“Courage is the discovery that you may not win, and trying when you know you can lose.”
Finishing is victory at Ironman.
I believe that every Ironman has a defining moment. There is some point during every single person's ironman experience as a competitor that becomes the attitude, the emotion, the feeling of the day. And it will make or break you.
For me, during this Ironman, it was at 2/3rds of the swim.
And the feeling was: "Continue".
I was initially confronted with that idea when I stopped about 1.8 miles into the 2.4 mile swim, dry-heaving and gagging on lake water and pure, unfiltered fear. Tears were in my eyes. It felt worse than the first Ironman. No one said it would be easier the second time--in fact, I spoke with the founder of ART and he told me he thought the 2nd Ironman was the hardest. Mentally, I had believed I was prepared, but maybe I was not. However, I at least thought I would be ready for just how punishing the swim was. How did this happen?
The first lap had been a personal record for me; 33 minutes for 1.2 miles. Not rocketing through the water by any stretch, but during a 2.4 mile swim I rarely feel good enough to swim towards my upper limit and I had today. I re-entered the water at the beach after my first lap feeling cocky. First lesson in Ironman racing: NEVER feel cocky and over-confident. It really is amazing how the moment you do, nature senses it like a swarm of bees and unleashes revenge of heavenly proportions upon you. For me, the wind had picked up during my first lap, and I swam fast enough to catch up to a large crowd of very angry, aggressive swimmers.
The waves at the distant end of the course, furthest from shore, had grown unconscionably large. The waves were so large in fact that two people could swim up and over one of them single file. Undoubtedly, the weather had gotten worse. Bad weather was to be the second biggest theme on June 21st, 2009. The first most important theme I already stated at the beginning.
Finishing is victory at Ironman. For me at this point, finishing the swim again was victory. This year, at the gun and into the first lap I had stayed back and toward the outside--a lesson hard learned from the titanic beating I received during Ironman 2007. As a result I earned my best 1.2 mile swim time. What I did, however, was swim well enough to place myself smack into a pack of swimmers that I was trying to avoid. It hurt and it was scary. I did exactly what Dr. Gerking told me not to do: I lost my wits. I lost energy trying to push through the crowd, only to be beaten back. I couldn't find a rhythm in the enormous waves. I couldn't breathe. I got sick.
I felt sad as I thought about my wonderful swim time melting away in the waves. I pushed around the turn and felt like I was going to throw up. I stopped and looked towards shore. Through the tears forming in my eyes I could make out the finish arch. 0.6 miles away. I could do that, I told myself over and over. I could swim that any day of the week. AND the waves were going with me. I gagged and tried to puke up the bad emotions. Every time I started swimming my stomach revolted. It was by far, to date, the hardest 0.6 miles of my life. I remember seeing the enormous crowd along the concrete steps in front of the resort as I swam in. I wondered if I was noticeable, flailing along.
And then... it was over.
The clock said 1:12. I think it ended up being longer than that, 1:14 for some reason, but the clock said 1:12 as I tried to hold it together up the beach, onto the grass, towards the army of waiting peelers who would make my ascent onto land official. I kept thinking about 1:12. Thats 13 minutes faster than my last Ironman swim. I made it. And it was a lot faster. But what's more--
I only lost 7 minutes that second lap! How the hell...?
The next huge lesson at Ironman: nothing is really as bad as it seems. It is like the weather in Colorado. When it seems like a terrible day or like nothing is going well, wait five minutes. It will usually feel completely different.
I remembered the morning of 2007 being a little chaotic in the hotel room, so this time I had my ducks in a row the night before. When the alarm roostered at 3:45 (it really is a rooster alarm), I laid there for 5 minutes and thought about what I needed to do. I waited a moment for the nervous energy. It didn't happen.
I was remarkably calm. I thought about my training and how prepared I felt physically, and a wave of excitement rushed through me. I was excited, this time, and not terrified of the unknown. I was well rested and healthy. Having the first Ironman race under your belt makes a significant difference.
The morning continued in this way--very calm and smooth. We easily found parking a few blocks from the transition area. Not too bad of a walk before the race. We dressed warmly and arrived to feel a little breeze blowing, but not too bad yet. NOTHING like 2007.
So far, so good. I can do this, I told myself. I have done it before. I can do this, over and over.
I felt like I was so prepared that I had so much of an easier time getting everything in order before the race; I could swear I was forgetting something. But no, it was just me having that previous experience. I arrived at the immense, flood-lit transition area with my beautiful wife/Ironman cheerleader before the thing even opened; I was among the first 15 in. That was a cool scene, what with the flood lights and anticipation. Jan and I walked back to the car and I dropped off the extraneous stuff I wouldn't need during the race. I smooched our dog good bye, and Jan and I walked hand in hand towards downtown Coeur d'Alene.
She decided it was time for her first ENORMOUS cup of coffee, I think it was 20 ounces, and I went back to transition to fiddle. It was sunny and pleasant walking along the water. I started to really feel the excitement of it all when I saw how crowded the swim start was already, and all of the other triathletes, much more nervous than me, scrambling around in the final 30 minutes before we were kicked out of transition.
The bike was in terrific shape, as always. It was hard for me at the first Ironman to leave it overnight, I am super anal about that. This time it was a relief to have it out of sight before the race so I could really be at ease... Even though, it's a Virgo outlet for me to keep my tri-bike in excellent condition and now, considering that I wouldn't have it if it weren't for my grandpa, well, now it means an extra special amount to me. I will never get rid of this bike. Or let anything happen to it.
Anyway, I checked my tires (cough for later in the story), filled my bottles, fidgeted a little,grabbed what I needed, and had just figured out where and how to put all my crap on my bike when I hear my name being called. I turn around and see some frantic waving over outside of the transition area fencing. It was my dad and my Aunt Siri, the latter all the way from Alaska. All of my dad's siblings had come in to town (Spokane) if they weren't there already for my grandparents 60th anniversary, so Siri decided to come see the start of an Ironman--fresh from knee surgery. We walked around to the grassy knoll where just days before, at the base of the gigantic blow-up gatorade bottle, Brian, Jan and I swam the course and laughed. Hardly the state of Ironman swim start.
The mass-swim start of 2600 people is ridiculously awesome to see.
I got the chance to hang out with Dad, Siri, Jan and Shawna before I had to go to the beach. I felt good. I felt really good. Calm, fun, warm once dad let me borrow his jacket, ready. I knew in the back of my mind that it was probably bad to feel so good before the race. When or how that would play out was to be determined. It was time to march with the other athletes towards the beach.
At that moment, who should walk past me but Mark Kendall, one of my early triathlon mentors while I was in college. He was largely responsible along with Jeremy Gerking for my enthusiastic start and successful beginnings in triathlon. Mark and I walked along together, chatting about how we felt, neither of us willing to really go out on a limb and claim we were going to have a brilliant day. I assumed he would smoke the sucker.
But do any of us really do that well at Ironman? I guess it's all relative.
The march was agonizingly long to the beach among the crowd of a thousand other athletes, clad in super neoprene suits nervous as hell. Finally, finally my chip crossed the mat and beeped--one slight portion of the myriad of other beeps.
The sand was cold on my feet as I made the final commitment to this day, and stood on the beach wondering, again, what on earth it was about this that I felt compelled to do. And then I smiled.