Heart and Courage – Ironman Arizona

Wow, so I just realized I haven’t blogged for a whole year!  Here’s to getting better at this. I wanted to give a detailed race recap of my experience in Arizona to hopefully help myself in future races or to remind myself to never sign up for another Ironman again (70.3s for me! – who am I kidding?  I’ll probably sign up again in a few years).  I wish I could write and say I had the greatest race of my life or everything went to plan, but what I can say, as the days pass since race day, I fought and fought hard for that finish line.  No matter what, I keep reminding myself that I finished, I crossed the finish line in the time allowed and made it to see another day.  For these simple things, I am grateful.  (Warning, this is a long read)

Friday – November 18th, 2016

After days (let’s be honest, weeks) of packing, stressing, planning, training, and most importantly, raising money, I found myself upon race weekend.  Casey and I got up around 5:30am to get ready and head to the airport.  Casey’s parents had came the night before to pick up Yoshi, I shed a few tears to see him go, knowing the next time I saw him would be after the race.  *GULP*!  We pack up the car and head out to the airport.  One speed bump was that I found out that what I thought was my driver’s license, was my concealed handgun license – FYI you can’t use this as a valid ID in the airport.  I made it through security, but got to third base with a TSA officer with a very intimate pat down.  BUT we were in the clear and soon we were boarded on the plane for take off!

The plane ride was smooth and a quick two hour plane ride later, we were in Phoenix!  We got off the plane, grabbed our rental car, and were off to meet up Team Ironman Foundation for our luncheon banquet.

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This might have been my favorite part of the entire weekend.  The Ironman Foundation brought in the organizations that our fundraiser dollars were being donated to, which was so heartwarming to hear how we impacted the community of Tempe and really made all the months of fundraising worth every penny. This was something I would take with me on race day, that I didn’t do this race for me, I did it for so many others. A shout out to every single one of you that donated to me on this day – YOU made this all possible and you helped so many people in the process.  We all win!  Bonus points were we got some pretty cool swag, too!

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After the banquet, I went straight to athlete check-in.  Casey hung around the Ironman store and I went to go get all my stuff for race day.  If you haven’t participated in an Ironman, let me tell you you get SO MUCH stuff that you use for race day.  You first walk in and sign your life away – kidding, but you do sign release forms and “just in cases” for emergencies. You get your wrist band with your race number, your race number stickers, swim cap, race bib, timing chip, all your bags for transition, and of course THE backpack everyone gets excited about.

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After I finished check-in, we walked around Ironman Village for a bit and then headed to the grocery store to pick up some snacks and breakfast food for me on race morning, checked into the hotel, then laid around until dinner.

At dinner we met up with my good friend Bryan and the whole Tri Dot and Tri Mafia family to talk out some prerace jitters and just meet some pretty awesome fellow triathletes.  Some racing and some volunteering to be able to sign up for the race the following year.  All in all, it was a great time!  Now it was time to head home and get some good rest, because we all know sleeping the night before a race is a fairy tale that hardly ever comes true.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wow!  I had the best sleep Friday night – and thank goodness for that.  With the time difference, I woke up wide awake around 5am, but laid around until about 7. We got up and went downstairs at the hotel for breakfast that didn’t really hit the spot, so we just  went back upstairs so I could finish packing my transition bags.  Today I had to go grab my bike from Cycle Chauffeur and then go check in my bike and gear bags.  I am glad I have a slight OCD, because getting ready for a race like this takes a LOT of logistics planning.

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Before check-in, I met up with Bryan again and the Tri Dot crew to do a short shake out run on the race course to get an idea of the run route.  We got good almost three miles (maybe two?) and then  Bryan went off to do the practice swim.  I’ve never done a practice swim for a race before, and the superstitious in me said I better not start now.  I decided to go pick up my bike and then head to check in.

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All went pretty smooth and quick and before I knew it, I was ready!  All checked in and ready to rock  140.6 miles the next day.  Then my nerves set in.  HOLY SHIT I WAS ABOUT TO DO ANOTHER IRONMAN IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS!!

Casey and I walked around Ironman Village for a little bit longer and then my stomach said it was time for lunch.  We have a great friend that lives in the Phoenix area and made lunch plans to meet up.  We ate lunch at a cool little Italian grocery store, I grabbed some spaghetti and meatballs (carb loading hoolllaaaa!) and enjoyed some conversation.  We hadn’t seen Patrick in a long time, so it was a great catch up.  After lunch, I told Casey I needed a few more things to add to my special needs bags so we all went to REI to do a little more shopping around.  We got what we needed, plus a few more things (thank you REI dividends!) and then headed back to the hotel to relax before the big day.  I got back to the hotel and I decided I wanted to do something more to show my appreciation to every single person that donated, encouraged and inspired me to get me to race day.  So after I put my Tri Tats on, I decided to grab a sharpie and start writing all the names of my supporters on me, so that everyone came with me.  This was when I found myself in the darkest spots of the day, I could look down and see all the names and remember why I was doing this.  (Casey graciously helped me!)

img_3226We called in dinner afterwards relaxed and watched movies until I fell asleep around 9pm.  Of course I woke up every hour on the hour until my alarm went off at 4am, but that was expected. I was ready to get this show on the road.

Sunday,  November 20, 2016

PRERACE:

Holy Sh*t.  It’s race day.

As mentioned, I really couldn’t sleep all night.  My nerves took full control and it took everything in me not to just break down and freak out.  Yes, I had put in so many hours of training, yes I had put in the dedication, but could I do this?   Could I finish this?  Would I let everyone down, most importantly myself?  I had all these questions running in my head and then the worst thing that could have happened that morning happened.  Mother Nature stopped by (sorry for the TMI) two friggin weeks early.  A huge curve ball.  I sat in the bathroom and all the tears came, I couldn’t do this, I was already feeling sick – this is going to be a huge rock to move.  As I pulled myself together, Casey came to the rescue. He reminded me that I’m going to face pain that I have faced before and that I can overcome this.  It’s just something I will have to deal with, but I can do it.  I will do it. I didn’t travel all this way to fail, I will succeed.  So with that, I got dressed, ate my pop tarts, and headed out the door.

We arrived at transition way to quickly in my opinion, I needed about an hour drive, but 10 minutes later we were there.

We walk through Ironman Village and Casey stood by while I walked into transition to drop my nutrition off and fill up my water bottles with nuun.  I cried the whole time I walked in, my nerves were there and I had a hard time controlling them.  Thank GOD my friend Bryan saw me and gave me the best pep talk before.  It calmed me down and I made my mind turn the “I can’ts” to “I can and I will”.  I also met up with Julianne and Sarah from the Ironman Foundation.  They gave me the best hugs and warm wishes as they helped me set up my bike.  I am forever grateful for all three of these people for seeing me before the race start.  I needed the smiling faces. I needed the support and confidence at that moment.

Flash forward after I  peed and walked back over to Casey, it was time to go.  Casey helped me put my wetsuit on and gave me the best hug as warm tears started falling again.  He kissed me on the forehead and told me to go get em.

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I began my walk to the swim start and about that time, two volunteers saw me and saw how nervous I was.  They both gave me more well wishes and helped me get to my spot for the rolling swim start. One of the ladies helped introduce me to some fellow racers getting ready to swim that were in my corral.  I met one lady doing her first and two other guys that had done countless.  They all gave me the best pep talks and talked to me about how the day was going to go, and all about this particular course.  One guy told me, he said “Just know today you will have highs and lows, just like any other day.  The highs will make you feel invincible and the lows will make you feel like you didn’t train hard enough and you aren’t strong enough.  Know that these moments will come and accept them and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  You are stronger than your lows, you will beat them and you will hear your name called at the end of today”  Start the water works again – boy did they made me feel so much better!  The spectators along the swim start were another group of amazing, they saw my tears and all started yelling for me and some even offering up prayers to me.  All this support, all this love, I could do this.  I will do this.  And before I knew it, I jumped in.

SWIM: 1:37:08

This was the best part of the day.  I jumped in and just as expected, it was cold, but nothing different than I had experienced before.  I would rate it about like how cold Ironman Texas 70.3 swim is in Galveston.  It’s cold, but boy do you appreciate it as you get about 1000 meters in.  I felt good on the swim.  I took my time, kept it easy.  I wasn’t breaking any records here and I wanted to feel as fresh as possible for the bike.  45 minutes later and I was halfway through – hell yes!  There was some kicking and pushing during the first half, but the last half was smooth sailing.  It didn’t get congested again until right before the finish and I had a little bit of a struggle to get out of the water as a lot of people were coming in and started kicking again.  Overall – the swim was great.  I felt great the whole time, no stopping, just smooth swimming.  Before I knew it, I was out of the water and running to get my wetsuit stripped.  Here comes the hard part – the bike.

TRANSIITON 1: 11:07

I ran out of the water, down the shoot and the volunteers had my bag ready to go.  Grabbed it and ran to the changing tent.  I told myself I was changing every transition to cut down on chaffing and keep myself comfortable. It was going to be a LONG day afterall!  It also was a little chilly and I didn’t want to be cold, especially on the bike.  I changed into bike shorts and my Ironman Foundation bike jersey, along with some arm sleeves (thank you Tim, I promise I will give them back soon!) and of course my shoes and helmet.  I gulped down two Honey Stinger gels and off I went to go grab my bike.  Julianne and Sarah were out there yelling for me as I grabbed my bike.  I was off!  112 miles, let’s do this!

BIKE: 7:45:33

I got on the bike and I was so excited – I was doing it!  I couldn’t believe it.  I read race reports that I shouldn’t be fooled by how easy the first 9 miles were, so I tried not to get too excited, because I knew that the 9 miles or so on the Bee Line Highway were going to be rough, full of headwind and a nice climb up.  The course is three loops of about 37ish – 38 miles, going out is the hardest and then going back into town would be a blast.  I kept telling myself to go easy going out and then pedal for your life on the way back in.  Around the 9th mile, my excitement went away and I started feeling, well, not so great.  Seriously?!  MILE 9?!  I first thought, well maybe I was still a little out of it from the swim, so I just told myself to get through the next 9 miles and an aid station would be at the top of the hill.  This was about at the point where the incline started, I couldn’t stop on the incline, so I just pushed as much as I could to get up and get to the aid station.  I might have been pushing 12 miles an hour here.  It was a struggle and took all of me to climb it at this point, every pedal stroke my stomach felt worse and worse.  I FINALLY made it to the top.  I clipped out of my bike right at the turn around and two spectators came to  my aid.  They were asking if I needed anything and then helped me get to one of the volunteers at the aid station.  This is when I met my saving grace – the best damn volunteer who helped me every single time I came back to that aid station.  Unfortunately my stomach got the best of me here and welp, there goes all the nutrition I had consumed so far.  The nutrition that I had used all during training, my stomach decided it didn’t want it that day – the day of all days for my stomach to tell me no.  I ended up chunking all of it away and my helper got me chips, water and bananas.  He told me these will get me through the rest of this, as long as I can keep it down.  That was all I needed.  So, on race day, I changed my nutrition strategy.  At this point – you do what you have to do, right?  That seemed to help me and my stomach allowed me to keep it.  I got back going and was able to keep that food down for the remainder of the first loop (which I FLEW back down – that downhill was so much fun!) and I kept it down through the second loop.  The second loop the winds shifted and instead of headwind going out and tailwind coming back, the second loop turned into headwind both ways.  Fantastic.  I kept feeling off, but no more throwing up at least through this loop.  I wrapped up the second loop and finally saw Casey!!  I was so happy to see him, I stopped to talk to him and shoved another banana in my mouth and got a much needed hug.  He could see in my face I wasn’t feeling well, but he told me I was looking great and doing so well.  He’s a good liar. 🙂 Unfortunately, this was around the time I started feeling worse again – please stomach don’t throw up, I have another loop left!

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Before I left to start loop three, Casey gave me another pep talk – “You’ve got plenty of time, just get through this last loop and you will get to your favorite part.  You’ve got this, but try to find someone to ride with, you need a friend to help keep you going.”.  He’s right.  Ok, well – here goes nothing.  I start the final loop and normally I passed the first aid station on the loop, but this time I had to stop.  My stomach stopped cooperating and welp, there goes all that banana I just ate.  This was about the time I thought to myself if I should stop, how could I go on if I couldn’t keep any food down?  Yeah I could push myself through 38 more miles on the bike, but I still had to run 26 miles.  How could I do that when I can’t eat?   I told myself, just get through the bike and you can make that decision when you get back to transition.  You can at least do that – 2/3 of the race ain’t bad – just one pedal stroke at a time.  38 miles isn’t that much.  Come on. You got this.  I made it to the aid station halfway through the loop that I had stopped at every time.  The spectators I had seen the first loop were still there and yelled when they saw me again (“Rachel!!!  Keep going, girl!!”), and so was my angel volunteer.  He helped get me more chips, but I couldn’t hold any more bananas at this point.  I tried eating one, but I gagged it back up.  So chips it was.  Tostitos, bless you.  About this time, a girl I had seen throughout the race rolled up to the aid station.  We chatted a bit and decided to wrap up the final 18 miles together.  Yay a friend!!   I learned a lot about this girl – she had been diagnosed with diabetes and was doing this race to raise money for the disease as well as because a person in her life said she couldn’t do this because she had diabetes.  How awesome is that?  She was doing it!  She inspired me to keep going, even with fresh vomit on my shirt, I had no excuse to not do this. We chatted for a while, but then when we had about 7 miles left, she got her second wind and took off and I unfortunately was still on the struggle bus to finish. I am thankful to have met her – I know she killed it and became an Ironman that day.  Another thing I was thankful for was to get off the Bee Line Highway, no more damn wind!  I still had some miles left, but I could feel I was coming to the end and then…  Finally!  There is was, the finish…I could see transition…finally I could stop pedaling.  Finally I could get off this damn bike.

TRANSITION 2: 11:57

I came into transition full of tears (yes I know, the whole day was full of tears.  I’m surprised at this point I had any left) and the best volunteer grabbed my bike from me to return back.  I almost sold it to him right then – KEEP THE DAMN THING!  Kidding, but seriously, we need a break.  I began running to my last transition bag and saw Julianne and Sarah jumping up and down.  I HAD MADE IT!  I MADE IT BACK!!

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More tears, of course, and the thought of stopping that I had at the beginning of the last loop on the bike had vanished, I was going to do this.  I was going to finish what I had started.  I ran into the tent again, and the another angel sent volunteer came to my aid.  She saw the stress in my face and immediately came to help me.  Side note, can I just say that yes ALL volunteers are awesome, but the tent volunteers are amazing.  She saw all of me changing and still reached down to put on my socks.  I smelled awful, and I am thankful for her help.  I wish I had all of your addresses to bake you brownies, you deserve so much for what all of you did for me.  As I finished getting dressed, I drank some coke in hopes of settling my stomach and then, before I knew it, I ran out.  It was time to run.

RUN: 5:54:59

I took off out of the run out tunnel and headed out onto the run course.  My stomach still didn’t feel right, but at least I knew I had chicken broth waiting for me at the aid stations.  I was in hopes that would help ease my stomach some.  Of course the first aid station didn’t have it, I learned that it was at every other aid station.  Dammit.  Well, coke and water it is.  I drank more coke and some water and trucked along, 1 mile down, 25 to go.  At this point, I just told myself, get as far as you can.  Aid station two came along and BAM there it was, chicken broth.  I swear this was from Jesus himself.  I was waiting for a priest to come out and say “Blood of Christ” or something because my god, it was amazing.  It perked me up some and there it was 2 miles down.  I made it fairy ok through the first loop like this.  My stomach never really felt right, but I was able to push an 11:00 per mile pace fairly ok.  Far from what I had trained for, but at this point, if I was running – I was happy. I finished the first loop and around this time I saw Casey again. Oh bless him.  I stopped and gave him the biggest hug I could muster up.  My stomach had gotten worse through mile 12 and 13, so stopping for a few minutes sounded amazing.  He asked me how I was doing, and I said “meh, ok”.  He told me I was killing it on the run and if I kept this up I would be done in just a couple more hours!  Keep going!!   Well, I had gotten this far right? Hoping my stomach would hold out for 13 more miles on coke and chicken broth, I set out to start loop 2.  I yelled out “please go find me at mile 20, I’ll need to see your face there!”, and off I went.

Loop 2 of the run was when my body crashed.  And crashed hard.  Chicken broth and coke no longer worked and at about mile 14, I let it all out again.  You know you are looking pretty bad when all the volunteers start coming to you and asking if you are ok or “do you want to sit down for a second?”.  Around this time I heard the guy’s voice from the start line of the swim.  “You will have lows today, accept them and just keep putting one foot in front of the other”, so I did.  I knew it was time to finish this race with what I had left – my heart.  It was still pounding and it was still telling me I could do this.  I came too far to quit with just 12 miles left.  I came too far to let all the people around me that got me to the start line down.  I was finishing, dammit.  The rules said you could run, walk, or crawl, and I’ll do all three if I needed to get to those lights and that finish line.

I couldn’t run aid station to aid station like I had done during the first loop, so I switched to running 2 minutes, walking 2 minutes.  This seemed to keep my stomach feeling off, but not off enough to need to throw up again.  Whatever works, right?  I did this all the way to around mile 17 when I met a new friend.  A woman who looked like she was doing the Ironman struggle shuffle like I was.  I had seen her a few times already during the run and decided I needed someone to help me finish this today.  So I ran up beside her and asked her straight up, “Hey, do you want to run together?”  Her reply was “Only if you don’t mind walking”  Me – “Girl I love walking”.  I made a new friend!  Turns out her watch had died and she had been counting in her head how many seconds to run and walk, so I was happy to help by us doing the run and walk combo.  We talked for a while and I found out this was her 4th Ironman and she was from Corpus Christi, Texas – yay I found a fellow Texan!!  She had told me she had done Texas a few times and that was her favorite race.  We shared a lot with each other and helped push one another to the finish line.  We decided that our motivation to finish was that we just wanted to go to bed at that point.  Feet up?  A shower?  Stop moving?  Oh my gracious, those things sound like me seeing a unicorn at this point.  As we talked, the miles ticked by 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and then 24 came.  Up this point, I graciously saw Casey again at mile 19 – gave him a high five and said “I’m going to keep running, I can’t stop or I’ll stop!”.  He yelled “keep going hun, you got it!” and then he showed back up at mile 23.  I yelled at him to get to the finish line because he was supposed to put a medal around my neck and dammit he better be there.  Like I said before, mile 24 came and boy did that wall.  I thought my wall was at mile 14, but apparently this wall came with a mote and a draw bridge that I needed three passwords for and fight a troll to get through.  My body stopped completely.  I couldn’t run 2 minutes, shit I could barely run 1 minute.  The course had a lot of hills throughout it as you ran up on the shoulder of the highway, so you had to run up the overpass (seriously Ironman, you jerk – who does that?!).  I came to the last one and my body said “Nope, nope, nope”.  I asked my friend if we could just walk for a while because I couldn’t run.  I also told her, she could go on without me if she had the energy to run it in.  She told me no, we would finish together.  Thank you to the heavens for all these wonderful people who carried me through this day.  We walked the last two miles and before I knew it, my ears perked up – is that the crowd?  Is that Mike’s voice calling out names?  Oh yes, yes it is!  It’s here!  I made it!!  We got to the last .2 and I said “let’s run this bitch in”.  And that’s the last I remember.  The flood of the lights, the loud cheers of the crowd, and all the tears rushed down my face.  I did it.  I finished.  “Rachel Miller, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”.

As promised, there he was.  My knight in shining armor, my sherpa, my person – standing there waiting for me to put my medal around my neck and catch me as I started to collapse.  More tears poured down my face because there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to see and to hold me at that moment, than Casey.  Julianne and Sarah were there too, screaming congratulations and how proud of me they were.  I couldn’t believe it, I was done.  I could sit, I could stop.

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Well there you have it.  I am officially a 2x Ironman finisher.  This race wasn’t easy, in fact, it was the hardest race of my life.  I have said it before, but I was very disappointed in my time, but to be honest, as the days, now weeks have passed since this race, I am more proud of my spirit that pushed me to get to the finisher’s chute.  I didn’t give up.  I had the courage to start this journey and used all of my heart to finish.  This is for everyone of you who supported me to get me here, this is your finish too. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!  It might be awhile before I sign up for another full, but I think one day I will be back. Until next time, see you later Arizona.  Thank you for showing me that I am stronger than my fears, stronger than my doubts and most importantly, stronger than the voice inside my head that says “no”.  Sometimes Ironman isn’t about the time you finish, but the journey and triumph of how you finish.   I can. I will. I did.

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4 thoughts on “Heart and Courage – Ironman Arizona

  1. Helly on the Run says:

    Wow. Just wow. I was there spectating a friend and recall a lot of what you mentioned. I live in Arizona.

    There’s a desire within me to do an Ironman someday but my fear keeps that desire at bay. Your strength and resilience inspires me to give it a shot. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Congratulations, Ironman.

  2. hellyontherun says:

    Wow. Just wow. I was there spectating a friend and recall a lot of what you mentioned. I live in Arizona.

    There’s a desire within me to do an Ironman someday but fear keeps that desire at bay. Your strength and resilience inspires me to give it a shot. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Congratulations, Ironman.

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