To quote a good friend describing a blessing that took an inordinately and impressively long time: Well, that was a lot. And the more I think about it, that whole sentence describes my Coeur D’Alene Ironman pretty well. The short story is I wasn’t ready–physically, mentally, emotionally. What I am is stubborn and determined to cross that finish line, even if it takes me FIFTEEN HOURS AND SEVEN MINUTES… AND ELEVEN SECONDS (spoiler alert, I did eventually finish, sans glow stick).
We started watching race weekend weather, oh, in May some time. It looked like it was going to be perfect, low wind and about 70 degrees. Ha. A couple of days before the race, a storm didn’t just blow in, it hovered like a scary Harry Potter maelstrom. We did swim recon on Thursday and the water temperature was perfect for me, about 63 degrees. I am on Team Chocolate Milk, as you probably already know, and I did an interview with KREM-TV (Spokane) before our swim. So far, so good.
Then we went out on the bike and I couldn’t shift into the big ring in front. Of course things go wrong all the time before big races, and we had time to take the bikes (Linda’s was having wheel issues as well) to a bike shop for adjustments. Derailleur hanger bent, cables loose, dry chain. Easy enough to fix. Our little warm up run went well, too. I was feeling pretty good and was starting to be cautiously optimistic (I’m always optimistic, even to the point of being incredibly unrealistic. Case in point: I brought my checkbook JUST IN CASE I got a roll down slot to Kona. Even though this is my last Ironman.)
Race morning broke blustery (blusterily?). Windy. Cold. Choppy water. The 2-loop swim was going to be a challenge. I had been moderately concerned about the swim, after having so much anxiety in the swim in the Boise 70.3 IM three weeks ago. But I almost always really like the swim, and this one went well for me, even though waves were smashing us in the face on the outbound part of the loop. Ironman is changing the swim from the mass start, which I love for the chaos and the scariness and most of all, the draft possibilities. Now, you self-seed on the beach and go into the water in a much more civilized fashion. Boring. It was harder to get a draft because I wasn’t in a giant pod of 2,300 swimmers. Reports are that as many as 150 athletes bailed in the swim. There’s a cutoff of 2:20. Some didn’t make it, others chose not to try. I held my own and actually thought this leg was fun. It ended up being the best part of my day.
The bike leg is two 56-mile loops that have a whopping 5300 feet of climbing, which was a surprise. I had anticipated easier terrain, though I don’t know why, as I had done little to no research (as usual). The hilly terrain actually wasn’t the hard part: That would have been the wind. 20 mph sustained, gusting to 29. I figure there were at LEAST 40 miles of straight-on headwind. I started strong, moving into 4th in the age group from 9th after the swim. Then, the wheels fell off. They fell off me, not my bike. I could. not. go. People were passing me like I was statuary. Or topiary. This was humbling, as the bike leg is usually my strongest. It took an impressive 7 and a half hours to get that 112 miles in. I was really starting to get my entry fee money’s worth. I was pretty sure by this point that I would amortize my $700 into something pretty affordable, per minute. Our spotters said a lot of athletes dismounted after loop one, not being able to bear the thought of doing it again.
Finally, I circled back into transition. I could have quit right then. I could have said if I throw in the towel now, the World Championship in Kona in 2012 will be my last Ironman and that’s a pretty good finish to my ultra distance triathlon career. I could have admitted that 7-months wasn’t long enough to recover from the radiation and chemo and be out on a race course for well over half a day. But my legs hadn’t actually fallen off yet, and I’m no quitter. I said before that this race wasn’t about time or qualifying for Kona or age group placement. For me, this race is to show cancer survivors what’s possible if you don’t quit. And to represent Team Chocolate Milk, which shows all kinds of athletes what you can do with determination and spirit. Relentless Forward Progress (See last blog post for attribution: Jeremy).
I saw Coach Dan, who came all the way to CDA to support me at this race, and as he said, to make sure that I Believed. I told him and my friend, Marty, that I wasn’t going to quit but I was going to walk. They both said that that was fine…Then I ran off, of course. That pace didn’t last long. I was run-walking from mile one. I was anticipating a very long finish to this race. The bargaining started pretty early. 200 paces of running, 50 paces of walking. Unless I was on one of the several hills, then it was more like a 150-50 or 100-50 ratio. And yes, Greg Sackett, I did count. Out loud. The upside of going so slowly, if there is one, is that you get to spend quality time with others who are going similarly slowly. I spent a lot of time with a Timex sponsored athlete, a big muscular guy who had some kind of kidney issue and started dialysis about a year ago. This was his first Ironman and he was suffering. He took an hour and 5 minutes to do his first swim lap, but was adamant that he would make the 2:20 swim cutoff when race officials told him he might not make it. He did his second swim lap in 1:05. How’s that for consistency and determination? And he must have had a hell of a bike split. Now, here he is keeping me company. Miles 4 to about 11 are tough ones. You leave a really fun neighborhood full of spectators and music to run along the lake, which got more lonely as it started to RAIN. Then you go up two spirit-busting hills and turn around and do the same thing back. And being a two-loop course, you do it again from about mile 15 to 22.
There went a 13-hour finish. Then, 14 was no longer going to happen. I had quite a while to adjust to the fact that I was going to finish in 15 hours. At any other time in my triathlon career, that would have been appalling. I did IM Arizona in 11:14. I finished three other races in the 12-hour range. Even Kona only took me 13 and a half. By now, even my muscleman had limped on ahead of me. You never know how deep you can dig, how much you can conquer unless you push beyond what you think you can do. I found that out during radiation last winter, on the side of Mount Kilmanjaro in February, and now here, in the last few miles of Ironman Coeur D’Alene. The volunteers on the course were terrific, but I was sick of cola and chicken broth and Perform sports drink, even sick of potato chips. I’d forgotten my inhaler in my transition bag and I couldn’t breathe that well anymore. At about mile 24, I was walking past a house in the dark, and a guy there said, “I know you can run.” Who is planting these people in exactly the right spots? He was right. I picked up the pace, all the way to the finish.
Yeah, I probably took on this challenge too soon. No, I wasn’t even close to being ready physically. No, my head was not in the game like it should have been and always has been before Ironman. But I still clawed my way to the finish line. It wasn’t pretty or fast, and Lord it was tough. And as I was running down the chute at 10 pm and spotted my friends screaming my name, it was all worth it. I felt like a million bucks, like… well, like I’d finished the toughest day of racing I’d ever had, almost 7 months to the day after kicking cancer’s ass AGAIN. And I heard Mike Riley shouting, “Two time cancer survivor, Wendy Chioji, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.”
Then, it was off to find some chocolate milk. True story! And I need to recover, because I’m sure there’s something else to do. Anyone want to run San Antonio Rock and Roll?
***Unless I get a sponsor slot to Kona. Or I lapse into temporary insanity. Or cats start living with dogs.