November 30-The Day Before Race Day
Many people put Ironman on their bucket list after watching the iconic video of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line at the Ironman in Hawaii in February 1982. They were inspired by her sheer will and determination to finish the race even though her organs and body were shutting down. Yards away from the finish Moss, on her hands and knees, inched forward and stretched out her fingertips to become an Ironman. The video leaves me speechless. But it did not inspire me. Instead, I was more interested in Kathleen McCartney.
Few know her name or even what she accomplished. She’s the woman who actually won the race that day. Her finish was not so dramatic. In fact, she literally ran right pass Moss and the ensuing crowd around her to cross the finish line unaware she had won. There’s a few seconds delay before McCartney realized her incredible feat but no one paid attention all eyes were on Moss. But me, I studied Kathleen.
There’s a tendency in sports to drape accomplishments in the nomenclature of hyperbole. Superlatives, adjectives, over-the-top phrasing are the norm. We tend to see our sports accomplishments through an emotional lens (THANKS ESPN). And certainly Moss’ finish was dramatic enough. But McCartney won and she made it look effortless and, I don’t know, it’s my opinion that such an Ironman takes more preparation than philosophy, more determination than happenstance, more science than sentiment. Now, I know that anything can happen on IronDay. That you can’t control the fates, the universe, the gods or the atmosphere. But given a choice I wanted Kathleen’s Ironman. I wanted to do my suffering before the race. I wanted be in pain in training. I wanted to endure the brutal force of whipping my body into unbelievable physical shape before I got to the start line. I wanted my race day to be a day of triumph not tragedy.
When I signed up for the Well-Fit in Chicago Ironman training group that was me saying I’m all in. I was around 250 pounds. I had a month to go before my half-Ironman and I was determined to give it my all. But my Coach let me know that my all wasn’t enough, that I had to give just a tad bit more and I had to dispense with the dramatic and get down to reality. The ugly truth was my Ironman was going to be harder unless I lost weight. My coach never said that. He never questioned my ability to cross the finish line. In fact, he never, ever mentioned my weight. But as I looked at my training plans and studied my times, the emotional barrier to weight loss evaporated. And it became all about physics. I decided to lose weight not for principle but for performance. I decided to eat for fuel instead of out of spite, or some other emotion. I found my body’s enemy foods…foods that cause me to feel ill and eliminated them and replaced them with foods grown in the ground. I cut out red meat, dairy, soy, processed wheat and added beets, blackberries, blueberries, buffed up my veggies and cut out most (but not all) alcohol.
The results were dramatic and swift. Most people don’t lose weight training for Ironman. In fact, you’re not supposed to. When I did Ironman Coeur d’Alene I weighed in at a heft 232 pounds. I hate to break it to any of you looking for the magic wand but seriously, eating food that you can grow, avoiding foods with commercials and limiting how much I ate at one setting was really all I did.
When I started my Ironman journey I weighed as much as 285 pounds. 285 pounds. For those who have never been overweight let me break this down for you. 285 pounds meant I weighed:
1. More than a mailbox.
2. Twice as much as a manhole cover
3. More than a fire hydrant
4. Half of a vending machine
5. A drum of oil half-filled
6. The same as 28 bags of sugar
7. About 10.5 car tires
8. More than a kangaroo
Yeah you get the picture. Try putting 1-8 on your back and riding a bike uphill. Yeah, now you’re seeing where I’m coming from.
Now weight isn’t the end all to be all. I’ve been heavy all my life and I’ve just come to accept weight. But if I were to get faster on the bike simple physics says the quickest way for me to do that was not to do more riding but was to lose weight. So I changed my eating habits completely. After 25 years of doing the weight loss yo-yo I got serious about losing weight…not to look good, catch a man, wear skinny jeans or look like a magazine cover. But to be a bad ass on the bike. The cruel joke is I had been doing triathlons for 10 years and never got below 200 pounds. I was training my ass off but still not losing weight. I knew that if I got below 200 my performance would be stellar. My goal weight is 150 and I’m nearly there. But to lose weight I had to dispense with the emotional. Instead of channelling Moss’ dramatic finish I looked at McCartney’s effortless win. Because in Ironman as in life, success doesn’t happen by accident or sheer will alone. You have to plan to succeed. You have think about a strategy and then execute it. For me, that’s what weight loss became. It became a part of my Ironman to-do list. The by-product was a healthier me, but again I lost weight not to become some biggest loser poster child. I lost weight because that’s what I needed to do to win my victory.
Putting Science in the Project
Shawn’s text was just what I needed. It reminded me of the hard work I had already put into doing this Ironman and it kept me focused. After all, this Ironman was all about the bike. The bike was where I failed and the bike was where I would achieve redemption. After I ate breakfast, I got my bike, my gear bags, you have to pack gear bags for the bike and the run and take them to transition, and headed out the door. Ironman Cozumel is on an island and the logistics is a nightmare. The race has two transitions, one for the bike and one for the run. This takes a lot of coordination. I swear I spent a million dollars on taxi rides to and from everywhere.
Thankfully I stayed at the Hotel Cozumel and Resort which was a half a mile from the finish line and T2. Saturday was a busy day and it’s a good thing I followed my coaches advice to eat and sleep well on Friday because I did neither on Saturday. The swim was still iffy and they told us at the athlete meeting to take out run gear bags with us to T1 down by the swim start. But then when I returned to my hotel from getting some last-minute supplies at the grocery store I saw people carrying their bags to T2. I wasn’t due to check in my bike at T1 until 2:30. I was going to meet Leslie in the lobby. So I walked back to my hotel room, grabbed my red run gear bag and headed off to T2 to drop it off.
I’ll pause here and just say something that is particularly important. Ironman is all about planning. Seriously, this race is all about logistics. It’s all about planning what you’re going to wear, how you’re going to perform, what you’re going to eat etc. With so many minute details floating about if you don’t have a plan, if you don’t practice that plan you will most likely forget something. My friend Jessica, who I met in Cozumel, probably knows this better than anyone. On race day she showed up to T1 only to find her bike shoes weren’t there. Poor Jessica did the entire 112-mile bike ride barefoot, pedaling on cardboard wrapped up in duct tape. I write this not to make fun of her but to illustrate a point.
Ironman can be the biggest mindf*ck out there. No matter how much you’ve trained, whether you’re a world-class athlete or a weekend warrior anxiety can ruin your race. Because in the end you’re going 140.6 miles against an unforgiving clock. You have little time to think, let alone contemplate the universe. So the one thing you can control is your race plan.
I cannot emphasize enough how important a race plan is. My Ironman race plan, above all other things, including my own desire to finish the race was why I emerged victorious. I had every angle covered and if I didn’t I had enough experience from others to improvise. My race plan was the architect of my faith. It gave me the confidence to know that no matter what happened I could handle it. My race plan was integral to my belief in myself and my training. It was the tenant by which I adhered to achieve my victory.
So if you’re doing an Ironman I have one word of advice. Plan. Plan. And then Plan some more. My coach drilled this into me day after day. Shawn made me go through step-by-step what I would do if I had a flat and had to use my CO2. I was nervous about the swim. The strategy was to draft so I wouldn’t get swept out into the current. But I was afraid of getting touched and grabbed. In fact, my first open water swim this season was a disaster. I ended up swimming 1.2 miles and at the Madison Open Water swim instead of the 2.4 miles because I was too afraid to touch someone and I ended up swimming way outside the boundaries. Our training group had planned to do the Ironman Wisconsin course 80-mile loop afterward and when I showed up and told my coach about my disastrous swim he didn’t crack a smile. I was in tears and he said, “Cry on your bike.” As in, move along. Just roll with it.
In Cozumel, my plan was to draft but I wasn’t good at drafting because I never really do it. On my last swim workout before going to Cozumel, three guys from my Well-Fit Ironman training group, Jon, Chris, and Matt, all Ironmen, showed up at 6 a.m. in the morning to simulate the Ironman mass start. All three guys jumped in the lane with me and forced me to actually plan how I could get around them or draft off them. They swam in front of me, around me, pulled my leg, jostled me and well, I put it in a gear I didn’t know I had. As a result my swim was fantastic…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A Gift from the Sea
So I dropped my red run race gear bag off at T2 and boarded the bus with my bike (awkward) to head to T1 with my blue bike gear bag. By this time I was serene. I knew the swim would be hard but I was going to follow my plan no matter what. At T2 I set up Fey in my transition spot and went to drop off my gear bag near the beach. I ran into Peter and we did a walk through from the swim finish to the changing tents (in Ironman they have tents so you can strip naked and change into anything you need to) and out to the transition where the 2,700 bikes or so were stashed.
“Are you going to have your bike shoes on or off?” Peter quizzed me.
“Huh?” I said.
“Are you going to run in your socks or have your shoes on?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Are you doing an Ironman tomorrow? Or what? ” He quipped, only half-joking.
I settled down.
“Oh…I’m going to wear my bike shoes because the carpet is filthy and I don’t want that stuff in socks…” the science was back.
Peter and I ran through the entire race transition together then found his mom and aunt and took photos. After that I hopped on the bus back to my hotel. I was starving. I had missed lunch and wanted to eat and get in bed before 7 p.m. I ended up eating at Senior Frogs, a tourist hot spot which was empty as a church on Saturday night at 4:30 in the afternoon. I sat eating a bland dinner of baked chicken and rice and watched the sun set over Cozumel. I pushed the swim to the recesses of my mind and just emptied my mind. I closed my eyes and I visualized myself at every moment of the race. I was ready. There was no doubt. Redemption was at hand.
After my waiter asked me twice in Spanish if I had a boyfriend, “No, no novio,” I kept repeating, I left Senior Frogs and darted over to Starbucks. I wanted to give Dave DiCocco a call, and Starbucks was the only place I could get Internet and good reception. Dave is a pro-triathlete who I met through Facebook. I posted I was freaking out about the swim and he sent me a message to call him.
“Do you know how to draft?” he asked.
“You want to get between the knee and the hip, not the feet you don’t want to get kicked.” Dave and I talked for about 10 min when I spotted “Extend-the-swim-cutoff,” guy smiling. This was the guy at the race info meeting begging the officials to extend the swim cut off. He was extremely happy about something. I was curious. This guy looked like he was going to cry at the athlete’s meeting yesterday and on Saturday the day before the dreaded race he was all smiles. What was going on? I walked over and asked. He smiled. “They changed the swim course.”
The guy he was speaking to was a diver who had lived in Cozumel for more than 20 years. He was a volunteer swim boat operator for the race and had received an e-mail from race officials at 12:50 p.m. to park his boat at The Presidente hotel, some 2 miles north of the swim start. The race officials, citing safety changed the course and made the swim a point-to-point with the current and lopped off about 700 m. The swim was shortened. I felt mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I wanted to roll the dice and take my chances with the rough waters. On the other hand, I wanted to come home with an Ironman medal and not in a pine box. Either way it was out of my hands. I would be an Ironman with an asterik. But hey, I couldn’t control that.
I immediately posted on Facebook about the swim and waited for the official word. It didn’t come until well after my Starbucks encounter. But it added a new layer of craziness. Instead of starting at T1, we would go to T1 in the morning, drop off our special needs bags, pump tires, and do all the T1 stuff and then be bussed the 2 miles to the Ironman start at the Presidente. People were pissed. They bitched and complained. They moaned about the swim and just overall acted not too nice. But I didn’t care. I went home got in bed by 7 and proceeded to look at the ceiling. The race was set. And I was ready.
DECEMBER 1, RACE DAY
I remember falling asleep at 2:30 in the morning. I woke up an hour later, donned my Xterra speed suit, boiled water for my oatmeal and cooked eggs. I made sure to the bottled water drink water (Hey I was in Mexico) and I ate a Vanilla Honey Stinger (OMG these are soooo great). By 4:30 I was in the hotel parking lot waiting for the first bus to transition. Ironman packet pick up said transition wouldn’t open until 5:30 but after the debacle with the swim I figured all bets were off. And sure enough there was a line for the bus and we took off around 4:45. I got to an nearly empty transition and took my liquid fuel out.
I had mixed them in water bottles that morning and they were nice and cold. I poured my ClifShot Electroylyte concoction (Lemon Lime) in my Speedfill and filled my butt rockets then took Fey over to get air in her tires. Her tires were 80 psi. Wow. That was low. Briefly I wondered if I had another flat or a slow leak but I checked the tires and they were fine. I stripped off my pants and jacket and put them in my morning clothes bag. I deposited it on the right bus. The sun was just coming up and I was looking around for something to do. I totally forgot my IM Cozumel hat on and purple shoes and Peter’s mom was gracious enough to take them for me. Nervous energy bubbled in my stomach and I walked around looking for people I knew. I hugged everyone and told them good luck and to have a blessed day. I walked to the bus and got on the first one to the start. I arrived at the Presidente ready to go. I dipped my head in the pool, put on my swim cap over my goggles and prayed that my goggles would not fill up with salt water and leave me blind and not being able to see out of my contacts.
I walked over to the left side of the beach to get out of the way but seriously there was no getting out of the way as the beach was small and there 2,700 athletes waiting to start. Looking around I spotted 6-foot-7 Alex and ever the gentleman he coaxed me through the swim start.
“Just draft off me,” he said. “And if you lose me just find someone else.” Best advice I ever had.
The horn went off and the pro men started. Then the pro women and some bewildered age groupers who decided to swim out 15-min early. I decided to conserve energy and stayed on shore until Alex beckoned me to swim to the start with 5 minutes to go. I took my first stroke in water in almost a week and felt like a new being. The water was clear, and I could see Alex’s toenails flapping with his lazy two-stroke kick. The horn went off and Alex bellowed, “Let’s go,” and two seconds later I had lost him.
But I didn’t panic I just looked for another set of feet and glommed on. For the first time in my triathlon career I drafted the entire swim. The water’s clarity made it so easy to find other swimmers that I just attached to their hips like a parasite fish. Alex and I had already devised that the best way to avoid the crash waves and that sea sick feeling their motion can give you is to swim as close to the crest of the wave as possible. That means away from shore. I swim in a straight line so I found my slip stream and just waited for the human poi to cross my path.
The swim was absolutely beautiful. I saw Nemo and Dora, and stingrays and old ship wreck artifacts. But I keep my mind focused. My swim mantra was left hand “LONG,” right hand “STRONG,” 2-beat kick “ALL DAY LONG.” I also swam with a swim metronome set to 60 strokes a minute. It kept me focused and on pace. I sped up when I needed to and slowed down when someone crossed in front of me but for the most part my swim was uber relaxed and not at all taxing. I remembered to start my watch right after the start and I tried to look to see how long it was taking me but I decided to forget it and just swam.
When I hit the turn buoy to the exit stairs, I hopped up and looked down and couldn’t believe my eyes. 1:01. Holy crap balls. I killed that swim. All season I had been frustrated by my swim. No matter what, I couldn’t hold 2:10/100 m more than a mile. And here, on race day, I did 1:37/100 m for nearly 2 miles. I was stoked. I ran down the runway, pulled the shower cord to wash the salt from me, grabbed my own gear bag and zoomed to the changing tent. I saw a couple of folks I knew, said hi but I was really focused on the bike.
I donned my cycle kit, ate my gum, drank water and popped 2 salt pills, shoved on my socks and shoes and stuffed my swim gear in my bike gear bag and was out the door. My bike was way in the front near the mount line so I had to pass virtually ever bike row on the way out. I was pleased to see bikes there and grabbed Fey. By then it had started a light rain and they were telling us to slow down at the mount line. WTH? It’s a race what do you mean? I hopped on Fey, prayed her tires wouldn’t send me sprawling in the rain and began to gun it.
Juan, my taxi driver and I had road around the course. Juan gave me tips and he said at this point of the race I should go “Rapido.” And I did. I looked down at my Cateye and it said I was going 65 mph. I’m fast, but not that fast and knew right then I’d have to do this bike course on time. My bike plan was altered as I couldn’t gauge my cadence or speed. But I could calculate how much time it took me and I knew roughly the length of each section of the looped course. Using my physics I deduced how fast I was going and the numbers boggled my mind. The first 9 miles were fast and furious. The wind was behind us and I was flying. I was doing a classic no-no passing everyone on the bike. Ironman is all about pacing. You can have a blazing bike only to crap out on the run so you need to be conservative and preserve your energy for mile 18 of the run. That’s when the race starts, so they say, and anything before that doesn’t matter. I kept telling myself to slow down but the bike was feeling all kinds of good. In hindsight my Cateye breaking was the best thing to happen to me because it took the pressure off and I could ride by feel. This was still science but it was less high stakes.
Once I hit that first left turn the bike really began. Ironman Cozumel is notorious for its winds. It’s an island with very little standing between its roads and the ocean breeze. When you turn left the wind was like a wall hitting you in the face. Much like my practice ride I slowed down. But unlike my practice ride I had come up with a mantra to get through the wind.
My Ironman training plan included one indoor-cycling session a week and toward the end I was doing my long rides on a trainer. Riding 4,5 6 hours on a trainer can be mind-numbingly boring and to keep from getting distracted my coach would throw out a phrase like, “Let me see you churn the butter.” It helped us to keep our pedal stroke even and on task. After doing Ironman Cozumel I have a glimpse into why repeated chants work to aid focus. They get your mind off the pain and focus you on something rote.
My first loop around the island, the first 39 miles of the bike was blazing fast for me. I estimate I did it in about 17 mph. On the second loop I purposefully slowed down. When I hit the back side of the island, I began chanting “Churning the butter.” I stayed in my 3rd gear but dropped to my lowest ring in the back and upped my cadence. I suspect I was spinning at 90 or 95. Shawn would have been proud. The rain had gone but the wind was still there and I sang “Churning the butter,” all along that 15-mile stretch. I passed many a folks who just looked miserable. But I was focused on “Churning the butter.”
I saw Leslie and smiled and kept riding. I felt really good on the bike and finished the second loop without incident. The third loop not so much. My bike shoes are too small and began to pinch my toes. When I got to mile 78 or so I tried to stretch my toes out. The pinch, turned into a cramp which moved from my ankle to my calf to my achilles heel–my hamstring. Years ago in college I sustained a DRI (drunk-related injury as my masseuse A.J. calls it) and my hamstring has never been the same. It really bothers me on the bike and always on the run. In the past my hamstring hampered me from moving and a bit of terror struck me as the pain got so bad I lost control of my bike.
My tires wobbled as I tried to break all the while trying to clip out of my pedals and land on my feet and not my head. I was going super fast and slid into a ditch. But no crash just some shock. I lay there in the grass and couldn’t help but see the parallel to the last time my legs cramped in an Ironman and I missed the cutoff. But I had followed my plan, put time in the bank and I knew I could lay down on that grass and take a 30-min nap and still make the cutoff. So I patiently rubbed my hammy, talked nice to it and gently coaxed it back to performance. After about 10 min I hopped back on Fey slowed my cadence down and hit the road. When I got to the back side of the island I churned the butter but stopped every two miles or so to stretch. I finally just took my wet socks off and unstrapped my bike shoes to give me room. After passing special needs I decided that was enough gingerly babying and told my hamstring to get it together and floored it. I churned butter and finally turned north gunning it as the wind blew at my back.
I had landmarks to give me visual cues of how close I was to transition. When I saw the Zipline sign I knew I wasn’t that far from town and I began to smile. There was this older guy named Thomas on the bike whom I had passed several times on the loop course. In fact he stopped me at special needs and exclaimed, “Girl you are fast on the bike you keep passing me.” On the last loop I stopped quite a bit and Thomas of course passed me. But one mile from transition I saw him and said, “Well, Thomas, it’s all over but the crying now.” He laughed and shook his head and said, “Damn girl you’ve been ahead of me for 100 miles. I thought I had you.” And I zoomed passed him into the changing tent and almost threw Fey down. I love her but I had had enough. I looked at my watch…3:30 p.m., I had finished that bike with 2 hours to spare. REDEMPTION…oh how sweet it is.
I could have gone faster on the bike but I went conservative. I’ve never run a marathon before and I didn’t want to blow up my race plan. I changed into my run gear, went to the potty and then sprinted outside to start the run.
That’s when Colin Sandy, a photographer from D.C. who wanted to interview me for a black luxury magazine, snapped what is probably the most iconic picture of me. It’s the last picture of the slide show below and it, without a doubt, shows that even before I finished I had gotten my joy back.
People who don’t do Ironmans fixate on the finish line. They ask about your time and how it felt to finish. And I’ll spare you the run details not much to tell there and instead end my journey right there outside of the bike transition changing tent. Because the truth of it all is that what I felt at that moment was my true Ironman victory. I had conquered the place that had defeated me before. Through hard work and dedication and facing my demon of being overweight and wrestling to the ground all the barriers that told me “I can’t,” I fought ferociously for the athlete that lived inside me.
Truth be told I did nothing spectacular or special. I just wanted something so bad that I would not be denied. And instead of just dreaming and hoping and wishing for it I added hard work, dedication and commitment and the ability to trust others would help not harm me in this quest. Someone asked me how this journey changed me, how am I different after my Ironman.
And while I went through an amazing transformation, my coach called it the Ironman evolution, I really think what Ironman allowed me to peel back the layers of B.S., the masks, the defenses built up over time, the barriers and the gates to reveal who I truly am underneath. For I really believe there’s an athlete in all of us, an artist, a lover, a fighter, a singer, a songwriter, a poet, a rich man, a happy poor, man. We have the immense potential to be happy as we want to be. Sometimes it just takes adversity to make us really reach for it.
So I’ll end this journey by encouraging you to embark on your own. You don’t have to do an Ironman but I urge you to find a passion, a dream you’ve always had and to put in place a plan to achieve it. Like me, you may need to transform yourself, ask others for help, write your plan, and then execute your strategy. But I promise the reward will be grand. I wish I could take a magic wand and wave it over you and show you your future self with that dream achieved and journey made. I want to show you how happy you would be if you would take your suffering and channel it into work and commitment and emerge transformed. I want everyone to have their Iron evolution, to chase down their dreams and turn them into reality. For if we all did that how different a world this would be.