The scariest part of my journey was the unknown. What would a mass swim start with 2,000 athletes be like? Would I bonk during the ride? Would I get a flat? Would I be able to run my first marathon ever? Would I be able to walk the next day?
I felt a little calmer after I registered and received my wrist bracelet identifying myself as an athlete. Before that point, I was afraid that strangers assumed that it was my boyfriend rather than me who would be competing in the race on Saturday.
The infamous swim start had loomed in my mind for months and had been the subject of countless, anxiety-producing nightmares. In my dreams, I had been kicked, swum over and pushed back onto the beach by huge, crashing waves. When I arrived in Panama City, the waves of my nightmares were a reality. The horrifying and sad story about the athlete in town for the race who had lost his life in those waves terrified me. I gathered my courage and went for a swim on Thursday, despite the fact that the red (translation DO NOT SWIM) flags were flying. While I did manage to get past the breakers, I didn’t swim out far. I couldn’t get the thought of that triathlete lost out of my head; his death continues to remind me that the ocean is a powerful force and that triathlon is indeed a dangerous sport.
Veteran Ironmen assured me that the water would flatten out, and sure enough it was smooth and almost glassy on race day. Saturday morning the temperature was cold and the cold sand seemed bone chilling. I kissed Scott good-bye and filed through the Gatorade arch and over the timing mat. I waded ankle deep into the water to keep my feet warm and I watched the holding pen slowly fill up with athletes as the sun rose over the horizon. A cluster of women gathered together and we began to exchange nervous advice and reassurance. I met a woman who was making a second attempt at Ironman after experiencing an asthma attack during the swim this year at Lake Placid. I met the Degree athlete Michelle who had trained with the pros for six months. Boy was I jealous! I met a few people who had never swum in the ocean before.
When the cannon sounded, I quickly ditched my plan to wait for the bulk of swimmers to start, and to head out behind them. I stood in the shallow water and watched while some swimmers dolphined into the deeper water but many stood waist deep as if they were hesitating. Maybe it was impatience, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I jogged deeper, dove into the warm water and began to swim. I didn’t swim on the outside of the pack as I had planned. Instead, I found a niche for myself somewhere behind the fast swimmers and in front of the slow swimmers. I found a pace and kept it. I swam a wide turn around the first turn buoy and paused to watch the other swimmers. The scene looked like the final scene of The Titanic. Hundreds of black-wetsuited figures were bobbing in the water, arms flailing as they rounded the buoy. I felt relaxed, strong, and in control during the swim. This being my first Ironman experience, I didn’t have any expectation for my swim time. I remember exiting the first lap of the swim and as I gulped a cup of Gatorade, hearing the announcer say that Michelle Jones has just finished the swim. I figured that I was right on track.
Ironman is like having a baby. Even after one asks for the truth, an Ironman doesn’t tell the whole story. Key information, both good and bad, is omitted from their stories. It’s like the post-birth amnesia that sets in when a mother looks at her new baby and she can no longer remember the horrific labor just completed. When people ask me how my race was, I don’t usually tell them about retching over my aerobars from mile 80 to mile 90 of the bike. Or about stopping to throw up, a la Natascha Baadman, within the first few miles of the marathon. I recall the “bubble” of amazing support that I entered. There is nothing like having your bike handed to you by an encouraging volunteer as you head out from T1, or having a friendly stranger help you tie your running shoes before you head out to run the marathon. I had been told that the volunteers are great. And it’s not that they are better than my neighbors on Long Island who volunteer to support triathletes at our local races, but... I was blown away by how far the Ironman volunteers went to make my race day special.
So, what have I learned?
• Ship you bike to the race site. I watched bike after bike be unloaded from the small airplane taking us from Memphis to Panama City and left behind on the tarmac as their owners looked on with anger and utter disbelief.
• What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
• It’s not the speed, its getting there that counts.
• Wait until the day after the race to shop at the expo.
• That the Ironman really will change your life. I used to snicker at people who seemed to have entire wardrobes of Ironman logo wear. I am well on my way to acquiring my own collection and wear the logo with pride. I understand it now.
My experience has also taught me that a lot of triathletes are unduly scared of Ironman. You don’t have to swim three times a week with a masters swim team, spend hours on a computrainer, or be capable to running a sub four hour marathon, you do need to have the commitment to doing the training. Hiring a coach was the smartest decision I made. My coach Lee mapped out my training in four-week cycles and worked to fit my training into my life. Lee took the guesswork out of the equation. The money I spent on coaching was worth every penny, and I got much more in return than I ever would have from a new set of race wheels. I made choices about my priorities. I missed a few months of my book group because if I had to hire a babysitter, and I would rather spend a few hours getting in a good bike workout. I scheduled babysitters for my long runs and long bike workouts days ahead of time. If both of my kids were out of the house at playdates, I went running. While my busy life left little room for flexibility, it kept me on schedule. I did my first 16-mile run mid-afternoon on a brutally hot, sunny July day because that was when I could fit it in.
I have received more than my fair chare of “You did The Ironman? I can’t believe it!” remarks. Maybe it is because I look more like the mother who would be helping at the school bookfair than what these people think an Ironman looks like. I now proudly show off my Ironman tattoo and drive my minivan with the Ironmom vanity license plates. I feel like I am living proof of the Ironman slogan – Anything is Possible!
by Caroline Perera