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I signed up for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman 5 days after my sixth child, Mary Mercy, was heatbreakingly stillborn. I had thought I would do an Ironman sometime in my life, but then suddenly it became not only possible, but necessary. I needed something to focus on, to look forward to, and to be proud of myself for doing.

When I started, I had looked at a sample training schedule and known in advance that training for the Ironman would take 15-20 hours a week. I was prepared for that, in order to finish the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run (a marathon). I had kept in shape all through my pregnancy, running a few miles even the last week. Within 10 weeks after the delivery, I had completed a shorter Sprint distance triathlon, winning first place in my age group again, and taking third in a 4-mile Thanksgiving Day run.

After that, it was time to start longer distance training. Every Saturday I spent 2 hours, then 4 hours, then 6-8 hours on the bike, or doing a swim-bike-run “brick” in simulation of a real triathlon. I watched my heart rate, my cadence on the bike, counted footsteps, counted strokes per length, read articles, bought gear—and more gear. I discovered what such things as “Bento boxes” and “clip-on pedals” and “aerobars” are, I learned about “neutral” running shoes and “cushioned ones,” I wrote pages and pages in my log book about how many miles I had gone and at what pace. I took care of blisters, Charlie horses, sunburns, and frostbite.

But it wasn’t the training that was the most difficult thing for me. It was the recovery. After a long Saturday bike ride, I came home and had my five children asking me to do things for them that I really couldn’t do. I didn’t have the same mental energy. It was all I could do sometimes to get enough food for me, let alone fixing dinner for them, doing laundry, making sure they had what they needed for school, and so on. I had to take naps during the day at times. I had to give up walking in the evenings with my husband, or walking kids to school, because I needed to recover. I was lying down most of the weekend, giving directions from a couch.

And the training went on. And on. Even my “tapering weeks” did not seem like much of a break. I biked for 4 ½ hours one week in my taper, and just a week before the Ironman, I still biked 3 hours. I told my husband one day that I was having an easy run day, only five miles. At first he nodded and agreed. Then he said he realized how long five miles is, and how difficult it would be for him to do five miles. But it was my “easy day.” That’s the way it is when you’re training for an Ironman.

I was extremely nervous in the last days leading up to the race, not sure anymore that I could finish, or worried I would get knocked out in the mass swim start, or crash on the bike. But I focused on one thing at a time, packing what I needed in the car, eating the right food, getting checked in, and so on. Step by step, I approached the finish line even before I started the race. And I began to see how many people it took to put on an event like this. Not just the athletes, but the sponsors and volunteers. There was something comforting about knowing that it wouldn’t just be me out there on the day of the race. There would be help.

I got up at 5 the morning of the race and when I got down to the beach to start the swim, the announcer told us there were 4,000 volunteers there, to help 2,000 athletes finish. The swim start was nerve-wracking, as we 2,000 athletes all started into the water at the same time. It was impossible not to get knocked in the face or other body parts many, many times. And yet, they were all there, doing the same thing, struggling through the same water, fighting to get the same air. Around the buoys we went, and in the photograph I was given afterwards, we looked like a long snake, with a thin head and a thin tail, but most of us in the middle somewhere, thrashing through. I climbed out of the water roughly in the middle, placing 770th.

Then I ran into the transition area and there were a dozen people there waiting to help me out of my wetsuit. All I had to do was sit down and they pulled it off. Then another volunteer got my bag for me, dumped it out and asked if I needed help putting anything on. Another volunteer waited with sunscreen to apply that—a top priority for me in the heat that was expected. Another volunteer passed out Gatorade or water. And then I was on my bike, heading out for the first loop. I saw a couple of athletes I knew from home and greeted them briefly as I went. Every one of us had our names on our backs, so we could call out and cheer each other. I had fun listening to people try to pronounce my name, and end up just cheering me by number—2139.

Every ten miles on the bike course there were about sixty volunteers waiting with apparently their sole purpose in life to hand out ice cold bottles of Gatorade or water, gu, power bars, or bananas. They would stand in a long line, with arms outstretched, and if you shouted what you wanted, they would approach to make sure you could grab what you needed without slowing down. If you missed, there was another person further down. The one thing I found myself getting more and more angry about as the race progressed was how many people refused to wait to drop their garbage in designated locations. Every time I saw a gu wrapper or a bottle on the ground, I knew that volunteers would have to walk that long stretch of road to clean up after us.

I finished the bike course a little slower than I had hoped, in 6:25, and as soon as I got off my bike, it was taken by a volunteer and brought back to its proper place along the bike racks. Meanwhile I was ushered forward to a cool tent where a wonderful woman put an ice cold towel on my neck and on my chest. She brought me a cup of Gatorade and a cup of ice to put down my bra. Then she helped me off with my bike shoes and socks, and put on my run shoes and socks. Another volunteer reapplied sunscreen to my back, and then I sat quietly for a moment, trying to collect myself. The cold-towel woman sat down next to me and told me that I was her hero. She couldn’t believe I had done so well, that I had come so far, and she told me she knew I would finish. She was my hero, too.

I got out on the run, struggling, and realized shortly that my goal time was going to be impossible. Even finishing seemed out of reach. I began to tell myself that all I had to do was walk, that I’d finish if I walked, and if I felt better later, I could run. I went through 20 miles of the marathon, running when I could, at a pace slower than I had imagined I could run, and walking the rest.

By the end of the first loop of the run, I had seen a lot of people pass me, a lot of grown men puking their guts out by the side of the road and then proceeding to a walk that was somehow even slower than mine. And then one man I saw being escorted away from the water’s edge by two security guards. There were plenty of people in the water swimming, so I couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong until I saw he had a race number on. As he passed by me, I heard him muttering “I have to get in the water, I have to do the Ironman.” Then the security guard next to him said, “Sir, you’re confused because of severe dehydration. We have to get you to a medical tent immediately.” He was one of the unlucky ones, but there were a lot of them.

My finish time was 13:06. I finished the marathon in 5:15. Not good, but not as bad as a lot. I finished in 853rd place. I passed nearly a hundred people on the last three miles as I ran as hard as I could to the finish line. But now that I have been through it, I know that finishing an Ironman, no matter your time, is an incredible feat of will and physical endurance. No one goes into that without months and months of training and those same exhausted weekends that I went through. And to keep going, step after step, is amazing. The ones I felt most sorry for were those who had to drop out, even after all that training, or the ones who didn’t quite make it over the finish line by the midnight cut off.

My children have been calling me “IronMom” ever since I finished. I feel relief, a hint of emptiness, and surprise that everything is the same as it was before, really. I have a good life, good family, good friends. And a sense of being blanketed in goodness, even in the worst of times. As I look back on all those volunteers who helped me through a very difficult day, I can’t help but think of that other very difficult day, the day when I woke up to feel no baby’s movement in my stomach, and listened with utmost attention to hear a heartbeat on a Doppler machine, or to see a heartbeat on an ultrasound machine. I remember how I sat in a hospital bed, wondering how it was possible to live through something like the death of a child you had never held living in your arms, and discovered that there were people who had been through this themselves, and who would help me along that terrible marathon of grief.

A woman, an utter stranger then, who came and talked to me about her own loss. The woman who came and bathed our baby and put a little ribbon in her hair and wrapped her gently in a blanket for us to hold. The woman who took pictures, complete with a Teddy bear, for us to have something to remember. The women who assembled kits with gold rings to put on her finger, and then keep. The man at the mortuary who explained to us that he would take care of her body, bring her seventy miles to our burial plot, give us the casket, the announcements, everything—free of charge. The family members and friends who appeared en masse at the funeral. The friends and half-known neighbors who brought food, flowers, and cards. The hugs and tears shared. The sister who drew a picture of our baby with opened eyes, so we could imagine how she might have looked. The sister who called everyone to tell them the news so that I would not have to. The parents who flew out on a moment’s notice to be with us. The brother-in-law who sat and talked triathlon training with me as I tried to ignore labor pains in a hospital bed.

The day of the Ironman was not unlike that other day, ten months before. But why would I want to relive a day like that? All those months of preparation, leading to an unknown that did not turn out well. Because it was a reminder that even in the very darkest moments of life, total strangers can help you along, to get through it, and maybe to make you smile a little.

One of the best aid stations on the run had a group of a dozen grandmotherly ladies dressed in clown wigs and mumus, waving fuzzy sticks around and dancing wildly to loud music. Crazy stuff, but if it distracts you for just one minute, they’ve done their job. I know that there are bad things that happen everywhere, but I have seen such overwhelming goodness from people I did not know. How could I not want to experience that again?

One of the last symbols of this was my discovery of my dry clothes bag on the day after the race. In the rush to get to the beach and get a warmup in before the swim, I didn’t take time to find the dry clothes drop (for the clothes you wear on top of your race gear to keep you warm that morning, before you get into your wetsuit). So I dropped it randomly on the beach. It had a good pair of running shoes in it, my favorite watch, and my best sweatsuit. I found it the morning after the race, sitting on the empty boardwalk, nearly where I had left it, untouched, with everything still inside.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.