Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE RACE: Spirits Soaring Over Arizona

Every so often in life we're blessed to witness the true depth and strength of the human spirit, be it yours or someone else's. Many call the human spirit the presence of God or a different spiritual force, while others just call it true grit that comes only from the individual and not some higher source. Whatever you want to call it and regardless of its origin, the human spirit is a formidable power within us all. A power that can propel you through circumstances that you never imagined you could face.  

Flying at 39,000 feet on my flight home from Tempe, Arizona, soaring over the magnificent redddish brown mountains of the southwest, I couldn't help but think how the human spirit can soar if we just let it.  Sometimes we're too afraid or unwilling to tap into the full potential of our human spirit.  Sometimes it takes witnessing someone else's spirit soaring to motivate you to let yours free. I've witnessed the beauty of the human spirit on many occasions and Ironman Arizona this past Sunday was filled with people who let their spirit carry them through a long grueling day that represented the culmination of months of training and dedication.    

On November 20th, 2,565 triathletes gathered in the dark, cold morning hours at Tempe Town Lake to begin a day of 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running, which would begin at 7:00 a.m. and had to be finished by midnight - in 17 hours.  Unfortunately, approximately 124 of those triathletes didn't finish the race for one reason or another.  For the remaining 2,441 athletes, the day was marked by a frigid swim in Tempe Town Lake, a windy three-loop bike course through the scenic Arizona landscape, and a three-loop marathon course around the lake.  The finishing times ranges from 7 hours 59 minutes (for the male professional who won) to a last second finish at 17 hours on the nose by the last "age-grouper" (regular Joe-Schmoe amateur athletes like me).  Each finisher, regardless of his or her finish time, displayed an tremendous amount of physical and mental strength.  Each, I'm sure, has a story about their road to Arizona, the training, their sacrifices, and their ups and downs.  What I saw in several individuals, however, during the race, epitomizes the stuff of which the human spirit is made.  

Shot of the swim start of Ironman Arizona with 2500+ athletes in the water at once...
For starters, I believe that everyone who jumped into 61-degree water to stroke their way through a 2.4-mile swim had to unleash the fury of their human spirit just to make it back to dry land. Triathletes, unfortunately, can die during the open water swim portion of any triathlon event. In fact, before I left for Arizona, several people made me aware of a Washington Post article about triathlete drownings, which the reporter attributed to possible panic attacks.  Washington Post article   For that reason and for the majority of triathletes, the open water swim causes the most anxiety and fear. To overcome the powerful fear of, well - dying - you have to tap into something even more powerful than thst fear:  the human spirit. Even if you were a strong swimmer at Ironman Arizona, your spirit had to push you through bone-chilling water, the chaotic flailing arms and legs of other swimmers, and, let's not forget, the sheer distance of the Ironman swim. 

For me, armed with my wetsuit, neoprene swim cap and booties, and an extra layer of a dive/surf top for warmth underneath, I had to hurry to jump into the murky Tempe Town Lake as the announcer said there were only 30 seconds remaining to get everyone onto the water. As I hurled myself over the side of the dock into the lake and the cold water rushed into my wetsuit, my fight or flight reflex instantly kicked in. While my body screamed "get me the hell outta here," my mind remembered the last piece of advice my boyfriend gave me before I got into the water:  before starting to swim, just take a breath, put my head down into the water, blow out the air, and repeat a few times until I can feel my body start to calm down as it tries to acclimate. So I did exactly that (which worked), heard the cannon go off, and started swimming. Surrounded by panicked swimmers bumping into me and sometimes trying to swim over the top of me, every time I felt the fear creeping in, I turned my focus to God, my Grandpa, all the months of training, my mom, boyfriend and friends who were there cheering me on - whatever I could - to fill me with the power to keep putting one arm at a time in the water and pulling myself from buoy to buoy. I didn't focus on the bridge and turn-around point over a mile away and, instead, just looked for the next buoy that I could see. Soon, something took over and I just started getting pissed - not in a bad way, but in a productive "hell if I'm gonna let this swim defeat me" way. My spirit took over, and buoy by buoy, I made it through - chilled to the bone and shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but in less time than I thought it would take me. Out of the entire day, the swim honestly is what I'm most pleased with, not because I had a fast time (trust me, it was far from fast), but because the swim was my biggest fear, yet I willed myself through.  

Before the's hopin'...
The 112-mile bike ride in Arizona was a bit of a buzz kill for me. I usually love the bike portion of triathlons; but, unfortunately for me, I lack the strong cyclist legs that generate a lot of power. Plus, I'm like a feather in the wind and my lack of power makes a headwind my biggest enemy on the bike. The Ironman Arizona bike course is nothing but wind. Unpredictable, demoralizing wind as you ride a gentle incline for 10 miles out of town, then a couple small climbs before turning around at about 18.5 miles to head back downhill into town. And you get to do this three times. Only on the first loop did I get lucky enough to have the wind at my back on the downhill back to town. The other two loops, I was cursing mother nature and the Arizona desert. So the bike ride just took good ol' fashioned sitck-to-it-iveness and the spirit not to give up (and a lot of swearing)...

Coming back on first loop of bike course...

More impressive though was a woman I saw on the bike ride who demonstrated the pure beauty of the human spirit.  Tina Ament - is a blind triathlete who came to speak to my triathlon club earlier this year (the Dominion Cycling and Triathlon Club in Virginia). Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend her visit with the club, but I understand that she was very inspirational. If you think doing a triathlon or running is hard, try it blindfolded with someone else leading you the entire time. Imagine not being able to see the water you're about to jump into and being tethered in the cold, wet darkness to your partner, in whom you have to place all of your trust to steer you from buoy to buoy around all the falling ninnies. Imagine flying on a tandem bike at 18-20 mph or more, while not being able to see a thing - including the beautiful Arizona scenery around you - as your partner sits in front of you steering and giving you updates. And imagine not being able to see where you're going while you're running and having to trust that your partner will safely guide you through every single step. Yes, Tina would get one of my human spirit awards. She not only overcame the fears and obstacles that every triathlete does, but she did it without the blessing of her sight.  Like her, there are many triathletes and runners who have lost or never had some of the things we take for granted, like our arms or legs. Every time I see one of these athletes in a race, my heart literally warms. The power of their human spirit is undeniable. 

Coming off the windy, slow bike ride, I was not a happy camper. But I tried to put it behind me and focus on the 26.2-mile run. The marathon portion of the Ironman is where you have to leave everything you have out on the race course. I've run two marathons - the Marine Corps Marathon - and not particularly well. In fact, they rather sucked, and the amount of pain I was in after my second one is part of what made me decide to switch to triathlons. The marathon portion of the Ironman though was different. Fortunately because I've changed my running form, I didn't have the same debilitating pain (illotibial band syndrome) that I had during my last marathon. I did have, however, different pain - the kind that comes from moving your body at an aerobic level for 10-17 straight hours. I tried to start out the Ironman run at a slow enough pace that I could maintain it or st least not slow down significantly. Unfortunately, unless you've already done an Ironman, you can't really plan for how tired and banged up your body is going to feel. So in hindsight I should have started out even slower.  I also should have walked this annoyingingly long hill that I ran up on the fist two loops but, by the third loop, said "no way in hell."  Running up that hill really banged up my knees, which were pretty sore for about the last half and so on the final loop, I ended up walking a lot more than I'd planned.  So there are some things I would have done differently and maybe I would have gotten closer to the marathon time I wanted. (I was about 17 minutes slower on the run than I'd hoped). At no point, however, did I want to quit or start walking before my body absolutely needed to. By the time the marathon portion rolled around, I was into the last hours of a very long training season and a tiring day, and I tried to give it all I had. 

The will to finish though was even stronger in one man I saw on my run. I first saw him about half way through my second loop. I assumed he was on his third loop because he looked like a super fast cyclist who would have lapped me a couple times on the bike. I saw him on the run just as he stopped, pulled up, and grabbed him hamstring. He bent over to stretch and tried to run, but his leg seized up again. (Something you see a lot in marathons).  Then I saw him start to take a very tiny baby step to the side - he couldn't even move his leg to the front. He was near an aid station, so I assumed he'd tell the volunteers that he was done or that he'd be able to walk it off.  I was wrong on both.  I saw him again on my third loop - about a mile away from where I last saw him. In the time it took me to go a little over 8 miles, he'd side/baby-stepped about a mile. I can't describe the pain this man looked like he was in. He had a woman walking with him and whether she was a friend or volunteer, I don't know. But the tiny side/baby steps he was taking with his hurt leg were maybe three inches at best. I saw him again as I looped back to go to the finish line and he was still baby stepping. I was amazed. If I'd been hurt that badly, I honestly may have thrown in the towel. I don't know his name or number or whether he finished. He had a little over two hours left to go about 1.5 miles to make the cutoff, so he may have. I truly hope that he did. Even if he didn't, however, his spirit to at least try to finish will stick with me.  At that point, his human spirit was stronger than his pain. 

Finally there was the woman I also saw on my third loop who was throwing up. I saw her come off the side of path holding her stomach and walking, so I asked her if she was ok. As she started to say that she felt sick, she moved over to the side again and threw up. I stopped to stand with her to make sure she wasn't going to pass out. When she could walk again I walked with her for a bit and gave her some Tums and Immodium I had, hoping that may help. Fortunately, she too was near an aid station and she said she could make it there. She said she was so close to the finish she didn't want to quit. I hope she was able to push through it and finish -puking or not. Again, the power of her spirit was stronger than her stomach's visceral reaction to what she was doing. 

As I crossed the finish line under the Ironman timing arch, I heard the announcer call out the four words most triathletes dream of hearing: "You are an Ironman." Probably sounds silly to anyone else, but I guess like anything, you had to be there. And by "there" I mean you had to be there for the months and hours of training, for the worry and fear of not succeeding, for the pain of injuries, for the sacrifices, and, most of all, for the long, exhausting hours of the Ironman event itself. If you've been there you'll understand that the physical preparation truly is only half the battle. Even when your body wants to give up - when you can't see, when your legs stop working, or when your body just rebels against you - it's your human spirit that has to carry you the rest of the way. Without it, you may as well just lie down. 

We've all had to call on our spirit to help us soar above what may seem insurmountable. Sometimes, however, it's hard to fully harness its power. During those times, just think of what you can do if you don't put limits on yourself. You can fight cancer one day, one hour, or one minute at a time, just like I swam one buoy at a time. You can find the strength to overcome a personal tragedy and recognize that even though there may be times when you feel like you're pedaling into a headwind going uphill with weak legs, you're still making progress. You can keep walking through anything, even if it's just by taking 3-inch baby steps. You just keep moving forward. Your spirit will pull you through if you only let it, and even if you don't make it, at least you go down fighting. 

“The spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.” -- Vince Lombardi


Anonymous said...

Congratulations, an amazing accomplishment

Life Through Endurance said...

Thanks, Kate!