Is this Normal?

Several years ago, I wrote about the joy of the first time finish line, as a reflection of my first Ironman. Not many race experiences can compare with that feeling that takes over the first time you cross the finish line of an unknown distance or event.

It’s empowering. It’s extraordinary. It’s addicting.

But, the road to that first (or second or twentieth) time finish line is filled often with uncertainty, confusion, and a healthy dose of fear.

first ironman
John and I standing on the shore of Mirror Lake in July, 2010 just moments before my first Ironman. Yes, those are tears. I was scared, excited, joyful, and freaked the f*ck out.

As we get deeper into the season, some of the athletes I coach are doing things they’ve never done before: longest distances, hardest efforts, first time events. I relish working with athletes who are going after their “first” – whether it’s a first-ever race or a first attempt at a particular distance or goal. Through their journey, I get to re-live my first times, by sharing in their joy and excitement.

With the first-time effort comes a lot of questions. At at the root of all of these questions is this basic one: “Is this normal?” “This” can be a lot of things. Perhaps you’ll recognize a few of these.

Is it normal to:

  • First Ironman
    My athlete and friend Tim and I after his first ironman finish at Lake Placid in 2015. #SunsOutTonguesOut

    have an insane hunger that makes you question whether you have a tapeworm?

  • have fears about an inability to meet the challenges of training or racing?
  • be so tired?
  • be so sore?
  • be so HUNGRY?
  • have negative thoughts one minute and then feel happy and sunshine-y in the next minute and then circle around to fearful and negative in the minute after that?
  • have so much laundry?
  • get the weepies?
  • have bulging veins in my arms and legs?
  • get roving tweaks around my body?
  • [Feel free to insert your version of “Is This Normal?” in the comment section!].

My answer almost every time I am asked this variant of a question: “Yes, that’s normal.”

Of course, “normal” for endurance athletes is relative. I think there’s a lot of people in our society who think we’re nuts. After all, my family has dubbed us “Team U-Crazy.” I’m sure you’ve been told you are crazy a few times, too, right?

And, yeah, that’s a normal reaction most people have to what we do.

In fact, a few years ago, I would have called myself crazy for some of the things that I do now that seem pretty normal. I wrote the “First Time Finish Line” article in 2010 – after I had finished my first Ironman, and was preparing to run my first 50 miler. Since then, the idea of doing an Ironman or an Ultramarathon has become “normal” in my family, and in the lives of many of our friends.

First Ironman
Team U-Crazy in the house for Ironman Lake Placid.

But, really, it’s not very normal, is it?

Recently, a reporter from our local paper interviewed me for a story about “extreme” athletes. The reporter asked me what makes my sport “extreme.” It was an interesting question because until that moment, I hadn’t considered what I do–what we all do in the endurance community–as extreme. Out of the ordinary, perhaps, but not necessarily extreme.

The reporter asked, “Is an Ironman extreme?”

“I think some people think it is.”

He laughed at me, as he should, “I think it is is.”

I hesitated to say an Ironman or 100 miles is extreme because there are always people who are doing something more crazy or extreme.

I run 100 miles. But, there are people who run 200 miles – even 500 miles – in a race. I race double anvils, but there are people who race triple, quintuple, and deca iron-distance races. By comparison, they are extreme. By comparison, they also give us something to keep striving for – some new goal, some new first-time finish line to be conquered.

The comparisons also help us gauge if what we do is normal, or if we are somewhere out on the ledge, all by ourselves – either about to fly or to fall off. That’s how I’ve felt at times during my first time training for a marathon, an ironman, a double ironman, 100 mile ultramarathon.

As a coach, part of my job is to assure my athletes that they are normal, that their feelings and experiences are shared by other athletes, that their journey is proceeding as it should.

But, the another part of my job is to remind my athletes that our journeys are anything but normal, when thinking of the ways in which most humans live their lives in the 21st century. In fact, our athletic experiences in endurance sport are quite extraordinary. 

It’s not normal, for most people, to wake up at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, only to thrust the body into cold water with a few other hundred or thousand people, or to ride a bike for 6 hours, or to run a few hours of hill repeats–to cite a few examples. None of that is normal to the average dude on the street. But, for us, and our community: it’s not only normal, it’s a required rite of passage.

We need to celebrate these moments because that’s when we know we are living life – not just letting it happen around us.

Most importantly: we are lucky and privileged to be able to have these experiences, to have a body that allows us to train and race, to have the resources to purchase race entries and gear, to have a strength of mind and spirit that propels us ever forward to the goals that we week.

That’s not normal. And, that’s a very good thing.


  1. Hannah

    I’m cracking myself up writing the couples version of this post, where both partners are endurance athletes. In your relationship, is it normal to:

    -cry when you see your household grocery bill?
    -plan your family vacations around races?
    -refuse to go anywhere on Friday nights? (or really…any night?)
    -run overnight with your partner while they cycle through every possible emotion and bodily fluid?
    -try to watch TV and wake up on the couch 5 hours later?
    -fight over who gets the last package of margarita clif blocks?
    -refuse to cuddle because you are too sore and cranky?
    -consider renting a hotel room for the week your partner is tapering?
    -be so invested in someone else’s goals they almost feel like your own?
    -see someone in their worst, most desperate state and find that you still love them?

  2. I can’t begin to tell you how appropriate the timing of this post was for me. I am training for my first ironman(in 3 weeks) and it seems in the past couple weeks I have gone from a pretty average, positive, normal person to a raving, crying lunatic. I am getting more tired and my body is doing it’s best to keep up and I am constantly questioning if I will be able to achieve this goal of mine. I already feel like my confidence sits on the fence at the best of times and it is a full time struggle right now keeping the constant doubts from taking over. I am SO glad to know that is pretty typical, I needed to hear your advice Maria. You have no idea what this means to me. Thanks so much. I am printing it and it is staying with me to keep me from losing my mind.

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