“You’re going to do what?!”, the response I received when I told friends and family that I had impulsively signed up for a half Ironman. It was December and I was getting a little stir crazy. I am someone who thrives off of challenging myself and a half Ironman seemed like the perfect task. For those who don’t know a half Ironman is a triathlon consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run. Now I had never done any type of triathlon before, so I understood why people were so concerned.
Once the idea was in my head there was no stopping me. To my delight I found a half Ironman taking place in August located in Whistler, BC, which just so happens to be my favorite place on earth. I looked at this as a sign from the universe, paid the registration fee and never looked back.
A week later I had an epiphany…I can’t really swim. I mean I can swim and wade water but never once had I swam a lap in a pool or learned proper technique. I spent the next few months getting swim lessons from my boyfriend while trying my best to not get frustrated. I would swim 50 meters in the pool and become exhausted and sick from all the pool water I had sucked down. I literally could not imagine trying to swim this distance over forty times! Normally I’m a pretty optimistic person but when it came to swimming I felt utterly overwhelmed. Slowly but surely I began to get better and stopped comparing myself to the person in the lane next to me.
At the end of April I began my ‘real’ training plan. Nothing fancy, just one that I had found online that seemed like a reasonable amount for my skill set. The next three months were full of early bedtimes and 5 AM wake up calls to swim, bike, and run. My weekends were filled with long rides on my bike and perfecting eating a PB and J while shifting gears. Despite being a morning person there were MANY times that getting out of bed was a struggle. I spent countless hours swimming, biking, and running, often on my own. Why? Because when I set a goal for myself I go all in. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but that’s why I did it in the first place.
Before I knew it, it was the night before the triathlon. I began second guessing myself, worried I hadn’t trained enough, as the pre-race jitters began to settle in. My family and boyfriend reassured me that I was capable, but the nerves were still there when I woke up at 4 AM to head to the starting line. I kissed my boyfriend goodbye, boarded a bus that would take me to the lake, and tried to remain calm.
I tried to remember why on earth I had signed up to do this in the first place. Then I remembered; to prove to myself that I am stronger than I think. The sun was just beginning to rise over the mountains in Whistler when I pulled my wetsuit on. The race director corralled me and the other 1,500 athletes and had us arrange ourselves by our projected swim time finish. I looked at the people around me, took a deep breath, and ran into Alta Lake.
I had completed a few open water swims during training but still found staring into the depths of a lake to be incredibly nerve racking. As I entered the lake on race day this fear quickly resurfaced. I was trying to stay calm while simultaneously being kicked and pushed around by my fellow athletes. I tried to focus on my breath and remember all the hours I had spent training for this moment.
After what seemed like an eternity I was rounding the finally buoy and exiting the water. I looked back and not to my surprise discovered that I was near the back of the 1,500 athletes. As I grabbed my bike gear I reached for the PB & J I had packed the night before. Only problem was, I had unintentionally swallowed so much lake water that I was sick to my stomach. I quickly strapped on my helmet, grabbed my bike, and left the sandwich behind. A few minutes into the bike I had to remind myself what I had just done. It was just six short months ago that I could barely swim a lap in a pool. Regardless of how much lake water I swallowed, I had accomplished something I had been training for. I had just swam the longest open water swim of my life…now I just had to bike and run. My goal wasn’t just to finish, it was to also have fun while doing it.
If you’re not familiar with Whistler, it’s a resort town located in the mountains of British Columbia. As beautiful and majestic as the surrounding area is, IT’S REALLY FREAKING HILLY. I currently live in Portland, Oregon where mountainous hills are hard to come by. So, the 56 mile bike ride was by far the hilliest ride I had ever done. Just when I would make it to the top of one hill, another one would be looming in the distance. For the first ten miles the course was lined with spectators blasting music and cheering us on. I couldn’t help but smile, dance, and sing along each time because although it was hard work I was doing what I loved in my favorite place.
By this point the sun was heating up and the last thing I wanted to eat was the warm GUs I had taped to my bike. Instead I relied on a steady supply of CLIF Shot Blocks that were available at each aid station. Just when I thought I couldn’t bike one more hill, the course turned into the village where I dismounted and got ready for the run. As I laced up my running shoes one of the volunteers told me to “be careful out there! It’s already 95 degrees out”. I told her thank you as she handed me my water bottle and set off for the 13.1 mile run. I saw my family and boyfriend cheering me on and they could tell how happy I was to finally be running.
I am not above walking in a race, especially when it’s sweltering, and I just swam and biked for five hours. For the first few miles of the run I began to feel light headed. I remembered that when I had tossed my PB & J after getting out of the lake, I had also tossed my salt tabs…no wonder I felt so weak. Many people rely of electrolyte drinks during endurance sports (Gatorade, Powerade, Tailwind, NUUN) but these drinks have always given me stomach cramps when working out. In the past I have found salt tablets to be an easy replacement during long workouts and races…unfortunately I realized I was nearing hour six and hadn’t consumed ANY.
At the next aid station, I downed a few cups of Gatorade, dumped some ice water on my head, and began to pick up the pace. When you’re exhausted, and overheated walking is just as difficult as jogging. In my mind the faster I jogged the sooner I would be done and the sooner I could lay down.
I saw my cheering squad at mile 5 and picked up the pack again. The Gatorade began to kick in and I was in my element. The heat was brutal, but I was graced with stellar volunteers that were more than willing to cover me in ice cold water each time I saw them. With half a mile to go my mind was set on the finish. I saw my family one last time and began sprinting (not sure if you could really call the pace I was going sprinting). I saw the finish line arch, lifted my hands in the air and soaked in the excitement of officially being a half IronWOMAN.
I was exhausted but still one happy gal. I had completed my goal and had fun while doing it! As I laid on the grass I was overcome with gratitude for everyone who helped get me to that finish line. I may have been the one doing the work, but it wouldn’t have been possible without my friends, family, and the amazing volunteers who helped me along the way.
As I stood up to walk around and watch others finish I began to feel nauseous, weak, and light headed; something I have never experienced after a race. My mom and sister carried me over to the medical tent while I tried not to vomit. The volunteers laid me down, covered me in bags of ice and tried to get me eat something. It was clear that I had some mild heat exhaustion. As I raised my head it was easy to see that I wasn’t the only one. After an hour of laying down and a strong dose of anti-nausea medication, I was able to drink a Gatorade and consume two bags of Lays Potato Chips…dinner of champions, I know.
So, would I do another half Ironman? How about a full? That’s a tough question to answer. It’s true that once you finish you forget about all the pain you went through and are left with the feeling of triumph. I can’t definitively say that I won’t ever do one again. In fact, I’m pretty positive that at some point in my life I’ll train for the full distance Ironman. For now, it’s safe to say that I’ll stick to running long distances. I don’t regret training for something different and challenging myself in an exciting new way. But there is something enchanting about trail running to me. Being alone with my breath, surrounded by nature, that is where I feel most at home. Here’s to one hell of an adventure and whatever I decide to do next!