understand that this is not a dress rehearsal, this is it, your life. Face your fears and live your dreams."
- John Blais
Eleven months ago I was in the midst of completing my first Ironman. In an effort to rediscover myself and chart a new course in life, I had decided to take on that challenge and spent nine months making it a top priority. It represented everything in life I feared. Everything I thought I couldn't do. But hope was shattered when I tore my plantar fascia just days before the race. After a spiral of sadness, anger and regret, I picked myself up and found myself toeing the line in Madison with 17 hours of the unknown ahead of me. I ended up having two races: the first was the swim and bike; the second was the marathon. I knew I'd get to do the first race, but I wasn't sure until I walked into T2 if I'd be doing the second race. As I stepped onto the marathon course I was overjoyed. I would walk for over seven hours to reach the finish line in what was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
A Second Chance
My first few steps on the run in Lake Placid were a dream. The early miles flew by and my pace was strong - 8:55, 9:36, 9:26, 9:55 - even better than I was aiming for. I was also enjoying it, drawing energy from the crowd and the other athletes. I was so swept up in the moment that I forgot my strategy of walking through aid stations and blew right through the first. I slowed my pace because I was sure I couldn't sustain 9:30s for the long haul and I wanted to set myself up for a good afternoon.
This course is such a different experience from Wisconsin. Wisconsin winds through downtown Madison and the University of Wisconsin campus so it's lined with spectators much like a stand alone marathon. Lake Placid leads you out of town where the spectators are few, but the scenery is magical. You have to focus on the beauty and the gift of being able to race in such a place, a place where Olympians have competed twice. You have to be comfortable in your head because for long stretches you will be overwhelmed by your thoughts. You have to embrace the sound of your feet and the feet of others moving across the ground. I identified mini milestones to keep me motivated: Just a few miles to the River Road turnaround; just another couple miles to the electronic board with a message from Mark; another two miles to town. You play this game for hours and try not to focus on the pain.
One of the most interesting things about Lake Placid was the out-and-back nature of the course. You have a chance to observe your competitors in various states of the race. Some are leaps and bounds ahead and some are almost a loop behind, but it's almost impossible to tell which is which. You overhear snippets of conversations, inspiring comments from athlete to athlete and witness an array of emotions that the human face just can't hide in such a raw, exposed moment. People often talk about the "pain cave" in Ironman, a time where you are in such deep, overwhelming pain that you can't focus on anything else. I saw a lot of this and was soon there myself. A regular marathon starts to hurt anywhere from 18-21 miles in, leaving you with a handful of miles to suffer through. An Ironman marathon hurts as early as five miles in. For me it was around eight, and I knew I'd have to dig deeply to power through.
Passing through town around miles 10-13 was a big boost. If only it weren't for the huge, sadistic, hideous, torturous hill. I ran up the first time, though walkers were keeping pace right along side me. I wasn't trying to garner special attention from the crowd or prove a point, I was simply afraid to slow momentum and not be able to get going again. It was the only time I would "jog" up that hill. I walked the second time around. At the top, I saw Mark and got some much needed support. You can get a double-bonus from friends and family by seeing them on the way into town and then again on the way out, so after heading up yet another hill (good ol' Mirror Lake Drive) and a quick stop at Special Needs, I knew I'd see him one more time before the final stretch.
But let's pause at Special Needs. I approached this marathon with a liquid-only nutrition plan. I have a history of side stitches so solid nutrition of any sort - or too much liquid for that matter - do not go over well on a run. So a few sips of sports drink, cola and broth at each aid station does the trick. My energy stays consistent and I stay relatively hydrated. But I developed a sloshy stomach around eight or nine miles in and had to skip the fluids in lieu of some pretzels and nibbled on a cookie about a mile or two later. I had packed a special treat in Special Needs... after all, that's what you're supposed to do, right? My treat was a tiny pecan pie, a perfect little tart of goodness that I thought would be a wonderful change mid-race. WRONG. It tasted like heaven, but sat in my stomach like hell. I cramped for at least three miles after consuming it, not exactly what I needed at this difficult point in the race. Live and learn.
I saw Mark again on my way out of town and he said by his estimation, I'd be done around 8:30. I smiled and agreed, but had a gnawing feeling in my stomach that I'd fall apart in the final 10 miles and finish closer to 9pm, still a big accomplishment for me. But I pushed on and every time I felt like stopping I looked at my watch, did a little math, and realized an 8:30 finish wasn't unrealistic and that kept me going. I saw the usual Ironman wreckage - people passed out, people throwing up, people crying, people trying to achieve this dream we all shared. It's hard to push through the pain and the overwhelming urge to stop. At times, everything in your body and mind tells you to quit.
The Final Stretch
I can't begin to describe the flood of emotions that overtook me in the final few miles. After reaching Main Street the second time, I had the brutal uphill to battle, but I was truly in the home stretch. I could hear Mike Reilly announcing name after name and just wanted to hear mine. Reaching the turnaround on Mirror Lake Drive felt like an eternity, but once I rounded the corner I knew it was finally downhill and only a matter of moments. Everyone is emotional at some point during an Ironman, even if you're not the sentimental type. The pain alone screws with your head and sends you on a rollercoaster of feelings you may not normally feel. But I'm emotional so it's only amplified during an experience like this. Plus I had the ghosts of last year to battle so the final steps on Mirror Lake Drive before entering the Olympic Oval were some of the most overwhelming for me that day. The crowd was so positive and I knew I'd be crossing the line in a matter of minutes. I didn't want to rush it but I also wanted to get there. I picked up the pace tremendously and was running faster than I thought possible on my battered legs. I covered my face as I was trapped between tears and elation and decided I didn't want to miss a moment. I worked the crowd the entire stretch through the oval, high fiving anyone who would touch my disgusting hands and going back and forth from side to side, celebrating not just that moment, but the moments I gathered over the last year. It was the race I dreamed of in 2009, the race I should have had. I just had to wait longer for it.
Just like in Wisconsin I don't really remember the finish chute. It's all just a blur. All I know is that once again, crossing that line made it all worthwhile. The early mornings, the missed social plans, the several cups of coffee needed to get me through each day, the special diet, compression tights and tons of Advil. It all plays a part in building the character you become over the course of completing an Ironman. And as much as I sometimes complain about it, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Time - 4:36:38
I found Mark immediately after finishing and discovered he had already claimed my bike and gear bags and taken them back to the hotel. What an incredible Ironman supporter! I inhaled a small sandwich and a slice of pizza and limped to the exit to meet up with him. We went immediately to the Lake Placid Brewery and grabbed a celebratory beer and a nice seat outside. I texted my friends Laura and Chris, they were sitting at the finish hoping to get a video of me but I'd been done for 30 minutes! They promptly joined us for some post-race celebration. It struck me how nice it was to be sitting at a bar, eating a burger and enjoying friends after the day I'd had. I always said I just wanted to finish early enough to actually eat somewhere... and this time I did.
I was too tired to go back to the finish. It was chilly even with two jackets on and I was still dressed in my race clothes. So we paused on the hill overlooking the Oval and watched a handful of late finishers. I was one of them last year and likely will be again at another race. I felt I had come full circle on this journey and was really pleased with the destination.