Before I launch into my epic racing tale, I’d like to rewind for a moment. Up until January 2012 I held a deep, dark secret: I had never ridden a bicycle. I just never learned. When I asked my mom why they never bought me a bike or taught me to ride one, she just said, “Hmm…I don’t know. I guess that you never showed any interest.”
Obsessed with horses, I wanted a pony, not a bike, I’m sure, but still it’s not a legit reason not to learn. Still, I spent much of my life lying about my lack of bike riding skill, making excuses as to why I couldn’t go on rides.
“Oh, let’s walk instead. I just really like walking.”
“But, it’s eight miles away.”
“I REALLY like walking. I’ll be fine.”
Thin excuses, at best.
I had told myself that I’d learn by age 30, that I’d let my embarrassing childhood secret go on long enough. Then, life got in the way and I let another year and a half go by. And then I decided to take a class offered by REI, which began in a local marina parking lot.
After 31+ years of non-riding, I was up and pedaling within 30 minutes. All that ridiculousness for nothing!
I remember the first time I fell. I took a turn a little too sharply on my brand new hybrid bike, wobbled out of control, and went down.
…And then, the first time I tried a road bike, I ran into a sign and sprained my wrist. The following road bike attempt, I fell three times (once in front of an EMT vehicle).
In spite of all of the tumbles, I decided to take on an Ironman, where I would be spending most of the race on my bike. I joined Team in Training’s Greater L.A. Ironteam, where I knew that I would get the support that I needed to get me through the race. Still, there were many challenges along the way that I had not prepared for.
Every single morning before a bike practice found me fighting the urge to lose my breakfast, dreading the challenges of the ride ahead: the cars, the unknown routes, the real possibility of falling, the stress of climbing those hills. Still, somehow, I managed to force myself to drive to the practice location, hop on my bike, and join the team on their workout.
I remember that January morning, in Palos Verdes, where, after learning to clip into my pedals, I fell over twice within the first two miles of our 40-mile ride. As I sat there on the sidewalk, I thought, “This isn’t for me. I’m not an IronWoman. I can’t ride a bike. I can’t do this. I can’t even stay upright.”
But Coach Jason and Coach Riz didn’t let me quit. They stayed with me and helped me face my fears. Even after falling again and cutting my leg deeply on my chainring, I churned up those tough hills and gave everything in my heart out on that pavement. It was then that I realized that I had what it took to take this journey.
That stupid bike and I, we’ve had our moments. We’ve had mechanical issues, flats, body cramping, knee pain, saddle pain, and all sorts of interesting problems. In spite of these things, I kept on going. Then, just when I was getting comfortable, feeling like, YES, maybe I could do this Ironman thing, I took a hard tumble on the Pacific Coast Highway, three weeks before my race. Not only did it mess up both of my knees, but also my shoulder and neck, which suffered whiplash from hitting the ground at 16 mph.
Fast forward to race day. I had spent 8 months being nervous about making the bike cut off, and, now, I was even more afraid that, with my shoulder injury, I wouldn’t make up enough time on the swim. As I suited up for the swim wave, tears began to form, and butterflies were doing the electric boogaloo in my stomach.
My teammate, Marianthe, and I took a couple of minutes to dip into the water to the right of the swim start, just to get ourselves acclimated and calm nerves. It helped a bit to be in the water. Either way, this race was happening, so I needed to accept my fate.
Everyone says that the Vineman swim is the best swim, ever: glorious trees, warm, clear-ish water, a great current on the return, and a narrow path to keep zig-zaggers like me from swimming way too far out. I still zigged and zagged a bit, but was luckily able to realize it before I swam onto shore like some kind of beached river whale. I took it easy, slow and steady for the first loop, minding my shoulder and dodging stupid people who were standing up and running in the shallow water around the turnaround buoy. Near the end of Loop One, some dude jammed his elbow into my pinkie and ring fingers, and, for a split moment, I thought they might be broken. Luckily, they weren’t, and I was able to shake it off and keep swimming after several dozen panicked and limp strokes.
Some of the men were fairly aggressive swimming at Vineman, but, they weren’t nearly as terrible as some of the people at Wildflower. I had my feet grabbed a few times, but managed to kick the grabby hands off and swim away before they could push me or dunk me to swim over me. On the home stretch, I pushed it a little harder, and began kicking my legs to get them ready for the bike.
Coach Holly and Jason cheered enthusiastically when I popped out of the water.
“Under an hour and a half!” Holly shouted. My actual time was 1:26:40, but I wouldn’t find that out until later. Phew! I had made up enough time to give myself a head start on the bike!
Now for that stupid bike. I pushed it up the little hill out of transition, hopped on, and i was on my way. I decided to spin easy for the first hour as I wheeled along the route. However, I found that, even easy spinning felt a little tough. My bike squeaked oddly up the first several climbs, but it had been misty damp out, so I figured it was probably just the moisture getting into the works.
I trusted that I would get my cycling legs back, but things still felt quite tough. My hip and legs were feeling a little crampy, as they always did on the first 25 miles of a steadily climbing ride, but I told myself I was only going to stop once every 25 miles, and, then, only for about a minute. I stopped, stretched, regrouped, and kept on pedaling. From mile 25 to Geyserville, at about mile 35, I felt like I was crawling along at a snail’s pace. Barely topping 12 mph, 9 mph on hills, I felt nervous about my time and about what was actually going on with me, but tried to put on a brave face as I passed Coach Jason and Coach Dave near the aid station.
“Looking strong!” Dave called out.
I felt a bit stronger, holding a 15-16 mph pace until I hit the infamous Chalk Hill turn, where a series of rollers transformed into the ride’s only Category 5 climb. I saw coach Amy at the bottom, who leapt into the air when she saw me pass. As I climbed up the steep part of the hill, I saw all of our teammates names chalked on the road and heard cheers and cowbells around the bend that I knew were coming from our amazing supporters.
They cheered for me as I churned the rest of the way up that hill, my teammates Lisa, who was dressed as a unicorn, and Sheree, who was dressed as a Ninja Turtle, running up the slope with me as I reached the top. If you’ve never had people cheer for you while you’re doing something really tough, it helps, believe me. I pushed just a little bit harder as I reached the crest.
Before I knew it, I was midway through the bike. Coach Holly told me I had made it in over an hour before cut-off, meaning I had made the first bike loop in just over four hours. Things were looking good. In fact, they were looking great. Yayyy! Phew! Yayyy! The trees looked a little bit greener and more beautiful, the air felt cleaner, and the sun felt as if it was smiling on me as I coasted along the course.
I was sailing along for a while, until I again reached the rollers, and the squeaking got a bit more squeaky as I worked the pedals up a moderate climb. Finally, I stopped the bike and took a look, just to see, if maybe something had been knocked out of alignment. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, I discovered that my front brake had been rubbing the while time! At this point, I’d gone 70 miles with a rubbing brake, which, without a doubt, slowed me down and caused unnecessary fatigue, not to mention angst.
Things started moving much more quickly after that, I was hitting 17-19 mph consistently, but everything began to fall apart soon after I hit the pre-Geyserville hills again. This time, my saddle was hurting, my foot began to burn, and my legs were feeling trashed. By the time I got to Coach Jason, I started losing my composure.
“Now is not the time to fall apart,” Coach Jason stopped me as my breath began to stutter, before I erupted into sobs. “You can fall apart at the finish line, but not now.”
I sucked it up, buttercup.
He informed me that Coach Dave was waiting with his bike at the bottom of Chalk Hill. By the time I got there, my legs felt dead. I didn’t know how or if I was going to be able to negotiate these climbs.
Coach Dave was waiting for me, as promised. As we began to ascend, my climbs on the rollers began to slow to nearly 5 mph.
“Dave, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can climb Chalk Hill again.” I called to him.
“Yes, you can do this. I’ve seen you do much harder things than this!” Dave called back to me, his bicycle weaving slowly in front of me as he spoke. “Don’t let your mind win!”
I kept pedaling.
My right thigh seized midway through the climb and I had to stop just before the steep part. Dave encouraged me onward, and, somehow I made it up the hill, up to where my teammates were still cheering for me and running alongside me up the rest of the way. I’m SO incredibly grateful for those people.
I’d like to say that the last 12 miles were cake, but I stopped a bunch more to relieve the pain in my foot and saddle area, even though I knew that I needed to buy as much time as I possibly could getting in.
I’m happy to say that I did it, I made it! I got off that stupid bike and made it onto the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! Did I mention that I made it off of the bike? Yessss!
I returned about a half hour before the cut-off time, giving myself four hours to transition and run 17.5 miles before the 9 p.m. cut off preceding the last loop of the marathon.
Holly helped me run out of transition, at about a 10-min pace, but I quickly fell apart. My legs felt like jelly, my stomach was utter grossness. My body was exhausted. It was the worst feeling I’d ever experienced. I ran into the second restroom out of transition, which left me feeling a bit better for a while, but my body gave me no option but to walk, a lot–or, if I did run, I wasn’t going above an 11 min pace.
Luckily, my teammate, Bill, was out there on the run, helping me pick up the pace a bit and keeping me focused on running. We hit up to a 7-min pace on a downhill, but that quickly slowed to a 10-min pace once we hit the flat again, and then, eventually, back down to a power walk. My body felt like shutting down. I had never felt so awful in my life.
By the time I neared the 13.1 mile turnaround, I realized that I had 45 minutes to make it back 4.5 miles to meet the 9 p.m. cut off for my last loop. There was no way I was going to be able to make a 10-min pace for 4.5 miles back at that point. Coach Adam, Coach Amy, and our fundraising captain, Megan, ran with me, piping out music through their phones, singing hilariously inappropriate IronTeam marching cadences (thanks, Amy), but I knew I was doomed. At the 17.5 mile turnaround, they took my chip, and, with that, my long day was over. No finish line glory for me.
I guess that I expected to be more upset about not getting to cross the finish line after nine months of training for that one moment. For some reason, I wasn’t. Sure, it was a little bit disappointing not to be able to call myself an “IronMan”, and, sure, it stung a little bit to see my teammates cross the line and have that colorful purple and green medal hung around their necks, but, those final moments, that last lap, didn’t add up to all of the accomplishments I’d achieved over the past year of my life.
A medal, the title of “Ironman”, the “M Dot” tattoo, all of those things were all more for other people than they were for me. Those things were just trinkets, physical objects to prove that I’d completed a feat that only .01% of the population has attempted. What really mattered, what really counted, was all of the personal victories leading up to that moment.
Some of my teammates cried for me at the finish line. I guess they thought I was losing out on something. Maybe, for a brief, fleeting moment, I felt like a failure. When I realized that I’d come so far, only to be unable to finish the full race, I felt my heart sink, but, then, remembering why I was here and everything I had been fighting for, my heart filled with pride.
No one can say that I’m not a fighter. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish: I made the bike cut-off. The one thing that I feared that I couldn’t do, I did. What am I going to do, cry because I didn’t finish an Ironman? A whopping 132 miles is nothing to sniff at. Plus, if we’re really haggling, if this would have been a 17-hour “M Dot” race, I would have finished, no question.
It sounds trite when people say that it’s not about the destination, that it’s about the journey, but, in this case, it’s about every fall, every cut and scrape and bruise, every cramp, every gut-wrenching sob, every second that I felt like I couldn’t pedal another stroke. It’s about the scary downhills, and every teammate and coach who encouraged me to keep facing those fears, and never, ever to give up. It’s about the biggest lesson I’ve learned: to be forgiving of myself.
Ironman isn’t about being the fastest or the best at anything. It takes 140.6 miles of traveling to learn patience, pacing and to focus on what’s really important. It is about the small, minute by minute victories, rather than the final fanfare and glory. In the end, how can I feel anything but accomplished and successful?
The gratitude I feel after having this experience is bigger than this whole universe. And I know that I couldn’t have done it without some of the most amazing teammates and coaches a girl could ask for.
I would like to thank:
Coach Jason: For believing in me, and for scraping my carcass off of the pavement more times than I can count, for keeping me from having epic meltdowns on the bike, for being the voice of reason, always, and for genuinely caring about each and every one of us. You made me feel safe.
Coach Dave : For being the mushiest drill sergeant I know; able to fix anything, from broken bike parts to broken spirits. I don’t know what I would have done without seeing you on Chalk Hill at mile 100. I’m so grateful that you never let me give up.
Coach Amy: Because of you, I will never again curse hills without referring to a “big bag of d___ks!” Seriously, you embody perseverance, and the whole “suck it up, Buttercup!” mentality. I have seen you push to limits that would leave most 6’4″ male triathletes pale and crumpled on the side of the road. You have been an amazing inspiration and friend.
Coach Emily: We’ve come a long way since that creek ride in Culver City, where I did my best to keep my fear of careening off of the path into the ravine hidden as I struggled to keep up along the way. You’ve always been the one with the best quotes, and, most of all, you get me, in all of my abstract metaphorical dreamer logic. I always felt like, even my weirdest thoughts about this experience, you understood, and you always had great feedback. I’m so happy to have had you as a coach and to have witnessed your incredible victory at Vineman this year.
Coach Holly: Gah, ocean waves are coming! Where’s Holly? Oh, okay, she’s right there–Phew! You were an awesome guide through my first several ocean swims, where I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it out of the surf in one piece. Or on my runs, when I wasn’t sure if I could get my legs to move at my usual pace. Somehow, whenever we ran together, my legs responded and I started having fun on the run again. You helped take the “suck” out of most of my workouts.
Coach Adam: Philosophy, jokes, and an unforgettable speedo, Adam, you are the smiling face that always picked me up from dark places. We always shared our hatred of our bike nemeses, and our love of hitting the pavement on our own two legs. You kept things light with your incredible positivity and amazing spirit, and kept me going.
Coach Quinton: You helped drag my whining carcass across 80 miles of California coast. Always calm, patient, and collected, acting like hoards of traffic or monstrous ocean waves were no big deal, you always helped me keep my cool when things were a little chaotic (and, at least, when I wasn’t keeping cool and sobbing my guts out, you were just out of earshot).
Coach Pete: The guy who taught me to be proud of myself, to set my positive thought wheels in motion. While you weren’t my official coach this season, you were an amazing supporter and friend. Thanks for reminding me that triathlons can be fun.
Coach Rob: Yeah, you left us early on in the season to coach another team, but you were always around to support us during our races and on the pool deck every Tuesday. Your silliness and crazy, crazy athleticism are unforgettable. Because of you I MAY think about a 50-miler (not a 100-miler, because that’s only for complete loonies).
Coach Riz: While I was so, so sad that you weren’t going to be my coach anymore early in the season, I experienced my most life-changing moments with you, and I am SO grateful to have you as a supporter and friend, all the way to the end. You helped me to see the strength within myself. You are a natural coach, you are amazing, and I “heart” you so much!
Coach Brad: While you were never MY coach, you cheered me on, advised me and encouraged me through tough times, like Vineman training weekend, when my nutrition got the best of me. You helped to remind me to believe in myself. Even though I didn’t finish, I still believe in myself. I didn’t quit, and, going home, that feels like a win to me.
Coach Mikey: Remember when I could barely swim across the pool last year? Wow, we’ve come a long way! I never thought I would swim a 1hr26min Ironman, and that it would be EASY! I had you in my head the whole time. Every time I swim, I always think, “What would Mikey tell me to do?” We’ve looked for “sea ponies” in the ocean, and you helped me to learn to be patient with myself. You helped me to relax, have fun, and enjoy every workout. I can’t wait to get back into the pool with you guys! ❤
To my Vineman teammates (Marissa, Marianthe, Laura, Tiffany, Rona, Naomi, Beth, Amanda, Lisa, Elissa, Ben, Renee, Alex, plus Jane and Amy R-G): I thought I was going to be lonely, the only slowpoke cyclist remaining in our small team of fantastic athletes, but you all were so supportive and made me feel included, even when I wheeled in and you were all sitting around, having finished with your post-cycle run. I am so proud of all of you and am glad that I’ve made some incredible lifelong friends.
To my TNT teammates and Vineman cheer squad (Lisa, Sheree, Bill, Diallo, Mary, Trey, Tim, Raul, Pete, Lindsay, Clare, EWS, Jared, Chris & Lisa T., Matthew, Bobbi, and Megan): There is so, SO much love for the support I’ve received from all of you along the way. And for the cheerers, way to suck the “suck” right out of a Mile 100 hill, or an Ironman marathon! I’m so lucky to have you guys in my life.
To my supporters and all of you who have been following me along this journey: I couldn’t have done any of this without you. My heart is exploding with gratitude. Whether you’ve been reading my blog or requesting updates from me at work, your interest in my experience has meant an insurmountable lot to me. I value all of you and hope to have the chance to catch up and spend quality time with each and every one of you in the upcoming months.
So….what’s next? Am I going to try again? I think I’d like to. I’ve batted around the idea of doing IM Cozumel next year, which has a flat bike course and a lot of cool stuff to look at. Truthfully, though, I don’t know how I feel about doing it all over again, and without a team to support me. I don’t feel as though I need to prove anything, but it would be nice to just go on and finish what I started.
For now, I’m just going to enjoy a few weeks of recovery and then gear up for the Half Moon Bay Marathon, at the end of September. Plus, summer’s almost over and it’d be nice to maybe go and enjoy the beach for once too. 😉
Thanks again for supporting me. I will continue to write in this blog to keep people apprised of my journey as it continues on.