An Incredible Ironman Journey
by Jeff P.
Lao-tzu has been often quoted saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
So began my journey into the world of Ironman distance racing one fateful day as I stepped out of the hot Hawaiian sun into a little Kona t-shirt shop on Ali’i Drive. It was a typical tourist trap hawking every conceivable trinket from Brazilian imported ukuleles to Chinese made leis. Over the low hung rafters draped an assortment of t-shirts paying homage to one’s favorite brand of beer, sea mammals and women in ill-fitting bikinis. Now, this little t-shirt shop would not have been but a blip in my memory except my eye caught a mural on a far wall lit by an overhead spotlight. It was an image I had seen before and was the reason I was walking along this stretch of town away from the cruise ship. This shop on this street on this island is a part of annual event known as the Ford Ironman World Championship and the mural so glorious enshrouded by light was the Ironman logo – the famed “M-Dot” logo. Below the M-Dot were t-shirts, shot glasses, license plate covers and other assorted Ironman souvenirs. Surveying the wares, I sought and found the item I was looking for in an Ironman t-shirt from the last championship race held six months earlier. I had always been fascinated by triathlon racing and the lifestyle. Until recently, I had thought it was a world unreachable and inhabited only by mythical gods of fitness.
It wasn’t long ago I that was fifty pounds heavier and so out of shape from an extremely stressful job and a liking for overly large meals and highly caffeinated products. However, over the previous year (2006), I had joined a health club in a quest to alter my own lifestyle. Slowly but surely, I started to shed the layers of old habits that insulated the person screaming and clawing to come out. A year’s worth of early morning spin classes, lifting weights and high-intensity “boot camps” brought me to a place of high confidence and better self-esteem. It was a drug I wanted more of – it was and is still so addictive. So what other challenges existed? What was going to take me from the present, stagnant plateau to the next level? That’s when I saw the yellow dot on the wall.
It was a flyer offering an opportunity to explore triathlons through a group called Experience Triathlon. “Well, that’s not meant for me,” I thought, lacking what I perceived was the ideal body type needed to endure, let alone compete in, triathlon racing. How could my gangly, six foot three frame lacking any graceful coordination possibly sort my way through a swim, bike and run event? Still, a momentary glimpse came to my mind – a fantastical collage of images. I’m swimming effortlessly through warm ocean waters in one scene, then biking up a precipitous climb and finally, running among the throngs of cheering people lined up along the final moments of a race course. Could it be possible? While the remnants of a long held, low self-esteem lingered, I reluctantly took the phone number down for the coach named Joe. I took my first step that day.
While I had no doubt in my mind that I was ever going to do an Ironman, I so appreciated the lifestyle and what it offered me in greater confidence and self-esteem that I immersed myself completely. I learned that triathlon racing, while on the surface is identified by the “big race” in Hawaii, has numerous other races of varying distances (thankfully shorter) with competitors of all skill levels. In the next nine months, I learned to technically and competitively swim, developed those necessary crotch calluses on the bike and churned out mile after mile on lonely roads to attain a reasonable running form. Joe was there every step of the way, guiding me and molding me into some semblance of an athlete who could participate in a short distance triathlon. In all that time, I didn’t do a single race. To some, the training would have been monotonous and mind-numbing, but I could only see the journey, one step at a time.
It was in that nine months prior to my first short distance triathlon that I found myself standing before the M-Dot mural in the little t-shirt shop on Ali’I Drive. I purchased that Ironman shirt and wore it proudly the next day of the cruise. While lounging next to the pool on the open air deck, someone excitedly approached me and said, “Wow! I’ve done several Ironmans but I haven’t gotten to Kona yet for the big one. Are you an Ironman? Did you do that race?”
I said no, but that I was training to do a shorter triathlon. There was a palpable let-down in the man’s expression as he looked at my shirt again.
“Oh, okay. Well, good luck,” he said, as he lowered his eyes and walked off.
That was my first inkling of the mystique of Ironman. Back home within a few weeks, I had a similar experience wearing that shirt before another Ironman in the health club. Again, it was another discernable moment of confusion followed by an offering of well wishes on my training. I was perplexed by these reactions. It wasn’t long before I learned wearing Ironman gear is more than a testament to witnessing a sporting event. To some, it’s symbol of a long journey of training and sacrifice culminated by participating and finishing an Ironman race. Even more, the specific shirt I wore was a tribute to those who have reached the pinnacle of Ironman racing by competing in Hawaii. After coming to this realization, I carefully folded up the shirt and found the furthest corner in the back of my closet to stow it. I would not ever wear it again. No other Ironman paraphernalia would come amongst my possessions unless I earned the right. I further vowed that one day I would do an Ironman and earn that right – another footprint.
After many a thousands of miles on a journey that has brought me great joys in meeting the coolest people and participation in many sprint, olympic and half-iron triathlons, it is one year ago. I am at a place of such great satisfaction in life. My body feels good, and emotionally, I am in better control than ever. I am surrounded by those who love and care for me. Yet, something was pulling at me. It was a burning desire being fueled by watching the Ironman Wisconsin race online the day before. I was thinking about that t-shirt shop on Ali’i Drive and the M-Dot logo. I was seeking again. What would be my next challenge? What could take me to that next plateau? Is Ironman Wisconsin the next step? My mind was abuzz with these thoughts as I talked to Mrs. Jones in the exam room about her dog Fluffy’s anal gland problems. It was decided as I was listening to Fluffy’s heartbeat and could only hear my own heart thumping louder; I would see if I could sign up for Ironman Wisconsin online. Fluffy was my last patient and it was twenty minutes before the online registration opened. After a few notes scribbled in the file and a couple of quick phone calls, I was on the computer. Registration online for Ironman Wisconsin was a long shot. If I truly wanted to guarantee a spot I should have volunteered at the race and obtained a coveted opportunity to sign up for the race a few hours earlier before being offered publicly online. I told myself at least if I tried to register online, I could braggingly tell everyone that I had tried and if I had gotten in I would have done it. Twelve noon hit and I was furiously typing away on the computer and page by page, I kept getting further along in the process. Soon I came to that fateful page asking me to “wait while your transaction is being processed”….am I in? Oh, God tell me I am in…please, no power failure now…is this computer working? Should I hit the back button? Wait….wait….
“Congratulations! You are signed up for Ironman Wisconsin…”
Yes!! I’m in! Oh my God…I’m in! What did I just do? The back button doesn’t work as repeatedly hit it. I could feel the pulsations in my chest rising and the trembling of my hands. I had to go to my sanctuary. I went to the bathroom, locked the door and sat on the toilet. What did I just do? I’m not ready for this. I didn’t tell Coach Joe about this. I didn’t tell my family about this. After just reflecting on the serenity of my life moments ago, I had thrown a boulder into the stillness of the waters! I’m going to die in this race! Could I get my money back? Am I dreaming? I am visualizing the journey and the next measured distance is not a footprint but an outline of my face where I have fallen. My eyes welled up with tears. Stop it! I had to grab a hold of myself and just relax. With a few deep breaths, I was able to come to a justifiable conclusion that this was karma. If my journey was not meant to take me in this direction, fate would not have allowed me to get my golden ticket. My heart slowed and my hands settled. With one last deep breath and a wipe of my nose, I stepped out of the bathroom and began calling everyone with the news. To this day, I can say those few moments in the bathroom were the one and only time I experienced self-doubt through the remaining miles of this part of the journey.
The next year seemed like a lifetime. Yet, every moment is permanently etched into my memories as if it were only yesterday. Every footfall was a discovery of something new and also a new list of questions awaiting answers before I moved forward again. Fortunately, I had my guru in my coach. Joe had been down this journey before and was led successfully by his coach and now it was his turn to lead me. I had every confidence in his abilities to provide me with the tools I needed to get to Madison. He had my trust completely – not that I didn’t question the validity of some of those crazy long workouts in the extremes that all the seasons of year offered. I cursed him on early, sunless winter mornings heading to the pool to swim. I deliriously visualized running him down on my bike in the crazy heat of the summer. Long runs that never seemed to end found me thinking of going by his house and leaving a bag of burning dog poo on his steps. However, through aches, pains and curses, I could see he was preparing me mentally and physically for an endurance race like no other. He was helping me to stay injury-free. He was a constant reminder to keep my life balanced. He was getting me every step closer to the swim start of Ironman Wisconsin.
Throughout this year long journey, I have to give so much credit to my family who sacrificed so much to see me through. It would not have been possible without the love of an amazing woman like Maxine. Those of us who participate in this world of triathlon know it can serve as wedge in relationships – a divergence of a once communal journey. Fortunately, I have been blessed with someone who has been willing to lay footprints beside mine, as Maxine also began her triathlon journey several years ago and has grown into someone I admire and love more deeply. Just like my relationship with Joe, let’s not idealize how Maxine and I operated behind a rose-colored film. We had our moments rationalizing to each other why the other needed to stay with the kids while other did a workout. It never came down to flipping coins, but, man, did we ever learn the art of compromise. On some days filled with work, kids activities and workouts, we saw each other ever so briefly before our eyes closed for another short night’s respite and then back at it again the next day. My three beautiful girls seemed to take the hectic schedule in stride. Going to the various triathlon races was like an adventure to them: staying at hotels, eating out and serving as our very official cheer squad. Every fiber in my being hoped that the journey they have seen their parents on will have inspired them. Not necessarily to become triathletes, but to take a journey of passion knowing that the destination is not the key; it’s in the journey they will find joy. When they find that trail to blaze, their Mom and Dad will offer every ounce of reciprocal encouragement and love they have given to us.
It was the last few weeks before Ironman Wisconsin and I was in the final stretch of a taper – the period when one slowly comes off the high intensity of Ironman training allowing the body to heal and get a little more rested for the soon to be long day. Some claim the taper is a very challenging time as the cortisol levels (stress hormone) start to fall and I could suffer a little from withdrawal. The insatiable fix to do longer/harder workouts all the way up to the start of the race could wreck havoc on my psyche. Am I going to lose my edge? Am I going to get fat? I’ve worked so hard for eleven months; I don’t want to piss it away in these last three weeks. Again, I found trust and calmness in knowing that Joe was guiding in the right direction.
Throughout the week of the race, I was getting phone calls from friends and family wishing me good luck and expressing how proud of me they were. Many bestowed upon me the added responsibility of enjoying this race as it would be the one and only chance I have to undertake my first Ironman. I found myself in the unique situation of being one of the few people in my circle of triathletes doing an Ironman at this time thus quite a few eyes were watching and supporting me; I hoped to not let them or myself down. It was now time put up or shut up.
If there was a time my mind offered extreme clarity of my Ironman memory, it was the two days before the race. I remember getting up early Friday morning to make the two and half hour trek to Madison from my home. Kissed the kids and Maxine goodbye and looked forward to seeing them the next day. As I drove into Madison on John Nolen Drive that wraps around Lake Monona, I could see the venue that would serve as the start of my Ironman race – Monona Terrace. The Terrace is a small convention center that overlooks the lake and is flanked on either side by helixes serving as the entrance and exit to the multi-level parking garage on the back side of the Terrace. The top level of parking garage would become the transition area. One of the unique elements of Ironman Wisconsin is use of the helixes as the part of the course. One spiral road on one side served as the transition between swim to bike and the other side served as the bike out and return. No other venue has this – very cool. Friday was filled with lots of activity including a swim in some choppy waters as the wind was kicking up a little that day. After the swim it was on to athlete check in, waiver signing, gear pick up and swag bag. I made an obligatory tour of the Ironman Shop and got a few items, telling myself that I would not wear anything or put any decals on the car until after the race. Later that night, there was a welcome banquet serving a plateful of pasta and lots of laughs as the Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, emceed a fun night. It struck me weirdly that the next time I heard his voice could be at the finish line.
Saturday before the race was very uneventful except for a little bit of a workout to stretch out the legs and checking in the bike and transition bags. Then all of my girls arrived! It gave me great joy to see them, and it wasn’t just because I needed my Sherpas to haul all my stuff back after the race. Most of the day, I spent sitting/laying in the hotel room constantly rechecking the weather outlook for the next day online. Intentionally, I had gotten a two room suite – one for Maxine and I and the other for the girls to hang in. They liked that and it helped to keep my stress and anxiety to a minimum. I had also gotten a visit from Coaches Joe and Suzy offering up all their support and sage advice. At the end of the visit, Joe pulled out his Ironman Wisconsin finisher medal from several years ago and invited me to touch it and know in a small way what it would feel like to hold my own the next day. Even as I feared some sort of jinx, I reluctantly held the medal. I could see the pride in his eyes as I held the thing he worked so hard to earn on his Ironman journey. In my hands, it felt like what it was, a piece of metal. It wasn’t my medal; I still had to go and earn mine. I did respect what it represented and I reverently returned it to Joe’s hand. With a hug and a few more words of encouragement, we parted till tomorrow morning. With another small plate of pasta and bottle of Gatorade, I was soon off to bed. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Surprisingly, my eyes didn’t open until music of my alarm clock informed me it was four in the morning on Sunday – race day! I was calm. Had all my clothes laid out the night before. I was able to get down a bagel, banana and some chocolate milk. With my special needs bag, bike pump, wet suit and Maxine in tow, I kissed the kids goodbye and reminded the two youngest that my almost thirteen year old was in charge. Whether they heard me or not in their sleep euphoria was debatable. Got to the Terrace around five and first dropped off the special needs bags before heading to the transition area to get the bike checked out. Pumped up the tires, set up the bottles of Gatorade Endurance in the cages and put several Clif bars in the bento box – done. Checked on the transition bags to make sure they were accounted for – done. And that was it. I had an hour and forty minutes till the start of the race. I went two floors down and lay with Maxine behind a stairwell to stay away from the nervous energy that was palpable two floors up. Again, I was calm and simply closed my eyes for forty-five minutes visualizing the race and going over the race strategy I had written down and memorized many weeks ago. Ironman Wisconsin is definitely a box of chocolates when it comes to the weather – you never know what you’re going get. That day, despite my preparations for the worst of weather conditions, the Tri Gods shined upon Madison and blessed us with calm waters, light-to-variable winds, no rain and temperatures predicted to be in the upper seventies. It was perfect. Soon enough, the sun was rising and that was my cue to head for the swim start. Heading two floors up to the upper deck to begin the descent down the helix ramp to the swim start, the noise of the crowd there to support the athletes grew increasingly louder. The transition area on the top deck was a sea of people from spectators to athletes to race officials and volunteers. Max joined me hand in hand to walk down the spiral amongst the athletes. Spectators lined the whole route to the swim start and cheered us on like matadors marching to the Corrida to battle the bull. It was on the road that descended out of the helix that I saw Coaches Joe and Suzy and many other friends there to cheer me on. With a few quick pictures, more encouraging words, and a couple of kisses from Maxine, I was now on my own. Just then, a cannon sounded off and there were racers swimming. Oh, crap! Am I late? I wasn’t the only one freaking out a little as the crowd of athletes surged slightly forward to the swim start mat, but it turned out to be the cannon for the pro racers who left ten minutes before the start of the age groupers like me. Whew! Still, I needed to get into the water by crossing the start line mat to signify my presence in the race. It was a long line. Announcers were urging athletes to get in the water as the second cannon was about to fire. I crossed the mat with one minute to wade out to the tread starting line. I looked back and could still see a lot of people still waiting to get in the water. I got to my desired start position in the middle of the pack halfway between the shore and the inside buoys. As soon as I started treading, the cannon sounded…we’re off!
This was my first open water blender start…I mean tread start. Time trial and wave starts have been my fare in every other race I’ve done. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of a tread start. It had to be experienced live in a race. Fellow athletes with whom on any other given day I would have had meaningful conversations or shared a meal with are now grabbing my feet or pulling at my shoulders. Elbows in the head and ribs along with occasional kicks to the groin were encountered for much of the first 3 sides of the rectangular first loop. Despite the mosh pit environment, I was still able to swim reasonably well. The long sides of the rectangle ran east to west. Swimming to the west was easier to sight the buoy markers, but coming back, the sun was blinding. There was no chance to see the buoys, so I had to trust my fellow swimmers they were going in the right direction. By the start of the second loop, the swim lanes opened up a little and I was able to find a good, uninterrupted stroke. I strayed only a little from my straight line trying to keep the buoys ahead of me. The only interesting tidbit left to tell between that point and the finish was the need pee on the last straightaway. I had actually done that in a few half irons, so it wasn’t new to me. Yet, I still had to work at it to tell my bladder it was okay to let it go. There is nothing like the warm sensation of urine filling the seat and legs of my wet suit. What seemed like a moment later, I was seeing the swim out banner and heading to shore. With some assistance of the amazing volunteers, I was out of the water and onto a mat to have my suit stripped off. If only they knew what else was in the suit besides water. It was now up the ramp to the helix that took me up to transition. The crowds was going crazy with all the whooping and hollering. I spotted Maxine, the coaches, and several friends in the crowd as I raced up the helix barefooted and wet suit it tow. I offered a smile and blew kisses to Maxine and gave a thumbs-up to Coach Joe taking my picture. Once again, I am alone. This time I am heading to transition. I finished the swim in 1:12:30.
Swim to bike transition went very smoothly. At the top of the helix, I ran into the third level of the Terrace through one room where my transition bag was and into another room where I changed. I had on my one-piece, black racing singlet with the yellow dot of the Experience Triathlon logo on the front. I found a chair in the dressing room to sit and a volunteer dumped all my gear for the bike ride on the floor. We sorted out all the cold weather stuff and put it back in the bag with my wetsuit. I got the sunglasses on along with the helmet. Then on came the socks and with a high five to the volunteer, I grabbed my bike shoes and was back out onto the upper parking deck. A crew of people slathered some sunscreen onto my neck and shoulders and sent me off to my bike. With a shout of my race number visible on my race belt and helmet, my bike was presented to me along with a few cries of, “Good Luck!” by the volunteers. I put on my shoes and raced for the mount line. Straddling the bike, I clicked into the cleats and began the journey down the opposite helix and onto the bike course. My transition time was a little long at 6:40, but that was okay.
If any experienced triathletes were asked to name some of the tougher Ironman bike courses, the hills of Ironman Wisconsin would get consistently high marks…and I willingly chose this race as my first Ironman. I wasn’t alone. Twelve hundred of my fellow twenty-five hundred racers were also racing their first Ironman here in Wisconsin. The course is a stick and loop. Go out for fourteen miles then complete two forty-two mile loops and come back fourteen miles straight into transition. In my strategy for the bike part of the race, I planned to hold back for the first ninety minutes or so to save myself for the remaining part of the course littered with all types of hills. Going out to the loop was fine, but in the first 2 miles of the loop, I hit a small bump and heard a crack and a thump as my rear bottle cage bracket snapped off. There went two thirds of my hydration. I left it on the side of the road and came up with an improvised hydration plan. Coach Joe had told me just the day before that a true test of an Ironman athlete in a race is to encounter and overcome unexpected challenges. In this case, my one piece singlet had a zipper in the front and given the stretchiness of the fabric, it could accommodate a water or sports drink bottle offered on the course. So, I became a human bottle cage. Onward I went. I knew the course by heart as I had done a number of training rides there scattered throughout the spring and summer. Unfortunately, I knew the parts I hated as much as the parts I enjoyed. The first third of the loop sent me in southwest facing a usually present wind from that direction. Today was no exception. It was a segment of constant rollers that ended with a long climb into a little town called Mount Horeb. It never gave me much of a break with flat roads. The ride had a way of sorting out everyone into groups based on speed (power) and technical skills. I’m pretty average on the bike. I found out I had a lot of average bike riders for road companions. After Mount Horeb, the next third of the course was a little easier with a couple of crazy descents at forty to forty-five miles per hour that propelled me up the next hill fairly easily. Then it was a long, slow descent on Garfoot Road, eventually taking me to a town called Cross Plains. No problems. Weather was warm and my hydration and nutrition was great. I was starting to feeling a little sore in the crotch but that has been a long standing issue attributable to the possibly that the bike has never been fitted properly for me (may try and correct that with a new bike next year). The last third of the loop contained the two toughest hills of the course. After a bumpy ride on a road destroyed by trucks from a nearby quarry, it was up the first hill which has two parts. Old Sauk Pass is a slightly winding, steep climb that ends in a bit of a flat ride before you make a sharp right hand turn right into an even steeper climb. The entire way, I was cheered on by spectators lining the road. Horns were blaring, drums were beaten and music was blasting away. People yelled and clapped and whistled. One guy ran up most of the way with me urging me on – that was really cool. Gave him a high five at the top. At the top of the second part, I saw my coach again. Another thumbs up for him. My wife and kids were out on the course somewhere, but I never found them. After that climb, there was a little break and then I came upon the last major hill of the loop on Midtown Road. It was the steepest climb yet, but shorter than the other. It was up that hill and a few more rollers and I was back into Verona and the start of the second loop. I stopped at the special needs bag area and got my peanut butter and jelly sandwich to chow down on. The second loop was uneventful except for seeing three ambulances together on a part of course just past a blind corner. While I didn’t see what happened, I suspected several racers collided in a chain reaction as they passed the blind turn. Never did find out what happened. Soon enough, I found myself back in Verona, done with the two loops and heading back down the stick to Madison and the transition. My crotch was sore, but my spirits were high as I came back in with the Terrace and Wisconsin’s Capitol building in sight. As I came back into the Terrace, it was up the helix again for a final time. Dismounted fine and handed my bike off to a volunteer. How wonderful it felt to be off my bike and have someone else rack it for me. It was time for the second transition. I finished the bike in 5:55:00.
Second transition was a little quicker. I had another awesome volunteer who took care of my stuff as I ditched the bike gear for run stuff which meant new socks, run shoes, hat and turning my race belt so my bib number was in the front. High fives for everyone and out the door for more sunscreen and quick stop at the port-o-john. Outside of the swim, it was my only pit stop, but the urine was still clear, an indication I was still hydrated. With the warming temperatures of the mid afternoon, I needed all the hydration for the run course. After a 4:26 second transition I started the marathon run course.
My plan was to run continuously the first five to six miles at a slow pace (8:30-9:00min/mile paces) and then pick it up a little and walk every aid station after mile six. Of course, right out of the chute, I go 7:05 for the first mile. I slowed it down to eight minute miles and hung around there for the remainder of the first 13.1 mile loop. Coach Joe caught me in that first mile and I gave him another thumbs-up and said I would see him again at mile 14. For the first half of the run, I was feeling good and following the plan to a tee. The streets were lined by a large crowd of people with the heaviest concentrations at the start/13.1 mile turn around, the 6.5/19.6 mile turn around for each loop, and of course, the finish. There were signs everywhere to cheer athletes on. I saw men in cheer leader outfits, women with fairy wings, guys in pink speedos, and many, many fans who loved Ironman racing. Lots of kids had their hands outstretched to get an occasional high-five from one of the racers. I cruised through the first loop and reached 13.1 miles in about an hour and forty-five minutes. Saw Coach Joe again. He ran a few paces with me and I was feeling good and made sure he knew it. It was time to get this second loop done. My body had other ideas, though. At around mile fifteen, I started to get the first twinges of cramping in my hamstrings. Oh, no! I am not hydrated enough. Next aid station, I drank more water and sport drink to counter the cramp. I slowed down to nine minute paces and shuffled stepped up any inclines in the road. It seemed to work as I reached the turn-around for the second loop, the cramps were gone but I was getting tired. I had about seven miles to go. This is when I started to tune out my surroundings and focus on each footfall that got me closer to the next aid station. Shots of cola and powergels became my sustenance before downing water and more sport drink. Ice went into my hat and into my racing singlet along with drenched sponges on my neck and back all in an effort to keep my body core temperature down. In retrospect, I became aware of a comment a friend and fellow racer in this Ironman, Jen Carder, said in her race report, “It’s amazing how lonely you can feel when there’re 2000 other people running with you.” Over the next four miles I totally agreed with Jen. I had a goal in mind of first finishing this race and then finishing it in eleven hours. It was still possible, but I had to reach deep inside to block out the monkey chatter that was telling me to take it easy and walk the rest of the way. Slowly, but surely, the monkeys disappeared as the next few miles passed. Taking their place was the overwhelming feeling that this part of journey was almost over. In the last two miles, I thought about the previous year and all of the thousands of steps I had taken by myself and with so many people beside me. This is where all the hard work and sacrifice culminates over the next few steps. I saw Coach Joe one last time before the final turn towards the finish. I raised my arms in victory to him for another picture and rounded the bend for the glorious last hundred meters or so. I came up to the divergence in the road that sent some back out for a second loop and others to the finish. A volunteer pointed to the second loop. I held my hand up and said with a smile upon my face, “No thank you. Right now, I will take the other road.”
The music was blasting away. Don’t know what song was playing. All I heard was the roar of the crowd and Mike Reilly saying, “Jeff Palmer, a veterinarian from Plainfield, Illinois. Congratulations. You are an Ironman!”
Oh my God! I did it! Again I raised my arms in victorious celebration. Several volunteers came to catch me, but I was feeling so strong at that moment. I could have floated through the finish area. There was business to still attend to as the volunteers put a finisher medal on me and gave me a shirt and hat as they took my timing chip off my ankle. By the way, I finished in 11:01:07, but I didn’t care. I was realistic. There were many faster racers in my age group and I wasn’t going to Kona, but I didn’t care. I was a freaking Ironman! Nobody could take that or the memory of this race away from me. It ranks just below the birth of my children and my marriage as memories go. The first people I saw leaving the finisher area were friends who got there before my family. Everyone got a hug from me and an apology for soaking them in a mixture of water, sport drink and sweat. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned about that. Then I saw who I wanted to see so badly at the finish – my family. My wife showered me with kisses and told me how proud of me she was. The words almost brought me to tears. My kids who normally are repulsed by my post workout sweaty body all gave me hugs and kisses without a second thought. Of course in the next breath, one kid wanted to wear my shirt, the other wanted my hat and the third wanted put on my medal. Hat and shirt were passed out, but the medal stayed on around my neck carefully cradled in one hand. Coach Joe and Suzy found their way to me as well. More hugs and beaming smiles and pictures, too. Always looking out for me, Joe mothered me along to the food tent to get water and some food in the form of a slice of pizza. Then the family and I found a place to sit for a moment to take it all in. My mother, father and sister all saw my finish on line as they watched from Iowa and called to give me their love and congratulations. It was after the calls and more friends hugging me as I sat that the emotions finally overwhelmed me and I began to cry, hiding my face on Maxine shoulders. A short and joyful cry – it was all good. When I composed myself, I thanked everyone again and hugged everyone again saving a big one for Coach Joe. I think he knew he had done something pretty incredible in getting me to that starting line and for that I am eternally grateful. With that, Joe thought it was best that I got up and started walking around and then get to the hotel for a nice ice bath for the legs. I stood up and grabbed Maxine’s hand. With the kids in tow and one last look back at the finish line, we took the next steps together in this incredible journey of life.