We arrived in Wilmington mid-day Friday. I checked in and picked up my necessary items, made a quick run through of the expo and then got out of there. Honestly, I didn't feel as if I fit in with the crowd of triathletes around me, but that could also be me being the introverted and slightly claustrophobic person I am :) I was more interested in a nap more than anything, and luckily we checked into our hotel about 3 hrs early and promptly fell asleep. Afterward I organized my 5 different race bags and drove out to T1 at Wrightsville Beach to drop off my bike. It was a gorgeous day and, while taking my bike for a quick spin, I took some time to capture a few gorgeous scenic pictures.
After returning to the hotel, I ate my dinner (orzo pasta with tomatoes and chickpeas packed from home) and dropped off my T2 bag at the convention center. My family went out to dinner, but I stayed behind to rest and was able to watch the vibrant sunset just outside my hotel room while visualizing and reflecting on the challenging day that was ahead of me. To me, it was a sign of good things to come.
Moments after arriving in T1 to check on my bike and make a few final adjustments, I heard the announcer state “final call” for all FULL athletes to load the bus to the swim start. Looking at my watch, it was only 6:30am, and being the rebel that I am, I quickly just shrugged it off. But then the hubby was yelling at me to hurry up (ok, ok!), so I ran over to get body marked and then ran half dressed onto the bus (last on board but hey I made it!)
That being said, I was feeling relaxed and ready. All felt good in my world and I was excited to see what this distance and race had in store for me. After waiting in line for a final potty break, with a few minutes to go before the start, I suited up in my wetsuit and excitedly ran onto the beach. Nope, not a bit nervous, and probably the only athlete out there running in circles wasting precious energy just prior to a long day of racing :)
(2.4 miles…. In fast forward)
The swim began and was over in what felt like a flash. It was not quite as chaotic as I had pictured, and I was quickly able to establish my own little bubble of space. I didn’t truly notice the quick current the current until I watched a buoy as it seemingly flew past me. I looked at my watch once after 10 minutes, then the next thing I knew there was one humongous mountain of an orange buoy in front of me cuing me to turn left. With little effort, I drifted right under the tip of the buoy and began swimming towards the west (my left) for the final stretch of the swim. I located Mr. Wigglyman and within a few moments I was climbing onto the dock and running down the rows of boats towards T1. I glanced at my watch as I crossed the swim mat: 49:54. Faster than the fastest male swimmer at Kona, AND I didn’t get eaten by a shark… I call that a successful swim ☺
(112 miles of straight, flat, more straight & eating!)
I made my transition from the swim simple by just planning to put my jersey on over my sports bra, pockets already filled with necessary items. I slathered on the sunscreen (it was REALLY sunny) but could not find my chamois butter to prevent chafing. I took my time to get my helmet on correctly (also very important) and hit the road with my bike, not really knowing what to expect.
The first 50 miles of the bike were all about staying comfortable and fueling. As I stated in my training log, “just me riding straight... and more straight... and eating... and more straight.” Literally the first 50 miles was SO straight. I was relaxed and happy and waved to just about anyone I saw. I still had QUITE a long day ahead, why rush now?? At one point, my husband drove up next to me with brother/sister-in-law also on board. Paparazzi-style they snapped pictures and, of course, I smiled and waved before they drove off to meet me at the special needs aid station.
Shortly thereafter, a peloton of men overcame me, which was a bit frustrating. I sat behind for a few minutes watching them all drafting off one another and flip flop back in forth, yet they were sitting RIGHT in front of me and going no where. I either had the choice to back off even more or expend a little extra energy and pass. I choose the latter, and entered this game of zooming in and out, backing off, passing again, etc until the group eventually spread out some.
At mile 52, I stopped at the special needs station and hit up the port-o-pot. Here the husband and my crew were waiting and took good care of me! I ate up my concoction of sweet potato and banana, refilled my bottles, got other areas situated and hit the road again.
The 2nd half was not nearly as fun as the first. By about mile 70, I felt myself fighting off sleep, which is the strangest sensation while riding a bike. I literally wanted to get off the bike and take a nap in the grass... but instead I pushed calories and electrolytes. What I REALLY needed was caffeine and tums, and I stopping at the next two aid stations seeking out both (with no luck). I eventually bounced out of that low around mile 95, and by that point, I wad counting down the miles until I was DONE with that bike. 112 miles is a long ways to go!!
(26.2 Miles & where the REAL fun begins)
Coming off the bike, I was still feeling pretty iffy, but I was GLAD to be back in Wilmington and back on my feet. I hopped off and ran into T2… It was my first experience of having an indoor transition area where someone took my bike. Talk about feeling spoiled. I grabbed my T2 bag and ran into the changing area, and what was intended to be a quick T2 took me almost 10 minutes… can I say oops? Lesson learned: Simplify.
The thought of running a marathon after 112 miles of bike is without a doubt very overwhelming. In training, my longest bike - run brick was 95 miles biking + 4 miles running. Yet, somehow I had confidence going into this run, knowing that by breaking down the miles, fueling right and with the help of a bit of "race day magic" I would fair just fine. I gave my dad a high-five in exiting T2 before making my way over to the special needs area. I made an executive decision to pull out some fuel from my special needs bag (intended for lap 2, but I knew I needed it stat). I grabbed my flask of mountain dew, something I never touch on a normal day, but during races, it works well for me! Somewhere within the first mile, I saw my husband, who handed me some of those much sought after tums before telling me to get moving!
I found my legs pretty quickly and the first 12 miles rolled along without a hitch. I was hovering right around 9 min pace with a pretty low perceived level of exertion yet unwilling to push beyond that point quite yet. Patience: I kept reminding myself of this, even after now 8+ hours of racing, as I wanted to be able to run the 2nd half of this marathon! When I saw the hubby for the 2nd time at mile 11, I gave a thumbs up to show I was feeling strong and happy.
Perhaps I spoke too soon, because just after mile 12 I felt a strong twinge in my hip flexor that almost immediately brought me to a standstill. At the same time, my energy seemed to drop off and the next 3 miles were a fuzzy blur and my pace dropped way off. Lucky for me, I had expected this to happen and had a plan. I pushed calories, fluids and electrolytes. I took in some quality caffeine. I didn’t feel like eating, but I knew I needed to keep on getting in those precious calories. I thought about the announcer's comments of the Kona IM World Champion Miranda Carfrae as she made her way to the finish line just last month. Even with a few miles to go, they noted how she took care of the “little details” (of fueling, etc) to make sure she made it to the finish successfully. I thought about all of the times before that these low moments hit yet I managed to work through them. I kept moving and waited for it to pass, and within a few miles I was moving a little more swiftly again. Apparently with enough spunk to make a bunch of sassy remarks about the "sun being too bright" and the "music being too loud," etc to the hubby when I saw him around mile 16 :)
Miles 16-20 dragged on, BUT I was moving. All I wanted was to reach that final turn around, see my husband one more time and start making my way to the finish line. Oh… for that bright SUN to go down!!! I took advantage of just about every aid station, either to refill my hand bottle, drink coke, take some endurolytes or put ice down my race shirt to cool off.
I turned around at mile 20.5 after seeing Jordan and Josh one final time. He calculated that I had roughly 1:10 to complete the final stretch of the course to finish sub-12hrs. At this point, my energy levels were bouncing back and my legs still had plenty of life in them. To me, it was one of those “anything can happen” type moments. There was no longer any reason to hold back. It was me against time and a matter of “how much I wanted it.”
The final 6 miles of the run was one of the greatest racing moments I’ve had, if not the greatest! I have no pictures to capture the moment, only wonderful memories. Here’s what I quoted in my training log regarding those last few miles:
"Really, it's just a feeling that cannot be replicated any other way and I just keep replaying it in my head over and over again. I was flying past people like they were standing still and all smiles. I didn't look at my watch those final miles and had no clue what pace I was running, but I knew I was on a mission to get to that finish line ASAP!The last mile was just simply incredible coach... I mean really!!! I don't recall a race that I have ever felt so much joy at the end and was just grinning ear to ear. The lights downtown and crowd support and hearing my husband screaming and also knowing how excited you would be too... so so SO cool. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the clock either. 11:40????!! What a way to finish out an AWESOME day."
I crossed the line in disbelief and threw out a few air punches with excitement. I just finished an IRONMAN!!!
So Why Race an Ironman ?
It's a question I have contemplated all season and since I signed the dotted line to enter B2B. Why did I feel so compelled to race this ironman? I am a big proponent of following my gut, and am trying to do a better job in following through with it. I have come to learn, mainly by the example by husband sets, that life can be lived watching from the sidelines wondering what we are capable of, or we can take leaps of faith. I am learning that living life passionately and purposefully means pushing beyond the limits of our self-imposed comfort zones, taking chances, making and learning from mistakes, and taking time recognize and appreciate the beauty of the journey.
Sometimes we push forward, not always knowing where we are going or what the outcome might be. After 11+ hrs of racing, months of training for this race and having endured the roller coaster of emotions along the way, I confirmed the answer to my question in the last mile of my race. In crossing the finish line of my first ironman, an event that I once said was “definitely not for me,” it is definitely now feeling like the perfect fit. What that means for the future, I do not know, but my gut tells me that this "finish line" was really the starting line of a new chapter, with pages yet to be written, and only God truly knows what will come of it all.
Words of Appreciation & Final Thoughts
Thank you to my brother-in-law for the original idea of racing an ironman last summer. Making the decision to re-enter the triathlon world after a few year hiatus was a leap of faith. Thank you for initiating the flame, for the hours you (and sister!) traveled to share in the experience with me, for run-walking 20+ miles on race day and for all the stellar pictures!!!
Thank you coach Jim for believing in me from the get-go, thinking back to last summer (2013) when I was too afraid to even admit that this was my goal! Yes, the training schedules have undoubtedly contributed to my success this season, but your faith in my abilities, advice and inspiring passion for the sport are what truly made a difference in my race day success!
To the guy more affectionately known as "hubby darling dearest": Everyone calls you amazing, and I am beyond blessed to be your crazy mess of a wife. Thank you for taking such great care of me on my best and worst days, for your patience this season and not allowing me to give up, and for inspiring me to pursue my dreams! (For the record, this guy deserves a gold star, especially for all the care he provided me in the week following his 100 miler when I probably should have been taking care of him...).
To my family: Hopefully you now have a better understanding of all that an ironman entails (especially grandma?). Thank you for traveling to be there with me on race day, for all the cheers, and for leaving the hotel light on :) Thank you mom for instilling in me a strong work ethic and a drive for excellence, to dad for italian genes (aka stubbornness) that it takes to successfully complete such endeavors, and to grandma, who still spoils me after all these years.
To the overwhelming number of friends that have shared kind words of encouragement and congrats: the experience means nothing without wonderful people to share it with, and I am blessed to be surrounded by so many wonderful and inspiring individuals! Keep on being the awesome people that you are!
And for those of you with aspiring athletic (or life) goals and dreams, all I have to say is GO FOR IT! There is no time for the present, and no time that will ever be "perfect." Why stand on the sidelines and settle for less? Stepping outside of that comfort zone is never easy. In fact, it can get quite messy. Seek out mentorship, surround yourself with supportive individuals, initiate the process and you never know where you might end up... There will always be ups and down, moments filled with elation and moments filled with tears... strive for excellence but at the end of the day, remember to be joyful for the precious gift that is simply living, breathing, loving.
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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