Konk! “What the hell?!”
Biff! I look out of the corner of my eye with each breath-stroke and I think, “Dude! Move your ass over!”
Whack! Another breath. Punch! Another stroke. “Man you are going the wrong way!” I scream in my mind at the powerful mammoth of a man heading diagonally instead of straight to the buoy ahead. Using my head as a punching bag for his big beefy fist.
Sigh. I glare at him although he cannot see me. I quicken my kick and swim ahead. Annoyed that he interrupted my rhythm with his lousy sighting skills. This is open-water swimming. This is navigating a triathlon swim course. This is the way it goes when you unleash approximately 3,000 anxious athletes into an open body of water. We don’t mean to swim over each other. Or claw at each other. Or scare the bejesus out of each other. We are all just trying to move forward. Quickly. Swiftly. And without drowning.
Ironman is actively choosing to take care of yourself on hyper-drive. You have to weed through your shit and stay in the moment. Keeping your mind clear and sharp. One second at a time for hours and hours. Focusing on what you need. Planning for things to not go as expected. And learning to roll with its unpredictability without attaching yourself to any specific outcome. I love this.
“1589! 1589! 1589!” I yell out at the start of a quarter-mile stretch where guardian angels — also known as volunteers — line the street along the bike course with our special needs bags. I am suddenly surprised to find myself at the half-way mark of the bike. Bags are lined up in numerical order for riders to grab as they go by. I’m moving over 20 mph and I’m communicating what I need as I zoom by. A train of volunteers holler out bib numbers through megaphones. A chain of command down the line. I call out to anyone and everyone, “I just need the gels! In a ziplock bag inside!” And they yell down the line. Instructions: “She’s coming! 1589! She needs the gels! JUST THE GELS! The GELS!!!!” I’m pedaling. My heart is racing. I’m steering. I’m watching and looking. I’m thinking, “Holy shit! What if I miss it?! What if I miss it and I actually have to stop and turn around?!” And then I see a young teenager up ahead with trembling hands reaching into my bag, procuring my gels as if by magic just as my hand reaches out to grab them from him. Barely breaking my speed. “YES! I yell out. You are so AWESOME! THANK YOU!” I feel like I might cry I’m so relieved.
I hold that ziplock bag — first in my teeth and then in my hands as I try to open it while on the fly. As if my life depends upon it. “Don’t drop it. Just don’t drop it.” I whisper trying to calm myself. My salt tabs fall to the road but the gels I hang on to. Somehow. I had eight gels in my bento box on my bike when I headed out but I had needed to put four more into my pockets. In the swim to bike transition chaos I forgot them and at about 45 miles into my ride I realized I was low on nutrition. I got nervous for a second and then remembered the special needs bags.
I don’t like to stop at special needs. In fact, I’ve completely changed my nutrition plan so I don’t have to stop. But today I knew I had to. We do what we need to do in any given moment. That’s living. We keep moving forward at warp speed. Asking for help. Reaching out. Hoping our timing is right and that we are ready to receive what we’ve been hoping for.
One hour left on the bike. Maybe 45 minutes? I press the button on my electronic shifters. Nothing happens. I press again and again and again. Nothing. My new bike has electric shifting. Shifting that needs to be charged. Yes. Charged. Being new to the world of electronic shifting, I neglected to charge mine so I lost the use of my large front chain ring. I went from panic to adaptive thinking in a nanosecond. My mind whirring. Scanning for a solution. Troubleshooting. I remembered Rob telling me this happened to him on a training ride. I remembered our mechanic, Mike, telling us that the front chain rings stop working first so I knew I still had access to my rear ones. I just wasn’t sure for how long. I try to find a gear that will let me hold my power at a higher cadence without having to shift too frequently.
And truthfully, I think I prayed. I probably prayed a lot that day — and I’m not sure to whom or to what but I talked to anyone who would listen to my inner thoughts which throughout the day went like this: “Stay calm. You are okay. Be very very kind to yourself.” That was my biggest goal of the day — to not rage an internal war upon myself. To not conjure up and become my critical mother. And I did it. I was successful throughout the entire day. What a gift to celebrate yourself instead of harshly judging yourself. It was freedom tied together in an Ironman bow and my heart felt light and joyful and proud.
For the first time ever I was ready to get off of the bike and run. I decided my shifting had crapped out deliberately to help me feel ready to say goodbye to Enso, my bike. I patted her on her tattoo and thanked her for a job well done. I turned the corner to the run transition and handed her off to the volunteer who took her from me as I raced to my run bag. Scrambling to gather my sneakers and run gear.
“I’m running with you!” I hear my teammate Jay say with a smile as he came up behind me on the run course. Maybe six miles into the 26.2 miles. “No!” I blubbered. “You can’t. You’re so much faster than me. It will hurt your knees. This is your race. You need to go! Don’t wait for me.” “I’m staying all day.” He said clearly and unequivocally.
Jay had come to this race with his own supportive family at his side and now here he was declaring that he was going to run with me. He was a living example of all of the things I was holding in my mind and in my heart to get me to the finish line. With Jay running beside me, I didn’t have to call upon my mental slogans to keep my head clear. I didn’t have to fight the negative thoughts and think about my family and friends to gain strength and courage. I just had to look at him running with me and everything I loved about our triathlon team-community-family and my own precious family and friends was right there for me to draw upon. No effort needed. No need to slay any dragons. I just had to move forward with a light heart and an open mind. And gratitude.
We had the best cheering squad on that race course! As we ran past them and headed out for our last 10 miles, I picked up the pace with Jay’s encouragement. This had been my hope and I was elated that I had it in me to execute it. I grew euphoric as we pulled the miles in. Closer and closer to the finish. We charged ahead as the sky broke open and released us from the suffocating heat. Rain like I’d never seen before blinded our vision. Lightning flashed through the sky and thunder shook the soggy ground beneath our blistered feet. Within seconds we were running with smelly water up to our shins. At some points it felt as if we were barely moving forward because the winds were blowing us backwards. We kept moving. Faster despite the storm. Easily passing people. I was hungry to reel in each mile.
And then we stopped. Dead in our tracks. Hundreds of athletes trapped together on a soaking wet path in the woods. Unable to move forward. Or backwards. Or anywhere. All we could see was water and confused, tired faces. We stood huddled and uncertain of why we weren’t allowed to move and whether we’d ever be set free. We waited 30 minutes. Some people waited longer. Others less. What we didn’t know at the time was that the finish line had been obliterated. They were fixing it and making sure we were safe to move forward. I felt nauseous and dizzy and anxious to be done. Terribly sad that I was stopped when I finally felt like I was moving swiftly. Scared about not being able to move again.
One of the reasons I compete in Ironman triathlons is because it makes life feel more alive. It’s like watching a movie in 3D — you get a little more of it. I know each of us possesses the capacity to have a visceral connection to our life when we do things that deeply matter to us. Things we are passionate about. Things that stretch us and challenge us and leave us face down on the floor exhausted but wanting more. A musician striving to master her piece, an artist trying to fully express himself with his medium, an athlete working to harness her body’s greatest potential. It’s impossible to attain perfection — to capture what our hearts want to convey — because we never quite have the tools to externalize our inner experiences. Our minds often get in the way of our soul’s true expression. But we try anyway and I love that we do. It is in the trying that we experience life in its fullness of possibility.
Ironman lets me palpitate life’s complexity in my body and mind. The isolated training takes me to places I cannot completely describe. Fear. Courage. Joy. Pain. Euphoria. Love. Hate. It’s a complex balance begging me to apply myself constantly while keeping my ego in check. Always. Let’s not forget that in all of our yearning and efforts, we are not bigger than the universe simply because we have set out to do this big, big thing. Everyone does big things all of the time. Things with far more meaning and substance than 140.6 miles powered by your own human strength and will within a 17-hour window. That is nothing when compared to the real-life struggles so many of us face in our day-to-day living. This I know for certain. I do. In fact, the training humbles me. It connects me to others. It reminds me that I am fallible and more importantly, that my shortcomings and frailties are not to be dismissed or disregarded, but honored and respected. They make me human. Touching my high and low points as an athlete makes me less afraid of life and living bravely no matter what is thrown my way.
Categories: Tri-Umphant Living