Ironman Mont-Tremblant went by in a blur. A “thirteen hours, seven minutes and forty-seven seconds” blur, but a blur nonetheless.
The morning started with two cups of unsweetened applesauce, a protein shake, one banana, half of a peanut butter Powerbar, and a rogue cup of coffee. (Per coach, I’m not supposed to have caffeine pre-race, but I’ve learned a thing or two about my digestive system over the years, and me and my “system” like coffee before we’re going to take to the waterways and roads for the day).
Around 5:00AM, I headed to the Transition area to go through the morning routine of pumping up the bike tires, dropping off special needs bags, getting body-marked and getting to the swim start (which was about a half mile away from the Transition area).
Despite the rough road I’ve traveled through my Ironman training this year, I quickly began to see hints that I’d have a good race. I’m a big believer that the universe aligns you with things that sort of help you to understand you’re on the right track. “Signs,” if you will. For me, life has always felt like a scavenger hunt marked by a series of clues and symbols that keep me on the right path. I knew that path was meant to go through Mont-Tremblant last weekend when we arrived to Les Eaux Unit 204-3 when I used the bathroom for the seventh time in four hours (I spent the whole car ride into Canada cradling a gallon of spring water that I all but made out with by the time we arrived in Quebec). In the bathroom, I immediately noticed the toilet paper holder. It was a silver hook affixed to the wall that the toilet paper roll slides onto. No need for that “mini rolling pin” thing that you have to squeeze just right to dislodge from the wall. Why was this a sign? Because the first time I’d ever seen a toilet paper holder like this was in the master bathroom of our new house, which we moved into just one month ago. I couldn’t help but to smile when I realized that a little piece of my new home was with me for my third Ironman.
The next day, my parents arrived in the late afternoon and we got to have dinner together at a little pasta joint in town. While waiting for my parents to park, my husband and I sat at our table across from a party of three who were about six feet away. The man opposite of us looked very familiar, but I couldn’t place him. One of my “talents” is matching people with their celebrity twins, as I seem to have an eye for identifying features and traits about people that resemble those of famous people. In this case, I had spotted a dead ringer for Edward James Olmos—circa “crazy religious mentor” in Dexter. We pulled up a photo of Mr. Olmos on the phone, and I went about my stalker-like comparisons between this random dinner guest and his celebrity twin. Things were matching up so closely; I turned to my husband and declared that we simply MUST tell this guy that Edward James Olmos is his celebrity twin. I mean, this is information that a person should know. Like your blood type. Turns out…It actually was Edward James Olmos! After a bit more digging online, we realized that his son is a triathlete who was doing Ironman. We ended up exchanging a bit of dialogue completely related to the positioning of the sun and how the patio umbrella did little to shield our eyes, but that was the extent of it. I felt it best to keep my “celebrity twin” shenanigans to myself at that point. The fact that Edward James Olmos was in fact himself, presented the second sign of the weekend. I have been in the proximity of a celebrity at both of my past Ironmans. In 2008 Lake Placid, I stood next to Ryan “The Bachelor” (of Trista and Ryan) during the swim start. (I’m also pretty sure I sort of peed on him, as he was three feet away and I ain’t holding it EVEN if you’re famous and you’re next to me). In 2010, Michael Phelps was on the sidelines cheering for his sister as I ran past him out of T2. And now, Mont-Tremblant presented Mr. Olmos.
The universe was poking me. Good things were going to happen.
Sunday morning arrives, and after a scintillating little breakfast (nope), everything unfolded as it usually does. Bathroom visit one, check. Bodymarking, check. Bike all taken care of, check. Bathroom visits two through four…check, check and check. Which brings us to the shoreline where I stood with my feet ankle-deep in water looking out to the first yellow buoy of the swim course. With over 2000 athletes surrounding me, it’s amazing that my good friend Jen seemed to walk up to me as if we’d executed a flawless plan to meet up. (Getting to people you want to see at Ironman is akin to finding someone “somewhere” in Manhattan without the use of a cellphone or pre-defined meeting point). Jen and I seemed to be running into each other a few times every day, but the best run-in was definitely race day morning, ten minutes before we’d hear the cannon boom and be on our merry (possibly not the right word, given what came next…) way. Just before we started, a fighter jet did a fly-over, cutting through the air with its powerful, purposeful sound.
The first “intense” race I ever did was the Boilermaker 15K road race in Utica, NY back when I was 16 or so. Jumping up to that 9.3 distance in the sweltering heat and humidity of a July morning in Central New York was by far the most intimidating and daunting race challenge I’d ever signed up for. That was well before I even had the balls to THINK about a triathlon, let alone say the word aloud. Over the years, I’ve done about a dozen Boilermaker races now, and after each one they do a fly over at the post-race party. I always get tears in my eyes at that moment because the presence of that kind of sound from that kind of machine reminds me of sacrifice and glory. To hear it in Mont-Tremblant just moments away from the start of my third Ironman, made me feel like all of that soul-searching and mojo cultivating I did last week was worth it. That sound reminded me of my first leap into the unknown, and the glory that comes with going for it even when you’re not sure you can make it.
It was a sign.
Lucky for me, I had a good little inventory of “signs” going by the time we actually sprinted into the water. In what I can only describe as “wicked poor judgment,” I began my race front and center of 2000+ people as we all bombed into the water and began swimming through a bottleneck to the first buoy. Three hundred meters or so from shore, the wide-open swim start was forced to push through an opening that was probably about 100 feet wide, between a pod of anchored boats and the swim course buoys. In six years of training and racing in open water, I’ve never once panicked—and this includes the loss of a contact, tasting blood in my mouth, and choking on water while swimming.
On Sunday, I panicked.
My coach directed me to go out a bit aggressive in the swim, to pull away from the pack before settling into my own pace. I don’t think she had any idea what would be in store for me in that lake. I was aggressive all right, but it had little to do with the speed of my body as a vessel in the water. All I could think to myself for the first 20 minutes was that I must have been doing some combination of synchronized swimming and mixed martial arts. I was about to freak out, when I got a couple of good strokes in and a clear view off my right shoulder. There in the sky, was just the smudge of a rainbow. All of the colors were there, and it was completely unobstructed by any splashes or limbs. That was good enough for me. The day my husband and I dropped off the offer for our house, we drove away feeling all kinds of anxiety over having to wait two whole weeks to hear if we’d get it. As a storm came through the area, almost at the exact moment we turned away from the property, a rainbow painted the sky.
Rainbow smudge told me it would be okay. So it was stroke, stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, stroke, sight, for the next two miles.
Upon exiting the water, the first thing I noticed was how easily I was running to T1, despite having swum 2.4 miles with a side of “freakout.” There was a wide, red carpet to run upon all the way to the big transition tent, and my mind went through a mash-up of Hollywood and triathlon (Charlize Theron in a neoprene wetsuit – GO!). My coach told me to take my time in T1, and I recited the mantra she gave me to keep myself focused. “Slow and smooth is fast and strong.” I dutifully put on my helmet, race number, socks and cycling shoes and begrudgingly reached for the SPF 50. Sigh. I spent a good five minutes applying the lotion to wet skin, which wasn’t working out very well but I knew I’d never hear the end of it from my husband if I wound up with souvenir skin cancer because I was too concerned about my time to take precautions in the sun. I finally hopped onto my bike and began the second leg of the race. My coach gave me a heart rate range to stay within, and instructed me to ride slower than I would feel like I wanted to go. She predicted that people would pass me on the bike, but that I would see them again on the run…walking. She noted that this was a course that “rewarded patience.” Anyone that knows me, chuckles when they imagine Lisa Barnes doing anything patiently. It’s not one of my strengths, but following instructions IS something I’m good at and I put myself on the “Mary” setting (my coach) all day.
Along with heart rate, I was following a fuel plan that had me consuming a bottle of sports drink every hour, and a gel every 45 minutes. You can do the math, but over the course of a seven-hour bike ride, that ends up being A LOT of drink and gel. One of my goals on the bike was to pee at least once, a sign that nutrition was being executed appropriately. I peed about three times, and was awesomely photographed by the Finisher Pix staff while doing so (seems I can never get a good picture from those course vendors!).
The bike went by smoothly, and I was ready to pee one more time around mile 100. I decided that I wouldn’t have enough time to “dry out” before starting the run, so I’d quickly hit the port-a-potty after getting off the bike instead.
Nobody wants pee-pee shoe blisters during the Ironman marathon, after all.
As I got off the bike, I did a mental cartwheel and a few fist pumps to celebrate the fact that I made it through the course with no issues. Just a week before, I spent an evening in my garage changing a brand new back tire after it flatted on my last long ride. I was able to get out on a few rides to make sure my installation wasn’t faulty, but still had some reservations when we got to Mont-Tremblant and I noticed a few suspect crevices in the front tire. A quick visit to the mechanical support tent eased my mind, as the repair staff told me that everything looked good.
The moment my cycling cleats came off, my feet reminded me of Ironman 2008 T2. The pressure of the pedals into the bottom of my feet sometimes leaves my feet in an indescribable pain when the shoes are removed. They hurt so badly I can barely stand up. It was at this precise moment in 2008 that I began to cry and almost threw in the towel on Ironman. I was sure that if I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t run. Thankfully, I made myself attempt just one mile on the run course and ended up finding my way to the finish line in time to be a first-time Ironman. Fast forward four years later, and I still had tears in my eyes, but I was sure I could run through the pain. As I tell myself in any triathlon race, once I’m off the bike, I’m back to my world. Running. I don’t have to worry about anything breaking but my spirit.
Bring it on.
I left T2 and hit the port-a-potty, a three minute stop that felt like heaven. I didn’t miss the warm trickle down the back of my leg. My feet were screaming, but I knew from past experience that the pain would eventually subside and I just had to ignore it and focus on my heart rate zones from Mary. Every time Mary tells me to run with my HR just a little higher than it was on the bike, I think to myself, “my coach is on crack. I can’t do that. Can I do that? I probably can’t do that..” And then I do it.
In the first mile, I stole a quick kiss from my husband, smiled to my parents and hunkered down on that heart rate zone like it was the last stool at the bar. “Better start a tab, Ironman marathon. Because I’m ready to get on every mile up in here.”
Mary’s prediction came true. I passed herds of people walking in the marathon (and by the time I hit the finish line, I’d passed 29 women in my age group placing me 47 out of just over 100 women total in my age group. BOOYAH). I was gliding along the course easily, running nine-minute miles at the low end of the heart rate zone she gave to me. Things were feeling awesome, and I was totally shocked. I decided that my goal was going to be “no walking” in the marathon. In my past two races, I did walk. In 2008 it was out of necessity. In 2010, it was from a wise training partner’s advice to “walk the aid stations.” Mary always tells me to make the aid station “my job.” As such, I go through them without stopping and grab my needs from the volunteers without missing a beat. It works for me.
Around mile 16, I become aware of a guy just off my back right shoulder.
“You’re doing a good job keeping a pace for me,” he says.
“Yeah? Well you’d better be ready to lead the charge if I start to fade,” I respond.
Through a few exchanges, I learn that he’s 23, doing his first Ironman and worried that he will get cold from the rain that started to fall upon us.
“Do you want this?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“Then you’ll have it.” I reply.
And then I proceeded to run without speaking, letting him know that there will be no more conversation as I continue to focus on maintaining my pace and kicking some ass.
I knew I was kicking ass because it started to rain, and then storm. I LOVE to run in the rain, and I always kick ass when I run in the rain. The nine-minute miles kept on coming without any problem whatsoever.
I was still taking the gels every 45 minutes, though the taste and texture of them was starting to make me feel like a quick “puke” was just around the corner. At mile 20, I decided that I would wait until mile 23 to take a final gel, so I could let my stomach have a break for a bit. It seems at the precise moment I decided not to take that gel, my left calf seized up. It felt like somebody took a metal rod to it and shocked the muscle. I promptly opened the gel with my teeth and jammed it down my throat. That kind of muscle spasm usually means that more are on the way and you’d better be smart about what you ask of the body from there on out or it will screw you.
I was too close to the finish line to be getting screwed, thank you.
At this point in the race, I had no concept of my overall time. Since I forgot to set up my Garmin to show me the overall time in the same screen as the heart rate, I decided that I’d just focus on heart rate and use my mile splits to determine how much time was going by before I needed to take another gel. (At a 9-ish minute per mile pace, I just decided I’d take a gel down every four miles). My best Ironman time was 13:38 hours in the 2010 Ironman Lake Placid. Since I had missed a lot of training and was doing a harder course than Lake Placid this time, I was estimating my time would be somewhere in the 14-hour range. I was even prepared to accept a DNF, if it came to that. This was an Ironman year, but it really became more of a LIFE year and Ironman got lost in the shuffle more than I wanted it to, but c’est la vie.
As my last four miles unraveled, I took a break from “Calf spasm watch” to think about how amazing I felt over the course of the race. Unlike past Ironman races, I just felt so calm and collected throughout the day. I marinated in the spectator cheers of “C’est BON!” and “Bravo!” amid the ongoing chorus of cowbells, bongo drums and whistles, and just really enjoyed myself out there—pee on the leg and all.
Part of the run was on an old railway bed, and the texture and sound of the sand beneath my feet along that flat section of the course brought me back to training runs on the Erie Canal Path here in Syracuse, NY, and the cross-country trails in the woods behind my high school.
More of that soul-searching stuff, just weaving into my race. Reminding me that the success I was finding through each stride closer to the finish line was no accident.
Yes, I was an Ironman already. Yes, I’m an athlete. Yes, I have proven that I have what it takes to meet a challenge. I felt those things, but I was going for something more in those last few moments…
I felt alive.
So alive, and so aware. All of my senses were engaged. And while my body was beginning to feel the familiar aches and pains that creep into the end of an endurance race, I felt happy.
I love that pain. I always have. It reminds me that I’m alive.
As I rounded the corner for the finishing chute, I celebrated my pain and my pride for carrying me to the third Ironman finish line in my life so far. That was really all I needed to consider the race a success…but then I caught the finish line clock in the distance and realized that I was coming in 30 minutes faster than my best Ironman time. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I careened through the narrow path lined with cheering people. I had such a kick moving over the cobblestone street, with an Arsenio Hall arm whooping it up above me, and hoots of happiness coming out of my mouth. I swept over the finish line in utter joy, riding a wave of pure happiness in that moment.
Just when I thought the day couldn’t have gone any better, I got a personal record for the Ironman on the hardest course I’ve ever done.
Of course later, I couldn’t help but to tally up the minutes it took me to apply sunscreen, use the port-a-potty and kiss my husband which could have been the difference between breaking 13 hours or not…but who cares. When you go into a race prepared for a DNF or the slowest time you’ve ever documented for a race, you cannot experience anything other than sheer exhilaration when you realize you’ve set a new record for yourself.
And so here I am, sitting at my dining room table on a Thursday evening with a glass of rose’, smiling to myself as I look down to see that I’ve written 3,500 words on the Ironman that “got lost in the shuffle.”
Perhaps getting a little lost in the shuffle was just what I needed this time around.