An Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a marathon, a 26.2 mile run. The professionals finish the entire race in 8-9 hours. It took me 16. I swam for 1 hour 20 minutes, rode the bike for over 8 hours, and ran for nearly 6. To give you an idea about how long that is, my Dad got in the car for a 3 hour drive approximately when I started swimming, he arrived in time to hang out and cheer me on for 5 or 6 hours, then got back in the car for another 3 hour ride, arriving at home BEFORE I finished the race. My kids saw me off at the swim, spent the day hanging out at the lake, going for a swim 4 or 5 times, getting lunch, cheering me on as I zipped by on the bike, went back to the house for a movie and a nap, went back to the race to cheer me on as I ended the bike, hung out, got dinner, played on the playground, struggled to stay awake into the late night, and saw me finish. It was a long day to say the least. All along the way there are time cutoffs which if you don’t meet you are pulled from the race. No discussion, just pulled. One Ironman athlete said “Ironman is where the physical and the spiritual collide”. I can guarantee that there was a lot of praying to Jesus that day!
There is something humbling and empowering about doing something that you’re not particularly good at for 16 hours straight. It proves to you how much you can actually do if you stop listening to the naysayer in your own head for just a minute.
One of my favorite bloggers is Kristen Armstrong. She is a mom, a runner and a writer for Runners world. Her blogs focus on fitness, friendship and family. I frequently read her posts and find that she is able to put into words, exactly what I feel about what it means to be a fit and strong, friend, mom, wife, sister and daughter all rolled into one. Kristen says,
“I don’t train because I want to be able to DO things, I train because I want to BE someone better than if I didn’t train. If someone I love is faltering. I want to be the kind of woman who can haul some butt; I want to be the first on the scene. I want to be strong enough to carry some of his/her burden along with my own. I want to have a clear head and a clear heart so if I am asked advice I can offer wisdom instead of mere opinion. If my opportunity arises to serve, I want to be ready. If it takes more out of me than I anticipated, I want to know something about endurance. If the terrain suddenly changes, I want to be steady. If someone looks at me with eyes full of fear, terrified that they won’t be able to finish whatever happens to lie ahead of them, I want to look at them, wordless, with unblinking eyes that assure them that there is no way that they won’t”.
If you knew me as a child, and I know many of you did, you know that I was not exactly an endurance athlete. I was an overweight kid, the only chubby one of seven siblings. I kind of plodded along okay for a few years just managing to keep my head above water before passing into the officially “obese” category, but by 2nd grade I was there. In elementary school there was this boy with the initals “MC” who was completely ruthless with his teasing and constant bullying of me. To this day, I have a HARD spot in my heart for that guy. He has been the topic of many conversations in our house with our children, a perfect example of how NOT to treat someone. Over the years, MC has become infamous with my siblings and their spouses too. I’ll get back to him in a little bit.
I’ve struggled with the idea of God. I don’t particularly like the word “God” because when I hear it a white guy with a beard immediately springs to mind. I just can’t wrap my head around some guy or spirit up there having complete control over all of us little people down here, telling us what are to do, waiting for word from him of how to make decisions. I’ve never liked the idea of being at the mercy of this being, I want more control and power and responsibility for how I live my life. Over the years, I’ve settled on the idea that indeed, there is SOMETHING that connects us all, holding us all accountable and helping us when we need it. But rather than being some manifestation of a person “out there”, it is something we generate from within ourselves. It is totally within our power to make our energy what we want it to be. I’ve always pictured it as some web or blanket lightly lying over us. When you pull on your side of the blanket, someone on the other side gets cold. What we all do, affects others either immediately or later, but no doubt, our actions both good and bad could help or hurt someone halfway across the world. Recently, I took up yoga. My first class, the instructor mentioned Prana or the Life Force. I remember thinking “That’s it! That’s what connects us.” When we do good, we and others feel good. Our actions and how we treat ourselves and others have a direct impact on that “life force” that connects us. Part of doing good means being good to ourselves, choosing the right friends and partners, doing things that bring us joy, taking care of ourselves in mind and body so that we may contribute to that “life force” so others may draw from it, and we can too when needed.
Several years ago, a dear friend of mine told me she was going to do an ironman. I remember calmly saying, “Wow! That is something!” While saying to myself, “Well, she’s just lost it!” Fast forward a few years, and our friend Colin had been taking photos at the finish line of the Lake Placid Ironman and witnessed one of the best Ironman finishes in history. Nearing the midnight cutoff, Matt Long, a NY firefighter who had been seriously injured in a bike vs. transit bus accident a few years before, finished to the roars of the crowd a mere two minutes before the midnight cutoff. Colin said it was unbelievable. The kids, Tim and I went on you tube to see for ourselves and I watched this guy who had almost died, finish one of the most difficult races there is to the deafening roars of the midnight crowd. I cried and shouted “I want to do that!” To that my darling husband looked at me and said “You NEED to do that sister!”
The endless hours training for an Ironman can feel empowering and fun at times. At others it can feel completely lonely and selfish. Many early morning workouts (can we say 3:30 am?), one particularly bone chilling 5 hour ride in a monsoon, and many hours missing my family. I began to rely on this “life force” or the residual effects of others taking care of themselves, doing good deeds, and being forces of good in this world. Though young, my kids, Noah Maggie and Finn kind of “got” the significance of someone like me doing a race like this. They left me notes by my bed saying “You can do it Mom” and hung homemade ironman posters around the house. More than once, I was choked up by their insight into this whole thing. Somehow, this had become bigger than just me doing a really long race. This meant something to us and all the little chubby kids out there and they knew it.
I have been lucky to be part of a large and loving family. We all support one another in our passions and pursuits and truly enjoy each other’s company. A few weeks before the race, we had a family vacation on the Cape. The first night I showed up to a group dinner of over 30 adults and kids. Everyone surprised me by wearing the same t-shirt that said “No Payne No Gain” on the front and, drawing from those childhood memories of being bullied by MC, the back said “MC ain’t no Ironman but my Mom/wife/daughter/aunt/sister in law is!” I “ugly cried” for awhile out of sheer love for these people who “get me”, support me, and protect me. I carry around the feeling of that moment every day and will never forget it.
Any race in the Ironman series is not your average local event. Some of you may be familiar with the big one, the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii which is broadcast on TV. Lake Placid is no Kona but a field of 3000 racers and many pros make it a true spectacle and amazingly energized race. Thousands of people line the streets as you pass through town, most of those people sporting t-shirts of their own to support loved ones. Passing by those crowds, I felt that “life force” at work. It’s like a wave of love and support that is its own aid station. I felt that “life force” at work on the swim, feeling positive energy from the crowd and from the other racers. Every time I made contact with another, I imagined us exchanging “long and strong” swim strokes with each other. The lonely miles out on the bike, I had to dig deep to feed off of my family’s faith in me and indeed off of the faith I had in myself. I knew I would be close to the bike cut off but I knew I could do it. While I did cut it close, I rode into town ready to pound out the miles on the run. In a way, I was glad it was such a long day because I just didn’t want that feeling to end.
The last bit of the run at Lake Placid brings you right next to the Olympic Oval which is also the finish line of the Ironman. Music is blaring, people are cheering and the announcer is announcing racers as Ironman finishers. As I passed the oval with a short two mile stretch until I had my own finish, I saw my kids, Tim, family and dear friends. I was indescribably elated, thankful, and proud that I was going to finish and that my family and friends were there to see me do it. As I was out on that last stretch, hundreds of people were out on the course saying things like “Guess what? You’re going to be an Ironman!”, or “Hey look at you! You’re an Ironman!” It was awesome. At one point, this young overweight girl who was probably about 12 or 13 ran up beside me and said “What can I get for you?” I said “Nothing! I am so awesome right now!” She continued beside me for a bit and said, “You are so amazing. I can’t even imagine running one mile let alone do an Ironman”. To that I said “You know I was an overweight kid and could never imagine it either but look at me now!” She had this surprised look on her face and said, “So you’re kinda like an inspiration”. I literally gasped out loud as I was stunned by the perfect moment that was. I knew that I was meant to be right there, right then, right with her. She went off to her family and that was that. Talk about “life force”, that was a “life bulldozer”! As if it couldn’t get any better, as I was shuffling into the oval, I looked on the side of the course and there stood Matt Long, the NY firefighter who’s own finish inspired me to do Lake Placid. I shouted “Matty Long!!!” He and his friends instinctively shouted and turned to me, pointing at me and cheering me on into the finish. I don’t know if he heard me over the cheering but I said “I am here because of you!!”. My goodness, you couldn’t write a better ending! I entered the oval to the cheers of the 11pm crowd. The music was blaring, people were screaming, I knew my posse was there, and I heard those precious words “Rachel Payne! You! Are! An Ironman!”
Leading up to the race, the day of the Ironman and the weeks following, the swell of love and support for me from my friends and family, my Green Mountain Girls Triathlon Club, Masters Swim club, and my church family were just so overwhelming and meaningful. I thank my lucky stars for those people in my life for being part of my “life’s force”. In the end though, I need to thank MC for being part of that life force too. Without him, I wouldn’t be who I am today nor would my kids. He has taught us all about being positive and good. I occasionally have this day dream where I see him and very sweetly thank him for the part he played in my life. In that dream, my posse is behind me, staring him down like police in riot gear. As I have said to my children many times since the race and I say to you now “Would you rather be the one doing your ironman or the punchline on the back of a t-shirt?”