Thursday, October 26, 2006

One Of The Best Days Of My Life

“Today I get to do an Ironman,” I announced to Chris at 4 am.

It had been months of training, sacrifice, and planning that had led up to this day. And now here I was, standing in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii at 4 am on October 21st ready to begin the day long adventure of Ironman.

Around 4:45 am, Chris dropped me off on Alii Drive near the transition area. Immediately, I was bombarded with what felt busy
and bustling. People everywhere, volunteers, lights, announcements, restaurants already open, spectators already sitting on the seawall for the best view, the banyan tree is blazing with bright lights.

Triathletes were streaming around the King Kamehameha Beach Hotel going in many different directions. I stood in the middle of it all looking around trying to figure out where to go. What happens next? What’s first? Bags? Body marking? I follow the crowds of anxious triathletes behind the hotel. Before entering, I turn in my run and bike special needs bags, hoping I would see them many miles from now. For the second time in two days, I get weighed. This morning I weigh in 3 pounds heavier than at registration. It makes me laugh and makes me wonder why they bother weighing us at all.

“What number are you?” a volunteer asks.

I am number 1568. A volunteer stamps each number on my arms and another is writing my age on my left calf. They stamp numbers on to my arm with thick black paint that will eventually survive the day, plus two subsequent applications of sunscreen, and an oily massage after the race.

I find my bike far into the transition area near the end of the pier. The transition area is buzzing with triathletes but everyone is quiet, unfriendly, focused on their own preparations. I put food on my bike, attach the wheel magnet, put in my bottles. Though there are hundreds of people all around me, I have never felt so alone before a race. Everyone was so focused on themselves. I didn’t recognize any faces and could barely understand half the languages. I finally see a familiar face, Jennifer, and ask if Jerome will pump my tires. He asks how much air I want in my tires. I don’t know – usually Chris makes these decisions. For the first of many times that day, I wish Chris was there with me.

By 5:45 am, my bike is all set to go. I keep myself distracted by walking around transition watching the other triathletes. A few times, I walk by the pro area. Bright lights and cameras catch their last minute checks and preparations. I see Natascha Badmann getting her bike ready to ride. I see Norman Stadler sitting on the ground by the fence. He looks completely calm and focused. He looks like someone ready to win the Ironman. A little over 8 hours later, he does.

”What do we do now?” I ask Gail Leveque, a familiar face from Team Trisports.com, who is waiting by the pier.

I am feeling alone, nervous with my own anticipation, and wanting to talk. I sit with Gail near the steps to the pier, to wait before entering the water. She talks about her past Ironman experiences. She tells me to go easier than I think I should on the bike because it all comes down to the run. I think of all of the advice I have received from several Kona veterans, including Bob, Laura, Jennifer, and Brian, and hope I have the sense enough to follow it all throughout the day.

“Good luck,” I say quietly to Desiree Ficker as she passes me as she nears the swim start. She smiles at me with her blue eyes gleaming with the hope of success in her Ironman journey. The pro athletes enter the water and swim out to the start line about 300 yards away. Helicopters hover in the sky creating chop in the water. A cannon sounds and the race begins. Kona 2006 is underway.

“All age groupers should start entering the water. Do not wait,” the announcer says repeatedly after the pro athletes start their swim telling us to swim no farther than the giant Gatorade bottle to form an imaginary start line.

With 15 minutes until the race start, I get in and tread water. I think about my starting position and choose the far right about the third row in from the front. With 1800 athletes entering the water all at the same time, I know that any place will probably be the wrong place. I have heard numerous tales about how tactile and aggressive the Kona swim start can be. A short while later, I confirm those stories across 2.4 miles.

“I like your tube,” I say to a man behind me floating inside a pink fish-shaped inner tube.

I think he has the right idea. Treading water for 15 minutes is not easy, and reserving a small open space in the water gets harder and harder as athletes fill in. Though there are many in the water, there are even more waiting on the beach. I realize how big this race is, how massive the swim start feels. People are lined along the pier wall watching. Some triathletes are jumping from the pier into the water. Accidentally, I bump into a few athletes treading around me. I smile but no one else returns it. Everyone seems so tense and so tight.

The gun goes off and immediately it is a mess. Arms, feet, legs, hands of over 1800 triathletes that seem to all be groping and grabbing for me. I swim the first 100 yards with my head up to see where I’m going. Swimmers approach me from behind like sharks hungry for a feed. I’m being pulled at, swum over, kicked, swatted. Just let me keep my teeth, I think. And please don’t break my goggles. I think about Chris swimming next to me in the pool when we practiced this start – with him pulling my feet, swatting my head, pawing at my goggles. I knew I could get through this.

After 10 minutes, I am surprised to find myself thinking that the swim is actually quite enjoyable and effortless. The pace is easy and the water is relaxing. There is a rhythmic calm to the ocean that soothes me as I swim through, over, and around the neverending line of triathletes. The water is not as cloudy as in the days before, but it is not the clear aquarium full of colorful fish that I expected. I entertain myself by watching the rocks below and the bubbles from the swimmers around me.

The buoys are large and orange, but seem few and far between. On top of that, the women wear orange swim caps making every bobbing head look like a small buoy off in the distance. To my right, young men sit on surfboards shouting and waving at us to swim left. I do my best to stay on course but at times I round the buoys on the wrong side along with many others. I remind myself not to worry, just go with the flow, just get through the swim.

I swim around the Body Glove boat, keeping it close to my side. 33 minutes have gone by. I know the way back will be longer, choppier, slower with the current to fight. Though the pace is easy, the effort to pull and power myself through the ocean has increased making it seem much, much harder. At 53 minutes, I feel like I have been swimming forever and still have far to go. I am pulling water but getting nowhere. I try to find feet to follow for a draft but it seems that no one is swimming ahead of me. Instead, they swim next to me or pull at my feet over and over again. Though we have the entire expanse of the ocean for our swim, not a minute of this swim has gone by without someone touching some part of me.

Finally, I swim up to the beach at 1:14. Coming out of the water, I am smiling because I have finished the ocean swim, a fear I thought I would not overcome, a fear that had stood in my way for years. As I exit the water, I think that I have not only faced my fears but took fear for a 2.4 mile roughwater swim in the ocean.

The announcer reports that over 900 athletes have already exited the water. I run through the sand and up the stairs. I run through the hoses, rinsing the saltwater out of my hair, eyes, and off of my legs. Running towards the rows of hanging bags, a volunteer calls my race number and hands me my bag full of swim to bike gear.

“Women in here, women in here,” a volunteer says, directing women into the white changing tent.

Two volunteers immediately appear, dump my transition bag on to a bench, and begin handing things my way. I grab a dry towel and wipe my face. Someone puts on my singlet and another helps me with my gloves. Someone else puts my glasses on my face. A woman sprays my entire body with sunscreen. I run out of the tent towards my bike, put on my helmet, and begin the very long run out of transition.

“Go Elizabeth! Go!” someone shouts from the side of the road.

The day is filled with random, faceless voices shouting my name and number. The first 11 miles of the ride are fun, exciting, and fast riding out and back around town, streets lined with screaming people. Everyone is pushing a fast, furious pace feeding on the energy of the crowds and the anticipation to get the race started. I resist the temptation to push myself in this part and instead sit back and enjoy what will likely be the last large cheering crowd for many, many miles. The whole time I am smiling and thinking to myself that I am here, right now, in Kona, doing Ironman.

”Left turn ahead," the volunteer says directing the line of endless cyclists on to the relentless Queen Kaamanahu Highway.

The real ride begins. The forever out and back along the Queen K, lined with lava fields, sporadic waving grasses, and the ocean far off in the distance. I settle into my aero bars, put my head down, and pedal. I think to myself what a great day is unfolding before me. I think about Marshall telling me, “think of this as the best day of your life - you get to do everything you love for an entire day.” The entire day is mine and ahead of me. I pass the first few miles by smiling and singing songs. I feel silly, I feel giddy. I truly believed this would be one of the best days of my life. I reminded myself to be present for it, to enjoy it every step of the way.

“The first half of the ride should feel easy. You should think to yourself that it is almost too easy,” Gail Leveque suggested to me as we waited for the race to begin.

In Hawaii, you learn to listen to the advice of those that have been there before, no matter who they are, which age group they are in, or how many times you have beaten them elsewhere. This is Kona, it’s different. Kona is not about who you are, what you have done, or how you got there. Kona does not care about or accept national championships, or ITU silver medals, or All Americans. Kona doesn’t care. Kona doesn't care if you rode your road bike in Buffalo Springs to get to this race. Show me what you can do right here, right now, Kona says to me with a sneer. And all that you can do is show Kona that you care by respecting the distance, taking the course seriously, and listening to the advice of those who have been there before.

Per Gail’s advice, I keep my pace easy, very easy, knowing this was a long, long ride. I am going so easy on the first part of the ride that I wonder if I should check my pulse. I am being passed by men and women. In no other race would I sit so complacently and not respond. But I know I should be patient. This is my first Ironman. I have no idea what lies in the day ahead.

“In Kona, nothing tastes better than cold water,” Laura Sopheia told me months ago when I asked her for advice.

She was right. Though the sun hides behind the clouds, Hawaii is still hot with warm winds. Every 5 to 10 miles, I grab a water bottle, pour water it on my head, on my face, into my mouth. There is literally a smorgasboard of food and beverage at the aid stations, but I packed everything on my bike and follow my nutrition plan carefully. My Bento Box is bursting with bars, salt tabs, gels, and more. Months of experimentation and calculations let me execute my nutrition plan with confidence that these calories will carry through a very long day.

“Whatever you do, don’t play the Ironman game. Just sit and spin instead,” Tim told me after he and Chris rode the bike course on Friday.

I hear Tim in my head as I pass the miles. The Ironman course is deceptively hilly, challenging, and unforgiving. You could easily ride yourself into a hole if you didn’t keep your effort level and your ego in check. Tim warned me not to focus on speed or worry about distance. Just sit and spin, spin easy, spin comfortably and just get through the miles. Don’t worry about how fast you are going or how far you have to go. Unlike any other race, I disregard the cyclists that continually pass me and I have no attack to give back. I realize that I am probably riding too easy, but at the same time I realize that everyone else is probably riding too fast. It would be easy to get caught up in the chase, to start working outside of my comfort zone. But I’m here to finish the race; I’ve never done an Ironman, I had no idea what to expect. I raced with the finish in mind and nothing else. Any time goals were left in training about 3 months ago. In Kona, you learn to just appreciate the finish and expect nothing else.

Riding along, I realize the hardest part of this ride is not the course or the distance. I had no doubt I could ride 112 miles. I had done it many times in training. The hardest part was what could have happened in my head. It’s hard for 112 miles to keep your head positive, focused, and relaxed. It becomes a game of turning every negative into a positive, of finding the lightness in the fields of dark black lava. Phrases that I had repeated to myself in training, that I had read in books, that I had written to myself the night before filled my head and any negativity or doubt was quickly pushed away. Today my mind was unshakable. Not this lava, not this heat, nor wind, nor hills would get in my way; to the finish line - full speed ahead.

The turnaround point is at mile marker 60. I ride across the timing mat, and shortly after pick up my special needs bag. I am one of the few athletes to pull over to the side. A volunteer appears with my bag and starts taking out the contents. I tell him I want to take my helmet off for a minute and dump cold water on my head. Not only does he hold my helmet, but he wipes my sunglasses clean on his shirt while I pour cold water on my head. I replace my empty bottles with full bottles and begin the descent out of Hawi.

It didn’t surprise me that I passed on the baggie of Cheez-It’s in my special needs bag. They didn’t sound appealing, and neither did anything else. In fact, everything that tasted great in training tasted like warm vomit during the race. But I knew this would happen. Heather and Jennifer told me that keeping food going in and staying down was the hardest part of Kona. I took tiny bites of my bars because chewing was so hard. I swallowed the bites as quickly as possible because waiting too long reminded me of just how unpleasurable and dissatisfying everything tasted. I spit out the last bite of mostly everything. At one point, I even got the ‘mukes’ (mini-pukes) from eating. But I had to keep eating. Ironman is not a race about endurance or strength; it’s a race of balancing calories in with energy out.

“If you do everything right, you’ll negative split the ride,” Bob Scott shared with me on Wednesday at the pre-race meeting.

I held back for the first 60 miles and knew that Bob was right - the savings could now be spent on the ride back to Alii Drive. It was like someone lit a fire beneath my wheel. It also helped that the turnaround delivered a strong tailwind. My mental outlook completely changed. I took serious advantage of that tailwind and flew along at 26 mph. It made me feel alive again. I began passing most of the weary riders who had spent all of their savings in the first 60 miles. Patience pays off in Kona, and it pays off big.

Like anything in Ironman, things change and change quickly. After only 10 miles, tailwind turned into cross headwind. The winds kept teasing, taunting us. Headwind, tailwind, cross headwind, cross tail. Winds are variable, swirling, bending the tall grasses sideways, making my arms ache from holding the aero bars so hard.

I thought the way back would be hard, that miles 60 through 90 would drag on forever. Instead, I was surprised how quickly the miles went by and how easy it was to reign in my head from distractions, doubts, and other random dilemmas you encounter during Ironman. I kept reminding myself to race in the moment, to be present in the now. To revel in this minute, at this mile, by this 55 mph speed limit sign on the Queen K highway. Every time I found myself thinking about the run ahead, I stopped that thought, pushed it out of my mind, and told myself to focus on the now. To control what you can control at that exact moment every step of the way. One pedal stroke at a time, mile by mile, hour by hour. This is how you must race Ironman – small steps leading to the finish. Don’t get caught up in the big picture, don’t look too far ahead.

“You will come back from this ride a changed person,” Tim said on Friday after riding the course.

You become more patient and hopeful after riding this course. You realize that waiting at a time when it seems the hardest will reward you the largest. At mile 85, it was raining and cross headwind turned again into full on headwind. At one point, I was riding 15.8 mph. But I knew if I just waited and hung in there that the time would pass, the distance would pass, the winds would shift, and I would get through it. I told myself to keep pedaling, keep eating, keep pushing. Time will pass. It always does. And with that waiting came a reward. 20 miles to go and the ride becomes instantly effortless and quiet. It is the recognizable quiet of tailwind that lets me cruise at 23 mph.

There is nothing better than seeing the 100 mile sign at Ironman. 12 miles is less than 30 minutes at this pace. 12 miles is completely manageable. The race becomes more and more tangible the closer I get to the bike finish. Then, at mile 105 I see Chris. I change my mind. There is nothing better than seeing your husband at the mile 105 sign at Ironman. I am so energized that I ride smiling all the way into town.

I dismount my bike and a volunteer immediately takes it from me. Another random voice shouts my name, recharging me and making me grateful that I have returned to the crowds of spectators with my feet back on the ground. I begin the long, long run to the transition bags.

“Vaseline?” the volunteer asks, removing the contents of my bike to run transition bag on to the bench. Yes, I say, rubbing the Vaseline on my slightly chafed thighs. Another volunteer puts my race belt on and then hands me my visor. I ask for a dry towel to wipe my feet off and then another volunteer appears with water which I gladly take and drink. “Powder?” she asks. Yes, I take the powder and sprinkle it into my socks and shoes. “Gel?” she asks. Oh god no. Not another one. Not yet, I think to myself. “Tampons?” she asks. Yes, I admit. “Oh, you poor, poor thing!” she exclaims.

I run out of the transition tent, vaselined, powdered, tamponed, and so ready to run. This is the run. This is my thing. And my legs feel fresh, zippy, and ready to go. I look down at my watch and see that it says 7:14. This is the first time I realize that a sub-11 hour Ironman in Hawaii is well within my reach if I can manage a 3 ½ hour marathon. And from there, it was as good as done. I set out on that run course with fire in my eyes.

“I’m just going to go for a short run,” I say to Chris at the first corner before turning on to Alii Drive.

I wanted him to know that I still had my sense of humor, I was still feeling great, the race was still within my control. This was my race, this was my day. Not only that, but it was the best day. I had never raced a marathon and had no idea what was ahead or what to expect but I was ready to take on the course.

The course travels along Alii Drive, along the ocean. The streets are lined with spectators shouting wildly. Miles go by quickly, as the crowds and other runners entertain your mind and pass the time. the sun has warmed up the day but still the humidity is low and the heat is manageable. I keep thanking whomever, whatever for the beautiful weather we have been given for the day.

I decide to break the run down into small, manageable pieces. I tell myself to just focus on running station to station, mile by mile. Don’t even think about running 26.2 miles. The time will pass. The miles will go by, they always do.

The aid stations are well-stocked, filled with water, ice, Gatorade, cola, gels, fruit, a buffet of Ironman delights. As I approach each one, I have my routine; grab a wet sponge, dump ice in my bra, grab a water, drink, grab another water, dump on head. Repeat 25 times.

Leaving Alii Drive, at mile 8, we begin a long hard climb up Palani Drive before running on to the Queen K. My stomach drops, and I have a feeling that the Gatorade I took earlier at miles 3 and 6 is not sitting well. This is the irony of Ironman Hawaii. You train with it all summer long, on long, hot runs. You take it in Kona and your body completely rejects it.

We make the turn on to the Queen K and I am desperate to relieve myself with, as Bob Scott puts it, bottom end trouble. Luckily, I see a port-o-let just off the side of the road and I find a new use for my wet sponge. I left that one behind.

Oddly enough, you realize how much time you lose when you stop for 2 minutes to crap out the entire contents of your stomach. On the hill, I passed 3 women easily. As I exited the port-o-let, they went running by me. After the race, I realize that these 2 minutes cost me a medal, cost me a top 10 finish at Ironman Hawaii. This is the difference between going to Hawaii to finish and going to Hawaii to race. Next time I go to Hawaii, I will go there to race, I will make sure every second counts.

I decide to switch to water only and increase the time between gels. Whether it was too much salt, or too much sugar, or too much Ironman, it was time to respond to the race as it was unfolding and adapt my plan.

Around mile 13, I see the pro women running the other way on the Queen K. Michellie has a strong lead, followed by Desiree a few minutes behind. Lisa Bentley is running very strong; she looks just like the pictures in the magazine, with a bright white smile and a bouncy step. Natascha has a look of desperation or despair on her face, the look of just hanging in there and struggling to get by. Heather Gollnick runs by.

“Go wahine! Go little woman!” someone shouts from the side of the road.

Hawaiian culture and language is all around the race and hearing it now reminds me that indeed I am on the unique and beautiful Big Island, that indeed I am doing the Ironman in Hawaii.

There is something about the Big Island that makes it so powerful, so immense, so strong. Perhaps that it stands boldly in the middle of the ocean. Perhaps that it erupted bravely from a volcano. Whatever it is, you get the sense that the island itself is so big, so impressive, so indescribable with force that staging something as big as the Ironman on the island makes perfect sense.

The Queen K is only one of the testaments to the unforgiving boldness of the island. Piping hot and black as night, it extends forever in a straight line. Each mile pounds out on the pavement with only the aid stations to break up the monotony of running along black lava fields.

But still my legs feel great, my pace is steady. The only thing standing between me and the finish line is about 10 more miles. This is the hardest part of the marathon – 26.2 miles is a long, long way to run. Half marathons are over before you know it. Full marathons make their presence known every step of the way.

Finally, I turn left into the Natural Energy Lab. Before the race I told myself to draw energy from the lab rather than letting it suck energy from me. I was excited to face this part of the race, excited to see if indeed I could run through the proverbial wall at mile 18 and keep going strong.

“Go girl, you keep running strong,” a man says to me from the side of the road around mile 16. I look at the man, recognizing his tall, handsome appearance and lanky body. “Peter Reid, oh my goodness,” I say as I run right by him. Part of me wanted to stop, shake his hand, take a picture.

Seeing Peter Reid reminds me that Ironman is a race for runners as he was once a man who clicked off this run course in 2 hours and 47 minutes. To arrive at the third leg of this long day to know that I could completely control the rest of the race was invigorating. In the swim you have the ocean. On the bike you have the winds. On the run – it’s just your feet, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. I keep running my steady pace down the long black road.

“What they don’t tell you is that your special needs bag on the run is at mile 18, not mile 13,” Jennifer had told me from her past Kona experience.

After turning around in the Energy Lab, at mile 18, I refuse my special needs bag. The only thing I put in it was a pair of socks anyways. The day before the race, I sat with my run special needs bag, called Jennifer, and asked if it would be remiss of myself to not put anything in the bag. She said she didn’t use hers either. What would you need at mile 18? With 8 miles to go what could possibly make you feel better other than just being done? I wave my hand at the volunteer, signaling that I don’t want the bag and just keep moving along.

“Hey girl,” Peter Reid shouts at a pro woman that I am passing as we run along the road leading out of the Natural Energy Lab. “Peter,” she exclaims, “I am having the worst day of my life,” she laments. She runs across to the other side of the road and he gives her a hug while saying, “Don’t worry, girl, we’ve all been there.”

At mile 19, you realize that some athletes are breaking through while others are breaking down. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, if your leg is marked with an age, an X, or Y, suffering and pain is a human feeling that we all experience and we all understand. You realize that while you are having the day of your life, breaking through, others are hitting the bottom and breaking down. You realize that this breakdown disregards if you are a pro, or a national champion, a former Ironman world champion. It is a breakdown that merely seems to choose victims by luck and circumstance alone.

I keep running along, strong and steady out of the Natural Energy Lab. At mile 21, I realize some are not as lucky as I hear an athlete behind me throwing up repeatedly, making a smacking sound as it hits the pavement. 5 miles is a long walk if you are spilling your stomach the entire way. I tell myself how grateful I am for my solid stomach and strong legs. Just a few more miles to go.

“You can do it!” a young Hawaiian girl shouts through a thick Hawaiian accent as she offers me a cup of water.

It was almost as if she was speaking right to me, right to the bottom of my soul to pick me up for the last few miles. I hit mile 22 and cannot believe there is only 4.2 miles more to my Ironman experience. I am surprised at how good my body feels. I am sad that the day is almost over. I am almost ecstatic that I will finish before dark. My right quad is getting a little tight but still my legs seem zippy and fresh. My only complaint of pain is in my feet. I wore my racing flats and after 22 miles of dumping water on my head and wringing a sponge across my body I have two slippery shoes and feet full of blisters. After mile 22, I feel a shooting pain under my big toe and realize a blister has exploded. Soon later, I symmetrically feel the same pain in my other foot and realize that one burst too. I push the pain out of my head and just keep running.

“Midgets, they’re everywhere,” a woman in my age group says snarkily as I pass her at mile 23.

Ironman does different things to different people. The distance starts to wear on your body and your mind as the day goes on. And after 10 hours on the course, I knew better than to snap back at this woman. It wasn’t her talking, it was the distance – it was the wind, the heat, the endless miles. It was the ugly side of Ironman. Not everyone was having the best day of their life, not everyone was turning negatives into positives. But just to make a point, I’ll admit that I picked it up when I passed her.

With 2 miles to go, I start to pick it up. I see Laura Sopheia and April Gellatly ahead. These are tough women, strong women, women who have been on top of their age group at long course many, many times. I took me 10 ½ hours to pass Laura - at age 51 she is stronger than ever and reaching a new peak. As I pass her, she says with a smile, “I knew you would catch me today.” I pass several women in my age group in these last few miles. I am flying past people. The energy from the town is pulling me back in and I cannot wait to run down Alii Drive. I make the turn towards Alii Drive. I want to celebrate my accomplishment, to revel in the last few moments of Ironman. But of course Ironman has other plans for me. Expect nothing, prepare for anything.

“You can’t do that! YOU cannot run with HER!” I shout at a triathlete in my age group behind me as her two friends run alongside her, shouting for her to keep pushing to catch me for the length of the block.

Ironman is a race with yourself. And I’ve just raced myself for over 10 ½ hours and I’m not about to give it up now. The triathlete, with her two friends in tow, are all 3 chasing me. But I am not about go give anything up. I am cruising down Alii Drive at a pace better suited for the end of a ½ marathon than the end of an Ironman.

"This was not the last mile I was looking for," I think to myself.

As I approach the line, the lights hanging from the large banyan tree illuminate me in my moment. I hear the announcer say my name and announce me an Ironman. I run speedily across the line at 10:45, put my hands up, stand there for about a second, then move along.

“I predict you’ll cry at least two times on race day,” Chris said to me after riding the course on Friday.

Indeed, I expected to cry. I expected I would cry on the bike course riding into the wind, or cry after 80 miles. But that never happened. And when I crossed the line, I didn’t cry either. There was no epiphany, no magical moment, no point in time where I thought I must do this again or I can’t believe I just did that. I just crossed the line. It was a line that had dangled in front of me all summer and finally I crossed it. It was more a feeling of relief than an emotional catharsis or self-realization.

My two catchers put a lei around my neck asking if I am ok. Yes, I’m fine. They ask what I want. What a loaded question to ask me after finishing Ironman. What were my options? Can I see a menu? How about upcakes? Ice cream? A shower? Peanut butter cups? Coffee? Damn that Starbuck’s at mile 24. My husband? How about just a massage? They point me in the direction of the massage tent and I walk away.

Walking what seems like a mile to the tent, I assess the damage. One slightly sore quad, two feet full of blisters, a throbbing feeling in my legs, and a soreness in the right side of my chest. The massage therapist lightly works on my legs and arms.

“Can we get you anything?” he asks, “Gatorade, Power Bar, banana?”

No, no, no. Are you kidding? I am on a complete Power-anything detox for the next 3 months. Starting about 10 minutes ago. I ask for something salty but they are all out of crackers. I relax and enjoy the rest of the massage.

Afterwards, there are three things I want to do. I want to find my husband. I want to find Jennifer. I want to find my sports chiropractor, Larry Svihlik. These are the 3 people that kept me going strong all summer long, who offered me hours of advice and support along the way. When I finally find Larry, he congratulates me and gives me a hug. I tell him I’m not sure I need to do another Ironman anytime soon. He tells me to give it a few days. Right after that, I look up at the Jumbotron screen and see Jennifer crossing the line. Chris shows up a short while later.

We walk back to the car. I am getting sorer and my blisters are so painful. Crossing Kuikani Highway, we see Bob Scott running towards the hill. We cheer him on. He is waving his glow necklace in the sky before he runs up to the hill on Palani Road. He doesn’t miss a step. As soon as he passes us, the sky erupts in torrential driving rain, turning the streets into rivers of rushing water. I think about Bob and worry about him – running in the darkness and the rain. At 77 years old, he is so tough, world champion tough. This is what it takes. He didn’t miss a step. He just kept running up that hill in the pouring rain.

Chris carries me out of the car and dumps me in the shower. I stand in the hot water still wearing my suit, socks, and visor. I didn’t matter. It all needed a good cleaning anyways. Afterwards, I lay on the bed. My stomach hurt and I didn’t want to move.

"I can't believe I just did an Ironman," I thought wearily to myself.

I turned on my phone and realize I have two messages; one from my mom and one from Leslie Curley. Hearing these two messages makes me cry and finally the emotion that has built up all day is let out.

Afterwards, I know I should eat. I go to the kitchen and Chris tells me he has filled the refrigerator with all of my favorites; cookie dough, vanilla milk, peanut butter. I make a dinner out of that, plus potato chips, bread with olive oil and parmesan cheese. About 20 minutes later, it comes right back out!

The next 48 hours, I feel like I have done an Ironman. I have been completely purged of any desire to workout and find myself happily on the resting road to recovery with some lingering aches and pains.

But the physical pain will subside. And what’s left is the impression of Ironman in my head and my heart. I find myself replaying parts of it in my head over and over again. Mostly the run, a feeling of being completely on top of myself for such a long distance. It is a beautiful memory that I get to keep forever. It was, truly, one of the best days of my life.

On Monday, we drove down to South Point on the Big Island, the southernmost point in the United States. It’s a beautiful drive along a road lined with lush green grass and powerful otherworldly windmills. We reach the end of the road, park, and walk towards the ocean. The ocean at South Point is tumultuous and erratic, with waves crashing from many directions, clashing, churning into each other and up against black lava rocks. The only sound is the whirring of the wind that whips with force. The sky is blue, filled with cumulous clouds and a warm bright sun. It was a perfect day in the most beautiful place and as I stood there taking it all in I thought about my race and what it meant to me.

I stood looking out in the ocean and realized what an incredible journey it had been. For months, I had heard about how hot, windy, hilly, and hard Kona was. Everything was pointing in the direction of this being a course too big to overcome. But on race day, every step of the way, I kept telling myself that though Kona was big, I could be bigger, I could be bigger and better than the race and in doing so be bigger and better than myself. That is what I believed. And that carried me through every mile of the day. Believe that you can finish strong and you will. Never doubt yourself for one minute, for one mile. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to, you are powerful beyond measure and it's all in your own hands. And sooner than you know it, you’ll find yourself 140.6 miles later crossing a finish line and declared an Ironman.

I’m back at home now and winter has settled early into Illinois. Frost lines the grasses and the heat kicks on in our house. I’ve passed most of the day cleaning the house and eating peanut butter cups. And thinking about Ironman. Maybe this is what that man in Buffalo Springs meant when he said it would get under my skin. I’m washing the floors and thinking what if I went back next time? Would I drop 30 minutes based on experience alone? Could I break 10 hours? Win my age group? What if? Ironman is a race of so many factors and the only thing certain is that next time I would be presented with a whole new set of what if’s and conditions to respond to on race day. So maybe I’ll just settle with this one for now.....for now!






7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, you can accomplish anything you put your head and heart into. Congrats again on an awesome day! It was great sharing this experience w/ you! REST UP! Jennifer

Alicia Parr said...

Great job! You're awesome.

Alicia

lauren said...

This was so well written, very powerful. I have never met you but feel like I was there with you... wow. and congratulations.

you are inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks so much for sharing your day Elizabeth. Congrats on an AMAZING season. You worked so hard and have earned every bit of your success.

Looking forward to lots more from you in 2007!

See you in the pool!

Karyn

Jennifer said...

You are such an inspiration! What a wonderful story. Thanks for letting me be a part of your Kona experience.

Jody said...

Great Blog! Amazing Story! I can't believe you didn't cry sooner...I almost cried reading about it!!

Kevin said...

An amazing story and now that Liz has coached me to an Ironman finish a lot of it now makes sense to me.