Becoming an Ironman was a life goal of mine. For me, it’s about pushing beyond the boundaries of what seems possible and the perseverance and endurance it takes to make it happen. It’s about becoming stronger, not just physically but mentally. It’s about not giving up and not giving in when things get tough. It’s about leaning on the support and encouragement from others when you are struggling and in those times, realizing just how much you are loved. It’s about understanding that we’re not meant to face life’s challenges alone. It’s about the people we share the journey with, and the relationships that develop and grow along the way. It’s about the lessons you learn along the way, and how those lessons translate over into other aspects of your life. It’s about believing in yourself and staying positive. And, finally, it’s about believing that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
Last year, when it was announced that Boulder would be hosting its inaugural full distance Ironman in 2014, I knew my time had come. I just could not pass up the opportunity to become an Ironman in the city where I live and train. Once I signed up, there was no turning back. I was committed to doing whatever it would take to get me to that finish line.
My Ironman excitement turned into a dose of reality when May came. It was 12 weeks until the Ironman and my body was struggling to recover from the tough race I had at the Boston Marathon. Around this same time, I got the training plan from my coaches and as I stared down at the toughest training plan I‘ve ever seen, I started to question my decision to sign up for the Ironman. What had I gotten myself into? How would ever fit in all this training? Did I have what it would take to get through these next 12 weeks of really intense training?
A turning point came on June 1. I did my first ever century bike ride (100 miles) at Elephant Rock. It was windy, it was hilly, but I did it. And, I felt great afterwards. Carrie and I even went for a short run after. It was a major morale booster.
Then came the Boulder Half Ironman on June 15. That race was pure joy for me and I relished every minute of it. Then, just two days after the Half Ironman, I had the most terrifying open water swim. About 30 minutes in, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe and I started coughing uncontrollably, deep coughs trying to get fluid out of my lungs…one of the kayak lifeguards pulled me into shore. A coach was waiting for me there, and as I stood there in tears knowing the Ironman was less than 7 weeks away and you don’t get to finish an Ironman if you don’t make it through the swim, he gave me some much needed words of encouragement.
Five weeks out from the Ironman, another set back came during a long training ride. At mile 79, I hit a curb going into an intersection. It knocked me down pretty hard, and left the right side of my body banged up and bruised. I was just thankful it wasn’t any worse. The following weekend, things turned around. Jay & I were out of town and I was faced with doing a 100-mile bike ride solo. The ride was a huge success – I knocked it out in 6 hours and felt strong through the end. There were so many ups and downs like this during my training. What kept me going and kept me positive was all of the support and encouragement I received from my husband, my family, my friends, my coaches, and my fellow triathletes. I couldn’t have done it alone.
I consider myself a pretty active person, but training for an Ironman was so far beyond anything I had ever experienced. There were weeks when I felt like all I did was work, eat, sleep, and train. My weekends became consumed with long workouts and early bedtimes. During the workweek, I was up at 5AM to train before work, and many nights I was training again after work. I generated record amounts of dirty laundry and consumed more calories than I ever thought possible. I had an insatiable appetite and could never get enough sleep. If I had one hour free in between obligations, I could squeeze in a 55-minute nap in the back of my 4Runner. No joke. The final week of training before the taper, every single workout was a struggle. My body had reached limits never experienced before. As I entered the taper, I reflected back on all the training, and all the hard work, discipline, and sacrifice it had required. It was a lot. I told myself I was never going to do another Ironman – not unless I didn’t finish this one. Now, with just two weeks left until race day, my primary focus was on staying healthy.
With a little over a week to go before race day, I developed a terrible sore throat. I tried to tell myself it was all in my head, but Jay had come down with the same thing. I tried my best to stay positive. I told myself that this could be gone in a week if I take care of myself. I got extra sleep, loaded up on zinc and vitamin C, and prayed I would be healthy in time for race day.
I had a detailed schedule for the week leading up to the race. It included what time I would wake up, what time I would go to bed and everything in between (workouts, meal times, work hours, to do’s, etc). Having a plan for the week helped put my mind at ease. I fully expected to have a break down at some point the week leading up to the race. But much to my surprise, and despite the fact that I was feeling under the weather, a race week meltdown didn’t happen. I think it helped that I forced myself to go to bed early – getting 8 hours of sleep each night that week made a world of difference. The entire week leading up to the race, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm despite what lie ahead. I was thankful.
The Friday morning before the race, I woke up and the first thing I noticed was that my throat was no longer sore! I was ecstatic! That morning, I picked up my mom (AKA my #1 fan) from the airport. Now things were getting real. Later in the day, we headed to Ironman Village for athlete check-in. Now things were REALLY getting real. At check-in, we ran into my friend Melinda who works Ironman events all across the country. She gave my mom the best spectator pep talk ever – it was fantastic.
That night, we went to IronPrayer (hosted by FCA endurance), where a group of us took a much-needed break to shift focus from ourselves to the needs of others. Afterwards, we attended the Welcome Ceremony with special guest IronBand – a band of triathletes who sing songs about triathlon. Songs with titles like “Age Group Body, Podium Heart”, “Gotta Get to Kona”, “Money Only Buys So Much Speed”. As they performed, Ironman videos played on the big screen. It was a lot of fun and quite entertaining.
After the band stopped playing, Mike Reilly, the voice of the Ironman, made his way to the stage. This is the guy who announces “You Are An Ironman” at events around the world and wow, does he know how to get everyone pumped up! At one point, he started talking about the number 1,063…asking the crowd if anyone knew what it meant. He revealed that there were 1,063 first-timers racing Ironman Boulder. I couldn’t believe there were that many of us attempting this for the first time. He asked all of the first-timers to stand up and as I looked around, I was encouraged to be in the company of so many and by the support we were feeling from the crowd. That night, there were several times Mike told all of us, “On Sunday, you will be an Ironman.” It sounded so convincing – I was finally starting to believe it myself.
During the ceremony, Mike introduced all the pro athletes who were there that night, many of them Ironman Champions. I could hardly believe how many were in our midst. Dave Scott, six-time Ironman World Champion, came to the stage. He talked about how his greatest feat was not any of his World Championship wins, but the World Championship race where he came in fifth place. During that race, he wasn’t feeling great. He didn’t have a good swim and was struggling during the bike. At mile 85 on the bike, he decided to stop feeling sorry for himself. Thinking he must be in 50th place at this point, he set his mind on finishing the race in the top 10. He caught the 5th place guy at mile 22 on the run and crossed the finish line in 5th place. It’s a testament to the power of mind over matter. It was an inspiring story that I tucked away for race day. I left the Welcome Ceremony inspired and ready to give it all I’ve got on race day.
I spent Saturday morning packing and double-checking all my race gear. For an Ironman, all of your gear goes into specific gear bags that get placed at different spots on the course. I’d never had to pack for a triathlon this way and I was a little paranoid about putting stuff into the wrong bag. (I’d heard of people having nightmares of opening up their bike bag and seeing only running gear inside.) I checked and double-checked everything. I spent about 3 hours making sure I had everything set and ready to go.
The last thing I did was check on my bike and as I was putting air into my back tire, I broke the tube stem. I’d never had this happen before. I called Jay and he offered to meet me near the Boulder Reservoir to make sure my bike was in order before I had to drop it off. Mom and I loaded up the car with all my stuff. We headed to Boulder High School to drop off my run gear bag off at T2.
On the way to the reservoir to drop off my bike and bike gear bag at T1, we met up with Jay who took care of my bike for me – I was so thankful!
That afternoon, we checked into the hotel and I felt like I could finally relax for the day. Everything was all packed and ready to go for race day. That night, I had my traditional pre-race dinner – spaghetti & meatballs. We were finished eating before 6 and I was in bed at 7:15 and asleep by 7:30. I really did not think I’d be able to get to sleep that early. My alarm was set for 3AM. And even though I had a hotel wake up call as a back up, I was still worried about oversleeping. Beginning at around midnight, I woke up pretty much on the hour. Each time, I checked the clock to make sure I hadn’t overslept, and then went back to bed. Thankfully, every time I got up, I was back to sleep within minutes. Before I knew it, it was 3AM and time to get up. I could hardly believe I had gotten over 7 hours of sleep. I felt rested and it was a fantastic way to start RACE DAY!
First order of business was fueling. As soon as I woke up, I ate a banana and started sipping on 20 oz of my EFS/CarbPro drink. I also had a bowl of oatmeal. After eating and getting dressed, we were out the door a little after 3:30AM. I was surprised to feel an overwhelming sense of calm. I heard a voice in my head saying “you are ready” and for the first time, I believed it. We arrived at Boulder High School just before 4AM. I dropped off my bike special needs and run special needs bags, and then we loaded the shuttle buses. By pure luck, we ran into Carrie on the way to the bus and we were able to ride on the same shuttle together. On the way to the Boulder Reservoir, our shuttle driver got lost. And I thought – if this is the only thing that goes wrong today, I’ll take it. Upon arriving at the Boulder Reservoir, first order of business was body marking. Afterwards, my mom and I said our goodbyes, and I headed to the transition area.
In transition, the first thing I did was take my bike over to bike support to make sure my tires were properly inflated. Then, coach Chris gave Carrie & I some final words of wisdom for the race. Next, I loaded up my bike with water bottles and food, and set my GPS tracker on top of the handlebars. I then got in line for the porta-potties. As I was standing in line, a volunteer informed us that this particular set was for the pros, so if a pro needed to use one, we needed to let them cut in line. We (us amateur athletes) started joking around that maybe it was good luck to use the “pro” porta-potties or be able to let a pro cut in line ahead of you. Ha! After bathroom stop #1, I had time to relax with my “IronFriends” – the group of folks that I had trained with for months on end. We had all become closer friends over the hours and hours of swims, bike rides, and runs together. Being together on race morning helped put my mind at ease. We were all in this together. And at the end of the day, after all those miles on the course together, we would all celebrate the end of this journey.
After a group picture, I dropped off my morning clothes bag and made my way to the porta-potties again for one last bathroom stop. As I stood in line, the pre-race jitters finally hit. I wondered when those were going to set in! Next, it was time to put on my wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles. It was a very routine process, one I had done a hundred times before, and it helped calmed my nerves back down. As I walked toward the swim start, the national anthem began. As I stood with hand over my heart, the tears started building up in my eyes. The moment was finally here and the race was about to begin. At 6:20AM the first gun went off, the pros had started! I made my way to toward my swim wave. It was a long walk and the rocky road was really hard on my bare feet. I made a mental note to never go without flip-flops again. Once in my corral, I found myself standing next to a lady from my spin class. We chatted briefly, then started to make our way toward the water. As I got closer to the swim start, I spotted my mom amongst the crowd! She was right along the fence, cheering me on and holding the sign she had made just for me!
The crowd was loud, the announcer was getting everyone pumped up, and the music was blaring. The energy was incredible. Next thing I knew, I crossed over the timing mat and my toes were in the water. No more thinking about the Ironman…I am doing an Ironman! The water was a comfortable 74.5 degrees. I settled into a rhythm. I could still hear the music blaring – the Kelly Clarkston song “Stronger” was playing. This same song was playing when I started my first Half Ironman in 2012. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” yep, that’s about right! It didn’t take long before the sounds on shore faded away and all I could hear was the splashing of swimmers all around me. I said a prayer for all the athletes around me. I thought about how each person around me had their heart set on reaching that finish line, and how each one had trained so hard and carried with them their own reasons and motivations for taking on the Ironman. Afraid I might cry if I think about this any longer, I forced myself to start singing a song in my head. This is my go-to strategy for remaining calm during open water swims. After plugging away for a while, I came to the first of two turns – I took a moment to lift my head out of the water and yell out a “woo-hoo”! A couple other athletes gave out a cheer as well. Not long after that, I knew I had reached the halfway point of the swim when the buoys changed from yellow to orange. By that point, I had settled into a grove and knew that if I could just remain calm, I’d finish this swim. What can rattle me in an open water swim is too much contact with other swimmers. There were a number of times people come up from behind me and pulled down on my legs and feet. For the last mile of the swim, I chose to hug the buoy line and for the most part was able to keep open space around me. Going toward the shore, each time I looked up to sight, I could see the swim finish getting closer and closer. Finally, there came I point where I could hear the sounds of the shore again and as I crept closer, those sounds got louder and louder. I pushed a little harder that final stretch, I was so excited to get to that shore! When I exited the water, it felt like a thousand smiles were staring right back at my smiling face. I made my way toward the wet suit strippers. In all my triathlons, I’d never done one where volunteers take off your wet suit for you. Two volunteers grabbed my suit and pulled it down off me. It came off in record time. Next, I was handed my bike gear bag and headed to the women’s changing tent. Inside, I had my own personal volunteer to help me get ready for the bike. She got everything out of my bag for me, helped me put on my socks and shoes and bike jersey…you name it, this lady was on it. She told me she’s a coach; I was not surprised. All set, I left the tent, handed off my gear bag and headed to the sunscreen area where another set of volunteers was armed and ready to apply sunscreen to all the athletes. Sunscreen applied, I jogged over to my bike. I saw my mom was standing right there on the other side of the fence from where my bike was racked. I started yelling “mom” and waving my arms. We chatted while I got my bike situated. She told me that volunteers were checking bikes during the swim, and they found my front tire was flat and had taken care of it for me. Having just replaced that one a few weeks ago, and the back tire just the day before, I was really hoping I was done with flats. I posed for a picture, and then left transition!
We had to run our bikes up a hill before reaching the mount line, which gave my mom time to get to the road and see me off.
As I left the reservoir, spectators were cheering all along the way. I tried to soak it all in, knowing 112 miles of biking awaited me and there would be long stretches with no spectators in sight. My plan was to be conservative on the bike. The plan was to get off the bike feeling like I could have done more – saving my legs for the marathon. I settled into a comfortable 15-16 mph pace. I felt good. It took focus to continue to hold myself back. Jay watched me at a couple spots along 36 and took some pictures. It was good to see him.
About 30 miles into the bike, my stomach started cramping. I was mentally prepared for this to happen on the run, but not on the bike and not this early in the race. I slowed down my fluid intake and my pedaling. I positioned my body as upright as possible, hoping it would help if I weren’t crouched over. I told myself to hang in there until the 56 mile point, where I would get my special needs bag, and hopefully I had Pepto-Bismol in there. At this point, I couldn’t remember for certain. When I reached special needs, the volunteer held open the bag before me and I looked in disbelief – no Pepto. I asked around, but no one had any. Major bummer. Mind over matter, I told myself. I continued my slow pace and carried on. The whole middle stretch of the bike became a blur. Around mile 75, as I shifted gears up a steep hill, my bike chain came off. I tried to fix it on the hill, but it was too hard – so I walked my bike up the hill and fixed it when I got to the top. My hands were now covered in black grease. Please, please, bike…just get me through these next 35+ miles without any more issues. Miles 80-90, my stomach pain let up some and I picked up the pace. It felt so good to finally start passing people after such a long stretch of getting passed so many times. Around mile 90, the course headed directly into the sun. At this point, it was early afternoon and it was so hot. At mile 95, still heading directly into the sun and now going uphill, I felt myself starting to get light headed. On this stretch, I passed two athletes laid down on the side of the road getting medical attention. There were others stopping to take a break where there were patches of shade. The combination of the bright sun (not in a cloud in sight) and the heat was brutal. I remember my coach telling me that there would be several times during the day when I would struggle and have to push through – this was one of them. At mile 100, I came to the 3 dreaded hills – relatively short, but steep. I am so thankful that there were spectators camped out at each one cheering us on. They knew just what to say to help get us up those hills (things like “this hill’s never had its butt kicked like this before!”). Those spectators were a godsend. A few miles later, I reached the final aid station. I had stopped at each aid station along the way and made one last stop at this one. I dumped ice down my jersey and it was just what I needed to perk back up. With less than 10 miles to go, I knew I would make it. And, I knew that if anything went wrong with my bike at this point, I was closer to town and there would be more people around to help. The final stretch was a nice downhill on Folsom and I was flying. Tears started streaming down my face. I was going to make it to the run! I had so many fears about the swim and bike, but the run was my comfort zone and I was almost there! As I reached the bike dismount, Jay was there – which was a really nice surprise. I could not wipe the smile from my face.
I walked my bike to T2, and gladly handed it off to one of the many volunteers waving there arms, ready to take it from me. I looked down at my watch. I’d spent 7.5 hrs on the bike course. It had taken me longer than I’d anticipated. It was now about 4:15 in the afternoon. T2 was a long transition. We had to walk from Boulder High School to the track, and then walk the length of the track to the changing tents at the far end. In the changing tent, I again had my own personal volunteer to help me transition to the run. As she pulled out my running shoes, I told her how happy I was to see them. “I’m a runner”, I told her. I’m ready to run. It was at this moment, I knew I would finish the Ironman. I had enough time to make it to the finish line even if I had to walk the entire marathon. I was wearing a running tank that said, “run happy”. And man, was I running happy. The first several miles were a gradual downhill and I felt brand new. The pain in my stomach had subsided. I came up on my friend Orla, who reminded me to save some for mile 18. Good point. It was so hard to hold back when I finally felt strong, but knew I still had an entire marathon before me, so I’d better save some for later. About one mile in, I ran past my mom and friends Christine, Lauren, and Andrew. They commented on how great I looked and that made me feel even better. I was all smiles.
Now that I was wearing a bib with my name, spectators started cheering for me by name. Each cheer echoed in my ears. You see, my love language is words of affirmation, and hearing all those encouraging words really built me up. I decided I would say something encouraging to every athlete who passed me on the run course. At mile 4, Luke & Christie (and Caitlyn) were there cheering me on. And then, at the Baseline turnaround, Donna was there volunteering and cheering me on. When I reached the next turnaround, Marisol was there cheering. It meant a lot to have people I know there cheering me on.
Around mile 6, the stomach pain increased again. But I knew I had Pepto-Bismol in my run special needs bag and just needed to hang in there until I could get to it. I had never used a porta-potty so many times as I did during the Ironman. That part was no fun, to be sure. But on the bright side, I think it’s because my stomach hurt so much, that I didn’t feel any other pain in my body. My legs never felt tired or cramped.
Next came the tough stretch of the marathon course…a gradual uphill from Foothills Parkway to the bottom of Boulder Canyon, with numerous underpasses along the way. This is where I started walking some stretches. I passed by Coach David and my neighbors George & Kathy. I was relieved to reach the turn around at the bottom of the canyon. I would now have a gradual downhill for miles. I committed to running until the course headed back uphill. The crowds along Boulder Creek were something else. Spectators were lining both sides of the path. Around mile 13, I saw my Mom again. She was cheering and yelling that she would see me at mile 20 and mile 26. I was now on the second loop. I wasn’t certain if all the friends I saw cheering during lap one would still be there on lap two, but they were! Along the course, I also saw so many athletes I knew. It was encouraging to be able to cheer for each other.
Miles 19-21, Jay cheered me on at several different places. He was on his bike and was able to get around pretty quickly on the roads. Around mile 20, Newton Running Company had a big screen set up with personalized video cheers, trigged by athletes’ timing chips. As I approached the big screen, my mom’s video cheer came on the screen. It was so fun to watch! I was yelling, “that’s my mom”!
At this point, I had about a 10K to go. I started the long uphill stretch back to the bottom of Boulder Canyon. Along the way, I passed by a British athlete who commented, “You look as fresh as a daisy” when I ran by him. It was so perfectly said with his British accent, it gave me a good laugh. As I reached the bottom of the canyon, the skies grew dark. I had started this race at sunrise, and now the sun had set and I was still out on the course. Once I reached that final turnaround, I knew I would run until I reached the finish line. There was no walking now. I could taste that finish. Now that it was dark, I worried I might pass by the turn off to the finish line. I told myself to pay attention. Next thing I knew – there I was at the turn off. And as soon as I was on 13th, I could see the finish line chute ahead. I gave a whole string of spectators high 5’s as I approached that chute.
Once in the finish line chute, the energy of the crowd was so powerful, so electric – I felt it surging through my body. My mind was saying, “yes, yes, yes” as I pumped my fists in excitement. I had the biggest smile on my face. I expected I might cry at the finish line, but no tears, just joy. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!
There are so many who supported me in my journey to become an Ironman. When I was out there on the course on race day, my heart was FILLED with love and support. It was overwhelming and I mean it when I say that it was all that love and support that kept me going. I am forever grateful. I am especially thankful for the love and support from my mom and Jay, who both played an integral part of making my dream of becoming an Ironman a reality.
I’m also so thankful for my coaches, Chris and Sarah Dicroce. A husband and wife team, both accomplished Ironman triathletes. On May 31, they lost their beloved brother Vince. During his 10-year battle with brain cancer, Vince lived out his motto “I will not just survive, I will be better than before.” Vince was a role model for human potential. He was a fellow triathlete and an inspiration to us all. He was registered to race Ironman Boulder with us, but his life was cut short. After Vince passed, Chris and Sarah continued on, they knew that’s what Vince would have wanted. I am inspired by their strength and perseverance and blown away by the way they continued to coach us and be an encouragement to everyone around them despite this great loss.
I finished the Ironman just before 9:00PM and stayed at the finish line cheering on the rest of the finishers until the midnight cutoff. It was so special to be a a part of it. Being able to cheer on all the final finishers was an experience I will never forget.
It’s those final hours that get to the heart of what an Ironman is all about. As you stand there cheering everyone on, you feel the raw emotion each athlete is experiencing as they come down that finish line chute and realize their goal of becoming an Ironman. It’s a celebration of the human spirit and the realization that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
So very, very proud of you Joann! High water mark for your bucket list.
Great writing to help us “non, never to be, Ironmen” understand what it takes. Aim high and live life full! You only get one time to go through life. Make it full of great moments. Wonderful that Jay and your mom can be there so many times with you! Love Dad
Thanks for sharing your experience of becoming an ironman with us. I could feel the emotion of it all in your writing. This made me realize even more that the REAL work is months long and not just on race day, though race day is in and if itself mind boggling to those of us who will never have such an achievement. You are incredible. I am so proud to be your aunt.
So awesome, “Ironman Joann”! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience.
Incredible story Joann, thanks for sharing the details of this epic accomplishment! So so so very proud of you!
So glad you took the time to put this experience into words and share with us~loved reading it and seeing the pictures to go with the story of the day. I’m still in total awe of your accomplishment! So proud of you and again…CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!! I like the sound of that!!
Thank you all for the kind words and for taking the time to read this post. As I was writing, I realized it was getting quite long, but I guess only fitting as it was a LONG journey to get to that finish line! An experience I will never forget!