“The difference between possible and impossible lies in a person’s determination”.
I have a confession to make. The thought of doing an Ironman still scares me. Just the distances by themselves are a challenge - much less putting all three together. But it goes further than that. Not only do you have to make it through the distances - you have to have your nutrition and hydration dialed in. If you have the physical and nutritional aspects where you want them, then comes the psychological - pushing through the questions and doubts, being able to dig deep and keep going even when everything tells you to slow down or stop. And then you still have all the unforeseen uncontrollables - how do you handle things when they do not go as expected? And, you might as well plan on at least one unplanned thing happening - and a large part of your race is going to depend on how you react to and handle whatever is thrown at you.
I never, ever thought I would do an Ironman. My father had. I thought he was crazy. I remember after his first one (The Greater Floridian) - he told me how he was walking around that lake on the run and people were walking faster than him. He decided it was completely insane and he was going to finish it and that would be it for Ironmans. No sooner did he cross that line and he was already thinking that surely he could go faster the next time. It was just a few years after that we did Ironman Florida together.
Maybe it is because of all of the above challenges. Maybe it is because there are so few things in life that you invest so much time and dedication to that come down to a single day - and you have to take what it gives you. Whatever it is, when it all comes together and somehow, amazingly, you overcome and persevere and make it to that finish with the streets lined with cheering crowds and hear those oh so magical words, “You Are An Ironman” - there is no way to truly describe it, you have to experience it. My father told me, that is something that can never be taken away from you. Once you achieve it, it is yours forever. The rest of your life - whatever the challenges or obstacles, you can draw on the memory of that day that you were able to stay strong and accomplish something that most people never dream of doing. That is an amazingly incredible thing.
And - wow. Just - wow. Signing up for Ironman Louisville was somewhat of a last minute decision for me. Training for the ITU Long Course Worlds (OKC) I realized I was basically doing what I would have been in preparation for an Ironman. And I knew all kinds of people doing the race - my hometown crowd: Gwin Anderson, Tami Winston, Patrick Dilday, Bobby Baker, David Hatler, plus my friends Michael Ross and Jeff Fejfar. With OKC being my ‘goal race’ I figured I could do Louisville ‘just for fun’ and to do a race with my friends, no pressure, just see what happens. Never, ever would I have dreamed . . .
Louisville delivered a perfect day. Clear skies, cool temps, downstream current for part of the swim, beautiful bike course with rolling hills so similar to the ones I bike at home, and a basically flat run course. Spirits were high as Gwin, Tami, Bobby, Patrick and I hung out waiting for the swim start - everything just felt like we were all going to have a great day.
So, in theory, this was all well and good - a great idea. However, in reality, there were a number of questions going through my mind. I had trained hard for the swim and run, but hadn’t really spent as much time on the bike as I would have in prep for an Ironman. I was two weeks out from my biggest race of the year where I had dug really deep mentally and physically - was I really recovered? Would that surface out on the course when things got tough? Would I be able to hold together for the distance or would I crumble on the run? Did I really have any business out doing an Ironman which I generally start planning for a year in advance? Yep - there were questions. My answer (that I clung to) was - what will be will be. It’s a beautiful day. I am racing a sport I love and my friends are out here racing too. I would much rather be racing than watching them on the computer screen. What better way to spend a Sunday than swimming, biking, and running with several thousand like-minded people (2,467 finishers to be exact) — with no pressure other than to complete?
I won’t lie - those questions came back several times during the day. Walking down the line to the swim start (Really, Kirsten?)... swimming around that island (Should I really be out here) - and each time I would turn my thoughts back to what I was doing - focus on technique, can I hold my form, let’s see if I can keep long and smooth right to the end . . . and I was SO happy to be out there!
In 2014 I did this race, and it took me until around mile 80 on the bike to start feeling good. So, I was really excited to START the bike feeling good. I just settled into a ‘happy pace’, and enjoyed it. Yes, the questions came up periodically, (This pace is good now, but will it be at mile 60? Are you going to be able to run after this?) but then I reminded myself it was a no-pressure race, it felt good then so just enjoy it and what comes will come...and I LOVE to ride my bike! Was very excited to come across my Memphis Thunder friend Lesley Brainard out on the course too! The countryside was beautiful, the crowds were great, and (despite my fears) I was able to hold it steady for the duration. I credit that largely to the awesome training partners I have in cycling, to my ‘local’ group bike rides and TN bike racing.
Off the bike and into transition and the crowds were going WILD. Like, seriously - I have NEVER had such a reception into transition. High fives all around. What in the world was going on?
Put on my running shoes and headed out and everyone is yelling that I am 3rd female out on the course and that 2nd was just ahead. No way. Those crowds were so incredible (and I was feeling good) that it was all I could do to try to make myself run slowly. I spent the first 3 miles trying to slow down (and the remainder of the race trying not to). I even had a bicycle escort!!!!! 2nd place was indeed just ahead of me, but I knew I was still running faster than I should, and there was NO way I could hold that pace for a marathon.
So, I tried to exercise the ultimate rule of the Ironman - patience. Just before the first turnaround the number one female passed going the other direction, high-fived number two, and said “Come catch me”. OK - game on. I passed number 2 right after the turn, said, “Come on, let’s go catch your friend”. She just kinda laughed, but just before the turn around for the second loop, I did. OK, seriously, when you go through downtown Louisville with a bicycle escort yelling “First place woman” and the crowds are cheering wildly - it is REALLY hard to run your goal pace and not speed up. I was just shaking my head - no way could I be in first. With the time trial start, there is bound to be someone else faster who is just further back on the course. Plus - I still had another 13.1 miles to go - would I be able to hold what had already been faster than my goal pace? Certainly a gamble. But, heck, how could I NOT try?
I was fading, but having the time (and race) of my life so I just focused on form, drew energy from the crowds, and thought about all the people I knew watching for those time markers to show up when I crossed a timing mat (and telling me NOT to slow down - lol). I kept seeing friends out on the course that were having awesome races - and that was hugely inspiring. At the aid station before the turn I discovered my friend George Van Meter which was very exciting! I was slowing, by the last four miles I was seriously worried I was going to get passed. If nothing else I figured this was the best chance I would ever have to be the first female to cross an Ironman finish line, even if someone did beat me time-wise.
Slow and steady, I just dug as deep as I could, drew on every ounce of strength and support I could from the crowds, the volunteers (there were 3,300 volunteers for the race - amazing!), and my vast support system that I am oh so lucky to have . . . and I made it to mile 25 where the crowds really got going. I took it all in - let me tell you. First female - really? High fives, disbelief, and yes, some tears. Doing an Ironman still scares me - how could I have finished first? Breaking that tape at the finish was so incredibly amazing beyond words. THAT is the power of an amazing support system - friends, family, faith, belief, good coaching, determination, testing your limits, keeping it fun, and (maybe) a little craziness.
As always, none of this would be possible without the amazing number of people who stand behind and beside (and in front) of me. My husband Jeff let me come out and race with my friends. My children (Bella and Sebastian) allowed their mama to do 'one more big race'. My coach, Suzanne, shakes her head and calls me 'incorrigible' - but lets me go ahead. My nutrition was never a question thanks the the incredible power of UCAN. I was FINALLY able to try out my ROKA wetsuit - which was just awesome (and the first time I have ever escaped without chafing on my neck). My Merckx bike (delivered back to me by Raceday Transport in time for the race) to which I owe huge thanks to Lynn Greer at Gran Fondo Cycles (Nashville) and Heather Rizzi (Have I mentioned I love that bike???). And, of course, I had to sport my TN socks - thanks Swiftwick! Brock Martin and Rena Schlegel - you guys help keep me functioning (sometimes I wonder how....). And, quite honestly, I would not have done this race without the generous support of John Lines - I cannot thank you enough. That's just the tip of the iceberg - don't think I take for granted the countless people who take the time to wish me well, send encouraging words, watch as the time splits appear, and cheer tirelessly . . . you keep me going and inspire me to keep testing the limits - I am lucky beyond words.