What I think about when I think about Ironman; and reflections on Ironman Mont Tremblant
This is what goes through my head when I am racing Ironman: “Yes, this is hard. But feel into the body. See, you’re fine.” Nine hours and fifty-six minutes, staying present, embodied, and using self-compassion to push harder is plenty.
By the time I get to the marathon, we’re in full survival mode and brain activity gets even simpler:
Push tempo. No? Ok. Run strong.
Exhale fully. Isn’t that nice?
Three-and-a-half hour marathon, that’s pretty much it.
After Ironman Mont Tremblant my coach would tell me I ran a very “tight” marathon: my fastest mile was within 60 seconds of my slowest mile. If you know me you know I was never going to look at my run file, so I appreciate having someone to give me the highlights; these kind of data affirm my experience and help me prepare for the next one. But what I am really looking for in Ironman I can only find in the final few yards of the 140.6-mile race.
When I came down from the Mont Tremblant village and veered left for the finish line, I didn’t see anything except that red carpet and the finish arch. I put my hand on my heart, I started to cry, I put my hand on my face, I put my hands in the air, who knows. As I took it all in, everything I’d gone through and everything in this moment, I stepped through the arch—and promptly collapsed onto some poor teenage girl. “I wanted it so bad,” is all I could say as the volunteers carried me to the med tent, “I wanted it so bad.”
And what I meant was: I wanted to feel like this. And I wanted to know I left everything out there. And I wanted that to be enough to earn a spot on the podium. (And it was.)
And then I wanted to lie on a lawn chair and snuggle into five bags of ice while someone poured water over me. And then I wanted to hug my mom and to hug my friend Kate. And then I wanted to eat eight slices of watermelon.
I struggle to talk about triathlon:
How’s your training going?
How was your race?
Most triathletes seemingly want to recite their training programs aloud and compare equipment. That, and so so much talk about bodily functions. Like I am so happy you are thinking about these things, but please don’t make me.
What I want to talk about:
Where’s your heart?
Are you feeling yourself today? Are you in your body?
What thoughts are running through your mind?
When I’m run training, I don’t use music. I pay attention to the trails and to the trees, to my body; I bear witness to my thoughts and gently explore where I want to nudge those thoughts. It’s a meditation, in other words. (Speed work on the track is a little different: I am more strongly focused on my body and I might use mantras like lead with the heart or a visualization of being in a race.)
I find that to come out of a sitting meditation or prayer with more than what I get out of running—in terms of being centered, compassionate, patient, mindful—takes a full hour of stillness. Similar to meditation, private endurance teaches us to meet ourselves where we are, even as we aspire to change.
During hard interval sets on the indoor Kickr, on the other hand, I follow pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses. I put headphones in, turn up the electro-pop music, and sit on the effort. The first couple intervals, my thoughts might be spinning. But by the end, the mind stills its cessations. I am laser-focused and can sense powerful light running through my body in a way that’s almost euphoric.
The way I look at it, we’re all here on Earth trying to answer the big questions: Why am I here? Who am I meant to be? When I look back on my life, what do I want to see? How do I find myself as I am and what is it to love?
For me, triathlon is the medium I’m working in to explore and to discover; it’s everything, but also immaterial. I don’t think people sign up for an Ironman unless they want to explore the peaks of human experience as much as they want the valleys, unless they want to bear witness to their own experience in a way that’s raw and deeply personal. So triathlon is just a sport, yes, but also: it’s how I met my husband, it’s how I found faith, it’s how I became a yoga teacher, it’s how I connect with others, it’s how I spend my time and how I know who I am.
So I also love to have these conversations about the why of triathlon. We all have a story and one of the greatest parts of being a pro athlete and traveling to different communities all over the world is that I get to hear so many of them.
When I was talking with my coach the day before the race I said, “What I’m most worried about is getting complacent on the bike, especially in the last third or quarter. I want to know I rode the hardest bike I could, that I left it all out there, so I am setting up the run.” Three years of pro racing and still I am learning how to race with aggression, confident that I can push the throttle to 100 percent and the training will carry me forward. I still don’t know why I tend to hold back when I race—but one of my big whys in continuing to race is to find another way.
One of the most famous moments in Ironman is when in 1997 two women (holding at third and fourth places) collapsed in the chute and then crawled on their hands and knees to the finish line. I think this video is so well-known because it captures what we’re all looking for: When I’m broken, what keeps me going? What does it feel like to want something so badly I will put myself through that amount of pain to get it? Who am I when the facade and the pretense and the flexing come off? And who may I become out of the wreckage?
Coming off the bike at Ironman Mont Tremblant I was elated because I knew that I’d achieved my goal for normalized power over the five-and-a-half-hour ride—and that this was affirmed by having to spin out my legs in between steep segments on the last long climb. As I dismounted the bike, my legs buckled and I had to laugh at the absurdity of it: I haven’t run a marathon in two years and now we’re doing what?! But this is exactly where I’d wanted to start the marathon: no regrets and cheerfully curious!
Similar to the why, I also want to talk about the how of triathlon: how can I do an Ironman while still being a mom, how do I choose a bike or a coach, how do I get faster in the water, how do I be the best human being I can possibly be?
Because what I feel in these conversations is a window into people’s lives: Am I measuring up as a woman and as a mom? Can I do this? What information can I gather to increase my confidence? Am I good enough? Where is there joy and love and community?
I am blessed with so much now carrying into my third year of full-time triathlon, the best thing to do is give it away—and visa versa, I enjoy asking other athletes and my coaches questions so I can improve as an athlete and as a human. (But please, no mansplaining: if I want your advice I will ask for it!)
Ironman Mont Tremblant Finishers by Gender (2019)
And then finally there comes a time for no questions. It’s then that I want to hear:
You are where you’re supposed to be.
You will achieve your goals.
I am proud of you and thrilled to be a part of what you’re up to.
So we can talk about any of those things—the heart and the mind and the why and the how—or, of course, we can talk about something else other than triathlon.