Run to Win Part 1 – The Finishers Medal

In May 2010 I completed my first Half Ironman, proudly earning my finishers medal (# Run to win).  

And while since then I have come to my senses and taken up CrossFit , I cherish that first half iron experience.  It was an amazing comedy of errors that showed me so much about grit, family, and friendship.

I didn’t do very well, truth be told. Please don’t ask me what my race time was – I’d actually rather not tell you.

My time actually tells you very little about my race, and it tells you less about me.

My race was, well…me. There is little that I do gracefully. Naturally this – something immensely important to me and into which I had poured time, energy, discipline, lactate, and sweat – is no different. 

What follows is a description of the completely absurd things that occurred during my race, the things that had me laughing out loud and, at times, close to tears.

I spent most of Friday drinking drinking drinking. Water, gatorbarf (a concoction whose name my Mom coined, which consists of two parts water and one part gatorade and tastes awful to everyone but me), and more water. 

It’s also important to note that I have had a cold all week, and completely lost my voice the Friday night before the race.

My friend Robin and I drove from Charlottesville, VA to White Lake, NC on Friday afternoon, and had a blast on the drive south. 

Upon arrival, after packet pick-up, and after checking in to our hotel, we inquired about a place to get a pre-race meal. The owner of the hotel recommended several quality establishments – a pizza place, a sports bar where she recommended the margaritas (if you ask me, tequila really does make the perfect pre-race beverage) and a popular local restaurant – The Scotchman – which turned out to be a gas station. 

We ended up at a little Italian place in Elizabethtown, some ten miles away from the lake. Fed, we returned to our room to set up our gear for the next morning. Just as I normally do the night before a triathlon, I prepared all my drink bottles, checked all my gear, made sure my bike was tuned – checked the tires, the clips, the gears, etc. 

None of this preparation would pay off, but that’s actually part of what makes it so funny.

As the race was getting ready to start I found it interesting that I wasn’t nervous at all. I’m not sure it had even sunk in yet what I was about to do. At the swim start, Robin commented on how she was sizing everyone up – looking for her competition. She’s on the level of professional cyclist and total badass.  

I told her that I’d looked in the mirror this morning, and as such I knew who my competition was, and what she was made of.

The Swim:

White Lake is gorgeous, and the swim was fantastic. The water temperature was chilly but not too cold, and while the 1.2 miles felt appropriately long, I felt OK. 

Even with the amount of snot I kept having to wipe from my nose during it. Remember that cold I told you about? I got out of the water and saw that I’d been three minutes slower than I had hoped to be. Oh well. I still had 69.1 miles to go.

The Bike:

My transition was smooth. I felt pretty good on my bike, and found it fairly easy to stay faster than my goal pace. I carried with me some Hammer Gel, three bottles of gatorbarf (two on the frame and one on my aerobars) and a 64-ounce hydration system on my back. I had read that the run was mercilessly hot on this course, so I wanted to be sure I was well-hydrated. 

Oh, and I was.

Around mile 16 I had to pee so badly I was in pain. Bent over in an aero position, it felt like I was kneeing myself in the bladder with every stroke of my legs. So I stopped, put my bike down, and ran into the woodline to relieve myself. 

Mind you, I was wearing a triathlon suit. A one-piece triathlon suit.  With butt-padding and bike shorts. ….so, to pee, you have to take the whole thing off. Huh. That’s not awkward at all.  

At this point I should also mention the other part that was going wrong: my camelbak leaked for about 40 miles of the 56-mile ride. For some reason the mouthpiece didn’t remain sealed. As a result, my entire left side was drenched with Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy – a 7:1 carbohydrate:protein drink mix. Great stuff for a number of reasons, one of which is definitely NOT how sticky it made my left side. 

So there I was, peeing in the woods, pretty much naked, and having the damnedest time getting my wet, sweaty tri suit back up because I was coated in maltodextrin. 

One can only laugh out loud at moments like that. And I did. 

I had to pee again at mile 35 and 46. Seriously?!

I was grateful when the failed-mouthpiece-induced Chinese water torture ended, but this, as is normally the case for me, caused another problem. 

Without any weight in the camelbak, it rode up onto my neck. It had a zipper at the top, which introduced itself to my braided hair. Apparently they really liked each other, because my hair was stuck in that zipper for the last 15 miles of the ride. So much so that I couldn’t move my head. (If you’re not laughing at this point, you should be.)

I came into transition and stopped just shy of the point by which you must dismount or be DQ’d. I stopped, alright. 

During the race I had noticed a screw depart from my left foot. There are four screws that hold the piece that attaches to your shoe – that’s the piece that clips into your pedal. So when I flicked my left heel out, my foot turned….but the clip didn’t release from the pedal, because three of the four screws had come out during the race. 

I could have taken another stroke, unclipped with my right foot and gotten out just fine. But the dismount line may as well be written in blood at a triathlon – you dismount before it or bad things happen. 

So I purposely fell over, of course. And laughed out loud. Since I have a cold and no voice, they thought I was crying, the thought of which only made me laugh harder. 

Then I got up and asked the volunteers if they could please get my hair untangled from my camelbak, which made me laugh some more. No doubt they thought I was insane. Not far from accurate.

The Run:

Transition from the bike to the run was a little shaky. Your legs are always disobedient when getting off a bike, but I knew to expect that. I had easily beaten my bike time goal, even with three trips to the woodline, and made up for the time I lost on the swim. I was grateful to the race set-up crew that there was a porta-potty at the end of the transition area before the run start, because of course, I had to pee again.

I knew the run would be the hardest part, but I’m not sure that anything could have prepared me for just how hard it was. 

It started just fine – my first two miles were as comfortable as can be expected 57.2 miles into a race. Given how very hot and humid it was, I made the decision early to stop at every water point and walk a bit. The water points at half ironmen (like that?!) are unlike any I’d seen before – they were more like buffet tables than water points. You could get pretzels, cookies, oranges, bananas, energy gels, sports drinks, water, ice, or a truly wonderful thing: a cold, wet towel.

Around mile three of the run I understood why the water stops were so robust. The heat was overwhelming and at times unbearable. The sun was nothing short of oppressive – there was no shade on this 13-mile run. My skin wasn’t just sun-kissed – the sun pretty much made out with my back, neck, and shoulders. There was some heavy petting, that’s for sure. 

I took water and a towel at every stop, a couple Hammer Gels, and ate orange slices at mile 2, 3, 6, 10, and 12. And I swear these oranges were straight from heaven. They were juicy, sweet, utterly delicious. They were PERFECT. 

I didn’t run a 13-mile leg. 

I ran 13 one-mile legs between water, oranges, and cold, wet towels. 

Life’s like that sometimes.

Around mile three I also noticed that I was getting something of a blister on my right heel. My pace had seriously slowed because of the heat, and my heel was starting to hurt quite a bit. Around mile five I actually looked at it and realized it was bleeding – my shoe was stained pink. It’d be soaked dark red by the end of the race. 

And it took me a really long time to get to the end of the race.

You make friends at races like this, and we joked (me with a raspy lack of voice) about the real stupidity of an event like this. What were we thinking?! Not only was it terrible, but we clearly were terrible at it.  

Except I don’t think I was terrible at it. I think I did well. 

Not because my time was any good, but because not one of the absurd or painful mini catastrophies even once made me think that I should stop, or that I should never do it again. 

I did do it again, and now have moved on to an equally “stupid” sport: CrossFit. 

Roger Bannister said that “we run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves…The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, ‘You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.’ The human spirit is indomitable.” 

While I will never break a four-minute mile like he did, I raced then because I crave that freedom. I CrossFit now because I crave that freedom.  

My spirit is indomitable, and I will never stop seeking to achieve my potential.  I will never stop testing my mettle.  I will never stop working to build spiritual muscle.  

Your spirit is indomitable.  You should never stop seeking to achieve your potential.  Never stop building spiritual muscle.

After the race, I sent that quote to a couple friends of mine with whom I strength trained. My friend Jon replied that he lifts for those pure moments, where pain and fear focus his mind and everything that doesn’t matter drops away from his consciousness, when he is aware only of his body and a barbell moving through space. He said that “life is full of things that make us feel good without making us good,” and that there are few of us who know the difference.

When I finished the run, Robin was waiting for me, camera in hand and a smile on her face. I felt like a rock star she was cheering so much. Someone as elite as Robin could certainly get away with scoffing at my performance – but she didn’t. Just prior to that race, she had qualified to represent the US as a member of the Team USA Duathlon team at the international duathlon championships in Scotland that August. She placed second in the same race that kicked my ass. 

But when I finished, she was excited for me, and expressed genuinely how proud of me she was for my accomplishment. She waited to get a picture of me crossing the finish line, even though I finished well over two hours after she did, and cheered for me like I came in first. 

I didn’t do triathlons because I was any good at it, or because I enjoyed it. Some days I was and I did. 

That race fell into neither of those categories: I wasn’t good at it, and I did not enjoy it. 

But I learned so much! 

I learned to wear a two-piece tri suit for longer events so that I’m not naked when I have to pee. 

I learned to leave my camelbak at home on race day. 

I learned to reapply sunscreen in transition. 

I learned to check and re-check and check again the tightness of the screws that hold my clips to my shoes. 

I learned about friendship – from Robin waiting and cheering to the many friends who wrote, texted, or called to support me in my efforts. 

I learned about family – my parents and both my siblings checked in to see how the race went and to express their support.

I learned that suffering is not a bad thing! Suffering is cathartic, purifying, focusing, and shows us what we’re made of. 

I learned about those pure moments, when it was just my heart rate, my head, and my bleeding right heel moving through space, and everything that didn’t matter simply fell away from my consciousness. 

I learned that I am capable of ignoring pain and persevering towards a goal. 

I learned how truly blessed I am, from simply being healthy enough to even attempt a 70.3-mile race, to the vast support network I have, to my faith in God and in myself.  Spiritual muscle, like any other muscle, has to be built, worked, and tested.  Spiritual muscle is discipline, mental toughness, and grit.  It is also surrender, gratitude, and trusting God’s strength more than my own.  

I learned about who I am. I am a woman who will do what I set out to do, even if it takes me a really long time, lots of laughter, and the sheer will to overcome lots of completely ridiculous obstacles. 

I am a woman who had forgotten how much I really love oranges. 

…but I remember now.

In a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a medal that will not last; but we do it to get a medal that will last forever.  1 Cor 9:24-25  

Build spiritual muscle.  Run your race in such a way as to get the prize that will last forever.  

My friends, you have greatness in you.  Go get it.  

Run to win.

#NationalFinishersMedalDay

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