140.6 Finisher… But Please Do Not Call Me An Ironman

It’s 2020 and everyone seems to be using the term “new normal”.

Ironically this phrase originates from cancer patients. Who must oftentimes isolate, because they’re undergoing chemo or other form of cancer care. A normal cold (let alone a novel virus) could kill them. It’s lonely, its hard and in plainest terms… Sucks.

When social distancing, quarantining, and contact precautions were first announced in March of 2020. My husband and I just looked at each other and said, “here we go again.” Because we’ve been there…

Although we are thankfully not going through chemo care in the middle of a pandemic, we knew what all those life adaptations would mean for others…

“Hey want to meet up for dinner?”

Sorry we can’t.

“Ummm where’s my hug?”

Sorry your germs could kill me.

The “no’s” and “sorry’s” become monotonous. Events are cancelled. People are stir crazy. Businesses are financially impacted. You just want to get back to your normal, non-pandemic lives.

Unfortunately we all know this is not all going to magically disappear after an election or on the stroke of midnight January 1st 2021. Just like treating cancer, the race is not a sprint it’s a marathon. 2020 and even 2021, is all about patience, adaption, flexibility, compromises and hoping we all just stay healthy. Quoting a physician friend of mine, “Expect shit to happen, adapt and move on.”

The advice has stuck.

So now its 2020, my husband’s 10 year cancer-versary, the commitment goal was to raise over $10,000 and finish an Ironman in Santa Rosa where he was first diagnosed. Yet rather than write an annoying, long winded blog post about all that has happened in the past year, I’ve summarized in chronological order, the dumpster fire of set backs and races cancellations below…

  • (May 2019) Two+ years preparing and training for an Ironman (because in 2019, just weeks away from toeing the start line, I break my foot in a freak accident and cannot race Ironman Santa Rosa.) I’m deferred to race it in July 2020.
  • (March 2020) I slowly and painfully rehab my way back to Ironman training again. I’ve lost some weight. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a long time, and my training is solid.
  • (March 2020) Then Covid comes… All races are postponed or outright cancelled. Myself and all other athletes are now in training limbo.
  • (June 2020) A couple months later the race is rescheduled to October 2020.
  • I keep training
  • (August 2020) 50 days to the event and the race is officially and [permanently] cancelled ie. will never take place in Santa Rosa again.
  • I keep training.
  • (August-September 2020) I adapt and schedule a DIY race at home, because I’m GOING to complete an Ironman distance race.
  • Then with just a few short weeks away from the DIY home race, I crash my bike with serious injuries…

Now what?

What do I do?

This lead to Monday October 5th, where I had a deep discussion with my husband…

He was trying to be supportive, but I’m sure he secretly hoped I’d change my mind. (I already had several times that week)

Married for over 10 years he knows just how stubborn I can be, especially when it comes to a goal or race. I’ll even admit I’m headstrong to the point of making poor decisions with my health. (Case in point, in 2018 I pushed through a 70.3 race with a dangerous blood clot, to which he “kindly” reminded me during our conversation)

However in this particular discussion I felt justified. I ONLY was recovering from a concussion, severe whiplash, some bruised ribs and a couple deep muscular hematomas. No broken bones this time, no big deal right?!

Yet with marriage comes compromise and he being the practical social worker he is, made the following points…

Husband:

  • Its 2020 and he’s cancer free for 10 years
  • We met our fundraising goals by well over thousands of dollars.
  • Although Ironman Santa Rosa was cancelled, you still raced there in 2018 and changed our bad memories to good ones.
  • Your doctors said, “no open road, no pounding pavement or trail where you can trip.”

Me:

“But I just want to finish what I set out to do in 2020. Because I made a commitment to finish 140.6 for charity and I stick to my commitments. I CANNOT waste another 2 years of training, and I just want it somewhere recorded that I did it” [pathetic sniffle]

So to compromise (and prevent any possibility of divorce) the hubs agreed to the Kona Virtual Ironman at home. This would be the only 140.6 virtual race offered in 2020 and the race window was between October 5th – October 11th. Also he could work from home and make sure I didn’t die. Win. Win.

 However because of my injuries, I was limited to a bike trainer and a treadmill only. Therefore this left me with either the 3 day or 7 day option in which to virtually race. I chose the 7 day because if my body gave out on me I had the option to stop and try again. However my goal wasn’t to complete it in 7 days, I was going to try and get as far as I could in 16hrs and 50 minutes.  

“VIRTUAL RACE DAY” Yes, you can have race drama even during a virtual at home…

Originally I was going to “race” on Thursday October 8th. I scheduled some vacation time to maximize my recovery over the weekend. However because of several late nights at work, a house that needed to be cleaned, (and any excuse I could find to postpone one more day due to cold feet) we decided Friday the 9th would be better.

The night before was like any race, except I also had to think about “aid stations”

And as any race morning goes, we got up at O’dark thirty to prep and drove out to the 25 meter indoor pool in Rancho Cordova for the 7am swim start. I planned for very conservative time and pace goals as I knew with a broken body, I couldn’t go any faster. Also the hubs was my back up lap counter in case my garmin or apple watch gave me extra meters.

THE SWIM…

(Its hard to tell in the picture but my whole left shoulder had been a massive bruise and you can see some of the road rash scarring that was still healing)

For anyone who has swam with me, I don’t do flip turns any more because of my inner ear/vertigo, and I will always choose the open water to a pool.

Now add the whip lash and not being able to turn my head fully to the right to breathe, I swam SUPER slow at a 1:59/100 yard (or 2:10/100 m). With a coach’s eye I looked back at the video my husband took. I was over rotating in my hips and lower back to compensate for the pain in my rhomboids and trapezius. But none of it really helped because my back and neck were on fire after the swim. I was loopy and in pain but I bundled up in towels and headed home. Swim survived.

Transition 1 was basically an hour long; a 25-30 minute car ride home, a quick shower to rinse off the chlorine, some Tylenol, food and changing into my tri kit.

THE BIKE…Just not the same…

The bike was already set up the night before on the smart trainer so it was just a matter of making sure our sketchy wifi was actually working in the garage. Luckily the stars aligned and the lag was minimal for only 30% of the ride.

I also chose a “flat” course thinking to mimic California Ironman and this would be good practice… Ummm yeah that was a mistake.

I’m a hill climber. I like to race to the top of hills, and then coast down without pedaling. I like coasting and readjusting on the bike. However on a smart trainer you CANNOT STOP PEDALING. Your speed will reduce immediately and suddenly your 20mph will drop to 6mph. So I kept going, and going, and going.

It was hot, muggy and the worst part…Lonely.

Being an extrovert I need the energy of people surrounding me. I need those cheer stations and volunteers. I need the competition of seeing a real live person fly past me or being able to casually chat about the mutual pain we are experiencing. (Oftentimes we’re lamenting why we made the decision to race.) No amount of movies or music will ever distract me from the loneliness. So lets just say I was starting to go to some dark places in that garage.

I will note, THE ONLY positive thing about riding on a bike trainer was that I got to eat a cup of noodle soup.

THE RUN (or rather the 7th circle of hell)

I’m not going to go into the details about the misery of the treadmill. Any runner who has run long on one has their war stories. There is a reason we refer to them as “dreadmills”. Lets just say I was at my lowest point of the day and I was ready to throw in the towel at mile 13. I was in pain, I was miserable, I was doubting my sanity. But I had come so far and could not stop. I was so invested already that I couldn’t give all that up.

 Then the worst could happen… At 9:23pm my watch was losing battery life…  

I didn’t know what to do?! My back up garmin was not calibrated to our treadmill distance and for some odd reason had crapped out. (I still don’t know if I had accidentally hit a drill button or some kind of setting?) I was now solely relying on my apple watch and treadmill to measure my distance. So I kept running and just hoped that it could last me till 26.2 miles was done.

At 11:01 I felt an odd ding and luckily snapped a picture of my distance and pace because I knew it was going to die…

And of course by 11:04 it was dead…

Now what?… The only thing I had left was to run with a black screen on my arm and use the treadmill distance to know when I was finished. I knew my watch would feed to map my run through the health app so there was a lot of Hail Marys being said for the data to transfer over.

One more important point to make, our treadmill was not really made for running. In fact it was marketed and designed for speed walkers, and distance is questionably longer than reality. My husband still thinks I actually ran 27-28 miles vs. 26.2, but I really did not care. I just wanted to be finished.

Now can I call myself an Ironman?

This can be a controversial topic… Yes it is 2020 and no I’m not talking about politics… This divisive discussion is ages old and frequently circulates among triathletes…

When can you call yourself an Ironman?

Especially in the midst of 2020, where a global pandemic has shuttered most races, cancelled the Ironman Championships in Kona and thousands of athletes have had to settle for virtual racing.

For those not familiar with an Ironman or long course triathlon race, the basic definition is completing a 140.6 miles consecutively in three events; a 2.4 mile swim, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles within 16 hrs and 50 minutes.

Based on this simple definition one can only imagine the training and preparation an athlete must endure to even get to the starting line… Impressive right?

Now imagine the heart ache of all that training wasted and never being able to toe the proverbial line of said Ironman race….Heartbreaking…

But aren’t there virtual races happening?

Sure, but imagine the necessary planning and work required to even attempt these distances virtually in your local area? A 112 mile bike course with nearly no car traffic where you can bust out 20mph+ on a bike. Running a marathon safely into the wee hours of the night, a safe body of water directly near the bike start, supportive aid stations, a medical team if you’re in trouble…. The list goes on… Its why so many triathletes invest hundreds of dollars each year to race Ironman events around the world. As trying to mimic those basic “race” conditions can be quite a challenge.

Now here comes the question again, if the stars align and you have the resources to mimic a perfect virtual race, can you call yourself an Ironman? Well, maybe…

An Ironman race also includes race officials, cut off times for each event, and rules like no music/earbuds, no drafting, etc. There are also other athletes and spectators holding you accountable for your actions. Don’t get me wrong the virtual Ironman platform has done a pretty good job to keep cheaters at bay for their 70.3 Championship series, but lets be honest no race official is there to turn off your television or music, or prevent drafting off your speedy friend on the bike.

But some good points triathletes often make, are the racers running with cell phones and music even in live race events. Also race directors sometimes have to make the heart breaking decision to cancel or shorten an event (most commonly the swim). Yet they still announce a finisher an Ironman if they cross that red carpet.

So how do you compare the two? An Ironman who only completed a live race shortened at 138.2 miles or an athlete who completed all distances painstakingly at home?

Kelly O’Mara with Triathlete Magazine recently published an op piece and the main question was, “If there are no triathlons, are there even triathletes?”

My answer is yes.

A triathlete is not defined by a specific distance or race brand definition. A marathoner is still someone who ran 26.2 miles. A cyclist can still say they finished riding a century if they rode a 100 miles. Therefore by completing 140.6 I am a long distance triathlete. But I will not call myself an Ironman.

That term I will reserve to when I actually can race in a real event again, with all the USAT and Ironman rules. I am still proud of my achievement, especially since racing on a trainer and treadmill are the 7th circle of hell. It was 13+ hours alone in a garage, finishing 140.6 miles on a broken body. That I probably went to any darker or deeper spot I’ve ever been.

That I can take nearly an hour and a half in transitions, a couple bathroom breaks and barring any craziness, still finish under the cut off times.

The original DIY race I had planned was jokingly going to be called the Covidman so maybe call me that instead if you insist. But if I’ve learned anything from the experience, by committing and finishing 140.6 miles has given me confidence to race live. So someday, maybe not today, I can call myself an Ironman.

Thank you to everyone who has been beside me throughout this journey. I would have never finished without your unending support. You know who you are and I am so blessed to call you family, friends, and loved ones.

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