Ironman race report (2011)

June 26, 2011

In the days leading up to the Ironman, I had to explain several times to my 10-year-old why I was not going to win the race, why I was not going to attempt to win the race, and why I was not really considering it a "race" at all, but more of a challenge to be overcome. But Michael persisted. Would I at least try to win? For him? How could I be sure I wouldn't win? What would happen if I did win?

I told him that if I did win, it would probably be national news and that the headlines would say “Overweight 40-year-old mother of two defeats world’s most elite triathletes.” (My husband agreed that it would be national news but said the headline would more likely be “2,000 triathletes at front of race die in asteroid impact.”)

I don’t think Michael was ever fully convinced. Some part of his mind was holding out hope that I could defy all the odds and be not just an Ironman, but the Ironman champion. It was a sweet realization for me as a mother that that was his view of me, and I loved it when he came up with the phrase, “Mim for the win!” (Our pet names for each other are Mik and Mim.)


Ironman morning was surreal, like the morning of my college graduation/moving/wedding day (yes, and in the space of about 12 hours), when I was thinking, “Is this really the day I'm going to do all that?”

My parents had had the kids spend the night with them at their hotel, so my husband and I didn't have to worry about anything but our assigned roles: M.H.'s was to handle everything, pack everything, carry everything, remember everything, know the way to the race, find a place to park, get me anything I needed, encourage me without being annoying, and support me in any way he could think of.

Mine was to try to eat a big breakfast.

Now, I was proud of myself for how deliberately focused and calm I was keeping my mind, but my stomach wasn't buying it for a minute. It knew something was up and was doing flips. But I ate well. At some point in my multiyear Ironman obsession, I had read about a study that said the athletes who ate the most calories at breakfast ran the fastest marathons, and I was clinging to any advantage I could give myself.


We got to the race site around 5 a.m., but with all the transition bags already taken care of, there was nothing much left to do. I just filled up my aerobar water bottles, got my bike tires inflated, and used the bathroom about 15 times. (My stomach was definitely on to me.) My husband helped me squeeze into my wetsuit, and we went over to get a good spot to watch the pro start. I had never seen an Ironman in person and really didn't want to miss any part of the experience!

My parents and kids showed up a few minutes later. We got some hugs, and some photos, and then it was time for me to head down to the beach (just typing that made my stomach go on red alert again). M.H. was still playing his part and stayed with me all the way to the swim entrance. I should mention that he did a great job getting me to the starting line prepared and sane and in one piece. He never complained a peep all day, from the moment the alarm went off at 4 a.m. until 2 a.m. after the race, when I asked him if he'd get up and untuck the sheets because they were hurting my feet.

Dexter is looking at the other camera, and
Michael is still all "Mim for the win!"

The clock turned over to 7:00:00, the cannon went off, and I watched in awe as the mass of bodies went flying into the water. I was near the back, heading down slowly, hoping that things might thin out a bit before it was my turn to get going. I walked into waist-deep water, splashed my face a couple of times, and went for it. Wow! I thought. This is it! I'm swimming in the Ironman! Then all of the sudden, I wasn't. That mass of bodies was in the way, and I was treading water in the Ironman.

People were everywhere. No one could do anything. My only thought was to stay away from breaststrokers and other flailing feet. I made a game of looking for an open area, darting for it, swimming until I ran into feet again, then sighting the next open area. I probably should have started more toward the middle of the pack, because I was passing everybody. With all the arms in the air at once, it was no use trying to see the buoys. I figured that if there were people to the right, left, front, and back of me, all swimming in more or less the same direction, then I couldn't be too far off course.

It was like that all the way to the first turnaround, where approximately all 2,500 athletes arrived at the exact same point at the exact same time. Everyone went vertical in the water and couldn't move. People were yelling angrily. Some jerk right in front of me decided to fight off the crowd by repeatedly kicking out, hard, obviously with the intent to hurt someone. He got me in the palm of my hand so hard that it stung for the rest of the swim (but, hey, at least he didn't get my nose). I was briefly annoyed. That was stupid and selfish, and frankly useless, because it wasn't the people behind him who were his problem. I can't imagine jeopardizing someone else's whole race, less than 30 minutes in, over a situation none of us had any control over.


Somehow we moved around the turn, and I found the way back to the beach a bit easier, crowd-wise. I came out of the first loop in 37 minutes and was thrilled with a capital R (pronounced thuh-Rilled!!) to be ahead of my best-case-scenario pace, feeling great, and having finally left most of the slower swimmers behind me.

I decided to swim the second loop smarter and swung way to the outside of the pack. I didn't have anyone swimming to my right any more, but I could see the buoys, I could swim normally, and I was having so much fun! In all the worry about the cold water, I never imagined that the real challenge would be finding some of it to swim in. My second loop was also 37 minutes, so I paced it perfectly and was exactly where I wanted to be.

Swim time: 1:14:58

Dexter drew this comic for me in the car on the way home. It's pretty much how it felt out there.


I came off of the beach and was immediately disoriented by the frantic atmosphere. Wetsuit strippers were waving their arms around and grabbing people, other volunteers were trying to get bib numbers so they could get the transition bags ready, everyone was shouting, I was trying to remember all the instructions we'd been given, and all the other athletes were running, running, running.

The volunteers got my wetsuit off and handed me my bag. I saw lots of people dumping their stuff out right there on the grass, so I did that, too. An arm warmer fall out and tried to put it on, but I was wet and could get it only halfway up. Then my Chamois Butt'r fell out, and I remembered I wanted to put that on under my bike shorts and probably shouldn't do that out in the open. So I gathered everything up again and followed others into the changing tent. It was dark and humid and loud, and all the volunteers were busy helping other people. So I dumped my stuff out again and just looked at it. Okay, here's a towel. I could dry off. Here's a Snickers. I could take a bite. Here's a sock. I could put that on! 

It went like that until someone got free and came over to help me. At the time, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to wear my jacket or not, and I was just sitting there staring at it. The woman took one look at me and asked, with the tilted head of concern, if I was okay. I replied, "I'm just trying to figure out whether I'm cold or not." Then I immediately thought, You give any more stupid answers like that, and you're going to find yourself being evaluated in the medical tent. So I pulled myself together the best I could, laughed, and said, "I guess that means I am." 

She helped me finish getting ready, and then sent me out to the sunscreeners. It's crazy—a dozen people standing there with white hands, ready to slap them on any bare skin they find. When they did my neck it stung like crazy, and I suspected that my wetsuit had chafed me. (Let me just stop and tell you right now, I suspected right. I still look like someone tried to strangle me with a wire. Oops.)

Okay, off to get my bike, and again with the running, running, running. I would guess 30 women passed me just in the 100 yards from the sunscreen to the bikes. My assigned spot was the last one at the end of a row, and believe me, with 2,500 bicycles in the transition area, that was an amazing bit of luck, especially in the state I was in.

And what was the state I was in, exactly? Freezing cold, I think. I didn't feel cold, but I was in some sort of semi-stupor, and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. So I guess water temperature was a factor after all, just not in the way I expected. 

Huh. I didn't think of it until just this second, but maybe I should have been running to stay warm. 

T1 time: 15:24


I saw my family as I headed out on the bike, and it turned out the teeth-chattering was controllable, because I clamped my jaws together and smiled so nobody would worry about me. I tried to wave but ended up sort of just raising a claw; it was frozen around the handlebars.

That's me in the blue, getting passed.
My plan was to start out extremely easy and then settle into a comfortable effort. This plan caused me to get passed by hundreds and hundreds of cyclists in the first loop. Either they had different plans, or their "easy" pace was a lot faster than mine. Didn't matter. In fact, I found it entertaining: I swam faster than that guy. Yep, swam faster than that guy. Oh, and faster than that guy! Times hundreds. (Eventually the first pro passed me, and I knew I was now getting lapped by some of the people, so that game became less amusing.)

I got nice and warm again on the hills, so I took off my jacket and arm warmers at an aid station around mile 30 and stowed them away. I was afraid that I'd missed my chance to get sunscreen for my arms, but the volunteers had it. It turned out they had pretty much everything. Oh, also? The weather for this race was absolutely perfect. The only time I was ever hot was in the couple of miles before I got my jacket off. And if there was any wind, I didn't notice it.


The bike leg took a lot more focus than I had expected, just because of the number of people on the course. I'd never ridden in that kind of crowd and was worried that I would inadvertently get in people's way, but I think I did okay. I actually got annoyed a few times because so many people were in my way. They would do things like pass me going down a hill, then sit up and coast the second they were around me. After you get passed, you're required to drop back 30 feet so you won't be drafting (you can't just pass them right back), and so when someone did that, it would mean I would have to hit my brakes when I didn't want to in order to avoid a violation.

As I came back toward town to make the first loop, the time on my bike computer was approaching four hours, and I started getting really worried. Was this taking too long? It seemed way too slow. Not only that, but I was feeling… well, not bad, but not peppy, either. I hadn't felt like eating much (though I had been drinking well), and I was concerned that a lack of calories could come back to bite me later. Plus I still had to do those hills again. Somehow I needed to figure out how to finish fresh enough to run a marathon but still with time to run a marathon.

I decided that, of the two, having time should take priority, so I really needed to keep up the pace or go even faster on the second lap (that's exactly what I did, though I didn't realize it at the time). I told myself that running was going to use completely different muscles anyway, so I would still be fresh. I told myself that I had trained for this like I had never trained for anything before, and I had yet to really find out just what I could do. I told myself it wasn't for nothing that I had ridden my bike up the Molt hill a million times.


Something strange happened in the middle of the second lap, somewhere near the end of the hills that never seemed to end: I gave up. I'm not sure why exactly, because I wasn't suffering physically, and I was pretty much perfectly executing the plan that I had set for myself. I was just tired, and tired of all the mental effort, and tired of the same guy cutting me off at the bottom of every descent and making me lose momentum, and I realized that the word "CRUSHER" written across the road in chalk referred to the hill I was about to climb, and it suddenly hit home that it was truly possible that I might not make it.

I mean, it's practically tradition for me to do fine on the swim and bike and then completely crash and burn on the run. That was M.H.'s worst fear, and he ought to know, since he's sat there watching triathlon organizers pack up the finish line before I had crossed it on more than one occasion. I had assured him it wasn't going to happen this time, but I wasn't really sure. How could I be sure? And was I even doing fine, or was this a total disaster?

I started trying to decide if I'd rather finish no matter how long it took—even though a finish after the cutoff would be horribly painful and totally devastating—or if I'd just pack it in whenever it became clear that I wasn't going to make it within the time limit and at least save myself the pain. Those were both, to put it mildly, unappealing choices, and I decided I would just have to run my heart out and try not to have to make one of them. I had been expecting the end of the bike leg to be a huge relief, but all I felt was grim determination.

Bike time: 8:06:49


I got my feet out of my cycling shoes and did my fancy, graceful, rolling dismount (apparently the only transition-specific skill I have). But while the bike handoff was lovely, the first few steps afterward were not. "It's the Ironman shuffle!" some jokester yelled at me. Great. I can't even walk now? This had never been a problem in training, but of course I'd just ridden 12 miles farther than I ever had before.

I "shuffled" into T2, where I found that being dry (and coherent) makes a world of difference. I took my time anyway, because the plan here was to get BodyGlide everywhere. Luckily, all the chafing scars from my training provided a handy roadmap of where I would need it.

When I stood up again, I could walk just fine. And as I left the tent, I saw the most beautiful sight: The race clock showed I still had about seven hours and 15 minutes to finish the marathon. I had been thinking I was down to more like six hours and 15 minutes. So I guess the lesson here is never give up, because there's always a chance you're not doomed after all but just really bad at math. 

Striding toward the run start.
I felt like skipping, but I had decided to walk for a while to loosen up my legs. There sure was a lot of pressure to run, though. The music was pumping, people were streaming by me (where were all these people even still coming from?), and spectators were shouting things like, "You can do it! Just try a jog!" The bonus was that I was going slow enough heading toward the run entrance for Mike Reilly to call me out over the loudspeaker. He yelled my name and said, "Keep up that pace, and you'll make it!" I highly doubted that, but I wasn't worried anymore. I could tell I actually had quite a lot of run left in me.

T2 time: 8:04


I had altered the marathon plan a bit, and given myself a new rule: I absolutely had to run some portion of every mile, and preferably about half of it. (There was an earlier plan about running to every aid station and then walking a bit before running to the next, but I realized that was going to have me running up lots of hills, which would have been pointless, as I could walk them almost as fast.)

The new strategy worked wonderfully. I was finding the switch between walking and running to be kind of painful, though, so I made sure to run for a good, long stretch before walking for a good, long stretch. My stomach felt on the verge of revolt a couple of times, but I discovered that if I didn't run for a quarter mile or so after every drink I took, I could keep it happy. At one point I made the mistake of trying solid food. It was literally a quarter of a potato chip, but it made me queasy for almost half a mile. The aid stations had cookies, pretzels, oranges, bananas, PowerBars…ugh. No, thanks. I had nothing but sports drink and water the rest of the way.

The early miles of the marathon were where, I think, being 40 was more of an advantage than a hindrance. Because I was experienced, I was patient. I could have run much more and much faster on the first loop. But I held myself back. I didn't even think about running uphill. I stopped to walk even when I kind of wanted to keep running. I was disciplined about drinking fluids but listened to my body. I thought about foot speed and form and checked out my shadow to make sure I still looked good.


At mile 14, I had the chance to change socks and put more BodyGlide on the hot spots on my feet. Ahhh. I also grabbed my jacket and tied it around my waist for when it got dark. It was already starting to get a little cool. I could hear Mike Reilly calling out, "YOU are an Ironman! YOU are an Ironman! YOU are an Ironman." They were finishing fast and furious now, but some of us still had a long way to go.

The course was a 6½ mile route that had to be done four times (out, back, out, back), and that third time was the toughest. I was desperately jealous of all the people heading back the other way. Some of them looked awful, but they still had hours to get to the finish, and there was no question that they would make it. I tried to look on the bright side. I was still running some of every mile, my shadow still looked pretty darn good, and I still had time. Every now and then, a little pain would crop up somewhere, and I'd think, "Okay, who was supposed to be praying for my right hip/left foot/right ankle? They're falling down on the job." Then I'd giggle to myself; God would say (apparently), "No problem, I got you covered"; and the pain would go away. 

There was a nice man volunteering at the timing mat near mile 20, and I told him, "I LOVE this turnaound." He told me it was still a few minutes before 10 p.m., which was fabulous news, because now I was one of those people heading back who was definitely going to make it. "We're definitely going to make it," I'd tell people as we passed each other on the course (we were all friends by this point). I started feeling sorry for my friends coming the other way who weren't doing as well. I heard one woman say, "This is turning into a death march," and I thought, YES! It is! And bring it on, because I am in the best death march shape of my LIFE!


Shortly after passing the turnaround, another great thing happened. This 19-year-old kid ran up to me and started a conversation. He wanted to talk to someone to take his mind off the race, and that's exactly what I had been hoping for. Beau had done something like a 1:03 swim and a 6:30 bike but had been vomiting his way through the run (and that's the story of how I ended up running five miles stride for stride with someone who's normally a three-hour marathoner).

I encouraged him to switch to water at the aid stations for a bit and walk for some long stretches with me afterward. Then we'd run, and I went with his pace, which was a bit faster than mine had been, but it was fine because it was the home stretch, and the moment to run faster had finally arrived. It was such a huge help. Not that either of us wouldn't have made it without the other, but we both would have been cutting it mighty close. I eventually coached him to the point where his stomach felt decent for the first time in the marathon, he took off like the jackrabbit he was, and I never saw him again. I couldn't even find his finishing time, because "Beau" must have been a nickname. Ah, well. Thanks, whoever you were. 


The last, dark, lonely, winding mile was a lo-o-o-ng one. It was actually hard to tell where you were supposed to turn in some spots (at least for the directionally challenged), and a lot of the volunteers had left their posts. I had one guy tell me I just had two more turns and I was there, which was wrong by about five turns. I knew I had plenty of time and wanted to save what was left of my running capacity for the very end, so I slogged along. I wondered if my family was worried. I wondered how I looked for the finish line photo and what I should do when I got there. I felt like I needed a plan or something, but I had not given it any thought. I had deliberately prepared for everything but the end.

Then suddenly I did make the last turn. Lights! Music! The crowd roared! THE FINISH LINE WAS RIGHT DOWN THERE! My feet started moving on their own, and the spectators closed in, wanting high-fives. I floated down the last few blocks, slapping every hand in sight. I wondered vaguely if any of them belonged to my family, but everything was a blur. I remembered to send up a prayer of thanks. You could not have wiped the grin off my face. I wished the road were longer so I could get more high-fives. I went through the arch. I could pick out my family's voices yelling but didn't know where they were. And then I was there. "YOU are an Ironman!"

Medal, shirt, hat, picture. I was jumping up and down. My family was hugging me. Michael came flying at me with tears in his eyes. And he said (get this), "Mim, you did it! Look at this medal! I think you did win!" And I told him I thought so, too.

Run time: 6:48:52
TOTAL TIME: 16:34:07