140.6 Miles: Dancing With Fear

“I’ve been scared to death of failing
Scared that I’d look like a fool
And I’d rather quit than risk that I could lose
Now I’m not proud of that position
But it’s the hand that I’ve been dealt
And as far as I’m concerned that hand can go to hell

Heard the Lord in California
And I remembered who I was and
I learned to dance with the fear that I’d been running from”
– “Fear”, Ben Rector

Oh, fear. You are a tricky one. A motivator and demotivator at the same time. I have a distinct memory of talking with an older, wiser friend of mine back in 2009 about goals, success and failure. She was asking me why I had so many goals and never went after them. To me it was obvious – what if I failed? My failure would be on display for all to see and I would let people down. If I did not go after my goals, then I couldn’t bring shame to others. Luckily, she was much wiser than me and encouraged me to go after my goals anyway. “Most people never go after their most ambitious goals and regret it as they get older. Don’t be them.” she said. When I started to tackle my bigger goals, I had one roadblock after another, mostly in the form of surgeries that affected work and play. But what I found is that it made me more resilient to fear and determined to get the next carrot (goal) marked off my list. The number one physical goal I had was to complete in an iron distance triathlon – 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a full marathon run (26.2 miles) for 140.6 miles.

This distance isn’t something you can train for 3 months and be ready to go. The trick to this race is that you are maxed at 17 hours for completion. 17:01, and you are not a finisher. It takes about a year to fully train for this race. The thought of training for that long for one race paralyzed me for years. I found this video back in 2010 when I first started seriously contemplating 140.6 miles. …And I can say that it’s nearly 100% accurate. (Warning…NSFW or children!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B03dFMG8nR4

Kind of makes you not want to train for an Ironman, huh?

For the next four-ish years, I settled on marathons and half marathons. I mean, I knew how to swim from lifeguarding, but not for longer than 500 yards without wheezing and mild dying, let alone 4,224 yards…in open water…with others kicking, flailing arms and gnashing teeth at me…and trying to breath…and not get anxious…all at the same time. Also, I had the discipline to train for 20 +/- hours a week, but without accountability, there is no way it was going to happen. Factor in that in 2014, half of the half marathons I entered and all of the marathons I entered resulted in DNFs (did not finish). And my times were getting to the point of embarrassing. Nope, actually, they were already there. I had talked to my husband about the very real possibility of giving up on running and the Ironman as I just couldn’t seem to hack what was so easy to me for the previous 15 years. I was running from my fear of failure once again. You can’t fail if you don’t start, was my thought. But, I found out, that’s where actual failure lies – in not starting. I had one more try in me.

Let’s go back to 18 months ago… The month after we closed on our house in Raleigh, there were signs up around our neighborhood announcing that the roads would be closed due to the Ironman Raleigh 70.3 bike route. I decided that was a sign that I should compete in that race in 2015. Never mind that I had never done a triathlon, never swam except for fun or for work, hadn’t been out on my bike in 4 years and was posting PR worst times on my runs. I figured I was a perfect candidate and registered when I was first able to! Around the end of November 2015, I had just finished the Seattle Half Marathon and was appalled at my time. I had already signed up for the Raleigh Rock ‘n Roll Marathon as it was on my birthday, but I knew I was in trouble. If I was nervous about a marathon, how was I going to pull off 70.3 miles? Sweet serendipity. I’m a member of Wheel Chix in Raleigh, an all-women’s bike group (yes, the irony is real…I wasn’t riding my bike but I was in a paid bike group…my intentions were there…accountability, no). An email was sent regarding a half marathon running program for the spring. Sweet! After checking out her website, I sent a note back asking if Chris would be able to do a full marathon. Yep! Then I got real with myself and asked about a half Ironman. Yes again. About a week later, I was starting the process to train for a 70.3. (BTW…I’m sure on the email chain back and forth adding distances to the possible coaching, she thought I was nuts.)

After about a month I decided to go ahead and go for 140.6 miles. I saw there was a race (Beach 2 Battleship, B2B) in Wilmington, NC, about 2 hours from me, in October. After checking with Chris to make sure it would be safe and smart to train for a full distance in 10 months, I signed up. I don’t think I told anyone about this for a while, lest something went wrong with training and I couldn’t do the full distance. Oh fear. You suck.

In February, I ran a half marathon in Huntington Beach, CA, Surf City, one I do each year (either half or full) and a PR (personal record). Wahoooo. Confidence ignited. April was my birthday marathon and I had a PR by almost an hour. AN HOUR. May was my half Ironman in Raleigh. In short, it went perfectly. I felt strong and completely ready for the race.

After the 70.3, I had a race drought until the 140.6. That ended up being a blessing, especially for someone who normally loves the race atmosphere. This is also when the training started getting more intense. Goodbye 10-15 hour workout weeks. Hello 20+ weeks. And Sundays…oh, the Sundays. 6-7 hour bike rides, some starting as early as 530AM so as to be home in time for a semblance of a weekend day. The summer was honestly the hardest part. I believe it was in mid-July I was doing a 50 or 60 mile bike ride alone. It was just a baaaaaad day. I was slow, wasn’t having fun and was still getting over bronchitis from Kscope. That ride was the first time I wondered if I could handle the training for a full Ironman. The following week, same thing. I started to realize that I was a bit lonely on these long rides. I put out some rides on our Wheel Chix site and talked to other people and started having people to ride at least part of the rides with on Sundays. I also happened to meet a girl while getting new running shoes that ended up doing the full distance at B2B, too, and has become a new, good friend! After meeting some new people for rides, training started to be less traumatic. (I will still caveat that 7 hour bike rides are not easy. Especially when it’s 90* outside and 95% humidity. But the mental strength gained during these rides would prove fruitful!) One of my new riding friends (whom I had also run with many Saturdays since January but never talked to, because as I have stated before, I’m actually an introvert) was preparing to do her first 70.3, Outer Banks Tri in NC. I decided to do this race to see her finish her first half distance race but also a change-up to the training. The race was about 5 weeks before my 140.6. I ended placing 2/4 in my age group and got a nice pin to commemorate the placing. Sweet! Unfortunately, the next 4 weekends were rained out (remember the flooding in NC and SC?). The first 3 weekends, I rode my bike inside on a bike trainer. UUGGHH. It’s rougher on the body (no standing up on the bike or shifting around), the mind (I would put on movies, TV, football…still wasn’t great. Even tried reading…good for a couple hours, but not 6) and the soul. Indoor long rides are soul crushers. The fourth week was a shorter ride at le Tour de Femme, but I ended up doing the 32 mile route instead of 62 because rain was imminent. I wasn’t deterred, but I was bummed. I wasn’t really concerned about the swim (it’s the shortest discipline on the course) or the run (my favorite part). Just the bike.

With another person, Chris started a new company that expanded her offerings of which included sports psychologist. The Sunday before the race, I met with him (Brian) and worked through some ideas to get through the 7 hours on a bike for the race. I had fallen on my bike 2 months prior and the pain would only hurt on the bike. Throw in that in a triathlon, you are required to stay at least 3 bike lengths behind of the person in front of you (no drafting) and have to pass somebody in 15 seconds or less (no riding side by side, talking and killing time). Mentally, it’s the hardest part of the sport for me. Between pain and boredom, I needed a strategy for the race. It was a 3 part strategy. The first was to focus on being present and enjoying the scenery around me. As in, actually look around at the landscape. (BTW – the landscape was beautiful. Streams, creeks, farms, blue skies, etc…) The second was interesting. I was telling him that I have had so many people (YOU) encourage me throughout the past 10-11 months and I didn’t want to let them down, so I had added pressure. He switched it up from being negative to positive by having me focus on making them proud. Each of you that have encouraged me over the past year were in my thoughts on Saturday! The final one was more personal – This has been my goal for 10 years, and I’m finally achieving it. I had never stated it out loud prior to that Sunday because it was a deep, personal goal. I couldn’t let myself down. But I focused on what Brian encouraged me to and I was remarkably calm the remainder of the week.

I got down to Wilmington on Thursday evening. My awesome running/biking/70.3 friend, Allie, came down and we carb loaded at an Italian restaurant and calmed down with some good wine. The next morning, I got up and swam 1.2 miles in the same channel that I’d be racing the next morning with my tri club and then biked for 20 minutes to move the blood for a bit. After that, I got all checked in at the convention center, got my race numbers, transition bags and left my bike in the hands of the race officials as well as my run transition items (shorts, shoes, race belt, nutrition, etc) (that’ll stir your intestines). After that, we headed to Whole Foods to get food for the weekend then to a steakhouse for my final dinner.

Morning of the race was pleasantly easy-going. We had plenty of time to get ready which made for no freaking out. I wanted to stop by my bike to make sure the tires were still pumped, drop off my bike equipment and clothes for the ride (I changed after the swim and the run). We got to the swim start about 60 minutes early and it was cold…around 43*. Luckily the water was around 75*, so I knew I would be warmer in the water. But, being nervous and cold was a bit rough. I had my wetsuit on under my hoodie and sweatpants. My husband was there and eventually my full distance friend, Emily, her husband and Chris all showed up. The sunrise was beautiful, but I didn’t pay attention. I had a long, full day ahead of me and I just wanted to get started!

At 730AM, the siren started the mass swim of 600 people, men and women, all doing the full 140.6 miles. The current flows with you in this channel at this time of the morning, so the beginning and end of the swim were very quick. The middle was surprisingly choppy and I drank more saltwater than I was expecting to given I had swam half of the course the day before. I still finished faster than I was expecting, in 1:03. After a quick, warm shower to rinse off the salt water and a 300 yard run in my bikini bottoms and sports bra to the bike transition area, I was changed and on the bike heading out for 112 miles of solitude.

112 miles of solitude. My least favorite part of the race. I’m going to step back for a minute and state that when I started this journey, the bike was probably my favorite part of the race. I love riding and the 50-60 mile range is perfect. 3-3.5 hours and I’m done. I didn’t think the 6-7 hours of riding each Sunday would be that big of a deal…but it ended up being the biggest deal, as I talked about earlier. I focused on what Brian encouraged me to focus on: the scenery, making people proud and achieving my goal. To his credit, it really worked to help pass the time on the bike. What also helped get me through the time were the aid stations and volunteers. Each of the volunteers was so nice, helpful and amazing! The aid stations were around 15-20 miles apart, so about every hour. I swore I would not stop at any of the stations to save time, but because I drank so much saltwater, I needed to visit the porta-potty on the very first stop (which are like golden thrones during a race!). It also gave me a chance to get some calories in me via bananas and I was back on my bike. I ended up stopping at each aid station and I believe my time and mood were better for doing it, although it “cost” me over 11 minutes on my total bike time. The first 60 miles or so were into a headwind, so it meant more work than it would normally. Luckily, the route was flat which provided some relief from the wind. The next 30 miles were perpendicular to the wind and having a tri bike, made for some interesting moments. My bike is made to be aerodynamic going forward; it’s thicker on the sides so it catches the crosswinds more. The last 22 miles were with the wind, and I flew. I finished those miles in 1 hour. When I got to the convention center where the transition from bike to run was, I got a bit emotional. Not only because there were hundreds of people cheering for me to transition, but because I did the bike and was in a phenomenal mental state. Better than any of my training rides, even the shorter ones. I realized I had actually enjoyed my 112 mile ride! I took my time (I admit it) transitioning from the bike to run. I changed my bike shorts to running shorts, but also took time to eat. I was starving and figured a minute or two wouldn’t kill my overall time. We changed in the convention center, so once I was done I headed out to the super supportive crowds to start my 26.2 mile run.

Now, I’m not sure if you have heard of the term “brick” for triathlons. This is a bike ride followed by a run. So called because that’s what your legs feel like. Having done these, I knew that the first 3-4 miles of the run would be the hardest until my bike legs turned into run legs. As I knew this was going to happen, I decided to eat some more since I was going slowly and stocked up on some lost calories. The run had aid stations at every mile marker and made sure to get water at each of these stops. I had planned for a solo run, except for some other runner encouragement and volunteer thanking. I passed a girl I trained with (and will be training with for my next 140.6!) around mile 2, her mile 11 of 13.1 (as she was doing the 70.3 race). It was so encouraging to see a familiar face! Around mile 4, I saw a guy I had trained with…and Chris…running side by side! He was getting close to finish and loved seeing both of their smiles and it was fun to encourage him in his 70.3. A couple miles later, I hear a cowbell ringing incessantly behind me – Chris. She ended up running with me for about the next 4-5 miles and it was such a blessing to run with someone and not think about how many more miles I had left. My husband had let me know what mile markers he would meet up with me on his inline skates, and he held to just about all of them. Seeing him on the run was such a mood lifter. He had extra food and ibuprofen (yessssss) at my request. I wish everyone had the level of support he gives me during races! As the run was two loops around Wilmington, I past most places 4 times. While I was closing in on my first lap, I was passing by a bar and heard my name. Kathleen McCasland from YCC (ODTUG’s management company) had her arms wide up in the air screaming my name. Well, I had to give her a (sweaty, salty, nasty) hug! …Even more mood lifting support. I finished my first lap and headed back out to the second lap. Again, Kathleen (and now Veronica Snow, ODTUG Executive Director) was there but had gotten all the other bar attendees to scream my name when I came by – that was so amazing. I was smiling and laughing for the next 2 miles. I found my husband again on this stretch and she skated with me for about a mile or two as the sun started to set. Some of the aid stations were decorated fantastically for Halloween. Many were wearing costumes and having fun with their volunteer duties. I’m not they realize how much this kept the mood light and kept the runners from thinking about how poorly their legs were feeling. About mile 21, I found my husband again and I was full of chicken broth (which I called speed because I had so much energy after drinking it at every mile marker for the last 5 miles) and energy to finish the race…because I knew that I was going to finish and finish strong. About mile 22, he left to get to the finish line and I started counting down the miles on my Garmin. The last 2.5 miles were through downtown Wilmington and it was so much fun to have people on the streets in restaurants and bars screaming your name in support. Nothing like it! In the final ½ mile of the race, you are running on the boardwalk next to the water at the convention center. The final stretch is an “L”. Before I made the final left-hand turn, people were clapping and saying my name and it hit me what I was getting ready to complete – my decade long goal of finishing a 140.6 triathlon. I shed a couple tears on this stretch. Once I made that final turn and saw the finish line. I belted for it. There is NOTHING like having people, complete strangers, cheering for you as you finish. Once I crossed the finish line, I saw my husband and Chris. I had completed my goal and conquered a fear. And I didn’t fail. My final time was 13:11:45. 67/142 overall women, 12/24 age group.

Swim: 1:03:00
Transition 1: 0:8:18
Bike: 6:51:04
Transition 2: 0:9:16
Run: 5:00:09

What I found most amazing is that I still had gas left in my tank. I told my husband that I felt the race was almost too easy. I could have run more miles (didn’t really want to), but that’s a testament to the training put forth to me by Chris. She did a phenomenal job and provided the perfect amount of support throughout the process. Not only is she a coach, but she is also a Registered Dietician. I honestly believe that eating the right things at the right times was just as much of a key to my 140.6 success. Making sure I was taking in enough electrolytes, calories and all that goodness during training and the race paid dividends. I’m excited to work with her towards my new half marathon, marathon, 70.3 and 140.6 goals in the coming year!

While the race was “easy”, the training was hard and took lots of time. I knew this would be the case and I was looking forward to the time each week away from technology. Swims are the hardest to get in because each YMCA seems to think that family time is the only pool time that matters. I missed more swims than anything else, but not because I didn’t try. Although I have the most experience with running, not all runs are created equal. There would be awesome long runs that would be followed up with snail-pace runs. And I’ve already talked about the mental difficulties on the ride. But through this training process, I realized what mentally tough actually meant, and how mentally tough I actually am. Though my body has been through 5 surgeries, it performed near perfectly during training and the race. I thought my body (specifically my bionic ankle) was weak, but I found it to be very strong. I also noticed that I changed during the training process. I noticed that I got fiercer about my downtime and personal time. I made sure to take more time for myself and valued time with others even more. I have started to focus my energy more on things that I am passionate about rather than things I am just interested in. I’m realizing my strengths and accepting my weaknesses. There will be changes to my life coming within the next 2 years as a result of my heightened self-awareness.

I knew this before I started, but I have to mention here for the world to see. I have the most amazing and supportive husband that a wife could ask for. He knew what the training would entail, and still encouraged me to reach for my goal. The words that mean more to me than almost any other are “I’m proud of you.” My husband told me this many times on the run and it spoke to my soul. When these words are said to me, my soul is grabbed by that person. He already has my heart, and now he has my soul. He let me vent over the past 11 months about things I hated about training, about how I just wanted to sleep in (‘cause it doesn’t happen), wanted to nap longer, wanted to go to bed at 8PM and how sore my legs always were. He listened and kept telling me that I’m working towards a hard goal. Thank you, dear. I love you.

I started the process with very few friends in the Raleigh area…like, less than 5. Maybe 1. Over this time, I got more involved in the Wheel Chix bike group and met some really, really awesome women who also bike and do triathlons. Chris also hosts a running program each fall and spring and I was able to meet people in these groups. I truly realize the value of friends, and how hard it is to make friends in a new city when you travel 100%. However, if you have common hobbies, they will break down all other barriers. I’m excited to train for next year’s races with these women! They are all so amazing.

To those of you in my “geek” world (Oracle, Twitter, etc), I thought of you on my bike ride and run. I wanted to make you proud of me. You have given me such support via tweets, messages, emails and texts. I’m going to miss many people if I make a list, but know that YOU are appreciated and kept me motivated since December. Here are just a handful of tweet and FB posts that you all sent that kept the fire lit (and lit for months to come).

One of my biggest supporters is the best friend that I have never met. But we will! One day!!

JesKoi

I loved the race’s response to Jes’ tweet.

JesPPDTweet

Even an Oracle Ironman friend!

MattTweet

Loved seeing the tweet from ODTUG.

ODTUGTweet

…And YCC!

YCCTweet

Kathleen McCasland caught me around mile 11.

KathleenTweet

Behold, the medal. And responses.

MedalTweet

KarenTweetResponse

Honestly, when I got done, I just wanted McDonald’s french fries. Fatty, starchy, salty goodness.

FirstTweet

Chris

Tweets

Then I found some Facebook love.

JesFB

HelenFB

I mean, seriously…you all rock. I wish I could give YOU a medal for your support. Thank you for letting me make you proud. Instead of letting fear take over, I danced with it and had a great time. Fear doesn’t have the same hold on me anymore. I see it as a dancing partner instead of a roadblock now. Bring on the fear!

3 comments

  1. Sarah,
    It was an honor to have swam/run and biked a few with you. You are such an inspiration. Congratulations on your finish! Great race report and story!

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