Sunday, November 13, 2011

I belong here.

Fire in the belly

It only took a year of planning, a year of training, a year of adjusting, a year of defining.

And in 15 hours and 54 minutes, it came to an end.

My journey to become an Ironman concluded last weekend in Panama City Beach, Florida, and with it went the anxiety that often crippled me emotionally and mentally as I experienced a milestone that I can only define as surreal and highly rewarding.

First, there was the beginning.

Shortly after I completed my first half-Ironman of 70.3 miles in the summer of 2010, I wondered if I could push myself to cover the distance of a true Ironman: 140.6 miles that breaks down into a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile swim.

Honestly I had no real burning desire to become an Ironman, but the idea intrigued me. I can only compare it to doing my first half marathon: once I raced 13.1 miles, why not race 26.2? Same thing with 70.3. What's another 70.3 miles? So, I decided that I would try one; if I finished, great. If not, at least I wasn’t on the couch.

When registration opened last November for Ironman Florida (known to triathletes as IMFL), I perched in front of my laptop, armed with a credit card, my US triathlon number, and my health insurance information. Surprised by my own conviction, I signed up. The disbelief lasted for a while. Was I, indeed, crazy? Perhaps. But soon, I bought into my goal, even if the fire in my belly had not yet been lit.

Then, there was the training.

I bought books. I read online plans. I considered hiring a coach. I flirted with various options to help me cross the finish line. In the end, I went with someone who knew pretty much how to help me: Mark. He created a plan that respected my bad knee, the one that an orthopaedist told me should force me from running permanently. Hell, this guy worked with Olympian Marty Nothstein, so I was a bit concerned. Still, I forged ahead with the plan that incorporated an Olympic race in Philly, a half-Ironman in Providence, and a full marathon in the Poconos, my 8th one that I would do to test the limits of my injury and to run with my running partner Jamie and my new friend Elizabeth.

As the plan progressed, the swims got longer. I wound up doing 2.4 miles in a practice swim at Lake Nockamixon during a swim camp. That alone boosted my confidence for swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Then the runs got longer. This, of course, never bothered me because running is my first love. And in that marathon, I was happy with running a 4:39, far from a PR but she was done.

But then the bike rides got longer.

This was the tricky part.

I confess: I probably cried on at least two rides -- a rainy 102-mile century on unforgiving hills through Doylestown and western New Jersey and a bitterly cold 92-mile ride along the Schulykill River Trail that forced me to keep my toes pressed against the car heater half-way through. Each time, my knee got angrier, cursing me for hours afterward. Granted, I had several other rides of 90+ miles that were very manageable.

Yet, I wondered if I could ever finish 112 miles without burning and crashing, without falling and losing my front Chiclets, without getting the dreaded flat.

With three weeks out, I started a serious taper, which meant a sharp cutback on my mileage. I had logged several weeks of pushing 170 miles of workouts. Now? I was logging a mere 40 to 60.

Anxiety began to disrupt my sleep, decrease my hunger.

One final saving grace was Renee, a woman I met at the Rodale Aquatic Center a year earlier. At the time, she was training for Ironman Lake Placid, which she later owned with an incredible time.

Well, Renee wrote to me: “Call me NOW.” Otherwise, she threatened to drive to my house to shake some sense into me. Mind you, she's the tiniest little thing with the heart of a lion. I have about 30 pounds on her, but she motivates you like no other mother.

I called, armed with paper and pencil. I began writing down everything she said: "Don’t let your nerves get to you. It’ll waste your energy." "Something will definitely go wrong, and when it does, let it go. Accept it." "Focus on each leg as it happens. When you swim, think about swimming. When you bike, only think about biking." "Finally, go and have fun. You’ve done everything before."

Her words stuck with me the entire week.

Then, there was the trip.

Heading to Panama City, I confess that my stomach was as calm as a defendant waiting for the jury’s verdict.

Fortunately, I knew that I would meet up with people that I befriended on Facebook and Daily Mile. There was Sidney, a Brazilian living in Ireland with a torn meniscus, a charming pluck, and the drive to finish. There was Kristie, the powerhouse from Florida who continued to hammer the miles each week in her quest to qualify for Kona. There was Jen, who got bedridden with pneumonia two weeks before the race. There was Rhonda, a mother of three who shared some of the same feelings as me. There was also Felipe, Anthony, Trevor, Doreen, Cindy, John, Sean, and others, mostly first-timers who had similar fears, but still they all seemed stoic.

Several of us met up at the pre-race dinner where race officials warned us about the pink meanie jellyfish that would sting like a bastard. Seek medical attention if you got stung, we were told. I gave Sidney a look of fear. "Don't worry," he said, "they'll swim away." I hoped he was right.

The next day I tried to swim in the Gulf, but the strong waves and current kept me from a clean entry. However, once I cleared the surf, I managed to swim for about 15 pink meanie-free minutes. Afterward, I took Stella, my bike, out for a six-mile spin, just to make sure that nothing happened on its drive with the transport crew from Philly.

After a massive lunch of waffles, bacon, and hashed browns, followed by a dinner of chicken, rice, and pasta, I spent a few hours organizing my remaining bags and hit the pillow at 8 p.m. I think I slept for five restless hours.

The next morning, I awoke at 4 a.m. to shower and down a banana with peanut butter, some oatmeal, and a cup of coffee. I visited the loo so many times, just to be sure, because I do own one of the world’s smallest bladders. Then we headed to the car where I realized that neither of my Garmins would turn on And it was then that I thought of Renee.

“Prepare for something to go wrong because it will…”

She was right. There was nothing I could do, so I let it go. I would run a marathon without knowing my pace or my mileage. I’d have to rely on my Timex and the mile markers. I’d have to hope for the best.

We boarded a shuttle bus that was filled with nervous chatter. I spoke very little, instead, trying to think inside my head about how I didn’t want to let anxiety steal my energy. I dropped off my two special needs bags, which are bags kept at the halfway points of both the bike and run. You place items in there that you may possible need or want to help you move forward.

And then I headed to transition to fill my bottles, pump my tires, climb into my wetsuit. Finally, I walked to the beach, seeing Mark on the way.

Thank goodness for the wetsuit. I was so nervous that I peed in the darn thing and no one was the wiser. And not once, not twice. At least three times before I even got into the water.

Then, there was the race.

The swim scared me, simply because of the current and the sea creatures—not to mention getting my goggles kicked off. While I’m not a strong swimmer (it takes me about 30 miles to swim a mile in the pool), I feel confident in the water. But with Van Halen’s “Panama” blaring in the background, a cannon shot off and I simply stood there with a group of other older women.

We knew better.

We watched as this mass of wetsuits took the water, creating a broad stream of black that parted the near calmness of the surf. It looked like poetic madness.

Finally, I entered the warm water and I started repeating my two mantras with each steady stroke:

One was: “You belong here.” And I believed it.

The other was: “You got this,” which I heard many times in training. And I did.

The swim was quite relaxing, although I drank quite a bit of salt water. I never pushed myself, I never panicked. I saw the jellyfish. I think that I may have seen the two sharks that everyone else did, but I was afraid to look back to verify. One of my DM friends, Michael, was volunteering; he later told me that scuba divers swam beneath the water. Hopefully, they didn't see the yellow trail behind me.

After the first 1.2-mile loop, I ran on to the beach and checked my watch: 7:44 a.m. Considering that I started about 3 minutes after the crowd, I was pleased with a 41-minute leg. So I grabbed a cup of water, spotted Mark, gave him a high five, and headed back in.

This one felt even easier., although my mind kept wandering to the bike ride. "Gosh, that's a far distance and the wind seems bad..." Then I started thinking: "How will I run a marathon tonight? I'm used to taking a nap every day...Will I have time to sleep somewhere for 20 minutes?" But then Renee’s voice kept coming back: "Focus on one leg at a time." So I went back to my mantras to keep me grounded: "You. Got. This. You. Belong. Here." One arm. The other. Breathe. Repeat.

After the swim, I took a prolonged freshwater shower right off the beach. People around me yelled to move. But I knew my eyes would burn if I didn't wash away all of the salt. A few minutes later, with some help, I found my bike bag and ran into the changing tent where women were just about naked as I could have imagined. Now, I am not overly prudish, but I am rather shy. So this was something out of my comfort zone. But I still stripped down to nothing, threw on Glide, tried to find all of my clothing.

We all made small talk., and the woman next to me noticed that I had severe chafing on my neck from my wetsuit. I said she had the same thing! So I applied Vaseline and passed my jar to her, hoping that the large red welts wouldn’t burn against our bike jerseys.

Now, the ride is never my favorite part of triathlon, and this was no different. The plan was to mentally break it down into 11 sections of 10 miles. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. For the first 50 miles, I felt as though I was fighting a 25- to 35-mile per hour headwind. I kept cursing out loud every time the wind increased. My speed fluctuated between 16 and 21 miles per hour, but it would suddenly drop to 10 with the wind, and I felt that I could never escape it. I could not maintain a consistent pace.

Take that bad pacing and then throw in a weak bladder (I stopped at 8 of the 10 rest stops to pee) and I was losing a lot of time before even getting to the halfway point. Thus, I began to worry if I'd make the cut-off. In fact, I had already seen some people turn around and quit. But I was not quitting.

Once I got my special needs bag at mile 56, I chugged the frozen Coke Zero (Renee's brilliant idea) and read a note from Kendall, who is 6. I immediately started to cry as I noticed the intricate little hearts that decorated the paper from my baby girl. The volunteer, a kid about 25, held my bag open, leaned into me, patted my shoulder, said I’d be fine.

And I was. The last 56 miles flew by quickly, although I suffered a nasty bee sting at mile 68. I ended up breaking the stinger off inside my leg, which caused a massive swelling that still lasts a week later and still remains lodged in my leg. Finally, as I hit 100 miles, I kept praying: “Please no flat, please no flat, please no flat...” I shaved more than 30 minutes off my second 56 miles.

Heading into transition, I remembered a line that someone once told me at the pool: “You’ll never be so excited to run a marathon as when you’re finishing that 112-mile ride.”

So true.

I passed my bike off to a volunteer (talk about valet service!), changed clothes in transition, talked to another volunteer who helped me organize my supplies. She said she wanted to do IM next year but was worried. I told her that I was having a blast, and I truly was. My parting words to her: "Do it."

As I headed out, the sun was still up. I tied my long-sleeve reflective shirt around me waist. I felt good for the first three miles, but I remember seeing people already coming back to the finish and thinking: “Damn, I still have 23 miles to go…” The unknown scared me.

But the miles passed quickly as nearly every rest stop had a theme: Hawaii, North Pole, the color blue, rock and roll, the Van Morrison house, crazy dance party with women dressed in leather... By mile 6, I started my run-walk, which I had initially planned to do earlier. But I was stubborn and tried to run for as long as I could. Not a good way to manage a run-walk plan. The only stops I had been making was walking through water stops and visiting a portable john at each one as well.

Somewhere around mile 7, I was exiting a bathroom when I heard my friend Jen call my name. She had finished after me in the swim and bike, but with my plodding and bladder breaks on the marathon course, she had caught up to me. Together we ran for a couple miles before she stopped with stomach issues. I kept going, knowing she’d catch me again. She did, just around mile 12. Together we hit the halfway point where I turned to get my second special needs bags as I saw dozens of people heading to the finish.

It was here that I read Grace’s letter to me, but fortunately I held in the tears: “ You may not be first, and you may not be last, but you’re first at being my mom,” she wrote. She may be autistic, but she's damn strong. And I had to be as well. I glanced at her initials, as well as those of my other three children, that I had written on my wrist. I started to run again.

But at that point, I realized that I was in it for the long haul. The sun was setting, and I knew we’d be soon running in the dark. Jen thought she’d have to walk the rest of the way, but we started to run together again. However, she managed to keep the pace, and my hamstring would have nothing of it. It was here, probably around mile 15, that I knew I’d be walking more than I wanted.

I resorted to counting: run to 100, walk to 50, repeat. If I felt good, I’d run to 200. I increased my cups of chicken broth and cola. Still, I had to drain the bladder at every stop, realizing later that I simply drank way too much.

The sun fully set before the 20-mile turnaround, and at times, I felt very alone in the darkness. I didn’t have a headlamp, and the portable boomer lights weren’t enough at some points. One stretch of the marathon winds through a park with signs of "Alligators" and "Don't feed the wildlife." Not very comforting. Through here, I took careful steps in the night, fearing that if I landed wrong and fell, that I wouldn’t make it. I knew, however, that I had enough time in the bank to walk the rest of the way if needed—even if I didn’t want to do that.

On the way out of the last turnaround, with about 5 miles to go, I watched the zombies enter. These are the poor souls who probably won’t make it. I had seen enough people vomit, collapse, cry, and quit throughout the day. Watching these worn athletes with pale faces and blank stares walk almost sideways saddened me. I wondered if they knew they’d get pulled from the course with its time restrictions. They had until 10:30 p.m. to get to mile 19 or so, and they weren’t going to make it.

As I headed back, the supply tables dwindled. Volunteers started packing up. The broth was getting cold. My stomach was beginning to revolt. The belly cramps I felt on the bike returned.

But residents remained outside to support us.

They cheered. They danced. They played music. (I even remember fist-pumping to Shakira...How odd in retrosepct.) They still demanded a high-five.

With only a few people around, I spotted a young Asian guy with a video camera for the third time that day, and he yelled to me. (I had seen him on the bike once and earlier on the run.) We started talking and he walked/ran with me for about a half mile, filming our conversation. He had done two Ironman races as well as a host of marathons. He was there to cheer for 18 friends, and 2 of them were close to getting cut off.

After a while, I told him to go back and find them, that I’d be ok.

And I was.

I kept up my walk/run, wondering how safe it was in the dark. Fortunately, I'd stumble across someone or the same stray cat that I had seen four times. But soon I got to mile 24, and that was it. My energy returned, and I started to run stronger. As I rounded the corner to Front Beach Drive, I could hear the music. I could see the lights down the road. I knew it was coming.

A large blue inflatable arch stood at the final turn, and I thought it marked the finish. I clearly remember yelling: "Where's the damn clock?" Someone shouted for me to keep going, but by that point, my tears flew swifter than my feet. I wondered who was watching me stream online, and I wondered if they could see me crying, and if they cried for me. (I later found out that they did.)

Suddenly, I heard: “Hey, it’s my buddy!”

To my left, my Asian friend appeared out of nowhere. How he got from mile 21 to mile 26 perplexed me, but he was cheering for me, telling me to take it home, filming at the same time. At the same moment, to my right, Mark finally spotted me, and he began yelling my name and running alongside the metal barriers. I could hear the crowd chanting. Then I could see them.

And then the man who I had been waiting to hear all year greeted me.

Mike Reilly, the official Ironman announcer.

“All the way from Pennsylvania….from Macungie… Denise Reaman, you ARE an Ironman.”

I wept the entire way in. I forgot to lift my arms in victory. Instead, I cried for all of the sacrifices I had made, for all of the moments that I lost in a year, for the times that I came off as selfish to my friends and my family, for all of the pain, sweat, and effort that I gave to fulfill this goal.

My greeter hugged me, wrapped me up in a space blanket as the shivers set in. She steadied me and prepped me for my picture. Afterward, I realized that I missed my friend Sidney, who came in just a few minutes after me to the beat of YMCA by the Village People. I guess I missed him due to my own self-absorbed glory. I called my mom to tell her that I was finished: 15 hours and 54 minutes.

I have never been so exhausted in my life. And the beauty of it? I have never had such a thrilling, amazing time either.

In hindsight, I realize that people who compete in an Ironman race are a different breed. People talked to one another throughout the three legs. During the bike, someone offered to stop and give me Pepto when I complained aloud about an upset stomach. People threw tubes and tires to people who needed supplies. People helped change flats, pull others up from the ground who had collapsed, check on those who seemed about to, offered spare goggles, shared food, aspirin, Bio-Freeze.

And we talked to one another, constantly. Never have I spoken to so many people in a race, including marathons with four times as many people.

I think we realized how much we had all given to be there, and how fortunate we were. And are.

The whole experience made me believe: “I belong here.”

And so that's why I will hear Mike Reilly call my name again...

The Finish

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”

After a week of illness, exhaustion, and disappointment, I am finally ready to complete my blog.

But before I publish it, I wanted to include the link that marks the end of this journey, one made possible by the support of my closest friends and family, not to mention the little girl inside of me who is tired of carrying the label of "victim".