So without further adieu, to those of you heading to Ironman - to the IM-Virgins, the veterans, and everyone in-between... Right now you've entered the taper. Perhaps you've been at this a few months, perhaps you've been at this a few years. For some of you this is your first IM, for others, a long-overdue welcome back to a race that few can match. You've been following your schedule to the letter. You've been piling on the mileage, piling up the laundry, and getting a set of tan lines that will take months or more to erase. Long rides were followed by long runs, which both were preceded by long swims, all of which were followed by recovery naps that may have been longer than you slept for any given night during college.
You swam in the cold. You rode in the rain. You ran in the heat. You went out when others stayed home. You rode the trainer when others pulled the covers over their heads. You have survived the Darwinian progression that is Ironman training, and now the hardest days are behind you. Like a climber in the Tour de France coming over the summit of the penultimate climb on an alpine stage, you've already covered so much ground...there's just one more climb to go. You shift up, you take a drink, you zip up the jersey; the descent lays before you...and it will be a fast one.
Time that used to be filled with never-ending training will now be filling with silent muscles, taking their final, well-earned rest. While this taper is something your body desperately needs, your mind, cast off to the background for so very long, will start to speak to you. It won't be pretty. It will bring up thoughts of doubt, pain, hunger, thirst, failure, and loss. It will give you reasons why you aren't ready. It will try and make one last stand to stop you, because your brain doesn't know what the body already does. Your body knows the truth: you are ready. Your brain won't believe it. It will use the taper to convince you that this is foolish - that there is too much that can go wrong. You are ready.
Finishing an Ironman is never an accident. It's the result of dedication, focus, hard work, and belief that all the long runs in January, long rides in April, and long swims every $#%& week will be worth it. It comes from getting on the bike, day in, day out. It comes from long, solo runs. From that first long run where you wondered, "How will I ever be ready?" to the last long run where you smiled to yourself with one mile to go...knowing that you'd found the answer. It is worth it. Now that you're at the taper, you know it will be worth it. The workload becomes less. The body winds up and prepares, and you just need to quiet your worried mind. It is not easy, but you can do it. You are ready.
You will walk into the water with 2000 other wide-open sets of eyes. You will look upon the sea of humanity, and know that you belong. You'll feel the chill of the water crawl against your skin, and shiver like everyone else, but smile because the day you have waited for, for so VERY long, is finally here. You will tear up in your goggles. The helicopter will roar overhead. The splashing will surround you. You'll stop thinking about Ironman, because you're now racing one. The swim will be long - it's long for everyone, but you'll make it. You'll watch as the final shoreline grows and grows, and soon you'll hear the end. You'll come up to the edge and head for the ladder. You may have to wait for someone to get off that sucker before you, but you will get your turn. You’ll find your transition bag—don’t worry about the sea of bags the same color, someone is there to help you--and run off to prepare for the bike (don’t forget the sunscreen, pick a volunteer near the end!). You may not always realize just what is happening but you won't wipe the smile off your face for anything and you'll settle down to your race.
The crowds will spread out on the road. You'll be on the bike, eating your food on your schedule, controlling your Ironman. The site of a seemingly unlimited line of bikes before you and behind you is a site to behold. You'll start to feel that morning sun turn to afternoon sun. It's warmer now. Maybe it's hot—there’s shade in the tree cover at times. Maybe you're not feeling so good now. You'll keep riding. You'll keep drinking. You'll keep moving. After all, this is just a long training day with valet parking and catering, right? Your training got you this far—TRUST IT NOW! You'll put on your game face, fighting the urge to slow down as you ride for what seems like hours, well it is for hours but you’ve practiced this many times in training.
You reach Special Needs, maybe you’ll stop a bit to fuel up, and head out again. By now it'll be hot and you'll be tired. Doubts will fight for your focus. Everyone struggles here. You've been on that bike for a few hours, and stopping would be nice, but you won't - not here, not today. You'll grind the false flats to the climbs. You'll know you're almost there. You'll fight for every inch of road. The occasional cheer will come back to you to help you here and there. Let their energy push you. Let them see your eyes. Smile when they cheer for you - your body will get just that little bit lighter.
Grind. Fight. Suffer. Persevere. You'll plunge down the road, swooping from corner to corner, chaining together the turns, tucking on the straights, letting your legs recover for the run to come - soon! You'll roll back - you'll see people running. You'll think to yourself, "Wasn't I just here?" The noise will grow. The chalk dust will hang in the air - you're almost back, with only the 26.2 mile run to go. You'll relax a little bit, knowing that even if you get a flat tire or something breaks here, you can run the damn bike into T2. You'll roll into transition and volunteers will fight for your bike. You'll give it up and not look back. You'll have your transition bag handed to you, and into the tent you'll go. You'll change and load up your pockets, and open the door to the last long run of your Ironman season – this is the one that counts.
You'll take that first step of a thousand...and you'll smile. You'll know that the bike won't let you down now - the race is down to your own two feet. The same crowd that cheered for you in the shadows of the morning will cheer for you in the brilliant sunshine of a hot Saturday. High-five people on the way out. Smile. Enjoy it. This is what you've worked for all year long. That first mile will feel great. So will the second. By mile 3, you probably won't feel so good. That's okay. You knew it couldn't all be that easy. You'll settle down just like you did on the bike, and get down to your pace. You may see leaders passing you on their own way through. Some will look great - some won't. You might feel great, you might not. No matter how you feel, don't panic - this is the part of the day where whatever you're feeling, you can be sure it won't last.
You'll keep moving. You'll keep drinking. You'll keep eating. Maybe you'll be right on plan - maybe you won't. If you're ahead of schedule, don't worry - believe. If you're behind, don't panic - roll with it. Everyone comes up with a brilliant race plan for Ironman, and then everyone has to deal with the reality that planning for something like Ironman is like trying to land a man on the moon….by remote control….blindfolded. Expect things to go wrong and then just deal with it. How you react to the changes in your plan will dictate your day. Don't waste energy worrying about things - just do what you have to when you have to, and keep moving. Keep eating. Keep drinking. Just don't stop and don't EVER sit down.
You'll make it through the first loop. You'll load up on special needs if you need. Some of what you packed will look good, some won't. Eat what looks good, toss the rest, you’ll be back here again anyway. Keep moving and start looking for people you know and cheer for people you don't. You're headed forward, some of them won’t be. They want to be where you are, just like you wanted to be when you saw all those fast people heading out faster than you earlier. Share some energy - you'll get it right back. Run if you can. Walk if you have to. Just keep moving.
The miles will drag on. The brilliant sunshine will yawn. You'll be coming up to those aid stations fully alive with people, music, and chicken soup. Keep moving. You'll soon only have a mere lap to go. You'll start to believe that you're going to make it. You'll start to imagine how good it's going to feel when you get there. Let those feelings drive you on. When your legs just don't want to move anymore, think about what it's going to be like when someone catches you...puts a medal over your head......all you have to do is get there. You'll start to hear the call of the Waterway. People you can't see in the twilight will cheer for you. They'll call out your name. Smile and thank them, or just wave a bit—they’ll understand what you mean. They were there when you left on the bike, and when you came back, when you left on the run, and now when you've come back.
You'll be running along the water for a while for the last time. You'll start to realize that the day is almost over. You'll be exhausted, wiped out, barely able to run a “decent”pace (if you're lucky), but you'll ask yourself, "Where did the whole day go?" You'll be standing on the edge of two feelings - the desire to finally stop, and the desire to take these last moments and make them last as long as possible. You'll hit mile 25. Your Ironman will have 1.2 miles - just 2KM left in it. You'll run. You'll find your legs. You won't know how, but you will run. You will feel like you’re flying at the end. The lights will grow brighter, brighter, and brighter. Soon you'll be able to hear the music again. This time, it'll be for keeps.
Soon they'll see you. Soon, everyone will see you. You'll run towards the lights, between the fences, and into the night sun made just for you. Remember to take a moment to make this the finishing memory of a lifetime. They'll call your name. You'll keep running. You won’t feel the pain. The moment will be yours - for one moment, the entire world will be looking at you and only you. You'll cross the mat. The flash will go off, well actually many flashes were already going off. You'll stop. You'll finally stop. Your legs will wobble their last, and suddenly be capable of nothing more. Someone will catch you. You'll lean into them. It will suddenly hit you…
You are an Ironman.
You are an Ironman.