I don’t really know where to begin this story…
If I had to sum up Ironman Number 2 in one word…It would be HEART.
It is 4am on a Friday. Everything is the same as it usually is. I have meditated. I am sitting in my favorite chair where I have rocked my babies to sleep and written all my pieces of work. I am looking out a black window because the world isn’t awake yet. The only sound is my fingers typing on my laptop. I smell a citrus infusion of essential oils that I rubbed on myself during my meditation practice. Indeed, everything is simply the same. However. Upon closer observation, there is one thing that is a stark difference than it was the last time I cozied up on my fluffy chair to write. And that is my Heart.
You can’t tell a story without telling how the story started.
One year ago I was cheering on friends at Ironman Wisconsin. It was my second year cheering for the race. It is truly the most spectator friendly event I have ever seen, attended and now raced. I knew I eventually wanted to tackle Ironman again after doing Ironman Arizona in 2015 but I never really knew when. It turns out, Ironman Wisconsin 2017 would fall on my 35th Birthday. I knew I would be up there to either support or race the following year. I decided the stars aligned and knew that it was meant to be. I wasn’t going to simply spectate on my Birthday, I was going to PARTICIPATE. So I handed over a small fortune that fall September day in 2016 and there began my journey to Ironman Number 2. I would ring in the official “mid-30s” with thousands of my best friends over the course of 140.6 miles.
This training cycle was full of ups and downs. I hired a coach for only a few months but then realized that for ME…coaching simply doesn’t work. It sucked the enjoyment out of it for me. I did learn a lot during those few months but I went promptly back to being self coached and that is the space I will remain for now. Ironman and racing has never been about the numbers for me. Finishing Times don’t matter. Finish Lines and who is at the end of the race does matter to me. I find a lot of people who obsess over times usually end up having “bad days” or “bad races” and truly I believe anyone who does this sport is lucky to show up to the start line and the finish line is a bonus and celebration of LIFE and what the human spirit and body are capable of when they align and connect. There is nothing “bad” about a race, except unneeded pressure and attitudes. I guess I realize with age, life is fleeting and health is fleeting. So every time I can do what I love with good health, I feel extremely grateful. Especially when my family and friends are there to celebrate with me.
I went into Ironman mentally prepared but my body wasn’t as physically prepared as I would have liked it to be or even how it should be. I had a couple month hiatus of travelling abroad this summer that took me away from my training completely. I did what I could this year to prepare but I am not one to overlook the fact that I wasn’t as physically ready as I should have been. I knew going in that my HEART would have to be my guide for the day. And all the mental fortitude from years of training would come into play. I have never believed more fully than I do in this moment that Ironman and endurance events are 75% mental, 15% heart, 9% physical and 1% luck. You’ll never convince me otherwise after Ironman Number 2.
The Wednesday before Ironman was the only day I gave in to my emotions and started freaking out. Call it taper crazies or whatnot but I was ANXIOUS! I cried more times than I can count that day and didn’t know what I was doing. I reached out over social media and the support flowed in. I knew I wasn’t crazy listening to everyone else’s stories and threw my hands up to the tapering madness. I called my buddy Ryan a handful of times that day, once in the grocery store when picking out food seemed just too overwhelming with an upcoming race! Hahaha! When my mom arrived that night, I felt calm and peace. She is my grounding energy and made everything alright again. Taper madness is real. I didn’t even know if I remembered how to swim that day!!!! I didn’t know if I could clip into my pedals anymore or what if I just pass out and die at some point. That is how insane I felt!
Leading up to Ironman, we headed up to Madison to get prepped. Registration, check in, Ironman Village…all the usual key steps to prepare. We even included some wine and fried cheese curds as a meal because when in Wisconsin you eat cheese curds! I got my bike checked in and the day before Liz/Jared showed up and my brother drove up my two boys after their soccer games to join Mom, Sammy and me. The crew was all there. I was ready.
I always take a Tylenol PM before bed the night before a race. I meditated, got my nails ready and then laid and did my meditation until I drifted off to sleep. I slept soundly for 7 hours and at 4am the alarm went off and it was TIME. We loaded up and headed down to get me prepped and ready for 140.6 miles. My boys ran into my room that morning singing Happy Birthday and I just knew it was going to be a FUN day. I had my three stones stashed in my Tri Kit. I always race with my Reiki Stones. I had chose Rose Quartz (to remind me to race with my heart), Sodalite (to keep me at peace with the elements and any troubles that come) and Clear Quartz for mental clarity and to amplify the two other stones. You can throw me into an aggressive sport like Ironman but you can’t take the hippy free-spirited woman out of me.
I choked down my breakfast of coconut water, banana and peanut butter. I had no appetite but knew I needed to hydrate up and eat SOMETHING!!!
My entire crew of people got me ready to go that morning and I kissed and hugged my boys, Mom, Brother and Sammy good-bye as Liz and Jared walked me down to the Swim Start. I think I joked about a hundred times with them “What in the actual fuck am I doing here” before I gave them one last hug and they sent me off.
I got into my starting coral and began the mental hell of “The Wait” before it was time to enter the water. I smiled and hugged some people at the start. I was full of butterflies and wide eyed because I didn’t know how I was going to swim 2.4 miles. But alas…after the wait comes the moment you can’t turn back…you enter the water.
I walked out as far as I could and then jumped in to submerge my face. The water was 66 degrees and it felt like an icy blast. Just keep swimming. Or in this case, just start swimming. I slowly but surely made it out to the start and stayed along the edge away from as many people as I could. I was treading water for a few minutes before the cannon went off. My breath was shallow and my wetsuit felt like it was choking me. I was trying to catch my breath but the cold left me short of it. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Wait. Wait. Wait. Cannon Bursts. I hear screams and cheering from the shore and all the sudden we all start swimming. For a brief moment I forget how to breathe and swim. I always say, you will hit highs and lows on race day. That is a given. I only hit one low during Ironman Wisconsin and it happened in the first 30 seconds of the race. It went a little something like this.
I can’t breathe. What am I doing? I can’t even swim. I can’t catch my breath. My wetsuit is too tight and I feel like I am suffocating. I can’t breathe. Why am I doing this? Panic sets in. I can’t swim 2.4 miles. I can’t catch my breath. I am choking. I can’t do this with the training I did. I should swim to the kayak and call it a day now. I can’t breathe. I can’t catch my breath. Why am I doing this?
It feels like maybe 5 minutes of this inner battle going through my head. I truly felt like I was suffocating. The panic was real. But somehow in those moments, my heart kept reminding me that it was there for me. My heart was telling my brain to shut off and let it take over. I remember the advice my dear friend Taylor sent me the night before that there will be lows but I have done this before. I knew what to do. So I dug deep back to the times I felt breathless before and was reminded that everything comes in waves. The panic and breathlessness will end. I will be able to breathe. I CAN breathe for that matter. I won’t drown. I can do this. I can do hard things. I have done harder things and endured more than a 2.4 mile swim in my life. I know what to do…
My heart, although it felt like it was suffocating and not able to breathe, finally started yelling loud enough that it overpowered my brain. Breathe. 1-2 Breathe. 1-2-3 Breathe. 1-2 Breathe. 1-2-3 Breathe. Repeat. I started counting my breath to begin falling into a meditative flow. I just kept breathing and swimming. I didn’t care what it looked like. I didn’t care how fast. I just kept breathing and swimming. And somewhere in the breathing and swimming, I found my rhythm and flow. The one that would last the beginning 2.4 miles of my 140.6 mile Birthday Journey.
I do have to say that I got more beat up on that swim than any previous swim. I got my goggles knocked off twice, I got hit and kicked and swam over. I had one guy whack me so hard in the side of the head that he actually stopped to apologize. Ironman swimming isn’t for the faint of heart. BUT it is part of the experience. I always like to think when I get toppled over during the swim …. THIS is what Ironman is all about! Haha!
A few days previous to the race, I heard a mantra that resonated with me.
Om Mani Padme Hum
“The basic meaning of this mantra is “Jewel in the Lotus” or the entire Universe is within us. We become free or “empty” of everything but an inner awareness. That form of enlightened awareness gives us the intuitive knowledge to save ourselves from suffering.”
As soon as I caught my breath and found my flow, I settled into the swim and started singing this mantra in my mind. Now I have never been a “traditional” or normal triathlete by any means so just stay with me here….
I started reciting this mantra and found a complete peace inside of me. I was singing and my swim became a dance in the water. I am a bilateral breather and it began to feel like second nature. My heart rate slowed and my awareness to my surroundings became magnified. I was singing this mantra in my head. Over and over. Until I felt like I was transcending my activity of swimming. I would close my eyes for extended periods of time and just swim and sing mantra. I would open my eyes to sight and make sure there was someone on either side of me. I didn’t know how many buoys to the turnarounds so I just went buoy to buoy knowing eventually they would end and I would be done. Swimming, Dancing and Singing. Time stood still. I knew it was going to be the longest swim time I have had, BUT it felt like the shortest. Om Mani Padme Hum…over and over. I stayed in my zone and had no doubt of my ability to finish. I remember turning the last buoy and I could hear Mike Riley at the swim announcing people. I could hear the music. Just keep swimming and breathing. Before I knew it, I was there. I could see the end. I could see people standing all around me and so I placed on my feet on the earth for the first time in just under 2 hours and grabbed onto a volunteer to help me up the slippery ramp. I was beaming with pride and felt so calm and at peace. I DID IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The euphoria that comes with finishing the first portion of an Ironman is SO intense!!!! I ran along the course and the wetsuit strippers got my wetsuit off in record time. I ran up the helix (which I think is really cool but a bit of a bitch move on their part! HAHAHA! You are just trying to get your bearings after swimming but are now running uphill!) There were SO many people lined up and thus began the longest transition ever. Madison has an AMAZING set up and you just brace yourself that it is a long transition. I saw my whole crew as I was running up and in. I was BEAMING when I saw them and I think they were relieved to see me out of the water! Hahaha! I may have had them all a little stressed but little did they know of my zen-like, meditative and peaceful swim!
The woman helping me opened my bag and we started getting my bike stuff on. I chugged coconut water and ripped open a Payday candy bar. I got all my gear on and headed back out for sunscreen and more kisses from my boys and smiles from my crew! It is funny after the fact, my brother was witnessing his first full Ironman and saw that they didn’t change their gloves after applying sunscreen to each of us and said that was completely unsanitary wiping each other’s sweat all over another!!! Hahaha! Yes….I agree 210%!!! This is a very unsanitary sport!
My people sent me off, I rode down the helix and I was out of there onto the bike!
I knew I would have to take it easy on the first 16 miles out to the loops of the bike course. I focused on eating all I could which ended up being gummy bears I shoved in my bento box and drinking all I could. I had water and my homemade electrolyte drink which consisted of maple syrup, lime juice and salt. It sounds gross but it is truly a game changer for me!! And it tastes WAY better than gels do!
I grabbed a bottle of water at every aid station and chugged it. I poured the rest into my front bottle. I knew hydration would be important this day. Once I started on the loops I knew the course. I had ridden it before. It is stunning out there in the hills and farmland. A handful of times I had to stop myself from racing and just look around to admire the beauty.
I kept it consistent on the bike. It is something like 5000-6000 ft of upness (people range from 4000-7000 on their watches! HAHA!) and some really bitchy hills to climb over the course of 112 miles. The entire day was hills. Wisconsin is known to be one of the harder bike courses but I LOVED it. Hills are so much fun for me because the reward for climbing is the flying after. That is where I made up all my time. As I turned the corner to go on Barlow, the most dreaded hill of all, which I think I heard gets to 19/20% steepness, I saw my BFF. They were screaming at me and I was SO happy to see their faces! I slowed down to smile back and yell at them. I believe I said something like, it’s time to go make this hill my bitch…Hahaha! It was just what I needed to lift my spirits!
I had climbed Barlow 3 times previous to race day so I knew for me, walking it wasn’t an option. More than half the people were walking and the other ones of us riding. The streets were lined and people were screaming and cheering. I put my head down and worked. I let their energy fuel me but I knew I needed total concentration. The mantra in my head on those tough hills came to me from one of my favorite spin instructors, Kate. It is simple. “Yes You Can” That is it. I repeat that out loud and in my head until I get to the top. I don’t stop saying it. I don’t pay attention to anything around me. I just sit and grind it out until I finally am at the top and can say “Yes You DID”!
I used that same mantra on each hill and really let the crowds push me up them. Midtown hill is my FAV because I knew SO many people and the spectators are simply the best! I have never had any problems on the bike so there was bound to be a first. I was switching gears and my chain dropped. I slowed down and got over to the side. Luckily that was a simple fix and nothing else was wrong. I had black grease all over my hands but if that was my biggest problem, I would take it! I stayed calm the whole time and just fixed it. I got asked a few times if I was ok and my bike was ok. I love how supportive we are to each other. We genuinely want each other to succeed!
Toward the end of Loop One I saw my family in Verona and that was perfection. I slowed down to blow them kisses and yell back! I was BEAMING when I saw them. I was having SO MUCH FUN and they just propelled that! I headed back out for loop 2. I decided to stop at special needs just to have a little pitstop. My volunteer was Jessica and she was awesome! As I was chugging my coconut water and red bull we realized we had a special mutual friend, which blew my mind a little. I had fun chatting with her and decided to eat another Payday Bar. For some reason those were the most AMAZING tasting things on race day! Hahaha! After I was done eating I headed back out. Loop 2 my neck started to hurt some but that is just a given during Ironman. I sang songs, smiled and chatted to other bikers and was just having a blast out there on my bike. I was LOVING the ride. Before I knew it, I was back on my way into town and at the final stretch. Out of nowhere around mile 95ish, Liz and Jared appeared. It was a total surprise to see them so I pulled over to chat! We took some pictures and chat about the day. I think I told her to go take a few birthday tequila shots for me too. Haha! They finally told me to go, I think I lost track of time and was just having fun chatting! They sent me off and it was the HOME STRETCH!
I had continued to drink my electrolyte drink and lots of water and was feeling READY to get off my bike at mile 105. Ha! When I turned the corner and saw the helix I was SO happy! I rode right up it, handed off my bike and ran into the building. I grabbed my run bag and as I ran out, I saw my family. My kids ran up to hug me and I stopped for kisses and hugs from them, Mom, Brother and Sammy. I was SO happy to see them and SO happy to be off my bike at that point so it was just a wave of HAPPINESS! They sent me off into the next room, I changed into my run gear and off I went. I chugged another coconut water, kissed my boys again on the way out and started in for 26.2 miles of FUN!
The first mile, I honestly was thinking to myself…How in the hell am I going to run a marathon! My legs were jello and I was just shuffling along. I knew it would be a long slow day but I was going to stick to my plan. Run the entire thing, walk through aid stations to get nutrition because running and drinking just doesn’t work for me, walk the massive hills, run everything else but always stop to talk to and hug my family and friends. The run course in Wisconsin is my FAV. They go all out for it. I would truly run it as a stand alone marathon. It was definitely my favorite marathon to date! I started taking in salt and water at each aid station and trying those Hot Shot shots when offered. WOWZA. That stuff feels like straight up alcohol! It burns going down! I know nothing new on race day but I didn’t want any cramping so just downed them and luckily they settled just fine! Plus I couldn’t deny the cute kids offering them. I took in 4 hot shots during the race.
Mile 3 I was settling into my “pace”. I hadn’t worn a watch all day and didn’t actually know my pace, but I felt like I was consistent and feeling strong. My breathing was under control and I was smiling away. We did one lap around the football stadium and I made sure to look up and take it all in. It was magnificent!
Mile 5 was two pretty bitchy hills so I walked up those. Walking started to hurt more than running so those hills were the only time I allowed myself to walk minus the aid stations. Going down them was a blast because they put us to the 6 mile marker which is where I ran into Liz and Jared and it was SO fun hugging them. I was SO SO SO happy! I was shuffling along and just having fun! They sent me off and I was just so happy inside!
I got to the trail part of the race and it was my FAVORITE! I love running on dirt and took advantage of it as much as I possibly could along the course. I danced at the Base Tent which always has the best aid station and music blaring. I saw a few friends on the course and just kept on moving. One foot in front of the other. Now just because I was smiling the entire time and happy, doesn’t mean I wasn’t in pain too! HAHA! My feet were hurting so bad and going in and out of being numb. A few times it stopped me dead in my tracks but Ironman isn’t supposed to be easy. Everyone is in pain. It is how we push through the pain that defines us. I chose to push through with smiling and a positive attitude.
As I reached the turnaround and half way point, I knew I would see my family again. I stopped for hugs and kisses and like it always does, it lifts your spirit so damn much! Especially when you can literally see the finish line and everyone around you finishing and you have one more lap of 13.1 miles which doesn’t lift your spirits!!!!
I stopped at the run special needs. I looked into my bag and NOTHING looked good to eat. I realized I hadn’t taken in anything but water and salt yet on the run course and NEEDED to eat something. So I grabbed a goldfish bag and tore into it. And let me tell you, they tasted like the best thing on the planet! I ran with them over the next mile and ate the entire bag. I really think they probably saved my race because after eating them, I realized I was actually hungry and could eat pretzels. So my game plan was water, pretzels and chicken broth at every aid station. I was SO excited when I first saw the chicken broth. For some reason, it is heaven sent on an Ironman Run!!! It is warm and salty and I LOVED it!!!!!!!!!! I felt like I was getting in good nutrition and hydration to last me through the end of the race with my triple threat combo!
On State Street, my dearest friend Bobbe showed up and I stopped to chat. We started walking together for a few seconds and chatting. She was SO amazing to talk to. It left my spirit SO much and I loved the short little portion I had to be with her. Right after her I saw Liz and Jared again and I am pretty sure that is when Jared taunted me with a beer and I told him it was tequila or bust. If I get DQd for outside help, at least make it worth it! HAHA! (No I didn’t drink ANY alcohol or get outside help)…but we can joke about it!
It was dark by now and there were moments when I felt the pain stronger. In those moments I retreated back to my Mantra. Om Mani Padme Hum. On repeat in my mind. Smiling each step and thanking as many people as I could. The more I smiled the less it hurt.
At mile 19 was the last time I saw my people. Liz and Jared bounced out of nowhere again. I told them to blast some music for me as I rounded the turnaround. A little Taylor Swift please! When I got back to them, we stopped and had a little dance party! We took some pictures and I was seriously smiling so freaking BIG! I was just HAPPY! They sent me off with a hug and it was the boost I needed to get to the end. I was shuffling along consistently. Walking the aid stations. I stopped to dance and say thank you to people. I made a few friends along the course. A few it was their first time and they had their kids waiting at the finish line for them. A few it was their second time. We were all in this together so we lift each other up as much as we can.
Around mile 20-22 is when the delirious euphoria kicked in. I can’t explain how or why I was so happy. Yes I was in pain. It hurt almost every step. But I couldn’t stop smiling. Maybe it was that all pressure was off me to perform to a time or ability and I was doing this Ironman for the sheer love of the sport. I don’t know. But I just was blissful.
I talked with a lot of people these miles. I probably had a lot of people want to punch me in the face these miles because I was SO happy. I heard so many people complaining and saying it was a “bad day or race”. I was channeling my friend, Ryan and would say, every day above ground is a good day! Hahaha! I would proceed to say there is no such thing as a bad race! You are here and doing this! Why get caught up on anything else other than you are moving and almost done with an IRONMAN! I tried to be uplifting, encouraging and smile to every other runner out there. It fueled me.
We had to run the trails in the dark and it was a pretty cool moment for me. It was pretty dark out there and we couldn’t see a few times at all. I would do my mantra during those dark moments and let it transcend me. It was a surreal almost spiritual experience to be running in the dark and moving forward.
The last mile finally came. And all the emotions hit me. I did this. On my own. This was my race. I did this with insufficient training. This was MINE. I started to tear up but stopped myself because I knew I needed the energy to finish. I kept running. I could finally hear Mike Reilly. I could see the bright lights. Mine. As you get closer to an Ironman Finish Line the streets are lined. People start yelling your name. You no longer feel pain. The smiles get even bigger and you transcend into a different realm and headspace. The place of euphoria. I turned the final corner and saw Liz and Jared. I pulled over to hug them. I was on the carpet running to the light. I love the analogy of running to the light at the end of an Ironman. It is a blinding light and all you feel, hear and see is BRIGHT.
I hear Mike Reilly say, Stephanie YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.
I am still smiling. I did it. I don’t have a clue how long it took but I know that I really freaking did it. My catcher grabs me and then my wrist. She said, it’s time to turn off your watch. I smile and say, I didn’t race this with a watch, I raced this one with my heart. I said, I’m not your traditional triathlete. She laughed and smiled. She started walking me over to get a medal but every time I walked up to someone to get one, they pulled back from me. The universe had a greater plan for me to receive it. I hear my name being called. I look over and see my family in the VIP section. I start bawling and reach over for them. I grab my oldest boy first because he was the closest. My catcher holds up a medal and asks my son if he will put it around my neck. He gets a big smile on his face and rolls up his sleeves. He places the medal around my neck and we lock eyes. It was a moment in time I will never forget. I grab him and start crying into him. My little guy stands up and I pull both of them into me and whisper to them that I couldn’t have done it without them. I pull back and then fall into my Moms arms and cry some more. She is the gentle I was waiting for. The moment I didn’t have to be strong anymore. She could now be my strength. You did it she says. I did it. I hug Sammy and my brother. I have never felt so loved in my life. My brother is beaming and it was a moment I am so thankful I could share with him. He is truly my best friend on this crazy journey of life.
As I start to walk out and get my finisher shirt and picture I see Liz and run over to her to tackle her. I think I said sorry I smell first! Hahaha! I start crying again and just fall into her. My family makes it around and my whole crew is there. My kids are tired and tell me their feet hurt. I laugh and say really! HAHAHA! But I appreciate that spectating is HARD WORK and I know how much this crew sacrificed to be with me on this day, in this moment and to get me to the finish line.
After some pictures and amazing cold birthday pizza, we eventually head out. Say goodbye to Ironman Wisconsin and the Finish Line. I can’t stop smiling still. It was Mine. Mine is the theme for this year. There is a song on repeat at my house called MINE by Phoebe Ryan. This year has been dedicated to loving and growth. To myself. To rediscovering and falling even more in love with ME and my life. With my people and humans. It is a celebration of rebirth and a passionate love affair with my soul rekindled. There was a rediscovery of my own strength and yet a gentle reminder that was a constant to me of something I learned I during my first Ironman…I am never alone. And I would never have to face darkness alone again….There is a beautiful dance between knowing you aren’t alone to journey in life and allowing your life to be ruled by your own spirit, heart and strength. Above all, I always believed in myself. My tenacity and sheer determination. If you believe in yourself, even when nobody else does, miracles start to happen. Magic appears in your life. You find a quiet inner confidence that can never be shaken again. An Ironman. Just an athletic event and yet so much more. A celebration of life. A celebration of the human spirit. A celebration of my heart.
2017 is Mine.
This race was mine.
This race solidified the simple phase “Yes you can”.
MINE by Phoebe Ryan
When it went down, it was so hard to breathe
I gave up everything in a slow fall down to the floor
Life was escaping me, I couldn’t find myself
‘Til it was all lost, not anymore
I’m holding on to all the pieces of my heart’s debris
‘Til it’s time
I’ll pull it together and fix myself eventually
And know it’s mine
I found gold in the wreckage, put it on a necklace
Keepin’ it ’cause I know that it’s mine
I wear it like a message so I don’t forget it
Keepin’ it ’cause I know that it’s mine
I know that it’s mine no matter what I do
I know that it’s mine whether I win or lose
And even though my heart needs to take its time
I know that it’s mine, I know that it’s mine
Facing the change, but it’s still tough to see
At first, I fought it all, I was so mean
I’m still unsure how it’s supposed to be
But taking every day now by the skin of my teeth
Until I learn
I’m holding on to all the pieces of my heart’s debris
‘Til it’s time,
I’ll pull it together and fix myself eventually
And know it’s MINE
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