I. Am. An. Ironman. Part 2!

The alarm went off at 4:30am but I was already awake. Between Ellen’s influence and my fear I’d been more thorough than ever the night before about laying out everything I would need, so I stumbled through my checklists and was ready quickly.

I felt strangely numb. Maybe panic is an exhaustible resource. Scott had made me a PB, banana, and honey sandwich, and I struggled to get some of it down, but apparently the apathy that had usurped the terror also came in belly boulder form. I nibbled what I could and we met Chris in the lobby at 5:15.

The calm of transition before the (shit)storm
The calm of transition before the (shit)storm

Transition was easy – we dropped our special needs bags, pumped our tires, and dropped water and nutrition with our bikes. That was it. We hit the portas and then got on the bus to the swim start. Once there we of course hit the portas again but my apathy stone was like a sort of Imodium and gastro-wise I felt ok. (That would change.) The baño lines were bad but not terrible and once through we hoofed it to the back of the swim start line.

Which was long. Chris and I hadn’t realized how early people apparently queue for these rolling swim starts. I’ve fessed up before about my preference for the back of the pack in the water despite really being middle of the pack in terms of swim pace. (Except when I’m the only one who doesn’t wear a wetsuit.)

(Oh! Wetsuits! The water was 82 degrees – so four-for-four on not wearing a wetsuit this summer. Even after buying a new sleeveless one from Roka. Next season I’m committing to hitting some chillier bodies of water.)

Way in the back of the line.
Way in the back of the line.

Anywhosie, we wound up way further in the back than even I would have preferred. Some people had gotten friends to hold their spots in line while they porta-pottied it so maybe next time I’ll Task Rabbit it. (I’m obviously kidding [Am I?]) At 7:20 we heard the muffled sound of the cannon sending the pro field on their way. No backing out now. (Or at least it would be very difficult to.)

How I felt about standing up and starting the march to the swim and the official start of this thing.
How I felt about standing up and starting the march to the swim and the official start of this thing.

We quickly began the long-but-not-long-enough shuffle forward. As we marched toward the moment of truth I forced a Gu down and chased it with some water. We were moving so swiftly the numb had no time to morph back to panic. We were also so speedy that I ended up having to strip out of my sweatshirt and flip-flops awkwardly on the move. I threw them toward Scott as Chris and I were funneled toward the ramp and waiting dock.

My endlessly good husband scrambled to scoop my things while snapping pics. Chris and I hugged and wished each other good luck and said goodbye for what would be thirteen hours.

The Swim

As we approached the dock I saw why the swim line had moved so fast. Rather than lining people up and sending a set number off every few seconds, people were just walking down and jumping in. As soon as you jumped off the dock your and your timing-chip-strapped ankle passed the sensor your race began. Every person would have 16 hours and 15 minutes to complete the next 144.6 miles. And given the forecast we all kinda knew this swim would be the best part of our day.

About to jump in! We're really doing this (stupid) thing!
About to jump in! We’re really doing this (stupid) thing!

Part of the allure of IMChoo over other courses was the swim. Point-to-point and with the current the whole way it is one of the fastest swims in the Ironman race repertoire. The water was 82 degrees so despite the pre-dawn nip in the air it was warm once we jumped in. We were at the end of the line but the few hundred people who had opted to still wear their wetsuits were behind us – I had no doubt they’d be miserable.

Josh’s charge to me had been to take the first 100-200m a little aggressively to quickly find some room for myself. I followed his instructions, for the first time really confident in my ability to push the swim a little and still fall back into a comfortable pace. My swim has not gotten any faster this season – at 4’10” with T-Rex arms I may just not be built for this discipline – but I am noticeably stronger and more confident. I stepped on the gas to the first buoy and then settled into a comfortable stroke stroke breath routine.

I was happy and calm and stayed that way the whole swim. I’d started unintentionally far back and so was able to pass a good number of men and women as I went. This was a welcome confidence boost though I knew it was somewhat artificial given most of the race had beaten me into the water.

In the last third we passed under a series of bridges. I couldn’t believe how quickly and comfortably I’d gotten there. I started playing with the stroke stroke breath and sighting rhythm to challenge the monotony of swimming that long which helped keep my head in the game. I also did something I never do in a race and focused on my form – on really reaching for each stroke and letting my body rotate with each pull – almost as if I were working a catch-up drill. It felt great and as we passed under the last bridge and the end of the first leg was in view, the apprehension from Saturday had completely dissipated. This was going so well! I’d worked my ass off for this and I was prepared!

The exit was the only really crowded bit of the swim. The large mass of athletes had to narrow quite a bit to fit up the stairs and out of the water. People started swimming over me and as a miniature person I opted to just stand down rather than combat the aggression with more. Didn’t seem worth the minute or two I’d save by not backing off the exit to sustain a black eye or, ya know, drown.

There were rows of amazing volunteers thigh-deep in water pulling athletes up the stairs onto dry land. I was a little heady from over an hour in the water in cranium-squeezing goggles and swim cap so I let them fish me out and accepted the help in getting on my way.

Then it was up a shockingly steep ramp and into transition. Most people were walking but I’ve learned to use my run strength anywhere I can so I charged ahead picking off the walkers. I ran down the T1 shoot, grabbed my bike bag, and headed into the women’s tent.

I’d never experienced an IM changing tent – what a place! It was busy and volunteers were hustling all over trying to help who they could, but there were far more athletes than help at this point. I had swam in my bike shorts and sports bra, so I just had to dry myself a bit and pull my tri top, shoes, and socks on. After being unable to eat much earlier I was finally hungry – and had felt that hunger at various points of the swim –  so I sucked down a gu and some shot bloks as well as a good chunk of water before I headed out to find Koopa Troop. Miracle of miracles I had managed to pee three times while swimming so no bathroom break needed before hitting the saddle!

The Bike

I mounted feeling confident and not overwhelmed by the 116 bike miles that lay ahead of me. It was about 9:15am and still felt nice out as I casually rode the 11 mile stem out of town to the first of two 45 mile lollipop loops through north Georgia.

Loop one. Before it went to shit(storm)
Loop one. Before it went to shit(storm)

The first ten miles of the loop were home to the toughest hills. I heeded Josh’s race plan and focused on staying calm, not pushing too hard, and making it all about heart rate rather than speed. It worked great and I felt really good. I was actively holding back and my heart rate responded by living in the low 130s – right on target.

Around mile 24 we turned off this part of the loop onto Cove Rd and I was in awe of how good I felt and how quickly the miles were ticking by. Josh had helped me visualize the course in sections and I was already on the third section! I knew exactly what was coming on the course and I had just taken down the most challenging stretch with little exertion or fanfare!

Once on Cove Rd. I first made sure to eat another gu and shot blok and I had almost drained the bottle of Hammer Heed that was nestled between my aero bars. My nutrition plan was on track, the weather was still behaving, and my energy was high. I remembered Ellen’s advice to eat whenever you experienced feelings on the bike. I joked to myself, ‘does that count when you feel happy?’ God I was being a naive little asshole.

Feeling on top of my game I settled down onto my aeros, shifted into my biggest rings – front and back – and effortlessly rolled through the next ten miles. I continued to honor Josh’s admonition to hold back on the first loop and still managed to pass a good number of people. Chris flew by me looking strong around mile twenty and I was so pumped to see him crushing it. I waved him on and enjoyed the scenery and reflected on the fact that I was finally doing the thing I’d worked for so long to do.

The last half mile or so on Cove is a long descent followed by a very sharp almost-180 onto the antebellum appointed Hog Jowl Rd. I knew from reading race reports and from driving the course that I shouldn’t let myself fly down this hill too fast as that turn had the potential to wipe out anyone who got too speed-happy. I hate charging downhill anyway so I happily rode the brake and easily flipped the bitch onto Hog Jowl.

The Hog Jowl stretch is one of the prettiest places I've gotten to race!
The Hog Jowl stretch is one of the prettiest places I’ve gotten to race!

Despite the name I think the winding stretch along Hog Jowl is the prettiest part of the course. There are a few punchy hills but overall you get to ditch some of the elevation that’s been built up for almost forty miles. And there are ponies everywhere!

Shortly after turning onto this bit I pulled over in the driveway of a beautiful old farm and refilled my aero bottle with water. My handling skills aren’t great and it was easier and faster to just stop and take a minute to change the bottles out. I ate another gu and got back on my way, giving myself a mandate to finish that bottle of water by the time I got to special needs in 18 miles.

At this point the sun started to heat up and I noticed my heart rate beginning to creep higher despite my efforts to hold back and conserve energy. As the day warmed my body was working harder than I realized and even though I’d adhered thus far to my nutrition plan, by the time I rolled into special needs at mile 53 I was starving and in need of a few minutes break. And I was getting the first hints of gastro-rebellion as my stomach demanded real food and no more of the planned (and packed) gus and Heed.

Other competitors were showing signs of the same wear and tear, and special needs was a cluster of flustered volunteers trying to help a flood of more exhausted-than-expected athletes. Everything in my bag had already started to melt and I dug into my very messy PB&J hoping it was satiate my cranky stomach before things got worse. I ate most of the sandwich, half a honey stinger waffle, and a few bites of a Clif bar which I then shoved into my pocket. I swapped out my empty water bottles and gus for fresh ones and realized I was actually craving gatorade. The volunteer woman who had so patiently helped me – just holding my bag open next to me as I wolfed down my sticky haul of calories – assured me there was an aid station a few miles up the road where I could get an ice cold gatorade, and that my bag would be waiting for me here when I returned on the second loop.

I’d been thrown by how hungry and fatigued I felt coming into special needs, but I felt better as I pulled back out: just a few more minutes up the road I would stop for gatorade and a porta potty, and so soon I would be on the second loop! Yes I was getting tired but I was also halfway there so that was to be expected! Wasn’t it? Plus as I clipped back in and onto the course I saw that I’d been biking for 3:06 – and that included a few minutes at special needs and my earlier water bottle pit stop AND I’d been holding back the whole first loop. I was almost halfway and right on track to do around 6:30 on the bike.

I tried to take it easy the few miles between special needs and that next aid station so that my body could digest the influx of calories. Once there I happily got my hands on the cold gatorade I’d been dreaming about and filled my aero bottle with the liquid gold (orange.) There was a long line for the porta potties though and I didn’t have to go too bad so I decided to hold it to the next station.

I pulled back into traffic, made the left to start my second loop, and suddenly the day changed. Somehow the sun had emerged into full potency within a matter of minutes. After a mild-seeming morning it was instantly 100 degrees. As I pulled back onto the hilly first ten miles of the lollipop loop, I could feel the heat coming off the pavement at the same time I could feel it boring a solar hole into my exposed neck and shoulders.

Loop two immediately like riding on the surface of the sun.
Loop two immediately like riding on the surface of the sun.

Now the hills that had felt like nothing the first time around were spiking my heart rate no matter how much I slowed down. It was so hot and so uncomfortable. And there was now a headwind blowing north forcing us to work that much harder. I slowed down further and shifted into smaller and smaller rings on each incline but my heart rate wouldn’t come back down to the happy 130s of yesterloop.

I started to get angry. I hate wind so much. And why was it so hot? And why was this so hard? Oh no! I thought. Feelings! I remembered Ellen’s advice to eat those feelings but thought, how could that possibly be the issue right now? I just ate so much like twenty minutes ago and couldn’t possible have digested it all! Maybe I was just legitimately angry because this legitimately sucked. I mean, who can possibly not be angry with hot wind blowing in your face like this? I decided to compromise by downinng extra gatorade and promising Ellen’s voice in my head that I would eat something as soon as I turned onto Cove Rd.

My beloved Cove Rd! I fantasized about how great it had been on loop one and told myself everything would be ok again as soon as I got back there. It seemed to take forever, especially compared with my first lap, but finally I made that left, anxious for things to improve. I turned expectantly and rather than nirvana, I was met immediately by a headwind even stronger and more awful than the previous ten miles. Yes the kicker ascents smoothed out into easier rollers but as the terrain eased the wind and the sun both increased. And with the sun directly overhead now, the stretch of course that had been protected by large swaths of shade the first go-round was nothing but totally exposed blacktop. My heartrate was now in the perma-150s and I couldn’t budge it any lower. I also couldn’t imagine how I’d ridden this bit off my big rings the first time through – I was shifting lower and lower now and just trying to hang on to a decent cadence.

As promised I had eaten once I turned onto Cove, but I found that when I reached for a gu I just couldn’t. My stomach was turning on me and my high-density sugar snacks. Instead I munched on my Clif Bar praying the grains would soak up some of the angry in my belly. I was feeling intermittently like I would have to pull over and throw up – I wouldn’t have been the only one…

Around mile 73 there was an aid station and I stopped. The bathroom situation had grown more dire, and I was desperate to get out of the sun for just a minute. I pulled over and paused a moment to take stock of my surroundings. I began to appreciate how dangerous the day was becoming.

It seemed every one of my fellow cyclists had also pulled over. People were unclipping and collapsing. Bikes and athletes were lying everywhere under the trees. Volunteers were rushing around to tend to everyone. A woman next to me was crying and telling a volunteer that she didn’t think she could keep going. I was grossly comforted to learn I wasn’t the only one struggling, but I didn’t want to dwell in this blackhole of willpower so I swapped out my water bottles, ran into a  mercifully line-free porta potty and got back on my way.

I felt slightly revived, though the renewal didn’t last long. Pretty soon I was approaching the worst hill on the course. Before the long descent onto Hog Jowl there is an even longer grinder of an ascent. It had been the hardest part of lap one and I was doing all I could to not let my psyche spiral out before this second go at it. On top of the climb, the wind had grown in strength with the sun as we’d continued down Cove. I was afraid I would run out of rings between the wind and the elevation but I battled the bad thoughts by telling myself that this would be the worst part of the ride and it would be over soon.


That bittersweet affirmation worked and I was able to buckle and shift down and just get it done. Many others were less fortunate or gullible and simply unclipped and dismounted before even beginning to climb. I felt terrible for these folks, knowing how much I was hurting and that they must be hurting even worse. But I shook it off, put on my mental and physical blinders and just focused on tortoise-ing my way to the top. It worked and eventually I was cresting the worst climb of the day and heading back down the other side. I rode the brake even more than lap one to give myself extra time to coast and to coax my heart rate down. I was relieved to be done with Cove Rd. for good but couldn’t muster the energy to be excited about Hog Jowl. Resignedly I thought, well maybe the head wind will actually go away now but couldn’t get it up much more.

Fortunately the wind did stop working against us so much once on Hog Jowl, and even more fortunately there were the ponies again. I didn’t even care how weird I sounded, I greeted each of them outloud as I passed. And I tried to really take in the scenery to appreciate how objectively lovely it was. Anything to distract myself.

It worked for a little while but after a few miles I had to admit the bad physical shape I was in. The wind was gone but the sun was getting worse (I didn’t think it could get worse but I was wrong!) and I felt pretty out of it. My heart rate was a lost cause, and I was both starving and nauseous – an awful combination. I managed to get in one more gu and shot blok before my stomach closed up shop to that fake-food-race-fuel for good. I wanted to eat more but I could tell if I was skating a very fine line between calories in and calories right dafuq back out. I knew this from my own growing nausea and from the many people I saw pulling over to lose their lunch all over the side of the road.

I’d though that Cove Road aid station was scary but it was nothing compared to the seventh circle of hell that was Hog Jowl lap two. Athletes lying everywhere. Pulling off the road and just collapsing. Ambulances flew by in both directions at (all-too) regular intervals. The people around me who were still upright on their bikes were in rough condition and it seemed like any one of us could be the next to heatstroke out. I focused on drinking lots of water, popping salt tabs, and getting back to special needs when I would have more non-gu food available. I just had to get to mile 98 and I could finish that sandwich and grab another Clif Bar.

I let myself slow even further to a pace that would have been embarrassing under any other conditions and eventually I was riding back into Chickamauga. I knew I was just about at special needs! I rolled through the town grateful for the spectators out cheering (even they too looked like uncomfortable, disheveled puddles) and waited for the oasis that was coming.

It never came. They had packed it up and left by the time I rolled back through would-be special needs on lap two. I was devastated and my mind and body deteriorated rapidly. I told myself desperately that I just had to get a couple more miles to that next aid station. They would have gatorade! Which sounded terrible. And bananas. The thought of which became my guiding light north star. Even though what I really wanted was an orange. (My probably-losing-it mantra became, “My kingdom for an orange!”)

As I had gotten hungrier I’d also been feeling increasingly ill. And my heart rate had continued to climb. I figured there was no way my body was actually digesting the food I’d put in with how hard it was working against my tachycardic efforts. There was a long descent before the next aid station and I hoped that maybe it would give me a chance to get my heart rate under control which would hopefully get the pile of calories sitting uncomfortably unabsorbed in my stomach moving. Right before that descent I pulled over for a few minutes to give myself a little extra digestion cushion.

As I unclipped and my feet hit the pavement, I realized how dizzy and sick I was. I’d known I was in bad shape but couldn’t fully assess while I was moving. Now, standing on the side of the road the full force of my condition became clear (well I was very fuzzy) and I wondered very seriously if I should stop. In this barely-hanging-on state I knew I was susceptible to falling, to literally just passing out off my bike. The thought of dropping out broke my heart though. (Probably not hard to break i its hummingbird state.) I’d wanted this for so long. (To finish – not this pain -all evidence to the contrary I’m not this masochistic.) I didn’t know when I would be able to train for a full next – I really didn’t want to put my husband (ok, or myself) through this again in 2017.

So determined to get this done. (And not have to train again in 2017.)
So determined to get this done. (And not have to train again in 2017.)

Luckily I’d pulled over in a shady spot and a few minutes of just standing, hydrating, and breathing helped clear my head enough that I was pretty sure I could make the next aid station. I waited for a break in the very slow-moving bike traffic and remounted. Within a hundred feet I was coasting down the long descent and I again rode the brake stretching out the exertion-free time. I felt more with it when I pulled into that aid station around mile 104 and after refilling my aero bottle with gatorade and choking down a banana I decided I could carry on the 12 miles back to transition.

Within a few minutes I was hooking a right away from the lollipop loops and onto the straightaway back to town. I felt really mixed emotions. I was pretty sure I’d be able to finish the bike at this point, but I couldn’t imagine running a marathon. I was so happy to be working my way down through single digit mileage but this part of the highway was long and exposed. The heat was shocking and I couldn’t get comfortable. I could only ride in aero for a few minutes because my neck hurt and it made me feel dizzier. Again I just let myself glide home at a very reserved pace despite the mostly flat terrain.

Finally, on the verge of tears I was back downtown and coming around the bend to transition. As I rode up to the dismount line I saw Scott and my mom. It was an instant adrenaline kick. Then I heard my dad running up ahead through the crowd with his camera  shouting for me.

Happy tears to see T2 and my family.
Happy tears to see T2 and my family.

I don’t know if my family had any idea how bad it had been out on the course, I wondered how much news spectators were getting about the carnage, the people passing out and dropping out, the terrified volunteers trying to hold on. I tried not to betray how rough I felt as I swung myself out of the saddle and handed Koopa off to a volunteer. I was both happy to see Koopa go and incredibly grateful to that little Cervelo for getting me through. I always anthropomorphize my bikes (and car) but I think I projected extra life into him in that moment.

As I made my way into the changing tent I was handed a glorious cup of ice. Between that, the respite from the sun, and the giant fans in front of which I found a seat, I felt better quickly and the marathon ahead of me didn’t seem so terrible. In the end my bike time had been 7:28, so my sub-12 goal was already gone and my sub-13 was also floating away out of my reach. Fuck it I thought as I refocused my sights on just finishing. I decided to take my sweet time in transition to get my heart rate under as much control as possible.

With the help of another patient volunteer I changed my socks and sports bra, got my shoes, hat, sunglasses, and race belt all comfortably affixed, and crunched on some pretzels. The volunteer told me that the bike course had been 97 degrees with a heat index of 105. I felt validated by this information – I had been sure we were in the triple digits – no wonder it had been so hard.

Coming out of T2 way too hot...
Coming out of T2 way too hot…

By the time I exited T2 (almost 11 minutes after entering it) I couldn’t believe how much better I felt. Everyone was walking out of transition but I jogged out feeling strong and finally able to feel good about being done with the swim and bike and onto my strongest discipline.

The Run

I saw Scott and my parents again, and my parents’ dog Lasso who’d made the trip from Atlanta, which was another boost as I set out on the marathon. Spectators yelled for me as I was just about the only one running and I couldn’t believe everyone around me was walking. Wow, I thought. I’ve totally got this!

Dumbass running by everyone walking.
Dumbass running by everyone walking.

Then I hit the first of many hills and instantly my heart rate was in the 170s. Just as instantly I regretted my cocky run out of transition. Those people walking around me had been on to something. And like always, had probably understood the elevation chart better than I. Watching those numbers get higher I felt like I should slow and at least walk up the hill, but there were so many spectators right there and they were all cheering for me for running so I didn’t want to let them down. Once I crested that beast and jogged a few more meters away from my fans I slowed it down to a walk to urge my BPM back to something survivable.

Oooooh they're walking because it's hilly and a billion degrees and you're an idiot.
Oooooh they’re walking because it’s hilly and a billion degrees and you’re an idiot.

I decided to try alternating a slow jog till my numbers got too high and then walking. But in a flashback to Nations Tri 2013, I could only run about 20 seconds before I was back over 170 and had to walk. So I scrapped that plan and decided to time it instead: three minutes running (jogging) and one to two walking. And I tried to run in the few places there was shade, though they were few and far between for the first (of two) loops.

My run-walk approach was uncomfortable but functional for a few miles, but with no relief from the still triple digit heat index my GI issues came back in no time. I’d felt so revived after a few minutes in the transition tent but apparently the fuel I’d tried to take in on the bike still hadn’t digested. This may be fouler than my constant porta potty talk but my stomach was sloshing and gurgling, and every few steps carried beat a deep-seated nausea further into my gut.

And speaking of porta potties! There were a few at every aid station, i.e. every mile. Which reminded me I hadn’t gone in a while. Like, over five hours a while. Despite all the fluids and calories I’d been taking in, nothing had come out (besides being the sweatiest I’d ever been) in way too long. So I tried stopping at one of the johns. If nothing else sitting down out of the sun for a moment sounded good.

And that’s all it ended up being. Closing in on six hours without bathrooming and my bladder was empty. So I’d probably sweated out all that water and gatorade and heed, and as for the solid calories, they were definitely sitting undigested and radiating nausea through my overburdened belly. Reluctantly I gave up on the brief refuge of the porta potty and headed back out to walk/jog. I made a point to take a cup of ice and a cup of water at each aid station, and tried nibbling some bananas and oranges too – happy to at least see some real food after my body had rejected gus on the bike. I did also dip my toes back in the supplement water with a shot blok, which I chewed twice and immediately spit up. Prit-ty smoooth.

So much pain.
So much pain.

So the miles walk-jog-dragged on. But they were ticking down until around eight when my right knee – one of my few leg joints that hasn’t caused me issues previously – began aching. After everything the day had thrown at me this mystery pain really upset me. I’ve been injury and mostly pain-free this season. And I earned this healthy season dammit! I tried to ignore it that every footfall ached a little more and was successful in my denial for a while. Miles ten through thirteen, as I shoved all the discomfort and potential damage I was doing to myself to the back of my peabrain were some of my best (least embarrassing) of the marathon.

Those miles took place on the north side of the river from downtown and were chock full of steep hills. I walked the uphills and ran the downhills which definitely made things worse on my knee but the strategy did give me a chance to bring my heart rate back to earth.

I managed to jog the whole last mile to the halfway point and special needs stop where volunteers were quick with my bag. I’d changed my socks after the bike but I’d been dousing myself in water and ice at every aid station for thirteen miles and my feet were soaked. I was so excited to change into dry socks again and to sit for a minute.

Big mistake. The socks were not a mistake – they were heaven-sent. (Or previous-night-check-list-making-with-Ellen-sent) and I sadly-but-gratefully offered my first-half socks up as a sacrifice to the (apparently-dickish) Mdot gods. (You don’t get the things you leave in your special needs bag back after, so the socks I changed out of were goners.) Jesus with the rambling; the mistake was sitting down.  As soon as I did my knee threw in the towel. When I stood back up in my delicious dry swiftwicks, my right knee screamed in opposition.

Shit. I knew it was bad. I couldn’t just banish this pain to the back of my mind and run through it. This pain was loud and angry. There were spectators everywhere cheering athletes onto the second loop of the run, and I tried to jog to please them and show my appreciation, but after a few steps I had to stop and just walk.

And so I walked. And the walking was slow and dull and gave me no distraction from the fact that my stomach was still in agony, I was dizzy from the GI issues and heat that had barely abated despite the approaching sunset. I hadn’t peed in seven hours, and 13 miles remained between me and the finish line. I started doing the math of how slow I could go and still finish in the 16 hours and 15 minutes I was allowed. I realized I could walk the whole thing at around 18 minutes a mile and still get it done, but six more hours out there on my feet sounded like a torture I wasn’t sure I could endure.

I walked miles thirteen through sixteen. No jogging at all. Just walking. I tried to shuffle quickly and keep my pace around 17 min/mile but my knee screamed the whole time. Finally I stopped at an aid station to seek medical help and I experienced an unwelcome epiphany like when I had stopped on the bike: oh wow. I’m in really bad shape! I was dizzy and heady, and wasn’t sure  I could seek out a medical volunteer without slurring my words. I didn’t want to get pulled from the course at this point – if I quit it would be my decision-not some official – so I dug deep and concentrated hard as I asked whether there was Advil or KT tape around.

I was kindly directed to the last tent at the aid station where a woman after whom I’d name my first-born if I could remember her name offered me the desired painkiller, “but no more than three because your kidneys are already struggling!” She then had a helluva time taping me because I was so sweaty and salty – it took several attempts to get any adhesive to stick – but she was dogged about getting me to the finish line and eventually devised a wrap-around system that seemed to hold.

As I got back on the course I worried because the pitstop had taken at least five minutes – jeopardizing my ability to walk the next ten miles and still finish. But strangely the act of focusing on someone and having to make words had helped revive me, and I felt a little more chipper as I got back to race-walking home. And at this point the sun had almost set all the way. Being rid of that beastly fire-torture orb was a major boost.

Within a minute of my KT-tape-Advil revival I was set upon by a guy from the salt tab tent. He was apparently a DC Tri guy and started naming names of teammates to prove his legitimacy before handing me a plastic water bottle filled with some sort of pink and slightly-fizzy drink. Having named a bunch of people I know and look up to, he said that they swore by the stuff, that it was full of amino acids and other things? I dunno, maybe I wasn’t as revived as I’d thought. I tried to explain to him that my knee was the issue, not my nutrition, but realized that no, my nutrition was a dire mess too. So I took the bottle and thanked him.

I took a cautious sip and that ish was salty and strong. Eek. Maybe a bad idea but I took another sip and kept walking. And within less than two minutes, my stomach shifted noticeably. What in the hayyyle. I tippled again a little bigger swig and again my stomach started to move – this time to the point I worried I might not make the next porta in time!

I can’t call the way the contents of my stomach were suddenly on the move comfortable, but after hours of no digestion or signs of life of any kind, I welcomed this development. And with the tape for support around my knee, within a few minutes of leaving that aid station and after several miles of walking, I felt strong enough to jog again.

Very slowly I picked up my feet, and my knee hurt but it held out. And my stomach gurgled precipitously, but it held too. And so I jogged all the way to the next aid station, by which point my stomach was on the mend to the point I actually felt ready to put some new calories in. I took my ice and water, but also a cup of chicken broth, and for the first time in over eight hours, something tasted good. The broth was warm and salty and I swear I almost cried when I tasted it and didn’t immediately wretch. I considered a second cup but didn’t want to push it. I walked through the aid station, took another sip from my mysterious pink magic water bottle, and got back to my jog.

By mile 19 the Advil seemed to have kicked in – or maybe it was a placebo effect or maybe it was the tape, or the adrenaline of getting closer to the finish. I’d begun averaging ten and 11 minute miles and was elated to do so, (how the speedy had fallen) and with the NSAID on my side I was able to drop into the 9s in places. I was so far back in the field and people were in such rough shape that just holding a 9:45 for a little while took me flying past dozens of people – even the other folks who were still maintaining a jog.

Everyone I passed shouted encouragement. Exhausted, emotionally fatigued, physically destroyed, and triathletes still muster positive words and energy for their fellow athletes. It meant so much, I definitely got a little teary eyed absorbing their well-wishes and echoed them right back.

As my race improved some I wondered about Chris. He had passed me looking strong around mile 20 on the bike. As my day disintegrated I hoped he was having a better go of it – especially because (and I hate to admit this) I got him into this mess. Halfway between miles 20 and 21 the route heads back over the bridge into north Chattanooga. I was feeling “good” on the bridge when I approached someone walking in a DC Tri Club kit. Oh no. It was him. I slowed to a walk by his side and all we could do was laugh at how awful a day it had been. It had been so hard and not the day either of us had hoped for, but at least we were able to laugh at it – even with five miles to go.

At the mile 21 marker I convinced Chris to jog with me just to the next aid station which was up a steep incline maybe .2 miles away. He was a great sport and dug deep to join me in a run. At the aid station we each had cups of broth – we’d both found much needed digestive relief in the warm salty goodness. I offered him some of my pink magic mystery drink and he laughed as that DC Tri guy had also offered Chris a bottle – he was sherping our whole team from that aid station apparently. Chris had turned him down but now sipped a little as I extolled its virtues in bringing me back to life.

We walked up the longest, steepest hill of the run together. When we got to the top Chris told me to run ahead, that he’d be ok and wasn’t worried about finishing. I’d been on a roll – my first of the day – so I hugged him goodbye like I’d done so many hours earlier when we jumped into the river for the swim. ( Back before we knew what would be waiting for us on the hot dry land.) I ran down the backside of the big hill we’d just walked up and settled into a pace around ten minutes a mile.

For the last few miles I just focused on staying the course – not pushing too hard but working to maintain a steady jog. I still walked through the aid stations – and around mile 23 I successfully used a porta potty! I’d only drank maybe a fifth of the mystery bottle but whatever was in there was effective in small doses! I considered keeping the bottle with me to try and reverse engineer its contents later – but then I remembered that I’m completely incapable of such a feat of culinary chemistry. It had done its job and I didn’t want to carry anything anymore so at the aid station around mile 24 I tossed it. I threw back one more broth and ice water and buckled down for the last push.

It was almost 10pm on a Sunday but there were people lining the streets throwing parties in their front yards cheering for the athletes. These Chattanoogans were everything. I hope the people of that city realize how appreciated their encouragement and support was by everyone still slogging up and down those hills. As I was one of the few competitors still trying to run I got extra love from the revelers and I just smiled and tried to shout thank yous where I could.

I had to get back up and down that big hill before I’d get to run back over the bridge and home. At this point I was so close, so even though every single person was walking the hill, I picked up my feet and ran up. “Ran” up. It counted though! I told myself this running thing is supposed to be where I shine. Where I redeem myself. And I’ve never shied away from hills before, so with two miles left and 142 already done why not just run. Or “run.”

Yes with two miles to go I realized I’d already gone more miles than most Ironman races call for in total. I kind of already was an Ironman! I expected to be mad at the race organizers at that point but I was too close to the finish to be anything but ecstatic. I got up and down the last big hill, ran the few blocks to the bridge, and joyfully swung that left back across the Tennessee River.

People lined the bridge cheering and celebrating and my head was on a swivel as I tried to take it all in. These last few minutes were what I’d been dreaming about for months and years. As I got halfway over the river I could see and hear the finish line festivities. I could hear Mike Reilly calling people’s names. It became hard to catch my breath as the confidence of ‘yes, you really are going to finish’ took over my whole body.

Running off the bridge I had half a mile to go. (144 already down!) I picked up the pace – I couldn’t manage a sprint but I grabbed a nine minute mile and compared with the previous 25 miles of walk-running I felt like I was flying.

While training and preparing I hadn’t known what to expect in the last bit of the race. I’d seen the videos of people crawling in and a big part of me expected to be in equally terrible shape after a day of performing hard. Instead I’d crawled through most of the day and this was the best I’d felt in over ten hours!

Finally knowing that this is actually going to happen.
Finally knowing that this is actually going to happen.

I ran past a few people, but even those in the worst shape were wringing it out of their bodies to jog down the last stretch.  We cheered for each other. One woman I ran by called out, ‘We’re really doing this! We’re going to be Ironmen!’ She was limping but getting it done, and she was crying but it was (at least mostly) not in pain.

Coming around the final turn I could see the chute. There were so many people. It was overwhelming. I thought about all the hours I’d spent in the saddle, the mornings and nights in the pool, the miles on my feet, that had gotten me here. Every time I’d cursed my alarm, every bad ride or run when I’d wanted to give up and just enjoy my weekends, all the months of feeling totally exhausted: this moment was what it was all about. Wanting this had gotten me through all of that. And now I was here.

I drank it all in and smiled and let the tears roll down my cheeks as I pushed forward. To my left someone was calling my name. My parents! They were cheering and yelling for me and I was so proud and grateful to have them there. (At a much later hour than I’d originally told them to expect me!)

A few seconds past my parents I saw Scott jumping and cheering. He tried to snap some pictures and then ran ahead to get some more. I smiled and waved and cried and kept going.

All the feels!
All the feels!

Soon I was on the black carpet a few meters from the end. I smiled the biggest smile of my life. I owned the tears. And I heard Mike Reilly say those most beautiful words: Elizabeth Westbrook: You. Are. An. Ironman!

Can you tell that I'm crying?
Can you tell that I’m crying?


Worth it all! (I swear!)
Worth it all! (I swear!)

Passing under the arch I slowed to a walk and happy-ugly cried while a volunteer put my medal over my head. I was immediately swarmed by other concerned volunteers who asked whether I was ok, needed medical or an IV or anything else. The volunteers are always incredible but this batch had had a really hard go of it for this race. After hours of people dropping like flies (or like ants on the bad end of a sadistic kid with a magnifying glass) they were on edge and being extra cautious. I took stock of my condition and told them, no, I was actually (somehow) ok. They gave me my finisher’s shirt and hat, some water, and I found my way out of throng to locate my parents and husband.

I was absolutely disgusting – the grossest I’d ever been – but they all hugged me enthusiastically. Then Scott proved once again why he’s the greatest race-spouse of all time when he produced clean clothes and flip flops from his backpack – even though I’d forgotten to ask him to bring me fresh clothes. I managed an awkward change in a porta potty (and successfully bathroomed again!) and rejoined my people.

Sadly my parents had to get on the road pretty quickly – it was after 10pm and they had a two hour drive back to Atlanta with one dog to get home to the other two. We hugged goodbye and I tried (probably failed) to tell them how much it meant that they were there.

A few minutes later Chris finished the race and Scott and I went to find him. We had both gotten it done. In some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. We learned the next day that the DNS/DNF rate was 40% – second highest in the history of all Ironman races. I’d had so many moments during the race where I wanted to quit and thought I should quit, and questioned my preparedness. Knowing it was a bad day for everyone I was sad for all who didn’t get to finish, but vindicated that my training had in fact been everything I needed.

My overall time was 14:26:56. Two and half hours slower than my sub-12 goal but zero disappointment here. It just means I’ve got something to work for next time. Yes, I said it. Next time. (Just not next year. And not below the Mason Dixon Line.)

Look at all the stupid stuff I did in terrible, dangerous conditions to get this shiny medal!
Look at all the stupid stuff I did in terrible, dangerous conditions to get this small piece of hardware! And I could not possibly show more teeth in this picture – smiling so big it’s a little off-putting!
Full body shot because my legs got this thing done!
Full body shot because my legs got this thing done! (Plus you gotta see the flimsy, pealing KT tape that got me through the marathon!)



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