With a pang of hunger in my belly and unattached time goals in my head, I turned out the lights at 7:45pm and fell into the best sleep I’ve ever had the night before a race. At 3:15am my alarm rang, I moved unsteadily in the dark towards the kitchen, working to open my eyes and focus my vision. My body needed to catch up to my spirit which had already sprung into full inspiration for my impending adventure. I fumbled around as I prepared a calculated mixture of applesauce, banana and protein powder. A meal the continues to prove unchallenged in digestibility and ease in my belly. Making sure that I get it all down 3.5 hours before the race start is key to its success. Along with this, 24oz of sport drink and quiet moments of stillness.
Following breakfast, I climbed back into bed and rested my body for close to an hour as I recited a prayer in my head that starts like this, “Let nothing upset you, Let nothing frighten you…”. With severe weather moving in from the west I committed to surrender, knowing that no matter what lie ahead I trusted that I would be kept safe on the day. I rose about 4:20am and sat in meditation, my final visualization of the day which included plenty of smiles and very little struggle.
Feeling maybe a bit too relaxed, I headed down to the transition area thinking I had plenty of time to drop my nutrition on my bike and give my bags one last check. As I arrived in the athlete village, I heard the announcer mention that transition would be closing in 15 minutes and the age group athletes would be starting at 6:30am. This information was contrary to what I thought having never even glanced at this year’s athlete guide, I assumed that nothing had changed from 2 years prior and that we would be starting at 7:00am. Oops! Ok, so I just scrapped my warm up swim from my plan, knowing I’d be fine without it and got down to business as I still had to collect my timing chip at the swim start. The chip I was supposed to pick up 2 days prior but neglected to due to my maybe too relaxed mindset and funny enough, a piece that was never a part of my pre-race visualization.
I arrived at my bike and as I loaded up my nutrition noticed the absence of my water bottles. Oops, yet another victim of the lackadaisical mind and outcast of my visualizations. Seeing as the 2 pieces that I left out of my meditations were showing up, or not showing up for that matter, I was starting to think that what I visualized for the day just might be coming to fruition. Lots of smiles and very little struggle. I quick stepped myself to the fence and told BJ to ‘GO’ trusting that it would all be fine. I wasn’t concerned and smiled at these little mishaps. With less than 5 minutes before transition closed BJ arrived with my bottles and my bike was officially stocked. Now off to the swim start to collect my chip so that I would officially be in the race.
I filed into the athlete corral as BJ walked along side. We glanced at each other with big smiles and I felt a connection of love. Emotion was already starting to rise as the reality set in. His inability to start due to an injured back would leave me alone in a crowd of thousands instead of hand holding my love until our first swim stroke. I scooted my way through the crowd like I was snaking to center stage at a Michael Franti concert and to the tent by the arch where a new timing chip promised to be waiting for me. Alas, athlete #1039 was locked and loaded. Time splits to be recorded and posted online so my loved ones would be reassured throughout the day that I was safe and moving forward. I had plenty of time for a warm up swim and then another warm up swim and then a another quick one. I was grateful that I didn’t spend a moment earlier worrying about the clock.
I seeded myself in the 1:00-1:10 swimmers on the far right which would assure me an inside line and towards the front. My mom had asked me about my goals the night before, she wanted to write them down and keep them close by the computer as she would no doubt be dedicating her entire day to tracking me and calling my sister for support (thanks Suz, job well done!). I told her that I thought I could swim between 1:10 and 1:12, BJ shaking his head in opposition knows, and so do I, that I can swim faster but considering the level of my swim training I thought these were reasonable times. I do sometimes wonder what if I put out more effort in the pool, what if I really focused on my swim? What would that look like? I am a natural swimmer, it comes easily to me and when I’m doing it, especially when I’m in Mirror Lake, there’s no other place I’d rather be. But like most years, my swim training was the least of my hours banked but I felt confident I still had a personal best coming this year.
The gun went off and the rolling start began with the sub 1-hour pack, then my pack but in lieu of following the crowd, I chose to dance and chat with the volunteers. Still thinking I was moving forward I hit the arch and was stopped. I looked up to see the 1:11-1:20 pace sign. Oops, I missed my group but now I was at the front again which is where I always prefer to be so I just chalked that up to divine intervention. Released like a herds of cattle dressed as eels, I hit the water as the words calm, power matched my arms stroke for stroke. I thought about Harry and how much he loved to swim and how much I loved to swim with him in this very lake, just a year ago. I felt love.
Although the rolling start lends to more open water for each swimmer I had lots of contact for the first part of the swim. Arms pushing down my torso, hands slapping my feet, my hands slapping the feet in front of me and my eyes on high alert for aggressive kickers. Despite the inevitable engagement of an IM swim I managed to keep a tight line on the buoys, literally contacting each one as I passed. Then as history has shown in the past, before I knew it I was at the turns and headed back in towards shore. About this time I realized I never started my watch and from that moment, until many hours later, I never had any idea of the time of day or where I was in the race. As long as my chip was recording times for those tracking me, praying for me and hanging on each split to feel calm again I didn’t much care about where I was in time. It was only important to me to stay present and accept everything that would come my way without any resistance. So far so good but then again I was less than a mile into the race.
The 2nd lap of the swim started with a big wave to Beej and a clean line on the coveted cable. A line under water that tells you that you are on course with no need to sight which left more focus on what was going on under the water’s surface. Feet, arms, bodies were still everywhere. I got into a bilateral groove on the second lap and pushed harder as I relied on the thousands of chaturangas I had carefully performed over the last 6 months. I noticed just before the turn buoys that the water had become choppy and the temperature was dropping then I felt the pellets of rain hitting my head. Here comes that weather. It was the last time in the day where I would need my arms so I dug deep all the way to shore to finish up in 1:11. My fastest IM swim ever.
The rain poured down as I carefully trotted into transition heeding advice from the volunteers to take it slow as a few had already gone down. All plans to stay upright, I carefully made my way to the changing tent where I all of a sudden became invisible, there was no one to help me and for a second my ego thought poor me, I need help. Then my true self butted in and said “no you don’t, get your shoes on, helmet and get out of here baby”. I ran through transition and heard my number being called down the line as someone ran to get my bike. The day was dark gray but overwhelmingly lined with colorful ponchos and cheers from the crowd. Not thinking about anything but that moment, I was in full joy mode, yelling back at the crowd, laughing and smiling even bigger at every accolade thrown my way. Off on the bike.
I carefully navigated the hairpin turn and narrow, steep downhill of the bike exit and turned onto route 73. I immediately started in with my nutrition plan knowing that conditions like this could lead to calorie abandonment. At about this same time, unbeknownst to me, the race director would be making a call to pull over 700 athletes from the water in lieu of severe lightening. I was fortunate enough to get my 2 loops in although in the end only one would be calculated in our finish time but I wasn’t thinking about anything at this point except every safe pedal stroke I managed to complete. I started up the first climb and noticed that I was already chilly. With a technical 6 mile descent ahead I returned to the prayer that started my day. “Let nothing upset me, let nothing frighten me…” The thunder was deafening with huge cracks in the sky that sounded like they were right above me while impressive streaks of lightening split into multiple lines straight ahead and off to my right. It was then I remembered a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that I had read just a few nights ago in my warm, dry hotel room. It is when Krishna is revealing himself to Arjuna and says, I am the heat of the sun, I hold back the rain and release it. Anything can happen, just stay on this bike, trust you will be kept safe and know that this weather can change. I couldn’t see much, just a few feet in front of me then I started to notice the yellow signs warning a steep descent ahead. “Ok, here we go”.
Not far into the downhill did I start to shiver, I tried to stay relaxed but my upper back was tightening up as my body tried to stay warm. My hands started to feel weak and my fingers stiffened. I feathered my brakes as best I could but my speed continued to increase as the resistance of the pads to my wheels were greased with slick moisture. I was speeding down the mountain, navigating the technical turns, praying and shivering in a way that I can’t ever remember. “Let nothing upset me, let nothing frighten me…”. I kept on with the prayer, stayed as relaxed as I could and very focused on the task at hand which was to get to Keene safely.
“Thank you”, I said as I reached the end and felt my wheels on flat roads once again. The first descent was done but now I had to figure out my shivering issue. The rain continued to pour down and I was having a very difficult time keeping control of my bike. My legs were shaking and my hands had lost all strength to hold onto the bars. A few miles down the road I saw an aid station, I pulled my bike over thinking I would use the port-a-john and maybe get warm. When I got off the bike the magnitude of my shaking was revealed, I was having trouble standing and my teeth were starting to hurt from slamming into one another. A volunteer spotted me, “Get under the tent, they will help you get warm. There are other riders over there, you’re not alone.”
I sat down under the tent, out of the rain and shook. “Do you want arms?”, asked the volunteer. I looked confused. “In your trash bag, do you want arms or just a head like that woman”, pointing the to athlete next to me, her head sticking out of a trash bag, lips blue and eyes devoid of expression. I opted for arms and surgical gloves. Then a volunteer put her sweatshirt over my shoulders and asked if she could say a prayer for me. She asked god to keep me safe and warm me with his loving arms.
Another athlete came under the tent, then another. Some just stopping for trash bags and heading right out again. The rain continued to pour down and my body continued to shake with no signs of letting up. At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible for my body to recover and felt my ego trying to convince me that my day was over. I asked about what happened if I stopped and to even hear those words leave my mouth felt wrong. I followed up that question with stating how energetic I felt and that I was in good spirits. I wanted to go on but I just couldn’t stop shaking. “Just wait” one of the volunteers said, “just wait and see what happens”. One thing I’ve learned from my practice and teach in my yoga classes is that when we can slow down enough to notice what is happening within we can choose the patience to stay with it until it passes. So I waited.
About 30 minutes later I stood up and announced, “I’m going”. “You’re going?!?!” a few of the volunteers said in unison. “I’m going” I reaffirmed. “How far is the next aid station, 10 miles?”
“It’s about that”, said one of the volunteers. A man who clearly had a physical limitation that made it look as though walking was very difficult and I can only imagine impossible to ride a bike. Then he gave me my motivation to continue on past that aid station. He said, “If you get there and you keep going, when you pass by here again you have to yell to me and say ‘Ben, I’m making it!'”, he waited then said, “I’ll be listening for you.”
Adorned with a trash bag, surgical gloves and new found blood flow I got back on my bike and headed out into the rain. I could feel that things were different now and had a knowing that the intensity I had just felt would not return. I looked up at the sky and noticed a brightening behind the clouds while the rain began to lighten then stop. I am the heat of the sun, I hold back the rain and release it.
I couldn’t believe I was still in the race, it felt miraculous and from that moment on, nothing felt hard, nothing felt long. The day felt like a stream of moments, one after the other as I followed in step. I never found myself in the future, worrying about the 2nd loop of the bike or the marathon I still had to run, I just seemed to be taking it all in as single frames of time.
I stayed diligent to my nutrition plan and took a little extra during the 1st loop of the bike knowing that I burned many unexpected calories trying to stay warm. Before I knew I was cruising back into town in the heat of the sun, laughing and yelling to the crowd, “I’m back from the dead!”. I saw my brother, sister-in-law and nephew who were clearly caught up in the contagious energy of the day. I turned into special needs and saw Beej and Mom and Dad G. I reapplied an obscene amount of chamois cream then stopped for a kiss before heading out on the 2nd loop. I told them briefly about my experience as my first loop had been over 4 hours but there was no way my 2nd loop would be the same. I was feeling ridiculously good and full of energy.
The 2nd loop came and went fast. The sun was shining, all the athletes I interacted with were in good spirits as we joked about the insanity of the morning. I bombed the descents trusting the dry pavement beneath me like never before. I couldn’t get back to that bike aid station fast enough, I couldn’t wait to yell “Ben, I’m making it!”. And when I did, his smile was still the biggest I can remember all day as the entire crew cheered me on as I passed. “You saved my life this morning”, I yelled, “Thank you, I’m out here because of you all!”
Emotion rose and I felt gratitude for each one of them. The woman who prayed over me, the man who slid the trash bag over my helmet, my fellow athlete who rested his head on my shoulder and Ben who tucked the surgical gloves into my arm warmers ensuring a tight seal for warmth. They cared for me in a time when I couldn’t care for myself and I was reminded as I passed them by that this is why we are here. Often forgotten in our daily life, in our pursuit for more and lost in the middle of the grind, we are here to care for each other. To love one another without condition or expectation and with this feeling of connection I fell into my simple mantra of Om and found myself completely at peace.
Before I knew it I was climbing the backside of the course by Whiteface mountain while dark clouds covered the blue sky and another storm moved into the field. My skin warmed by the sun received this rain as cooling relief and I giggled at Mother Nature accusing her of being off the rails that day. I was less than 10 miles from getting off my bike and continued to feel better than I ever had at this stage of an Ironman. No burning in my legs or pain in my shoulders or neck and comfortable as could be on my saddle as I settled in for the final miles. The storm was intense but quick and by the time I reached town it was over and the sun was shining again.
I carefully transitioned to the run making sure I didn’t miss a step. Dry feet, powdered socks, compression sleeves, sunscreen and, to the shock of many I know, I popped a couple ibuprofen then headed out onto the streets with a banana in hand. I saw Beej and my family, reported how great I felt and headed down the hills towards River Road. I kept thinking, “slow down, you’re going faster than you think”. I ran as slow as I could and clocked the first 2 miles at just over a 10 minute pace. Faster than what I had planned but rejoiced in the fact that this was as slow as I could go. My heart rate at this point was in low Z2, I held it there for the first 3 miles then steadily brought it up to mid Z2. I was diligent with my nutrition, taking only water in at the aid stations, a gel every 50 minutes for the first 18 miles. I kept my body temperature down by putting ice in my hat and down the back of my top which felt comical considering the start of the day.
Around mile 4 I started to feel pain in my feet, mostly my toes, a nerve pain that I’m all too familiar with but instead of indulging it I held focus on Om, the eternal vibration of the universe. With 100% focus on that there was nothing left to focus on pain. I thought about the Gita again. The Field and the Knower. The field being everything in nature, my body, my fellow athletes and the knower, my true self. The witness. I decided to simply watch it all without judgement and with acceptance. There is no such thing as pain. Everything is inherently neutral it is only pain or suffering, good or bad when we attach meaning to it. I just let it all be and took it in, one foot strike at a time.
I hit the turn around and headed back to town. Looking at the mile markers I felt slight envy for those whose markers were reading Mile 22 while mine read Mile 9. “Just get into town, hit the turn around and then those markers will be yours”, I thought, “but right now, be in this breath”. I turned back onto route 73 knowing there were just a few miles to town, into the crowds, the collective consciousness of love and support. I stayed steady. I ran up the steep ascents back into town allowing the overwhelming roar of the crowd to carry me. I looked around, connected with eyes, slapped hands. The Om in my head changed to Love.
I hit special needs then headed towards the turn around, the 2nd lap and final piece of the race awaited me less than a mile down the road. I stayed left at the intersection knowing the next time I went through it I would go right toward the finish. I didn’t let any mental doubt creep into my game. I focused back on Om and ran down the hills as my body absorbed the pounding of the steep descent. Back to River Road I knew this was a key section to stay strong and focused. It was about 8 miles total, few spectators but an aid station every mile so never long before more love and ice would be thrown my way. I was feeling so strong, nothing in my body hurt except for my feet which were actually getting a little better minus the making of a blister that was forming on my right foot. About mile 16 something sheered away on that blister and I was stricken with the shocking pain that exposed nerves will deliver to the body. It was a gut wrenching pain that I chose to smile at and said aloud “ok, you want to play that way. I’m not stopping”. A few more steps and I felt it surrender enough to prevent me from throwing up.
I was nearing the turn around and as exhaustion started to set in I remembered a quote from my last blog post. “I hit the turn around, announce that I’m heading to the finish and although my exhaustion is startling I know that I am far more powerful than my physical body.”
It went just as I had envisioned. I said goodbye to the volunteers at the orange cones, made the turn then headed out River Road and back into town. I completely disregarded any discomfort in my body and focused on the faculty of Power on my return. I hit mile 22 and heard an athlete say it was 7:40pm, this was my first moment of time reference since the gun went early that morning and my first understanding that I was going to pull off a personal best if I could just hold strong for another 4.2 miles. I also realized that at anytime during the day I could have hit the button on my watch to check the time but I never had checked. My actions were truly matching my words, I was practicing what I preach. I had been racing in the moment and transcending attachment to time.
The fans started to thicken and the cheers became louder. I ran up the final hills as fast as I could remembering what BJ told me, “Run strong on those last hills, catch you breath at the top if you need to but you’ll almost be done so stay strong”. I got to the top and never stopped to catch my breath, I saw my family, they were jumping and screaming, arms in the air. I was slapping hands and smiling, my cheeks were ready to cramp leaving me with an injury grin but I didn’t care I was getting close to finishing my 3rd Ironman, a race that I thought was over at mile 20.
“No more turn arounds, no more out and backs!”, I yelled as I ran around the last orange cone screaming and laughing down Mirror Lake Drive towards the finish. I slapped every hand, I looked into eyes, I felt so much emotion rise as I thanked god for the day I had been given. I thought about Harry and how painful it had been to watch his cancer grow and his body fall away. I remembered the great teachings of compassion, acceptance and patience that he imparted to me this spring, all the while training for this epic day. I brought my hands together in prayer and looked to the sky thanking him for his grace.
I turned right, I turned left, I was in the oval, I heard my brother, I slapped his hand and headed towards the bright lights. I heard my name and I saw the finish line. I raised my arms with great strength to rouse the crowd and let the love of our divine connection carry me over the line to my fastest Ironman yet 13:03:26 and an overall personal best marathon of 4:33:37.
I dedicate this race, my power and the love that pulled me through to my dear, sweet husband BJ who was unable to start the race due to an injury sustained while serving as angel to Harry in his final months.
Carrying him tirelessly and selflessly into his final days and breaths.
This one was for you my love.