2017 Ironman Maastricht Race Recap

Learning to Tri

(Yes, that’s a metaphor)

HOW IT STARTED:

I ran the 2016 Amsterdam Marathon with this super cool chic named Stephanie; better known around social media as RunTriMom. She’s a spunky bundle of energy who is beyond inspiring in so many ways! She speaks her mind freely, is deeply grounded in a spiritual practice, mothers her two boys with a humble heart, runs her own small business with integrity, and lives life with pure passion.  When we met for lunch prior to the race we gabbed about all things and of course the topic of triathlons came up. She asked if I would ever do one. I replied “Oh heck no! But I hold deep respect for triathletes”. Which is absolutely true despite that there seems to be some silly unspoken feud between ultrarunners and triathletes over which sport is harder…but don’t worry. I’ll address that can of worms in a separate post.

About a month later hubby and I went to Maastricht to celebrate our 16th anniversary. We did a 50 mile bike ride (total leisure pace) into Aachen Germany just for fun. I texted Stephanie to tell her about my bike ride and told her how much I loved it. Her reply “Girl, you need to do a tri!.” “Uhhh, but I can’t swim worth shit”. “Neither could I when I first started doing Tris.” Huh? That really surprised me. I assumed all triathletes were swimmers? I kept replaying this conversation in my head.

Right around that same time the Arizona Ironman was happening. I knew a few people doing it including two friends attempting their first Ironman. I was soooo thrilled when they both finished. In fact I was so inspired, I immediately went on the Ironman website and super spontaneously registered for the 2017 Ironman Maastricht. I didn’t read any of the information. I literally just clicked on register, filled out the details, and paid the steep entry fee. I didn’t own a race bike. I didn’t know how to swim. I didn’t even own a bathing suit (that’s how much I disliked swimming, lol). Truthfully I didn’t even really know the actual distances involved in each sport. I just knew I was super curious about this whole Ironman thing. Ultimately it stemmed from a desire to challenge myself in a new and different way, and this was my resolve; to cross the finish line of an Ironman.

When hubby woke up that morning I was like “So yeah…I kind of registered for an Ironman”. He’s well experienced in my decision making process, which includes two extremes: 1. Flounder in indecisiveness for prolonged periods of time or 2. Impulsively do random shit. Obviously this was an example of the latter. He more or less replied “Oh Cool. When is it?” Gosh, do I ever adore him!

Next step: Develop a Rookie Training Plan.

RUNNING:

Before I could even really begin intentional Ironman training I needed to get through some of the other events I had planned for earlier in the year. Two biggies that I focused on were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in January and Legends Trail 250k in March. Once I completed both those, Ironman Maastricht had my full attention. A few additional running races were sprinkled in here and there but I didn’t necessarily train intentionally for them, rather just summed up all activity up as “crosstraining”. And I figured these events were sufficient enough training/preparation for the run portion of the Ironman. According to cutoffs I had to complete the swim and the bike within 10 hours and had to cross the finish line within 16 hours. So no matter what, I would have at least 6 hours to run 42.2k. Even if I was really, reeeeally struggling, I knew from experience that on a flat course that pace would be more than manageable. Therefore I didn’t really train the run much at all. I ran the Copenhagen Marathon in May, but after that all of my training runs were just shorty runs. Like 10 miles was my max. Although I did complete a four day solo trek of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc in June. That provided a lot of “time on feet” and moving on “tired legs” so I kind of considered it productive run training even though it was under very different circumstances than an Ironman run. Endurance conditioning translates across sports, as does having the mental fortitude to get through them. I mostly just relied upon previous experience and existing running ability rather than any intentional run training in regards to Ironman Maastricht.

 CYCLING:

I realized how quickly expenses of Trilife can add up when you are literally starting from scratch.  I wasn’t really ready to invest any money into the sport until I knew more about it and decided if I even liked it. So rather than buy a bike, I would use my hubby’s old race bike. We dusted it off, gave it a tune up, and adjusted it slightly to fit me better. A friend saw a pic of it on social media and commented that I needed to get “clip in peddles”. I didn’t even know what that meant. Good old google was my constant companion during this rookie tri training period.  I realized “clip in pedals” meant wearing very ugly shoes. Ahhhh, that’s why cyclists walk funny when they get off their bikes! I thought it was from a sore bum. Haha!  He also told me to be prepared to fall. What!?! I’m going to fall? So again I googled you tube videos to see what he meant and while I had a good laugh watching newbies try to learn how to use clip ins, I knew I would soon be in their shoes. (see what I did there? #punny).

Although I didn’t invest in a new bike, we decided investing in a bike trainer would be extremely beneficial. It basically turns your bike into a stationary bike. Having it, would allow me to cycle pretty much any time of day, in any weather, and with any number of kids home. Also I wouldn’t have to map or plan a route; just hop on the trainer and GO! I anticipated the trainer would be a bit boring, but I’m not gonna lie… I hated it. I had like ZERO motivation to ever use it. It did get a little better once it was nice outside and I could drag the trainer outside. Kids would play and I would ride. I’ve heard of people riding their trainers for several hours, but about 90minutes was my max. And I would need to bribe myself to get through it somehow, lol.

I didn’t train on the bike very hard. And I definitely didn’t train for speed. I just needed to get comfortable enough on the bike to cycle 180k in 8 hours. I had never cycled that distance before, but I felt my endurance was solid enough that I could probably handle it. Well then I went to Maastricht to preview the course… and got my ass handed to me. Those hills were tough to climb up and intimidating to ride down. Mmmm, this might be harder than I thought! I went to Maastricht a total of 3x to preview the course. And each time I left there feeling totally defeated. Gah! A course preview is supposed to help build confidence, but these experiences just me left me feeling nervous… like how in the world am I going to pull this off??? There was actually one steep hill around 40k/130k that I was never able to get up on my bike during training rides. Yes, I had to walk my bike up it. And I was fully prepared that *if* that was the case on race day, I just needed to swallow my pride and be the lone rookie walking her bike up the hill. In those awful, awkward shoes.

I also had never “stood up” on my bike while cycling before but I noticed some other cyclists doing that while tackling the hills on training rides through Maastricht. I kind of observed them to see how they went about powering up the hills and mimicked what they did. I also had no clue how to gear for hills. So there was some experimenting with that too.

In effort to boost my confidence on the bike a little bit, I decided I would do a solo 180k ride near my home. The logistics of this are a little tricky. Basically I mapped a 90k loop and parked my car at the “start/finish”. I had extra water bottles and food in my car so when I passed it at 90k I could quickly refuel/restock. I ended up completing 174k in 7hours and 8minutes. I cut the last bit short because that late into the day, the bike path was getting very busy I was having to slow way down to dodge all the leisure cyclists. So I figured eh, 174k was close enough to the full distance. I was content with my time. Pace was decent enough that add in the hills of Maastricht I *should* be able to complete the 180k in 8 hours. Also because that was obviously not on a “closed course” I spent time waiting at intersections (or slowing way down through them). Additionally I was navigating myself so spent time looking at map and figuring out directions. I just had faith it would all work itself out. And all I needed to do was continue to hold “race pace” whenever I trained on the bike.

SWIMMING:

Swimming is what got most of my attention in the entire training process. Because I needed to learn *how* to swim. The most logical way to learn would be swim lessons, right? So I signed up for a 20 week swim program for “beginners”. My idea of how this would look: We would practice stroking against the wall in the shallow end. And put our face in the water and blow bubbles. And use a kickboard to cross the pool. And then somehow after doing this for many weeks we would magically be able to swim freestyle laps across the pool.

On February 3, I arrive at my first class and the very first thing the coach says (in Dutch) was “Alright go ahead and swim 4 warm up laps”. Uhhhh, WTF? Maybe I misunderstood??? I mean my Dutch is pretty awful. But then I saw everyone else putting on their googles and getting into the water. I asked one of the coaches, “Ummm, soooo, what stroke are we doing?” (like I knew anything but the doggie paddle). This was more to buy myself some time and delay getting into the water. I didn’t even have a pair of goggles with me. The coach gave me his goggles and said “You can do whatever stroke you want. This is just to warm up”.  So I scanned the pool to see what everyone else was doing. They were all swimming freestyle. Crap!

I got into the water and tried to fake swim. There were about 25 of us so I was just hopeful the amount of splash and waves created kind of hid the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. But all those waves also meant I was choking on water. Ugh. When I got to the other side of the pool and looked up, every.single.person was done. They had completed 4 laps in the time it took me to get across the pool once. And now I had to “swim” back with all these eyes on me. Fuck.Me. I wanted to sink to the bottom of the pool. I thought maybe I could fake I had to use the bathroom and then just leave. I very embarrassingly got myself across the pool. I mean I think it was actually one of those situations where people look away because they are embarrassed for you. Somehow I talked myself into staying for the rest of the class. But when it was over, I went into the locker room. Hid in a private changing room. And I cried. I was beyond humbled. I felt like a complete fool.

Clearly, their definition of a “beginner swimmer” was different than mine. I needed a different strategy. I decided I would start with aqua jogging at my local pool. I mean I know how to run. Maybe pairing something I loved with water would help ease the transition. So I googled “aqua jogging” to get a basic idea of how it worked. I showed up at my first open swim fully intending to aqua jog for an hour. Well then the lifeguard tells me I can’t aqua jog during open swim. It was for swimming laps only and I would be in the way of the other swimmers. Sigh. So I fake swam laps for almost a full hour. But I only went halfway across the pool. I didn’t want to go past where my feet could touch the ground. This didn’t feel like progress towards becoming a swimmer.

I put out a plea for help on social media basically asking how I could learn to swim. Someone commented they used an on line program called ‘Total Immersion’. They shared that they went from being a non-swimmer to comfortably swimming 600 meters in just a matter of weeks. That sounded perfect; pretty much exactly what I was looking for! I quickly googled Total Immersion, read a bunch of inspiring stories of people using it to learn to swim, and watched some videos. I was sold! For $50 I downloaded an “Effortless Endurance Self Coaching Course”. This probably was THE BEST and most VALUABLE investment in the entire process of becoming an Ironman.

I watched the videos and read the book. And within a few weeks I was swimming laps. Not pretty ones. Or fast ones. But I was comfortable getting myself back and forth across the pool with a freestyle like stroke.  I practiced swimming as much as possible. And any time I traveled some where I would googlemap search for nearby pools. I was 100% committed to swimming. I swam in pools in California, Romania, London, Copenhagen, Chicago, Germany, Italy… I did not want to miss a single swim training!

The self talk we use is incredibly powerful, so I changed my mental game and the message I told myself. I stopped telling myself I wasn’t a swimmer. And instead I started telling myself “You have the ability to be a strong swimmer with practice, persistence, and patience”. I eventually started to own the idea that I was a “swimmer”.

Next up was transitioning to open water swimming. I took this transition very slow; allowing myself lots and lots (and LOTS) of time to get comfortable in open water. Most of my initial open water swims weren’t actually about swimming. In fact very little true “swimming” was involved. It was more about getting into a wetsuit, getting into the water, and feeling relaxed. Training my mind more than my body. I would make little goals for myself every time I got into open water. One pivotal goal I had was to swim to the “yellow buoy” and back. For some reason that yellow buoy seemed soooooo far from shore. It was my nemesis. Just taunting me as it bobbed around the water, “You can’t catch me! Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah.”  I swear it grew a tongue and stuck it out at me every time I went there to swim. I attempted to reach that buoy several times on my own. But each time I would panic and turn around. I finally asked my husband if he would swim with me. Maybe with another person I could handle it? And one evening he very patiently swam in front of me, guiding me to the buoy. And when I finally reached it, I was elated! And I gave that yellow buoy a huge Sassy smirk… told you I’d catch you! BOOM!

Next pivotal goal was to swim a consecutive 3.8k in open water in under two hours. I put a lot of pressure on myself for this swim. I had decided that if I couldn’t do it, it meant that I wouldn’t be ready for a Full Ironman by August 5. Back up options would be to complete the Luxembourg Half in July or try to find an open spot in a Full Ironman later in the year. But my heart was so set on Maastricht that I was fiercely determined. When I casually mentioned my plan for this swim to a friend she said “I’ll join you”. Now, let me tell you a bit more about this friend. Concetta is a tri swim a coach. She is badass triathlete. She is very experienced. She almost always podiums in her age group for every event she completes. And she’s attempting to qualify for Kona at Ironman Italy 2017 (which I have no doubt she’ll achieve!). At any rate I thought her presence would either encourage me or intimidate me. I wasn’t exactly sure, but we made plans of when and where to meet; June 2 in Stellendam.

I was so nervous that morning. I even took some Bach Rescue Remedy to help calm my nerves. I started off swimming with her but she was going very far from the shore and it was making me panic. I told her I was going to swim back closer to the shore and do laps between the buoys. I seriously wanted to puke a few times because I was so nervous. I occasionally looked up to see my friend’s bright orange safety swimmer and found deep reassurance that she was there with me.

Just keep going.

You’re doing fine.

You’re not alone.

And 1hour and 46minutes later, I reached 3.8k. I wanted to cry. I was so relieved and happy! No turning back now. I was going to START and FINISH that Ironman.

Throughout the summer I swam in open water as much as possible. I also wanted to experience a variety of bodies of water. I figured it if I could get comfortable approaching any open body of water it would be a bit of a confidence booster. On our summer family road trip I swam in the most beautiful places in Austria and Switzerland. I felt deep gratitude for those experiences. And really appreciated what a gift it was to swim surrounded by such beauty.

SWIM.BIKE.RUN; PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

My basic training plan was: swim as much as possible, cycle often, and run occasionally.  When I was about 12 weeks out I decided I would benefit from a more organized/structured training plan. I read The Triathlete’s Training Bible” by Joe Friel and downloaded the accompanying app called Training Peaks. I used this to develop a 12 week training plan that I would revise every week or two accordingly.  Despite that I absolutely love strength training, it fell to the wayside for the most part. There just wasn’t enough time to fit it in. Plus the body just really needed rest and recovery time.

Generally most people would complete a half distance triathlon before going for a full. But there wasn’t one that fit well into my schedule, plus I didn’t really want to pay the registration fee. So I planned out my own half Ironman course close to home. I packed up all my gear in my car and parked close to the water. My car would serve as the transition zone and my aid station. Everything went fairly smooth and I didn’t worry too much about timing or pace. Really this was about putting all the elements together, practicing transitions, managing gear, playing with nutrition, etc. I was really happy with how it went and how I felt during it. It also helped me better visualize the comprehensive process of doing a triathlon.

MENTAL TRAINING:

The lesser talked about, but I believe equally important is the mental training that goes into tackling a long endurance event. Throughout my training I did a lot of visualization exercises. I would picture myself:

-swimming calmly and confidently in the water

-moving through transitions with efficiency and trusting I had everything necessary for the next section

-cycling smoothly with consistent effort and energy and no mechanical issues

-running gracefully at a comfortable, relaxed pace

-crossing the finish line with a smile on my face and joy in my heart

While I had never actually watched a triathlon before, I started to watch some inspirational video clips on youtube. I read various blogs ranging from other first timers to pro athletes. I constantly reached out to friends for ideas, suggestions, support, and guidance. I found the tri community to be incredibly warm and welcoming to a naïve newcomer full of questions. So while I didn’t have a formal monetary arrangement with a professional coach, I like to think I had several coaches in the form of experienced friends all across the globe. Knowing there are others who believe in you, feels really good.

I also created a vision board. That is something I’ve never really done before but my friend Stephanie/RunTriMom is a huge advocate of them. She’s turned so many dreams into a reality that I decided to give it a try.  I downloaded and printed some quotes that resonated with me and some images that inspired me. My very favorite part of my vision board was a dream catcher my 10 year old son made and a painting my friend made me when I was pregnant with my 4th son.

About 10 days out from race day, my husband informed me he had to travel for work the weekend of the race. I was of course bummed. And he genuinely felt awful about it. But I assured him it was ok. He had been unconditionally supportive throughout the whole process. And I cherished him for that. The race was just ONE day and represents 1% of the journey. He had been there for the other 99% which meant more to me than anything. While I would certainly miss having him and the kids with me, it also would allow me to focus on my race.

RACE WEEKEND   

I arrived at Maastricht on Thursday morning and went immediately to the Expo. I was literally the first one there when it opened, lol. I was immediately impressed with how well organized everything was. I was given a bright green race band to indicate I was an Ironman Virgin. It was completely optional but I definitely liked having it. I felt like it made it more acceptable to ask a bunch of questions. And that people were really patient, positive, and encouraging knowing I was a newbie. I browsed the shop and was drooling over some of the merchandise, but didn’t allow myself to buy anything with the Ironman logo on it with the exception of a race belt because I forgot to bring mine. Other than that I told myself I would have to earn the right to wear an Ironman shirt by crossing the finish line in three days. I also had a really cool bright red “Ironmom” Tshirt waiting for me in my bag. A friend had gifted it to me with instructions, “Cross the finish line so you can wear this on Monday”.  You better believe I fully intended to wear it home on Monday!

I checked into my AirBnB which was very close to the transition zone/expo/start line. The little old lady who owned the place was THE sweetest thing ever! She surprised me with chocolate, wine, flowers, and a little “Good Luck” card in my apartment. The card had a little Bronze Man on it and the note said he would be looking after me that weekend. I propped him up on the table and he ate all my meals with me. And as silly as it sounds it somehow made me feel less alone there.

I was on the fence if I would do the bike course preview. Even though I had seen the course already, I wanted to practice on it again. However at the last minute I opted not to do it. I decided I would relax a bit, walk around Maastricht, grab some groceries, and scope out the swim and run start/finish area.

Maastricht is a really beautiful city. It’s full of lovely cafés, shops, and restaurants. I got some food and coffee. I previewed the course, especially the swim area. I walked along the Maas the entire distance of the swim because I wanted to see how it was marked, what I would site, where the Australian exit was, how the water flowed, how we would enter and exit the water, etc. This definitely helped calm my nerves some. Or so I thought.

At the swim course preview I was a nervous wreck again. I struggled to put on my wetsuit. Like normally it’s a bit of a struggle but this time it was really difficult. I went to zip it up in the back and was super confused. Until I looked down and realized I had put my suit on inside out. Oh.my.gosh.girl, WTF are you doing?!?! Get your head together! I was hoping no one noticed as I sheepishly took my suit off and turned it right side out.

Getting into the water was actually great! It was way warmer than I expected and the water flow was calmer than it looked.  We were allowed to swim between the two bridges. I did two laps and then just floated around in the water a bit to get comfortable. I was really glad for the opportunity to get into the Maas prior to race day. It totally helped me relax about the swim.

I went to the race briefing. And left there nearly in tears. I texted my husband, “I don’t want to do this anymore”.  It was all just sooooo overwhelming to me; the colored bags, where everything needed to be placed, picked up, dropped off, where the exit and entry points were for each segment, etc. They also talked a lot about the various things that would earn you time in the penalty box. Like peeing in public, changing in public, drafting, or improper passing. I had never cycled beside others before and was pretty nervous about it. I was worried I might accidentally draft or improperly pass due to lack of experience. Then I reminded myself it was highly unlikely I would be passing anyone, lol. All I had to do was cycle and stay to the right.

I went to a coffee shop and read through the race booklet. Reading the instructions, rules and regs would help solidify what was discussed at the race briefing. Multi-modality learning is legit. So I texted Concetta and asked if she would cycle around with me a bit so I could get a sense of what it felt like to pass, be passed, and maintain 12 meters distance between bikes.  We made arrangements to meet but then it rained so hard that morning we had to skip it. She assured me it would be ok and not panic too much about it. She said it kind of flows organically and works itself out on its own. She’s a very experienced cyclist so I trusted her. She surprised me with this little charm to put on my bike. She called it a “lucky little bastard”. She told me whenever things got hard, to look down at my lucky little bastard for strength. I attached him right on the front of my bike so I could see him at all times!

I wanted to do one last bike ride before I had to check my bike in. I woke up super early and as soon as there was light, I cycled 30k on the course to flush out the legs, make sure my bike was riding smooth, see how the course was marked, and get my head into a positive place about the bike. It worked! I immediately felt a remembrance for the course. When the brain recognizes something as familiar, it sends messages of safety and comfort. That connection that had developed during my training rides there served me well.

I decided to lace up my running shoes and do an easy pace 5k along the Maas. Running brings me clarity and helps me make sense of things. I also passed an ice cream shop along the way and decided I would get some ice cream after. Running and ice cream are kind of the best therapy in the whole.wide.world!

Everything was packed, organized, and ready to go! All I had to do was eat, sleep, and show up in the morning ready to rock and roll.

RACE DAY

I slept surprisingly well. I ate my breakfast slowly and deliberately. I bid my little Bronze Man goodbye. And walked over to the transition zone.  Everyone was busy getting their bike prepped. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing so I kind of just watched what others were doing. People seemed to have really elaborate pre-race rituals/routines. I know nothing about the mechanics of my bike. I’m not sure I have ever pumped up a tire. I wasn’t even sure if my chain fell off I would know how to get it back on. I just trusted nothing mechanical would go wrong and if it did, I would either get help or be SOL. I didn’t carry any spare parts or tools on my bike even though my hubby had lovingly packed a little bike repair kit for me. It took up too much space and I needed to stash food everywhere. I knew I would be on the course a long, long time and I wasn’t sure how the food provided at the race would go down. I watched how others taped food to their bikes and I copied them. I was told I should pre-open the packages to make it easy to eat on the bike. Made sense. So that’s what I did. Bike was all set and loaded with calories.

I checked my transition bags, special needs bag, and post-race bag again to make sure I had everything necessary for each piece. Since I was there alone I needed my car keys and the apartment keys with me for after the race. I wasn’t sure if I should put them in my bike or the post race bag. I decided the post race bag was the safest spot. Ahhhh….so many details to think through, my head was spinning a bit. I told myself “Trust you have everything you need”. And then I exhaled and let it go. No more messing around with all these bags. Move on!

I saw the line for the bathroom growing rapidly. I wanted to pee BEFORE putting on my wetsuit so I stood in line. What felt like an eternity later it was my turn to brave the nasty outhouse. The guy stepping out handed me a wad of toilet paper. He said “I’ve done enough of these to know to pack your own”. Lol. I thanked him. Did my business. Then got my wetsuit on. Lined up at the start. It was a rolling swim start and we had to seed ourselves according to our projected finish times. The slowest swim time I saw was 1h30. Shoot! Did I misunderstand? I thought we had a time limit of 2h20minutes for the swim (including transition). I asked another participant if there was a slower pace group and he said we were indeed the back of the pack but confirmed that we had 2h20m. Whew.

Overall I felt pretty calm. I was just ready to get started! I saw one of my friends Peter from the Legends group. He was there as a spectator. I was very happy to see him; especially because he had recently completed his first full distance triathlon. His smile and words of encouragement at the start were super energizing. Again the brain responds favorably to familiarity.

THE SWIM

The elites started. And slowly my pace group made our way to the water. The rolling swim start is very relaxed. I was genuinely happy when I approached the water and it was finally my turn to get in. BUT right after my pace group was the relay team swimmers. And as you can imagine most of them are very strong, fast swimmers. So suddenly a ton of people were basically swimming over me. I seriously panicked. I wanted to roll over on my back and waves my hands to be rescued. 5 minutes into the event and I wanted to quit. Self-pep-talk mode kicked in. Full force.

OK Sarah Get.your.shit.together! Right now! You didn’t come all this way to last 5 minutes. You know it takes you a good full hour to warm up. Just keep moving forward. And reassess things in an hour.

So that’s what I did. I swam. And every time I looked at my watch I was really pleased with my pace. It’s a bit of an out and back course, so after the Australian exit I decided I wouldn’t look at my watch again. I would just pour all of my energy and attention into movement; into establishing a solid rhythm. It definitely helped that by this point we were all spread out and I felt that I had plentiful space around me.

At exactly one hour and 30 minutes I exited the water with a HUGE smile on my face. The swim went even better than expected. I went into this race thinking, if I could survive the swim and didn’t run into any mechanical issues on the bike, I should be able to finish.  Plus I had just bought myself some extra time on the bike!

TRANSITION ONE

I had a bikini on under my wetsuit so I needed to do a full change; like completely stripped down naked. And although this IS technically allowed in the transition tent, hardly anyone does it. But I absolutely hate cycling in wet clothes. I get very cold very easily on the bike; brick trainings when I cycled in wet clothes were completely miserable. Plus I wanted to wear fully padded cycling shorts and not a tri kit (which are far less padded) because I would be on my bike a long-ass time. So I put on dry undies, a dry sports bra, my uber padded cycling shorts and my jersey that had plenty of calories stashed in the back pockets. I also had food and water in my T1 bag that I promised myself I would eat/drink before getting on the bike. My strategy was to stay ahead with calories/fluids as much as possible because I know towards the end of endurance events it can be really challenging to take anything in. I scarfed down my food while changing. I put on my ugly shoes, strapped on my helmet, and ran to my bike. Just before I crossed the mount mat I heard my name. There was Joost and Astrid!! Friends from Legends. Oh how great it was to see them!!! I hopped on my bike. And started peddling. I was feeling super euphoric from my swim and went into the bike feeling confident and elated!

THE BIKE

I knew this course pretty well from training rides and studying the course map/profile.

I knew when the climbs were and my plan was to get my calories in about 20 minutes before the climbs. Early on there is a decent climb so I was going to eat something right away even though I just eaten in T1. I grabbed my cliff bar I had taped to the bike. The one I forgot that I had pre-opened. So it fell on the ground. Whoops. There goes 250 calories.

Almost immediately I could feel the difference in cycling on a closed course. There were traffic control volunteers at every intersection which meant I didn’t have to slow down at all. This was great!! It helped me settle into and hold a more consistent and comfortable pace than during training rides.

I got passed on the bike. A lot. Especially on the downhills. It was a bit intimidating at first, but I just stayed to the right and peddled my own pace.

The aid stations were very easy to pass through. The volunteers were all amazing. The only confusion was I had a Dutch flag on my bib so everyone kept talking Dutch to me. Sometimes I understood. Sometimes I had no clue.

When I was about 30 minutes from “The Steep Hill” I took in some calories and told myself to try as hard as I could to pedal up the entire hill. I really, really did not want to walk my bike up it. When I got there it was lined with spectators cheering on the riders. This was a huge motivator. I cycled hard. I looked down at my Lucky little bastard. Come on Dude, we can do this!!! Slowly but surely, I made it to the top! Heck yeah!!! I felt like high fiving my Lucky Little Bastard!

The first loop on the bike was pretty uneventful. I felt really good. My energy was solid. My mood was happy. The weather was perfect; dry and sunny. Calories were going down fine. Pace was ok. I was even singing on my bike, because being in the back of the back meant there were several long stretches I was alone.

I started my second loop realizing I didn’t really have any calories left. I had somehow already went through everything I had stashed. No biggie I told myself. Just eat whatever the race provides. Which was basically a sports drink (gross!), gels (grosser!), and smooshy bananas that had been unpeeled like forever ago. So that’s what I ate. I don’t really ever do gels. They are just soooo nasty. But holy moly they seriously do give you a ginormous energy boost. I ended up taking 4 of them during that second loop. I was really happy I got up The Steep Hill again the second time. But oddly this time there was not a single spectator there. In fact there were hardly any spectators on the course anymore. Or other bikes.

I started to worry a little bit about time. I kept trying to do the calculations in my head, but if you’ve ever done an endurance event you know that you lose all ability to calculate even basic math. As I passed a volunteer I called out to him “Hey, when does the bike course close?” He replied, “I don’t know. Jut pedal as hard as you can!” So that’s what I did. I kept saying it to myself:

You’re fine. Just pedal as hard as you can.

After 7 hours and 27 minutes of cycling I was finally done on my bike! I was never sooo happy to dismount my bike.

TRANSITION TWO

I would change my clothes yet again. What is this a fashion show? But I couldn’t comfortably run with my heavy padded cycling shorts. So I stripped down and put on what I call my “Fake Tri Suit”. In effort to not look like a total rookie who keeps changing her outfit, I put on black shorts and a black tank top since that’s what most generic tri suits look like. I also had some calories in my transition bag including a cold brew coffee drink. Yeah Caffeine! And bread. Halleluiah! Solid food! I was in a super happy mood. Until I started running.

THE RUN

I started off walking at a brisk pace. I was still trying to get my bread down. And I think the transition from the bike to running felt strange in my body. It took me a little while to find my running legs. Plus by this time of the day it was really warm outside. The heat started to get to me. Actually I think it was getting to everyone. I’m not gonna sugar coat it, many of the runners looked like complete shit.

I didn’t worry too much because I knew I had plenty of time to get this thing done. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other for 42k. I would employ a run/walk strategy.

My stomach was upset. I think from the gels and the heat. But it wasn’t terrible. Just annoying enough that it made running a bit tricky.

I saw my friend Peter again. Which made me feel so good. And even though I wasn’t in a super chatty mood, having him jog alongside me for a minute to check in with me was awesome. Plus he’s a very experienced ultrarunner who knows the right things to say (and more importantly what NOT to say) to someone during a race. I appreciated his presence so much!

Shortly after that I saw my friends Joost and Astrid. Yeah! More familiar faces. Astrid asked me how I was doing. I expressed to her that my stomach hurt. She said “That’s very common. I hope it will feel better soon”. A very simple reply, yet it held a powerful message for me. It reminded me that things change during endurance events. Pain and discomfort move through the body in various ways. It also reminded me that I had some power in the situation. A positive head space is invaluable in endurance sports. It’s probably actually more valuable than any amount physical conditioning.

Telling myself I would feel fine kind of worked. Or perhaps because the weather was getting cooler. Or maybe my running muscles were finally warmed up, but I soon settled into a decent pace/rhythm. I wasn’t taking in very many calories but energy level remained. I think I absorbed a lot of energy from the spectators. The run course is four loops right through the city center. And pretty much the entire way is lined with people cheering on the racers. Plus you pass through the finish line area each time and would hear the announcement “Jane Smith, you are an Ironman”. Knowing MY name would be in that sentence was hugely motivating. And emotional!

After I completed 21k, I tried to do the math to project my finish time, but then I got myself super confused. See my brain still thinks primarily in terms of miles when it comes to running pace (which is not the case with swimming and cycling; since I picked up these two sports more recently I had trained pace/distance in kilometers). Add in the use of military time (I still think in terms of a 12 hour clock) and for the life of me I could not figure out the math. I somehow thought I needed to run a sub 2 hour half marathon to meet the cut off.  Do-able, but Crap. I really need to pick up my pace STAT!

I saw Astrid again and yelled out, “Hey what’s a sub 2 hour half marathon pace in kilometers”. I am not sure that even made any sense, but I seriously couldn’t figure out what pace I should be running according to my Suunto (which was set in kilometers). She recruited Joost to answer my question and he met me at another point on the course. He told me I was doing great, my pace was fine, and to just keep moving!! I was really worried I might not finish, “But the course closes in two hours!”

Uhhhh, Sarah it’s not even 7:00. You have more than 4 hours.

Oh.my.gosh. I wanted to hug and kiss him! I don’t know why but I thought it was almost 9:00pm. I guess when your brain is tired 19:00 – 12:00 = 9:00pm. Darn military time screwing with my head.

This was a total game changer. After that I could care less about time or pace. I started having FUN again! Plus about 85% of the spectators were silly drunk at that point; many were dancing and singing. They provided me loads of entertainment and I interacted a lot with the spectators. Plus I was getting hungry. Damn all their food looked and smelled amazing.

Even though zero of the race food appealed to me, I forced myself to eat crackers every once in a while for the salt and sipped a bit of water at each aid station. Not necessarily for fuel during the race because at that point it didn’t matter much, but more so to prevent dealing with dehydration post race.

As I got close to the finish line on my last loop I was emotional.

You did it! You wanted this. You wanted it bad. And you fucking made it happen! It was such an incredible feeling. I worked through the messy emotional, ugly cry stuff about 2k from the finish line. Then it was RUN and be DONE time. With head held high and a BIG FAT smile on my face, I crossed the finish line.

Sarah Johnson, YOU.ARE.AN.IRONMAN.

Right when I crossed I saw Joost and Astrid standing at the finish line. It meant so much to have someone there to celebrate with me. Because truthfully I felt a little sad in that moment that my family wasn’t there with me. But Joost had FB Lived my finish and my husband Buzz had seen it! Somehow knowing that made me feel tons better. Technology allows us to be connected in so many awesome ways!

POST RACE

There was food at the finish line! I didn’t expect that but it was a super happy discovery!! I didn’t have any food back at the apartment. I didn’t have any money on me. Plus most everything was already closed, except a few random bars. But by the time I would make my way to the start line to collect my bike and all my gear, and then walk back to the apartment to get money, I knew nothing would be open.

In the finishing tent, I inhaled the most delicious plate of pasta in my whole entire life. This is a well-kept secret but they employ five star Michelin chefs to prepare your post-race meal at an Ironman. No wonder the entry fee is ridiculous. 😉 Or maybe I was just seriously hungryAF and would have appreciated anything remotely edible at that point. My little paper bowl of dried out pasta was life.

I walked over to the transition area, collected all my stuff, and walked myself back to the apartment. Alone. But the silence was nice. I was just able to really internalize and enjoy the deep satisfaction of the day’s event. I entered my apartment and there was my little bronze man staring at me. I smiled back at him. Crawled into bed. And went to sleep.

FINAL REFLECTIONS

“And one day she discovered that she was fierce, and strong and full of fire, and that not even she could hold herself back because her passion burned brighter than her fears.” – Mark Anthony

 This was a quote I stumbled upon shortly after I registered for the Ironman. I’m not generally one for motivational quotes or cheesy inspirational cliché’s, but THIS one really captivated me.

There were many, many times I doubted myself in the process of training for this Ironman. The lingering question, ”Can I do this?” was always there.  What I learned through this experience is that even when you don’t know the outcome and the odds feel stacked against you, it’s well worth a Tri. (See, I told ya it was a metaphor 🙂 ).

What I gained through this journey goes way beyond the bliss experienced at the finish line. Learning something new, exploring new places, developing new friendships, strengthening existing relationships, continuously feeling humbled and challenged, managing time, balancing needs, prioritizing responsibilities, adjusting expectations, creating a plan, adapting it along the way, honoring desire, embracing the unknown, trusting the process, exercising patience…this was all part of the journey to the finish line of Ironman Maastricht 2017. These are qualities that become deeply embedded within and remain steady as long as we continue to practice them. Which leads to a question I have been asked many times over; Will you complete another Ironman? And while I was SO sure this would be a one and done experience for me, I enjoyed it more than I ever imagined I would. In other words there will definitely be more Tri-ing in my future.

Happy to sport my IronMom shirt that I legit earned the right to wear. 🙂

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