I witnessed athletes on their highest of highs, and lowest of lows. Any elation or pain they felt, I felt right along with them. I experienced more emotionally than I ever bargained for.
I went into the weekend ready to volunteer in the women's T2 change tent (with the intention of taking plenty of mental notes on what people used and didn't need in transition) along with working the 8-midnight finish line catcher shift to welcome a handful of friends into the Ironman club (one I hope to be a part of in a few weeks time). It was fun hanging out with Pharmie and Erin and trying to sneak peeks into the boys tent (I'm only half-way kidding).
But like I said, it was an emotional day. The condition some of the ladies came in off the bike was downright horrifying. I tended to bloody feet, chaffed body parts, lots of tears, and I'm pretty sure I got to second or third base with at least 4 different women as I helped change them and apply vaseline to unmentionable places. And a couple of gals even required some convincing that yes, they could indeed run a marathon right now.
A few key moments stick out in my mind from being in the change tent...
I bring her in, dump out her stuff, and we start going through everything. She's one of the earlier gals on the bike, so it's evident to me that she's looking to be fast on the day. I'm working with urgency...she just sits back and relaxes, taking a few deep breaths. She makes it very clear to me that she is in absolutely no rush whatsoever and that I needed to slow down for her.
I go through the motions of getting her changed and focused on her run and she leans over and whispers to me...
You see that chick over there in orange?
She keeps giving me the stink eye. She things I'm going to take her Kona slot or something. The last thing I want to do is run right now, and there's no way I'm going to place today, so I'm going to just go for a 26.2 mile stroll...
Well you've got plenty of time to get to the finish line, don't worry about her...
The conversation was actually quite hilarious as she just kept glaring at the chick in orange, muttering rivalry smack talk. I got her back on her feet and sent her out the door.
I wish I knew out to get a hold of her now...just to congratulate her on beating the girl in orange, AND winning her age group. Seriously. She took first. Glad to see that little stroll turned into an awesome run.
Lesson learned from Katie: It's okay to take your time and regroup...it'll help you kick more ass in the long run.
Michelle...my EnduraCamp homegirl.
Lisa had actually been paired to help Michelle while I was busy tending to another athlete in transition, but once I got my girl up and running...I quickly ran over to Michelle to take over.
Michelle, as fiesty and fierce as she is...was definitely in a daze. She was feeling the effects of the 2.4 mile swim and 112 miles on the relentless hills of Wisconsin. We took time chatting for a bit, while we got her in a change of costume for the run. I slapped a bunch of salve on her chaffed arms, laughed as she insisted she redo her hair "to look good," and got her moving once again. I promised to find her at the finish line that night (sadly a promise I couldn't keep as I was escorting an athlete's family to medical, but I did hear her name being called).
Lesson learned from Michelle...your hair matters. Even in Ironman, ya gotta look good! ...and be overly generous when it comes to applying salve on your body. Hopefully she's recovering well with a bottle of wine in hand!
Bridget...the one who reminds me of myself.
I'm not sure what it was about Bridget that suck out in my mind so vividly...I think it's because I saw so much of myself in her. She was so happy--and thankful--to be off of the bike. Her smile lit up the entire room and you could see the determination to keep moving forward in her eyes. I do remember that she pretty much packed a picnic in her transition bag. I have no doubt that I'll probably be doing the same thing.
After a quick break and a clean set of clothes, I sent her on her way, PB sammich in hand...I just knew I'd be seeing her again in a few hours time.
And the Friends...
It was wonderful being able to help Amy Jo and Veronica and Donna...and I even assisted the pro who ended up taking second place. Both Veronica and Donna offered up fabulously sweaty bear hugs before going out for a run and were beyond appreciative that I was able to help push them along through transition.
But the most heartwrenching moment was finding a close friend of mine (and training buddy), without a chip and in tears coming in the side door to T2. After an allergic reaction to a bee sting paired with mechanical troubles on the bike, her day ended about 50 miles too soon. My heart absolutely broke--and still breaks for her. We all know that she can do the distance, but circumstances lined up just right to foil her day. Ironman can be so ridiculously unfair. One thing is for certain, we are all looking forward to her taking revenge on the race--because she can do it.
After a stop by the medical tent, some tears and some hugs, my shift in T2 was complete. There was only a little bit of downtime before we were expected at the finish line to begin catching people, so Mike and I grabbed dinner, and took some time to gather our thoughts on the day thus far.
Lesson learned from friends: In order to get through the day of an Ironman, you need the support of friends. It doesn't matter if they're on the sidelines, virtually following you online, helping you change your bra in transition, or giving you a hug, high five or smack in the rear. You need them there just to get through the highs and the lows. I'm thankful that my list of friends that will be there in Arizona is slowly starting to get longer...I have no doubt that Lisa, Robyn and Jen will be more than happy to help give me the boost I need to stay in forward motion.
The finish line was definitely an interesting experience. Any pain and anguish I witnessed in T2 was washed away in the expressions of pride and glory as each athlete crossed the finish line. Sure, they were all hurting on some level at the ending of a 140.6 mile day...but that pain didn't matter. That one bittersweet moment made the months of sacrifice worth it.
I sadly missed the finishes of Veronica, Michelle and Brian. Although Mike managed to catch Veronica...and I have no idea how the heck I missed her.
The very first athlete I caught, I actually had dinner with the night before...a friend of a friend. He surprised himself on a tough day in Madison coming in sub-13.
Mike and I caught Donna...well...more like carried Donna since her legs literally collapsed out from underneath her. I'll never forget her throwing her head back, tears streaming down her face, so beyond excited to see her family and be called an Ironman.
And Bridget. Dear, sweet Bridget...running across the finish line with the biggest freakin' smile on her face. I instantly recognized her and ran to the front of the line to welcome her home. She didn't realize it was me at the time (you know, that random volunteer from T2) helping her down the finish chute, but you could see the pride in her eyes. After getting her finishers photo, I handed her off to her Iron Crew and congratulated her one last time. This one random stranger and her happy disposition inspired me in volumes that I can't even begin to explain. And though our encounters were incredibly brief, when it comes time for me to toe the line in Arizona, I hope I can channel my inner Bridget and keep a smile on my face the entire day.
And then there was Hope. I have no idea who Hope is or how Hope's husband got behind the scenes, but he did. Mike and I both caught this teeny tiny little thing of an athlete. And as we're taking her through the finish line process, her husband comes up and gives her the most monsterous hug and he just starts crying because he's so unbelivably proud of her. It may or may not have made me welt up, too (okay...I started crying like a baby).
The final finisher (at 16:56 and change) had his body give out completely as he hit the finish line and medics quickly rushed to his aid...and then we all waited.
Nobody else was coming. And yet everyone stayed.
We quickly learned there were still several athletes on the course, determined to finish even if they weren't able to officially be called an Ironman.
Everyone began cheering...making as much noise as we possibly could so they could hear us from miles away.
Slowly, but surely...the final folks trickled in shortly after midnight. I had the privilege of catching well-known blogger Mike Wimmer, it was a challenging day but he was able to get the distance done. You could tell he was happy to have made it through the 140.6 miles, but a little disappointed in missing the cutoff. He's already counting down until IMoo 2010 and I can't wait to see him come running across the finish line. You should really check out Steve's video of his finish...there were easily several hundred people waiting to welcome him home.
I've been battling a lot of things mentally since returning home from Madison. The mass swim start...holy.crap. Let's just say I'll be treading water in the back...counting to 500...and then beginning my swim. It's one thing to see videos and photos...but it's another to witness the melee first hand. There was even a chick who came out of the water looking like she had taken a hit to the eye from Rocky. I haven't been nervous about the mass start until now. Yowza!
The cutoffs are another things that have been plaguing me...most specifically, the bike cutoff. I've already talked with the Chief of Pain and we're going to have a handful more confidence-building century rides between now and race day...and we'll peak out my training with a 3-loop ride along the lakefront (coincidentally...the same distance as each loop at IMAZ) where I'll get to battle a near constant crosswind and practice the mind-numbing approaching to riding the same course three times in a row. I trust him and trust my training plan to get me where I need to be in order to make the bike cutoff and still be able to run successfully after.
Everything I witnessed in T2 certainly shook me up a bit. But I know that those images are not guaranteed for me. I just have to stick to the plan, and have X, Y, Z back up plans in my back pocket in case of emergency.
All the emotions from the day have made me feeling very stuck this past week. It was tough to be training with the realization of just how much uncertainty there is. It got to the point where the uncertainty simply overwhelmed every fiber of my being. But I've been wading my way through the muck. Getting my bearings back...getting my head back in the game...and getting my energy and enthusiasm for the race back into perspective. It's been a rough week to say the least. But if this mental hurdle is the worst one I'll deal with in training, then I'm in damn good shape.
The most important lesson I learned from Madison 2009...nothing in Ironman is ever guaranteed. Ever. It takes a lot of hard work and mental and physical preparation. Ironman doesn't care if I've done a half dozen century rides or can run a 4-hour marathon off the bike. Anything can happen to you out there...and you should go in expecting the worst and hopign for the best. And you better be prepared to roll with the punches of the day. Because in the end, you only reach the finish line with proper preparation, plan execution, smart gametime decisions, and a little bit of luck.