Friday, July 13, 2007

To place at all

Before I can tell you about the end of my Mountaineer experience, I need to tell you a story. About my Mom. Many of you have "met" her through previous posts -- like this one -- but not everyone knows about her and the Brian's Run.

I grew up in and recently moved back to a wonderful town, outside of Philadelphia. It has everything you'd want in a suburban locations -- historic homes, arts and culture, a thriving university, a diverse populous. And, of course, beautiful rolling countryside at your doorstep, waiting for you and your bike.

Each year since I can remember, my Mom would sign us up for the Brian's Run. In the 70s, it was the only running game in town. Since then, it's joined by innumerable weekend 5ks and 10ks. But Brian's Run is the original.

And each year Mom and Dad would suit us up, bring us down to the football stadium on South Campus and we'd run. Usually Lil'Sis and I would do the kids fun run and Mom and Dad would do the grownup 10K.

And every single year, Mom would come in last. Not in the back of the back. No -- dead last. We joked about how she knew the ambulance drivers each year, because they would shadow her through the course. She would wave them up to her and talk to them for the long miles through their windows.

She never seemed to mind it. She was an exceptionally slow runner, she was. I remember, as I began to shoot up in my teens and she would ask me to join her for her trips around town counting telephone poles to measure distance, I could often walk at the same pace that she ran.

For Mom, running had very little to do with going fast and more to do with communing. Communing with herself, in the folds of her day and on her on terms. Communing with our town and it's beautiful side streets and friendly people. Communing with her thoughts, I would imagine. Now, as an adult woman, I wish I could have heard the echos of her thoughts during those runs. I imagine they are full of years of wisdom.

At the Mountaineer Tri, I spent an awful lot of time thinking about my Mom. An awful lot of time. From my perspective, I had been dead last since around mile 40 -- about half way through the race. And dead last was becoming a very lonely place.

I worried about the people who were waiting for me. The friendly volunteers who were keeping their water stations open and resisting the strong urge to pack up the pretzels and dump the last remnants of ice in the grass. The spectators who had been out there for hours upon hours, now hoarse from cheering and with sore palms from clapping. And Mighty M, who had been awaken at 5 and then left to bounce around town for the whole day, trying to catch sight of me on the course.

You worry about these things when you're last. There's lots of time to.

The transition from the bike was uneventful. I grabbed my numerous GU packets and salt tabs that were part and parcel to my nutrition plan. I grabbed a throw away water bottle with plain water, so I could start drinking right away. Turned my number around and headed out.

The conversion from the solitary bike to the run was welcomed. The run course was a double loop, first paralleling the waterline and then veering into town for a portion of terrible hills. It was a truly pretty route, with the possible exception of Devil's Hill.

What was most pleasant about it was there were people!! So many spectators and racers were still around because a bulk of the group were on their second, and last loop. It helped energize my legs a little. It helped keep me focused and alert.

I started eating GU packets right away, as planned. One in transition, and then one every three miles. I kept filling my water bottle -- that I was gripping with some bionic strength and wouldn't let go. Problem was, I wasn't peeing. In fact, I hadn't peed all day. Um, not good.

Miles 0 - 5 were good. GU, water, run, water, GU, run, breathe, breathe. All good. I saw Mighty M so many times on the route, and each time was a new shot of energy and a dash of relief.

Around the fifth mile, the course turns into the hills of town, namely Devil's Hill. We had driven up it the night before and it had made the car down shift...twice. I'd say it's something like a 18% grade. It's insane. Everyone walks it -- you'd be foolish not to. And the whole three blocks of it, it gnaws on your hamstrings like red licorice laces. And at the top you feel like someone has injected pure lactic acid into the backs of your legs. Someone exceedingly mean.

Thankfully, the grade flattens for about a quarter of a mile, allowing you to recover from the beating. The next two miles are a series of steep assents (which I walked -- my momma didn't raise no fool!) and downhills. The campus area is actually really pretty and this part of the race was alright.

It was the second loop that I had to worry about.

You see, everyone I was running with kept encouraging me -- keep it up, you're almost there! Almost done!

I didn't have the heart to tell them that I was on my first loop. I just didn't have the heart.


Have you ever been the last person in a race? It's a unique experience. I never really paid much attention to the mental side of racing, since the articles always seem to speak to those who were racing, rather than just trying to finish.

But there is a huge mental task to being last. Huge. You run the race solo. You often have limited supplies left at rest stops. Volunteers are surprised to see you. The miles seem longer, since there is nobody to pace off of. In shorter races, this matters less. But in a race of this distance, it weighed heavily on my mind.

And my body started to protest the prolonged effort. My nutrition was fine -- thankfully there was no bonk in sight. But there was a general fatigue that began to set into my bones on the second loop. I had to force myself to keep up a modest pace, because the natural inclination was to slow way down. I took the occasional walk through a water station, but I tried to run the whole way, remembering Jen's advice about momentum and continuing to move forward.

At the turn around on the tow path -- somewhere around mile 8 -- I finally took a bathroom break. I figured, what the heck? I'm last! And at the stop, they asked if I was the last one. I said I didn't know for sure, but I suspected as much. When I was about 50 yards off, I heard them yell back at me that there was another person.


Behind me?

And, of course, they were right. There was one more runner who was plodding along about a 1/2 mile behind me. He looked like a very strong guy, so I assumed his bike sucked more than mine. He was friendly and it was a relief to know he was there.

The race director and I got to know each other well in the next 4 miles or so. Him, on his scooter with lots of reassuring words, and me plodding along at some god awful slow pace. I was starting to feel some generalized pain. Nothing specific, but my body was done. And I had at least 5 more miles to go.

At my darkest moment, I thought I would see Mighty M. On the first loop, he had been sitting under this one tree, near the finish. On this loop, he had moved and I missed him. I shuffled and kept running for another mile or so, wishing I could see his face. And then I did -- he was on the path ahead of me. He had been up talking to the college student who dresses up as the Devil on the big hill. He was cheering on those last few people in the race on the hardest section. He's that kind of guy.

He could see I was failing. Even in the pictures he took at that moment, I was clearly low, with my head down and left arm stretched out to block the camera. I wanted no more pictures. He ran along side of me for a little and I told him how tired I was and how I was the next to last person. I told him all those things I wanted to say when I rode past on the bike, what seemed like days ago. It all spilled out of me. And you could imagine his response.

So I did what he said. I kept on going. I had the hills left, but I already knew they would be walked. All I had to do was focus on finishing.

So I ran and ran. I walked the hills. I ran doggedly. My face all screwed with determination. I just kept going. The last mile was the hardest. I guess it always is.

And soon, I rounded the corner to the finish chute. No spectators were left. The race staff was busy, hunched over their laptops calculating placements, and were surprised to see me. There was no great announcement, and my name wasn't over the loud speaker.

But, let me tell you, I felt that finish line. I felt each and every inch of it. I pumped my thumbs up in the air for cameras that had packed up and left hours before. I smiled the biggest smile ever smiled in the history of smiles. Everyone in the med tent cheered and I was done.

It bears repeating.


After 7 hours and 50 minutes of racing, I managed to complete my first half ironman. M was there to congratulate with hugs and proud words and I cried behind the lenses of my Oakleys. I didn't have a finishers metal to grip (we would find an abandoned one later in the, likewise abandoned, transition area) because they had run out.

But I was done.

And soon after, the very last person came down the shoot, with his kids and wife running along side. Turns out he was a Navy Seal. That must have been a hard bike for him.

At the end of the day, I actually was dead last. Once you accounted for who started when, I hold that distinction for this year's race. And I think my Mom would be proud. I really, really do.

When I think about this race, now that it's a couple of weeks behind me and I've gathered a little perspective on it, I think I was meant to finish that way. I think I needed to learn why that is just fine, and how irrelevant it is compared to why I am doing this.

I am doing this year -- the Iron training and the fundraising and the hours away from my "other" life -- do be a better person. Not to be a faster person, or a more competitive one. I'm doing it to grab hold of each moment I am alive and make the most out of it. Breathe each breath that I'm granted. Take full and complete advantage of the life that I have -- graciously free of disease and heartache and full of joy and wonderful people.

I want to serve as an example to Mighty M's nieces that they can do absolutely anything they set their mind to. I want my neighbor's kids to know that having dreams is truly living. I want my own girls one day to know that no matter what, they can touch every inch of this world. I want those things.

Someone joked with me recently about how they just don't know why I do this -- it's so hard and contrary to what comes easily for me, the other demands of my life and how my body is crafted. We had been talking about the Mountaineer race and the long march to the finish line.

And I realized I do this because it is the right thing to do. It's right to make the most of being on this earth -- being alive. My Mom had decades of her life stolen from her by cancer. But, she knew that you grab hold when you can and participate for the experience, not to avoid last place. Somewhere in those last 30 miles or so I dropped that knowledge and got distracted with numbers and expectations. Somewhere in those last turns and hills I forgot what she taught me with how she lived.

But I remember, now.

You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it to place at all.


Total Run Time: 3:00:26
Run Pace: 13:46/mile

Total Overall Time: 7:50:21
Total Overall Place: 293 of 293
Athena Place: 2nd


Wendy said...

Absolutely wonderful.

Way to get it done! Your Mom would be proud indeed.

Jeremy said...

What an amazing conclusion to a terrific race! Your story continues to be such an inspirational journey and I feel very fortunate to be able to follow along.

B Bop said...

I am at a loss for words, but your journey is so touching and inspirational I am moved to try and express my gratitude that you have shared it. Thank you.

People cheer from places you cannot see you know (i.e. me in front of my computer screen). Congratulations!

jbmmommy said...

Thanks for sharing all of that awesome report. You did a great job, a tribute to your mom for sure. Keep up the great work.

Wes said...

Ran out of finisher's medals? I almost cracked an effin tooth when I heard that. Grrrr.... You are a half iron finisher! In my mind, that is awesome... and your Mom is not the only one who is proud of you, that I know for sure.

TriTurtL said...

You bring tears to my eyes. What a heartfelt account of the party at the back of the pack. I'm so glad you were able to get a medal. (I can not believe they ran out!!!!!!!!) You earned that medal sister!!! There are so many people that will never comprehend how hard you worked for it or what it means. Please know that there are a blessed few that just want to jump up and down, scream and cheer, and wish we could have high fived and hugged you at the finish line. Congratulations. You rock!

JenC said...

I have so been there and it was at an HFP race in 2002. As I was running to the finish line almost in last place (beat the old guy and the lady with a knee brace) all the other triathletes were packed up and heading home. I didn't care - I was just glad to be doing it. And, for further perspective, you are light years in front of the people who never tried to do what you did. Think of all the couch potatoes out there who can't even imagine moving for 20 minutes let alone 7 hours and 50 minutes! I'm sure your mom would be super proud. Rock on!

stronger said...

That's the most beautiful finisher's photo I've ever seen!

ShirleyPerly said...


At an IMFL training camp I attended last year, Paula Newby Fraser talked about the mental game: staying within yourself, fighting inner demons, letting go of expectations, etc. Sounds like you got some invaluable experience during this race.

Congrats on your placement!

tri-dogmom said...

What a story.... You should be so proud of yourself, I'm sure you mom is!


rueschmike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rueschmike said...

Congrats on finishing your race. You are truly an inspiration to me. I can only hope that someday I can finish a triathlon of that length.

LBTEPA said...

Congratulations IMAble.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Laurie said...

This, my dear, is why I read blogs.

I have tears rolling down my face for you. You are one tough chica! I am so proud that you came out of this race with such a great perspective. It will serve you well. Thank you for sharing so candidly.

kelly said...

Wow, your story was amazing. Congrats for a race well done. I am proud of you!! (I love your blog)

Duane said...

I'm so proud of you! I'm always last and alone and I can really relate. Kelly was last today too but she finished, like you! You are truly inspiring! Fantastic race report!

Duane said...

By the way, this one brought a tear! :-)

Lesser is More said...

First, who runs out of finishers medals! They know how many people are somebody should be in trouble for not adding up the math. Second, who THROWS AWAY an Half IM finishers medal! That person's loss is your gain for sure. What a great story. Keep on moving!

TxTriSkatemom said...

You rock. That is all there is to say.

And I don't think it was an accident that you found the medal at all.

Brigitte said...

beautiful post. thank you.

Tea said...

thanks for a wonderful report. it's a beautiful tribute to your mom and the strength that she instilled in you.

kt said...

Girl~ WAY TO GO! I haven't done anything nearly that long but I will have to bookmark this and read it when the time comes. You are an inspiration and I would definitely say that your mom rocked! Congrats.

GeekGirl said...

In answer to your question: yes. I've been last. I've had lots and lots of practice. I've been shadowed by all sorts of drivers on the bike and cyclists on the run. Sweet Baboo told me something once that I'll never forget, so I'll pass it on to you, he said, "I have more admiration for the people who come in last than I do the people who come in first, because there's nothing in for them except to finish. they never give up, and they finish, despite being last." So you rock, girl. Now you need to get that big 70.3 sticker and put it on your back windshield!

No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

A b s o l u t e l y B e a u t i f u l

I would absolutely rather finish a race dead last knowing that I fought for it every mile of the way then do something like that and have it mean so little that I leave my metal in the transition area. Your mother would be proud and you should be proud. Great job.

Congratulations! And thank you for inspiring me.

Amy said...

Awesome story, great race and wonderful inspiration.

I have finished last in 3 races and have treasured each one!

Think of all the people who didn't have the courage the start

Bigun said...

The message you are sending: Never give up, never quit! And it's awesome! Great job - I wasn't last but darn close at this year's Bradenton 101, with the RD riding up on his scooter and asking me if I was on my last lap and how I was doing...Awesome bling you got there too!

Fe-lady said...

You should send this in for publication...Inside Tri/Triathlete magazine. HERSports would love it....
It is very well written and everyone can relate to it...wether they have been last in a race or not.
I I can, very well. And I cried my eyes out at the end and my husband still loved me...just for finishing. And today I am so proud I finished that race...even tho, I too, was dead last.
Congratulations! Enjoy your medal. You will remember this one forever!

Fe-lady said...

P.S. My mom was always last in the local 10K also...and last year, at 80, she was last in the 5K! I am so proud of her!

Di aka "Mrs Bigun" said...

excellent. Thank you for sharing that race and your story. Beautiful!

Charlie said...

Awesome finish. Congratulations. I hope I have a fraction of your courage when faced with adversity.

1HappyAthlete said...

Congrats on finishing your 1st HIM!!!!

I've consistently said I have the most respect for the person who finishes last in any triathlon...Why?

Because everyone else quit!!

Great job!!

Krista said...

Absolutely marvelous, doll. ;)

Congrats! You are my idol. :)

AGA said...

Words can't quite explain it. You captured the moment beautifully in your writing and I felt like I was right there with you.

Having been in those shoes of last I remembered my own with each word you wrote. We are stronger because of the experiences that we have.

You still beat all who did not have the courage to start. Congrats.

21stCenturyMom said...

OUTSTANDING!! What a fabulous effort you made and You Won! You Won! You won because you didn't quit.

I know something about having a bad race and having it take a loooong time and I know something about having the right attitude. You win there, too.

Thanks for your most excellent story.

Dan Seifring said...

WOW, thank you for sharing this experience. If I wasn't so choked up right now I would be able to say more.

Your Mom would be very proud I am sure.

BethB said...

I once ran a lonely track event as the last person to finish in a total of three competitors. It was a two-mile run so I had a lot of loops to go, making sure all there KNEW I was last. I sucked it up and got a medal. 'Cause there are three medals, and, you know, three runners. I remember cheerful shouts of "Hey! All you have to do is finish!" Ugh.

I hear you. Would love to hear more of your posts. Any chance you would come visit the community and post there as well? I work on the site, and am always looking for great voices and messages by people like yourself.

Please stop by.

Andra Sue said...

I just wanted to tell you how beautifully written and well thought out your post was, not to mention the fact that it's a great story. I'm a little sniffly after just having read it, myself. Perhaps it hit especially close to home for me, as I expect to be in exactly the same position as you were, for my first HIM in September. You've got some great perspective and I really appreciate that. Thanks for sharing with us. :-)

Jane said...

Half-Iron is a friggin' amazing feat. Finished is finished. But, I always came in last in any physical event (ugh, memories of high school gym), so I understand the mental toll. It is a shame that the race volunteers didn't stick around to cheer you at the end. It is so stunning that you were able to cheer yourself on. A huge mental victory! Do you know how most people would have just quit? All your blog readers are cheering you now!!! YAY!

Jessi said...

Wow. Incredible post. I am so honored to be your fellow Team StayPut member!

TriShannon said...

Wonderful post! Congratulations on your finish! You won by not quiting... not many people have the courage and strength to stick it out.

Coach Tammy said...

That picture of you is the most beautiful face I have ever seen. Your pride shines through.

If you don't have a 70.3 sticker, let me know. I will get you one and mail it to you!

Mallie said...

OK...I'm very late getting here to leave a comment. But WOO-freaking-HOO, woman. You did it. You really did it. You stuck it out. Toughed it out. You battled doubt and pain and fear and you finished. So freaking awesome.

Iron Eric said...

Cool, cool, cool! Way to go! That is very awesome about your half-ironman race.

Phoenix said...

You are what triathlon is all about. I wish I had half your courage. Awesome.

Phoenix said...

Oh, and PS, you didn't come in last - you came in second. You rocked it, don't forget it. You rocked it.

Brent Buckner said...

Got 'er done!

Fabulous write-up.

Siren said...

Thank you for this. I've been there, tailed by the policeman and looking over my shoulder for the dreaded race van taking down the course. I've seen the surprised volunteers (and worse) abandoned aid stations and empty finishers chute. And once, I came in to find they were out of finish medals. I've only done this at the sprint distance and it's been a mental challenge - you have no idea how much you inspire me for doing it in a Half-Iron.

mishele k said...

I know you probably don’t believe it, but a lot of people—I’d say just about everyone—feels the desolation of being in “last”. It’s so easy to get downhearted and worry about the volunteers and spectators when you think you’re going slow. But you know what? They’re all there for you. Keep your chin up and do you best like you did with this race because it’s all you can ever ask for. Congrats on a hard-earned finishers medal!

momo said...

we have been gone on vacation and i haven't had a chance to read this until now.

your post captures the essence of what racing is for me. you were out on that course and your experience will forever change you and your perspective on racing, on life, on many things, and that is a wonderful thing. life is made up of these little events (or in your case - a big 70.3 mile long event) that make us who we are and give us a chance to prove what we are made of. i am most certain your mother is smiling right now.

congratulations on a hard fought, well run race. you should be proud. we all are of you.

Pharmie said...

What an amazing post. You earned that finisher's medal probably more than anyone else out there that day. HUGE deposit into the bank, and what a beautiful thing to know that your mom was there with you.

Tony said...

That was awesome. Thank you so so so much for that wonderful post. I have been there too (the back of the pack), and I learned a lot about myself on that day. Keep up the great work.

Thanks for letting us all take part in that great story about your mother.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Well-written. I've told you before: you beat every single spectator there and every person who didn't even bother to show up. Life is much better when you participate rather than spectate. Your mom would indeed be proud.

Trish said...

Great report! I recently stumbled across your blog and love it. Keep up the good work!

the Dread Pirate Rackham said...

Do you know what they call the last person to finish an Ironman?

They call that person an Ironman.

finishing last means this: YOU STILL FINISHED! And I bet you money you worked harder than most people to get there - so BOOYAH!

And you look So Happy!

Anonymous said...

I finished my first lasg week and you captured my feelings completely. My two friends were disappointed in their times while I was celebrating finishing! Congrats to you and everyone who supported you along the way, to include your Mom.