During a meditation last year, I had a vision of me swimming in aqua blue water with skies to match. There were many others alongside, ahead and behind me. I came out of that meditation knowing that I just saw my next 140.6 mile race. The next time I saw that vision was a few Sundays ago during the 2.4 mile swim from Fonatur Marina to Chankanaab Park in Cozumel, Mexico. Just as I had seen it more than a year ago, I was living it with real time clarity and I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, in the middle of a point to point swim in the Caribbean Sea. Yet another beginning of certain knowns and many unknowns that would reveal themselves to me throughout the day. In truth, these are pieces of this endurance sports puzzle that keep bringing me back for more. The curve balls of extreme bodily sensation, mother nature’s deliveries and mechanics that are never a part of my plan but by something greater than me become necessary to navigate in order to fulfill my goal. Racing long distance triathlon is nothing more than yoga for me. The goal being to remain unshakable when the unknowns blow up in my face or when I jump off a dock to find a shallow landing and sharp coral beneath me which is the way I started this day.
Shaking off a not so pleasant water entry as nothing more than my first obstacle, I got right after my groove. With 100% visibility, it was an aquarium like experience of bright colored fish that I had only seen in a book before this day. I swam through a school of tropical fish with markings like zebras and highlights of bright yellow. I turned my head to the left for a breath and there was the vision I had more than a year ago. It had come to fruition and I was living it now. I waited to feel the current to my back as promised in the race promotion, but after hearing murmurs prior to the swim, I wasn’t surprised when I only felt it after the halfway point. For the first handful of course buoys I was being pushed to shore and had to keep swimming out to sea to stay on track. I had absolutely no contact with other swimmers and made a note to report that this is a great first timer swim experience. Besides my entry from the dock it was so far, an uneventful swim.
The first sting hit me on my left hand shortly after noting the uneventful-ness of my experience. The second sting came to the back of my right leg. The third to my left leg. The fourth to my right shoulder. It was as if these microscopic jellyfish were pinging back and forth from one side of my body to the other tapping me with sudden, burning discomfort just test to my mental game. Although initially stunned, I watched the pain dissipate and remained unshakable. I remembered a conversation I had with my brother in-law “to be“ a few days before. We were talking about pain in the body and how everything is simply energy until we label it. Once we label it, we condemn our experience. I refused to condemn myself into a story and with no reason to carry it, I moved into my next stroke. I could do nothing to control it and even though I wanted it to stop, I knew my only option was to accept the uncertainty and sensation of these little tests. The stings continued throughout the entire swim, the last one just before the turn buoy. I kept focusing on what I could control, my actions and choices in each moment.
After I took the final turn towards the finish the brilliant sun almost blinded me. The only thing I could make out were the splashes of water from the swimmers ahead of me so I followed the airborne droplets of sea. I approached the stairs and looked up for a helping hand, none to be found. Somehow I managed to get my foot up near my shoulder and landed it on a step. I grabbed onto the railing and hauled myself out of the water like a bag of sand. I heard my number called “cuatro, seis, tres” and the sound of the timing mat confirming my fastest Ironman swim time of 1:10:39, 20th place in my age group.
Having felt a burning sensation on my neck throughout the entire swim due to my reluctance to apply glide to that area, I took my time in the shower to make sure all the salt water was off. Considering the at least 6-8 jellyfish stings and an already chafing body, I was reminded of my golden rule, limit the suffering as much as possible. I’m not going for a Kona spot and although I always plan to get to the finish as soon as possible, I’ve got the luxury to take extra steps. My main competition is not with the clock, it is found between my true high vibe self and my human lower vibe self. Between the self that spends time rehashing the past and pondering the future of what ifs and should haves and the self that watches it all from up above, unphased by experience and showered with acceptance. The latter has become my resting place and I noticed this more so than ever in the days and weeks leading up to this race. I didn’t experience the normal anticipatory feelings of this epic trip, traveling with our bikes to another country, the expenses that kept slamming us along the way or reeling thoughts of race day strategy and worry of any missteps. I had only one thing going through my head in the days before and moments of this race experience: no matter what, stay out of my sub-conscious mind.
“Cuatro, seis, tres”, echoed through the racks of transition bags and I was handed my gear. With sunscreen, Vaseline and gratuitous amounts of chamois cream, I headed into the changing tent with my bag and a bloody foot. Since the cuts on my foot from landing on the coral were not eliciting any sensation, I didn’t bother with them at all. I methodically prepared myself with all the ingredients for my ride and set off for the 112 mile bike. My plan was to keep a high cadence, heart rate between 139-142 and my mind set in the conscious realm. The first stretch was super fast, easily holding 18-19 miles per hour. I hit the first aid station and started my cooling regime. I picked up a bottle of icy water and poured some over my head, something that I would continue to do every 15-20 minutes for the next 12 hours.
I saw the sign for Punta Sur, the southernmost tip of the island and from here, I knew what was coming. The yellow signs for a sharp curve to the left brought me closer to the infamous east side of the island. The second set of yellow signs sent me into everything I had heard about for a year leading up to this race. Exposure, heat, wind, lush and barren landscapes trimmed by a wild, turquoise sea. For 12 miles, I headed directly into the wind averaging between 12-14 miles per hour. I remained steadfast in my goal to stay out of my subconscious mind and in the truth of the moment while keeping my legs spinning quick. Going too hard on this portion of the race, this early in the day, would guarantee me a very long marathon. I kept my heart rate in check and let go of any attachment to clock time. Close to an hour I saw riders taking a left, the road back into town was within reach and the wind on my back was coming soon. I returned to an easy 18-19 mph pace. The landscape morphed from thick natural growth, barren of spectators to deafening support of roaring crowds, buildings and homes. No cowbells at this race just plastic jugs and bottles filled with rocks and words like “ve rapido, mujeres, anee-mal” reverberating along the streets.
The hot corners were hopping and I was cruising to my 2nd lap. Heading south on the fast stretch I saw my family, yelling and screaming. I was feeling good with one loop down and completely dialed into my cooling and nutrition regimen. This was the type of day that could ruin an athlete. The combo of the heat and wind is deceiving as the wind can shield the immediate felt sense of the heat and its effects on the body. Plus with wind comes more energy expenditure so keeping a high cadence and consistent nutrition plan intact was evermore important. Even though my body was surely heating up, the temperatures never touched my mental game. I have spent upwards of 13-15 hours a week in a steamy hot yoga studio for the past year and I felt completely acclimated to the climate. Also in preparation for the infamous wind, I would push myself out the door on the windiest of days and would head to the southern tip of the island where I live for the greatest effect.
About half way through the second lap, a searing, hot sensation showed up in my left foot. This is something that I’m familiar with as I have felt this in every Ironman I’ve raced but this was the first time I felt it on the bike. It’s a deep nerve pain that shoots right through my middle toe that makes my entire foot feel dead. I adjusted my body by lightening up my foot on the pedal and relied on the big muscle groups in my legs to take away the pressure off my foot in my shoe. I worked with visualization and energy moving techniques I’ve learned in my meditation practice to relieve the discomfort. The physical part is the easy part, it’s not allowing this sensation to rattle me. If I were to buy into my past experience of always feeling this during the run then I may have just condemned the rest of my race while wasting much needed energy on worry. Instead I dug into what was true, the present moment and away from any thoughts about the future. I had no problems as each moment proved a successful pedal stroke and forward motion.
Once again, I reached the end of the east side and headed back into town. The pain in my foot persisted but at least I had the wind to my back. Always looking for things to be grateful for goes a long way in the face of extreme physical challenge. It wasn’t long before I saw billows of black, thick smoke covering the sky and road ahead. As I got closer, the spectators were still cheering and unaffected by the daunting clouds of black filling the air. I questioned if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing and wondered if I was about to experience some supernatural dimension jump. As I got closer and the air became thicker and darker, the locals were still hooting and hollering as if all was normal. With no detours in sight, it was clear that I’d be riding directly through the darkness. I took a massive inhale and rode into the black cloud. I could see that there were people on the side of the road in the darkness, cheering. It was this bizarre and ironic reality of life and I was charging through it on my bike. I blasted out the other side like Evel Knievel and let out my exhale to great roars from the crowd like my passing through a fire was a part of the show.
With clear skies ahead I was on my the third lap and final lap. I had one more go at the headwinds on the east side which had yet to shake me. Since this day, BJ has been reading about race day and shared with me a consensus that the wind we experienced that day was the worst in years. The pain in my foot hit a much higher level for most of the third lap and I let any paranoid thoughts of how this could affect my run go by like a film strip. I’ve learned that I can’t stop my thoughts but I can let them go by without my participation. Without food, they will fade away.
I cruised into the bike finish on my slower end of predictions but still my fastest Ironman bike time of 7:04:41, 26th in my age group. I thought my legs felt great and although I didn’t notice until sometime after the race, the pain in my foot dissipated and never returned. I took my time in transition to ensure that everything I did was in alignment to ‘limit the suffering’ before heading out onto the run. I saw my sister right away and asked how BJ was doing. From her report, it seemed as though he was just ok. I had not laid eyes on him since our “Happy Anniversary, Good Luck, Stay Strong” embrace before the swim start so I was eager to see him on the run course. I set my eyes steady ahead and was on my way, purposefully taking the first two miles slower than normal to ‘get my legs under me’ and then the plan was to pick it up. Using that gift of past experience held in my mind I was going to repeat my performance from Lake Placid last year where I PR’d my overall marathon time. Surely I could break 4hrs 30min on this course but I had BJ in my mind telling me I could run even faster. I paced the bike perfectly and my legs never felt the burn they normally do. I had set myself up for a fast run.
The first mile came at 10:30, perfect. The second mile clocked around the same time. “Ok, time to pick it up, here we go!” Nothing, my legs did not react. Over and over again for 26 miles I surged and for a moment I would hold it and then fall back again. I could barely pick my feet up off the ground and I never felt a drive from my quads until the final two miles. I used every mind over matter trick in my book but my legs would not respond. Was this the effect of a flat course and never getting the relief of a downhill stretch? Was it the heat? Perhaps. Even though the heat never touched me mentally, my body was a burning inferno. I kept a steady pace and continued to cool myself down religiously. By the 3rd aid station, my sneakers were holding pools of water. Each mile I clocked was consistent, within minutes of each other. I never fell apart on that run, I just never was able to hold any speed.
I ran towards special needs yelling “cuatro, seis, tres” with the eagerness of an excited child knowing that I had a new pair of socks in my bag. I had every intent to change into them but not without a patient pause. The racks were put together out of order so finding cuatro, seis, tres, was not so quick and easy. Finally we located my bag. I took off my drenched socks to reveal, very white, very wet, very wrinkly feet underneath. Sliding on a new pair of dry socks was absolute heaven on earth. I secured my laces and shot out of Special Needs with the intent to run faster. Quickly my legs told me that there was no other pace today, this was it. I was stuck in the world of an 11:20 mile. Besides having dead legs and overall fatigue I was doing really well, until mile 23 when I felt the first shearing of skin away from my foot. The gut wrenching sensation of exposed nerves rubbing up against my sock. I directed my attention away from my foot and onto my breath. I’ve been here before but in the past it’s been earlier, around mile 16. I believe changing my socks definitely pushed this off a bit, a luxury I most likely would not have indulged it I was running faster. I relaxed into the sensation and kept pace. Then the skin from my big toe on the same foot came off and this addition almost took me to my knees. I could no longer toe off so I quickly adopted a flat foot, hip flexor reliant gait that was so hard on my joints but one that would get me to the finish. The sensation was super intense, the silent mantra that I’d been holding for miles was now verbal. Every step took everything I had and I picked up the pace despite my dead legs and willed myself towards the finish. I passed mile 25, slamming my feet into the uneven pavement and om’ing loudly. My diaphragm seized up. I added in harsh exhales to contract it as a direct pressure technique to relieve the cramping. The final stretch into town felt like forever but I finally saw the hot corner and the turn to the finish. I soaked up those final moments. The precious time frame when everything falls away in sight of the finish line. I roused the crowds and they responded, I shot my fist in the air in bliss as I crossed over to my 4th Ironman and 2nd fastest finish time of 13:30:22 and 21st overall in my age group.
I gave that race everything I had and in retrospect I can see so clearly that I was truly unshakable that day. I have never experienced the mental solidity that I did and I know that all those moments of meditation, having proved the most challenging training of my life, have strengthened me beyond what I ever could have imagined. In yoga, we say that the moment you want to come out of the pose is the exact moment that your practice begins. To remain rooted, flexible and steadfast in a discipline to see it to its completion is where true power is found. What serves the masses, what changes the ways of the world is our own internal work. A well trained mind that weakens the patterns of automatic behaviors and brings pause before reaction is the road to a better world. The key to peace and joy in this life lies within a willingness to look inside and heal from the place deep within. I recently heard one of my mentors say that “a true healer will bring you to your knees” and this is what triathlon and yoga have done to me. They have stripped me down to my core, given me a chance to look at the truth deep within and the strength to see the opportunity to rise above it all with unshakable will.