The world is quiet at 3:30 in the morning. It feels dark and lonely and unchartered. As I sat across the breakfast table from my training partner, Tracy, we choked down our pre-race meals in silence. There really wasn’t much to say between us, and we didn’t need to talk, we already knew what was going on in each other’s minds. Just being together side-by-side heading off into the battle field was all we needed.
As we descended onto Rainbow Park and into transition for final bike set-up, it felt like any other race morning. I went through my routines like clock work as I bobbed my head to pump-up ballads thumping through my headphones. I opted to drown out the voices around me – I had enough going through my own mind and I didn’t need outside distractions or further things to worry about. After meticulously putting on my wetsuit, I begrudgingly removed my headphones, dropped off my belongings at the morning clothes bag drop, and took the long way around to the water where I happened to find one of my other training partners, Kate. The two of us could hardly contain ourselves from embracing in a long, emotional hug. Together we decided there was no time like the present to get in the water.
With Kate on my toes we slowly swam our way out to the buoy line. We still had about 10 to 15 minutes until the start but it was more relaxing to be in the water. No more pacing, no more distracting music – just me, thousands of other Ironman hopefuls, and the cool lake water. Together we bobbed, floated, and anxiously awaited the start cannon. With a mere 30 seconds to go, as if in unison and without any prompts, we all started yelling good luck to one another, and then it began.
For the first 25 metres or so, I couldn’t even put my head in the water. There was a mass assault of body parts flying every which direction and with every stroke and kick I would collide with neoprene. It felt like a charge of seals flailing from an impending predator – we were swimming for our lives. I kept thinking that if I stopped at any which point, I would be trampled from the herd and sink slowly into the dark depths of the lake. Finally, the mass settled out, and I was able to get into my pace and rhythm with mostly clear water around me. Every now and again for no rhyme or reason a body would swim directly across me, or an arm would slam on top of my head. Sometimes I yelled, other times I just grabbed onto that misguided body part and moved it out of my way. It was every man for themselves out there. Be aggressive, or be left behind.
The swim went on and on and on and on. One, two, sight, one, two, sight, repeat, repeat, repeat. I would count buoys, I would yell at other swimmers, I would sing songs, I would think of the finish line, I would think of land, I would think of the grey sky that looked the same every time I looked at it. The excitement only kicked up when I hit the turn buoys and masses of bodies would all converge together as if we were a giant magnet. Again, I would get my elbows up, yell and move people out of my way. Then it was back to one, two, sight and repeat. As I rounded the third buoy and headed out for my second lap, I turned my head to the right and breathed almost in unison with no one other than Kate. In that moment, I realized through all that chaos she had managed to stay on my toes for the entire first lap – incredible. We briefly smiled and acknowledged each other before heading off on our paths. Once I hit the second to last buoy on my last lap, I started to get tired. I was longing to be vertical and to be on my beloved bicycle and out of the water. The stretch from the last turn buoy to shore felt like the longest part of the swim. I kept thinking I would see land beneath me, but it just went on and on, until finally I was almost scraping my body against the sand and I stood up. As with every transition from the water to shore, I sauntered like a drunken pirate until my body remembered what walking felt like. I celebrated with a couple fist pumps before almost bulldozing over my competition on my way towards the change tent. It wasn’t until I ran out the other side that I realized the air was cold and the rain was coming down hard. It was going to be a freezing, wet miserable ride.
Within the first 1o minutes I felt like an icicle. My sunglasses were too wet and foggy to wear, so I opted to tuck them in my back pocket, forcing me to squint as I avoided the huge droplets of rain flying into my exposed eyeballs. Rooster tails of water would fly up from bikes ahead of me, and I did what I could to pass them without skidding in the pooling water. At every descent, I would remember the wise words of Jeff Symonds, “you can crash and run a good marathon, but the recovery afterwards is brutal.” I would be damned if a crash would end my race
As we headed for the climb up into the Callahan I felt slightly warmer, but really still quite frozen. With only my dripping, wet tri kit and arm warmers clinging to my body I was exposed to whatever Mother Nature had in store for us that day, and on this day she was a bitch. From the top of the Callahan, all the way down into Pemberton my teeth chattered incessantly against one another, as I kept saying to myself, it can’t be like this all day, it can’t be like this all day. My fingers were getting numb and I struggled to shift gears. At each aid station I could see athletes unable to grasp water bottles, while others were huddled in cars and wrapped in blankets. It was brutal. My only saving grace was seeing the spectators and my friends and family all lined up against the road cheering as if I was a rock star. At one of the bridges, I even raised my arm as if to encourage more cheering and they went wild. I had to hold onto every ounce of their positive energy, inside I was falling apart.
Once I had finished one of the sketchiest descents of my life into Pemberton I started to warm again and the rain subsided. For the first time in awhile, I started to feel good. I knew this bike course like the back of my hand. I knew each corner, each turn, each bump, and I was so grateful for all the time we had spent training here just a few weeks ago. At this point in the race, I was able to settle into a solid pace and began ticking off the competition. I was nailing my pacing and feeling incredible – and then I made an error.
I could see an aid station approaching on the horizon and I knew I needed to pick something up but in the chaos of my mind I couldn’t decide whether I needed a Gatorade or a water. I kept thinking – Gatorade, water, Gatorade water? With a few metres to go, my brain sorted itself out, decided on a Gatorade, and then realized I hadn’t slowed down. I was coming in hot. Aid stations go by a lot faster when you forget to apply your brakes, so I had a split second to stick my hand out, grab a bottle and maybe slow down. Without thinking, I reached across my bike with my left hand, grabbed the bottle, and without even a second to realize my mistake, I had cranked my front wheel completely sideways and my head and shoulder slammed down hard against the concrete. I thought my race was over. Frantically, I hopped back up, shaking, still straddling my bike, and trying to play it off like nothing had happened. Instantly I had volunteers descending on me. I could hear them saying over and over that I had hit my head really hard. They were right, I had double vision and my head was pounding. In a panic, I tried to make it seem like I was good to go; I could almost feel tears welling up in my eyes, as I thought I wouldn’t be able to continue. The sound of my dad’s voice rang through my head, “how could you be so stupid?” Eventually they convinced me to sit on the curb for a time out and quick evaluation. Fortunately a medic was nearby and was able to bandage up the road rash on my shoulder and check me for any signs of a concussion. It didn’t take her long to give me the green light. She said my pupils looked fine and I was making sense, so it was up to me if I wanted to continue. I almost interrupted her as I blurted out that this is my first time, I’m was going to be an Ironman. So, they handed me that Gatorade, wished me luck and off I went for the last, long 30 kilometres of hill climbing back up into Whistler. My legs were tired and heavy, my head woozy and all I could do was count each stroke of the pedal – 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.
As with every race, as much as I love my bike, once I hit transition, I am ready to let it go. I flew in feeling slightly wobbly and drunken, but with a huge bright smile on my face. I hopped off that bike almost faster than the volunteers could grab it, thanked the universe I was still alive, and bolted into the change tent to get ready for the run.
After a quick transition, I ran out the other side with more fist pumping and celebration as I ran past my friends and family. Once again, I felt like a rock star. As the cheers faded into the distance, I settled into my run pace and focused on how the hell I was going to run a marathon. Previous to that day, the furthest I had ever run was 23 kilometres, so I literally didn’t know if I was going to make it. By about the 15 kilometre mark, I had to start to thinking of survival mode and how I would get through this. I opted to stop looking for kilometre markers and start looking for people markers. There were the beer drinkers and my friends at the golf course, the lady giving out free hugs on the corner of the trail, my mom waiting on the corner of Lorimer and Blackcomb and the long crowds of people near the village – those were all markers along the course I remembered and longed to see again. They were my lift and I relied on them to bring out my smile.
Once they faded from sight, I would stare at the ground in front of me and just keep trudging one foot in front of the other. Even as I passed the 23k mark, I didn’t feel like celebrating the distance – I still had so far to go. The final 7 kilometres was when everything started to hurt. My toes were tingling as blisters started to form, my knees would scream out in pain with each pounding step, and I was fading. As I crossed the road and looked up, I saw my dad. He seemed to be beaming with pride as he asked how I was doing. All I could muster out was that I was in pain. In a sympathetic yet encouraging tone, he told me he knew how I felt but I was almost home. It has hard to hold back a warm stream of tears. I was so grateful for his words and his company in that brief moment.
As I hit the final two kilometres and rounded the Lorimer and Blackcomb corner one final time I saw all my training partners, some who had already finished and some who had just come to cheer us on. They were yelling my name, and again, the tears almost started to stream – I was overwhelmed. Leaving them in the distance, I continued on the longest 2 kilometres of my life. I could hear the announcer proclaiming Ironman finishers, yet my journey was not quite done. At one point I thought I saw my turn into the finish chute, but I looked up to see my brother, waving at me to keep going around the other corner – I was still not there. My feet have never felt so heavy, and they were barely willing to move one step further.
Finally, as I rounded back to that corner, that actual final corner, I knew I was home free. To summarize what that finish chute symbolized to me would almost be another story in itself. I was re-energized, free, happy, and overjoyed. I took that neon trucker hat off my head, turned it backwards and fired off towards the awaiting finish line. I was overcome with emotion and overwhelmed by the crowd of strangers cheering for me as I spread my arms like a bird and flew down the chute. I yelled, I high fived awaiting hands of my friends and family hanging over the fence, and I celebrated with whatever ounce of energy I had left.
Finally with my foot over the finish line, I heard the words I had be longing to hear for the past two years, the words that I had worked so god damned hard to hear, and the words that would bring this journey to end – you are an Ironman. I almost stumbled into a volunteer as she guided me to a chair – finally I could stop moving. With an uncomfortable foil blanket draped over my shoulders I sat there unsure of what to do next. But in less time than I could sigh a breath of relief I heard the screams of my name and looked over my shoulder to see my friends and family anxiously awaiting congratulations hugs. It was exactly what I needed – that, a hot bath and some new legs.
It’s been almost three weeks since race day, and I still struggle to reflect on exactly what that day meant to me. It’s an adventure full of ups and downs, and one I will never forget. I claimed my title and no one can ever take that away from me. I poured my heart and soul into crossing that line, and even when there were days I never thought I would, I did. I’ll never be able to duplicate that feeling of crossing the Ironman finish line for the first time, but I will forever cherish it, learn from it and take it with me on whatever journey life has for me next.