The bags were packed and loaded, the bikes put in the car, all that was left was to start the drive to Cambridge Maryland and to the adventure of a lifetime: Ironman Maryland. It seemed that when I signed up, that October was so far away. Suddenly October was upon us, and it was time to see if all those hours and miles training would hold up. There was that little voice inside questioning whether I could do it, did I train hard enough, but it was time to see. We started the car and off we went!
Strangely enough, I was calm on race week, and that never happens. Two weeks prior, I was a nervous wreck, and now I was as calm as could be. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I wondered why I was acting like this was just an out of town training day, and not what it actually was, and what it’s called: “The Hardest Day in Sport”.
We stopped in South Bend Indiana for the night and stayed right by Notre Dame University. We decided to take advantage of it and did an early run through the campus. It was beautiful!
We made it to Cambridge last Tuesday night and met our hosts. They were a wonderful couple, and seemed excited that I was racing. We had access to their pool, canoes, pretty much everything. We really got lucky finding this place. The next morning we made our way to the Ironman village to check in. It was really happening! We then had breakfast and then went for a quick swim. There were sea nettles (jellyfish) everywhere, and a fellow athlete told me to coat all exposed areas with Vaseline, so the sea nettles wouldn’t stick to you and sting you. I took the advice and didn’t get stung during the race, but got stung a few times in practice.
Wherever you went in the town, people let you know they were happy you were there. Stores and streets were decorated, and you could tell the residents were as excited as we were. A lot of locals volunteer at the race, and have for years! It is a really amazing community.
On Friday, we drove to Baltimore to meet my coaches, Jenni and Jeff Keil, and to bring Jeff to the race with us. Jenni unfortunately could not stay, but we had a great pep talk before we headed back. I was still calm and the race was less than a day away!
Before I knew it, it was race day! I got ready, and just like that I was in transition setting up my bike and filling my hydration system. I put on my wetsuit and even laid down for a bit before it was time to line up for the swim start.
We self-seeded by expected finish time, so I got in the 1:30-1:40 group. Suddenly I was walking into the water and on the adventure of a lifetime!
The swim was largely uneventful, especially with over 1300 swimmers in the water. I fought the current more than the other swimmers, and then I was out of the water and onto transition. The wetsuit strippers got you out of your wetsuit in less than a minute, and then someone handed you your bike bag. Then it’s off to the changing tent to prep for the ride.
The bike was extremely flat and very windy, with head/cross winds of 30-40 mph. It was tough, with little breaks from the wind. Around mile 80 I started feeling nauseous. I think I have too much protein in my drink, but it was too late to fix that now. It affected me throughout the remainder of the ride and the entire run.
When I got back to transition, I saw Jeff and told him I was feeling sick to my stomach, and that I didn’t know if I could run hard or for how long. Jeff said to run when you can, walk when you have to, but that I could do it. I had to decide whether to throw up and get it over with, but risk dehydration and possibly being too ill to continue, or to deal with it and keep moving forward. I opted for moving forward.
The run was long, especially feeling like you are going to get sick at any moment. I went into my special needs bag, hoping I put something in there for an upset stomach. I didn’t. So, I grabbed my Advil, band-aids, and my Dr. Pepper (my treat), and took off. I forgot my headlamp, and once you are in your bag, it gets tossed. So when it started to get dark, I realized my mistake. I was so upset about that, but lesson learned.
I never figured how to see what time it is on my watch when you are recording a workout, so I lost track of time. Some areas get really dark, and I tried using the stars to tell what the time was. Man, there were a lot of stars! It had to be about 10:30-11:00pm. I remember my dear friend Kelly Hill, who has completed 5 Ironman events, telling me that your mind will go to some dark places, and whether you cross the finish line or not depends on getting out of those dark places. I was about to enter mine, as I realized that if it was 11, I was not going to make it!
I figured that if it was 11pm, and I had 8 miles to go, that I was going to be 4 miles short if I continued on this pace. But I couldn’t go any faster, and I was trying. I got depressed and wanted to sit down and quit. Since the run was a 2.5 loop out and back, I saw people heading in the direction I was coming from. I asked what lap some were on, and they said they were starting their second lap. I was finishing my second. I wished them luck, but in my mind I knew that the wagon would be coming to pull them from the race . . . and soon they would be pulling me too.
I turned the corner and saw Julie and Jeff. My wife ran up to me and said she was proud of me. I almost cried. Here I was failing, and she was proud of me. I finally got up the courage to ask her what time it was, and was shocked when she said 7:47. My dark place was melting away. I asked her two more times, and she finally said “like the plane”. I was elated, as I had only 6 miles left and plenty of time. I started to really enjoy the run then.
Just before I entered the finishers chute, I stopped and got out my charm pouch that I carried. It was given to me by my dear friend Jodie Dunker, and I carried it on my 70.3, and I wanted it with me on the finish line here. So I pulled it out, gave it a kiss, and headed to the red and black M-Dot carpet. I crossed in 14:44:41
Crossing the line was a blur. I thought I would lose it, but I didn’t. I crossed, got my photo, my medal and hat and finishers shirt, more photos, and then I talked to Julie and Jeff and we bought some things in the Ironman village. It really hadn’t hit me yet. Maybe I was tired, or preoccupied, or who knows what, but I was thinking that I would be more emotional.
When we got home, our hosts left a bottle of champagne and a poster board with congratulations written on it! They even were out on the course cheering me on! They were incredible, and even with an upset stomach, the champagne tasted delicious.
The next day, my wife forwarded me the video she took as I crossed the line. I got to really hear them call my name, hear that I was indeed an Ironman, and the tears started flowing. I still tear up talking about it now. I went from a 3 pack a day smoker, to 40 lbs overweight, to an Ironman! It’s almost surreal, and I cannot wait to start training for the next one.
I tried to thank everyone personally for their help in getting me across the finish line, but I want to mention a few here that really helped in more ways than they know.
To my wife Julie, for loving, supporting me, and even joining in on this crazy way of life.
To my coaches Jenni and Jeff Keil, for training me, helping and encouraging me, and being such an amazing part of making me who I am today.
To Connie and Eric McGarrah, who always supported and encouraged me, and always made me believe in myself.
To Chris Matthews and Tiina Erb, who text with me daily and offer advice, encouragement, or just let me vent and they listen. You are awesome.
To Kara Palczewski, my running wife, for training with me, photographing me, making my awesome video, and for being one of the most amazing friends I have ever had. Love you to the moon and back!
To Jodie Dunker, who is my biggest fan, official race photographer, charm maker, and a better friend than I deserve. Love you!
To Kelly Hill, from making videos early on showing me the medals I’d soon have, to offering unending support, encouragement, advice, tips, and even texting me to help me pack my special needs bags and my bike and run bags as well. You have been so big a part of this, that I felt you crossing with me at the finish line. The love and admiration that I have for you cannot be described. I cannot wait until we can do one together.
I know I’ve missed a few people, and know that I love you all dearly. Now we start training for Ironman #2. If I have my choice and can afford it, we will be heading to the Great White North for the next one. We will know more by the end of the year, but I think Mont Tremblant is calling.
Live healthy, be happy!