I arrived in Cozumel on Thursday, a week after learning I would have no roommate and be racing an Ironman with zero support on site. The flight, shuttle, and ferry went smoothly and so I was in good spirits. Friday arrived and I was excited to pick up my bike. It had been two weeks since I’d seen her. Dan warned me that the wheels he let me borrow would be flat, so I found a pump after Tri-bike Transport put my pedals on. This is about where my luck ended for the weekend. The rear tubular would not hold any air. After inspection by three of their mechanics, it seemed the valve had separated from the tire and needed to be replaced. Knowing nothing about tubulars and not speaking Spanish, this quickly became a major problem. I spent that afternoon frustrated, looking for a solution. At 5pm I found a 3rd mechanic that was able to replace the tire for a reasonable price. To add to my problems, I discovered my phone was not charging. So being alone in Mexico became extremely lonely. Only very minor, brief communication was possible the rest of the trip.
Saturday morning came and for the second time, the practice swim was cancelled due to the rough waters. This added to my nervousness. I headed out on a practice ride finally and got caught in another downpour. I returned to the hotel drenched from head to toe. My bag check time was in two hours, so I wrung out my things and packed my bike and run bags. I left my bike shoes in the sun in hopes of drying them slightly before they had to sit in a plastic bag overnight. 3pm came and I grabbed the bus to transition. I got marked and said good bye to Cenicienta and planned where to eat my early dinner.
Race morning arrived and I felt surprisingly good. My biggest fear, the turbulent waters of the swim, had been minimized by a shortened course. The sun was shining and I was ready to rock it. Five minutes to start I swam out to the start line and surrounded myself with crazed athletes. I held my own with a few elbows and lots of kicking and exited the water feeling good. I was actually really looking forward to a long beautiful bike ride. I grabbed my bag, headed to the change tent and dumped out my bike gear. After about a minute I realized something was missing. It quickly came back to me; they were sitting in a chair in the sun drying out from yesterday’s rain. I screamed at the top of my lungs. Quickly, a volunteer came over to me. I explained, and one of them offered me her size 5 sneakers. While appreciative, my size 8 feet said no thank you. Tears started running down my face as I thought about all the work I put into this one day, just to have to walk away with a DNF because of my own stupidity. I finally got up and slowly walked to my bike hoping I would come up with some great idea. Nothing came to me but to ride as is and see how far I’d get. I had no expectation of finishing but I thought maybe I could get one loop in and see the course everyone told me was so beautiful.
The first few miles felt completely tolerable and I actually thought, maybe this won’t be too bad. That didn't last long. About 20 miles in, as I began to feel the 25 mph headwinds on the eastern coast, I began to feel every push of the pedal. I had to find something to put under my foot if I were even going to make the first 38 mile loop. I stopped at the next aid station and pulled off two pieces of cardboard from a box holding water bottles. As I was about to ride off with the two pieces resting on the pedals under my feet, the mechanic came over with some electrical tape. Savior! Those two pieces of cardboard got me through another 30 miles. One of the things you don’t think of until you’re in the situation is that without shoes, one’s saddle winds up being about an inch too high. So not only is difficult to pedal, it’s even more difficult to pedal in aero. Little did I know when I headed out of T1 without shoes the chain reaction that it would cause.
Feet raw and bruised, leg muscles exhausted because they are not normally used in regular cycling position, a shortage of calories due to the almost constant upright position and general concentration needed to turn over every single pedal stroke, and the difficulty of simply moving myself forward because of the sail my body had become. After two laps, it was encouraging to think just one more. Of course, it was that last loop that brought me to tears. Pain, frustration, and fear of not making the cut-off…it all began to weigh on my emotions. As the last few miles drew near, yet another person pointed out that I had no shoes. It took all my strength to not jump off my bike and beat him with it. But when he told me the time and I knew I was going to make the bike cut off, I smiled and finished the hardest bike ride I’d ever done. I handed my bike to the volunteer, made my way to the change tent, sat down and cried. I had no intention of running and I knew no one would blame me. I asked for some food and water and thought for a long time. I tried to calculate what pace I would need in order to finish before midnight. And then I thought about how much my feet already hurt and questioned my own sanity for thinking I could run a full marathon in that state. After about 15 minutes in transition, I thought about one of my favorite quotes. The same thought that got me to the start line at the Xterra race earlier this year. And the same quote that got me out on the run course at the Nashvegas Half. “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying”.
So I finished putting on my run gear and headed out into the pouring rain. With my first ten steps, my feet were soaked. What a way to start a marathon. The three out and back loops made the mileage a little easier to digest. It was just over four miles to the turnaround, so that was all I thought about. I took a gel, had some water, and jogged my way to the first timing mat. As I crossed, I thought about the people that I knew were watching and waiting for an update online. I hoped that they saw the first run split and had a little less worry. I approached the turnaround to start my second loop and only had to walk about 1-2 minutes thus far, so I was in good spirits. As an added bonus, a friend I hadn’t seen in five years showed up to cheer me on. Not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see a familiar face. I crossed the mat and walked with my friend for a minute as I took another gel. I told him I’d be back in about an hour and 20 minutes. That turned out to be a big fat lie.
I started my slow jog on to the half-way point. As the miles added up, my energy faded. I made it to the half way with a bit more walking and the pain creeping up on me. At mile 15, I felt a dizziness coming over me. I noticed that I was not running in a straight line anymore. I switched to a walk again and looked around for any officials that might take notice to my unsteady state. I realized I should probably take a minute and try to get some more calories. I found a granola bar and some pepsi and sat on the curb for 15 minutes trying to get myself together. By that point there was no way in hell I was going to give up or let someone pull me off the course. As the sugar energized my body, I made my way to the end of the second lap. While it was a little invigorating to run past the finish line, it was also sheer torture. I still had almost 9 miles to run.
At the turn, I saw a man talking with his wife as they said “see you at the finish”. I confirmed it was his last lap and suggested we walk/run together as I was starting to lose it. We shared a similar pace and even pushed each other to run a kilometer here and there. Without that conversation for the last 9 miles, I’m not sure I would have made it. As I thought my feet were bleeding through my shoes, he announced we had 10k to go. 10k! I can do 10k! At that point, we had an hour and 40 minutes before midnight. It sounded like plenty of time but I think I may have overestimated the pace at which we were actually moving. No more breaks, just forward progress. The last kilometer we said goodbye and I “ran” toward the voices of Michael Lovato and Steve Trew. As I made the turn to the finish shoot, I’m pretty sure I handed my hydration belt to Steve Trew (I thought it was a volunteer standing there). I saw the lights and the people cheering but my ears went deaf. All I could think was how I couldn’t believe I was really finally there. I made it through one of the hardest days of my life, without taking the easy route. I could barely run but I tried to lift each foot of the ground so as to not be walking across the finish. I don’t know if it was anything more than a shuffle, but it took all my strength. I did it. I overcame insurmountable odds that day and I knew it.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. They gave me some food and pepsi and took my picture. I grabbed my post-race bag and treated myself to a cab for the 3 blocks back to the hotel. A solid six hours of sleep and I was ready to face the day. And eat. I ran into some new made friends at breakfast and we shared our stories of the day before. It was so great to hear about everyone’s accomplishments. Of course, I soon became the girl that rode barefoot. When I returned to my room and started to attempt to get online, I began to see the outpouring of support from my friends and family that had been watching me all day Sunday. It began to occur to me that somehow everyone knew what had happened. And instead of people laughing at my forgetfulness, like I thought they would, they cheered and called me a rock star. Holy cow. What an indescribable feeling. I tried to respond some and share a bit of the story, but I couldn’t even keep up.
I spent the rest of the week following up on emails, texts, and facebook and twitter notes. I also spent the rest of the week replaying the day in my mind and wondering what the hell made me keep going. I still don’t know. If someone asked me prior to the race what I would have done in that situation, I would have bet $1,000 I would have quit. As much as I would love to think I was just super strong willed, in reality it was just living in the moment. Taking everything one step at a time and not looking at the end, but only at the next step in front of me. In triathlon, as in life, sometimes all we can or should do is look at how to put one foot in front of the other. Not always at how to finish the marathon. And somehow we still get there and maybe even enjoy each moment along the way.