A year and a week ago to the day, I got up at 4AM to sign up for Madison Ironman 2015. That previous Saturday night, I was still wrestling with whether or not I should sign up, because, if I’m honest, I had never really committed to something I didn’t know whether or not I’d be good at it, and, well, crush it! So, to sign up for an Ironman, when I’d only done one full sprint tri the summer before, and a few relay tris, seemed like kind of a dumb idea. I mean, I didn’t know if I could do it, so why on earth would I sign up for it?! And that’s when I knew, if I didn’t sign up for it, I’d never push myself to try something beyond what I had already tried before.
And did it ever push me. I ran my first half marathon this summer, completed my first half ironman, and learned to swim for OVER AN HOUR in a pool doing laps (if you’ve never tried it, I suggest you do and let me know how long you can go for…it has to be one of the most boring things on the PLANET to do because there is NOTHING to look at except your pretty little bubbles coming out of your nose and if you let yourself go down that rabbit hole too far, you start thinking about how bubbles look when people drown…). I learned how to just go out for a 2-3 hour run on a Saturday morning simply to put the time in. If you’ve never run that long just ’cause, first off, know that you actually CAN do it, and secondly know that it’ll teach you how to pace yourself like few others things can. I started driving 40 minutes away from home just to bike hills before the sun came up on my days off. I started crying during training runs and rides that really pushed my endurance and figured out how to keep going even after shedding tears (let’s be real, who wants to push themselves to tears while training?!).
Not only did it push me in ways I never imagined this past year, but I learned so many things about biking and running and swimming and rest and nutrition. I grew closer to my friends I trained with (and met my now boyfriend because of the Saturday morning run group I started going to when I needed to surround myself with better runners than myself). I learned how to live a lifestyle that would allow me to chase after a dream.
A 12-month journey of so many firsts brought me to Sunday’s Ironman. One of the times I’ve wished I had a camera, and didn’t, was when I was floating in the water, waiting for the start cannon to go off and looking out over the crowd of thousands of people waiting to watch 2,800 people swim 2.4 miles in a gorgeous sunrise in Lake Monona.
The swim went great. Well, not great exactly, I was bored out of my mind with another half mile to go, but I did come in just 3 minutes over my goal time. And then I set out on a 112 miles bike course, which included over 5,000 feet of climbing. The weather looked perfect for a fun century ride in the Verona hillside.
What I did not expect was my exercise-induced asthma to flare up about an hour into what I was hoping would be, at most, a 7-7.5 hour ride. Nor did I expect my back, which had been bothersome for the past year, but getting heaps better for the past 4 months, to cause me to get off my bike every 30 minutes to stretch it, with 50 miles to go. Last week, in the IM rulebook, I saw what the cut off times were on the bike course and thought, worse case scenario I could be close to them, but I never imagined heading into the half-way mark wondering if I would get there in time. I did though, and lap two began. At that point, I was biking more slowly than I ever have and between stopping to use my inhaler or stretch my back, getting to the marathon seemed to be slipping further and further out of view. I saw my family at mile 65 and asked them to meet me at mile 85. I figured I would just take the next 50 miles 20 at a time. It would be slower than I ever imagined, but still seemed doable.
When I passed the 80 mile marker, I was aware that my pace was getting progressively slower and I’d even gotten off my bike to walk it up what should’ve been a very easy hill for me to ride up (but I was still determined to just keep moving and put one foot in front of the other). A bike marshal passed me on a motorcycle, asked how I was doing and after I said, “fine,” she told me, “okay, you need to keep moving.” When she drove up to the next person to tell them the same thing, the tears started falling. The three biggest hills on the course were still in front of me and I had had to stop on two of them during the first loop simply because I couldn’t keep my breathing under control to get up them. I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going to make it to the run start in time without being pulled off the course.
Rather than stress out both my lungs and my back any further, which is what another 1,000+ feet of climbing would do, I found the next sheriff on the course and pulled myself off around mile 82. A few miles back on the course, I had asked God if it mattered if I didn’t finish and I felt like God chuckled and said, “of course not.” And then I just had to ask, “well why did I sign up for this thing then if You knew I wouldn’t finish?!?” To which I got the response, “well, why not?!” And I realized then that just because we don’t “finish” things the way we imagined we would, the way finish lines look in magazines, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it all. It’s when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would that the journey stands out much more than the destination (as it always should, but let’s be real, usually when things go great we’d rather be proud of the medal/promotion/grade/new house/etc. than we would all that went into getting us there).
I’ll admit that I got misty eyed being at the finish line cheering my friends in as they finished their races when I realized that I wouldn’t get to hear over the loud speaker “Alicia, you are an Ironman.”
But one sentence spoken aloud by a stranger doesn’t even compare to all the texts and messages from countless friends and family who have supported me more than I could’ve ever imagined. To you all, thank you. I feel more loved and encouraged than I ever would’ve dreamed when I created my own finish line somewhere in Cross Plains, WI. I imagine this victory is even sweeter than if I had an IMWI finisher medal around my neck. It sure means more. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.