I can usually rebound from a pretty big race fairly quickly. I can articulate feelings, emotions, and opinions about the race almost instantly. But this time around at the Ironman World Championships in St. George, Utah, I’m still struggling to find the words.
I’ve been asked about my race probably 50 times by different people. Coworkers, friends, neighbors, acquaintances. And honestly, I still find myself stumbling to bring that day to my lips.
The day started well (well) before dawn around 2:30am, coffee brewing and food intake starting. Bottles were pre-mixed, bags were packed, and clothes were laid out. Before 4am, I found myself at the Ironman Village, checking my special needs bags that contained nothing but extra salt pills. That should give you an idea about what we were anticipatin. I boarded the shuttle bus to the swim start not knowing that many of the people I was surrounded by wouldn’t see the finish line. We didn’t know it, but race day conditions were about to light up our worlds.
Transition 1 was a buzz when I arrived with friends. We separated and started the routine to prep our bikes and minds. The water temperature had actually spiked to a “balmy” 64 degrees! A huge change from the 59-degree practice swim 2 days prior. I was simply thrilled that I’d be able to feel my fingers and toes when I exited the water.
The swim was honestly… quite uneventful. But truly, it was the best part of the whole day. Smooth waters, “warm” enough to actually enjoy, and very little pushing and shoving. Being in the Female 35-39 age group, I was one of the last to start the race. A fellow Chicago Athlete author jumped into the water a full hour ahead of me. That may not sound terrible, but it meant for 2 totally different races.
I remember making the final turn to the swim exit and absolutely dreading getting out of the water. You see, St. George is quite famous for its unpredictable weather that can change on a dime. But one thing was for certain, we knew that day was going to be HOT and windy. The wind speed was 100% dependent on how fast you could get through the bike course, which of course included 7,000+ feet of climb. Climb faster and you got to deal with less wind. The slower you bike, the more you time you signed yourself up for dangerous crosswinds on some pretty gnarly descents. This was my nemesis.
Not to toot my own horn, but I find that I can usually climb a hill with the best of them. But I knew better going into this day. At the base of EVERY single climb, I dropped it into the granny gear and just started to spin as easy as I could. Survival was the name of the game and I was going to do everything I could to save my legs for a really long day. The first half of the course was “flat” compared to the 2nd half. And all we did in the first half was climb. Looking back, I knew the day was going to get tough between miles 60-80, but I couldn’t imagine how MUCH harder considering the amount of climb we covered in the first 50 miles. To make matters worse, every single descent included some sort of wind that made you white knuckle your handlebars and say a prayer to The Man Upstairs. When I packed my nutrition for the day, I didn’t pack enough to account for of anxiety and extra adrenaline running through my veins. Entering the town of Veyo, you were greeted with a climb that can’t be matched anywhere near here. Many athletes walked their bikes up the hill, and they moved at the same pace as I. Talk about a mental buzzkill. The fun only continued as you entered Snow Canyon at mile 98. A 1,000 foot climb over 4 miles, straight up the entire way, full of switchbacks. The heat had been a factor for hours already, but I distinctly remembering during this time that I should be sweating terribly. But that desert offered not a drop of a sweat on me, yet my kit was covered in salt. Making it to the top was a sigh of relief and tension at the same time. The rest of the bike was almost 10 miles all downhill, with a crosswind that tested your brakes to no end.
Finally, finally I saw the transition tent. I handed off my bike and sat in the women’s change tent. The volunteer approached me and immediately started helping and asking “Ok, what do you need?” A minute lady, I need a minute. I made it out of the women’s change tent quicker than you would have thought. I knew the longer I lingered in there, the harder it would be to get going. Dump some water on your head and start putting on foot in front of the other, that was my motto.
The run immediately greeted you with full sun, no shade, and a 2 mile climb right out of the gates. Pardon my French, but WTFudge. I can honestly say that the entire marathon was 100% survival mode. I ran all the downhills, walked all the uphills (SO MANY UPHILLS), and tried to run any flat that my body would allow. Fatigue was setting in in a new kind of way. I found some friends from home and we shared quite a few miles together, allowing the time to pass much quicker than when we were alone. Aide stations looked like true carnage, people dunking their heads into buckets of ice water and puking on the side of the road. I knew if I wasn’t careful, that could be me. I did everything possible to keep my core temperature low and fuel appropriately. I remember seeing my husband and immediately grabbed him and made him walk with me while I cried and gave him my 60 second synopsis of the bike course and how I almost quit, I witnessed more ambulance rides than ever before, and how my nerves were absolutely shot. I know it was in that moment that he started to worry about me, but I promised him I was going to make it because I was in control now.
Finish lines are quite emotional, but none like this one. Mile 25 hit and I could hear the finish line. Mile 26 was the only mile I wouldn’t allow myself to walk at all. I found my crew along the fence and they lifted my spirits like you wouldn’t believe. A few of them were finishers, while a few others unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see the finish line. One of them, our very own, Jim Toledo. Jim is quite the athlete and even he had to come to grips with reality on race day. These are his thoughts:
“The Old adage ‘A World Championship course should be hard’ was never truer than it was in St. George this year. Challenging for even the best athletes in the world, many succumbed to the heat and climbs, especially the athletes from northern climates, who could not duplicate the harshness of the sun and the weight of 7k of climbing in their cozy indoor pain caves. The beauty of the desert was missed by many, like myself, who finished the course in a SAG van.”
I rounded the final turn and the spotlights lit up the sky and the street was transformed into an Ironman World Championship finish line. The energy was electric, and I swallowed the knot in my throat. I had stressed about this day for months, knowing full well that it was going to test me in every way possible, and it did. This was my 9th Ironman finish line, and it was most certainly the hardest.
Don’t let this story fool you, this race was so much more. The volunteers knew we had our hands full, and they were ready for anything. I watched a volunteer help a man puke in a bucket. The wetsuit strippers and change tent volunteers deserve a medal of their own. My finish line catcher had the kindest heart, and knew exactly how to lift me up when I told him “Dude, it’s flippin’ awful here!” Yes mam, but you did it. The sights were more than I bargained for. I specifically remember the views of Gunlock and being amazed at how beautiful ROCKS could actually be. I took on this challenge knowing there was potential for a really bad day. But that’s what keeps me coming back for more, knowing I can do the really hard things. This day wasn’t for the faint of heart, some of the best in the world couldn’t even write the full story. But those of us that made it, I can certainly say we’ve all bonded in an unimaginable way. Years from now, if I see a stranger walking around in an Ironman World Championship St. George finishers hat, I’ll know they’ve got something going for them. Grit.
I certainly left a piece of my heart in St. George on May 7th. Will I be back? You bet. But I’m leaving my bike at home next time.