The Good, The Bad, The Amazing
As I’m sitting on a plane flanked by my mother and sister on our way to Napa for some POST Ironman R&R, I finally had the opportunity to go through all of the pictures and videos (Thanks, Daddy) from Ironman Wisconsin 2016 on Sunday. It’s amazing to reflect not only on this past weekend but the entire journey that has gotten me here.
Sunday was a remarkable day. Everyone always says that… that Ironman will be one of the best days of your life. Yea, ok. Cool. Doubt it! How could it be? The sheer thought of the physical effort I was going to put my body through was at worst terrifying, at best, unsettling. There are SO many things that could go wrong… being kicked or punched in the swim, cramping or pain on the bike, flat tires, broken gears, dropped nutrition or hydration, stomach issues on the run, or pain to the point of walking or crawling, and SO ON. What I realized during my journey is that it’s not IF these things will happen, it’s when… and when something happens it’s ALL about HOW you handle it. That’s the difference between the race conquering you and you conquering the race.
A major part of the Ironman Journey is obviously the months and months of training. Starting back in January I saw a difference in my commitment. As workouts ramped up in the fall and certainly in the summer I began to see the distance become easier and physically getting closer to where I needed to be to get through this. The mental training however is a much more fluid process. I didn’t always even realize what was happening. My training was plagued a bit with injuries on and off pretty much the entire time. During the fall I had pain on the outside of my right foot. Physical therapy for two months helped take care of that with ongoing stretching to keep things in check. This summer during a solo ride on the Ironman Madison bike course I crashed after losing control on a sharp turn at the bottom of a steep descent (talk about mental training… getting back on my bike and finishing the last 32 miles of that ride was pretty darn good). I thought all was fine, until a couple weeks later when my LEFT foot started to hurt on long runs. I had strained tendons and therefore, no running for two weeks for it heal. The Good: It will heal. The Bad: the longest training run I completed pre-race was 14 miles (many athletes get to 17, 18 or more in a lot of cases). The Amazing: Before an ET group swim at Centennial Beach, Coach Joe pulled me aside and had a candid conversation with me. Ultimately he helped get me mentally to a place where this wasn’t bringing me down. “It’s about perspective and adjusting expectation.” I needed to be OK with my race day not looking like I had originally dreamt about; otherwise I was setting myself up for disappointment. Our conversation took up the entire hour; I never actually made it into the water that night. As time went on, my foot healed, yay! However, 12 days before Ironman while I was 1200 yards into a 4000-yard training swim, my upper back spasmed and my muscles locked up. WHAT? This was the scariest part of training. I was in constant discomfort and it was hard to keep the demons and fear of not finishing out of my mind. That said, Joe’s words kept resurfacing. I stayed positive and between 8 hours of massage (within 5 days), chiropractor adjustments, electronic stimulation, ultrasound, anti inflammatory meds, heating packs and lots of ice, the muscles relaxed enough to get me to the race feeling healthy and ready to go. People have a tendency to ask, “Are You Ready?” in the days leading up to Ironman. It’s a tough question to answer because I would wager most athletes who do Ironman have Type A personalities… and nobody is ever completely ready. You always think you could have done more. I should have practiced that more, experimented with that differently, asked that question, researched that longer… and the list goes on. To be honest, this was the first race I experienced an overwhelming sense of calming ACCEPTANCE. I’d done what I could. Listened to my coach. Followed the guidance. And, the day will be what it will be. You can control what you can control and you simply can’t worry about the things you can’t. So you accept those facts and you move forward until all of the sudden you’re in Lake Monona and the cannon goes off. BOOM!
The Good: I learned its tradition to MOO when you make the first buoy turn. Yes, people stop, lift their heads, and start audibly “moooooooo”ing as if we are a herd of cattle. HA. The Bad: I was never comfortable with the people constantly smothering me, my neck was chaffing from my wetsuit and my goggles were close to useless a good portion of the swim. I stopped 3 or 4 times to adjust my goggles, drain them, even taking them off a couple of times. A lifeguard almost paddled over to me while I was futzing with them until I waved her off saying, “I’m OK.” The Amazing: I will forever get goosebumps remembering the feeling of entering the water (a little more rushed than I should have been), hearing Mike Riley say, “This is going to be the best day of your LIVES,” actually feeling the cannon shake my core as I started to swim with 2450 other athletes and the unbelievable roar of the crowd gathered along the shoreline. It’s an astounding thing to realize you all share a common goal, a common dream of conquering whatever it is that is going to come at us.
The Good: Kally, my transition volunteer, was amazing. In Ironman, the volunteers are SO helpful. They swarm around you and help with anything and everything you may need. In addition to the ET cheer crew being so absolutely supporting, my family surprised me at mile 75 out of nowhere. I almost jumped off my bike I was so excited to see them! The Bad: I forgot my chapstick! WHO PUTS THAT IN THEIR AID BAG that you don’t get until ½ way through the bike? Me… this girl. Ugh! OK, move on, this won’t kill me. BARLOW might though. The Madison bike course is known for being one of the most difficult routes of all the Ironman races. The overall elevation climb is over 4,000 vertical feet and there are 3 distinct hills that have warranted the nickname “Three Bitches” due to their incline and length. Since the race is a double loop you get the distinct honor of climbing these bitches twice, making it really SIX bitches. This year due to road construction there was a last minute change that removed one (really two with the loop) of these bitches (YAY!) but they added in one major hill along Barlow Street. Since it was such a late change I never had the opportunity to practice Barlow prior to the race. Let me tell you… this one hill was the equivalent of all three of these bitches put together, at least in my opinion. OK, so back to “the bad.” After I had climbed up this mother of all bitches, Barlow, my knee started to hurt. This was a brand new kind of hurt. Sharp. Hot. Shooting pain. It would come and go, but this happened around mile 35, so in my head I’m thinking I have 80 more miles to go THEN a marathon to run, awesome. The pain occurred on and off the entire bike but I learned when I was in a lighter gear it didn’t happen as often. Therefore, the bike took a bit longer than expected but I got it done. The Amazing: Believe it or not, Barlow was also the amazing part. In order to fully understand I’m going to take you back to February on a training ride in Hawaii. I was riding solo and came across what I later learned local cyclists call The Wall along the northwest side of Maui. It caught me off guard and I ended up dismounting my bike and walking up. Fast forward to September, as I approached Barlow all I could think was how similar it was to The Wall. I told myself that even if I didn’t finish the race today if I made it up this hill ON my bike I would forever have that to be proud of. So there I went… 4 mph up this hill, battling each pedal stroke. Since I was one of very few actually on their bike (95% of the other athletes had dismounted) it felt as if all the spectators (and there were a LOT) were cheering me on. I felt like I could conquer anything. Every time someone would yell “Go #722, you got this!” I would say in my head, “Yes, I do.” I was actually nodding my head up and down. As I struggled stroke by stoke I knew that as long as I believed I could make it, I WOULD. Whew. Just gave me chills reliving this.
The Good: As I walked out of Transition 2 (yes, walked… plenty of running ahead of me) to begin the run portion I saw and HEARD some of my cheer crew (how’d they get there so fast?!). I had an opportunity to grab my mom’s hand, hug my 4 yr. old nephew, get a pat on the back from my sister and about 10 yards up stop and kiss my husband. This was one of the most touching parts… Kyle, although always with my cheer crew, would stand a little further away so we could have a moment to ourselves. He would say encouraging words, give me a kiss and whether he knew it or not pump about 1000 volts of energy into me. As I started jogging, smiling ear to ear, I felt that whatever came I could do this. The Bad: NOTHING… what?!?… all of the aches and pains, including that terrible knee issue from the bike just disappeared. And this leads me into The Amazing: I ran the whole damn thing. Rewind to 20 minutes ago when you started reading this novel… I had only run 14 miles before race day due to injuries and I ran the entire 26.2 miles of this run! Here are a couple of my favorite moments. Around mile 10 when I passed the world famous ET Cheer Crew along State Street, Coach Joe jogged along side of me to check in. All I remember is saying, “I feel good, no issues, I’m going to do this.” He smiled knowingly, gave me a fist pump and I kept jogging along. I later learned that when he got back to the group and updated my mom on what I had said she started crying from relief. Gosh, I love her. Now, when I say, “I ran the whole thing,” know that I allowed myself to walk through aid stations and up significant hills (this was part of my training plan)… so as I was walking up a hill at mile 20 I saw one of besties, Lauren, and said, “Oh no, is my family up there too?!? CRAP (not the actual word I used), now I have to run!” and so I did, and she ran right along side of me. The best part about only having run 14 miles is that each mile marker after that was a brand new accomplishment. A brand new reason to keep pushing, to keep believing. A brand new motivation to make it to the next one until finally, I reached 26. I saw the lights of the finish line, felt the crowds cheering and music playing and after stopping to hug my family and grab the American flag my mom had for me (it was September 11 after all) I heard those sweet words that made it all worth it. “Emily Ory, You ARE An Ironman!”
There are so many more moments that made this day unforgettable. I have mentioned my cheer crew several times and simply can’t say enough about them (all 17 of them). I had expected to see them twice on the bike and twice on the run. They TOTALLY surprised me and popped up DOZENS of times… they were everywhere! I honestly don’t know if I had to run this race again tomorrow without them there if I could do it. They were that impactful and for that I am eternally grateful. To Laurie Schubert our ET Team Dietitian and Sarah Farsalas our ET massage therapist, thank you from the bottom of my heart for the advice and guidance you gave me to prepare for this race. Finally, to Coach Joe LoPresto for giving me the strength to believe in myself and tools to prepare for this life changing event.
People say you can do anything you put your mind to. I experienced that on Sunday. How is it that I was able to run 26.2 miles after swimming 2.4 and biking 112? How can your body do that? Run 26.2 miles after only running up to 14 in training?? Because I told myself I could and I believed it. Wow. Simply amazing.