Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Life after the Ironman

Life has been really dull and disappointing since the Ironman. It's almost like going through postpartum depression after having a baby. At least you get to go on a honeymoon after your wedding day. Well, most people do, but I didn't, and that's a story I shouldn't get into or I'll end up in a bad mood.

I got to come home from Wisconsin to a horrific neuro exam and then a really nerve-wracking neuro practical the day after the exam. I knew I wasn't going to do well on the exam, but it didn't bother me at the time. Now, 10 days after the exam and 2 weeks after the Ironman, reality is setting in and I'm really hating that “D” grade (a 74% is really a “C” on everyone else’s grading scale). So what do I have to look forward to now that the Ironman is over? I have another neuro exam next week, which I don't anticipate to be any more pleasant than the first, followed by another neuro practical, followed by a hundred other exams from now until December 14. I guess it almost is as if I’m training for another race, but now I’m working my butt off prove my brain does still work and wasn’t lost somewhere on Wye Mountain.In addition to the stress of studying and exams I have to look forward to in the next few months, I'm having lousy workouts that aren't helping relieve the stress of school. I've been running and biking a few times in the past 2 weeks, swimming once ('cause it's SO boring), and all have felt like HUGE efforts, as if I'm totally out of shape. Can that be? Could I have lost all of the fitness I worked so hard to gain all summer in the 4 days I took off after the Ironman? I just don't believe that. I've done 7 marathons prior to the IM, taken a week or so off from any exercise after them, and didn't feel this bad. How long is this going to last? I need something to make me feel good! If I can't feel good exercising what's left? OK, there is margarita's, but if I rely on those I'll be joining AA after finals in December.

Ironman Wisconsin, September 10, 2006

Lake Monona, I was told is “never” choppy (you know who you are ;-) I guess it was never choppy until I decided to do the Ironman in it. Me, who is not a strong swimmer, and who is anything but fearless and got pulled out of her first attempt at a triathlon in Cleveland in Lake Erie.

When we arrived in Madison on Friday, the forecast for Sunday was 30% chance of rain in the afternoon. I’ve learned that in Little Rock when they say 30% chance of rain don’t count on getting any. If it does rain, it might rain for 10 minutes and then it just gets more humid. I guess in Madison a 30% chance of rain means it’s going to rain ALL day non-stop. When I left the hotel at 4:40am Sunday morning it was warmer than it was Saturday evening, dry, and with just a mild breeze. I thought, “Wow, I’m in luck.” Somehow that luck changed between 5am and 7am, and got even worse as the day went on.

All athletes had to be out of the transition area by 6:20am. The pro’s started their swim at 6:50am. Earlier that morning I heard the announcer say the water was calm. That must have changed dramatically in 2 hours because by the time I was on the second loop of the swim course there were “white capped” waves fighting me.

I stood there near the entrance to the lake just waiting for everyone to go by. My plan was to get in the lake last. I didn’t know why the announcer kept yelling for everyone to get down to the water and get in, and why people were actually getting in. Were they going to tread water for 15 minutes? I asked a spectator from Wisconsin who did the race in 2002 and he said they’d float in the wetsuit. He asked if this was my first Ironman (how could he tell?), I said yes, he wished me luck, and then gave me some suggestions on positioning myself so that I wouldn’t get trampled. Off I headed into the water. Fortunately, there were about 20 other people standing on the edge of the lake just hanging back and waiting too. I started talking with another woman about this mass swim start with 2700 other people. She told me it’s scary, but it gets better after about 20 minutes. Her advice was, “Don’t be nice. If you get hit, hit back.” Great, I thought. I need about 400 meters (which could be 20 minutes) just to get in a rhythm even when I’m alone in a pool. Next thing I know, the canon goes off right behind my head and I hear the announcer say “Ironman Wisconsin 2006 is on its way!” U2’s “Beautiful Day” was playing (not sure why, because it was anything but a beautiful day) and as I doggy paddled my way out I had a huge smile on my face and thought “Wow, I’m doing an Ironman.” Then the panic started to kick in a little because I was too excited that I couldn’t catch my breath to start stroking. I heard Tina Turner’s “The Best” come on and I thought, “Hey, that’s on my MP3. Come on, you can do this.” So I did, for about 1.4 miles. All was good for the first lap. I got passed (or should I say pushed) by the pro’s and I actually thought it was cool and not scary. I was singing my little Dory song (Just keep swimming), and also some Backyardigans song about a Mystery Lifeguard. I was nice and relaxed. But then I either got tired, Lake Monona got angrier, or both, because once I made that turn and started the 2nd loop it just wasn’t good anymore. I searched for the nearest kayak, which fortunately wasn’t far away. I think they increased the number of kayaks for the second lap by 10 because I know there weren’t that many of them out there the first time I went around. I asked the guy if I could hold on. I don’t’ know if that was good or bad because it gave me a chance to rest and catch my breath, but it also gave me a chance to realize just how choppy the water was and just how much further I had to go. I started having doubts. I decided to swim down to the next kayak about 50 meters away. After chatting with the woman in that kayak for a few minutes I decided I’d try to make the first turn. It was the last stretch of the rectangular course that was the worst because it was right into the direction of the waves. It was brutal. I was getting tossed around everywhere. Trying to stroke, but just getting mouthfuls of water and coughing it up. I found another kayak with a lady in it. She asked if I was OK. I said, “Yeah, I just feel seasick and think I’m going to throw-up.” Her reply was, “That’s OK, go ahead.” I have to say that each of these wonderful people I met along my journey around the second loop were SO encouraging. Even when I started to cry because I couldn’t stand being in that stupid lake anymore, yet I knew I couldn’t quit because I sacrificed SO much to be there, they told me I could do it, that I was almost there, that I was strong, and that the rest of the day would be better. I guess it was my 6th kayaker that made the difference. George, who was very calm and very serious told me I had 35 minutes and that he’d be there right alongside of me to take me in and that I could stop whenever I needed to. He asked me my name and where I was from and then said, "OK, Mira from Arkansas. You're going to finish this Ironman in Wisconsin. I'm going to see you at the finish." George is my hero. I didn’t have to sight anymore (not that I was having any success with it anyway) because as soon as I got off track he’d yell out my name and I just kept breathing to my right side so I could see him (very sore left arm post-race). When I had only 5 minutes to make the cut-off he yelled and screamed and just kept telling me I could do it. After I made that final turn to head in I could hear the crowd. I could hear the announcer. I realized, they’re all cheering for me. Is that possible? I could hear George yelling, “Go, go, go, you’re almost there, you can do it.” I swam my hardest (for the first time all day, which isn’t really hard compared to good swimmers) until I reached the point where I could see the rocks below me. I looked up to see two people in wetsuits who quickly grabbed me by each arm and literally pulled me up out of the water. I can’t even describe the amazing applaud I received as I crossed the timing mat at 2:20:02. They told me I made it. The entire crowd was screaming. I was half crying and half laughing. I was SO excited to be out of that lake. I was so happy I didn’t quit and have to go home with a DNF during the first leg of the race. I was very excited to have the rest of the day to bike and run, which I had no doubt I could do no matter what the conditions were even if it took me until midnight. Nothing was going to stop me now.

There is a really nice bonus to finishing 2,439th on the swim out of 2,439 race finishers. Not only do you get applause beyond belief, you also get THREE women to help you dress in transition. I had one pulling up my bike shorts, asking for permission to stick her hand down the back of them to adjust them. Naturally, at that point I was so happy I didn’t care what she was doing. Another woman was putting on my arm warmers, and I think the third must have been getting my socks and shoes and race belt on me. I was like the “queen” of T1. I’ve never been so happy to see my lonely bike outside in the rain, one of the few left in transition. I think I had a huge smile on my face for the first 20 miles of the ride. I didn’t even notice the rain and wind yet.

The bike ride and run were rather uneventful (thank God) compared to the swim I experienced. And the swim is supposed to be the easiest leg of the IM. All I can say about the 112 mile bike ride is that it was cold, wet, and windy. I must have bike tires made of steel (or I just don't ride hard enough) because I have yet to get a flat after training all summer and riding 112 miles in the IM. My only fear was that I might wipe-out and break a bone and not be able to finish the race after surviving the lake swim. Then I decided, I’m not going to let that scare me because crashing and breaking my collar bone is a whole lot better of a “DNF” story than I freaked out in the lake because it was too choppy.

The crowds for the first 40 mile loop of the course were fantastic. Those people were great. I just kept waiting for the hills I heard about and watched on video. Were they really going to be bad? Finally, I reached the first one. It wasn’t that bad, but then again, I was only at about 40 miles and I knew it was going to be a lot harder when I came back around at 80 miles. The entire hill was lined with people cheering on both sides and TONS of encouraging signs. One sign I had a chance to read because I was climbing slowly up the hill said, “The pain only lasts a day, the memory lasts a lifetime.” I loved it, and just kept telling myself the rest of the day. I also kept telling myself that I wasn’t cold, the wind wasn’t that bad, and it could be worse, there could be a 105 heat index day with no shade.

As I was about to complete my first loop of the bike course I was getting lapped by the pro’s who were about to finish. It was pretty cool, even if I was a little scared they were going to run me off the road. As I was climbing one of the last significant hills in Verona, climbing up it well I must say, I hear one guy say, “Wow, look at her.” I knew he wasn’t talking about me. The next thing I know this woman in a pink, one-piece tri-bathing suit comes climbing up past me making me look as if I was standing still. Her legs were like steel, and her butt was solid. I just thought to myself, “Number 14, you need to go on and get out of here because you’re stealing my thunder.” Later I found out she was Stephanie Jones, one of the women pro’s who I think ended up placing like 6th overall.

The second loop of the course was pretty lonely. The spectators all went home, except for a very few. The hills were no longer lined with fans to push you up those climbs. I didn’t care though. I was happy I was out there doing it and I just couldn’t wait to start running. Yeah, I had ridden 100 miles, felt relatively good, and was actually looking forward to running a marathon! I looked forward to it because I knew it was the only thing I’m good at and the only thing that the weather conditions would have the least affect on. Oh, I didn’t have my burning feet problem to worry about. My feet were so cold they were numb!

When I finally got back to T2 after 7 hours and 50 minutes of riding, I was amazed at how many people were in the transition area, and how many more were sitting in the hallways wrapped in mylar blankets. One woman in the changing room was shivering so bad her teeth were even chattering. I decided I better change fast and get moving because I felt good and didn’t want that to change.

It was tough walking out of that warm building back out into the cold and rain, but my clear plastic garbage bag was helping tremendously. I thought I’d start the run with a short walk, but as soon as I felt my teeth begin to quiver I started running to keep warm. The running felt OK, other than both of my calves feeling really knotted-up and tight. That lasted about 4 miles and then I just felt GOOD! I walked through and ate at almost every aid station, a couple I passed by without stopping. After 10 miles I decided to give the chicken broth a try because I had had enough of the Gatorade and energy gels. They say never try anything new on race day, but by that point I figured the worst that can happen is I’ll throw it up and have to walk a lot more to the finish. Turned out that the chicken broth was fabulous! It was lukewarm and salty and I could just feel all that good nutrition getting into my system. "Mmm, mmm, good!" I think I drank a small cup of it for the next 6 aid stations, along with lots of orange slices. Good thing the course was well stocked with port-a-potties because I stopped at least 5 times to pee. It was reassuring to know there was no chance I was dehydrated or going to have to get IV fluids in the med tent post-race, which was one of my MAJOR concerns about doing the Ironman because I have severe needle phobia!

Like the bike course, the run course was also very well populated with spectators for the first half marathon, but then 2/3 of the people went home. In my mind I told myself I had a ½ marathon to do, so I counted down the miles to the turnaround for the first loop. I knew the second ½ marathon would be tough mentally, but I also knew that I’d be happy I had less than 13 miles left of my 140.6 mile day. I was right. And to make it even better, when I got to the turnaround I saw Milan, Nada, and Luka for the first time all day. Nada and Luka were in the double-jogging stroller under the rain cover, but by the time I made the turn-around and came back he had both of them out of the stroller. Luka had a HUGE smile on his face and Nada was jumping up and down with excitement. I threw them all a kiss and told Milan it would be at least 2.5 hours until I finished. He waved as if to say "no problem". I checked my watch at the turn around and was pleasantly surprised to see my first ½ time was 2 hours and 19 minutes. I knew the second half would be a little slower, or maybe even a lot.

The best street on the whole run course was State Street. What I didn’t know is that we ran on two different parts of it, once at the beginning of the run course, and then again later. It was during the first loop and the second half of State Street that I heard someone yell, “Mika! You go you IRONGIRL!” OK, Mika is not my name, but it was close and I was wearing a visor that said “Irongirl”. When I looked at the guy who said it I realized it was the guy I met in the morning before I started the swim who was giving me pointers on positioning myself in the lake. That was pretty cool.

Shortly after starting the second half of the marathon I started seeing people with glow necklaces. They were green. I couldn’t wait to get mine. I knew the kids would think it was cool that I ran with them. When I reached the lady passing them out I asked if it would be OK if I had 2. I wanted to avoid the fight over who was going to get it once I finished. Just like everyone else that volunteered that day, she was very friendly and very happy to give them to me. I tried wearing them around my neck, but it was too annoying so I did like everyone else and put them on my hat around the top of my head like halo’s.

There were a lot more people walking by this time. I even had to split the half marathon into half and just kept thinking about the the turn around on the Lakeshore path thinking it was about 6 miles from there to the finish. I was REALLY excited when I got there and saw the mile marker sign that read “MILE 22”. I only had FOUR miles left, not six! I had a huge smile on my face as I passed the Ironman Motivational Station set up on the path. I think “We are family” or “Brickhouse” (some 70’s song) was playing and the announcer commented on how happy I looked. Heck, yeah, I was happy. I only had 4 miles left until food, heat, and a shower!

With 4 miles left I just kept anticipating reaching State Street, going up it, and making that turn around the Capitol that would take me to the finish. When I finally got up State Street and made that turn off of it and I could hear the noise at the finish really well. I listened and I could hear “We are family” playing. A woman asked if I wanted to take my garbage bag off for the finish picture. As attached as I’d become to that bag I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to be wearing. I fixed my bib number which had fallen off one side of my race belt and I took off the one last Carb-Boom I had left on the belt and handed it to some guy because I didn’t want to see another gel for a long time and I really didn’t want it in my picture. I heard someone say, “Only 2 more turns.” I made the first turn and I could see the Starbucks at the corner. I knew the finish line was right by the Starbucks. I LOVE Starbucks even more now! “We are family” ended and I was just hoping a cool song was going to be played for my “Ironman song”. In a few seconds I realized it was, “You make me feel like dancing”, which I thought was by the Bee Gee’s, but now know it’s by Leo Sayer. I saw Milan just before I made the last turn. I knew the kids were probably asleep in the stroller. As I reached the gates of the finish area I was ecstatic. I was slapping hands, smiling, and just wanted to sprint through that finish line banner. I felt bad that I crossed the finish line at the exact same time as another man, and I even apologized to him after we got through. He didn’t mind, and I found out the next day when I got the official results that the guy is from Pittsburgh. I was so happy and enjoying the music and crowd so much that I didn’t even notice the announcer say my name, where I am from, and of course…”YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” My friend Randy watched me finish on the live streaming video and heard it. I’ll be able to watch it again next week when the video is available for download. I can hardly wait.

I got my medal, I got my finishers bag, I had another picture taken, and then I was going to head straight to the food tent. I exited the athlete area and I looked for Milan. He was standing very close to the exit and by this time Nada was out of the stroller with him. I got the BIGGEST hug ever from Milan, who seemed very grateful that I had finished, and who also seemed to be somewhat in disbelief. Then I gave Nada a huge hug too and took her to the food tent with me where I got 2 pieces of pepperoni pizza and inhaled them both. My biggest fear of getting dehydrated or hyponatremic and having to get an IV were no longer even a thought. I FELT GREAT! Tired, but great. I felt like I was dreaming as I was changing into dry clothes in the transition area. Did I really do all that I did? Did I really almost not finish the swim? It all seemed a bit surreal. It still does.

Driving to school Tuesday morning was tough. I didn’t want to study for my exam the next day and get caught up on what I missed those 2 days. But I was greeted in the lecture hall by my classmates with applause and a huge banner signed by all of them reading “Congratulations, Mira!”, which made me forget how much I didn't want to be there. I cried again.

When I think about how close I was to not finishing that swim, which would have ended my race very early and made all those miles of riding around Wye Mountain this summer worthless, I am VERY grateful for all the prayers I know I was getting from my friends. There were A LOT of people pulling for me and I am so glad I didn’t let them down. I’m glad I didn’t let myself down.