Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You Are An Ironman...

Over 50,000 people attempt to qualify for a race each year that has approximately 1700 people in the bay when the cannon fires. If you're one of them, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's been called everything from the big show or the big dance to the hardest race in the world. It's the Ironman World Championship - 140.6 miles of blood, sweat and tears. It's where the world's best athletes at the ironman distance get to compete alongside the best professionals in the world. How many times do you see amateurs and pro's alike in the same sport, competing in the same conditions on the same day? Pretty amazing if ask me.

Each year people make it a quest to qualify, and obsession even as they pick their races while paying meticulous attention to the stats from previous years, type of course, timing of the race within the season and a whole host of other factors. Come on.. you know you do!!

I've seen athletes crushed under the weight of qualifying. As if it's some sort of reflection on their self worth or caliber of athlete. The crazy part is, you don't have to just have a good day.. a majority of the time you have to have your BEST possible day, on a particular day that also happens to not have any outside factors creeping in that have nothing to do with your own personal fitness (bike mechanical, bottles falling off your bike, nutrition errors). Everything has to come together, and it has to come together pretty perfectly. That's just the breaks. Some things you can recover from and maybe still make it happen if you have enough time on the other athletes and the fortitude to never give up. Other times, you just have to chalk it up...it wasn't your day. Better luck next time.

Why do we try to hard to get there? Why has Kona become such a magical holy grail to most of us? I think it's interesting and I can't help but think about it as we've all had a chance to see a host of outstanding performances on Saturday that made us cry, shout and relish the experiences of many of our friends who were out there experiencing 140.6 miles on the big island.

I know I was... and I almost felt like I was right there with them!

It may be that we all just want to go to the next level and having a goal that is lofty is a fun thing to try and achieve. Anyone who finishes 140.6 miles - if it's on a training day, in a non-ironman sanctioned race, or at the world championships is an Ironman in my book. Saying that you're an ironman is a really special thing that I think anyone is lucky to be able to accomplish. There is something about the conditions on Hawaii that separate it as the hardest of the events. The elements are so brutal, and so unforgiving that to have a good day there is not just impressive, but really really difficult!

I'm so happy that every one of the close personal people I was following made it to the finish. Not everyone had their best day, but that's not really the important part. The real spirit of Ironman is pressing on when things get tough and realizing the fact that you even made it to this particular race is a blessing. Seeing the faces of those that cross the finish line makes you realize just how much it took to get there. This one day is the culmination of days, weeks and months of sacrifice - time away from friends, family, early mornings, late nights, eating right, sleeping right, and really putting in the time to go the distance. I love watching the finish line during the broadcast.. it always makes me cry - I mean every single time.

My friend Jim emailed me on Saturday and the title was - a year ago today. It of course brought me back to thinking about my experience there and what it was like. It's amazing how time dulls the painful parts and exasperates the positive parts.

I remember the buzz of the week, everywhere you looked places were crawling with the fittest looking people you've ever seen. I remember the checklists, the planning, the NO air condition rule I put myself through for 7 days prior to that race. I remember race evening, the simple meal of spaghetti with a little meat sauce at 5pm and hugging my coach in the kitchen of our house for a final good luck wish. I remember not really calming my Mom's fears so much when I said (and I quote)

"I know you're scared, I'm a little bit scared too. I want you to know I'm prepared Mom, I've done everything I can do to be ready. Now I have to let it go, leave it to God. If something happens out there, I want you to know without a shadow of a doubt there is absolutely nothing I would rather be doing on this very day..nothing. I'm so grateful for every last second of my life up until this point and to get a chance to race in the World Championships. I love you...don't forget I said all this"

I remember the feeling of calm that came over me and that I slept the best I have ever slept before a race in my entire life for a whole 8 hours. That I have never been more nervous while treading in that bay with the other swimmers kicking me and scratching me. I remember looking up in the swim to see only people as far as I could fathom. I remember seeing my family briefly coming out of T1 on my bike and not believing this was really happening. The heat from the Queen K, the thousands of volunteers that I actually said thanks to when I was almost unable to function during the marathon. I remember feeling a knife shredding my quads to bit and thinking 6 more miles.. a 10k..and you'll be coming down that finish line. I remember Lauren, a fellow Pittsburgher, yelling "have a day, Kim, have a day" as I passed her and somehow finding a smile among all the pain. Finally, I remember knowing with two miles ago that I was falling apart, but that I was going to make it as the crowds and the love for my family lifted me up and I started almost watching the whole thing unfold from the outside in. The last thing I remember is pushing forward to the ramp, hearing the echo of "you are an ironman" coming from somewhere in front of me...and knowing that I was finally there after all these miles...finally hearing my name. It was such intense joy and so surreal. I'll never forget it.
When you're stripped down to the very core and the pain of taking one more step seems insurmountable...that's what I love the most. There's no amount of money, or prowess, or accolade that can motivate you to press on. It has to come from somewhere else..somewhere much deeper, and it's different for each one of us. That's when you find out just what your really about...and that's the beauty of ironman. I felt God like I've never felt him before or after that day welling up inside of me and carrying me when times got tough. Like no race I've ever experienced, Ironman has the ability to take you on a journey you've never known.

Either way, it was a dream come true.. an item crossed off my bucket list. If I never go again, or even do another ironman, I feel so thankful I got to see the highs and lows first hand. A huge Congrats to everyone who finished on Saturday and also those who gave it their best and unfortunately, had other issues that didn't allow them to make it down Alii. I prayed, I cheered and I even shed a tear for a few of you...mostly I was just thankful that you made it..safe and sound. You are an Ironman..

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