When my husband first got into triathlon last year, he was so excited about it that I told him that I was sure that one day he would want to go for the grandaddy of the sport: the Ironman. There is now a dispute in our household as to whether I planted the idea in his head or I predicted the future. Either way, we found ourselves in Panama City Beach at the beginning of November, where we planned to volunteer at Ironman Florida so he could earn a guaranteed chance to sign up for next year’s race.
Our day started early in the morning on the beach with thousands of other people. At one point, the DJ started playing “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie – which is one of my personal favorite songs ever – and I looked out over the sea of people in wetsuits and swim caps, all of whom were on the verge of undertaking one of the most difficult sporting events in the world, and I started to cry. I didn’t know anyone who was competing, and yet I was so proud and scared and excited for all of them. (Another highlight of the day was seeing Mirinda Carfrae twice! And she even gave Brian high-five at one point.)
We opted to work two three-hour shifts at the finish line, which meant we would be there for all of the finishers who came across the finish line with times between eleven hours and seventeen hours. My first shift was spent shouting out bib numbers of athletes as they crossed a line while another volunteer wrote them down on a clipboard, while Brian put medals around the finishers’ necks. The second shift was spent “catching” athletes, which basically meant we helped them through the finishers’ chute – getting their medals, their shirts, bottles of water, Mylar blankets.
My volunteer shifts had me standing a few feet beyond the finish line, which meant I watched hundreds of athletes as they emerged from the twilight into the bright lights of the finisher’s chute and across the mat that marked the end of their 140.6-mile journey. The announcer boomed in my ear with each crossing: ”So and so, you are an Ironman!’ So and so, you are an Ironman!”
Sometimes the athletes collapsed when they crossed the finish line (usually because they burned up their last bit of energy with some exuberant celebratory dance) and a couple of people puked, but most of them…most of them looked amazing. They lifted their arms in the air in victory and beamed so brightly the sun would have seemed dim in comparison. Pride, relief, pain, joy, suffering – it was written all over every inch of their bodies.
Later in the night, in the thirteenth hour of the race, when I was working as a catcher, I caught a woman who was maybe a couple of years older than me as she stumbled across the finish line. I held her for a minute as she cried, and I asked if she was okay, if she needed any medical attention. She told me she was fine, and then through her tears, she told me that she had cancer and that she was crying because she was so happy. I was so awestruck that all i could do was repeat, “Wow…wow…that’s amazing…wow.”
That was just one of a dozen moments that inspired me to think about the first time I’d been at the finish line of a marathon. I had gone with Brian to watch him run the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati in 2007, and I still recall very clearly the way I felt standing near the finish line and seeing the stream of runners make their way through those final torturous miles of the marathon. As I watched them, I knew that I had it in me to run a marathon, and maybe more importantly, that I wanted to run a marathon.
I felt the same way at Ironman Florida. I tried to imagine what it was like to push through miles of ocean and road and trail, through hours of boredom and pain and numbness, and to see the bright lights of the finish line shining out from the darkness like a beacon and to hear my name being called on that loudspeaker system and to feel all of that glorious pride and relief wash over me, and I wanted to feel what it was like. I wanted to experience it so much, I could almost taste the blood and sweat in the back of my throat.
I have to be honest with you, I half-expected that desire to vanish when I woke up the next day. After all, I’m just barely getting into triathlon. Only someone who was quite brave or rather foolish – or most likely, both – would tackle an Ironman after doing three sprint-distance triathlons. But an interesting thing happened, something I didn’t quite expect. All of that desire coalesced into something bright and hard and shiny, then found itself a home in what I can only describe as my heart. It’s been nearly a month now and that focus has not dimmed. In fact, it’s only gotten more intense as I’ve moved further into my training for the Marathon Bahamas, which I will be running in January.
In the past, whenever I’ve trained for a marathon, I’ve half-assed it. There’s no way around it. I was inconsistent with my training, I blew off runs, I’d get injured or sick, I never completed a single twenty-miler. The truth is, I’ve kind of half-assed most of my running. It’s a bad habit of mine that I developed when I was a kid and I learned I was smart enough to pull Bs without having to work too hard. I’m quite skilled at putting in just enough effort and letting my natural abilities do the rest, which is a terrible habit to have if one ever wants to excel at something instead of being merely okay.
This time, though, I’m like a woman possessed. I see the finish line with the digital readout of my goal time in my mind’s eye every time I run. I drag myself out of bed when it’s still dark outside. I ran when I was in New Jersey and it was in the 30s. I ran even though it was in the 80s and way too hot for a long run. I stretch and use the massage stick on my legs. I’m deliberately increasing my mileage and taking step-back weeks even though I may not want to. I set out for every run with a specific purpose, a specific pace, a specific distance. Every time I run, I see those numbers in my mind and I know that every mile, every step, will take me closer to that goal.
I thought I was motivated before – after all, I was pretty consistent with my training, especially when compared to the average person – but it’s nothing compared to what I feel now. I can’t explain exactly what happened, what exactly flipped that switch inside of me. Was it seeing so many people achieve such seemingly impossible things? Was it knowing that the only thing separating me from them was desire and dedication? Was it understanding that those are things that are within my power to change? I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that whatever it is, it all started at that finish line on that brightly-lit road in Panama City Beach.