I had imagined that dawn would be like this. Almost exactly like this. But, of course, no matter how vivid your imagination is, it forever pales in comparison to the real thing.
And this was the real thing.
And it was stunning.
I could hardly take my eyes off of the water – with sparkles of early sunshine bouncing off of its surface. It seemed to dance. I felt like dancing. My cheeks hurt from the broad grin adhered to my face. And as hard as I tried, I could barely soak up all of the activity around me. I felt – oddly – at peace. And happy. Deeply happy.
I had worked so very hard for this moment. So many early morning swim sessions and dragging myself out on the bike rather than enjoying leisurely mornings dawdling over cooling coffee. And I had imagined what it would feel like to don my wetsuit and look out over the water in anticipation of my first Ironman. My imagination had come close.
* * * *
Have you ever felt as if your heart is tethered to a fleet of birds, ready to launch right out of your chest? Where your skin feels everything there is – the heat, the air, brushing strangers, the tug of neoprene? When your smile creeps up on you unannounced and takes up permanent residence on your face?
That was me on race day, corralled with the other Ironman athletes getting ready for the water. Getting ready for the start of our day long journey, getting ready to touch a dream.
The day before had been little of what I had expected, by comparison to this morning. Mighty M had made it to Wisconsin the evening before and quietly tucked in bed next to me. I miss him when he’s not by my side, and it was good to have him there. I rolled out of bed early on Saturday for the Gatorade swim. Grabbed my Ironman backpack, stuffed with my wetsuit and goggles, and headed for the car.
I was nervous and apprehensive for the day. I had no idea what to expect, although I knew there was much to do. The swim this morning was so very important. Check in on Friday has scared the willies out of me. The registration line, on the ground floor of the conference center, snakes across the long window facing the water. And standing there, quietly taking stock of the course and waiting for my weigh in, I had begun to panic about my swimming skills. The bobbing buoys seemed to extend far into the distance, much more so than for my half iron swim back in West Virginia. How could that be possible? Could I even make it through the swim? I knew that I needed to simply get in the water and swim…it was the only solution.
So, I rolled my way over to the Gatorade swim on Saturday with coffee gripped in my left hand and my bursting bag in the right. It was like the first day of school – I was equally excited and apprehensive. Everyone was so buff and athletic looking, joking personally with each other and in various states of undress. I only hoped I could manage to get into my wetsuit without falling over in a mud puddle or garnering any questionable glances. I found a picnic table off to the side and started the process.
But I did get into the suit, thankfully without any scarring emotional embarrassments. And, looking around for a helping hand to zip me up, I found Mishele and Greyhound on the edge of the water. Seeing familiar faces and gabbing about triathlons, law and life was exactly what I needed to funnel my nervous energy into true, honest excitement. What a gift it was to feel, for that moment, less alone and scared.
Zipped and ready, I waded down the steep and slippery launch and into the water. And it was right. You know those moments where things click into place and you feel – for that brief second – that all elements were where they should be and things were just…right? That would not be the last time I felt this way on my Ironman weekend, but it was the first. A welcomed first.
I stroked my way out a few buoys and felt natural in the water. My perspective altered out there, and I was able to see the far markers as achievable. Doable. Right. I knew coming out of the water from the practice swim that I was ready to start my first Ironman. And I was finally feeling truly excited. I could barely wait to share this with Mighty M, so I headed back to the hotel full of excitement and energy.
* * * *
My Saturday held so much more for me that I had originally planned on and, looking back, I would have done much of it differently. I am a caretaker and a planner, and a stubborn one at that. If things need to be handled or managed, I’m your gal. And, in my naivete, I had not protected myself from…myself. When all the activities of the day began to turn and swirl into a whirlwind of activity, I didn’t let go. I remained the person in charge and greatly to my detriment. I should have let go. I know that now.
Instead, I fell victim to the tumult. There were phone calls, meeting here or there, balancing our one car – all of the elements of preparing for a weekend race in a far flung location, which Wisconsin was for my entire cheering squad. My bag drop off and bike check in were squeezed between the swim and a brunch with my best friend from college, who had traveled in from the Twin Cities to spend rare time together catching up. We noshed at a local German restaurant on sandwiches and walked along the shore together with her children playing at the edge of the lake. It was wonderful to see her and her family, but I regret I was almost wholly distracted by my thoughts of Sunday.
Mighty M was tasked with gathering my arriving family at the airport, which turned out to be much more complicated than anticipated. Bad directions, a turned off cell phone, and an early arrival twisted our smooth plans into knots. And likewise, me into knots. My anxiety began to increase, and I knew I needed to focus, but was having a hard time finding space in which to do so.
And as the afternoon progressed – or rather sped by – I grew more and more worried about the race and how to find solace on the edges of these arrivals, problems with the hotel, and the long drives to and from the race site. Time seemed to rapidly slip away and before I realized it, it was 8:30 that night. I was fed. My family was safe and ready for the race. And my plans with those coming in for lunch were realized.
But I was a wreck. I had cried a number of times during the day out of frustration. I was twisted and emotional and panicked. I tried to put on a game face, but Mighty M and I knew…I was not in a good place.
Was this normal? Was this to be expected? I thought back to impressions I had from discussions with other racers and worried that I was not in the right place, mentally, for this. And that, of course, added to my worry. I hadn’t planned right – left enough time for driving the course the whole way (we only had time for about a ½ of the loop), time to spend quietly and alone, time to get the bags triple checked.
I simply hadn’t left enough time to find peace, and I suspected I would need it.
Lessons learned. Hard lessons learned.
The clock soon showed after 9:30 and I knew that an attempt at sleep was important. I could accept a fitful night of sleep, as Friday’s was enjoyable and restful, but I needed to lie down and try to find an element of peace in the dark of the hotel room. And as Mighty M snored next to me and the light of a muted tv flickered around, I slowly started to find my center. I went through my tasks for the next day. Imagined, in my mind’s eye, what it would feel like to do the swim well. Imagined my strong legs powering up hills. Imagined my persistence pushing me forward on the run. And the finish line. I imagined what that would feel like, too.
And as the mental movie of the next day worked its magic, I slowly relaxed and fell asleep. All the bags were filled and placed. My bike was ready and waiting. My training was done. All that was left was the execution. The doing.
* * * *
It was pitch dark in the room, as I bumped around picking up the carefully selected items placed out the night before. It was 4:30 AM and I was wide awake. Race day. My race day. My Ironman day.
My first order of business was a shower. Not typical to my routine (I usually do this the night before), but there was no time on Saturday. It was, however, a welcomed start to a long day. Afterwards I started the eating routine. The plan included two peanut butter sandwiches, made with my favorite raisin cinnamon bread brought from home. One Accelerade now, one before the swim. I dressed in my pre-race clothes, woke Mighty M and we headed toward the race site.
When we made it to the site, I wasn’t sure where the bag drop off was. But, as I was lingering by the open door of the running car wondering which way to try first, Jay (TriDummy) emerged by my side with not only the answer, but warm encouragement and a smile. “It’s right up that street…you can’t miss it.” I was so glad to have seen him and was grateful for now knowing in which direction to head off.
I kissed Mighty M goodbye and was sad to see him slowly creep away in the car, heading back to the hotel to collect my family. But the buzz of activity of other racers heading to transition from the special needs drop off quickly replaced that void and snapped me back to the moment.
I hurried up to the drop off and then back to transition. Huge floodlights cast surreal beams through the crowd, a square of bright daylight in the enveloping darkness. My stomach was already twisting around in anticipation. The first sandwich had barely gone down and I was struggling with my second. While the Accelerade was helping, it was like eating sawdust. I carried the half eaten sandwich with me – gripped it, actually – throughout transition. It did little good in my fist and never made it to my gullet. This was, in retrospect, the beginning of my stomach issues for the day.
I walked to my bike, which was in a prime spot next to the pro’s all the way at the end of the transition area. She was there, quietly waiting for her turn. I placed the nutrition I needed for the bike segment in her bento – power bars, double baggies of clif bloks, my salt tabs. I check her gearing for the tenth time, making sure the initial ramp down the Helix would be safe. I touched the seat and remembered those training miles over the winter and squeezed the newly wrapped aerobars, which helped me learn to trust my riding skills in the most recent months. What a relationship she and I had developed.
Heading back along the long middle lane of the transition area, I was a little scared, but mainly excited. Had you seen my face, you would have seen the joy coming from my eyes. I felt like I belonged. Belonged with this exceptional group of athletes. Belonged with this amazing group of people who believed, as I had learned, that living is about grabbing hold as hard as you can and never letting go. I was a part of this and, oddly, it was more powerful than any other moment in my life.
I felt like I had finally arrived.
* * * *
Body marking was a quick and fun process, and the sky was turning mauve and purple in anticipation of dawn. I looked around for my family and Mighty M, but couldn’t find them among the sleepy looking spectators. Around 6:00 I decided to begin to head towards the water and suit up. I soon found myself in a corral of other racers, for the first time segregated from everyone else.
Me. Little ole’ me. Doing an Ironman today. I could barely wrap my mind around it.
Finding an open spot along the water side of the corral, I plunked down my bag and began the process of getting the wetsuit on. I asked a stranger next to me to help with the zipper. This, as I came to find out, was almost my undoing…literally. But at the time, I felt confident, suited up and ready to rock and roll. After dropping my bag off with the volunteers, it was all about me, my caffeine GU and my Accelerade. I tried to find my family in the crowd again, but later learned they were still looking for parking at that point. Following the announcer’s encouragement, it was time to walk to the water. I was calm and ready.
And apparently coming undone.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tyler (Jetpack) hugging a friend and taking a last minute picture. I was excited to see him and wish him the best. We paused our conversation long enough for him to take a picture and me to reach back and check my zipper. Good thing I had, because it was zipped completely wrong. But for the kindness of strangers... . Thankfully, Tyler was able to unzip it and get it back on track – otherwise, I would have had the shortest Ironman race in history. Soon we were almost to the water and TriBoomer joined us in the pre-race well wishing. It wasn't until later that I remembered that he was carrying my Mother's name with him, and would for the remainder of his Ironman day. I wish that I had thanked him there for his willingness to remember her in that way.
In no time at all, we were in the water and finding our own places in the starting area. I placed myself in the middle, but rather far back. Until now, I had had excellent luck with my swim and wanted to stay as unencumbered by other swimmers as I could. I spent some time just bobbing around in my wetsuit, watching the amazing number of other racers pour into the water and the excited spectators lining the shore and throughout the helix.
It’s hard to find the words to describe what it was like to be out in the water, watching the shore full of fans and knowing that in mere moments you would be embarking on an amazing journey. I felt it all at once -- every emotion that brought me to this place. Every nugget of hope and every wave of confidence. I was doing it. I had followed through. I had finished what I had started, by simply starting. Bobbing like a cork there, with the sun peaking over the horizon and the day spread out at my feet, I realized that I was a success.
And for the first moment as an adult, I believed it.
I had arrived. And I finally belonged.