My First Ironman: Ego vs. Character

by coach Karen Smith

“The quality and depth of character is what you find not when things are easy but when things get tough or things go wrong.”  Author unknown

Let me begin by qualifying that I went into this training and event what I thought was fully aware of the 50/50 risks involved even though I was very well prepared from a training standpoint and began the race seemingly healthy.  Furthermore, when you spend as much of your life as I do, coaching/telling people ” it isn’t what happens that matters but how you react that makes the difference”, you should expect that, as the preacher of this motto, you too will be tested.

I started training in earnest for Ironman CdA in March after running both the Houston marathon and Austin marathons.  So I started in decent aerobic shape but was quickly introduced to the difference between hardcore marathon training, and hardcore IM training.  In our initial meeting I told my coach (Jamie Cleveland) that I would probably always err to the side of over-doing, so he needed to keep that in mind.  In the first month, off days made me crazy, but by the peak month, I was ready to beg for mercy.  The bottom line is by the time we tapered for the June 27th race I was stronger than I have ever been.

Coeur d’Alene Idaho is beautiful and peaceful place.  The days leading up to the race were full but relaxing, and I as a first timer had the unbelievable advantage of staying with 2 people (the ones who talked me into this) who had done this 2 times before.  From a marathoner’s perspective this event is ridiculously complex with bikes and special needs bag’s, nutrition and gear, and having everything where and when you will need it.  So because I had friends to help me navigate the preparation days, I was much more relaxed and wasn’t really stressed about the impending race … until race morning.

Still feeling relatively calm for the morning before the race, we arrived at the race area with plenty of time because we needed to get water bottles put on bikes, drop off special needs bags and make sure bike tires were full. I went to my bike to put on bottles and take it to have someone check my race wheels, and became aware of my first challenge of the day.  The day before when we dropped our bikes off in the transition area as required, I had already set up my bento bag (box on top bike tube for carrying food).  I had put 2 baggies of peanut butter crackers and pieces of Pop Tart (what I trained with) in the box.  I figured there was very little risk given it wasn’t supposed rain and even if it did, it was all in plastic.  What I didn’t anticipate was that given my bike’s proximity to a tree, the squirrels thought that I left the bento box full for them.  So there I was with a bento bag that had been chewed through, and was half empty, and the food left had mostly been at least nibbled on by the tree climbing rodents.

So I tried to shrug it off, thinking I had liquid calories, some extra gels and if I needed I would just eat what they had left me and hope that rabies can’t be transferred by sharing food with squirrels.  I also did try to convince myself that this was going to make for a good story when I was done.  Seriously, squirrels???

There I was standing on a lake front beach in my wetsuit with booties, my dorky neoprene cap under my race swim cap and goggles along with 2,399 other people in wetsuits.  I looked around, internalized what was about to happen and peed on myself, but it was okay because no one could tell thanks to my neoprene ensemble.  I hugged Amy, and sent her towards the front of the insanity, as my plan was to wait a minute and try not to get in the middle of the frenzy.  The cannon went off, and I watched in amazement this mass movement of humanity into the water, and the lake that went from peaceful to chaos and splashing.  I’ve seen this on TV before but in person, about to join in; it was like nothing I have ever seen before.  So I waited about 30-40 seconds, and it became even clearer how many people were involved in this event, when there were still lots of people waiting on the beach when I went in.

After I started swimming, I got beat up a little, kicked a few times, stuck behind people, etc., but on the first loop until we got to the turn around it wasn’t much different from any of the bigger triathlons I have been in recently. The 1.2 mile loop was done with a rectangle course.  So after the first long straightaway we reached a big buoy where we had been warned it would be rough as everyone tried to take the corner.  I was staying somewhat wide but it got so congested that all swimming stopped and suddenly everyone popped their heads out of the water and started looking around.  It was the weirdest thing that rather than swimming this mass of people more or less bobbed around the corner then the frenzy began again.  The second corner heading back towards the shore was a little less congested and I stayed wider to avoid problems.  I got back to the shore and went up to run around the little obstacle and the man at the turn said 46 minutes.  I knew it was slow but given that I waited and I wasn’t fatigued I was confident that my second lap would be faster.  I also noted to myself that I wasn’t cold.  I had fully prepared myself that going back into the water was going to be hard for the second lap because at 62 degrees I was likely to be close to hypothermic even with all the extra gear.  I was pretty pumped up because things were all going according to plan.

Then, I began the second lap.  Heading out towards the turn-around I was swimming behind this big guy who at first was doing okay then began to start and stop, so I moved to his right anticipating that eventually I would pass him.  I was close enough to be aware of how sporadic he was but wasn’t going really wide because it wasn’t like he was thrashing or anything.  Then suddenly I felt a really hard blow to the side of my head.  It wasn’t like I blacked out but after being forced sideways I instinctively grabbed my head and gasped.  All that would have been fine if I hadn’t been face down in water.  I came up gasping and trying to tread water.  Thus began the hyperventilating.  I tried really hard to regroup.  I swam to a buoy to catch my breath and calm myself down.  I thought if I could just keep swimming slowly I would get the breathing under control.  This didn’t work, but I made my way to the next buoy.  I tried floating on my back for a few seconds and kicking just to keep forward progress but by this time the chop in the water had picked up and I just kept swallowing more water and the fast shallow breathing continued.

After swimming from buoy to buoy I got to the turnaround end of the rectangle where the chop was the worst and I began a 9-hour episode of intermittent vomiting.  Vomiting while swimming is even more disgusting than normal, but if you continue moving, you at least get to rinse your mouth out each time.  My swim distances between rests got shorter and shorter and included some of the very nice people in kayaks who asked me if I wanted to quit.  I assured them that the only way I would not finish this swim was if I had to be pulled from the water unconscious, as long as I made the cut off.

Having anticipated a 1.5 hour swim time, 2 hours and change later I was dragging my sorry butt out of the water being directed to transition. I know there were wet suit strippers as I would not have been able to get out of that ridiculous outfit myself, but honestly I don’t remember that happening.  I remember telling the people in the changing area I needed to get changed and then throw up.  They said okay, like this was a normal thing.  I had a checklist in my bag that these women followed to put me together so I could move forward in this event.  After a pit stop at the port-o-lets, and replacing my fluids with Gatorade and water, I was off and on the bike course.  Because we drove the course I knew where the hard parts of the course were and was present mentally enough to know that if I was going have to be sick again, I needed to get it over with (sure in my mind that after 1 more time this would end).  So I stopped, had a volunteer hold my bike while I went in and yakked yet again.

After the pre-requisite, “are you sure you are okay” banter that would become the primary conversation with everyone on the course, I went on.  This pattern continued for the whole 112 miles to include 5 stops of varying lengths. The first loop was the worst from a discomfort standpoint because in addition to the stopping to get sick I had horrible pain on my right side just under my ribs.  I assumed it was just from a combined hyperventilating, swallowing half of Lake CdA, and stress.

As I rolled along the squirrel robbery turned out to be a non-issue as I was forced to sort of experiment on what calories were most likely to stay down or at least stay down longer.  I consumed all my liquid calories, lots of water, and lots of salt tablets but my calorie intake was very low for the length of time I was out on the course.  It was hilly but I was pretty prepared for the difficulty of the terrain and even though I knew how slow my time was going to be, I tried like hell to give myself kudos along the way for how well I did on the hills especially when I saw people getting off and walking their bikes up the steepest hills.  The best time for this was when they would walk their bikes past a sign that said “real Ironmen don’t walk”.  I’m really glad this sign wasn’t on the marathon course.

The second loop of the bike course was a little better as I only had to stop twice.  However, another lesson learned is that for bike special needs bag you need to anticipate the weather.  If you want something cold put it in a little cooler.  After advice from different people, I had chosen to put a 3 Musketeers bar “pick me up treat” in my special needs bag of and a sugar-free red bull (I don’t like the regular stuff.)  I arrived at the special needs location, thinking if I could keep it down the candy bar might really give me a head start on regaining some ground from my calorie deficit.  Another incredibly helpful volunteer followed me over to the port-o-lets and brought me my bag. Upon reaching into my special needs bag I pulled out a 3 Musketeers bar only to discover it had “gone liquid”.  The volunteer encouraged me to try to eat it.  I opened it only to have it ooze out onto my gloves.  I opened the warm red-bull, took a drink and decided that was not a good idea.  The volunteer insisted I eat and drink something so they brought me potato chips and Gatorade.  I thanked them, got a hug from one of the women who wished me luck and sent me on my way.

So with only 1 additional vomit stop on the second loop, then the hills, eventually I realized I was about to finish the ride.  I saw a TX Fe person at the very last point and we commiserated and went into transition about the same time.  At this point it is already evening, I had no gas in the tank and I had finally gotten to my part of the race … the run … but wasn’t sure I could do it.  I momentarily contemplated quitting.  With the sequence of events and not being able to re-fuel without risk of spiraling back into the getting sick repetition, I had to make up my mind was I going to finish regardless and make the best of what I had, or call it quits and try again another day when I could come up with better results.  There were two things that made me decide that the only way I was quitting was by way of ambulance. One was that I didn’t want to go home and tell my son that I chose to quit after all the training I did and that he suffered through my absence.  The second was that if I quit it was me deciding right then that I had to do this again.  At that point, the idea of knowing I had to do this again seemed ridiculous.  So at that point, the decision had been made and I was going finish what I started regardless of the blow to my ego.

Other than how nice the women in the transition changing tent were, I don’t remember much other than  after putting my running shoes on standing up and almost falling over and having the secret medical person at the exit start giving me the once over.  So we went through the “are you okay” stuff again and I quickly escaped out of the tent to wait in line for a bathroom and having people slather me in sunscreen which seemed weird given the hour of the day but at that point I was in no position to figure that out.

So the last leg of an Ironman is supposed to be a marathon, which to a marathon running coach implies running.  However for me, this was to be more of a hike. I ran the first half mile, walked a few minutes when I got dizzy or had pain in my side.  This process then continued for many hours. I carried and refilled a handheld bottle of Gatorade but otherwise was rolling on fumes.  As truly ugly as the run/hike portion of the event was, especially for a runner, there were some funny things to watch.

Coeur d’Alene around the race course is amazing with the number of people in a very small town who have never run, biked or swam come out to cheer all the crazies on.  The run consisted of two 13.1-mile loops that go through the park, through neighborhoods, by the lake, and by the resort.  There are lots of signs and several parties.  One in particular seems to be an annual thing and resembles a Frat block party that steadily grows bigger and rowdier as time goes by.  We got to run by this 4 times as the drunk people cheered us on coming and going, playing very loud but pretty good music that was pretty motivating.  And seeing people having a good time was very inspiring after spending an entire day of watching others and feeling yourself suffer.  This was my favorite place on the run course with lots of high fives and attempting to dance as you ran through.  The other favorite spot was on the path by the lake.  On my second loop as I was headed out to the turn-around point, it was getting darker but I heard a boat coming up and it pulled up horizontal to the runners on the path and started blasting “Baby Got Back”.  It was as if all my runners and friends who make fun of my lack of “junk in the trunk” had called someone and told them to find me and play me a song to make me laugh.  The timing was perfect and I laughed and danced much to the amusement of the boaters who clapped and cheered me on.

When it was finally dark and I was still making deals with myself on running some even if it hurt, I began to see the glow necklaces.  I believe among the serious athletes this is something to feel shame about for being on the course that long and some people were refusing them, as if not having one would make them faster.  Anyway, I took my glow necklace and put it on my Jack and Adams visor like a crown.  A woman passed by me pointing to her glow necklace and proudly said “You know the pros don’t get these”.  This made me laugh and reminded me how humor keeps us going and perspective is the critical difference between satisfaction and disappointment.

Well finally I was getting to the end.  I knew I was just under a mile from the finish.  I was dizzy had a headache and uncomfortable, but hell I had been moving for more than 15 and a half hours.  Things got louder and I heard the voice.  It pulled me in, not fast but it did pull me in, and then I crossed the line … 15 hours and 52 minutes.  Please note that in my opinion this is too long to do anything.

I didn’t hear it, I don’t know if he even said “Karen Smith you are an Ironman” but it didn’t matter because I felt like road kill wrapped in tin foil but I was done!  I must have looked equally good as the people there to catch me said we need to get you to the medical tent.

The medical tent was really just people dumping me in a lawn chair and waiting to see if I passed out or not.  I had to ask to see a medical person and then after determining I probably didn’t have a concussion, they gave me an anti-emetic (stop throwing up) pill and released me to Amy’s care.  After she made sure I had my finisher’s shirt, hat and picture taken, we found our husbands and we went home.  That was the end of the race day and the conclusion of an adventure that I prepared for with dedication and determination.  And while the day was nothing like what I planned on or what I prepared for, the dedication and determination that I had honed over the last 4 months saw me through to the finish line.

This event was a character builder. And while I am disappointed in the results, I learned a lot that will help me as an athlete, as a coach and as a person.  I will continue to do hard things that are outside my comfort zone because they make me feel alive and feel like I am growing as a human being.  As much as I dislike disappointment and the potential blows to my ego that come along with the risk of doing these things, I am driven by the opportunity to succeed and excel, while pushing my own physical and mental boundaries.  The chance of success is worth the risk, and even when I miss my goals, I learn and grow in ways that I would not have had I not tried.

So now I’m hell bent for redemption and have decided to try again at Ironman Cozumel in November. As crazy as that may sound, I am fortunate to have the support of a truly wonderful husband, a fabulous son who thinks I am much better at these athletic events than I really am, in-laws willingly help me more than they should have to, a kick-ass coach and similarly crazy friends that not only encourage me but help me get up when I get knocked down.  Crazy… I might be a little but I am blessed and grateful.

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4 thoughts on “My First Ironman: Ego vs. Character

  1. Hysterical and inspiring. Well done. “The chance of success is is wortb the risk” especially resonates. Rogue has helped bang that it into me head over the years.

  2. Coach Killer, congrats on becoming an Ironman. Love the humbling determination…it is clearly the difference-maker between “could” and “did.” Bravo on the new acheivement and good luck in Nov.

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