As I stood in waist deep water with my arms stretched above my head and an Eminem pump up ballad booming in the background I felt much of the same feelings right before every race start – butterflies, excitement, apprehension and an unrelenting desire for the start cannon to just fire already. My mind was no longer thinking about the magnitude of that day, or what I had done to get there – I just kept saying, swim, bike, run, swim, bike, run – that’s all you have to do.
As the horn sounded, I dove forward and did what I do every other race, try not to drown, get kicked or punched, and swim in a somewhat straight line. The swim felt as if it went on forever. Each time I popped my head up to sight the buoy lines, I would search for the turnaround point, which seemed to be moving further away than closer. With each stroke of my watch arm, I would try to catch a glimpse of the numbers to see how long I had been out there. “Just keep swimming,” I told myself. As I finally, hit the last buoy, I headed for the blue arch on shore. By this point, my intercostal muscles were screaming in a stabbing pain with each stroke and I was dying to be back on dry land and get going on my patiently awaiting bicycle. Heading into race day with pain in my ribs, the swim plan was to simply survive. It felt like a lazy Sunday stroll, but eventually my hands touched sand, and I shot upright, staggering across the beach and through to transition. I’ve always been lightning quick in this portion of the race – if it was a sport in itself, I’d probably go pro.
After being in the horizontal position swimming for the past 40 minutes I quickly discovered my sea legs made getting onto a bicycle a little more challenging. Unlike the shorter distances I’ve done in the past, this one requires a little more patience and time. Some hop on quickly, while others wobble to and fro like drunken fools riding their bikes in the night. What a fascinating place for a spectator to watch.
It didn’t take long to settle into my rhythm – one pedal after the other, I quickly began picking off the competition one by one. I knew I had some ground to make up for the slow swim, so I pushed into beast mode. Now was the time to focus. The bike requires a lot of thinking – at least it does for me. I have a mind that tends to wander and there is so much happening when riding a bicycle. “Look at the pretty tree, oh there’s a pothole, that guy looks good in spandex, where’s my water bottle, should I pass her, yes I should, I need to eat, I need to drink… squirrel!” For an ADD mind, everything is amplified. Nonetheless, I find a system that works so that I can take in the scenery, feed and water myself, keep on track with the race, not think about mechanical failures or flats, and even pee on the go. No – triathlon is not glamourous. With all the peeing, eating, drinking and other focused distractions, it’s incredible how fast 90 kilometres goes by. In fact, so fast, I got behind in my calories and hydration. In panic mode, I quickly choked back 400 calories of shot blocks and chugged a bottle of water with about 10 kilometres left on the course. I didn’t think it at the time but this would eventually come back to haunt me.
As I came flying down the hill into transition, I smiled like a giddy little kid. Heading back into transition after the bike is one of my favourite parts of the race. You get to see all the fans again, the mass of strangers cheering you on – it feels like a homecoming celebration. There is nothing like friendly faces or even complete strangers rooting for you as you struggle through what, at times, can be a suffer fest. It can be the difference between feeling like shit and feeling like gold.
As much as I love the bike, I also love the freedom of dropping off my bike and knowing the last portion of the race is relied solely on the mechanics of my body. No flat tires or broken chains to worry about – just tired and failing body parts, which can most always be overcome with a little bit of grit.
As I hit the shady trails around the lake, I was on par for a great time. All I had to do was settle into a comfortable pace for the next 11 kilometres or so, then start picking off the competition again. For the first 6 or 7k this felt doable, but then I started to play mind games with myself as my body grew tired and sore. The adrenaline of the bike was leaving me and here I was to slug it out – one foot in front of the other. This was the point in the race where the suffering began, and I started to question why I was here, why I thought this was remotely enjoyable, and even started questioning how the hell I was going to double the distance in just six short weeks. The focus had left me. My first half ironman was starting to eat me alive. As I rounded back towards the 10 kilometre mark, I could hear the spectators and I was able to pick up my pace. In fact, before heading back onto the trail, there was a smattering of familiar faces, including my dad, yelling my name, picking my spirits back up. I couldn’t help but find that giddy kid smile again and just kept right on moving. But it wasn’t long after that I felt the kilometres ticking away at an unbearably slow rate and felt as if I couldn’t even lift my legs one step further.
As I went to choke down another gel, I felt that uncomfortable feeling in my gut rise up, and I knew the run plan was out the window. Here was the last minute overkill of calories and water on the bike coming back to haunt me. I will spare the gory details of the remaining kilometres of that run. Like I said, triathlon is not a glamorous sport and what happens on course, stays on course. Now it was about survival. The time I was hoping for slowly ticked away, and it was all I had to dig deep, reminding myself that yes, I did love this sport and yes, I had worked hard to be here, so I would be damned if anything stopped me from reaching that finish line.
As I reached the final kilometre marker, I started to move faster than I had moved in the past two hours. In that final 200 metres through the crowds of incredibly supportive cheering spectators, I saw my dad and the sound of his voice and smile on his face was all that I needed to turn that corner with a burst of energy. I flipped my signature bright neon trucker hat backwards, almost as a sign that the work was over and the celebration was about to begin. As my feet hit the Ironman red carpet, stretched out for less than 100 metres to the finish arch, I reached out to high five complete strangers.
Running through the arch, I flexed my arms in triumph and tears streamed down my cheeks. Finally, I had done it. For six hours and 16 minutes, I swam, biked and ran, thinking really only about how to survive. It wasn’t until those final few seconds that everything sank in. If you had seen me cross that finish line, you would have thought I won the damn thing.
I hate sappy endings, but I have to admit, I felt like I won or at least proved to myself that with a little bit of grit and determination you can beat your body to a bloody pulp and still keep going. Through all the obstacles this last year has thrown at me, I’ve got back up, and just kept moving forward every single time until I got to my finish line, beaten and battered, but still kicking. My first half Ironman was incredibly humbling and inspiring. To be surrounded by thousands of other athletes, all from different backgrounds and with different stories and reasons for being there, grinding it out with you, is a pretty incredible feeling. It certainly wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, but that’s the beast of this sport, and I can’t wait to see what is possible at double the distance next month.