We watched the sun rise on the boat as we anticipated the start. Shortly after 6:30am the inevitable got closer one person at a time, three seconds apart. “Really?” I uttered as I was told to jump. I was more shocked to be told to go than by the cold water. It was remarkably clear. I watched my hands pierce into view. Tiny bubbles sparkled in the penetrating sun against clear green depths. I’m so used to small lakes where I watch my hand become a fuzzy image in a soft murky green that feels slightly claustrophobic. Swimming along the bay wall I got to wave at my fans. Will said he could see my little eyes bugging out from behind my clear goggles.
I was about half way through the 1.2 mile swim in the Lake Superior Duluth harbor. It would be followed by 56 miles bike with a 15mph head wind on the second half. That would be followed by running 13.1 miles with a heat index of 105. This was the second annual Superior Man Triathlon, and my first half Ironman.
I’ve been trying to write this story for three weeks. It was such a momentous accomplishment for me. I’m so proud. It went so well. That’s the problem, it’s hard to tell a story with so little drama. The short story goes,
“Everything went according to plan. I even pooped on time. I accomplished my goal and I am happy. The end.”
The long story really begins when I learned to swim before I could walk. It’s overcoming injuries and two foot surgeries spaced 10 years apart. It’s years of struggling with biking. You can read my triathlon journey for the condensed version of the long story. This little chapter of this race is so short yet so meaningful because of all that came before it. Including near neurotic planning.
I originally set my sights on this particular race on Christmas Eve 2011. I had gotten a Facebook message that there would be a brand new race starting as a swim to shore in Lake Superior in August 2012. I wrote for myself a 19 month training plan. It included a break for getting married and our epic honeymoon trip. In retrospect I obsessed over the details of completing my first half ironman far more than my wedding.
Here’s a list of some of the things I fretted over:
Getting foot surgery without health insurance.
Being able to run 13.1 miles at all.
The ice letting out in time for a May sprint Tri.
The giant gnarly Trinona Triathlon hill.
What to eat the week before. What to eat the night before. What to eat the morning of. What and when to eat during the race.
Pooping before the race.
Having no money for a new bike.
Having to replace worn out tires.
Not being able to carry enough water. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to solve this problem.
Exactly how to load my snack box on my bike.
If peeing in my wetsuit would wash away my anti-chafing lube.
Getting sick, getting injured, not doing enough, doing too much.
Losing my sunglasses two days before departure.
Here are the things I didn’t think to think of:
Waiting anxiously was not a good warm up.
I should have practiced jumping in water feet first while keeping my goggles on.
Peeing while biking was really hard.
The bike course went out on new highway 61, then turned around at Two Harbors and came back on old scenic 61 along the lake shore. On the way out I had an ominous moment. I was biking uphill and it was eerily quiet, and easy. All signs of a significant tail wind that would become quite the headwind. The way back was slow going. I refused to feel it. I hummed songs into the wind roaring in my ears. I watched a bald eagle fly along side me on the shoreline. At one point I was going so slow I noticed when I nearly squished a wooly bear caterpillar furiously making its way across the asphalt.
The run was ungodly hot. While it was the fear of paralyzing cold water that had kept me up the night before, it was the thick heat on the run that was the most challenging. I used every aid station. I’d dump one cup of ice cubes down my bra, put two cups of water over my head and down my back, and take one cup of gatorade to sip on the go. As the ice would melt it would make a soft clinking noise with the rhythm of my steps. Spirit was key and there was tons of camaraderie on the run. Getting back in the water never looked so tempting.
This race reminded me that the beauty of training, the appeal of what looks so masochistic is learning the art of suffering gracefully. There is something deeply appealing in pushing the limits of your physical and mental capabilities. It is at this edge there is pain and doubt and fear. The magic happens when the suffering isn’t a struggle and there is grace and peace. That’s what I love about athletics and racing. When I stop being scared of suffering but move with it and through it, I feel connected as a living being of the world.
It’s about personal challenge, not the distance or the place. This was a big deal for me. It took all my years of experience and all my energy to complete it. As I watched the awards and heard that some up on the podium had raced the day before, or that this race was just a training race for a bigger race I was reminded of the relativity of challenge.
My achievement of a half ironman is no more valuable than the woman who does her first sprint triathlon after learning to swim as an adult. If it wasn’t scary, it’s just training, and I don’t care how fast it was or what place it got. If there was suffering, if there was growth, that’s where the prize is.
Six hours and eight minutes from when I started I dug a little deeper for a grand finish. Moments later my legs gave out and I accepted help from the fantastic volunteers. I was so very happy. I was also very loopy. I’m pretty sure I would have lost track of my head had it not been attached. I was pleased to get third place in my age group. I was so much more happy that all my planning and all my training had played out just as I had hoped.
I’m still absorbing the experience and all I got from it.
I redeemed my free finisher’s beer at Canal Park Brewing. Then we enjoyed a beautiful evening on the shore.
Next in the Superiorman storyline: 7 lessons from racing