By Rhonda Cohen
The 10th annual Ford Ironman was held in Panama City, Fla., on Nov. 1, 2008. More than 2200 athletes competed. This event is so popular that it sold out in minutes. It was described as a perfect day, with calm water, sunny skies and little wind. But for me it turned out to be not quite so perfect.
I signed up for this race a year prior with my finger on the computer trigger anxiously trying to enter online. As most of the official Ironman events sell out at the site of the race, those of us who try to enter via computer are at the mercy of a very fast Internet connection or very good luck. I sat myself down in front of my computer 30 minutes before registration opened, refreshed, and finally got into the website. When I ok'd the $500 entry fee and clicked the submit button, I was as excited as I was panic-stricken. "What did I just do?" I wondered. I’m almost 54 years old and a heavy athlete. I’ve participated in triathlons for several years but this was going to be the biggest. So what was the next step? Meet a friend at a bar in Manayunk and drink a toast to my upcoming dream.
Many years ago, on a plane ride, I watched the coverage of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. This very overweight couch potato couldn’t believe my eyes. The idea that anyone could withstand this grueling sport of a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike race followed by a 26.2 mile run was beyond my comprehension. The sight of Dick and Rick Hoyt made my eyes well with tears. I watched as pros and challenged athletes alike crossed the finish line, many of them looking like deer in headlights. Some fell to their knees with exhaustion and some had the look of elation unmatched in any sport.
I started out just wanting to pursue physical fitness and now I was fascinated by the idea of Ironman events. I began my journey after winning a one month trial at Platoon Fitness at a charity auction five years ago. Getting in shape was ridiculously hard, but the Platoon people pushed me because I certainly could not have motivated myself. I met wonderful, supportive people there who also enveloped me in their social events. My new friends convinced me to run my first 5k on my 50th birthday. They arranged to have a piano player, perched on a flatbed with his dog, play happy birthday to me when I crossed the finish line.
Entrants who had walked finished ahead of me running, but run I did and I was elated. I became more involved in this fitness world when I bought a hybrid bike at a Sam’s Club for about $100. I also enjoyed swimming, so someone told me about a sprint triathlon. I had only seen the full Ironman before and I had no idea there were shorter versions, but now I entered one. I plodded through the swim, bike and the run and managed to hear my name being called at the awards ceremony. I received the honor of being second in my age group because there were only two people entered. Nonetheless, it was my first award in my life, I was ecstatic and hooked.
Triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports in America. USAT membership numbers have risen steadily. A lot of runners whose knees or backs are starting to revolt have switched over to "the dark side" and everyday exercisers are finding triathlons the new challenge. Last year, I organized a first-timers group called Rhonda’s Rookies for women who had never previously competed in a triathlon or duathlon. Because I am older and larger than most competitors, I am a recognizable figure and the group attracted a large number of women. We chose the Philadelphia Women’s Triathlon because it is sprint distance and a very supportive race. If you are interested for next year, Rhonda’s Rookies is on Facebook.
After increasing my triathlon distance through the help of Cadence Cycling and Multisport and getting a coach, I tried Olympic (.9 mile swim, 25 mile bike and 6.2 mile run) and half iron distance triathlons (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run). It didn’t shock me when I finished last. I came prepared for that and actually handed the race director a disposable camera because I knew the official photographer would be long gone when I crossed the finish line and I wanted to capture the moment.
Injuries came and injuries went, as arthritis and tendonitis reared their ugly heads. I still kept up with the triathlon training and racing because it’s an addiction. You start to see many of the same people at the races and it’s a great and friendly group. Let’s face it, not many people are exceptional at swimming, biking AND running, so most of the competitors feel somewhat vulnerable and self-doubting in one, two or three of the sports. Racing is very focused and introverted, but when a race is over, you’ve never heard so much talking and sharing in the eating areas. People are tired of being in their own heads for the whole race and are dying to talk to others.
I participated in the New York City Marathon, several half marathons, many triathlons of varied distances. I wasn’t getting any younger so in 2007 I thought, "What the heck, it’s now or never. I’ll sign up for an Ironman." I developed an Internet friendship with a gal on beginnertriathlete.com, and we decided that Ironman Florida was our best bet. There are not many official Ironman races in North America and they all have their limiting factors. I felt I was too heavy for the myriad hills of Ironman Lake Placid although I’m superb on the down hills, and Arizona Ironman was then held in April (now it is in November) and sitting on an indoor trainer for six or seven hours would be like a root canal without Novocain.
Because I grew up in New Mexico, swimming in an ocean or gulf was very foreign territory. My online friend convinced me that I could learn to swim in the ocean and the bike course was flat. I was very excited after I signed up and couldn’t wait to contact my friend. Well, she had chickened out at the last minute and I was on my own. Yikes! I am sure that many people who heard that I had signed up for Ironman Florida had that little cartoon bubble in their head saying, "What, is she kidding? She certainly doesn’t look like an Ironman." The challenge was on. To prepare for the big one, I signed up for Eagleman, an Ironman with a distance of "only" 70.3 miles in Cambridge, Maryland, in June. The heat index was 115 degrees and some people racing looked like Gumby. Talk about digging deep to finish!
I participated in several more races this summer, but then the time to ramp it up began. My family didn’t get to see me much once the summer started. Hundred mile bike ride days, two hour swims and 13 mile runs were all on menu for the weekends, some of it by myself to get used to the solitude and loneliness of the Ironman course. I even speed-walked the entire O’Hare Airport for hours while changing planes to get extra training. I went to a training camp in September at the Florida race site. There I rode and ran the course but Hurricane Ike prevented us from swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Some weeks were 18 to 25 hours of training and from what I read on others’ blogs, they did far more than I did. I took yet another training camp which was swim-focused to make sure I could swim in open water for the distance and get used to waves and salt water.
Then it was time to fly to Florida the Thursday before the race. I suffered moments of fear of the unknown in the weeks prior. Would I make it? Could I cross the finish line in 17 hours? I knew I’d be cutting it close because I’m not fast at all; quite the contrary. I’m normally a “BOP’er” (back of the pack). The game plan was to have a nice, easy swim so as not to expend too much energy, yet make the 2:20 minute time cut-off, get a decent time on the bike and leave as much time to slog through the marathon.
It’s pretty amazing being a part of the whole experience. I couldn’t believe I was really there. The fact that I even trained for an Ironman triathlon would not have entered my mind a few years ago, yet there I was. The atmosphere was carnival-like with family members making signs for their athletes, vendors selling the latest tri-geek gadgets and the athlete "village" buzzing with nervousness. I registered and they weighed me (argh) and gave me my official wrist band. Strangers came up to me to say hi. They knew of me because I had been posting on websites and told them they couldn’t miss me since I was far from the sveltest athlete at the event. Then I attended the athletes dinner where the oldest (76) and youngest (18) competitors were introduced, as well as the individual who had competed in the most Ironman races and the biggest loser of weight (120 something pounds in one year.)
Friday was bike and bag check-in and then came Saturday, the big day. The atmosphere was quiet and focused. What would this day bring? Would it be spectacular? Would I have stomach issues? What would the weather be like? Would I get a flat tire? More than one? Did I train enough? All of these questions swirled around in my head. The long, arduous task of putting on the wetsuit was next and then finally I walked on to the beach.
Ironman starts are notorious and anyone who has ever done one cannot explain it well enough to those who haven’t. Some call it the washing machine, but some have other names for it. It's every man and woman for themselves. Great fun! I made it out of the water in my predicted time and was thrilled. My first section done, I now jumped on the bike. Since I had ridden much of the bike course during training camp, I was prepared for headwinds for a lot of the ride. For me, headwinds are not fun. I stayed on my plan and was just praying for a tailwind at some point. The long, not very inspiring, landscape flew by and finally, finally, I got that tailwind. I ran with it to keep with the goal times. I passed lots of people during this part, which was great fun. Ironman triathlons are unlike any other triathlons because they have a men and women’s changing tent. You call out your number and your bag with any items you have packed for the transitions are waiting for you, as well as great assistance. I changed into my socks and running shoes and off I went.
To train for a triathlon, you have to do what is called a brick workout. This is where after you get off the bike you do a run. Your legs either feel like bricks or like jelly and it takes a while to get used to that. I started the run feeling tired and passed some of the med-aid stations, which was a diversion. I had a nice amount of time allocated to shuffle and walk through the marathon, so I wasn’t too worried, although there was not enough time for lolly-gagging. It started to get dark, which I expected because they give you until midnight to finish and I expected to take 16:59:59 to get to the finish line. I drank at the aid stations, which included chicken broth and cola. Yum.
People know me as a very happy go-lucky person and I normally am mentally and physically tough. But now I began to feel awful and stopped smiling and talking with those who addressed me. I have even done an Olympic-distance triathlon that turned into a duathlon in an air cast boot. I have ridden in torrential rains, snow and 10 degree weather, but something was happening that no amount of pulling me up by my bootstraps could help. I was becoming irrational as I poured cola over my head and threw away my jacket wrapped around my waist even though I knew the temperature was going down to the 50s. I even screamed at a volunteer (very sorry), which is so unlike my normal self. I was starting to weave and felt very dizzy. My brain was going a mile a minute. After finishing the first 13.1 miles, I decided not to cross over the timing mat. This was irrational because all my buddies were watching me around the world to check my times before they went to sleep. My day was done. There was something terribly wrong. I summoned a volunteer and clung to her as she took me to the medical tent. The folks in that tent weighed me, took my blood pressure and temperature. I was shocked that it was 80 over 60 and my temperature was 90. The medical tent was very close to the finish line so I could hear all the names of the people crossing the finish line. If I wasn’t dehydrated before I got to the medical tent, I sure became so from crying so hard. So close, so darn close! All of that training and I ended just 13.1 miles from the Promised Land. It took a while for my blood pressure and temperature to come back to normal. A wonderful volunteer walked me back to the condo where my roommate helped get me into a warm tub and made sure I continued to drink.
It was very difficult the next morning seeing everyone with their finisher’s T-shirts and medals. Although I made the sane decision to stop the race, it was a difficult pill to swallow not accomplishing what I had set out to do – cross the finish line. That said, I heard wonderful remarks and good wishes from everyone who had followed my journey to get to the starting line. I was lucky to even compete in that race. Of course there’s a lot of shoulda, coulda, wouldas, that will be floating around in my mind for awhile, but I know that I can pat myself on the back for having the courage to try. Most importantly, in the grand scheme of things, my health had to come first. I have a lot of people counting on me, including my husband and teenage son, so I know it was the right decision. But there’s always the thought that I missed the elusive brass ring.
Some people are urging me to go back and try again as I have unfinished business. Maybe so, but training sure took a toll on my body and my family time so I’m not certain I can do it again. Maybe there are other challenges in the world that I have yet to explore. In any event, I still can’t believe I participated in an event that, so many years ago, I had watched on TV on a plane flight. It was one amazing journey.