From the experiences of triathlete Kelly Popko:
SOMA Half Ironman-Sunday, October 30, 2005: a day in the desert. How it would turn out I wasn’t sure. After my DNF at Ironman in April 2005 it was important for me to do well in Arizona and that was on my mind constantly. As I packed my suitcase for Tempe, everything was telling me not to go. With my bike in pieces on the floor, I realized I didn’t have the correct wrench to remove my pedals – a requirement to fit my bike in the case. I put in an emergency call, and then at 10pm I went to Wal-mart and bought the wrench. Two and one half hours into my bike-packing project I closed the lid on the case and latched it shut. At 7am my son Jeffrey and I flew to Tempe only to discover it was without my luggage and bike. What the hell am I doing here?! My bike is found in an adjacent baggage area and my luggage in Minneapolis. “It will be ok”, Jeffrey said, and I thought: “yes it will”. The triathlon spirits were messing with my head. My luggage arrived later in the day and I quickly reassembled my bike. The next day I met Ironman Champion and my inspiration for starting triathlon Chris Legh! He signed my number “To Kelly, Go Hard or Go Home!” That phrase would ring in my head on race day.
Race morning was cool and peaceful, the bad spirits behind me. We hit the water at 7:13am. I swam toward the start and the cannon went off almost immediately, no time to start my watch. We swam east against the current. As I made the turn I checked my watch to see I was off pace and tried to pick it up. Then I spotted the first blue cap in front of me – I was catching the men’s wave three minutes ahead. Excellent. I finished in 55 minutes, quite a bit slower than the 45 minutes I planned but a 1-minute pr over my first half Ironman time. It would have to do; the real work was about to begin.
I got on my bike and saw Jeffrey as I exited T1 – “Way to go Mom, right on time”. I motored onto the 56-mile bike course and the roads I remembered from Ironman. The bike course was three 18.6 mile loops and each loop I passed the spot that held the 110 mile marker at Ironman – the place where I realized that Ironman race would not yield a finish, the place where I realized how much I wanted one and the place where I learned more about myself in one defining moment than I thought was possible.
Early in the race Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom rode by and a few minutes later Chris Legh - like a goofball I hit the gas to see how far I could follow him – not far. After the aggressive pace and the big hills on the backside of the course, I realized with 26 miles to come in that my legs were blown. The rest of the ride I spent repeating Chris Legh’s mantra – Go Hard or Go Home. I wasn’t going home. Never Give Up, Never Give In – that’s my mantra.
Finally back at T2 I prepared myself mentally and physically for the 13.1 mile run. Volunteers met me with Gatorade, sunblock and words of encouragement. It was hot with temps climbing into the mid 80’s and I was suffering. They say that “dry heat” is not so bad – well, I am here to tell l you that’s a lie.
I headed out on the run and quickly slowed to a walk. That feeling of dehydration and low electrolytes from my collapse after Twin Cities Marathon 2004 was showing itself. My head was pounding and I was losing concentration. I told myself I’d go to the first water stop, take my endurolytes and fluids and everything would be ok. Through the mile 1 water stop I tried to run again. I went a quarter mile before slowing to a walk, raising my hands to the top of my head and yelling out loud, “Sufferfest!” I was losing it and I still had 12 miles to go. I still didn’t believe I could make it and then...In that moment I realized I could PR over my first half IM, 7:31 at Pigman in August 2005. I remembered my coach telling me that I had to recognize the signs of trouble so I could get things turned around. That’s what I had to do, get it turned around now and start believing that I could or I wouldn’t make it. I wanted to quit so bad, but I spent the next few miles replenishing my electrolyte and fluid levels and running between each water stop, no extra walking. I turned my thoughts to all the people I love, like Jeffrey, my friend Jen and all the runner girls. By mile 5 I was feeling better and thought I could make it. I picked out a person ahead and motivated myself to run to them. Then, I started running them down. I'd say encouraging words as I passed but then accelerate so they wouldn’t think of coming with me. Then I’d go after the next one, pulling them in.
The last mile I hurt so badly I started to whimper. I was alone with no one in front to run down. I closed my eyes to hear the finish line music playing and crowd cheering, pulling me closer. No walking, keep going, almost there. The last half-mile is up hill on the grass through the park to the finish. I could hear them getting louder and the announcer saying another racer is coming. Into the long chute I went running past the palms and flowering hibiscus that bordered the bleachers. The racer was I and the announcer was saying my name, hometown and time! The crowds were so loud with cheers ringing in my ears. I raised my hands above my head in triumph and pumped my arms. I made it. I went through the finish area, got my medal and met Jeffrey for a big hug. “That was so hard” I told him. “I know it was Mom, you did great” he said. Time on the clock 7:24 – a 7-minute pr and I showed Arizona and myself that I could make it there. See you in April 2006 for the Big One and remember the Ironman motto: “Anything is Possible.”