Wetsuit strippers are real; flat, really warm coke is pretty good and triathlon is a group sport… I learned a lot at the Ironman 70.3 Muncie triathlon. It was my FIRST half Ironman – it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
All of this will make more sense with a little background information. Two and a half years ago I marched into the Baxter YMCA and signed up for personal training. It was a last ditch effort before gastric bypass and while I really hoped it would work – I didn’t have much hope that it would. I was very overweight and had been for years, walking up steps left me out of breath, trips to the zoo or children’s museum or park found me looking for the perfect bench so I could sit while my kids played. My first personal training session went something like this…
Todd: So Heather, what are your goals? What do you want to accomplish?
Me: (already sweaty and out of breath from the trip upstairs to the wellness center) I want to lose 129 pounds.
Todd: OK… How long do you think that will take?
Me: 9 or 10 months…..
At this point Todd gives me what I’ve come to think of as “the look”… he pauses a little, with the tiniest hint of a smile, a half eye-roll, a sigh and a longish pause… Today I would usually recognize it, but I’m sure it was completely lost on me that day – I was totally focused on the prospect of massive, quick weight loss that would be accomplished by meeting for ½ hour twice a week with a trainer.
Todd: 9 or 10 months? That’s 12 pounds a month .
Me: Yes… 3 pounds a week… if I exercise that should be easy, right?
I think he could tell that I really thought that was perfectly reasonable, so he moved on – why argue with such rock solid logic, right?
Todd: What else?
Me: What else? (really, was there any other reason to exercise?)
Todd: Yes…What else? You have to give me a target other than a number on the scale… why do you want to do this?
THAT was the million dollar question… Why do you want to do this? I’ve been asking myself that question a lot since then. I have a lot of reasons, some big – like I really want my children to know that being healthy, fit and active will make it possible for them to really enjoy all of the blessings that life has to offer and some smaller — like the little rush I get when I sign up for a race… especially a big race like Muncie 70.3.
As soon as I pushed the “submit” button, all of the doubts started creeping in, so I called Todd, got a pep talk of sorts and decided to follow “The Plan”, do all the work and enjoy every minute! “THE PLAN” is Todd’s term for our training schedule – workouts and more workouts and recovery — a system that he’s really tweaked and perfected over his 20 plus years as a triathlete and coach. Ask anyone that he coaches – the workouts are effective and they always have a purpose… A half ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike and a half marathon… It isn’t easy.
Fast forward a couple years from that fateful May morning at the YMCA and I am deep into my first full Taper ever. I was a little stir crazy from lack of exercise so I took my frustrations out on Facebook – counting down the days, speculating on water temperature, trying to encourage other people who are racing. Then my doorbell rings – it is a package from New Hampshire! Pom Poms, a sign, little cow bells and gel from Chrisann Dalton! That’s when the tears started… and so far, they haven’t really stopped. It’s the sort of raw, overwhelming emotion that’s just under the surface, a few tears spilling out when I’d read an encouraging post, escaping into my googles just before the swim start, on the bike when a passing rider just said “keep going”, during the run, after the race, the first practice after the race, and when I asked my daughter Maddy if she wanted to go to open water swim practice WITH me and she raced up the stairs for her swim suit. So much has changed. You see, I’ve never met Chrisann in person, we met online during the Become One contest sponsored by Chocolate Milk – she won and we have been talking and encouraging one another ever since… Triathletes are like that. Opening her care package just hit me like a ton of bricks, how very lucky I am to be able to train and race like this, how much has changed, how much help I’ve had, what incredible people I’ve met.
On Race Day we boarded the Tornado Express and headed for Muncie at 4:30 a.m… Todd drove, Jamie navigated and I spent most of the ride pressing my head to the window to keep cool so I wouldn’t throw up. I was nervous so I used my cell phone light to make a list of all of the people I was thankful for – everyone who had helped me get from where I was to this race. I filled an entire page and, feeling calmer, tucked the paper into my pocket to take with me. At about 5:30 we ate breakfast, following “the nutrition plan”, a peanut butter and honey sandwich – it was familiar and I felt a little better, but not much.
We arrived at Prairie Creek Reservoir, took our bikes into the transition area and got ready to go! I love everything about the start of a triathlon – and Ironman 70.3 Muncie had it all! The transition area was enormous… bikes lined up, triathletes of all ages, shapes and sizes carefully setting up their gear for two smooth transitions… We went to body marking and wonderful volunteers wrote my number on my arm, my age on one leg and my Minnie Mouse smiley on the other… The age written on my leg was my triathlete age… the age I will be at the end of the year. Our blue bracelets got us back into the transition area and I just stood in the middle for a second, watching all of the activity, people greeting each other, spraying trislide and pam cooking spray in little clouds, checking their tires one last time – I stopped being nervous – I was ready to race!
We headed toward the beach. If you’ve never worn a wet suit, it’s something you should try once. They are tight! They are NOT easy to get on. (Especially if your feet are wet or you are sweaty) My first attempt to put on a wetsuit is an entire, wriggly, sweaty, humiliating post all by itself. This morning’s attempt went pretty well, thanks to practice and a Kroger’s grocery bag that Todd handed me. It’s a great new trick, new to me at least, you just put your foot, or arm, in the bag, and slide it right into the suit! After a quick warm up swim, it was time for the race to start so I joined a group of women all wearing blue swim caps and wetsuits and we shuffled down towards the beach. The horn went off to start the race, I held back a little, Erika had been watching the previous waves and suggested that I swim a little to the left of the pack, not much farther and nobody to run into… she was right… smooth sailing. Then, about half way to the first buoy, I remembered that I’d forgotten to start my watch, bummer…. pause, start watch, finish swim. I headed up the beach, where I saw wetsuit strippers for the very first time! Volunteers from the Muncie High School Football team, lined up, pulling wetsuits off of triathletes as they exited the water! The swim went better than I’d expected, but 46:37 felt like forever. It isn’t easy.
My first transition was sort of a disaster. I needed to make a pit stop so I took off my wet suit, and ran to the port-o-let (the transition area was huge – my spot was in the middle, the port-o-lets were on the end) while I was in the port-o-let I turned off my watch timer, had to figure out how to turn it back on, then make it back to my bike and out to the bike course. T1 took me a mind boggling 6 minutes and 57 seconds. It isn’t easy.
The bike course started out smooth, I was right around my target heart rate and averaging a little above my target speed… then I turned into the no passing zone. The no passing zone was a ¾ mile stretch of narrow, rough pavement that Ironman had designated as a no passing zone. We lined up for this stretch pretty much one behind the other and slogged through it… I watch my average start to tank. The road past the no passing zone was still a little rough and by the turn around my average was below my target and my heart rate was too high. I headed back as fast as I could with Coach Todd whispering in my head – telling me over and over that I COULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, get too worn out on the bike. I was feeling beat up and a little tired when I hit the smooth pavement on the other side of the passing zone… heaven. I really had to pick up the pace so I started going down the list of people I had made that morning in the car… every mile a different person was there with me. Keep going. This last long stretch of bike had started to make triathlon feel like a group sport – everyone together, trying to beat the course. As T2 came into view, I realized I was about to go from the frying pan into the fire – at that moment I was intensely grateful for my great coach, “The Nutrition Plan” and “The Race Plan”, I was tired but not completely spent. Still, how was I going to run 13.1 miles? It isn’t easy.
T2 was another disaster… I racked my bike, changed into my running gear and just stood there, staring at my bike helmet on the ground. I wasn’t really thinking about anything either, I have no good excuse. After maybe a minute of this I headed once again to the port-o-let… where I somehow managed to hit the button on my watch. It happily announced that my “Multisport Activity was Complete”… I had to chuckle a little. I saved what I had so far, reset the watch to run mode and started out on the run. T2 was a blazing 7 minutes and 18 seconds. It isn’t easy.
The run starts downhill, which is a great thing. During the first mile I came alongside someone wearing Jordan Y Multi Fit orange, so I asked him if he knew Doug Robinson. We started chatting and the conversation lasted 10.5 miles. I told him I was going to walk through the aid stations – sticking to “The Plan” had worked pretty well so far. He said that sounded good to him and that I should hold some ice in my hands to help keep my heart rate down. It seemed to work, so I did. Don and I worked our way from one aid station to the next, watching down the road for our teammates. First Todd, then Alan, Blake and Matt. They probably won’t ever really know how much seeing them lifted me and carried me along or how grateful I am for each of them. It’s hard to explain. The aid stations became little life lines, ice, flat coke, pretzels, water, gu… by this point in the race, they felt luxurious, and yes, flat coke started to taste good. Between mile 10 and 11 I told Don to go ahead, I couldn’t keep up anymore, he took off – sticking to his plan, I kept going. Somewhere during the last mile I saw Tri Tornado orange heading my direction, it was all I could do not to completely fall apart, I was finished, worn out, still trying to run but I don’t think I was anymore. The last mile, the last hill are a blur, Todd telling me to keep going, encouraging me, strangers cheering, keep going, my best friend since second grade standing at the top of the hill with her sweet kids. Hugs for everyone then a last little push to the finish line.
Besides learning that wetsuit strippers really do exist, I learned that while triathlon is, at its heart, an intensely personal experience were a finished race must be earned by hard work; it is also a team sport. We race as individuals but we aren’t really alone – and it’s so much better that way. Family, friends, my coach, the people I train with, the volunteers, the other athletes… all of them helped me finish this race – they are incredible and I am grateful for each of them. It wasn’t easy, but is was so worth it and I can’t wait to do it again.