All You Have To Do Is Choose
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Well, here I sit nearly three weeks post-Ironman (How did THAT happen?!), and I’m finally putting pen to paper to tell the world about my day. I have to be honest: I struggled to write this because I felt like when I did, “it” (my Ironman Wisconsin journey) would be over. I’m not sure I’m ready for it to be over, maybe because my Ironman day was the BEST day of my life (other than the days that my two beautiful girls were born)… maybe because my life revolved around that race for a year prior to race day…maybe because I enjoyed the hell out of the training… maybe because then I’d be forced to face that proverbial question of what’s next (and I haven’t figured out how to top doing an Ironman)?! Since race day, however, I realized that it’s actually exactly the opposite of what I thought: It would not be over. Documenting my Ironman day would allow me to relive it time and time again as I re-read my story for years to come. So, with that, here is an account of my first Ironman.
As Coach Joe will attest, I was admittedly overwhelmed in the week prior to the race. Those last couple days before leaving town are when everything comes together, and all of the final details need to be attended to. Just trying to make sure that I had everything I might need, and that it was in the proper bag of the 5 color-coded race bags was almost enough to put me right over the edge! I think the people at the bike shop were really starting to wonder about me when I came in to buy a tube of Body Glide on each of the three consecutive days prior to leaving for Madison! 🙂
Race week Thursday finally came, and it was go time. I thought I would get more and more anxious the closer we got to Madison, but the opposite was true. I could actually feel the stress melting away as we made the trek north. Joe and I drove directly to Monona Terrace upon our arrival so I could check in. The moment I entered the building, a sense of calm came over me. I knew I was ready. I knew I was worthy. I knew I was supposed to be there. I was assigned race number 884: good karma. 8’s and 4’s are my favorite numbers. The next two days leading up to race day went seamlessly, exactly according to plan.
Let me first say that the Ironman weather Gods were definitely smiling upon us. Sorry, Baby, but this was one day that I did NOT want it to be sunny and 80! 🙂 A blip in the weather pattern (or divine intervention?!) blessed us with a race day of no sun and a predicted high in the low 70’s. The only thing that would have made it a more perfect weather day would have been no wind, but I’ll take a little wind over the sun, heat and humidity that Mother Nature dished up in the days preceding and the day after the race!
It was an amazing feeling to walk down the helix after donning my wetsuit at the top. I had watched countless athletes do that over the years. Today it was my turn, and I knew that I belonged. After a final sendoff from the world famous Experience Triathlon Cheer Crew at the bottom of the helix and a few final words of wisdom on the swim from The Coach, I made my way toward the water with 2,600 other wide-open sets of eyes. After one last hug from my training partners, Jim, Kevin, and Chilly, in the water I went. I felt the chill of the water crawl into my wetsuit, and before I knew it, I heard the blast of the cannon and we were off!
I followed my marching orders to a T: Start near the ‘swim in,’ swim diagonally toward the buoy line, stay IN the fray, hug the buoy line and swim strong. I settled into a rhythm right away and flowed, never stopping for a single stroke. Just as Joe told me it would, the water got very choppy due to the wind when I turned the 2nd buoy to begin the long swim down the back side of the oval. I thought about his uncanny ability to always be able to tell me exactly what’s going to happen during my swims just by knowing how high the wind is and what direction it’s blowing. I also thought about how this swim was nothing compared to the ocean-like swim that I endured in Ironman Racine 70.3 this year. That boosted my confidence, even as I continued to occasionally get bumped, hit and kicked by my new swim buddies. At one point I took a heel to my left cheek bone and thought, “That’s gonna leave a mark!” Before I knew it, I passed the point where the buoys change colors indicating that you’re half way through the swim. I never had that, “Holy crap, WHEN is this swim gonna END?!” thought. This was my Ironman swim, and I was enjoying every stroke. Soon I had rounded the last turn buoy, the shoreline began to grow and grow, and I could hear the crowd. I knew I had a strong swim, but I had absolutely no concept of how long I’d been in the water. I was happy when I took my first glance at my watch and saw 1:38…right on track, and better than I expected, especially given the chop! The wetsuit strippers had that sucker off me before I knew what was happening (sorry I missed you, Natalie and Sue!), and I was so excited that I was about to get a hero’s sendoff up the helix by my loyal fans! It was so great to see them, and I could tell by the look on Coach Joe’s face that he was pleasantly surprised by my swim time (I later learned that he told the cheer crew that he didn’t expect to see me for another 20 minutes…big smile)! 🙂 With a huge grin on my face, up the helix I ran, amid the deafening voices of the crowd, the cowbells, and the curb-to-curb chalk.
Max was volunteering in T1, and she told me to look for her when I got there. I did not see her upon entering the women’s changing area, so I accepted the assistance of another eager volunteer. We had barely taken a step toward the chairs when I heard a voice say, “I got this one,” and there was Max! I really appreciated her expertise and support as she took me under her wing and helped me quickly prepare for my ride. Before I knew it, she handed me my bike shoes, wished me a good ride and pointed me toward the door.
After a quick stop at the sunscreen volunteers and the port-a-potty, I made my way to my bike. As I navigated my way through the sea of bikes, something that I had always heard about Ironman came to mind. It goes something like this: Ironman is just a long training day with valet service and catering. That statement could not be more true. The massive transition area was staffed with what seemed like hundreds of volunteers, each calling out race numbers to down line volunteers in an effort to make sure that your bike was ready to be handed to you once you arrived at your rack. Mine was, and it was time for 112 miles of hilly fun on one of the most difficult Ironman bike courses.
Early in the bike course, I saw this stenciled on the pavement: “Smile This Is Fun :-)”. Fun it was and smile I did as I made my way through the ups and downs and twists and turns of the first loop of the bike course. I got a big energy boost when I saw Tom Z. volunteering on the bike course just as I completed the “stick” and began my first loop. I checked in with my PowerTap every so often to make sure that I was hitting the mph and power goals that Coach Joe had helped me set to be sure that I made the bike cut-offs. I had ridden this course many times before, so there were no surprises, and everything was going like clock-work. At one point, another female rider was lamenting to me about how disappointed she was that we weren’t going to see the sun today. “Are you kidding me?” I thought. “I’m ecstatic about that!” We were already contending with the extra challenge of the wind on the bike, and I know how much harder it would have been if we had full-on sun and the accompanying heat. Once again I thanked the Ironman weather Gods. It was fun to see Anne and Sal as I was being chased by a devil with a pitch fork up Old Sauk Pass, and I anxiously anticipated another encounter with the ET cheer crew at the top of the next famous climb – Timber Lane. Larry and Tyler were a welcome sight on my left as I started the Timber climb. Suddenly Coach Sarah popped up out of nowhere and started running up the hill next to me. I had climbed this hill so many times in the past, only able to envision the crowds lining the street Tour-de-France style in my minds eye. Today it was unfolding right there in front of me, and it was everything I thought it would be. I was welcomed at the top by a HUGE ET Cheer Crew, and I was so happy to see all of them, especially Coach Joe, who told me that I was once again way ahead on my time splits! J Although I knew that anything could happen, I felt a sense of relief come over me about making the bike cut-offs. The smiles on the faces of my beautiful daughters warmed my heart, and I was already thinking about seeing them again on the second half of the bike leg. What a nice surprise it was to see Natalie and Sue on my left as I flew through the crowd-lined streets of Verona’s Ironman festival!
It was obvious that the sustained winds and rigors of the day were starting to take a toll on some of my fellow athletes during the second loop on the bike. I saw a couple people being put into ambulances and one guy who was literally throwing up as he rode. I continued to feel like a rock star. Following Coach Joe’s orders, I stayed in aero to cheat the wind as much as possible, and I worked the downhills to gain speed. I methodically worked my nutrition and hydration plan, and I was happy that I had been able to maintain my pace during the second loop (something that I had struggled with during training). Seeing the ET cheer crew on Timber Lane and Anne and Sal on Midtown gave me just the push I needed to complete the bike leg strong. Once again Coach Joe told me that I was way ahead of schedule and I should “coast it in” as I headed back to Madison to start my run. “CAN DO!” I thought! I stretched out my arm to grab a bottle of water from a volunteer in Verona, and when I got close enough, I was so excited to see Jim A. handing it to me! 🙂 Soon I found myself climbing the helix and handing off my bike to eager volunteers (there’s that valet service thing again!).
After a quick change of clothes, I emerged from T2 feeling fresh and ready to run. I soaked in the smiling faces, fist pumps and cheers from my friends, Pat C., Natalie and Sue, Coach Sarah and Kurt as I eagerly started my marathon. I felt like a celebrity again amongst the cheers and clicking cameras of the ET cheer crew as I started down State Street. Coach Joe had a huge smile on his face as he delivered the news that I had seven hours to complete the marathon…I was going to be an Ironman tonight! My marathon strategy was to run as strong as I was able to run that day, walk the aid stations (and maybe the hills!) and get to the finish line by midnight, whatever it took!! The first half of the marathon went exactly according to plan. I saw six of my seven “Crazy 8” compadres, and I was happy to see that everyone seemed to be doing well. But where was my tri sister, Chilly? I looked forward to hopefully seeing her too at some point. Two friends, Amy B. and Stephanie S., had quite a knack for popping up like a jack in the box where I least expected them – they were awesome! It was fun to see Ironman Kristel and her hubby, Jaun, near the University of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall football stadium. Still running strong, I was so happy to see my friends, Betsy, Heather and Cheryl, emerge from the darkness near where I knew I’d soon pass the ET cheer crew one more time. I welcomed the sight and sound of the cheer crew with open arms (literally). Cheers from Susan G. and Coach Sarah welcomed me as I neared the turn around. I have no idea how he navigated the course that quickly, but Coach Joe beat me to the turnaround after we had exchanged a quick peck on State Street! I was so happy to be able to once again tell him that I was still feeling fantastic. I declined Coach Sarah’s offer to hand me my run special needs bag (a decision that I would later come to regret), and off I went for the final 13.1 leg of my journey.
About 13 hours into my race and well into the 2nd loop, things took a turn for the worse. For the first time since I heard the blast of the cannon, I began to struggle. I felt as if I literally ran out of gas, struggling to keep my eyes open and see where I was going in the dark. This is the point that I regretted showing Coach Sarah the hand when she offered me my run special needs bag. Even though the thought of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich did not sound appealing at all to me at that point, I knew the calories would have helped me now. I no longer had the energy to run, and I had to dig deep just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. My second time up the big hill on Observatory Dr. was the only time during the race that I questioned whether I would actually be able to keep making forward progress. As I snaked my way up the hill (I did not have the energy to walk in a straight line) in the dark, I thought, “I hope no one’s watching me because I must look ridiculous.” I was so happy to finally see Chilly who reported that she was also struggling with energy/stomach issues. We exchanged some words of encouragement and trudged on. I just kept walking, and by mile 20.5, my stomach and my brain were doing battle in a big way. My stomach was saying, “We need to stop.” My brain was saying, “NO! We are not stopping. We have 6 more miles to go, and we’re not stopping until we get there.” My stomach won, and I allowed myself to sit down for the first time during the marathon. I was very close to mile 21 at that point, and almost immediately, a volunteer from that aid station joined me for a little chat. He told me that he had done the race before, and that he had experienced what I was going through. He looked at his watch and told me that I had plenty of time to make the finish line by midnight. He asked me my name, and he assured me that he was going to be waiting at the finish to cheer me across the line. (I’m pretty sure he was an angel! :-)) That was just the push I needed to get vertical and start moving again. I walked right past the aid station at mile 21, knowing full well that I should eat and drink something, but also knowing that there was no way my stomach would tolerate it. About 50 feet down the pitch black crushed limestone path, I went down again, this time for much longer. My stomach was waging an all out battle, and I knew I had to give in, if even just for a short time. Many athletes were walking past me, still heading out on the course. It gave me hope that even though I was down and feeling terrible, there were still plenty of people behind me. I knew that all I had to do was get through this rough spot, and then I could continue toward my goal of becoming an Ironman. Never once did I consider pulling up.
The volunteers were obviously watching me very closely because I had literally just sat down in the dark when another one was hovering over me. This time it was the gal who was in charge of the mile 21 aid station. She began asking me a lot of questions. I knew what she was doing. She wanted to see if I had my wits about me or if I was completely delirious. Unfortunately for her, I began to vomit. I heard such things as, “Aww, poor thing” from the other athletes as they passed me. After the third time I vomited, she suggested that I may need medical attention. I politely said, “I’m 5 miles from the finish line and I ain’t pullin’ up now…all I need is some energy and I’ll get outta your hair.” I knew that I felt better and I knew that all I had to do was replenish my energy and then I could continue. I agreed to try some chicken broth, which went down well. Then she suggested some cola, which went down well too. I could feel my body starting to come alive again. I remembered that I had one more PowerGel in my tri suit pocket. She opened it and handed it to me. I took half of it and there it was! I knew that I was not only fine to continue, but I knew that I would now be able to RUN again!!! I hopped up, dusted myself off, and I was off and running toward the finish line!
Feeling as fresh as I did when I started the marathon, I sailed easily past other athletes doing the Ironman shuffle through the darkness. At one point I heard one guy say to his walking companion, “HOW is she still running?!” (Another big smile! :-)) Around mile 23, I heard a male voice say, “Is that Suzy?” It was the first volunteer (aka angel!) from the mile 21 aid station. I shouted back, “Yes, it’s Suzy!” He offered some words of encouragement, commended me for running again (literally EVERYONE was walking) and looking strong, and told me that I was going to be an Ironman tonight. A short time before I knew I would once again emerge upon downtown Madison, I went under a viaduct. It was pitch black. As I emerged, I heard another male voice say, “Way to go, Suzy.” “WHO is THAT, and HOW did he know it was me?!” I thought. It was Steven M! God bless him for coming out there to find me! I could tell right away that he was communicating with the finish line because his fingers started wildly typing on his phone. He had flip flops on, and I chuckled to myself that it seemed like he actually might be having a hard time keeping up with me! 🙂 He was super supportive, and I knew it was only a matter of time now.
The next thing I knew I was making my final trip down State Street toward the Capitol. Suddenly Drew and Coach Sarah were running alongside me on my left, offering one last energy boost as I began to hear the music and the crowd at the finish line. It was great to see Mike B. and hear him cheer for me just before I entered the finish line chute. I was so focused on running into the light, but I made sure not to miss the shrieks, energy and smiles of my two beautiful daughters as they ran along the outside of the finish chute to meet me after I crossed. I had arrived at the top of Mount Ironman… this was the moment.
And then I heard it. No more fear of not making the cut-offs on the bike and run. No more pain. No more gut ache or nausea. Just pure joy. 16 hours 23 minutes and 15 seconds after I took my first stroke, I heard the phrase that I had been waiting to hear for the past year:
“Suzy Cerra… 51 year old first-timer from Naperville, IL…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I ran in the rain. I swam in the dark. I rode in the heat. I got really used to 4 am wake up calls and ice baths. Months and months of preparation had finally come together in my one moment of time, and I will never forget it. The Ironman is a day filled with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. A shirt that I saw on the course summed it up nicely: “She believed she could so she did.” It’s as simple as that. I went from being 3 Mile Suzy to 140.6 Mile Suzy all because I believed I could. All you have to do is choose. 🙂
I’d like to say one final sincere and heartfelt THANK YOU to my love and my Coach for getting me there, to our Team Dietitian, Laurie, for all her expert guidance and support (I would have never made it without these two!), and to all my friends and family who took time out of their super busy lives to either make it to Madison for my race or track me from afar. I’m so thankful to each and every one of you. You were my lifeline and my motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other, especially during the second half of the marathon when I was struggling. THANK YOU!!!
Enjoy all the photos from our amazing weekend at Ironman Wisconsin on the ET Photo Gallery!
My 2013 Ironman Journey Articles by Coach Suzy:
The Hard is What Makes It Great