Out There: Into The Light

With every mile, I moved away from the darkness. 14 hours and 13 minutes after the start cannon fired, I entered the bright lights of the finish chute.

Many times, you reap what you sow when it comes to race day. But sometimes, you get kicked in the gut.

In the time that passes between base miles to race day, endurance athletes work out all the kinks that may sabotage a race. We experiment with nutrition, shoes, clothes, and gear. We study elevation profiles and course maps with more focus than anything we ever studied in college.

Many times, you reap what you sow when it comes to race day. But sometimes, you get kicked in the gut.

Last Sunday was my kick in the gut. Literally.

For the past year, I’ve written about preparing for Ironman Arizona as a way to honor my friend Carlos, who is fighting cancer. For the past 365 days, I trained well, ate right, and for the first time in my life, experienced a complete absence of nerves about race day. Last Sunday, as I jumped into the water to start an Ironman with my partner, my triathlon team, and 3,000 of my new best friends, I smiled and cheered. I was going to have the race of my life. The sun was shining, the lake was warm, and my fellow athletes were surprisingly courteous in the crowded swim. Everything was perfect.

Until it wasn’t.

Halfway through the 2.4-mile swim, I caught up to the blood-sport crowd. Punches were thrown, legs were grabbed, and I sustained a kick to the ribs.

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Normally, I’d release the Kraken on anyone who dared to get physical with me, but I was too busy coughing up the gallons of bacteria-laden lake slime the kick forced into my respiratory system. Instead, I coughed it out, finished the swim, and hopped on my bike for a 112-mile ride, putting the bad swim behind me. Everything was perfect again.

Until it wasn’t.

Ten miles into the ride, I began to experience sharp pains on my side. Thinking they were simple side stiches, I tried breathing exercises to stretch out my diaphragm. That only made things worse. Still, I soldiered on. This was going to be the race of my life, dammit!

The next 102 miles can only be described as a “shitshow.” I vomited. I bonked. I ached and struggled to breathe. My speed on the bike devolved as the miles passed, and I reached transition surprised I was still upright. I was in more pain than I had ever experienced before.

But I still had 26.2 miles of running to do. As I stubbornly laced up my shoes, I mustered up a smile. I was going to run! Everything was going to be perfect again.

Until it wasn’t.

It’s been said that the Ironman marathon is the place where you meet yourself – inner voices that never existed before suddenly roar, weaknesses neglected in training become painfully clear, and new reserves of strength manifest themselves in awe-inspiring ways.

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I met myself at Mile 10. And let me tell you, people: I’m a real asshole.

Things I would never even think to say to another human being, much less one in pain, became perfectly acceptable to say to myself. Horrible, vile things blared between my ears with every step:

How is this race honoring Carlos? This is an embarrassment.

You write for a running magazine and you can’t even hold a 13-minute mile? Pathetic.

Neil finished this in 10 hours, and he’s waiting for you. I bet he’s mortified to even admit you’re his partner. You don’t deserve him.

Your family flew all the way out here to cheer you on. You wasted their time.

You let down your coaches. This is not what they trained you to do today.

Everyone’s making fun of you. Rightfully so.

Just quit. You don’t deserve to be called an Ironman.

As I ran through the crowds lining the sidewalk, I pulled my hat low over my eyebrows and tucked my chin, letting the darkness consume me. With every wretched thought, I felt my legs get heavier and heavier until I couldn’t run anymore. In front of hundreds of people, I slowed to a walk, refusing to look up.

You loser.

Suddenly, I felt myself enveloped by one pair of arms, then another. As I looked up, I realized my walk had begun in front of a large group of my friends. I was in a safe place — no one could see me cry. So I did.

Christine squeezed my shoulders. Ashly gave me a kiss on the cheek and wiped away my tears. Dre put his arm around me and walked a few yards at my side. He passed me off to Jason, who held my hand as we broke into a jog. My friends Heidi and Brian radiated quiet, calm strength. My family hugged me tight at Mile 20. Neil told me he loved me and that he was proud. I smiled at a row of touching, funny signs Carlos had staked in the ground at mile 23.

With every mile, I moved away from the darkness. 14 hours and 13 minutes after the start cannon fired, I entered the bright lights of the finish chute.

As I pen this column four days later, I realize I have ample opportunity to write about “the race of my life.” I could easily churn out some contrived, inspirational tome about how I did an Ironman with a broken rib. I could write about mental fortitude or some such badassery. I could spew generic wisdom such as “pain is only in your head” or “never, ever, ever give up.”

All of those things would be a lie. On my own, I’m not that strong — the voices in my head made damn sure I was aware of that fact.

But I wasn’t on my own.

Pain is temporary. Anger is temporary. Shitshows are temporary. Embarrassment, darkness, broken ribs: temporary, temporary, temporary. That day, I almost let myself believe they were a permanent part of my identity.

Instead, my friends and family showed me what was permanent: love, support, and joy. Few words were spoken, but their actions were enough to drown out the voices in my head. Because of them, I can do anything.

Even an Ironman with a broken rib.

****

About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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