Wow, how to sum up the experience of my first Ironman…?! I guess the easiest way would be to say it was both amazing and awful at the same time… but mostly amazing. And especially amazing after crossing that finish line — despite the pain!
The race was what I expected in many ways, and not at all what I expected in others. Actually — and I can’t believe I’m saying this! — in some ways it was not as tough as I had anticipated it might be. I think this was maybe just simply because of the adrenaline and excitement pushing me through some of the parts that would otherwise have been extremely challenging. But, that’s not to say that it wasn’t still hard, because believe me it was!
The swim was tough, but in different ways than I expected. While the distance was hard and inevitably exhausting, I think that what really took a lot out of me in the swim were some of the circumstantial challenges I faced. The swim took place in the Russian River and was an out and back, two loops. The women started all together after ALL the men, so needless to say, thins got pretty bottle-necked and I have to say we had it the hardest. Having to navigate through such big swarms of people was difficult. I thought I had experience that before, but nothing like this. As a result, I swallowed a TON of water throughout the swim, and ended up feeling very sick to my stomach by the last lap on the way home. This made it tough to really push the last part of the swim, but I made it through as best as I could, and was very relieved to get out of the water.
I was still in a pretty good position, top 15, and even though I was tired, I felt good energy from inside for the bike portion. I took my time on the transition, making sure to get some food down and get everything I needed for the bike, as well as pack up all my swim stuff, and get myself composed and relaxed. I took off feeling good about the upcoming bike leg!
We were amazingly lucky on the bike, as the clouds stayed out pretty much the entire first lap, keeping things nice and cool, which is also how I felt that lap. I worked to get into a good, comfortable pace, and just stayed relaxed. I was pushing it, but not too much that I really felt tired. The course was gorgeous, winding through vineyards, across hillsides, through groves of trees and over hilltops. The course was challenging, with plenty of rolling hills and one pretty good climb, “Chalk Hill.” But, it rode very smooth.
On the second lap, let’s just say, the bike was no longer quite as much fun! In fact, I even said those exact words at one point to someone I passed along the way: “This isn’t so much fun anymore!” My legs were certainly feeling the strain, as were my hips and back. I did my best to continue pushing through, even though I wanted so badly to get out the saddle and off of the bike! I kept thinking, though, that as much as I wanted to get off the bike, I knew I would be wishing I was back on it by the time I was halfway through the run! 🙂 I was surprised how much I was actually longing for the big climb on the second lap. I think at that point standing felt so much better than being down low, and my legs felt stronger that way. Though it seemed like a long time, it did finally come, and I made it up and over, and was soon on my way to the finish. I picked it up a bit toward the end, but tried not to do so too much, as I just kept telling myself I had a LONG ways yet to go in this race!
I finally made it off my bike 6 hours and 20 minutes later, and was feeling TIRED, but still pretty amped! I was psyched about my bike time, and actually feeling pretty ready to give it my all on the run. Physically, the hours I had already accumulated were certainly felt, but mentally, I was shocked at how much I did not feel worn down by them. It was almost strange. Even though I had just rode 112 miles (I could only think: what? did I really just ride 112 miles..?!), as soon as I hung up my bike, my thoughts shifted immediately forward to the run, and I was in the here and now, just running a marathon.
I was actually amazed at how good I felt when I started running. Truly. I didn’t have near the amount of “dead leg” I expected after such a long ride, or even quite as much as I normally feel in just an Olympic distance triathlon. As soon as I took my first few strides, I just felt really in the groove. Perhaps after so much time on the bike, just a different motion was welcomed and felt great. I had not done the run course before, so I didn’t know entirely what to expect. I did know, though, that it was three loops of about 8.3 miles, which were essentially an out-and-back. I knew this might be grueling, but I quickly learned that it also had its advantages.
I also learned quickly that the course was NOT flat, and NOT easy! But, my first loop really felt nothing short of great! My body was working for me, my legs felt surprisingly fresh, and mentally I was in a great place, with lots of good energy. There were a whole bunch of people out along the course, and aid stations every mile with plenty of food and drink, and high-energy, amazing volunteers. There were also plenty of other people out on course, between those well out in front of me, women doing the half-iron, and others behind me on the way back. So, with the combination of all these things, I really felt good the first lap, and my running showed that. Despite the couple of steep climbs on the course, I came around the first lap right on pace for a four-hour marathon, and felt like I would be able to keep it up.
Of course, this is rarely every the case! As I rounded lap one and headed out for more (lots more!), I got a nice boost of energy on seeing my family cheering for me, as well as the many spectators giving their day to be there in support. That was awesome. I headed out on lap two still feeling good. The sun was out by this time and it was plenty warm, though not too hot still — fortunately! I carried my water bottle with electrolytes, and still walked through each aid station to drink and dump water on myself. On the way out on the second lap, I kept my pace up pretty well, and more importantly kept the good energy and positive vibes flowing really well.
This was obvious in my thoughts and actions, and carried over to my running. That first lap and a half, I am pretty sure my positive energy was contagious, and I felt it coming right back my way from so many others out on the course. I was able to say good job to almost everyone I passed in both directions on the course, especially the women, and most everyone returned the enthusiasm and support. Really, the atmosphere out there was amazing! And it truly lifted me up. Some of those women who were out there doing the half (it was women’s only) were so inspiring. All shapes, sizes, ages and ability levels… it was so cool! Many walked through the entire run portion, but it was obvious they were giving everything they had, and it was just incredible to see the passion and spirit they had. Great feeling! And among the Ironman racers too, everyone was so supportive. Something else that was really special… I ran by a fellow Team Marathon athlete! This was awesome, and gave me an extra boost of inspiration, as we cheered each other on! I really felt like we were out there together! And she looked great! Overall, the atmosphere on the run was awesome! And having enough energy to take part in that and really thrive felt great.
But, right about the turnaround on the second lap — 13 miles in — the race seemed to turn around as well. The fatigue began to set in, 10 hours of pushing well over 100 miles taking its toll. I think what was so tough about this stretch too was that as I headed back on the loop and watched others go in the other direction, all I could think about was how I STILL had to do it ALL AGAIN! This was NOT a good feeling, and not a fun time! I was definitely struggling at this point, physically and mentally. But, I just kept on putting one foot in front of the other, and told myself just to relax, take it slow and do what I needed to do to get through it. Many people were walking out on the course, but I knew I was still doing really well, and wanted to keep running even if it was slow, which I did, despite the pain of each step!
I was watching my watch, and while I wanted so badly to go under 12 hours, I knew it was likely not going to happen, so I tried to quickly get that out of my head and just focus, again, on the here and and now and just getting through the race, and becoming an Ironwoman! I think that was a big thing that helped me… when I felt mentally really down, I just would tell myself, “Kara, you are doing Ironman right now! And you are doing awesome!” I think just getting a little pride really helps to push things along. As I came toward the finish of that gruesomely long second lap and headed out for my last one, I saw my family again. But this time, when they cheered, instead of a burst of energy, I actually felt sorry for myself! In fact, it was at this point, as I anticipated, that I hit sort of a breaking point, and I did cry a little bit!
But, it didn’t last long, and for a breaking point, I would say this was pretty good! I think this is mostly because when I let a couple sobs come through, I started to almost hyperventilate because I was already breathing hard, so I was forced to quickly calm down and get a hold of myself, and focus on what was still to come. I just told myself that I was still in a great place, and that I could do it. I knew I could. And, just like that, I suddenly really did know it, and my body responded. I told myself to change my attitude and my energy, and my body would follow, and it really did. I looked back at my first lap and all my actions and energy, and thought how different the last half of my second lap had been — I was no longer offering words of encouragement to those around me and could rarely muster thank you’s to the volunteers — and I told myself to bring that energy back NOW. And, somehow, I found a way to do it, and my running came back a little bit, too.
Of course, this does not mean that I picked up the pace. In fact, I got slower (naturally… it was my last 8 miles of the Ironman!). But, all in all, I think the third lap was MUCH better than I ever would have guessed, and I was shocked at how much I was able to persevere. I was hurting and tired, and my pace was now closer to 4:20, but I was still out there, and still giving it my all. My body was somehow, amazingly starting to feel better. So, I just kept on plugging away, letting the miles tick down, and getting myself one step closer to becoming an Ironwoman, and that much closer to total relief all the time. By the time I rounded the turn for the LAST time, I jokingly told the volunteer that I was happy I would not see him again — a truth, but a good sign that I was still in good spirits, and I hit the road for home, feeling truly uplifted that I was on my way, and determined to get there quickly!
It was still another four miles or so, but knowing that that was ALL I had left, I was stoked, and somehow able to really give it everything I had those last four miles. Actually, I really think I was able to give more of myself in those last four miles, and let down less, than I have in any regular marathon — even though my pace was considerably slower. I somehow found myself even picking it up in the last couple miles. I just felt so strong, with such a sense of empowerment as I realized that I was becoming an Ironwoman, and I really knew and felt that I was doing an amazing job of it. I pushed when others no longer could, and ended up passing three women within the last three miles. Mind you, I was still running slowly, but from my persepctive, I felt like I was flying!
I carried that energy all the way in to the finish, skipping the last two aid stations, and even throwing in a sprint to the line. All of a sudden, I just felt so damn good, in a way and from a place I cannot even describe. Looking back on it just makes me happy from the inside out, even though I know I remember how much I was in pain! When I crossed the line, all I could feel was relief. I fell to the ground almost immediately, and though I was hurting in more ways than I ever have, I was also happy and proud in ways I have never experienced before. Truly, what an amazing feeling!
My family had to help me to hobble over to the grass — my legs literally felt as though they had died on my body, yet could still feel immense pain. At that point, I laid down, for the first time in just over twelve hours, and was hardly able to move. But that was okay, because I was doing my best to soak it all in, and let it sink in. I had just done an Ironman! And, though I didn’t break 12 hours (12:08), I knew I had done the absolute best I could have possibly asked for, and for that I was anything but disappointed.
I think in some ways, the race almost still has not sunk in, even a week later. As proud and full as I felt inside that night, I was never quite jumping out of my skin with excitement — perhaps because I did not have the energy. I was focused on relieving myself of the pain. It took several days to be able to eat and walk normally. The first night of sleep was hardly such, as my muscles and joints were so sore. And don’t even get me started on driving home the next day… 🙂 But, through it all, I could look back and just try to take in the immensity of the feat I had just accomplished, and smile! No other experience in my life will be quite the same again — neither as uniquely hard or rewarding, as my first 140.6. The experience was simultaneously awful and amazing — but much more amazing! — unlike anything else. And, really, in so many ways it just felt so much bigger than me. I felt like, even though this was such a personal goal, I was so much a part of everyone else’s experience too, as they were mine. And that was really an inspiring thing. In the end, I am an Ironwoman! And next time, I will become one in 11 and a half hours… you just wait… 😉
Final time: 12:08:15
First place age group, 13th woman overall