“How do you know you’re going to do something, until you do it?”
-Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
On a long ride with my friend Laura about a year ago, the conversation turned to Ironman. I always thought I’d race one someday, but suddenly, what had always been my “maybe someday” race, turned into: “We are going to do this in the fall of 2015!” It look Laura’s forward momentum and enthusiasm to get the ball rolling, but I couldn’t deny that everything was lining up this year. Various self-imposed “obstacles” (like my kids not being in full time school yet) had vanished. I’d done all the other distances – quite a few of them. It was simply time to go for the 140.6.
So, which one to do? Local races (Canada, Coeur D’Alene) were out – they seemed too early. I wanted to do most of my riding in the Seattle summer (which to me starts in July). Chattanooga and Maryland were the right time of year and good courses for me. I happen to love the south, had raced in the region before, and other team members were signing up. What could be better? Friends, atmosphere, and a long lead time. CHOO it was. I talked to my coach, got online, paid my entry fee, and just like that, I was signed up for my first Ironman. I had a feeling of total calm and total excitement, if it’s possible to feel those things together.
One crazy, busy year later I was running around Chattanooga with Laura and Lee Ann, picking up swag, checking out the course, and sampling southern restaurants. As we kept busy with pre-race tasks, I felt a little bit sad. For the past year, much of my life had revolved around the date of September 27, and after Sunday, my Ironman year would be over, just like that. It had been different and interesting to distill my life down to just the basics while my training weeks got bigger and bigger. Of course, I looked forward to having some room in my schedule for other things after raceday, but I was sorry to see this season come to a close. Ironman training had been a long but awesomely satisfying process, and I’d definitely miss it.
However, there wasn’t much time to ponder potentially missing something when I had a race coming up in 72 hours.
My type-A friends and I had created a detailed spreadsheet for our pre-race plans, preventing anything from being left to chance. We blew into town Wednesday and started checking things off. Build bikes, swim at the YMCA, go to athlete check-in and briefing, hit the merch-tent, pre-ride and pre-swim parts of the course, and even try out some of Chattanooga’s cool and fun restaurants.
By Saturday, the tasks wound down, and race nerves took their place. I swam the end of the course with Rocky in the morning, had breakfast alone, as much as I could eat, then met the girls at bike check-in where we dropped off bikes and gear bags. By lunchtime I was no longer hungry, and dinner was the same as lunch; I couldn’t eat very much but managed a few bites of pasta with my parents and friend Michelle. I curled up in bed by eight with my companion: my sheer disbelief about what I was going to do in the morning. The entire year of training passed before my eyes and it was almost too much to think about. I must have slept, because it seemed like the next minute the alarm was ringing me into my long day ahead.
I parked and arrived at transition at 4:20 AM. Laura, Lee Ann and I had already dropped run and bike bags Saturday, so we quickly looked over very wet bikes (lots of rain overnight), pumped tires and dropped special needs bags off. Once I started moving through things I was supposed to do, my nerves settled down. About 4:50 AM the loudspeaker crackled with the announcement that it would be a wetsuit-optional swim with a water temperature of 77 degrees, so I handed off my wetsuit to Drew, our Vo2 support person. We wanted to board the swim-start shuttle bus ASAP to try to line up near the front of the rolling start line, and as planned, we were done in transition in 25 minutes and onto the bus. The shuttle dropped us off at a park along the river (which incidentally was part of the run course, too).
We walked along a paved path toward the water until we reached the end of the line of athletes, then spread out a space blanket and some plastic bags, sat down, and prepared to wait. It was 5:30, so we had two hours to wait in the dark, and I was so glad to have Laura, Lee Ann, and Rocky there to wait with. Even that early we were still a hundred yards from the front of the line, but within the hour the line grew after us further than we could see and we were actually relatively close to the front. We took turns going to the porta-potty, and as the time got closer, I used my swim cords to warm up, put on my swim-skin and packed my clothes in the morning-clothes bag. The sky began to lighten about 7:15.
Go time! At 7:20 we hear the cannon for the pro start and things quickly get moving. All wetsuit wearers must go to the back of the line and are ineligible for awards, but will still officially finish. Wetsuit wearers in front of us stand aside and we pass them with our swim skins on and morning clothes bags packed. I see my mom in the crowd of spectators at the start and give her a quick hug. Then, I hand my bag to a volunteer right before the swim-start arch, walk to the dock and jump in! I am finally racing in an Ironman, and the feeling is incredible.
I begin to swim at a “strong aerobic” pace. The water feels quite cool at first, but my mind moves on and after a minute I don’t notice the temperature. It’s a bit crowded, and people seem to be angling in different directions. Some swim straight down the buoy line on swimmer’s left, and others more toward the center of the river. The course is a large C-shape, so technically the fastest current would be closer to the buoys. I end up “straightening” out the course a bit – further away from the buoys in the middle. I’m not sure if this was the best line, or if it matters that much, because the current was not that fast today. I need to pass quite a few people, and I seem to be getting too close to people or having to alter my aim to go around. Soon, I sense I’m in the clear. Yellow buoys are easy to see on my left, and a line of kayaks is visible on my right. I watch for the buoys to change to red – a sign that I’m halfway done. I sneak a quick glance at my watch as I pass the first red buoy. 25:52.
I’d swum the end of the swim course yesterday, so I know where I’m going once I see three bridges. I can hear the spectators as I approach the final buoy. I turn left, swim to the stairs and volunteers pull me up. I hear Laura’s husband yell from the bridge and I look up and see him and Wyatt, and then I see Michelle and my dad closer to the transition. I’m smiling, so thrilled that I’m finally doing this!
Swim time: 50:10
Division place: 1
Pace 1:17/100 (downriver)
I grab my bike gear bag from its place and head to the changing tent. Only about three athletes are in it and a huge line of volunteers wait to help. One of them follows me in and takes my swim stuff as I’m getting my bike shoes on. I reconfirm with myself that I’m not going to wear arm warmers; it’s in the mid-60s or maybe even warmer out and I’m no longer worried about starting the bike cold. I do forget to place my white arm coolers in my pocket before running out of the tent. It’s overcast now though, so I should be fine. I take a second or two at the sunscreen station to get slathered up and them I’m off to grab my bike.
T-1 time: 4:31
I hop on my bike at the mount line and roll out. I’ve ridden the first part of the course, so I’m ready for the several train tracks we have to cross and generally know where I’m going. I settle in. It’s going to be a long ride. I take the few turns through town to the Georgia state line and then ramp up onto the highway. I start on my plan: Power and HR in check, eat a gel every twenty minutes for the first two hours, then begin to spread them further out. Drink at least a bottle an hour, skipping just the first feed zone because I’m carrying three. Take salt every five miles. I’m apparently hydrated enough because I stop in porta-potties three times in the six hours. I’m super quick at it: a volunteer holds my bike, I dash in and out, and one time someone even gives me a push to get going.
The weather is cloudy and humid, but comfortable. I watch my Garmin, because I know the second I lose focus my HR will be up to 150, past my designated cap. I’ve done too many 70.3s, and it’s psychologically hard to hold back, but I think I do a decent job of keeping it where it’s supposed to be. I think about pedaling smoothly, keeping my upper body relaxed, and not “working” my muscles too hard.
The course is a lollipop-shape, with approximately 11 miles to reach the start of a 47-mile loop, which you then do twice. The two-lane roads are very clean, and the few bumps are marked with spray paint. The course is mostly rollers, mostly gentle, but some hills are bigger than others. There’s a nice downhill in the second part of the loop. I keep seeing some of the same guys, though many other athletes, including some fast girls, fly past me. I’m okay with that. Being passed a lot early on is part of my plan. On the second part of the loop is the town of Chickamauga, Georgia. A shuttle takes spectators out there and the energy is amazing. It’s bannered up and spectators line both sides, cheering at the top of their lungs. It’s quite a boost in the middle of the ride. It’s also the location of the bike special needs bags, but I don’t need to stop for mine, which contains only a spare tube and an extra clothing layer.
I see Drew on the course a couple times, giving updates and encouragement. Rocky passes me, looking strong.
The second loop is as good as the first. I’m beginning to feel my legs. My quads feel crampy and I double up on the salt. I realize I’m about a bottle behind and begin to drink a little faster. I look at my watch and wonder if I’ll get under six hours. When I hit the 11-mile point back to town, I know it will be close.
Bike time (116 miles): 6:01:24
Bike pace: 19.26
Division place: 8
So quick! Someone takes my bike, I grab my run bag and head back to the tent. A volunteer packs up my bike helmet and shoes while I get my running shoes on.
Here it is. This is the part of the race about which I have had the most fear and respect. As I hand off my bike to a volunteer, I have a sense of entering into the unknown. I don’t want to screw it up and I know that controlling the bike was part of it. Have I done enough? Now to run SLOW! No faster than nines. I head out of the tent and spectators are cheering loudly. I see not only my parents, but Michelle, Dennis, Wyatt…. I try to take it easy and get the legs working. I feel good, very good. I glance down and my pace is 7:50. Not good. 8:20. Still way too fast. But now it’s a slight downhill. I consciously relax and slow it down and finally hit close to a nine-minute pace. My HR is right where it should be so I let my pace hover by 8:55.
We leave the spectator area and head north along a highway. It’s warm and humid, but cloudy. I’m so happy for the cloud cover. We head down the path where we waited at the swim start and then the run is along the river. It feels relatively pleasant so far. Some of the pro women are on their second lap and they fly by. Aid stations are every mile and they come quickly. It’s a routine: first you see the mile marker for the second lap, then for the first, then the aid station appears in the distance. I eat my gels every thirty minutes and drink one cup of water at aid stations. I take my Base salt. My skin is drenched from the sweat and humidity. I think about doing this whole loop again and fear strikes me for a minute when I’m around mile 9 and I see the mile 18 marker for the second loop runners. How will I feel then? Will I still be okay? I run on, bringing my focus back to the first loop.
Across the river the course becomes hilly. Up and down, through residential areas, through a beautiful country-club neighborhood. I don’t walk, though lots of people are. I am afraid that if I walk it will be too hard to start running again. I’d rather run than start and stop. I’m feeling it now. I have 13 miles to go. I see Kristie, a friend from Huntsville, as I cross the bridge near transition and I’m super excited to see her and find I still do have some energy as I wave and exchange a few words. On the second loop, I see Rocky and we chat. I see Ann on the river path. It’s awesome to see familiar faces racing, and Drew is out on the run course, too, offering encouragement.
Soon, I notice that my pace is dropping. The clouds disappear and the sun blazes out, and a few times I suddenly don’t feel right. A weird dizziness passes through me. I think I might faint or throw up but not sure which. The feeling goes away but I can’t face another gel so I drink coke instead at the next aid station. Despite this, I am still connected to the feeling I had from the very start of the swim: incredible joy and amazement that I’m out here, racing in an Ironman. It even makes me smile at times through the effort.
I jog through the stations while I drink my water, again not letting myself walk. I start noticing a strange pain in the lower front of one of my shins and I try to alter my gait a bit to make it go away. I try to think about my core and my posture. In fact, not only my shin hurts, I realize, but my legs hurt. So strange! I continue on around the loop, dreading the hills on the back side. I notice my HR hovering below 140 at times. I try to move faster but I cannot make myself move faster. For the first time in the race I feel a note of discouragement overtaking my happiness of racing. I have to be willing to be uncomfortable. I must realize that everyone is fading and slowing. I need to fade and slow the least of my peers! I down a gel, even though I’m worried my stomach will revolt, but it doesn’t, and ten minutes later I sense that it’s picked me up a bit. I don’t let my head drop heading up the hills because somehow keeping my chin up keeps me going. I continue to press on and somehow make it up and down those hills again. It’s the lowest point of the race for me, yet at the same time, I start to sense the finish, and start to fully know and understand that I’ll make it. Here is mile 24, then 25! I cross the bridge over the Tennessee River again to cheering spectators, and I can hear the announcer in the distance telling racers, You Are an Ironman. Soon it will be my turn to hear those words. I head to the finish, and it’s a half mile, all downhill, then the chute is in front of me. Emotions overtake me at this point, but when I run across the red carpet and under the black arch, I’m too excited and thrilled to do anything but smile. Robin White, You Are An Ironman!
Final Time: 11:00:05
Divison Place: 5
I see my parents first and give them a hug right after my “catcher” helps me through the process of getting my medal, photo and finisher shirt and hat. My legs ache; there’s no other way to describe it. It’s just a dull ache. A Normatec booth is right by the finish and I hop into a chair and they tip me back and I get ten minutes in the inflatable boots. It feels awesome. Food is the last thing I want. I see teammates and others and share congrats, the whole time feeling faint. Finally back at the hotel I force myself to eat some cold pizza from my fridge, the only thing that sounds halfway palatable, and then I have a milkshake with Laura and Lee Ann. I slowly begin to feel better, but that night I can’t sleep until at least 1 AM.
The next day, I feel somewhat sore, but not too bad. I’ve been in more pain after hilly 70.3s. My stomach still feels queasy. I’m hungry but food makes my stomach feel worse. My awesome husband had sent a beautiful congratulatory fruit platter to my room and I nibble on some some pineapple and watermelon, which tastes very refreshing but still hard to swallow.
After I get home, I finally start sleeping – eight, nine, ten hours. By Thursday evening I am turning the corner, my stomach feels better, and I even go for a nice bike ride on Friday morning. I run Saturday morning but feel flat and pace is slow, but otherwise I am starting to feel back to normal. All week I’m on a high that I’ve finished an Ironman.
There are really no words to describe the feeling after doing an Ironman for the first time. It truly taught me about what I can handle and manage, but also what a community-oriented sport triathlon is, especially Ironman. I would not have wanted to do all of this alone, and could not have. Brian never hesitated in giving me that push to sign up as soon as I mentioned it, always jumped in to do more around the house when I was out training early and late. My girls calmly handled my erratic schedule and cheered me on every day. On the coaching side, Ben Bigglestone set up my IM year with knowledge, experience and precision. If he posted a certain pace or distance on my training log, I knew I was ready for it! And my training buddies! Seventy, eighty and hundred-mile rides, not to mention chilly early swims, track workouts and long runs, were a breeze with awesome friends and Vo2 Multisport teammates alongside me. It was awesome to have my parents in Chattanooga to support me! Thanks, Mom and Dad! Loved the camaraderie of racing with Laura, Lee Ann, Rocky and Ann. My parents, Michelle, Kristie, Laura’s family, and Drew out there on course kept me going a little faster at all points in the race. And, everyone at home who cheered for me – knowing that you were tracking me put a spring in my step! During the race, I thought a lot about my good friend Stephanie, who is fighting breast cancer. Thinking about her challenges inspired me to keep it going when it got tough, and this one was definitely for her.
Somehow, after this race, triathlon (and maybe even life!) will never be quite the same. I don’t doubt that another 140.6 is on the radar in the near future, and knowing a little about what’s in store will make it both more exciting and more challenging the next time around.