“Perseverance is not a long race. It is many short races one after the other.”
“So, do you have your mind wrapped around this thing?” John asked me a few days before the 2015 Florida Double Anvil (double iron-distance triathlon), which was held on March 6-7 in Tampa, Florida.
He has never in all of the history of the things we’ve done asked me that question, which led me to question myself. Wait! Do I have my head wrapped around this “thing”?
“Um, I…uh, what do you mean? Do I have a race plan?” I asked.
“Not a race plan – I mean have you thought about what this is going to take?”
“I’m going to swim, bike and run until I finish,” I replied, trying to hide my creeping feelings as my brain began to whine with uncertainty.
“Okay, as long as you’ve committed up here,” John pointed to his head, “that’s what you need to do.”
Pre-race pep talk complete.
Yup, fully committed… or committable. I forget which one.
While I did my best to imagine various race day scenarios, I wonder how anyone could ever have their mind wrapped fully around this thing. I finished the race, and I’m still not sure I have my mind wrapped around what happened out there.
Pre-race, I had moments of fear, excitement, uncertainty, pleasurable anticipation, nervousness, eagerness. I cycled through the positive and the negative – working to reject the negative voices when they wanted to introduce doubt. Every time I let the idea of 281.2 miles enter my thoughts, I had an instinctive response to immediately STOP thinking about the totality.
To state the obvious: it’s a long race.
The Florida Double Anvil features a 4.8 mile swim done as 76 laps in a 50 meter outdoor pool, a 224 mile bike done as 31 laps (plus several miles of riding between the pool and Flatwoods Park where the bike and run take place), and a 52.4 mile run done as 30 laps. Between each lap on the bike and the run course, you come through “Tent City,” where all of the crews are located.
Given this course structure, I didn’t have to wrap my mind around the entire ultra long race. I just had to focus on one lap at a time, or one part of one lap, or one part of one part of one lap. Until finally, I counted one step at a time, one step more to finish line.
The last time I felt this type of excitement mixed with vomitous sensations was before my first Ironman. And while I was scared, I truly do like that sensation. I’ve been actively chasing this “drug” ever since that first Ironman Lake Placid.
That, my friends, is the feeling of being alive.
I’d been asked many times in the days leading up to the race if I was ready. I was never sure how to answer the question, but I answered it the only way I thought reasonable: “We’ll find out!” The time had finally come to answer the question in real time.
Usually, John and I have to work hard to stay together amidst the throngs of people before a race starts. But, with only 42 athletes at the Double Anvil, fighting the masses was not an issue. Into the pool we went, with our now-ritual fist bump and a kiss (which started on the shores of Mirror Lake before our first IMLP).
I could feel pre-race sensations of excitement, fear, butterflies, and LET’S JUST GET THIS FREAKING THING STARTED BEFORE I IMPLODE, okay? You know, the usual.
I loved the unceremonious start to the race, which began with: “Okay, go!”
Because we were circle swimming 76 laps in a 50 meter pool, my lane mates and I very quickly organized ourselves into a line heading to the other side of the pool. By the end of the first lap, I realized they were swimming much faster than I wanted to at that point, so I let everyone go ahead of me. My mantra is and always will be: BE SMART AT THE START. Now was not the time to mess with my approach.
You might think that 76 laps in a pool sounds terrible. But, it wasn’t. It was an outdoor, 50-meter pool, which was glorious and beautiful compared to the indoor, 25-yard, over-chlorinated hole I’d been training in.
In comparison to the hell of training, race day is much easier and a ridiculous amount more fun. That’s the truth. There were moments when I was pleasantly surprised by just how much fun I was having.
In what seemed like a very short amount of time, I exited the water in what I had projected as a “I’m having a great day” time goal.
Yes, I actually made that Excel spread sheet you see at right.
Yes, I actually labeled it that way.
Yes, I’m a dork.
I feel good
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent hours on top of hours on my bike trainer, with Kona being the last time I cycled on the road. How would the trainer time translate to the road? We’ll find out…
After you exit the pool, you ride along the highway (Bruce B. Downs Blvd.) for a few miles to get to Flatwoods Park. I absolutely hated this (mercifully brief) section because it was like playing a game of Frogger, with cars entering from and exiting to the freeway, stores, and various other complexes. Ugh!
If you do this race: be VERY vigilant and cautious. These drivers are NOT looking for us.
To ensure I wasn’t blowing the pooch, I took periodic stock of my vitals. While the numbers (HR and power) were one part of the evaluation, I was much more reliant on my rate of perceived exertion throughout this race. As long as I felt good, I was going to keep pushing the upper limit of my “all day” pace.
At regular intervals, I asked myself: How do I feel? For the overwhelming majority of this race, I felt good. I mean James Brown Heh-kiss-myself-I-feel-good! level of good.
Most of the ride involved long stretches by myself with only quick pit crew stops of human interaction to switch bottles or grab food, or the brief exchange as riders passed. So, when I asked myself, “How do I feel,” somewhere in the 6th or 7th hour of riding, I just wanted to hear something other than the wind rustling in my ears. So, I responded – to myself – out loud.
“I feel good!” And, I instantly thought: James Brown. So, I sang (out loud) “I Feel Good” – more than a few times. Let’s just say, a lot. During your next race, try this. It kinda makes you feel like this:
Given the solitude of the course, I looked forward to the brief moments of well wishes shared with fellow racers as we passed each other. I especially looked forward to the seconds I’d have with my crew at the end of each bike (and then run) loop.
We had a well-oiled machine of crew members: John’s parents who kept everyone well-fed and happy, and our friends Patti, Tim, Bill and MaryJane, who prepped and handled our bottles and nutrition. Everyone found the job that best suited their talents, and John and I were taken care of the entire time.
There is no doubt in my mind that we would not have achieved the day(s) we had if it weren’t for these people. So, if an ultra-endurance race is in your future: recognize the value of your crew, and pick wisely. Your crew works harder than you do.
Sometimes, when I came through Tent City, I would just bark an order for the next lap, but then I would feel so terrible for being a jerk. I would spend the next lap thinking of something to say to them the next time I came around – hoping to let them know I was happy, positive, having fun – and that I loved them all for being there…even if I was an asshat at certain moments.
As night fell, the reality of the race began to sink in. It was cold and drizzly (but not anywhere near as cold as it was when John did it last year!). Until that moment when the sun set, I had never ridden my bike at night, which was a huge disadvantage as the darkness closed. I would have gladly practiced, but you may have noticed the northeast was not exactly “rideable” for the past 6 weeks thanks to a miserably cold and snowy late winter.
I had an awesome bike light (Serfas TSL-1200), but even so: it was dark. I couldn’t feel my feet. I was alone, except for the various animals rustling in the woods/swamp. Wah. Wah. Wah.
I lost quite a bit of time as it took me about two loops to acclimate to the darkness and the stream of light from my lamp. Eventually, I started to like the darkness because I lost all sense of my landmarks, making the loops pass by much more quickly than they did during the day. I didn’t know that I was “only” at mile 3 of the loop. Before I knew it, I was coming into the lights of Tent City, where my peeps would be waiting with a kind word and a smile.
The wind continued on through the night time laps, and after 11+ hours on the bike, I was finding it hard to stay in aero with pain shooting from my neck into my back and arms. Despite the pain, I didn’t want to sit up as a human billboard–all of that work just to lose speed? No thanks.
So, I made a deal with myself: sit in aero for a count of 100, sit up for a count of 20. When riding directly into the wind: no sitting up. This approach went on for the final 3-4 laps. So, don’t ask me what happened in those final laps, all I know is that I counted to 100 A LOT.
I came around for my last lap, and I could hear the crews and volunteers cheering. I returned their joy with my own: “Last lap, baby!!” BIG fist pump into the air.
Of course, there was the small matter of 30 run laps – but for now, I reveled in the joy of the LAST LAP BA-BAY.
As I passed through the bike timing sensor for the final time, Tim was waiting to grab my bike. He held the handlebars and said, “Easy now.”
As I tried to get off the bike, I realized why he said that. After 13 hours and 40-something minutes in the saddle, it is amazingly difficult to lift your leg and swing it around the back of the bike.
“Whoa…” I observed. Hobble. Hobble.
As I stood, slightly crooked, and walked toward our crew area, I exclaimed, “I’m a homo sapien again!”
Patti was waiting for me near the tent the crew had set up, as I entered I could see she had all of my gear set up for me to change.
“Okay, Maria, let’s change,” she said.
“No,” I responded, a sharp, succinct syllable of a petulant pre-pubescent. “I’m cold.”
“I know, but you have to change your clothes.”
She ignored me and unzipped my cycling jacket and a half-eaten bag of potato chips popped out like confetti. I watched them fall to the ground.
“Boob chips!” I squealed, giggling. Then, a bit more reflectively: “Mmmmm, chips.” I started to bend down to grab one.
“Maria!” Patti admonished, “No – we’ll get you fresh ones.”
“Okay,” shrugging my shoulders.
I was so cold on the bike because I didn’t want to take the time to put on tights. Now, I wanted tights. But, Patti wouldn’t let me wear them.
“You’re going to warm right up when you start running. You’ll be too hot in tights,” she very rationally (and correctly) advised me.
Sensing a pattern here? I was like a bratty, deranged, drunken child.
Patti suggested, “Why don’t you sit down so you can put on fresh socks?”
She pushed me into the chair.
She held up my running shorts and passed them to me.
She ignored me. “Maria! Stop it. Put these on.” She helped me take off my cycling shorts (can you say TRUE FRIEND?!), and made me put on the running shorts.
Finally, after several rounds of “No-Yes”, I was dressed and ready to run. I felt like I was floating when I stood up from the chair, amazed that I didn’t have the sore quads and hips that I felt during almost every trainer session I did leading into this race. Quite the opposite. I felt ready to run.
Tim handed me my bottle of Nuun and water, and a sleeve of clif shots, and I was off on the first loop of the run. I felt a little bit like a crab, running sideways, legs gangling about.
Keep Your Perspective
It took my body a little bit of time to adjust to the upright motion, but by the time I returned to tent city to finish the first loop, I felt good. (Da-na-na-na-na-na-na… I knew that would, now…)
Tim would meet me about 100 yards from where I had to cross the timing mat, ask me what I wanted for that loop. He would run ahead, and put the rest of the crew in motion to prep it for me, and then he would run with me for another 100 yards to see if I needed anything, give me moral support, and to make sure I was coherent and not falling apart.
As we started out on the second lap, I summoned the courage to ask – finally – where I was in the race. I whispered to Tim, “Am I winning?” I was afraid if I said it any louder than a whisper, I would make it disappear.
“Oh, yeah! You are about 20 minutes up on 2nd place.”
“Is she running faster than me?”
“She hasn’t started running yet. She’s in T2.”
Okay, the game was afoot. I had some type of carrot to keep me running, but I HATE being another person’s rabbit. I much prefer the chase and creep, but the race was mine to lose now. I had choices to make.
I was feeling good, and while a crash seemed inevitable at some point, I was going to run to my edge while I felt good. So, I did. Each lap, Tim would tell me I was increasing my lead. But, I never felt comfortable. I know that a lot can happen with so many laps to go. I kept pushing the edge.
I looked forward to coming back into the Tent City, to see my crew, and have several minutes of chatting with Tim. The night time laps were lonely. There were other racers out there, but in the cold dank darkness, there wasn’t much interaction, as each of us fought the demons that landed on our shoulders, whispering in our ears, trying to convince us that we can go no further.
But, those demons are liars. Know that.
Headphones were permitted on the run, so for the first time in I-can’t-remember-when, I raced with music, which helped to mitigate the loneliness and tune out the liars. Meghan Trainor reminded me that I was All About that Base, while Katy Perry let me Roar, Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams suggested that I’d be up all night to Get Lucky, and La Roux recognized that this time I would be Bulletproof. And, of course, Journey told me: Don’t Stop Believing. Several times.
How nice of them all to support me like that. (Side note: Please don’t judge my trash music. We do what we have to do to survive.)
At one point, I had some GI discomfort – nausea. I started thinking of all of the things we had that might help me. And, then it hit me: Tums and Coke! Yes, yes, TUMS AND COKE. I was giddy with the thought of this delicacy.
I came into Tent City hopeful, exclaiming loudly, “Tums and Coke, please!”
Despite the weird looks, my crew dutifully prepared my supplies. By the time I got to the turnaround on the run, it was a brand new day. I came back into Tent City, “Never underestimate the power of the Tums and Coke cocktail. I’m back in business, ba-bayyyyyy!” (Apparently, my hearing was a little messed up; when I talked, I was even louder than my usual loudness. At one point, I said, “I think my hearing is messed up.” The entire crew said: “Definitely.”)
Other than this minor GI blip, I felt fan-freaking-tastic up to this point on the run – surprisingly so. When I came through at the halfway mark, the volunteers in the timing tent cheered, “One marathon down! One to go!”
I cheered as well and said, “Thank goodness! I’m having too much fun to stop now!”
And, then it hit me: Holy crap. I have to run another marathon now.
Tim sensed my realization. “This is it – this is the bell round.”
I replied, “A whole marathon?” I was being an asshat. I vowed to change my perspective.
I went off into the night, working to crush the demons: You can’t run another marathon like that! Just walk… The battle between my ears, while happening throughout the day, was starting to get very intense.
I knew I had to flip the script, and I couldn’t think of a logical counter-argument, so I just counted. I focused on getting to the turnaround where Justin, the lone volunteer at the turnaround out-post, waited with never-failing words of encouragement. Once there, I focused on getting back to Tent City. By the time I saw Tim again, my head was back on straight.
I saw John several times through the night. But, on the first few laps, I didn’t realize it was him. His headlamp was among the brightest, which made it hard to even look in his general direction when he ran toward me. When we did see each other, we didn’t say much, but we would check in for a brief chat, “You good?” “Yup, you?” “Yup.”
I know what you are thinking: the romance is almost too much to handle.
Eventually, he was on his last lap – heading in for his 2nd place overall finish at just over 21 hours, for a time that was faster than the previous course record. Say it with me now: BEAST! I was sad that I would miss him finish, but I had my own finish to work on. (You can read John’s race report by clicking here.)
Somewhere around 10 laps to go, I started doing math in my head, which is always a risky endeavor, but I realized that I was on track to hit and possibly break 26 hours – a feat that would well surpass my “best day” scenario. Every time I wanted to stop and walk, I just said to myself: “Best day scenario. Make it happen.”
By now, my stride was so short (which it is typically, but even more so for me), but my cadence was like a hummingbird. I was losing glute power, so there was almost no force from the toe off. I knew a quick trot was the only thing that would keep me from the dead woman’s shuffle. I repeated to myself: Pitter pat. Proud Chest. Quick steps. Use those arms. Pitter Pat.
The pain was intense. With maybe 6 laps or so to go, I came through Tent City at a low point. I didn’t give my characteristic thumbs up. I didn’t want to spend even that small amount of energy.
“Maria! Shake it off. Change your perspective,” John yelled. I wanted to growl – there he was all warm and not needing to move anymore. But, he was right. Harumph!
As I ran out on that loop, the sun was just starting to create a lighter hue in the sky. I ripped off my headlamp and ditched my music.
Run to the turnaround. Run back to Tent City. That’s how I’m going to FINISH this race.
Then, it occurred to me: I’m so freaking lucky to be here, running, living life. Experience this moment – fully, pain and all.
“I welcome the sun, the clouds and rain
“The wind that sweeps the sky clean and lets the sun shine again
“This is the most magnificent life has ever been
“Here is heaven and earth and the brilliant sky in between
“Blessed is this life, and I’m gonna celebrate being alive…”
As the sun rises, the running camraderie begins. It’s not that we aren’t supportive before that – but we can’t see each other. But, as the sun rises, so do the the well wishes, the thumbs up, the smiles through the pain. My fellow racers and I became a united village, fighting the battle between our ears, slaying the demons, summoning the strength to support each other.
Perspective shifted. Again.
As I came through on the last lap or two, word started to spread that I was the first place female. Whoa. Hold Up. Just. Freaking. Whoa. Me?! Seriously?!
The other racers shouted out, “Congratulations!” “Way to go!” “Looking strong!”
To which I could only weakly reply, “I have to finish still! Let’s not count those chickens before they hatch.”
But, in my mind I was screaming: This is AMAZEBALLS! HOLY CRAP! ME?! This is un-freaking-believable. Outer Face: serious, focused. Inner Mind: ROAR!
But, I did have to cross that finish line still. I’ve seen enough old Ironman videos to realize that a lot can happen out on the race course, and per IUTA rules – crawling is NOT permitted. By now the pain was so intense that all I could do was repeat: Pitter pat. Proud Chest. Quick steps. Use those arms. Pitter Pat.
Coming in to tent city to start the final lap, and hearing the cheers of support, seeing my crew and seeing John – well, those of you who read my blog know what happens next: I got weepy.
I cried the entire 1.746 miles of the 30th lap. By the time I came into the final stretch, I could see John in the distance, holding out the American Flag.
“Is that for you?” One of the spectators asked.
“Yes!” Oh. My. God. Hold on now…. Nope, too late, waterworks times 10.
I came up to John and we hugged and kissed. “I don’t know if I can hold the flag and run?” I said.
“Yes you can! It’s right there.” He pointed. It was the finish line.
I came in a blubbering mess, as the U.S. National Athem played, and I was the first place female, and holy crap, and wow is this happening, and I promptly collapsed. I have never wanted to stop moving so badly in all of my life. The pain was intense, but the joy was electrifying.
This race far exceeded my expectations not just for my performance, but for the joy and fun that I experienced. I have not had that much fun in a race since my first Ironman. That’s the hook that keeps you coming back.
We had an incredible crew, nonstop support of the other racers and their crews, genuine care and concern of the volunteers and Steve Kirby (the race director), and the love and support of all of you cheering from home.
I share this race with all of you.
The race was long, but it went so quickly. One short lap at a time, I wrapped my mind around this thing. One short lap at a time, I learned and re-learned the generosity of spirit that came from our Double Anvil village. One short lap at a time, we built an experience that I want to have again and again.
See you next year, Anvil Family!