Embrace the Pain: The Emotional Roller Coast of My First 70.3

As I sat soaking in the relative calm from the river shore, the reality and weight of the fact that I was about to start my first half Ironman became to feel more and more real.  With the sun rising over the river, and the clock winding down, over twenty swim waves had already jumped in the 68 degree water and fought the current waiting for the start.  Finally, about thirty minutes before my start, I zipped my wet suit, hugged my family goodbye, and walked down the hill to stand in line with a hundred or so of the other 18-29 year old women, strangers, that I was soon to be in very close quarters with, all fighting for the same goal.  I began to get fidgety, adjusting my swim cap and my wet suit constantly, feeling very alone in the crowd.
 
 
My biggest fans!
 
It’s hard to describe the feeling of the long and slow, but energized walk out onto the winding ramp along the river and finally, down onto the floating dock.  Volunteers were spaced at intervals along the ramps, cheering and handing out high fives all the way to the water, and I thanked them under my breath, to overcome with nerves to match their excitment.  When I finally neared the end of the floating dock after watching about half of my wave jump in with no hesitation, I sat down, put my feet in the water, and wondered how the heck I was going to make myself get in. I sat paralyzed for what felt like eternity. Suddenly, I realized that if I gave it any more thought I would never get off the dock, so without another breath, I plunged into the freezing water.  My mind initially went blank as freezing cold river water filled my wet suit. Fortunately, I recovered quickly, and moved into a comfortable position for the swim start. I had read middle right was the best place to be to take advantage of the current and fewer weeds. As I treaded water and awaited the countdown, I looked around and was pleasantly surprised when I noticed that our swim wave was about the size of most of the starts I am used to in sprint races.   

 
My swim wave  (yellow swim caps) getting ready to start
 
 
Swim Start

I don’t remember much more about the actual start, except that once we started swimming, all of my nerves completely went away. I felt confident gliding through the water. When I hit the patches of weeds, I didn’t have a mini panic attack like I do every time I hit some in practice. A couple times I bumped into hands or feet, but it really wasn’t hectic at all. The swim was straight and well marked with bright colored buoys, as well as the various volunteers paddling kayaks on each side of the course.  I felt super comfortable, knowing that I was never more than 10 or 15 feet from someone, and because I breathe bilaterally, I could easily sight off of the numerous buoys on the left, and the occasional volunteer on the right, so didn’t have to worry about the awkward sighting forward.  After a bit, I saw a house up on the right, and I began to think that there was no way I was that close to the finish!!! It felt like I had only been in the water 10 minutes! About the same time, I started noticing at least four different colored caps as I caught up to stragglers from earlier swim waves, and the faster swimmers from the swim wave after me had caught up.  Things got a little more hectic than the start even, as other swimmers started pressing in around me trying to bottle neck to the finish.

 

As I swam up the ramp and found my footing, I hit the lap button and my Garmin, and was ecstatic to see I had finished the swim in just under 30 minutes! It was by far the best swim I had ever had in a race as far as nerves, and I was actually able to stroke the whole time without having to pause and catch my breath. I think some of it had to do with the atmosphere of the sprints I was used to versus the atmosphere of the longer course. For the most part, the other athletes weren’t frantically sprinting, and I was certainly taking it easy, so it was a much calmer feeling overall.  

 
 

Distance: 1.2 miles
Official Swim Time: 00:29:56   
Pace: 01:33/100m                    
Division Rank: 34/97

It was quite a long run out of the water and into transition, so I had plenty of time to catch my breath and get out of my wet suit. I didn’t have to take advantage of the wet suit strippers, but there were quite a few there.  Once I ran underneath the inflatable entrance into the huge transition area, my bike was the first rack and fewer than 10 bikes in. I crammed my wet suit into the little bag I had ready so it wouldn’t get stomped on.  I then slipped on my socks, stuffed my inhaler and stinger waffle into my jersey top, and snapped my helmet before pulling my bike off the rack, and starting off on my long journey…through transition ;)  Once I got on the hard pavement and to the mount line, there were a couple rows of athletes stopped to get on their bike. I hadn’t really prepared for this situation, and while waiting for them to clear, I had lost a bit of my momentum. I tried to hop onto my bike from a dead stop, and my right foot slipped off my shoe that was mounted to my pedal, veering me to the right, and right into the railing.  I had a bit of an embarrassing and wobbly start from there (it’s never a confidence booster when spectators move from the sidelines to get out of your way!), but thankfully I didn’t come close to hitting anyone, just demolished my pride and apparently crushed my right front toes, because they were hurting terribly.  As I would discover later when I got back to transition and changed socks for the run, my big toe was bleeding. It’s the only thing that still hurts, today-five days later! I know next time I definitely need to come up with a better plan for a narrow, packed bike mount area.  

T1: 00:04:22

 
Leaving transition
 

 
Bike Course
 
I waved goodbye to my awesome, and very patient parents on the sidelines of the exit area, and I was starting on the second part of my emotional journey, a scenic 56 mile loop through South Carolina. Fortunately, we had amazing weather the day of the race. A few days before, it had cooled considerably, and it was about mid 70s at this point and overcast. Later, I heard people complaining about the humidity, but since I’ve been training in the Georgia summer heat, I didn’t notice at all. What I did notice, however, was the wind. The forecast said it would be about 10 mph, and it showed up race morning for sure. Until I got out into the country, surrounded by trees on both sides of the road, I fought a head wind going out. Even with the head wind, I was comfortably averaging about 18 mph.

 
Leaving T1 and the river behind me
 
Once we got off the main roads and into the rural, residential areas, I was surprised by the families who were sitting at the end of their driveways cheering us on.  I was especially touched when I drove by a sign that read ‘free water ahead.’ A little further up the yard, an elderly gentleman sat in his golf cart with a cooler on the back.  I thanked him, though I didn’t stop, and because I’m a softy, I found myself fighting back tears! I wish I could thank him more personally.  Especially when I look back now, in the aftermath of the course sabotaging in Chattanooga Ironman the same day, I feel really blessed to have been so welcomed by the locals, some of whom were willing to sacrifice their time and money to help complete strangers. It really promoted a sense of community throughout the race, not only between us athletes, but those between us athletes and those who were opening their homes and roadways to strangers from around the country.
 
As I passed mile 15, I started to wish I had stopped for water. For some reason, I had been drinking a lot more than I had been in training. Before the race, I had read that there would be bike aid stations about every 15 miles, which led me to assume that they would be approximately at mile 15, 30, and 45.  Based on that assumption, I had planned to travel light with a concentrated Infinit mix in my water bottle on my downtube, and my Aerodrink filled with water between my aero bars. I knew I would have to refill this at least once to make up for the concentrated nutrition.  Well, here I was, at mile 15, and already out of water. As it turns out, the first aid station actually wound up being around mile 20.  I was a bit nervous how the aid stations would work, because ideally I didn’t want to stop, and I didn’t have a bottle to discard.   The aid stations were surprisingly not as hectic as I had anticipated and FUN! Yes, FUN! The first aid station volunteers had made a huge bullseye out of card board with a point system to aim your old water bottles at, if you wished, and set this up at the very beginning.  Past this, volunteers were handing out disposable pop top water bottles. I was still able to break the seal on the go, and pour this into my Aerodrink. I definitely spilled a lot, but it was enough to fill it up, and I was able to do this with time to throw the bottle back in the ‘final discard’ spot.


Now we were off to the real climbs! It was a bit more hilly than I had thought it would be, but nothing I had not been training in.  In fact, I only dropped into the small chain ring two or three times. I probably could have gotten away with once (there was a big, long gradual climb), but I wanted to spin as much as possible and keep my legs fresh. The only thing that made it a little difficult was that several of the climbs were immediately after a sharp turn, so you did not have a lot of momentum to carry you up the hill.  However, all the athletes on the bike course were super awesome for the most part, and there was a lot of encouragement (and compliments on my leopard print grip tape!) being swapped around. 

 
After I had gone a little over half of the 56 miles, I passed a double amputee in one of the wounded warrior kits, riding an unmodified road bike, and I just about lost it. It was so inspiring and humbling to be sharing the course with a disABLED veteran, and I fought back tears for the next few miles. At that point, I had already decided that was my favorite part of the whole race!

 

Once I started getting close to mile 45, I once again began to wish that I had been correct in assuming the aid stations would be spaced every 15 miles.  I had taken a water bottle at each of the two aid stations by this point, and I was almost out. I had now probably drank about 90 ounces of water between my aerodrink and the mix. I had only planned on drinking about 70 and I had to go. Oh my gosh, I thought I was going to die! I have decided that there is no pain like having to pee when you are riding a bike. I probably lost a mile per hour on my average over the next 8 miles because of this. I was in agony!! I always thought it was so weird-the people who just let it fly on the course, but I had to constantly tell myself not to pee my new bike!!! Thank God, there were so many other athletes nearby, there was no way I could have gotten away with it. I was also seriously considering knocking on doors! FINALLY, we hit the final aid station, and all of them were equipped with porta potties. Phew. I guess hydration was NOT a problem this race! And I will never ever judge anyone again for doing what they have to do ;)

 
After the final aid station, the course was mostly flat, if not a little downhill, so pretty fast and fun! I really had to fight the urge to hammer on several parts of the course. My pride wanted to see what I could do on the bike, but I knew that I would be struggling on the run, even with fresh legs. On the loop back to transition, we got to descend on a closed on ramp. Only those who know the monotony of a long ride will understand why this was exciting after 50 some miles. At this point, I started getting really excited!! I had prepared for everything, and almost expected to get a flat. I was so excited I had gotten this far without any mishaps, and I prayed the whole last five miles that I wouldn’t have any technical issues. Sure enough, I entered transition, having averaged just under 17 mph and feeling great. Not knowing the course, I thought I might be able to do the course in just over three hours, but certainly under three and a half. I came in right at 3 hours 20 minutes.

Distance: 56 miles
Official Time: 03:19:17
Pace: 16.86 mph
Rank: 39/97

T2: 00:06:48
 
Run Course
 
After two runs through the damp mud in transition, I was thankful that I brought a fresh pair of socks for the run. I sat down to put my shoes on, grabbed my run bag, which consisted of honey stingers, extra hair ties, band aids, and ibuprofen, and shoved it in my jersey. I put on sunscreen, and more deodorant. Laugh if you want, but I didn’t want to run for the next 2.5 hours smelling like a swamp! I was prepared for anything ;) I came out feeling good on the run, and past my parents sitting just outside of transition. Being able to get hugs from them was another highlight of the race! Feeling how excited they were for me, and my dad telling me that all my projected times (swim about 30, and bike around 3 and a half hours) were dead on, really boosted my confidence, and I realized that I was going to finish this race! Just past my parents, some friends from our tri club were cheering for me, and saying that I looked fresh for the run. I probably didn’t, but it was just the right thing to say to make me feel good J

 
 
Hugging my dad outside of T2


Prior to the race, I had planned on running/walking/wogging, just doing whatever it took to get through the run. My longest run was 8 miles a couple months prior, after which, I had been to an orthopedic doctor, and forced to make promises that I would rest after some nagging IT band issues. I was certainly under trained for the run, but at least I was fresh I guess. However, once the race began, I knew I had to stick to a goal of not walking. The running in intervals works for a lot of people, and I wish it worked for me, because manyof the run/walkers actually wind up beating me in any race I compete in, but I just can’t do it! Mentally, when I walk, it’s like my whole body realizes, hey, I don’t have to run! And it takes every fiber of my being not to walk again and again. It’s just easier to be dead set on not walking. However, I did plan on walking through every single aid station, one about every mile, long enough to drink and/or eat one my honey stingers.

 

I felt good for the first couple of miles, and I enjoyed taking in everything on the run course.  I found myself overwhelmed with so many emotions, which really took me by surprise.  Every person there had a story and had made insane sacrifices to be on the course that day. The first time I almost broke down on the run course was about two miles in, when I passed a 70-something year old man, wearing a tank top that read ‘this one’s for you Mary Ann.’ I don’t know why, but even now as I type, I’m tearing up. Such a softy! But I really found myself wanting to hug him and hear his story.

 
As I shuffled along, I kept telling myself throughout the first five miles, ‘man, this hasn’t even gotten hard yet!’ About mile 6, I started to think, ‘well, maybe it’s a little hard!’ My ankles, bottoms of my feet, and joints had started to hurt, and the lack of conditioning for the run had hit me a little. A little after that, I started on the second loop, and I passed the same wounded warrior I had passed on the bike, who was starting out for his first loop of the run. Once again, I fought back tears, and I felt so selfish for dwelling on my pain! I ran near him for a bit, and I just realized that my pain was so irrelevant compared to what he had experienced to get there that day. I felt so blessed to be out there on the course, starting without pain or injuries, and just in general, that I was healthy enough to be able to do what I love.

 
Then mile 8, I ran head first into the figurative brick wall. At this point, I had only drank water at each aid station. I tried to eat my last honey stinger, but it was everything I could do to keep moving forward. I remembered telling Omi, my grandmother, prior to the race that when things got hard and I wanted to quit, I would remember her cheering for me.  There, at mile 8.5, I decided I would run that next mile for her.

 
After that mile, I fought to focus on things other than the pain. The soles of my feet felt like they were on fire. I remembered this story I read of an athlete who had gotten to Kona Ironman, just to realize on race day that she had forgotten her bike shoes. I thought about how she had decided to still compete, and fought through the pain for 112 miles, using cardboard taped to her feet that spectators had given her. And I thought, if she could do that, I could run a few more miles. It was just a little more than a 5k at this point. But even telling myself ‘just a 5k’ made me want to cry!

 
 
Pain Face!

About that time, I was completely in my own head and battling my own thoughts, when I heard something.  I was a bit in a daze, and it took a minute to sink in that someone was calling my name.  I looked up and saw Jason, across the median, and running the opposite way. I had given up on seeing him by now, so I was so excited, and ran over to give him a hug. I was in tears, and managed to gasp, ‘it hurts so freakin bad!’ It really sucked having to turn back and keep running away from him. I was so bummed that he started the race so far ahead of me, and we couldn’t complete it together. I had been really conflicted, but throughout the race I started to realize, that even though it was kind of discouraging that we couldn’t run together, and we didn’t have a lot of people we knew either on the course or on the sidelines cheering for us, that at the end of the day, I knew it was me who got me through the course that day. I knew that when I crossed the finish line, I had been the one who was mentally strong enough to sustain me throughout 70.3 miles.
 

 
Passing my parents and heading up to the finish
 

Anyway, the last three miles that followed were the most agonizing of my life. I had only just started on a little bit of Gatorade Perform (ick!!! what nasty stuff!!!), and I think my nutrition from my bike mix had worn off a couple miles before. I started talking to myself, and doing whatever I could to get through the last few miles. And I could tell everyone around me was feeling the same pain. It was a silent trudge, but we were all there cheering for each other. At some point in the last mile and a half, I had horrible side stitches, to the point I could not take another step. Twice, I stopped for about ten seconds to get my breathing under control before continuing on my slow jog. About the same time, I passed the finish line, which was a bit disheartening, as I still had another mile before looping back around and coming up the finishing chute. I wish I could say that I started to get excited, and that the energy of being so close to the start gave me the energy to finish strong. Unfortunately, every step to the finish line was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life!
 

The Finish
 



Finally, I rounded the corner, and knew I was going to make it. As I ran up the finishing chute, and past my parents, I had nothing left in me. As soon as I stopped and they put the medal around my neck, my legs folded out from under me. I couldn’t walk without steadying myself, but I had finished! I kept telling myself over and over again, I didn’t walk, I didn’t walk!  For some reason, that small victory meant everything to me. And in the course of not walking on the run course, I had finished, leaving every single bit of energy, muscle, and determination out on the course.

Run Distance: 13.1 miles
Official Time: 2:33:50
Rank: 47/97

 
 
Official finish time: 06:34:13
 

 
 
 
So as the excitement and realization that I just finished 70.3 miles has settled in over the past week, the thing that stays with me the most is the pure emotion throughout the course.  I don’t know if that is something that everyone experiences, but it was very real for me. Every little act of courage by each of my fellow athletes, and every act of kindness by the spectators that day were what made it special. People asked why I didn’t just go do all those things in one day without paying the money? At the time, I thought they might have a point, but now I understand the whole EXPERIENCE of your first 70.3.  Embracing every ache, every pain, every small joy, and every miracle. And experiencing that along with thousands of other athletes who are battling through with you.

 
P.S. Once safely home from the race, I read that the wounded warrior that I had passed a couple times out on the course had unfortunately not made the cut off and race officials had told him to go home, as the course was being packed up and the traffic being let through. But after all the things that had hindered him up to this point, there was no way that traffic and the lack of a dedicated course was going to stop him from finishing his 70.3 miles.  Apparently, a couple of the race volunteers led him through what had been the course, and allowed him to run through the finishing chute. I posted his story below so you can read his story and be encouraged too :)
 

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