Thursday, July 29, 2010
Swim, Bike and Run is Done. Bring on the Swig, Dance and Fun!
Shakira says there's a she-wolf in the closet, and she might be right. But I know for fact there has been a spinster in the closet for the past 24 weeks. Now that Ironman has come and gone, I'm ready to dust off the high heels (that were too painful to wear after regular runs over 10 miles), loosen up the schedule (that has been dictated by seven-hour bike rides), and pop open the vino (well, that part has been happening all the same, but soon I head to Napa Valley for a much-needed vacation and I don't have to worry about hungover workouts anymore!).
But before I get back on track with my sizzling spinster summer, let me tell you how all of my good-girl training has paid off since January.
I arrived in Lake Placid on Friday morning to soak up the vibe in the air that can only occur when you pack 2000+ athletes into a small mountain village who are all on the brink of going after a major goal. Some are there for the first time and just want to finish the race. Others, like me, are there to chase a special time that we’ve put in our minds as the proof that our efforts will be successful. Whether you’re there as an athlete, spectator or volunteer, the common denominator is respect for the race. The lake, roads and mountain tops that make up the course take on a life of their own and together become a fourth character in the scene that is “Ironman.” Lake Placid becomes a shadow box of courageous moments where people push themselves to their limits while being encouraged by the helping hands of volunteers and the clapping hands of spectators.
The morning comes early on race day as everyone gets up to prepare for the journey ahead. At 4:30AM, I moseyed out to the balcony from my hotel room and sat silently with a coffee as I stared over the black mountain tops that were silhouetted against a slightly less black sky whose sun was still on snooze. To my right, another man was doing the same…swigging Coke from a liter-sized bottle and sitting quietly with his thoughts. Like old friends who need only the bare minimum of words and phrases to communicate their feelings, he looked to me and said, “So?” I smiled and said, “It’s going to be a good day.” We both exhaled and continued staring forward as a gaggle of women still wearing heels and mini skirts from the night before ambled past us laughing as they took turns impersonating the event emcee, Mike Reilly, and his famous greeting to those who make it to the finish line…”Meghan, YOU are an Ironman!” one of them screamed, as the others doubled over in laughter whilst removing their shoes.
A few hours later I was in Mirror Lake, zipped into my wetsuit and clapping for the pros who had just begun their race. Ten minutes later we would do the same—plenty of time to pee in my wetsuit and collect my thoughts. I recognized Ryan Sutter (of Trista and Ryan “Bachelorette” fame) standing next to me. I smiled and waved when he caught me staring and continued to pee. It was a pre-race ritual after all, and I wasn’t about to let a D-list celebrity change up my game plan.
Moments later the race began, and I began my 2.4 mile “fight” through the water, swimming in and out of the thousands of limbs that were stroking and kicking their way down the long, narrow lake along the buoy line. I took a few blows to the face from nearby swimmers, and felt confident that should one of those heavy strokes push me beneath the water, the scuba divers that were nestled beneath us would swiftly usher me back to air. When I finally exited the water to run to the bike transition, I swore I tasted blood in my mouth so I checked to make sure all my teeth were in tact. They were, and I continued trotting along the carpeted path to the Olympic Oval to grab my helmet, shoes and bike.
Through the first 10 miles on the bike it was pouring rain. I immediately thought of the race in 2008 and how the rain pelted my skin for 15 straight hours before finally letting up around 10:00PM. At the time, my pink Tifosi glasses were so waterlogged I had to remove them so I could see, and I placed them into the back of my tri top only to discover later that they had slipped out somewhere. Only one day old, and already they were gone. This year it was the same. My replacement pink Tifosi glasses were streaked with rain, but I was determined that the sun would be back so I let them perch on my nose and made the bold decision to bomb down the hills despite how slick the road was from the water. Smart? Probably not. Fun? Absolutely.
There was something about taking control of my race in that moment that made the rain a little less threatening. I came back to Lake Placid Ironman to do the race I knew I was capable of, not to feel beaten down by the elements and let the weather dictate how things were going to be. I was armed with the powerful fact that I had already done an entire Ironman in the pouring rain, so I could do it again if I had to. And if the sun came out with a vengeance? Well most of my long rides and runs were completed during the hottest parts of 90-degree days when the humidity had me just as drenched as the 2008 monsoon.
My gamble paid off. I made great time down the initial descents on the bike course and headed into dry roads and sunshine after 10 miles. The sun was out just long enough to flirt with the idea of a rainbow on the edge of the passing rain, but it never came to fruition. The rest of my ride was smooth, strong and consistent. After the first 56 miles I took the Pepsi from my special needs bag and perched atop of my aerobars with one hand, while the other held the can to my lips. I was chugging cola like a crazy pirate swigging whiskey at the bow of his ship, drunk on the idea of finding coveted treasures. To me, the prospect of another strong loop on the bike into a solid marathon to the finish line was more valuable than all the rubies, diamonds and sapphires in the world. I was on track to beat my projected finishing time, and my progress on the course was motivating me to push just a little harder than I ever had in my training.
Back to the big downhill on the second loop, I stood up and soared over the road at 48 MPH. Several cola burps left me feeling ten pounds lighter and the wind in my hair left me feeling as sassy as a rebel on a motorcycle, and as carefree as a dog with his head hanging out of the car window.
I finished the bike with no issues (the anxiety of a possible flat tire or broken chain was haunting me the entire way) and got ready to set out on the run. By this time in 2008, I was so cold from biking in the rain that the idea of heading out to run a marathon in a tiny Lycra suit seemed on par with being admitted to a torture chamber. This time, I felt incredibly fresh and was looking forward to doing the last piece of the race—still on track to meet my goal of 14:30 hours.
In the transition tent, the scene was frantic and fast, the way I imagine it must be behind the scenes at a Lady Gaga concert when she’s jetting through one of her many costume changes. Only instead of sequins, cellophane and sparkler bras flying around, it was salt tabs, sunscreen and sneakers. The volunteers in the transition area descend upon each athlete like a team of stylists and make-up artists.
While one woman fastened my heart rate monitor onto my chest, another was tying my shoe. A third was basting each arm in SPF 50 and I was out of that tent and running the first mile of my marathon faster than Jimmy Johnson makes a Nascar pit stop. Apparently I ran right past Michael Phelps in the first mile who was there to cheer on his sister in the race. But not even the presence of an Olympian could have distracted me from the task at hand—run this marathon faster than the projected 12-minute miles you planned on, and you’ll crush your anticipated finishing time.
The run was without much drama. I kept a steady pace the entire way, only walking here and there as needed to sip from a cup without spilling its contents, and just briefly up the final hill of the course when Mr. Calf Muscle decided to come back and make good on his previous threat. My rationale was that running up the hill wouldn’t buy me much more time than briskly walking (which hurt far less) and trying to push it with four miles to go in the race could have resulted in a serious muscle spasm that would have me hobbling to the finish line like Mama Fratelli from the Goonies (and I wasn’t about to let Mama get to that finish line treasure before a focused, capable ME did!).
When I had just a mile to go and I realized I was going to beat my projected time by about an hour, I started to feel verklempt. My chest was hurting in part because I was pushing so hard, but mostly because I was stifling back so much raw emotion from within as I felt every fiber of my being striving for a finishing time under 13 hours and 40 minutes. Over the last 10K, I kept recalculating what I could realistically achieve with a body that was starting to deteriorate on the course. I knew I would beat 14 hours, but then I had my sights on 13:45 hours. And when it was barely safe to think it, I upped the ante to 13:40.
I headed into the Olympic Oval for the final 200 meters of the race, completely overcome by my senses. My legs were heavy with exhaustion but light with enthusiasm. My breath was shallow, but measured and strong. My arms ached, but they were reaching for the stars. I tasted salt, sweat, tears. I saw lights, and crazy arms wild with excitement for each person who came into the oval on their way to the finish line. Millions of mouths formed a sea of tiny black circles all screaming and cheering. The sound might have been deafening on another day, but in that moment it was like a song from the siren and I was happy to steer my ship directly toward it, crashing with utter joy at the finish line where my friend Jen slipped an Ironman finisher’s medal over my head.
My legs buckled beneath me, but I rested on Jen’s arm and broke down into an aggregate of sobs, slurs and one-word sentences.
It was truly special to have Jen at the finish line. I met her years ago when she moved to Syracuse from Canada and started coming to my spin class for something to do. Eventually I talked her into a triathlon, and like so many others, she was hooked and continued to pursue bigger goals. Just months ago she landed a job at a new triathlon publication (Lava) as the online editor. They flew her from San Diego to Lake Placid so she could cover the event, and there she was—taking a moment out of her time covering the professional triathlon scene to festoon little ol’ me with a race chotchkie. It made an already perfect race even better.
My parents were there to cheer me on, along with my boyfriend and a couple of my really close friends from Syracuse. Along the course there were many people from my local triathlon club volunteering and racing. It made Ironman feel like a family reunion. It’s like when you hear about your cousins from your aunt, and see pictures of them, but don’t really get to hang out with them except for once a year during the holidays. I know that the people close to me are aware of my training and my love for triathlon, but to have them in such close proximity after achieving this milestone in my life was truly special to me. Pictures and words can’t capture what I felt on that finish line. Though it was my second Ironman race, this is the one that I will always think of when I hear people say that I’m an Ironman. 2008 had its unique challenges and I know that it was a great accomplishment to make it through the race that year, but this year I feel utterly transformed as a person. I feel doors opening within me leading to potential I wasn’t sure I had. I feel the seeds of goals being planted in my soul and have goose bumps when I think of the experiences yet to come. I’m excited about new challenges and the prospect of going for something that may still be just beyond my reach.
Throughout the Ironman race this year, I kept thinking to myself how much I loved this sport and the people that I’ve come to know through it. Whether you’re just getting started in triathlon or you’ve been at it for a long time, make sure to stop and appreciate what it means to test your limits, and the way it makes you feel. Life is full of opportunities to realize how much we’re capable of and how strong we can be. It doesn’t take an Ironman to find your potential, ask more of yourself and dare to set ambitious goals—but it’s a nice stop along the way.