“No me toques!” I shout. My eyes shoot fire at the person ahead who had just bumped into me with unnecessary abruptness.
My alarm goes off.
Wonderful, I think. I remembered to use the subjunctive when forming the negative imperative in Spanish while dreaming! This bodes well for today.
Today, of course, is my first full length Ironman.
In the days leading up to the race, everyone wanted to give me advice and the best wisdom came in pairs: rest and eat carbs; have fun and pee; and my favorite, corozón y cojones.
I’m excited but calm and happily surprised my stomach is calm enough that I’m actually able to eat my entire breakfast. After a quick shower, I head to the race start.
With nearly 3,000 people running around in wetsuits and frantically trying to warm up for the day’s event, I settle for swimming ten strokes out and ten strokes back to shore, just enough to check the Mediterranean’s temperature and expel any air bubbles from my wetsuit.
Everyone around me is speaking French or Italian, so I’m excited to hear a woman, about my age, speaking English to two French women just in front of me. I introduce myself to the Brit and we both gush about how this is our first Ironman and that we just want to finish without injury. We are separated in the melee of moving towards the start corrals but she coincidentally she chooses the <1:14 swim corral where I already am. I figure it’s realistic that I can do the 3.8km swim in 75 minutes so my coach advised me to go for the 1:14 group and to try to draft off some fast feet.
Lucy and I talk as the start gun goes off…and nothing happens. There are several corrals ahead of us so it takes a few minutes for the traffic to move us to the front. I flop into the water (diving has never been my strength) and go. The buoys are smaller than in other races I’ve done and I’ve never swum with so many people before so my sighting is off and I swim at least an extra couple of hundred meters. It doesn’t help that the swim course resembles an Etch-a-Sketch doodle with its series of 90 degree turns and that it crosses itself two thirds of the way through, but at least the sea is calm and my arms are feeling good. I periodically encounter traffic jams and occasionally end up sandwiched between men in what I can only describe as an aquatic mosh pit. I think someone does a belly flop on me at one point which is certainly irritating but also helps keep my mind occupied while I count my strokes to have a rough idea of how much distance I’ve covered. I keep chugging along and after awhile I can hear the music thumping from the shore and I know I’m nearly done! I start to kick my legs in order to get the blood flowing so that I don’t just tumble over when it’s time to switch from horizontal to vertical. People around me are already standing up but the water is still above knee height so I keep swimming until my hands can touch the bottom. The beach in Nice is beautiful but highly inconvenient for a swim exit as it angles up steeply. There is a large mat so we don’t slide backwards into the water as we emerge and there are helpers on either side who help pull the dizzy swimmers up, but I’m smack in the middle of the carpet so I scramble up on all fours like a little kid climbing the stairs.
Because the race start is in the center of town, there is a crowd there to cheer me on as I run towards the first transition. We pass under the finish line, which I hope to see again later tonight, and I’m thrilled to see it’s 7:48am. The official start was at 6:30, so I’m confident that I’ve done the swim sub 1:15 given that it took a few minutes for me to actually cross the start mat.
I transition as fast as I can, though not as efficiently as I can since I initially grab my run bag instead of my bike bag. Oops! But as I’m not exactly racing for the podium, I laugh it off and run to my bike. I’m pleased to see so many bikes are still waiting for their owners, indicating that my swim really was half decent. The bike leg will be the toughest of the three disciplines for me and, of course, it’s also the longest at 180km.
Hitting the course, the first few kilometers are lined with people applauding. I take it all in, knowing that I’m going to be more or less alone for at least the next 8 hours.
The first 50km pass by uneventfully: a quick pee break at a port-a-potty, grab snacks and bottles from the feed stations, and concentrate on keeping my cadence up. I hit the 20km climb and am glad that I came to Nice back in March to recon the course. It’s a tremendous physical and mental boost to already have a general sense of the gradient and the rhythm of the climb. So I plod along, singing songs in my head and thinking how much nicer the weather was in March. Today there are menacing clouds that will certainly rain on us. It’s just a question of when and for how long. My inner monologue and singing are occasionally interrupted by passing cyclists who shout “Allez!” to me. This puzzles me for a bit and then I realize it’s probably because I’m going so slowly, they’re not sure I’m going to make it. I actually find this pretty funny as opposed to insulting (I’m nothing if not self-aware) but I know that this is the longest climb of the day and I expect to make up some time once it’s done.
Except that it starts to rain literally the moment I finish the climb. While this isn’t a monsoon, it’s enough to make me cold and to make the roads wet enough that descending at speed is now leaning towards dangerous. A couple of times I swoop round a corner, only to come across an ambulance helping a crashed cyclist. Having crashed on this very course in March due to a negligent driver, I’m not in a hurry to return to the hospital for another round of stitches in my face.
So what exactly goes through my head during a 180km ride? All kinds of ridiculousness. I enjoy the views when the fog isn’t too thick. I sing my cousin’s name to the tune of the Spiderman song. I think about the people who have impacted my life, both negatively and positively, and reflect on how they’ve contributed to who I am today. I make up inspirational songs to the “Let It Go” tune (“Pedal On” was particularly catchy). I think back to the best training sessions I had, when running felt like flying; when I half believed I was a dolphin; when I climbed like I was the King of the Mountains. I think back to the shittiest sessions, when I broke down in tears at the base of a climb because my teeth throbbed so badly after an insignificant ride and still rode up the climb anyway; when calluses made my feet burn so badly I had to sit down on the trail and doubts overwhelmed me; when the thought of getting in the pool just seemed like such a miserable idea that I’d feel a twinge of disappointment to discover I had not forgotten to bring my swimsuit and had to do the swim after all. I count my cadence. I make sure to drink every 10 minutes and to eat every 15 or 20 minutes. I think about my pace and am pretty sure I’m going to the finish the bike before the time cut off. Above all, I sing Beyoncé.
In the last hour or two of my ride, a woman named Rosa and I take turns passing each other. Our race numbers include our names, age groups, and country, so when I see the Spanish flag on hers, I seize the opportunity to prepare for the Spanish exam I have in 48 hours time and strike up a conversation. She is a lovely companion and we continue to leapfrog each other, she passes me on the climbs, I pass her on the descents, and we talk during the flat bits. I’m especially appreciative of her company as the slick roads mean I can’t take my hands off the brakes long enough to eat much so our conversations keep my brain partially distracted from my hunger.
Eight hours after leaving Nice, I return and hear an enthusiastic, “Salut, Kathryn!” as I dismount and run my bike into the second transition. It’s my friend Guillaume, who has driven a few hours to see me run the marathon, the final chunk of the Ironman. He runs alongside me on the outside of the fence and when I park my bike, my friend Melissa and her young son, who have spent the weekend with me, are there cheering for me. Changing my shoes and socks, I introduce my friends and tell them how the bike went. They both yell at me to get running so I do. I had to unclip several times during the bike to shake out my feet to stop them from going numb, the coldness is gone and the afternoon sun has come out. Running is my favorite of the three triathlon disciplines and it already feels like a reward after a good swim and a slower-than-I-had-expected bike to let my legs do what they love best. I’ve run three marathons before today and have retired from the distance twice but today I’m genuinely looking forward to a dead flat out-and-back 4 lap run course.
I knock out the first half marathon in about two hours and I’m thrilled with my pace. This is faster than I’ve ever run the first 21km of a full marathon! Amazing! By 25km, however, I succumb to my hunger. I eat as much as I can at all of the feed stations but it’s not enough. I started the run hungry and it’s impossible to replenish the calories my body needs at this late stage, so I allow myself a series of walk breaks. It’s frustrating because my legs do feel really good but I can actually hear my stomach growling. I’m on pace to finish well within the 16 hour time limit though and I know it doesn’t matter if I finish in 14 hours or 14:30.
I grab my special needs bag at the end of my second lap and it feels like Christmas. Athletes have the option of putting their own food in their special needs bag and I have stocked mine with goodies: an energy waffle, peanut butter M&Ms, and a slice of my favorite chocolate chip banana bread, homemade by my boss. I down the M&Ms and they taste like angel hugs. I even share a few with a friendly American guy who was struggling a bit. The energy waffle is gone in two bites. But the banana bread, wrapped in tinfoil, is going to be a problem. My stomach can’t digest anymore food at the moment and I won’t pass Melissa or Guillaume for another half an hour, too long to carry it around. I come up with what seems like a Nobel worthy idea. Over the years I’ve read articles that say simply swishing water or an energy drink around in your mouth can have a positive benefit while exercising and that actually swallowing the liquid isn’t necessary. Because I hate to waste a precious slice of the delicious banana bread, I open the foil, strategically bite the bread in the chocolatiest part, chew, chew, chew, and then, as politely as possible, I spit it back out into the foil and throw it in the next garbage can. I can’t tell you how proud I was of this idea!
Motivation is easy to find in the second half. My cousin texted me earlier that she was going to do two 10km runs over the weekend in my honor, so I imagine she is running with me as I hit the final 20km. Both Guillaume and Melissa cheer like they’re possessed whenever they spot me. I even see my swimming buddy Lucy running and we are so excited to see how well the other is doing. I smile at the spectators and give high fives to anyone who wants one. I eat as much as my stomach will allow at the feed stations. I’m particularly excited about the salty crackers but I don’t actually have enough saliva to chew them up properly so, like the good vegetarian that I am, I take inspiration from the skinny Japanese guy who always wins the 4th of July hot dog eating contest. He dips his buns (not a euphemism) into a glass of water so I dip my crackers into my cup of water and enjoy the salty goodness. A later food stop is less rewarding when a volunteer has clearly been holding half a banana for too long and when I pop it in my mouth, it has the texture of cat vomit. Fortunately, my soggy crackers once again save the day.
The kilometers tick by and I pick up the pace as the finish line approaches. It’s a little after sunset and the flood lights illuminate the final 100 meters brilliantly. Stepping onto the red carpet, I open up into a massive sprint, bounding towards the finish with the crowd roaring in approval as I fly by another runner. I cross the finish line, Ironman complete.