A year ago, I was typing my first post on my blog. Waddler and I were in Wilmington NC and had volunteered for the 2008 race. I remember how cold it was on race morning; I had on 4 layers of clothes and was shivering. I believe it was in the low 30's last year. Would it be the same this year?
I also remember looking at the athletes and thinking, could I be doing this in 2009? Will I be prepared? Do I have the mental and physical strength to accomplish an iron-distance event? Do I have what it takes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in 17 hours? At that point in time, I had never did any of those distances alone in any of the disciplines. Is a year long enough to prepare for such a huge event?
Being a volunteer at the 2008 event, was exciting. It had uncovered a deep desire to test my mental strength and my physical abilities to an extreme level, and to push my comfort zone far beyond what I've ever endured, and to accomplish something simply spectacular.
I didn't need an alarm clock Saturday morning; I was up before my 4:10 am alarm. I was hopped up on excitement and nerves ready to get the day started. The first thing I did was down 2 bottles of Ensure and forced myself to eat a breakfast cookie. I put on my bright pink swimsuit and pre-race clothes. Ed helped me with my transition bags and we headed downstairs to meet Waddler and Snips. They were already waiting for me. Nerves were kicking in and I was fumbling with my gear. Meanwhile, Waddler was cool as a cucumber. Snips could tell I had a case of the jumbles and she flashed her great big smile at me and told me everything would be just fine. I relaxed; she was right. It was all going to be ok.
We took the shuttle bus to the T1 where we then preceded to get body marked and sort all our bags in the appropriate area. The air temperature was somewhere in the high 30's or low 40's. Whatever it was, I wasn't shivering. Keeping busy with all the pre-race things helped me to calm my nerves. I was now feeling excited and ready to go. Waddler had a mini-panic attack when she thought she had misplaced her bike jersey. But thankfully, it was right where it should have been. Whew! Crisis diverted.
Aboard our second shuttle bus, we were transported to race start. Unfortunately, because of limited parking, only spectators on foot with a nearby hotel were able to get to the beach area. As Waddler and I squirmed into our wetsuits, a fellow racer sitting next to us asked us if we were volunteers at last year's race. Stunned, we replied "yes" and then I asked him if we had body marked him. He chuckled and replied no, he had met us in the water taxi line last year. We had told him that we were scoping out the race to participate in 2009. He was a local and came to check out the race as well. Ding! The light went off in both our heads and instantly we had remembered talking with him the year before. 600+ athletes and we happened bump into this guy again! How cool is that! We laughed and I knew this was going to be a great day.
The race director was now directing all the athletes to the beach start. The sand was filled with broken remnants of shells; it was difficult to walk. My feet were ice cold after ditching my socks and shoes and stepping on sharp objects was unfortunately adding to my discomfort. (This may be my only complaint of the whole race.) As we got to the water's edge, we dipped our toes into the water. It felt good; it was probably 68 degrees. Nice. The swim was located on the west side of Wrightsville Beach in an inter-coastal water way which contained brackish water. For all us Midwesterns, brackish means a mixture of salt and fresh water. The inter-coastal way is essentially where a river and the ocean meet. We were to swim north for about a mile then take a hard left turn and a few more turns to end at a private pier.
Waddler was simply amazing, she was so calm and ready. She gave me a nice "go get em talk", reminded me not "to eat the paste"* and above all soak it all in and have fun today. I nodded, smiled and agreed. I didn't have much to say, she had just said it all. The National Anthem began to play and I said a silent prayer for the safety of everyone racing. Once over the race director started counting down the time. I looked over at Waddler and we wished each other the best of luck. Moments later the gun went off and the race began.
It was a bit chaotic with arms flailing, legs kicking, and bodies bumping for about the first 50 feet until the first buoy. Once past the buoy, it was smooth sailing. The channel was so wide that swimmers were able to spread out and find his/her own space. I have to admit, it was by far, the easiest open water swim I've ever done for a triathlon. I was in my own little world; one easy stroke after another. The only thing I had to really concentrate on was the route. Somehow I never spotted the "wiggly man", an inflatable balloon in the shape of a stick figure on top of a boat which by the way was where we were suppose to take that hard left turn. Instead, I had to rely on some other swimmers. When they turned, I turned. Off to my left, I saw a mass of swimmers heading straight to a particular pier and to my right I noticed a group of swimmers heading to a different pier. I chose to take another hard left where the mass of swimmers were headed. It turned out to be the right decision. Although, I had finished from a different direction than the mass did, it didn't matter. I had found the finish. Quickly glancing at my watch, it read 55 minutes! Holy Swim Time! What a PR! Although, I would like to say I'm really that good... I can't. The current was ridiculously fast! (In a pool, I usually swim that distance in 1 hour and 25 minutes).
Stripped of my wetsuit, I discovered I accidentally turned off my garmin. D'oh! I fumbled to turn it on and get it in the right setting again. I think I messed that up. Hidden under a bench, I found my tennis shoes for the long transition run. Over the timing mat I ran on to the changing tent.
Swim Time: 57:50
Swim Time: 57:50
Rounding the corner, I could hear the cheers and the cowbells. I just wanted to see Ed, Snips, and the whole Waddler crew. And there they were on the next turn! I gave them a big smile and a thumbs up. One down, two more to go!
Not one inch was spared in the changing tents for T1; it was crowded with wet women. All of us were struggling with getting our wet swimsuits off and putting on dry clothes. With such a cold training season, I was ready for cold temps. I might have over did it just a tad with the clothing but I'd rather peel off the clothes later than be cold early. It took me awhile to get everything on. I ran to where Shark and Sugar were racked (Waddler and I just happened to get back to back numbers, therefore, our bikes were right next to each other). Ed was standing a few feet away and asked what took me so long. I shrugged....wet bodies, dry clothes, and a crowded tent....enough said. I blew Ed a kiss and headed out with the Shark. I have no ideal what my T1 time was, I'm guessing around 18-20 min.
Nice, comfortable and easy....that was my motto and that was how I rode. ShirlyPearly passed me early on the bike. She was going fast and looked strong; I wished her luck. I didn't care who was passing me....nice, comfortable and easy and no paste eating for me*.
The first rest stop was at mile 30 (5 miles farther than what had been told to us). Other than being a little concerned that I had missed the first rest, it really didn't matter, I was doing fine. I stopped for a bathroom break and filled my water. On a whim, I decided to look at my little tracking device (you know the one I told you guys about). I didn't see any lights blinking. I thought the device was dead. I pushed the power button a couple times and still nothing. I put it back in my pocket, shrugged and said "oh well". I later learned that in bright sunlight, the lights can't be seen and you need to put a hand over the device to see the lights. I had inadvertently turned it off so therefore, I could no longer be tracked. My bad. Sorry about that everyone.
Off I went again on the bike. The landscape was hard to describe because there really wasn't anything there...trees, swamp, fields? We rode on a four lane highway for a number of miles which was actually quite neat. The road was smooth and there were volunteers and police at every turn and at every on/off ramp. By mile 50, we were out in the rural areas with not much to look at. Although a few things made me chuckle, like the hunter sitting in a chair on the side of the road with a rifle sitting on his lap or how about the big white 8 foot chicken on the side of the road (with a bright orange hunter's cap on). It was at around this point that I started to feel a little chest discomfort. It wasn't bad, I just knew it was there...lingering. Despite the discomfort, the miles were ticking away, it seemed effortlessly for my legs. I was cruising at a around a 17 mph pace. I don't recall what my mind was thinking all that time. I was just concentrating on getting 10 miles completed at a time. At mile 65 was the special needs rest stop. I stopped, changed out my fuel bottles, ate a banana and a cookie.
With about 40 miles left to ride, we turned into a headwind which remained with us until the end of the ride. I am so use to wind on my training rides, that it honestly didn't bother me. What bothered me was the increasing discomfort in my chest. Again, I just concentrated on 10 miles at a time. Mile 100 finally came. Looking back, mile 100 through 112 on the bike was my lowest point of the race. My legs were holding up well, again, it was my chest that was hurting. I had to make a decision....could I finish 12 more miles or did I have to stop and rest or worse was it bad enough to stop racing? I struggled with those thoughts as the pain worsened and my breathing got more shallow. I cried for literally 2 seconds. What should I do? No! I wasn't going to stop and I wasn't going to allow things to fall apart now. If I could just ride 12 more fricking miles, I can make the decision in T2. I told myself to get it together and just pedal. Now my blocks were in 1 mile increments....just one more mile...just one more mile.
I was so happy to see the USS North Carolina where T2 was located. I dismounted my bike and heard Ed and Snips cheering me on. I started to cry and was barely able to get a good breath in, I walked over to Ed and whispered in his ear that my chest was hurting. I then turned and headed into T2. I sat down with my bag and started changing all the while showing signs of distress. A fellow racer looked over at me and asked if I was ok. I answered truthfully and told her "no" and pointed towards my chest. She wasted no time and called the paramedics into the tent. They asked what the problem was and I informed of my chest pain and of my shortness of breath. The lead paramedic told me he had to take me to the medical tent. I refused. "No, my heart is fine. I've had all sorts of tests done by a cardiologist and I'm fine. This is because I'm anemic." He again said, "I have to take you to the medical tent because you just told me you have chest pain". We went back and forth for several minutes, him trying to reason with me and me crying telling him I was fine and that I would walk the whole marathon if I had to.
Despite the tears rolling down my face, I looked at him square in the eyes and with the heart and determination of a lion and begged him "Please, don't take me...I want to finish this race. I know I can finish this race." He looked at me calmly with much more reason than I was exhibiting and said "Look, you said you've been checked out by the doctor and had all sorts of tests done, right?" "Yes." "Sometimes problems don't show up on tests until the symptoms are actually occuring. Does that make sense?" "Yes." "Can I take you to the medical tent now?" My gaze went down and I replied weakly "ok". For a nanosecond, I felt defeated. "But that doesn't mean I can't come back. Can I get back in the race later?" "It's not for me to decide, the doctor will make that decision" he replied. As they wheeled me out of the T2 on a stretcher, I told the volunteer not to do anything with my changing bag..."I will be back for it!"
T1 + Bike: 7:34:24 (Apparently, the timing mats were all messed up ...thus the combined time)
The Medical Tent
So this is normal, right? Everyone stops during the race to get an EKG. I mean, isn't this common practice during an iron distance race? I wish I could say I was relaxing, having lunch and getting a massage, so that I would be all ready to go for the run but instead I found myself in the medical tent with an army of professional nurses and doctors. They were doing this "gig" as practice for emergency situation such as a hurricane or any other catastrophe.
I was hooked up to the EKG machine, given oxygen, with all my other vitals getting monitored as well. Nothing alarmed the nurses or the doctor, they just didn't see anything wrong with the EKG. They made me rest and drink water. I requested they call Ed. Within a matter of minutes, he was by my side with the most positive outlook on the situation. He said, "Ok, just a minor setback. You just need to rest for a few minutes. You have plenty of time to get back on the course and finish." I knew he was right and I wanted so badly to get the heck out of dodge. Other racers from the half distance were coming in to the tent and being taken care of. I looked at the big hunk of metal hanging from the neck of one participant. The medal was huge and had a battleship on it with the year in the background. I looked over at Ed and said, "I want one of those." He simply replied "And there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to get one."
The medical team taking care of me, watched my vitals and liked what they saw. My heart rate was coming down and my heart was showing a normal rhythm. I looked to the nurse with pleading eyes..."can I get out of here now? I'm ready to stand." Ed had figured that I still had a good 7 hours to finish the race and knew exactly what pace I needed to keep in order to finish by midnight. By this time, any time goal in my head was thrown out....my goal now was to convince the doctor I was good to go and to get back on the course.
The nurse called the doctor over and said "She says she's ready to stand, she wants to get back out there". The doctor gave me the go ahead to stand. I did, practically jumping off the bed. With bright and determined eyes, I exclaimed "I feel fine!". "Ok, let her go" the doctor said. Whoo Hooo! I hurriedly signed the waiver and was out of the medical tent. Ed gave me my cell phone just in case I needed it and I ran back into transition for the rest of my gear. Out of dumb luck, I ran into Waddler and confused the hell out of her. "Are you finished" she asked. "No, I'm just starting the run!" I gave her a two sentence explanation and told her to keep going.
I found the volunteer and asked "where's my bag"? She had it sitting next to my bike. I grabbed it and ran into the changing tent once again to change into my run shorts. I was off. Two down, a side trip to the medical tent, and one more to go!
My transition time was over an hour...a record perhaps for the longest T2 time?
I had told the doctor that I would walk....that flew out the window as soon as I hit the mats to get on with the run. I wasn't completely out of discomfort with my chest, but it was certainly feeling much better. My original plan was to run a 12 minute mile for the first 6 miles and then I would allow myself to get a tad bit faster if I was feeling good. And the last 8 miles were reserved for an even faster pace of 10:45 per mile if I could handle it. That was the EN way (don't eat the paste by going out too fast too soon--reserve your energy for mile 18 where the race really begins). I didn't completely abandoned the plan I just readjusted it; I decided that a 12 minute mile for the whole marathon would be my goal. I felt good on the first mile, and found myself running too fast. I slowed down and repeated the mantra..."don't eat the paste"*. I then caught up to Waddler. It was so good to see a friend. I told her my story and she told me of her struggles on the bike as well. We talked for a bit and both decided to do our own thing.
Running is not my strong suit especially with this whole anemia problem. But in any case, I was determined to make the best of the situation and finish this race. I ran well and would only walk 20-30 paces every mile or every aid station to drink my liquid fuel. I didn't take any gels or consume any food. I tried flat coke once but it didn't do anything for me and figured I wasn't having any GI issues so why try anything new? Just keep moving and stick to the plan. Water and Infinit was it for me.
I've heard this before, but I got to say, I was simply amazed at how many people were walking on the run course. I don't know what mile marker any of them were at but so many participants were walking. I was so proud, I was running and I was running steady. Spectators and fellow racers alike were commenting on my pace..."hey, you're running...great job", "keep up the pace", "looking strong", "wow, here comes a runner". One lady, who had witnessed the discussion with me and the paramedic in the changing tent noticed me. Every time she saw me she exclaimed "hey, your running....keep up the pace". It was so great to hear these comments; I simply loved it. I was doing good. At one point, in the race, I discovered I had forgotten to grab my race number. I called Ed on my cell phone (I usually don't race with a phone). I needed him to tell a volunteer to put my race number in my special needs bag at mile 13. But he wasn't near the Battleship, he was at the hotel with all my transition bags. Out of dumb luck, I was close to the hotel and told him to run out with my bags. Two minutes, later my sherpa came running out of the hotel with my gear. I rifled through the bags until I found the bib number. Awesome. I told him I was on mile 10.5 and feeling good. I gave him a kiss and was on my way again.
I kept a good steady pace and still was getting compliments along the way for my pace. The course, at this time was thinning out but I was just happy I was still in it. I was passing people....lots of walkers. I saw Waddler a few more times on the course and we gave each other encouraging words. It was not until mile 22 where fatigue really started to hit me. Mile 22! I've never ran more than 15 miles in training! I started to run/walk. By mile 24 it was more walking and a lot less running. My legs were tired, the bottom of my feet felt like they were on fire, and my chest was hurting. I was done running. As much as I wanted to run the last few miles, I was now toast. I did manage to pass two people by simply walking faster.
The last bridge before the Battleship was extremely dark. It was a bit lonely and a little disconcerting. If I trip and fall, no one would see me. Maybe, some one else would trip over me and find me. Weird things were going through my head. I had no idea what time it was. My garmin was messed up. I had accidentally stopped the timer at some point on the run (for a short period of time).
I could see no one in front of me or behind me. I felt alone coming down the last mile of the home stretch. But I knew I wasn't; I was only minutes from the finish line. Bright lights lit up the black sky and music filled the air. I started to hear cheering and then I saw the crowd (what was left of it).
Turning the final corner, I heard my name being announced..."From Plainfield IL, Ronda Haskell...you have reached the Battleship!" I gave high fives to the cheering squad. Snips had volunteered at the finish line and greeted me with the biggest hug and smile. She cried, I cried. "I knew you could do it" she exclaimed! That moment felt like pure happiness. It was simply wonderful. I found Ed and gave him a big hug. And then the big ass finisher's medal was placed around my neck. I never saw such beautiful bling bling in all my life!
Final time: 15 hours 26 minutes 8 seconds
As I was sitting down for a moment's rest near the finish line, Chris the lead paramedic, came to see me. He knelt down the same way he did while I was in the changing tent earlier and looked at me with genuine care and concern. He told me he was just so happy to be here at the finish line to see me cross the finish. I looked at him with tears in my eyes, just speechless. I wanted to say, he was right...he did the right thing. And he was only looking after my well-being. Unfortunately, I only could manage to say "thank you". "Thank you" I repeated. I believe he knew what I was thinking.
The air temperature had dropped considerably by the time I finished the race. Ed had inadvertently taken my post-race clothes to the hotel earlier. He convinced me to stay in the warming tent until Waddler finished in order to stay warm.
I knew Waddler would finish, there was absolutely no doubt in mind that she would cross the finish line in time. I just had no idea when that might be. It turns out that we were getting close to midnight; Waddler's family, Ed, Snips, and I were waiting with anticipation...we couldn't wait to see Waddler cross that line. And finally, the announcer exclaimed "...and our final finisher, Karen Merhbrodt, from Bolingbrook IL, you have reached the Battleship!"
I watched with elation as my training partner and friend crossed the finish line before the cut off time! How cool was that! She was swarmed by her family; everyone was so proud of her. She did just awesome.
Overall, the day was an absolute dream. The weather was perfect as it was dry and sunny; it was a little chilly in the morning but it didn't bother me at all. It warmed up nicely during the day for the bike and it got a little cool again on the run. The spectators and the volunteers were awesome. The course was wonderful. The medical team was top notch. All was good!
To Waddler: Thank you for being a true friend and a great training partner. You were the one who "sucked" me into this whole iron distance idea. It's all your fault! :) Never forget that you are a great inspiration to many people including myself.
To Ed: Thank you for being so understanding of my crazy training schedule and for being my number one "athletic supporter" as well as my Sherpa on race day! You never had any doubt. You're the best, Sweetie.
To House and Bino: Thank you for transporting the Shark and all my gear to Wilmington NC. You guys deserve kudos for your unconditional love and support you give to Waddler!
To Snips: Thank you for reassuring me at the start of the race and catching me at the finish! I am so happy you were there!
To All My Friends, Family and Peeps: Thank you for all the positive thoughts and support during my training and on race day. I know this sounds corny, but I could feel you guys with me all the way. I know many of you wanted to see me in Wilmington and to cheer me on from the side lines. You were there, believe me, you were there!
IronWaddler and IronSharkie
*"Eating the Paste" refers to the fact that many athletes don't execute the race correctly. They go out too hard, too fast too soon. Johnny and all the other kids might be in the corner eating the paste (going too fast and racing hard, e.g. hammering the bike). When you do your own thing and everyone is passing you ....then you're "not eating the paste" and you are executing the race correctly. That is EN style coaching.