Inch By Inch We Become Ironman

Inch By Inch We Become Ironman

andrea ironmanby Andrea S.

I thought my Ironman Wisconsin journey was about recovering from a heartbreak. What I discovered, though, is that my journey was really about conquering my fears and realizing that I AM good enough. I hope my story inspires anyone who has ever been plagued with self-doubt and fears. I hope my story inspires the ordinary to do the extraordinary.

My second Ironman journey was markedly different from my first. Team in Training introduced me to the triathlon sport in the latter 1990s, and I quickly became immersed in the culture. I slowly worked my way up the distances and my culminating triathlon was Ironman Wisconsin 2004. I said I would never do another. Eleven years later, I found myself sitting across from Coach Joe discussing my goals for my second Ironman and learning about ET Personal Coaching services.

My training began in the bitter winter months- hours on my indoor trainer and treadmill and countless early mornings trekking through the darkness and snow to get to the pool. My doubts started seeping in early on with the bike workouts as I struggled with them. Coach Joe responded as all great teachers do- he continued to set the bar high and inch by inch I got stronger.

With spring, came increased Ironman training volume and Experience Triathlon group rides. The first group ride was in St. Charles. Nerves and fear prevented me from sleeping the night before and this became a common theme throughout my journey.   I quickly discovered that I was by far the slowest person in the Ironman training group and even though I continued to get better I could never keep up. Every Sunday, I would watch them slip away. I was almost always the last car to leave the parking lot. What are you thinking? You don’t belong here. You are not good enough! These are some of the thoughts that plagued me.

I also made my first visit to the Ironman course in eleven years in the early spring. I climbed to the top of the first big hill and froze. This is not easy for me to reveal to my fellow athletes . . . I could not ride down the big curvy hill on Garfoot road. Yep- I got off my bike and walked all the way down. My brakes got a great workout that day and by the time I made it back to my car my hands and neck were screaming in pain from my forty mile death grip. It’s not easy to tell your coach that you are terrified of the downhills on the IM course.

The following Sunday, Coach Joe road alongside of me at the group ride and gently and artfully approached the subject. He demonstrated the proper body position for riding downhills and rode right behind me as I practiced. This was a game changer for me. With each visit to the IM course, I became braver and my brakes worked less and less. On my third trip, I did not get off my bike at Garfoot. Tears of joy splashed to the pavement when I reached the bottom. By the way, I rode like Super Girl down those hills on IM day while smiling!

Early summer brought a whole new challenge. Pleasant Prairie marked my reentry into the triathlon sport.  I was a DNS (Did Not Start). The night before and that morning, I found myself nearly paralyzed with fear. I am not even sure I could name exactly what I was afraid of. The horn blew and into the water I plunged. I did not make it five swim strokes before I found myself clinging onto the lifeguard’s raft. I tried to make another go but could not catch my breath. I quit. I climbed out. I was riddled with shame, disappointment and embarrassment. Monday morning I remembered I had purchased insurance when I registered for the Ironman. My immediate solution was to get a refund and quit altogether.

Instead, I met Coach Joe at Centennial Beach for Monday evening open water swim practice and a heart to heart chat. I had to muster all my courage to show up that day. Coach Joe taught me that I really must not quit. It’s what you do when you fall that matters. From that day on, I practiced open water swim every day that the weather allowed me to do so . . . which meant making the long treks to Lake in the Hills and Pleasant Prairie as well as Centennial.

The first week of July brought a different challenge. The night after riding two loops of the Ironman course, I became sick. At first, it seemed like a little cold but by the time my half Ironman race day came around at the end of July the cold had blossomed into a sinus infection, upper respiratory infection and an intestinal bug.   I got myself in the water that day . . . it was vital for my confidence. The morning was windy and the water was choppy.   As the waves pelted me in the face and knocked me back with every stroke, I heard Coach Joe saying DO NOT QUIT. I did not quit. Rain pelted me the first twenty miles on the bike and with each pedal stroke I felt weaker and weaker.   The temperatures soared to the low 90s by the time I got to the run. Completing a half Ironman sick was one of the hardest things I have done.   After my race report, Coach Joe wrote that my day in Madison for the Ironman would be a cake walk compared to my half Ironman experience. He was right.

By August, I had proved I could ride the entire IM course and my fear of Garfoot and the downhills was history. My ten month journey was dotted with difficult training days, but there are always those that stand out. Sunday, August 16th was one of those stand outs. The day was hot and humid, and I had to tackle the four and a half hour ride solo. Coach Joe got an earful that day on my post work-out comments. However, what he said to me was another game changer: These are the days we become Ironman, not the days it all goes well. In that moment, I realized that it is through the journey that one becomes Ironman. Several weeks later, while riding alongside a wise, fellow ET Ironman athlete, he said to me: The journey is the destination. Ironman race day is just the cherry on top. Thank you, Drew!

The end of August brought a different kind of heartbreak. On August 27th, my love, my sweet dog Annie died. I received that dreaded call at work . . . it was unexpected. Devastation. Grief. Shock. I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to do an Ironman without Annie. Coach Joe helped me turn this grief into positive energy. I soon found solace in my workouts, and they made me feel connected to Annie. She was my swim, bike and run angel on September 13, 2015.

Around 9:00 PM on September 12th, I climbed into my hotel bed with my great love by my side. Life is full of irony. Heartbreak may have begun my journey, but my love story has a happy ending. Soon after my Ironman journey began, Joe came back into my life. He has been with me every step of the way and his love and support carried me to the finish line. I remember turning to Joe that night and telling him I cannot do this tomorrow. I had my phone in my hand ready to dial Coach Joe. Joe talked me through every single fear and self-doubt I had and he held me tight the entire night. Fear continued to ripple through my body the entire night. Somehow I made my feet hit the floor that morning.

My name is Andrea. I became an Ironman long before I crossed the finish line on September 13, 2015. When I crossed that finish line, I came out on the other side a better Andrea. Along my journey, I came across brilliant words from a brilliant man, Thomas A. Edison: Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

Enjoy all the amazing photos from our weekend at Ironman Wisconsin on the ET Photo Gallery!

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  • Drew Repoza

    Congratulations, Andrea! I’m glad some of my rambling during the long rides was positive! 🙂 My favorite memory training with you (and with Joe) was the Batavia triathlon practice ride, and I enjoyed sharing this journey with you!