Monday, August 21, 2017

I Am an Ironman

Yesterday, I swam 2.4 miles. I bicycled 112 miles. I ran 26.2 miles. It was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. It was a very very long time to be in constant pain, on the edge of what my body is capable of. For every minute of those 15+ hours, I thought about quitting. But I did not.

Today, I am an Ironman.

It's a surreal knowledge. I've been on edge for weeks, as August 20 approached. I tried not to think about it too much, but the fact that I would be toeing the starting line at a full Ironman was ever on the periphery of my mind, reminding me that I had signed up for something totally insane. I didn't know if I could finish, and the threat of failure was even worse than the anticipation of the brutal event itself.

I signed up for Ironman Mont Tremblant over 10 months ago. Meghan and Geoffrey had signed up, and back then, it was easy to think, "oh sure!" I had no clue what I was getting myself into. By this point I've done over half a dozen shorter tris, and two half Ironman distance tris. But none of those prepared me for a full Ironman. I thought it would take me a little over twice as long to complete the Ironman. It took me almost three times as long.

Here's a cool picture I took Saturday.

My training was junk. I knew it was junk. I like the shorter tris; they're crazy fun! Even the halves were good. I crashed at Musselman, but despite that, it was an awesome event. But I was nowhere near ready for a full. I realized as I headed into the summer that three hours was about my limit for what I enjoyed training-wise. A 20 mile run? Sure! A swim and a bike ride? Yeah! But four, five or more hours smashing my legs up and down hills? Ugh.

I had one 70 mile bike ride, and one 80 mile ride. I had one indoor bike ride that was 6 hours long, and at least one that was 5. But that's it. Geoffrey and Meghan each had at least a couple of centuries under their belts, and countless other long rides. I injured the tendons connecting my quads to my knees early in the summer, and they seriously hampered my riding. I did almost zero biking in the three weeks leading up to the Ironman. I knew going into the race it was going to be a suffer-fest.

I wasn't wrong.

Soon we will suffer, but for now... smiles!

At some point I decided to stop beating myself up. I was feeling guilty for my perceived "laziness", but as many of my friends repeatedly tell me, I push myself too hard, not too little. My goal was to survive, and to finish, and to learn. So I had to train enough to accomplish that, but not so much that I couldn't even start. Of course I'd like to be awesome at everything I do. But if the outpouring of love and high-fives I've gotten in the past day say anything, it's that finishing an Ironman is an amazing achievement, regardless of how fast you do it.

We left home on Thursday early in the afternoon and headed up to Canada. It took us almost 2 hours to cross the border. Sitting in line gave me and Geoffrey plenty of time to have an imaginary conversation with the border guy.

"What is the nature of your visit?" The guy asks with a french accent.

"Is not to bring guns tavarich," I say with a think Russian accent.

"Don't listen to him. He's not even Russian. He's Greek. His parents are sheep herders," Geoffrey soothes.

"I am not a spy," I throw in.

"He always says that. It's a running joke."

"Vee vill be in and out of Canada before you can say babushka!"

"He's fine, just ignore him."

We kept ourselves amused. People tried to edge in front of us in the line of cars, feigning confusion over the lanes. Geoffrey would flip them the bird and climb up onto the bumper of the car in front of him. Meghan, behind us, would then make sweet love with his bumper in turn. We were an impenetrable wall of SUVs.

Welcome to Canada! Good luck getting your phones to work!

The encounter with the border guy was less interesting than we'd imagined, although he did have a thick accent. I had to get out of the car to look at our license plate, because our "stupid bicycles" blocked his view. I don't know if he said "stupid", but there was definitely an adjective in there. As soon as we hit the road again, everything was in kilometers. "This is like a whole different country!" I remarked.

We had left a day earlier than originally planned, so the gorgeous house I'm typing this from wasn't available yet. We stayed about an hour from Mont Tremblant in..... dormitories? We had a small room with three bunk beds in it. Geoffrey and his kid, Meghan and her two kids, and I just barely fit. It was cozy. I tried not to fart too much, but with all the carb loading going on, that was tough.

The actual room the six of us shared. Six!

We ate dinner at a nice place nearby. I order my food in French, feeling all proud of myself. That is until Meghan pointed out that my accent was absolutely atrocious. I haven't tried since. Probably for the best. Every time I say "bonjour", folks immediately switch to English. So yeah, it must be pretty obvious. Of course, I can't understand anything they say either. The sound like Elves making love in a field of mushrooms.

Meghan rented an amazing house for us stay in for a week. And because she's smart, she included the week after the Ironman so we could rest and enjoy our vacation. Finding it in the first place was an adventure. Google maps threw up its hands and stomped off angrily into a corner. We asked everyone we came across and they all knew exactly where it was without knowing at all where it was. We finally found it by accident. The house has all the awesome things a house can have. A deck with a gorgeous view, a dishwasher, a Keurig, and neighbors with little dogs on leashes.

It took me a minute to cover every square inch of my room with my junk.

We got to Tremblant Resort Friday afternoon to get our packets and stuff. It was a beautiful little village with a European feel. Ski-lifts constantly crisscrossed the sky. Narrow brick alleyways were lined by colorful buildings hiding crêperies and ice cream shops. The Athlete Village took up the middle of it, overflowing with svelte athletes. We got our stuff, spent too much money on Ironman merch, and then swam for a bit at the lake. There were zero lifeguards. Just one chubby teenager on duty who struggled with his English. I guess they didn't expect any triathletes to drown. But I was glad for that; I've had my fill of annoying lifeguards who won't let us swim anywhere in NYS.

Geoffrey and Meghan swam Saturday morning while I ran around Tremblant. We had breakfast at Le Vieux Four (The Old Oven). We put together our bags and went back to the Athlete Village. There was a bike bag, a run bag, a morning bag, and two special needs bags. You could only bring your morning bag with you on race morning. You got your bike bag in T1 and your run bag in T2. The special needs bags were placed on the course if you needed them. It was all very well organized. The only thing you put on the bike racks was... your bike. It was very quick, actually.

That's a lot of bags!

I didn't bother with the special needs bags. I dropped off my bike and run bags and then loitered while Meghan and Geoffrey obsessed over every little thing. I kept thinking I should go back and at least pretend to inspect my things. But whatever, I was only doing an Ironman. How much preparation did I really need? Blink. We ate dinner and tried to go to bed early and failed. Anxiety was just way too high.

My mind was pointedly avoiding the thought of what was coming. We were getting our stuff and setting up our transitions, but at no point did I really think about what it was for. I just floated around, following my two friends, staring like a creeper at all the huge calves around me. I felt out of place, like I was just along for the ride. I didn't really belong here, did I?

My alarm woke me up at 3:15am Sunday. I read some more in my Kindle app in bed. I brushed my teeth. The three of us ate breakfast. We grabbed our morning bags and put our bikes on the car. Geoffrey destroyed the hatch of his car with one of the rack clips, which put him in a fit of cursing. We got to the Athletes Village a little before 5.

Haiko watches over my magnet until I've earned it.

We went to our bikes and jammed them full of rice and potato bars Meghan had made the night before. We hunted down some bike pumps and finally filled up our tires. Thankfully Canadians are super nice. Then we went back and checked on our bike and run bags again. I loitered. We walked to the swim start with our morning bags. In some random patch of gravel, we put on our wetsuits. I had to completely remove my clothing to change into my tri-kit, so that was fun. We walked to the lake and literally threw our bags into dumptrucks. I got into the second to last swim corral with the other slowpokes and waited.

You'd think by now I would grasp what I was about to do. I knew logically that I was about to start exercising and I wouldn't be done until after the sun set. It wasn't even 7am yet. I was going to be moving nonstop for the entire duration of the daylight hours. At that point though I was just thinking about the swim. The buoys stretched out beyond eyesight.

Fireworks went off and the elite men started churning the water. A few minutes later more fireworks and then the elite ladies splashed in. And so it went. The excitement was palpable as I inched towards the swim start. 2500 people were crammed on this beach, waiting their turn to start one of the hardest things they'd do in their lives.

The swim was nice. I'd never swam 2.4 miles at once before, but I didn't have any trouble with it. It was pretty smooth sailing for the most part. Since we were in self-assigned corrals, there was very little of the typical thrashing and smashing you get at many tris, since we swam the same speed. Of course, that didn't prevent a few swimmers from cutting me off and swimming in zig-zags like drunken pinballs. And of course you inevitably touch someone's toes in front of you, which always feel like cold slimy tentacles to me for some reason.

It was a long swim, but not anywhere near as long or as hard as the rest of the race. Still, it felt really good to get one of the three events completed as I ran onto the beach. I plopped myself down ass-first as strippers violently ripped off my wetsuit. I ran into the transition tent and grabbed my bike bag. I changed quickly and wolfed down a rice and potato bar. I jammed my wet junk into the bike bag and threw it into a pile with a couple thousand other bags. Magically, I would get all my bags back at the end.

I grabbed my moist bicycle and headed out to start the bike portion. In my mind, I was used to the halves I'd done. At no point did I stop and think I was about to bike farther than I have ever biked in my life. Even at the Tour de Keuka last year I'd "only" biked a 100 miles. Still, I knew I would have to start out really easy. But with my paranoia over my injured tendons, that wasn't too hard.

Those tendons started to ache after 5 miles, which didn't bode well. And of course we immediately hit hills...

Ok, I need to say this.

I was told that there were gnarly hills at the end of each loop. I wasn't told that there were huge hills at the beginning. And hills in the middle. And hills in between all those hills. When you're talking about 6000 feet of elevation gain, you have to pile hills on tops of hills. I don't think there were any flat stretches. And of course there was a headwind the entire time. I know that's not meteorologically possible, but everyone agreed.

Those hills are beautiful! But yeah... hills

The course went out 20 miles. I thought it would go out 28 miles, so we'd only need to do two out and backs. But no! It was 20 miles of hills out. Then you turned around, and somehow rode up hills again on the way back. Then... then! It was another out and back for the other 16ish miles. And that's where the really awful hills were. The one that many cyclists had to walk up.

I was pretty wiped after the first loop. And the worst is that you pass right by the finish, with all the cheering spectators. But you have to go right by them and keep on going. Back out for another loop. A loop that took me almost four hours the first time around.

56 miles in the halves was long, but you had the satisfaction of whittling down those miles and being done after 3 "short" hours. But I had no such thought yesterday. It was just so far, I couldn't even picture being done. I was just peddling peddling peddling with my legs hurting. And I couldn't even think of things to engage my mind. I was just aware the whole time. I wish I could've zoned out. I really wanted to.

And the same thought crept into my mind. I don't have to finish. I can stop. I can stop at any time at a med tent. I can get a ride back. I can come up with a legitimate sounding excuse about my legs being too injured to continue. My friends would understand. They'd say, "great job anyways! You'll get it next time!" It doesn't matter how crazy I am or how much I enjoy pain. After hours and hours and hours of bicycling, this thought was near constant.

If you multiply the number of bikes by the hours spent on them...
That's like 20,000 hours of biking in one day.

The specific pain in my tendons turned into a generic white heat of pain at the start of the second loop. This was actually a blessing. I no longer felt like I was going to tear something. It just hurt, but "just hurting" is something I've very used to. I felt stronger on the second loop. It was still a very very long way to go. And I was even more conscious of that, having done it once already. But when I got to those nasty hills near the end, I stood up on my pedals and flew by all the exhausted folks clicking their cleats as they trudged up the hills.

This is a challenge of writing. How do I express how insanely long I was on the course in just a couple of paragraphs? It was the longest ride I've ever done. It took me seven and a half hours. That's something I was never willing to do even if I was just bicycling, nevermind swimming and running too. I didn't even think about the run. My entire life was finishing the bike ride. That was the only goal I had.

But there was still a run. A full marathon. Something that, by itself, used to be a great feat to me. But I was ecstatic when I finally finished the bike. I biked for what felt was a lifetime, and suddenly I was done, running to T2. I didn't even have to rerack my bike. They just took it from me. I grabbed my run bag, which was almost empty. I put on my run bib. I threw my bike stuff into the bag and just... left it there. It didn't matter. You could've throw your bag literally anywhere and it would've found its way back to you at the end. Small conveniences, in the grand scope of the day, but I loved that tiny bit of not-stressing.

I generally prefer to be stress-free

I had a fantasy of running a fast marathon. I pictured myself posting about my awesome marathon time after doing the swim and bike. My first mile was 8:54, and I felt good. My next three had some hills and were under 10 minutes. I soon realized I wasn't going to nuke this run. Still, the first half wasn't too bad. It was out a 10k, and then back slightly farther with a couple extra twists. A large part of it was on a flat paved path through the woods.

My pace crept up over 10 minutes, then 12 minutes. I was "running" 13 minute miles by the end of the first loop. As I mentioned before, the run passed by the finish line before you went out on the second loop. That was the hardest part, hearing the announcer say, "Bob! You are an Ironman!" Assuming some guy named Bob had just finished. Going out on that second loop was... brutal.

I finished the first loop in about 2.5 hours. I knew that the second loop was going to take even longer. I suddenly realized that even though I had "only a half marathon" left, it was going to take over three hours before I was going to see the finish line. That was crushing. I always take the run portion of tris for granted. But I had already been going for 12 hours, and I was looking at the prospect of at least three more.

Too much text! Insert photo here.

My legs were agony. My feet hurt. My stomach was a sea of fluids and gels and other junk. I was nauseated. My head hurt. I was shivering. And I was going to have to somehow hold on for many more hours. As bad as I thought the bike portion was, this was much darker. As much as I considered quitting on the bike, that thought took much stronger hold on me on the walk (I can't even call it a run at this point anymore).

I stopped running completely by mile 16. Even a short slow jog hurt too much. The sun was setting. I had thrown water on myself at every water stop, and as the temperature dropped, I started to freeze. I suddenly realized that I was going to walk, and only walk, 10 miles. And not even towards the finish. I had to first walk a 5k to the turn around before I even thought of approaching the finish line. I honestly don't know how I kept putting one foot in front of another.

There was a saving grace though. I eventually stopped at a med tent and grabbed a Mylar blanket. I put it on and tied it around my neck. And suddenly.... I was wearing a shiny cape. I flexed my arms. I was a superhero! I laughed. No longer would the walk just be a slog. It was a hilarious adventure!

I powerwalked, faking a smile at everyone I saw. I got quit a bit of attention from my "cape". Lots of folks called me superman. Meghan laughed when she saw me (I had seen her quite a few times throughout the day, always a little ahead of me!). Every time she saw me on the "walk", she asked how I was feeling. She probably remembered my near death experience on the run at Musselman, but I flared my cape and lied that I was feeling awesome. "Woohoo!" I shouted. Fake or not though, I felt it in that moment. I had conquered a huge amount already. I just had to suffer a bunch of walking and get to the end before time ran out.

It got dark, but there were tons of glowsticks available for everyone, and huge floodlights on the trail. This Ironman really was amazingly well put-together. I had no complaints about that. And the volunteers were amazing. They were out there all day. And yet they were always excited and encouraging when they saw you. "Great job! You're amazing!" They really made the suffering much more tolerable, and I'm deeply appreciative for them.

I walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, and walked. Mentally, I had considered the bike the "end" of the race. And suddenly being faced with a six hour marathon on top of that was awful. I can't mince words here. No matter how close I got to the finish, I kept wanting to quit. Even one mile out I thought about cutting the course and just wondering over to the finishing area and saying "I give up."

"Peter. You are NOT an Ironman," Mike Reilly would shout over the amplifiers. I would hang my head dejected. And I felt that the whole time. Like a cheater, pretending to be a triathlete. I'm a slow swimmer. I'm a slow biker. I'm good at running, but not on tired legs. My training was stupid. Just calorie burning, really, with no goal. "Junk miles" as they're called. I shouldn't be here, I'm just humiliating myself by even trying.

But I didn't stop. I flared my cape, pumped my fist, and shouted at people. I powerwalked like a boss, ignoring the devastating pain in my body. My feet were on fire. My stomach hated me. My head ached abominably. But still, the image I put on was, "I f@#king own this. I am an Ironman! I'm not walking, I'm strutting."

Even though I can't really express how brutally long I was out there for, counting down tenths of miles on my dying watch, it doesn't matter. Because my brain refuses to remember now either. All it remembers is that approach to the finish. Out of nowhere I felt amazing. I ran the last couple of minutes, and I felt zero pain. Just ecstatic zeal.

I was shouting. I was cheering. I high-fived every single person who stuck their hands out. I was running with my cape flaring out behind me, my glowstick bouncing around my throat. I felt invincible. Over 15 hours of torture were wiped away from my mind as I charged through Tremblant Resort, the streets narrow with the press of screaming spectators. I hit the red carpet and picked up my pace.

I crossed the finish lines, my face nearly splitting with my grin as my hands flew over my hand. And Mike spoke those words on the loudspeaker.


Check me out in all my glory.

And in that moment I felt it. All of the self-hatred, all of the doubt, all of the guilt... vanished. I had just done something unbelievable and incredible. I had suffered a tremendous amount of brutal pain and exhaustion and survived. It's not something just anyone can do. I was one of a tiny segment of the population to cross the finish line of an Ironman. And no matter what I thought of my training, the fact is I made it from the start to the finish: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running (and walking).

If you've read up to this point, you know it's not easy. By far the biggest challenge was in my mind and my spirit. The fact is the body can handle pretty much anything you force it to do. But you're the one who has to tell your body, "don't quit. Don't give up. I don't care how much you hurt. Keep going!" And you have to do that hour after hour after hour. It's a constant struggle of will, and a struggle very very few people volunteer for.

And that's it. It's done. I'm an Ironman. It still feels weird to say it. After having it hanging over my head for many months, after doubting and struggling and second-guessing myself, suddenly it's over. I made it. I have the t-shirt and medal to prove it.

Many folks have asked me if I'll do another one. I kept telling people that it was "one and done." And during the race, I definitely felt that. During the many many hours on the bike and run, I kept telling myself, "never again. Never again." But the brain is weird. It wipes out those horrible memories, and quite effectively. I just remember that last incredible minute crossing the finish line, as if nothing before it mattered. And a small part of me.... A very small part.... is thinking.... "maybe."

That's it. We're on vacation in Mont Tremblant through the week, and we're just going to be lazy vegetables. It's awesome.

I have to thank a huge number of people. Meghan and Geoffrey first, without whom I would've never gotten on this crazy triathlon journey in the first place. It's been a very tough journey, but it's made me do things I never thought I was capable of. I have to thank the many many people, my friends, who gave me a massive outpouring of love and support before, during, and after the race. My short post after I finished has gotten almost 70 incredible comments thus far. And all through Sunday, they were tracking me and posting updates about my progress! I really didn't expect that. I love these people.

And I can't leave out all of the staff, volunteer, and spectators in Mont Tremblant. They. Were. AMAZING. They always cheered you on, no matter how long they had already been out there. Everything you needed they offered to you without hesitation. They made your experience as smooth and positive as possible. Having that much energy thrown at you throughout the day makes a massive difference. There's absolutely no way I could've exercised for 15 hours in solitude. No. Way. So "merci beaucoup" to all of them! Just wow, I've never seen so many generous and giving strangers in one place.

Ironman doesn't mess around. The event was worth every penny. It was extremely well organized. Every tiny little detail was accounted for. The transitions were as smooth and easy as possible. Everything you could possible need on the course was made available to you. There were 2500 athletes on Sunday, but if they were anything like me, they really felt special. At no point did I just feel part of the crowd. I was treated like an Ironman, and as such I performed like one.

I definitely see the addiction. I understand why my triathlete friends keep at it. And truth be told, I feel it too. I like swimming now. I like biking (although not quite that long). I like the variety. I like it that if I'm too tired to run, I can do something else instead. And there's a sense of power of doing all three disciplines that's intoxicating. You feel strong. Accomplished. Powerful.

Crossing that finish line taught me a valuable lesson. I get angry at myself. I insult myself. I get irritated at people who compliment me or look up to me. And last night I realized that it was just egotistical bullsh*t. A way of exercising my vanity in a negative way. It was self-indulgent. Completely an Ironman digs at the very core of your spirit. Way beneath your doubts and anger and frustrations to the very essence of your being. It makes your soul shine. It breaks free of all the junk that you've spent a lifetime wrapping around it. I realized how much of that crust I had allowed to build up around myself.

Even in this very post I talked about "faking" a smile. That's a lie. I love being positive. And I love getting positivity in return. When I'm with amazing people, all there is that love, and I forget myself and all my junk for a while. And the Ironman taught me that I can let go of that cr@p on my own too. It's a choice. It's just that often it's a choice that requires you to go through a gauntlet of pain and suffering to achieve. You have to scrub yourself clean in, to smash away the imperfections. And Ironman does that. It destroys all that grime, letting you see who you truly are.

My doubts and failings make me human. And that is awesome. Humans have the capacity for incredible strength and love. We very often forget that. But if 15 hours of torture is what takes me to embrace the core of my humanity, to feel that strength and love, then it was well worth it.

Thank-you for reading! À bientôt!

1 comment:

  1. Peter, congratulations (félicitations),Ironman!
    Thank you for sharing your torturous,illuminating journey.
    It felt superhuman,a dark journey into the soul and you came out the other end,in pain yet exhilarated and much wiser with breakthroughs, spiritually.Really life changing. So proud. Love, Cynthia C.