The Spirit of an IronMan

I get emotional even sitting down to start writing this post. I must admit to you that I don’t know where to begin, and I am finding my thoughts quite scattered and unorganized, but it is so important to me to get everything that I can possibly think of down now while it is all still somewhat fresh in my mind and before some of the finer, more vivid details start to fade into the background like brushstrokes on a canvass.

I spent nearly the entire last week working to keep myself calm, fight off an impending cold and to get things done before we left for Muskoka on the Friday night. As luck would have it, I got totally slammed by a work emergency at 3:30pm on Friday afternoon (why is it that the big emergencies always seem to happen at 3:30 on Fridays???) and didn’t end up getting back home to Matt until after 6:00pm. Not exactly the way that I was hoping to start off the race weekend!

Luckily for me, Matt was totally on the ball and had the car packed up within 15 minutes of me getting home, and we were on the road to Huntsville before I knew it. There was a brief moment of panic where I nearly forgot my helmet on the shelf in the closet, but thanks to Matt asking me if I had brought sunscreen, I went into the closet and the crisis was averted.

Can you imagine I got all the way up to Huntsville and forgot my bike helmet at home???

*Shudder*

Anyways, Matt and I had a terrific drive up to Muskoka. The late departure ended up being a blessing in disguise because we missed all of the weekend traffic! I started to feel more and more excited as we got closer to Huntsville, and less and less like I was going to vomit.

We got to Deerhurst, and the “I’m going to vomit” feeling came back pretty quickly when I saw the parking lot which had already been transformed into the transition zone. We’ve been to Deerhurst twice this year for training, and I remember closing my eyes and picturing the main parking lot as the transition zone back on the May long weekend and again in July. It had felt so far away back then, but here we were and here it was.

Sorry for the poor picture quality!!
Sorry for the poor picture quality!!

 

 

We checked in and a very nice girl with some sort of Austrian or German (or maybe it was French?) accent gave us an athlete welcome letter and explained to us how things were going to work that weekend. The main entrance to the resort was going to be closed on Sunday because of the race, and access was going to be severely limited on Saturday as well.

Man it would have sucked to have booked your family vacation at Deerhurst for that weekend without knowing that the race was there eh???

She also explained to us how we would be able to get our car out of the resort on Sunday while the race was going on (although skeptical Matt didn’t seem to believe the girl when she told us that they would be able to get the car out to the Highway 60 no problem…..little faith, little faith).

We checked into our (totally amazing) suite and then headed over to Matt’s family’s hotel to hang out with everyone. It was so flippin’ exciting to get there that night, I remember feeling so anxious and nervous, but so excited at the same time. When we got to the Sidders’ hotel room, the gang told me that we were going to have to buy our “Finisher” gear the next day at the race expo because the expo was closing at 3pm on race day (before I was planning to be finished my race). I had a mild heart attack when I heard that I had to buy the Finisher gear before I had even started the race. It just seemed like I was really tempting fate to do something foolish like that. I remember asking Neil what he was planning to do, and he wasn’t yet sure either. We decided to sleep on the decision and play it by ear the next day.

When we left Matt’s family’s hotel to go back to ours, Matt’s dad Roy gave me strict instructions to stay in bed as long as I possibly could the next morning and to not get up until I was absolutely sure that there was no way I could fall back asleep. I solemnly agreed, and when we got back to the hotel even made poor Matt sleep in the second double bed so that I could totally sprawl out in the other bed!

One day I swear I’ll pay Matt back for all of these little things that he’s done for me in the pursuit of this race, one day.

Matt and his younger brother Scott were planning to run 24 or 25 kilometers the next morning (they are both training for the Chicago Marathon in October, Scott’s first full marathon!), and so when I woke up at 9 something, Matt was gone and the room was empty. I took Roy’s advice and stayed in bed until just after 10, but never did get back to sleep. I had that kind of nervous/excited buzz for the day ahead. I couldn’t wait to get to the expo and go shopping and see what everything looked like. Every time my mind wandered towards the race the next day, I forced it away.

We went for breakfast at this cute little family restaurant right beside Matt’s family’s hotel, and then after a quick stop at Shoppers Drug Mart for some supplies came back to Deerhurst all together to check out the expo, get me registered and drop off our bikes at the transition zone.

The registration and expo was really well organized, and very easy to navigate. It was small enough that you could find everything you needed, but enough selection that you still had some options. In my first pass through the expo, I tried on the Finisher gear (GASP, I know….I just went for it….I figured I had better not leave it to chance that the stuff would fit me if I did somehow get lucky enough to finish) and Matt bought it for me so that it wasn’t like I was technically the one buying it….or at least that’s what we told ourselves in some sort of an effort to keep my karma intact.

After getting registered and picking up a really nice IronMan swag bag, I also bought a couple of race t-shirts, some IronMan Muskoka mugs for my parents and two water glasses for our house similar to the ones that Matt’s mom always buys at race expos, and had bought us in Boston this year. The most important purchase I made at the expo however wasn’t clothing or paraphernalia related at all.

It was this:

Speedfill Water Bottle

Jess had texted us on the drive up the night before saying that she had stumbled across this water bottle at the expo and that it might help me with all of my drinking woes on the bike.

The Coles Notes version of my drinking woes is that I’m too much of a spaz to be able to take one hand off of my handle bars while I’m riding to reach down, get my water bottle out of a bottle rack and drink from it without crashing into a rock quarry. I have to keep both hands on the handlebars at all times….which doesn’t bode well for drinking and riding!

My original plan going into the 94km bike ride was to stop at 34km and 64km to take a long drink of water and Powerade at the aid stations, but to tell you the truth, I was a bit nervous that it wasn’t going to be enough. Dehydration is a nasty demon, and it can end your race so fast that you don’t even see it coming up on you until it’s too late. I fear dehydration like the plague, and would much rather over-drink then under-drink.

The Speedfil bottle is this nifty little bottle that sits in the regular spot where a water bottle would sit on your bike, but has a super long, bendy straw that you can thread up through the handlebars of your bike, and drink from hands-free while you’re riding.

Perfecto!!

The darn thing was $120, so that was pretty much the opposite of “perfecto”, but I decided that it was worth the investment to make sure that I was able to drink throughout my entire ride and not just at the aid stations.

It literally was the best decision I made this entire year.

With our new purchases in hand, we all went back to our hotel to install the water bottle on Jilly and then drop our bikes at the transition zone.

I had some more mild heart failure when we got back and realized that Neil needed his tools (which were back at the other hotel) to install the bottle, AND on top of that, there were screws missing from my water bottle package, so we were going to have to take it back to the expo and exchange it. Matt and Neil left to go get Neil’s tools, and Dianne and I went back to the expo to exchange my water bottle for one that had all of the parts.

And while we did that, we may or may not have picked up another three tops and a poster from the expo gear shop. Mwa ha ha ha.

We ended up getting the bottle exchanged no problem, came back to the hotel room, met up with the guys and then Neil and I had to come right back down to the expo for the third time for the athlete information meeting. It was at this point that I really, really started to get nervous.

Thankfully, there was a really, really kind woman that did most of the talking about the course. She had this really sweet, kind of motherly vibe about her, and she reassured me that everything really was going to be alright. She assured us that if we did our best, worked hard and never gave up that every one of us would make the bike course cut-off time, and that the volunteers would be waiting with our medals for us at the finish line whenever we got there. Her kind tone and mannerisms really did a lot to help me calm down a little bit and breathe a bit easier. There wasn’t a whole lot of new information given at the meeting, but we did stay until the end and then went back up to the hotel room to get that water bottle on Jilly once and for all and then bring the bikes down to transition for the night.

The water bottle installation turned out to be a bit of a calamity, but between Matt and Neil they did eventually manage to get the sucker onto Jilly basically incident free.

What would I do without these two? Seriously.

Neil and I finally wrapped up our bikes in garbage bags to protect the seats and the electronics from the thunderstorm that we were due to get that night, and took them down to the transition zone. It took us about 5 minutes to drop off the bikes, get oriented in our spots and then come back up to the hotel to chill out for an hour before heading out for dinner at East Side Mario’s at 5:30pm.

The rest of the gang split at this point to go and poke around a Coles Bookstore, and Matt, Neil and I stayed put at the hotel where we watched a bit of this absolutely terrible, low budget movie that seemed to be about the world ending due to excessive rain, a scientist that thought that if she could only capture a jar full of honey bees that she had the answer to save the world, and these two girls and a guy that were on the run through a flooding city.

I know that Hollywood actors and actresses are ridiculously over-paid, but sometimes when you watch a really low budget movie you have to think to yourself…..maybe acting really isn’t as easy as those guys make it look???

Anyways, we had a good laugh about the $100 budget movie, and then went over to East Sides to meet up with the rest of Matt’s family and Jess. East Side’s was totally packed, so I was very relieved to have a reservation so that we didn’t have to stress out about getting in and getting seated. I ate a whole bunch of that irresistible garlic bread, a big garden salad and a pretty basic spaghetti and meatballs, which I also added chicken to for some extra protein. I started to feel super nervous around dinner time. The day was wrapping up and the list of things that stood between me and the start of the race was slowly diminishing. The “excited” feeling started to give way to the “vomit” feeling.

After dinner we skipped across the parking lot to Wal-Mart to get some last minute supplies and also to pick out a board game that we could play that night in the hotel room. We decided on this game called “Battle of the Sexes” where you divide into gender teams and ask the other team questions about your own gender. The game ended up being a huge hit and we had an absolute blast playing it the night before the race. Dianne, Jess and I completely dominated and swept the guys without much protest on their part. There was some interesting discussion on the guy’s team about homing pigeons, camel spiders and Twilight….but they struggled quite a bit with the female trivia 😉

I was so bummed to leave their hotel room that night because I was feeling so super anxious about the race, and would have much preferred to just put off thinking about it for a while longer. We did have a lot to get organized back in our hotel room though, and thankfully we managed to stay busy packing our bags, making food for the next day and checking (and re-checking) equipment until it was time for bed. Neil stayed with us the night before the race, and Matt gets yet another gold star for taking the pullout couch so that Neil and I could each sleep in our own beds that night.

I re-iterate: I will make this up to Matt somehow, someday.

As I was lying in bed that night, I remember feeling so many jumbled emotions all at once. I was a bit excited, and a lot anxious and scared. I was happy that after all of the ups and downs this year, I was there, but a bit sad that my own family wasn’t able to be there as well. I wanted so badly to finish the race, but was afraid to even hope for it that night when it was so far away. Somehow, with all of those thoughts racing around in my head, I did manage to get to sleep, and slept the entire night through. I woke up at 5:45am to Neil’s alarm clock going off.

Race morning was not the best morning for me. The “excited” emotions were completely gone, and I was just a ball of nerves. My stomach felt really tight and anxious, and I was just filled with this sick feeling of dread that wouldn’t go away no matter what I tried to tell myself.

I had pancakes (which Matt got up at 5:30am to make for me) for breakfast, and I remember moving from my bed into the pullout couch bed to lounge for a bit longer before finally (reluctantly) getting changed and heading down to the transition zone.

If you’ve never been in the transition zone of a triathlon at 6am before a race, put it on your bucket list because it’s quite a place to be. You can cut the air with a knife it’s so thick with anticipation, excitement, nerves, anxiety, the whole deal. Everyone is bustling around, checking and re-checking their bikes and other equipment, laying out their gear, organizing their thoughts, getting wet suits on, going for warm up jogs, stretching…..there’s just so much going on.

Neil and I pre-race
Neil and I pre-race

When I got to the spot where I had racked Jilly the night before, I couldn’t help but notice the girl beside me was looking (and sounding) pretty anxious as she asked another girl a bunch of questions about the race.  When the girl that she was talking to walked away (probably because she was freaking her the hell out), she turned to me.

“Hey, do you know if we are allowed to do the backstroke in the swim?” She asked me.

The question was one that I would have expected to hear at a Sprint race or maybe even an Olympic, but not at a Half IronMan! I reassured her that yes, we were allowed to do any stroke that we wanted (including the doggie paddle and the bear crawl), and that we were also allowed to hold onto the paddleboards to take a break if we needed to without penalty, so long as we weren’t moving forward. This seemed to calm her down a bit, and we got chatting more about the race. I learned that indeed I had been right, and the Half IronMan was her VERY FIRST TRIATHLON EVER.

Talk about go big or go home right?! And you thought I was crazy for tackling the race in my first YEAR in the sport?!

In all honesty, she was a little bit unprepared. She had forgot her bike helmet at home, bought brand new bike shorts to wear the previous day at the expo, hadn’t brought any hair elastics and was wearing a wakeboarding wet suit rather than the swimming wet suits that Matt and I had finally figured out earlier in the year. Nonetheless, I am a firm believer that passion and heart go further than equipment and gear in a race like this, and I reassured her that she was going to be fine, and I really meant it.

Over my new found friend’s shoulder, I could see Matt just shaking his head at me. I had been given strict instructions to not be a “chatty Cathy” in the transition zone and to focus on my race and I guess I had blown it a bit right off the hop.

Whoops 😉

Anyways, we came back up to the hotel, satisfied that we had set everything up as best we could, and then came back down to meet up with the rest of the gang just before we headed down to the beach for the swim start.

Matt and I pre-race!!
Matt and I pre-race!!

It was so exciting to have Matt’s family there at the race to watch us, and so ironic that after they’ve all played such a huge role in the motivation for me to even want to do one of these things, that they could all be there to cheer us on. I still think back on that day in Lake Placid when we all really hardly knew each other, and how far each one of us has come, and how much our relationships have grown since then. It really is so beyond amazing.

We got into our wet suits, and made our way all together down to the beach. On the way down, I ran into one of my friends from work who was also doing the race (we had done one 16km training run earlier this year together), gave her a huge hug and wished her luck. I also met up with my new found friend from transition!

Everything started to happen really fast at that point, before I really knew what was happening, a lady was calling out “ATHLETES ONLY PAST THIS POINT”, I was giving Matt a hug and he was telling me to “leave it all out there”, and just like that, they were all gone, and it was just Neil and I. Words can’t even explain to you how grateful I was to have been in the same wave start as Neil so that we could stand together before the swim. The last two triathlons I’ve done we have been in different waves, and it always freaks me out so much to stand all by myself before we get into the water.

My mind was racing, but chatting with Neil and the two other girls (yes, we acquired another one) kept me occupied until we were called down to the beach to get into the water. I was so thrilled that it was a walk-in start off of a sandy beach. No jumping in required – wahoo!!!

We had been hearing rumours all morning that the water was freezing cold (think Toronto Triathlon cold), close to 60 degrees. I was really nervous about the temperature, but as soon as we stepped into the water, those fears evaporated instantly. The water was as warm as a bathtub! It felt absolutely amazing to get in, and with the wet suit on we were toasty warm.

The walk-in start is soooooo much less stressful than a jump in start, I can’t even tell you. We got a chance to float around in the water, get acclimatized, go for a bit of a warm up swim, and just all around get the jitters out before we started off on the swim. Somehow, someway our little group of three nervous girls and Neil turned into a group of six nervous girls and Neil, so poor Neil took that opportunity to go and do a warm up swim. The rest of us stood around and chatted about the race, and what we were most nervous about. A really nice girl told me that her first year doing this race it had been her first Half IronMan, and she too had done it in her first year in the sport. She reassured me that she was out on the course for 8 and a half hours, and made the bike cutoff by 2 minutes, but she made it!

I was really enjoying just floating around in the water and chatting with people, but sadly there was a race to get underway. My nerves had mostly evaporated by that point, and I was ready to get started on the day. They called us up to the buoy line, and just like that, we were off.

Swim Start

 

Swim Start 2

It is the absolute ultimate sense of relief when the start gun goes for a race. It’s amazing. All of the nerves and the anticipation and the anxiety just evaporate, and it’s just this enormous weight lifted off of you. It’s finally time to stop worrying, and to start doing. And that is the best feeling in the entire world.

The swim start was really great because it was so nice and wide. There was lots of space for everyone (although that didn’t stop me from getting kicked right in the crotch about 5 seconds into the race….!!) and it didn’t feel as chaotic as some of the other races that I’ve done. My stress levels came way down, and I just started swimming. I felt really terrific, felt good that I was keeping on pace with my fellow white capped friends, and confident that I was going to finish the swim no problem.

The water was warm and flat, not even a ripple to negotiate. The sun was out and it was the most absolutely beautiful, cool day; just perfect for a triathlon. The swim was totally uneventful for me until towards the end. I noticed that although I was at the back of our wave start, I was still keeping pace with a bunch of men back there which made me feel pretty good! I’ve gotten so much better at getting my head up and looking where I’m going to avoid any direction disasters like the one I had in the Milton Triathlon and the buoys were spaced out perfectly so there were no issues there.

From the beginning of the race, I refused to let myself think about the finish line; whenever I would catch myself day dreaming about the finish line, I would sternly remind myself to cut it out, and focus on the next goal that I had set for myself. The first goal was simply to finish the swim.

I noticed about half way through the swim that the pink caps in the wave behind us had caught up to me, but thankfully they hadn’t over-powered me in a wave like they had in the Milton Triathlon. The whole thing was totally seamless and if I hadn’t noticed them wearing pink caps, I would never have known that another wave of swimmers had caught up to me. A little further along I did notice some blue caps as well from two waves behind us. I felt a little flicker of disappointment that I had fallen a bit behind the rest of my white-capped friends, but over the past year I’ve really learned to accept falling behind, and it bothers me a whole lot less now that it did early on in the season. I had the mantra “just keep swimming” running through my head the entire time.

I could tell that we were getting close to the end of the swim because the water started getting very shallow, and very weedy!!! I had heard some grumblings through the grapevine about the swim finish at Muskoka being kind of gross and thick with algae and weeds, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it. The last 200 metres of the swim the water went this really murky brown colour, so we were swimming totally blind, and when I would turn my head to breathe I started catching algae and goop all over my face!! One girl actually kind of swam right up on top of me a bit because she couldn’t really see where she was going. She actually said something to the effect of “Come on man!”….I’m still to this day not sure if she was talking to me, or just talking to herself/the situation????

In any case, the murky water didn’t bother me, I actually kind of thought it was funny. By the time I stood up, I had to shake some leaves and pond guck off of me, but was no worse for the wear. The swim was done!! HALLELUJAH!!

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As I came out of the water, I got my bearings much quicker then I normally do when I come out of the water. I attribute this to the super calm water and the absence of any waves that might have thrown off my equilibrium a bit. One of the very nice “strippers” (read: people who will peel your wet suit off of you if you want them to; get your mind out of the gutter!!) unzipped the back of my wetsuit for me, and I peeled it down to my waist so that I could make the 300 metre run up the hill and back to the transition.

Sara Swim Finish

Sara Swim Finish 2

It was the first hill of oh so many that day. Sigh.

I felt like a million bucks coming out of the water. I saw Matt and Roy on the hill as I sprinted casually on by, and I was up at the transition before I knew it!

Sara T1

I had a checklist a mile long of things that I needed to get done in T1:

1)      Eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich, some gummies and a PowerBar

2)      Drink a bunch of water and Gatorade

3)      Go to the bathroom

4)      Change into bike shorts and top

5)      Put on sunscreen

6)      Put on my sunglasses

Okay, maybe not a mile long, but it sure felt like a lot to get done! My nervous friend beside me came out of the water about 2 minutes behind me, and we met up in the transition zone once again. I gave her a high five, and also a hair elastic because hers had broken (*shakes head*) and that was the last I saw of my new friend for the rest of the day. She was a bit quicker than me in the transition and got a jump start on the bike, and that was it!

I tried to be as methodical as I could going through my little checklist, but I still felt a bit “floundery” (is that even a word?) as I was getting things done. I had to wait for about 2 minutes for a Porta-Potty which stressed me out quite a bit because I was pretty anxious to get going!

What seemed like an eternity later, two bites of a peanut butter sandwich down the hatch and as much Gatorade as I could stomach, I was un-racking Jilly and starting off on what I felt was going to be the “make or break” leg for me: the bike. I had said to Matt earlier in the week that if I could only make it off of my bike in one piece, that I was going to finish the race no matter what, if I had to run, walk or crawl the half marathon. I just needed to get off my bike.

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My bike started off with a total panic attack about 10 metres past the mount line. As I stopped to get on Jilly and push off, she started making this god awful grinding sound and everything was clicking really loudly and harshly like something was stuck. I totally panicked and stopped thinking clearly, and just kept trying again and again to get back on and pedal, only to the same awful grinding and clicking sound.

My heart absolutely stopped. This was it, I hadn’t even started, and I thought my day might have been over right then and there.

Thankfully, there were a ton of spectators around at the bike start, and one man called out to me, “Just lift the back tire and give it a spin!” Which of course I did, which of course allowed the gears to shift, which of course was the problem.

Duh.

In all of my nervous energy to get going on the bike, I had totally blanked out and forgotten the most obvious fix of all! I thanked the man profusely, hopped on Jilly and set off without incident. Thank God. I saw Dianne, Jess and I think it was Troy sitting at the side of the road and cheering as I went by, and wondered if they had seen my little kafuffle at the start!

I got going on the bike, and tried to settle into a rhythm. It always feels so good to get going on the bike because it’s nice after you feel like you’re moving so slowly in the swim to get moving at a good pace on the bike! I knew that the bike course was laid out somewhat like this:

First 15km: Awful hills

Middle 50km: Rolling hills

Last 30km: Atrocious, terrible, steep, sharp hills that make even the strongest biker weep

I set the strategy right away to not even let myself imagine the end of the bike, and to focus on getting through small chunks at a time. The first goal that I set for myself was to get through the first 15km of “awful hills”.

I remember feeling really comfortable on my bike, and hopeful that I was going to have a good day. I was really encouraged that there were so many people around me; for once I didn’t feel like the total loser at the back of the pack all by myself! I even passed several people going up a couple of hills!

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The Speedfil water bottle started to earn it’s worth and then some early on in the bike. It was so amazing to be able to drink constantly throughout the ride, I never once felt even close to thirsty, and whenever I felt a bit lethargic, a sip of water would usually perk me right up.

I was thrilled with the first 15km, and actually didn’t find the hills so “awful”. (That being said, it is 6 days later, and I know it’s funny how our brains tend to forget the really atrocious parts as time passes by…..;)).

The next goal that I set for myself was to make it to the 34km aid station mark where I was going to stop, get some Gatorade, stretch out a bit and also have a snack (which I was carrying in a Running Room pouch around my waist like a 70 year old).

There was a small change to the bike course from the course that Neil and I had biked twice this summer in training. We ended up turning off on a road called “Dwight Beach Road” instead of continuing back onto the Highway 60. I remember the road being fairly rough (so much so that there was even a CAUTION sign that warned us to slow down on that section) and there being a couple of REALLY sharp uphills that neither Neil nor I had any experience on because we hadn’t biked this section of the course before!

Nonetheless, making it out of Dwight Beach Road was a victory, and I made it to the first 34km shortly thereafter. They had set up hockey nets for us to throw our empty water bottles into as we approached the aid station if we wanted to and the hockey net was nearly full when I got there!

I was beyond excited to have made it to the first aid station, and to have gotten to the second landmark. I pulled off and took a Powerade from a very nice volunteer, who I also stood and chatted with for about 5 minutes about how beautiful the leaves were in this area in the Fall, and how it would be amazing to bike in Muskoka at that time of year.

I know, I know. Matt and his family are probably cringing right now thinking of the clock cheerfully ticking away while I stood around chatting about the weather. They’ve been calling me a chatty Cathy ever since the race!!

Fear not faithful clock watchers, while I was chatting; I was also snacking on some PowerBar gummy snacks and a PowerBar Energy bar as well. I re-filled my water bottle (which I had almost 100% emptied by the 34km mark by the way!!!!) and finally hopped back on Jilly with the next goal of making it to the second aid station at 64km.

Without a doubt, that middle 30km section was the best section of the day for me. It was rolling hills, but nothing too too serious going uphill, and lots of great downhills and flats as well where I really got my speed up (close to 30km/hour for a big chunk!!).

Just before I saw Matt and Troy at around kilometer 52, I remember a lady with a tattoo on her leg passing me with the cheerful “on your left!” call, and as she went by she kind of slowed down a bit and asked me how I was doing. I replied that I wasn’t doing too bad, and that we were over half way there, to which she replied that she had just thought that herself. I don’t really know why that interaction stuck out in my mind, but it did for some reason or other. Maybe because she was the first person (apart from my friend in the transition) that had spoken to me out on the course to say more than “on your left!”? Who knows. I appreciated the gesture nonetheless, it was around this point in the day when the race stopped being such a solitary endeavor and turned into a real “team effort” feel where everyone had everyone else’s back out there.

Shortly after the lady with the tattoo passed me, I saw Matt and Troy! Ironically enough, they had pulled over in nearly exactly the same spot that Matt had picked me up off the road during my last training bike in Muskoka when I had had a terrible day, and only made it to about 50km on my first shot at the bike course. I called out hello to them, but kept on riding. Nobody was picking me up off any roads in any cars today.

One important development as I rode by Matt and Troy was that as I rode by, I asked them how Neil was doing. Matt hesitated a second and then called after me as I was disappearing that Neil was having some bike troubles, was struggling and that I was actually gaining on him. I remember turning around and calling back for more information, but I was too far gone at that point, and didn’t get any more details. My heart sunk hearing that Neil was having some trouble with his bike. It is really and truly every biker’s worst nightmare to have your bike break down. I would even go so far as to say that a crash would be easier to stomach then a DNF because of your bike breaking down, simply because matters would have been entirely out of your hands. You really and truly are at the mercy of your equipment out there, and sometimes it just doesn’t come through for you. I carried on hoping against all hope that Neil was doing okay and that his bike troubles weren’t serious enough to prevent him from finishing the course.

Neil Bike

It was actually not far ahead at all that I came across the rest of the gang, including Matt and Troy who had driven ahead of me to see me yet again at around the 60km mark! I think I actually surprised them because I was the one that yelled out to them to get their attention, and nobody really responded to me right away!! I learned later that they had actually just missed Neil passing by, so they weren’t expecting to see me until they had seen Neil since they knew he was ahead of me.

I got to the second aid station at 64 still feeling really strong. I needed to stretch my back and my neck a little bit, but I wasn’t feeling too much worse for wear. I once again filled my water bottle (which was nearly 100% empty for the second time at this point!!!), drank a bunch of Powerade and had my second snack of some more Powerade gummy snacks and some more of my energy bar. I didn’t spend quite as much time chatting at the second aid station, but I definitely did stop for a few minutes and had a few words with a very nice man who was handing out bottles. He asked me how I was feeling and I enthusiastically replied that I was GREAT and that the next stop was the transition again! It was at that point that I started to let myself dream about the transition, I felt like I was so close to being finished the hardest leg of the day!

I was so enthusiastic that I forgot what lay ahead for me in the last 30km:

Last 30km: Atrocious, terrible, steep, sharp hills that make even the strongest biker weep

I know that 30km really doesn’t seem like that long after the long distance that we had been already, and in reality it really isn’t that long….but man did it ever feel like it. I had an absolutely terrible last 30 on the bike. The hills came on fast and furious, and my average speed dropped like a stone from the breezy 30km/hour down to close to 16 or 17 km/hour. My breathing was getting really ragged on the hills, and everything hurt. But what nearly drove me right off the bike and out of the race altogether was the shearing pain in my back.

My back started acting up around kilometer 70, shortly after I left the second aid station. Not too far behind it was my neck which had had enough of looking up hills all day, and started to burn with this awful sharp pain as well. Every pedal stroke uphill felt like I was slipping a disc in my back, and at one point I seriously wondered to myself if it was worth it to keep going if I was seriously injuring myself. I just couldn’t tell how “serious” the sharp pain was.

It was in this last 30km that all of us bikers started to lean on each other. As we passed each other we would tell the other person to keep going and that they were doing great. If we saw someone pulled over on the road we would slow down and ask if they were okay and if we could do anything for them. Some people swore colourfully and loudly as they went up hills, which made the rest of us laugh or at least kind of smile if laughing just wasn’t possible at that point.

I had a really, really tough time between kilometer’s 80 and 90, and a lady with blonde hair and a white bike shirt was my saving grace. She reassured me that we were so close; we were going to make it, not to give up.

In that last 30km, I saw a man puking on the side of the road and several people walking their bikes up hill. I am so, so proud of myself that I never once got off my bike to walk it up hill. I had never once yet completed a training ride without having to walk my bike up at least one hill, so this was a big deal for me!

Slowly, somehow, the kilometers ticked by and somehow we made it back to the transition zone together. I finished just behind the lady with the white bike shirt and I thanked her so much for her kind words in the last 10km when I so badly needed them. I was beyond thrilled….

THE BIKE WAS OVER!!!!!

I can’t even explain to you the fear and the weight that that bike course has cast over me for the last year. It’s been the source of so much anxiety and concern, and now it was all behind me. Now I had to uphold my last and final promise to Matt: I had made it off my bike, and I was going to run, walk or crawl to the finish line, whatever it took.

I racked Jilly back up, took off my helmet and started to think about getting changed into my running pants. There were about 4 guys (probably my age or a little younger) hanging out by the fence just on the other side of the chute, and they were calling out “HEY! HEY YOU! HEY YOU!” I ignored them for a bit, but when they kept calling out I finally lifted my head and asked them if they were talking to me, at which point they told me no, sorry, they were talking to the one guy’s girlfriend who was ignoring them on the other side of my rack.

Deciding that although the time for public nudity was long since passed, I was just going to strip down to my bathing suit bottoms anyways and put on my running pants over-top so that I didn’t have to bother with the change tents. I did this right in front of the 4 guys hanging out by the fence, and I think I may have freaked them out a bit by whipping off my bike shorts right in front of them (LOL)….but hey, I had places to go and things to do!

I had one more bite of my PowerBar, grabbed a package of Sharkies fruit snacks to carry with me for a little bit and set out on what was to be the last and final leg of this incredible journey: the 21.1km run.

As soon as I got my legs moving, two things were of immense relief to me.

1)      My leg muscles weren’t COMPLETELY shot from the massive bike, and I still felt like I had a bit of energy left

2)      The sharp pain in my back and neck evaporated, and I felt okay again.

My back was a particular relief to me, since on the bike I had been really concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to move when I got off for the run. I saw Roy, Scott and Matt just as I was heading out on the course, and they seemed to be pretty pumped, which gave me a little burst of energy. I think I smiled and waved at them, and was feeling pretty good at that point.

I look pretty happy!
I look pretty happy!

The run course is an out and back stretch around the city of Huntsville, which is a good thing and a bad thing for a couple of reasons.

The good part about a course like this is that you know exactly what is coming, and how far you still have to go (not just on a kilometer basis but on an actual landmark basis as well, which I find helpful). Another good thing is that if you have to go up a steep hill on the way out, you know that you’re going to get to run DOWN that same hill on the way home, which is kind of nice. That same logic applies the opposite way to, but let’s be positive and not talk about that shall we? 😉

The bad part about an out and back course is that you have to watch people that are much further ahead of you, and much closer to the goal that you are striving for as well for the entire race. It was a bit tough to hear fans on the other side of the road cheering that the athletes were “ALMOST THERE” and “LAST HILL OF THE DAY” as they approached the last kilometer mark, when I hadn’t even finished my first kilometer just yet. I tried my best to stay focused and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I still refused to think about the finish line.

I knew that I was going to be run-walking the run, so I took it easy for the first stretch. My goal was to run the half marathon in 3 hours or less (about 45 minutes slower than my half marathon PB).

Once I got away from Deerhurst and all of the excitement and energy there, I started to feel very sluggish and lethargic. I did more walking then I did running, and time was ticking away on me. I started to get a bit frustrated with myself, but tried to remember the mantra to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Around the time when we emerged from Deerhurst Road onto the Highway 60 was when things started to turn around for me.

I’m not quite sure how or why, but I took about 2 minutes off my average kilometer speed, but still felt like it was totally sustainable. I did more running then walking, caught up to a bunch of other runners that were still on their way out and met a new friend, who ended up playing a big part in my run.

I passed by an older man (I think the number on the back of his leg was 56 or something like that) who was running close to the same speed that I was (when I was running), and he asked me how my day was going. We chatted a little bit about our experience on the bike, and both said how grateful we were that it was over. We carried on, and he would pass me whenever I started to walk, but then I would pass him again when I started to run. We carried on back and forth like this for almost the entire run.

Sara Run Start 2

I was stopped at every aid station and taking a cup of Powerade and a cup of water from the volunteers. I also started to take some of the gummy snacks that they had as well, since I knew that I hadn’t eaten enough at the transition from the bike to the run. It was a beautiful, cool fall day in Muskoka on the day of the race, but on the run it started to feel a little bit hot and sunny.

When we hit the turn around, I felt like I was on top of the world. I made plans in my head to run the entire way back, no more walking, and I was on pace to run the half marathon in 2:30, which was about the time that I ran my very first half marathon in Ottawa in. I was pumped. I unexpectedly saw Troy, Matt and Roy shortly after we turned around. At this point, my new friend had pulled a bit ahead of me, and when the guys started to cheer for me, the man said to them “Thanks! But actually my name isn’t Sara, its Stewart!” The guys laughed and started to cheer for Stewart as well.

When I caught up to him again, and it was just the two of us once again, he said to me, “So I gather your name is Sara then? I’m Stewart”. And from that point on, we were on a first name basis.

Things went terrific for about 2km after we turned around, and then I hit my first major stumbling block on the race. I started to get really light headed and feel like I was going to pass out around kilometer 12. Although the symptoms in my head were the most forceful, I noticed that my stomach was aching as well, from hunger. I had let myself go too long without eating, and I hadn’t been drinking enough at the aid stations. My body was starting to slip into dehydration, and also starting to shut down because it didn’t have enough fuel.

For some reason, Stewart called back to me around that point “Sara, you okay back there?” I called out to him that I wasn’t feeling great, and that I needed to get to an aid station to get some food because my stomach was aching.

If you can believe this, Stewart actually stopped running and came back to me. Can you believe that? I get teary-eyed as I write this and remember the day. He must have been suffering himself, and to move even one step backwards after the day that we had had, is beyond comprehension. He pulled out one of his own gels and gave it to me. He told me that I was getting dehydrated and that there wasn’t enough water and Powerade in the cups that they had been giving out (it was only a mouthful at most), and so I needed to take three or four from the volunteers at the next aid station. I thanked him profusely and told him to go on without me, and I would see him at the finish line.

At that point, they were empty words. I honestly did not know if I was going to make it to the finish line on my own two feet or not.

I got to the aid station at 14 kilometers and told them that I was in a bit of trouble. I asked for three cups of water and three cups of Powerade, and drank them all one after the other. I asked also for some gummy snacks, and when they gave me a cup full of them, I told them that I needed more, and so they gave me the entire bag to take with me.

I left the aid station walking, and as I ate, started to feel the life coming back into me a bit. I knew that I was still teetering on the edge of a total meltdown, and so I played it very cautiously in between aid stations.

It was at this point that I had to let go of my new goal to finish the half marathon in 2:30. I had a feeling that I would have been able to run more, and faster, but I was just too afraid that my body was going to fall apart on me, and the thought of not finishing when I was only 6km away from the line was too much of a terrifying thought to chance it.

I told myself that I was going to run at least 300 metres of every kilometer, and doing that should get me to the line in 3 hours or less, just like I had initially planned. There were some stretches in the sun on the Highway 60 that I felt woozy, and my back started to ache again, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I exchanged a few words with some of the other athletes that I came across, including one poor man who was suffering with crippling leg cramps. I stopped to ask if I could help with anything, or if I could get a medical person to come and help him, and he strenuously objected because he was afraid that if someone saw him they would pull him off the course. I understood exactly where he was coming from, told him that I was sending him every bit of strength that I had left, and that I would see him at the finish line.

I had about 5km to go and I still refused to think about the finish line.

I saw Matt with 3km to go. I was sore. I was dizzy. I was tired. And it felt like I still had so much further to go. He was cheering for me, and I think I replied with something like “I don’t think I’m going to make it”. He said something back along the lines of “The next time you see me, you’re going to be crossing that line.”

Sara Run 3

The next 2km were a bit of a blur. My mind started to creep towards the thing that I had been pushing it away from all day. When I hit the 20km mark, I finally let myself picture it.

The last kilometer was up hill, and the spectators on the hill gave me the strength to get up it. My ears were kind of ringing, and everything was a bit foggy, but I distinctly remember one lady with a British accent and shiny dark hair leaning down with her hands on her knees and yelling “YOU’VE GOT 500 METRES TO GO, YOU’RE THERE, YOU’VE DONE IT!!”, I remember another man standing about 100 metres ahead and motioning me to come towards him saying “THIS WAY, THIS WAY, GET OVER HERE!!” I was on another planet, my mind wasn’t working, my body was hardly working, and so I just held onto their voices for dear life and kept running. I could hear the din of the finish line, but it all seemed so far away.

I came around the transition zone, passed right by where I had racked Jilly, and the whole day re-played over in my head. The ups and the downs, the friendships and the team work, the sweat and the pain, and the triumph as well. My eyes started to well up, but my chest was so tight that I couldn’t even cry at that point. When I crossed under the big Subaru arch that said RUN FINISH, my heart was in my throat, and I started looking frantically for Matt and his family. I saw them standing right at the finish line arch, right where I knew they would be. The volunteers were holding the tape across the finish line, and I think it was right about when I crossed the line that the tightness in my chest finally dissipated and I broke down into gulping, choking sobs. My final chip time was 8 hours and 2 minutes.

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A lady put the medal around my neck and I don’t even remember if I said thank you, I was gulping away like a fish, and a paramedic came scurrying over to me (I think because he probably thought that I was in trouble). He stayed right at my elbow and kept asking me if I was okay and how I was feeling. I told him that I was okay and that they were happy tears, and he said he knew, but he still didn’t go anywhere until I made it all the way out of the chute! 😉

Sara Chute

I vaguely remember a lady taking my ankle chip off of me, and asking Matt and his family which colour finisher t-shirt I should pick (neon yellow or grey), and have a vague memory of a little boy putting a “Finisher” baseball hat on my head over-top of my sunglasses. I gave Matt a huge hug and did some more sobbing (really, if someone was watching me they probably thought I was an escaped mental patient) and then a photographer asked if he could take my picture in front of the Subaru logo.

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One of the first questions that I asked when my mind started working was if Neil was okay, and if he had finished. I am going to save the details of Neil’s race for him to tell you about in his own words (hint: I may or may not have a guest blogger coming up on Going the Distance!!), but for now….let’s just leave it at….HE FINISHED!!!!

Neil Medal

Everyone except for Matt headed back to the hotel room, and we hung around a little longer to give my legs a chance to calm down and to get some food from inside the athlete area. I was feeling a bit nauseous at that point, and so I sat down on this big rock right by the finisher chute and watched some more athletes come in (including the lady in the white bike shirt that had helped me so much in that last 10km). I felt like I would never be able to move again, but somehow got off that rock and made it inside to get a plate full of food.

It just so happened that I met up with my friend from the transition zone inside the food area! She seemed to be doing really well, but she said that her brand new bike shorts (that she had bought the day before) had chafed the inside of her legs so badly that they were bleeding! I’m not overly surprised….there’s a reason you don’t buy brand new gear and wear it during a Half IronMan, but hey, you live and learn right?

We spent the rest of the night back in our hotel room; we ordered pizza and chicken bites (just like Matt, Neil, Jess and I have done after every race all year) and played some more Battle of the Sexes. I was super sore and having a really hard time walking or moving around anywhere that night after the race, but by the next morning, I was feeling much better and able to move around much easier. My mom had asked someone to buy me a bouquet of flowers since she wasn’t able to be there in person (my brother had been re-admitted to the hospital 3 days before the race, and so my family had had to bow out of the trip). We transported them in a Powerade bottle, and I thought that the irony of that was pretty funny.

Sara Flowers

That night after the race as we were all sitting around, re-living the great moments and the not so great moments, hearing the stories from the spectators and talking about the amazing year that we’ve had, the topic of new goals came up, and Neil and Roy got talking about the Whistler full IronMan in 2015. I may be stupid, but I think even I know my limits enough to say that I’m nowhere close to being in the same galaxy as a full IronMan Finisher Medal, but I did agree to come back and do the Muskoka Half again next year. And really, who the hell knows what will happen after that.

Sara and Neil Medals

A while back, I wrote that this journey for me has been about more than swimming, running and biking. It’s been about becoming a person that finishes what they start. I think along the way, it’s also become a bit about staring fear in the eye, and saying to myself that even though I’m scared, I’m going to do it anyways. I can’t even count the number of times over the past year that my insides have just quaked with fear; that I’ve felt like I was going to throw up with nerves, that my mind was racing thinking of all of the terrible things that could happen. I think what I’ve learned this year is that real bravery isn’t necessarily the absence of fear. But it is the ability to work through fear and to not let it cripple you.

Feel the fear, and do it anyways.

I still do not consider myself a distance athlete.

I’m nobody special, I’m not someone to be looked up to, or idolized, or used for inspiration. I’m still just that run of the mill, “could stand to lose 15 pounds” girl who eats chocolate and full fat cheeseburgers (with a white bun thank you very much), and will even have a couple of cocktails.

I think what really makes someone an IronMan is their spirit. Just like Lance Armstrong wrote, it really isn’t about the bike, nor is it about the running shoes or the wet suit, or any of that. An IronMan (to me), has an unbreakable spirit. They never, ever give up, even when the odds are against them, even when it seems impossible, like it did on that day in October 2012 when I started this blog and declared my goal to the world.

While my IronMan 70.3 journey is coming to a close, rest assured that the journey is not over, and nor is Going The Distance. While my next BHAG is yet to be determined, I really and truly believe that the sky is the limit. With a little bit of guts, a lot of determination and an absolutely unbreakable spirit, I really and truly believe that any one of us can accomplish anything in the world that we set our mind to do.

For now, my next challenge is to be the best possible stem cell donor for my little brother, who will be receiving his transplant on October 18th. He also has the spirit of an IronMan, and about 10X the bravery and the guts. Cancer picked the wrong guy when it picked my brother. You don’t mess with an IronMan.

If you are still reading, and you haven’t dozed off, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Knowing that there has been someone, anyone in the world, out there reading about my journey this past year has kept me going on the days that I just didn’t think I could go on. Thank you for believing that I could do it. It means more to me then you will ever know.

All my love – and until the next BHAG is set!!!!!

Sara

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