Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ironman, God and Me

Back home and back to reality. A couple of months back I was asked to come speak to the Tremont United Methodist Women. On the way home from Branson today, I did a brain dump of what I wanted to say.  Some of the paragraphs don't flow well, but it was just a way for me to get my thoughts together. So here it is. Please note the final paragraph which was the jist of the message.

A couple of years ago I would have laughed if you had asked me if I wanted to do an Ironman. Would it be a great experience? Sure. Did I want to do it? Or better yet, did I feel the need to do it? Heck no. I could never picture myself going through all of the work and sacrifice required to make it happen.

But then about a year ago, things changed. I quit my job at the end of December and I was looking at 2012 wondering what I was going to do with all of my extra time. My kids were all in school. Sure, I was teaching group fitness classes: Body Pump, Body Flow and Zumba, but that wasn't going to take all of my time.

I've always been one to enjoy working out. I like the way I feel when I’m done exercising – that feeling of accomplishment, the release of endorphins that make you feel so incredible. When I was in college, I ran some races, mainly 5ks. I was young and rarely trained. At one race, I came in dead last…and 70 year old nun beat me. I hated running. It was boring and yes it hurt.

In 2008, I was working for the park district when Gene Pflederer brought back the Tremont Triathlon. I thought about participating, but I didn't  Instead I spent the day taking pictures of all of the participants and felt my inner athlete which had gotten lost during the years I was raising 3 daughters and worrying about 2 ill parents. By the end of the triathlon, I was mad that I had wimped out and didn't do the triathlon that year. 

I talked to my niece, Cheryl, about doing the triathlon next year. Heck, I wasn't going to do this stupid feat by myself. I was going to drag her down with me. Naturally, she was up for it and we began training in January. June 2009 we completed our first sprint triathlon….note: the swim was 400 yards in the pool. The guy next to me jogged the shallow end and swam the 12’. Anyone can do a pool swim if you can doggy paddle. So in August I signed up for my first lake swim in Canton. There’s something about the pitch black of that water that is so incredibly scary. You can read endless articles about triathletes – experience triathletes – freaking out in a lake swim….from the dark, murky water to swimming cricked to getting running over by stronger swimmers. Swimming is a mental game…a tough, mental game.

For the last four years, I had trained – a little – for smaller triathlons. Completing sprint distances only. Biking? That’s kid stuff, right? Everyone can ride a bike. I wasn't worried about the bike. Swimming? Oh heck yah. That scared me because you can drown.

So I spent the next few years doing sprint triathlons and running races up to a half marathon distance. Cheryl kept talking about how someday we were going to an Ironman and I was like “Yah yah”…sure. With three kids and a full time job, I didn't see how that was going to be possible any time soon so I just basically placated her.

Until December 2011.

My plan was to do a half Ironman in 2012 and then possibly a full in 2013. But then sometimes God speaks in subtle ways. Sometimes He knocks you right upside the head.

I quit my job. There were already 13 people from the Tremont Triathlon Team registered for Ironman Louisville. I went to lunch with Gene Pflederer and Glen Gullette and Glen said Why are you waiting another year to do an IM? You have all of these people who are in place to support you, to train with? Why wait?

I spent a month contemplating…thinking about it. In the meantime, Cheryl signed up for IMLOU. Glen and Gene were already registered. I wanted to be a part of this event. I wanted to train with everyone and feel that team camaraderie again.  In early January, I talked to Gene and asked him if he really thought I could do it. We ran through my times, factored in fatigue which would slow me down and in the end he said, “Yes, I think you can do it within 17 hours.” Barely I thought, but I agreed. It actually seemed possible.

I had one other issue I had to figure out. I’m a Type 2 Diabetic. I needed to have a nice little conversation with my dear doctor, Volkan Sumer, and make sure he gave me medical clearance to move forward with the Ironman.

On January 13, 2012, I did the scariest thing I've ever done in my life. I registered for IMLOU. I remember sitting there staring at that button wondering if this was the biggest mistake of my life. It certainly scared me, but one of my favorite quotes now is “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren't big enough.” I paid the entry fee and then turned into a giggly mess thinking about what I’d just done.

I had 8 months to train for the biggest event of my life. I spent the next few months running inside on the treadmill or even outside in the cold. I rode my trainer in my basement watching TV shows I’d never had an interest to watch before. I went swimming 3 times per week freezing my wet hair as I walked out of the Riverplex. In addition, I was teaching 8 group fitness classes a week. On average, I’d say I worked out 6 hours per day.

The winter was so nice that I took my first long ride outside with the T3 team in March. We did a 53 mile loop riding from Tremont to Manito and back. While stopped at Manito, one of the team members checked on my hydration. I said I was fine, but Ed gently replied back, “I drink every 15 minutes. You have to keep drinking in order to stay hydrated. You should be refilling your water bottle by now.” Ha, noted.

I’m someone who needs stepping stones, small accomplishments to build my confidence. In May, Cheryl and I decided to sign up for an Olympic distance triathlon in Carlysle, IL. (1 mi swim, 20 mi bike, 6.2 mile run) Because the water was still cool, I ordered a wet suit in early May for the triathlon. The wet suit works as a buffer between you and the cold water, but it also helps with buoyancy.

Now keep in mind there’s a rule in racing. Never do anything new on race day. Oops. I swam one time in my wet suit at Lake Windermere.  I felt ready. I had been swimming. I had my wet suit. This was going to be a hurdle I just need to jump over so I could move forward.

When we got to Carlysle, Cheryl and I stared out at the lake. Cheryl said, “Oh my. Those buoys seems to far out there.” I looked at the lake and thought, “ I've got this.” I’d been following my training plan. I hadn't swam a mile continuous yet, but I had completed more than that in sets and knew I’d be ok.

On race day, I felt small tremors of trepidation. I was a little nervous. The gun went off to start the men’s race and then the women’s race would start 5 minutes later. I stepped into the water and felt my toes go numb. Dang, the water was cold. 30 seconds to race…I put my goggles on my face. The gun went off. I put my face in the water…and popped right up. Fear, paranoia, thoughts of failure took over my mind. I watched as a majority of the triathletes swam away. I tried to put my face in the water again. Nope. Not happening. I rolled on to my back. I felt my heart race. I started back stroking hoping to calm myself down. I tried to roll over to my stomach again and couldn't get my face into the water. I freestyled with my head out of the water for a while and then rolled on my back again. My emotions went from panic to tears. I looked to my right and could see the shore of the lake calling my name. I don’t know how many times I thought about swimming over to the side and just quitting, but something wouldn’t let me stop. Call it my pride. I don’t know, but I just kept stroking…on my back. I tried to swim freestyle, but every time I did the dark murky water taunted my weak mind. I allowed every fear I’ve ever had about swimming invade my mind and control my body.  I don’t know how, but I did complete the swim…in very last place. I spent an hour on my back, but I made it out of the water. The walk up the hill to get my bike was very painful. I was destroyed. I hated the feeling of failure that was overwhelming me.

Once on the bike, I tried to push the negative thoughts away. My goal was to rise up from last place. At every turn, I looked for someone new to pick off. Someone to pass. The 20 mile bike ride went by quickly. Finally, it was time for the run. 6.2 miles shouldn't have been a problem, but on a 95 degree day 6.2 miles can take forever. The 6.2 mile run became a walk/run/sponge pattern. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to cross the finish line. I wish I could say I was happy, but I was not. I was mad. I was angry. I was convinced that I was going home and try to withdraw from the Ironman. If I couldn't complete a 1 mile swim in a small local race, how was I supposed to finish 2.4 miles in the Ohio River with 2700 other people?

I cried all the way home. I fought with my husband. He didn't seem to understand what I was going through.  I told him I was going to withdraw from Ironman and he said he knew I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't give up that easy, but believe me if I hadn’t wanted to cry myself to sleep in my bed I would have been on that computer trying to get a $600 refund. Gene called me. Glen called me. They both tried to lift my spirits, to get me to see the positive side of things, but I just couldn't do it. For the next four days, I didn't work out other than teaching my classes. I was sure I was going to withdraw.

Finally, I started to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. I decided I was going to really focus on the swim and I could always withdraw later. Seemed logical to me. I did the Tremont Triathlon in June and had a personal best time. I got done and felt fantastic, almost as if I hadn't exercised at all.

The last weekend in June Cheryl & I went to Louisville to ride the race course. I needed to see what all of these hills were like that everyone kept talking about. We started out the day with a small swim in the Ohio River. While some people probably complained about the warm water temperatures, I loved it. It was probably the best swim I’d ever had. I felt relaxed, calm. I felt like I was cutting right through the water. I got out of the water and gave a small prayer of thanks. I needed that confidence booster. On the bike course, I tried to remember what Ed had told me. The pavement temperature was 111. I needed to keep up on my hydration and not get behind and while I think I hydrated ok (not great), I know I failed on my nutrition. Between the heat and the sweat, you really don’t feel hungry. We would get to various pit stops along the route and I’d wonder when was the last time I ate anything. At one point on the way back, Cheryl was way ahead of me and I just dropped my bike by the nearest shady spot I could find. Again, thoughts of failure invaded my mind, but I knew the temperatures I was experiencing today could be exactly what I would be facing on race day. I watched another T3 member drop out before completing the training ride. It was hot and incredibly miserable, but there are always lessons to be learned from every trial we go through.

Shortly after the training ride in Louisville, my body started breaking out in hives. To this day I’m not sure what caused it, but I think it was related to the constant state of sweatiness my body was in. My eyes swelled. My under arms, inside of my elbows, back of thighs and knees all itched like crazy. It was all of the major areas where sweat would pool. It was the only explanation we could come up with. I started going through Cortizone cream and oatmeal baths like crazy. I was pretty miserable.
In July, I was scheduled to do a half Ironman in Muncie which would be a great gauge for me to judge my readiness for IM. But I with temperatures expected to reach 103, the race director wisely chose to change the race from a half IM to an Olympic distance. While I understand the potential medical dilemma the race director was facing, I was disappointed. I needed this chance to prove to myself that I was ready. Fortunately, I completed the Muncie race without major issues.

From May-June, I constantly told everyone that I could drop out of the Ironman at any moment. I think it was a self defense mechanism. I was afraid of failure. I didn't want to be the one person of the 21 members of T3 who didn't complete the Ironman on August 26th. Finally in July, I admitted it. I would be disappointed if something happened and I couldn't race. I knew I had to finish what I started.
Finally it was race week. We traveled to Lou on Thursday. We had Thursday night to do whatever we wanted. On Friday night, we had the athletes dinner where they showed a video of a woman who got to mile 21 and had to be medically evacuated from the race. Cheryl & I swore we would crawl at that point to get to the finish line, but the woman fully acknowledged that she hadn't followed her hydration and nutrition plan.

On Saturday, a group of us went out to lunch. Gene turned to me and said, “I don’t get it. This is my 4th Ironman and you are more calm than I am. Why are you not stressing?”

My response was simple. “Several weeks ago I decided God was going to give me the day He wanted me to have. I’m either going to freak on the swim or have a flat tire or bonk on the marathon, but worrying about it is not going to make a difference. I gave it up to God.” Gene looked at me with shock.

You see. I’m not a person who goes around talking about God. My relationship with Him is very private. He comes up in conversations occasionally, but most of times my conversations with God are just between us. He knows my worries and fears. He knows my strengths and weaknesses and I just knew that on August 26th He was going to have my back. I may not get through the day the I wanted, but there would be a lesson in it all and all I could do was sit back and wait for the lesson to sink into my thick head. I was determined that if God allowed me to complete this race I was going to enjoy every single moment of it. It was a lifetime experience that I may not get to have again and I wanted to complete the day with a smile on my face.

Saturday night I didn't think I’d be able to sleep, but I was out like a light, sleeping by 10 pm. The alarm went off at 3 am. Cheryl & I shared a hotel room while my family all stayed today. In our usual way, Cheryl got up and started saying things like we usually do: “Why are we doing this? Are we crazy?” I just looked at her and said we are going to be fine. We are ready. She responded, “That’s just not us. What is going on here?”

We met our families down at the hotel lobby about 4:15 am to walk down to the transition area. We had to prepare our bikes with nutrition and water bottles and get body marking. They wouldn’t let anyone other than athletes in the transition area for safety reasons. I had to pump my own tires which always makes me nervous. Jeff usually takes care of that for me. He’s a great support crew. Finally, we were ready to walk down to the swim start.

Halfway there I realized I hadn't put my nutrition bag on my bike. Panic set in. I couldn't complete a 17 hour endurance event without nutrition. I was ready to run back to the transition area when Jeff took the bag out of my hands and said he’d take care of it. I tried to stay calm. I reminded myself that if anyone could take care of this problem it would be Jeff. He was a way of staying calm. People respond to him. They trust him. Luckily, he found a volunteer who promised to make sure the nutrition bag was on or by my bike.

We made our way down to the swim start after body marking and then had to wait. In line for almost two hours while we waited for the start of the race. We chatted with other racers and amazingly I stayed calm. I was true to my words. I gave it up to God and knew He would provide me with the day I needed to have.

For once, the swim was not an issue. It was long and it was hard, but I was mentally determined and physically prepared. T3 spent a number of nights in July and August swimming a full 2.4 miles out at Lake Windermere. The first time I swam 2.4 miles I almost panicked, but I just kept swimming. On race day, all of that practice came together. I came out of the Ohio River with a feeling of relief. I knew that the hardest mental part of the day was over for me.

I jumped on my bike and took off for the longest segment of the race. 112 miles on the bike means about 8 hours of seat time for me. And yes my nutrition was on my bike. Again, I said a prayer of thanks for kind souls who made sure the nutrition was on my bike.

For the last several months, I’d been following training plans from Endurance Nation. They laid out a plan which made perfect sense to me. The first hour you should just be riding along with no pressure on the pedals. Get comfortable on the bike. Take in some nutrition. With temperatures of 95 and 40% humidity, I was just looking to complete the Ironman not break any records. I spent just over 7 hours on the bike. The entire time my shoulders were relaxed. I joked with other riders. I even threw out bits of advice to those who hadn't ridden the course before. Jeff, my kids, my sister and niece were all there to cheer me on, but I also had 21 other families who pushed me along with their positive thoughts. My family was in LaGrange, but the streets were so packed with people I didn't see them until it was too late. I passed memorable spots on the race route…where I dropped my chain, where Cheryl dropped hers. Where Cheryl fell. Where I fell. All of those memories carried me along as I just pedaled my bike. I was able to see a few T3 members and cheer them on, but only a few. The second time I looped through LaGrange and passed my family I felt tears well up in my eyes. I really could use a hug from them right now.

Fortunately, as usual, Jeff read my thoughts. He moved everyone up to a 2nd location where I was finally able to see them in time to stop, get my hugs and have a picture taken with them. I was on the home stretch of the bike. I’d only stopped twice on the bike – once for the restroom and once to get my special needs bag. I found out later the burning feet is a common phenomenon. The heat from the pavement was scorching my feet. I felt like they were on fire. I watched other riders take their feet out of their shoes, but I knew I’d simply fall over if I tried so I just tried to move my feet around a bit to take some of the pressure off.

I remember reading a while back that most people absolutely hate their bike by the time they got off of it. I, however, didn't feel that way. I’d really enjoyed my 112 miles. Actually, I was afraid to get off. I was afraid that I was going to be that person who had a great bike split and couldn't complete the run. I was afraid of hitting “the wall” in the marathon. I knew the physically hardest segment was still ahead of me.

I got off my bike, grabbed my transition bag and walked to the changing tent. When I walked into the tent, I broke out in the hugest smile because my favorite person in the whole world was sitting there…my niece, Cheryl. I sat down right between her and another T3 member and we just started chatting away about the race we had each had so far. I sat there chatting away for about 15 minutes and then realized I still had a race to finish and thought maybe I should get going. I checked my blood sugar, hit the restrooms and Cheryl & I left the tent together. We were chatting away enjoying our day talking about how we could walk the marathon and be an Ironman at the end of the day. We even stopped to get pictures with our families.

As soon as we started to run, I told Cheryl she didn't have to wait for me. Cheryl is a much stronger athlete than I am – and younger as well. I fully expected to have her waiting for me at the finish line. Right away Cheryl said she wasn't sure that was going to be the case. She said no matter what we’d each have our own moment to shine at the finish line, but she wasn't feeling right. Cheryl had experienced some issues this year and I was convinced she needed to hydrate. So we stopped at the first aid station to get water and bananas. We started running again and Cheryl said she felt like she had a weight on her chest. Those were the scariest words she could have said to me.

Finally at about mile 3 Cheryl said she was going to need to stop and I needed to go ahead without her. It was the hardest thing for me to do. To walk away from my training partner and leave her to struggle alone, but we've always said it is about us as individuals and our accomplishments. I continued running, but now I had a new incentive. I was looking for my family. I knew Cheryl would need to hear their words of encouragement, but also Jeff’s solid logical thinking to keep her moving.
The run route is an out and back loop which you complete two times. The run is very boring, but for me it was perfect. It gave me lots of opportunities to see all of my T3 teammates and encourage them on. I kept a running list in my head…next I should see Glen, then Gene, then Pat, then…on and on  and on. I was constantly looking for the next person to cheer on. I followed my Endurance Nation training plan. I ran a little bit slower than my planned pace, but I was feeling so good I didn't want to push it and feel the pain. I just wanted to enjoy every moment. I walked the aid stations. I ran in between.  I cheered on other runners. I prayed for those whose bodies wouldn't let them finish their race.

I saw my family and asked them to encourage Cheryl when she came by. She still had time to finish her race. I found out later that Jeff walked 4 miles with her doing the math so she knew what pace she had to keep up to finish by midnight. He wound up with blisters on his feet, but that’s the kind of support crew we had. He’s the best.

I came back into downtown to start my 2nd loop. I could hear the other racers finishing their race. I could hear the cheering, the pounding on the signs. I grinned from ear to ear. I heard one spectator yell, “You’re almost there.” That’s when I realized they thought I was smiling because I was almost done. No, I was smiling because I was loving every minute of my experience. I still had 11 more miles or so to complete.

On my 2nd loop, I realized two of our teammates weren't going to complete their race. One had to stop during the bike. The other, according to the numbers, was not going to have enough time to complete the marathon before midnight. I said a little prayer for them. After committing almost a year of your life to preparing for Ironman, you worry about feelings about depression for not being able to complete it.
I continued following my plan…walk aid stations, run between. Relax shoulders. Drink and eat. Chicken broth was like a gift from God. The salty taste was delicious.

On my 1st loop, I saw Chris Kinsey. He looked at me and said I was looking really good and he thought I’d catch him. When I came into the last half mile, I had  a gentleman tell me “two big guys in those ‘13’ jerseys are just two minutes ahead of me.” I knew it was Chris and James. I kicked up my pace. At the corner, two girls tell me those boys had just passed by. I pushed even more. I was looking for them. I saw the finisher’s chute. I saw the lights. The crowd. My smile could not be stopped. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I threw my hands up in celebration. I could not believe I was here. Ironman Finish Line. I am an Ironman. I even heard them say my name over the loud speaker. As I stepped beyond the finish line, I did a little celebratory dance. Later I had a spectator come up and tell me that I was the most fun to watch cross the finish line.

Thanks to friends who decorated my  home
It wasn't until after I crossed the finish line that I felt the pain of the day. I was too busy celebrating to feel it before, but as soon as I stopped I felt the lactic acid slam into my body. I drank a water, took my picture and walked back out on the course. I had to be there to encourage Cheryl. I knew this day was not going to be the day she wanted, but she would at least be able to complete the race in the allotted time. As I walked back, Annelise sighed in frustration and asked me to take my phone. She said it would not stop going off. It was buzzing with text messages and Facebook messages of everyone at home who was watching my race day. I felt every positive thought and prayer out there. It’s what helped me get through the day knowing I had so many people pulling for me.

Cheryl finished her race about 11:30. I insisted that she go straight to medical and get checked out. I wasn't taking any chances. After she got medical clearance, we went back to the hotel where my sister had been kind enough to pick up Panera for us and leave in our hotel room. You would think that we would be exhausted, but we stayed up until 3 am talking. We slept for 3 hours and then got up to go to the Finisher’s Store where we met up with our other T3 teammates and everyone swapped stories.
For the next week, I continued to get messages from people from all over the place. I’m not sure if many of you know Diane Imig, but she’s a strong runner. Her statement left the biggest impact on me. She said, “It’s not if you can do it, I can do it. It’s because you did it. I can do it.”

I’m convinced that God had a plan for that day. God had a plan for me the last 9 months. He made me struggle during the Olympic triathlon so I would work harder on my swim. He made me struggle on the training rides in all of that heat so that I would pay attention to my hydration and nutrition. And then on that day He gave me the best day of my life. I smiled all day long. I didn't feel an ounce of pain until I crossed the finish line and you have to wonder why, but I had my answer. I had my answer in the emails that I received from people who said I inspired them. From people who wanted to start on a healthy lifestyle. From people who just wanted to get started to move their bodies.

My finish - the best day of my life

But I tell everyone I am not asking you to do an Ironman. I’m not asking you to run a mile. All I’m asking you to do is set a goal. Whatever that goal may be. Set your sights on your goal and never back down. Remember that God may put hurdles in your way, but those hurdles have a purpose. There are lessons to be learned in every hardship in life. Sometimes it can be very difficult to see past the struggle, but keep looking toward that goal because once you achieve your dream you will feel like anything is possible. 

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