My first clear memory as a child was a day in the pool. My sister and I went swimming nearly everyday, but always with our floaties on. I have vivid memories of taking my floaties on and off all day everyday–until one day I had enough. I decided that I was going to take my floaties off and swim to the edge of the pool. It is bizarre what a vivid memory and decision this was because I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4-years-old. But I took my floaties off and I swam and swam. When I reached the edge of the pool I quickly looked around to see who saw me, and I remember feeling sad that no one was watching. Yet even though no one saw me I learned something that day. I learned that achievement is not about the praise a person receives from accomplishing something, but about the growth the person experiences in the absence of glory. Would you still do what challenges you even if no one ever knew you did it? That day I scared myself and surprised myself. That was the day that I became an athlete.
Moving forward almost 28 years later, I decided to race in the Ironman Cabo after minimal encouragement from my friend Bridget and Sarah. The Ironman is the longest official triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim (Cabo was an open water swim), 112 mile bike (Cabo had a 7,000 foot elevation gain overall), and a 26.2 mile run. The Ironman was a challenge I wanted to take on for the same reason I want to do most of the physical challenges I do–because it was extreme. These races however are expensive. The price tag on the bib was nearly $700, plus the airfare, the bike and gear, swimming lessons, and large amounts of wine, make this quite a financial commitment. Anyone can sign up for an Ironman, which I appreciate, but typically a person does not choose this as their first triathlon because of the length of the legs.
The race was in October 2015 and I bought my bib in February. I had a good 9 months to learn to bike and really learn to swim. Unfortunately because I also had a few ultra runs before the Ironman, I didn’t spend as much time in the water and the on the bike as I should have. In fact, when I thought about swimming I definitely had bursts of anxiety. In my mind 2.4 miles was doable, but then when I actually swam a half a mile for the first time I realized the feat ahead. Race day jitters were exacerbated by the unfortunate hurricane in Mexico, raising the water temperature to 87 degrees and adding to the very choppy conditions. I could go into all of the ins and outs of this race, but I want to focus on the swim, because it was the swim that was the most challenging and emotional, and it was frankly the worst 1 hour and 55 minutes I have ever spent sweating.
When we arrived at the start of the swim on race morning I was clearly overwhelmed. I looked at all of these athletes with their super expensive gear, smiling faces, and felt immediately out of place. Jeff said to me, “Don’t worry Sam, the gear does not make the athlete.” I repeated those words in my head as we all corralled next to the start line. It was a rolling start, and I strategically put myself towards the back knowing that kicking and pushing underwater would be a little less dramatic near the end. Bridget and I were standing next to each other, trying to keep one another calm, and the guy next to us must have noticed. He told us, “Don’t worry, the swim is just a formality, you’ll do fine. Only if you notice a bunch of people pass you are you in trouble.” We all laughed but those words stuck to me like glue. Prior to the race I made the decision not to swim with my head underwater. Clearly this is an amateur move, but one that I thought was necessary due to the salt water bothering my eyes and the increased anxiety I felt I would have if I wasn’t able to get my breathing under control. I knew that I would be sacrificing speed, but I also knew that I could still make the swim in the allotted time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.
As soon as we hit the water there was an immediate thought of no turning back. I felt feet, hands, legs, all surrounding me. I just told myself to keep moving and soon this swarm of people would all be gone. It was about a half a mile into the swim, passing waves, getting kicked, that the words the guy told me just before the start would come crashing back. “Only if you notice a bunch of people pass you are you in trouble.” Well that time had come and in fact, I began to wonder if there was anyone behind me. I wanted to quit. I was already exhausted, parched, hungry; we were only 30 minutes in and I felt like I had exerted all of my energy. I suddenly was struck with the realization that all of those people who thought I was a little crazy for attempting the Ironman as my first triathlon were right. I was in over my head and there was no way I was going to make it to shore. Normally, it is hours and miles and miles of running before I’m fighting off these type of quitting thoughts. There were huge orange buoys and I just tried to focus on those as my landmarks. I would tell myself the typical, “Just get to that buoy then you can think about quitting again.” I then started to fixate on a guy swimming just ahead of me. He was swimming at roughly my same speed, so I decided that I just needed to make sure that I could stay with him, because if I could stay with him then I could make it to shore.
About a mile in I was around 45 minutes or so. I was trailing behind, but had even splits on my half mile, meaning I swam just as fast on the second half of the mile as I did on the first. This was significant because I knew I was pacing myself smartly. For a moment I actually thought I may be able to finish the swim as long as I could just maintain and conserve energy. Then the jet skis came around and every time they did the exhaust they would leave behind was literally nauseating; not only that but the wake that would trail behind was absorbed by us swimmers. I started to get angry, “Just leave!” I was yelling in my head, but they continued to circle around. Moments later I realized the guy who was directly in front of me was picking up speed, but every time he got to a buoy he would rest for a minute or so. Finally, someone on a paddle board pulled up next to him and he was out. I assumed it was because he was relying too much on the buoys for support and he was disqualified, but in any case, he was out and I wanted to be. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” part of my mind was singing, while the other part was yelling, “No! I don’t want to keep swimming!!” But then I realized that I was finally to the last buoy before I head back to shore. I had about .75 miles to go at this point and I began swimming faster. A leg cramp that I had noticed awhile back was starting to nag a bit more but I just ignored it, fearing that if I tried to do something about it, it would only get worse. When I was a .25 miles from the shore I started enjoying the success of completing before I should have. I remember telling myself, “You’re really going to make it!” Just then the nagging foot cramp traveled up my leg and it could no longer be ignored. I knew I was in trouble. I tried swimming with just one leg, but because I wasn’t putting my head underwater, I was nearly vertical while swimming. I definitely appeared to be drowning. A guy on a paddle board came over and asked if I was okay. I knew I needed to get it together. “Ya, I’m fine, I just have a leg cramp.” He asked me if I needed help. I chose my words carefully knowing that if I needed help I would be disqualified. I replied, “Yes, I want help, but I don’t want to be disqualified, I want to finish.” He said, “It’s okay, put your leg up here I will massage it out.” So I clumsily put my leg on his paddle board for 15 seconds or so and I began swimming again. It was even worse. My entire leg was cramped in pain. He yelled, “Here come back, just relax, just breathe, give me your leg.” As he was massaging my leg he just kept repeating, just relax you are almost there.” A guy on a jet ski then approached and fear set in. The guy yelled, “Is she finished?!” The guy on the paddle board yelled back, “No! She’s fine, she just has a leg cramp. She’s finishing!” At that point I knew my time was up with help. When I began swimming again his encouraging words stayed with me, “Don’t worry, you are almost there. You are going to finish.” The kindness given to me was overwhelming. I had no idea how I would finish this race, but I did know that no matter what I was going to get out of the water on my own. At this point not only could I see the shore, I was almost close enough to feel the sand. “Just make it to the sand.” Finally! I felt the bottom. It was an hour and 55 minutes, just 25 minutes before the swim cut off.
As soon as I was completely out of the water I was struck with how exhausted I actually was. I nearly collapsed running to the transition area. My niece and nephew were there and I could hear them yelling, “Yay Mimi! You can do it!” I couldn’t think of the hours still ahead, the long run, hilly bike ride, extreme heat, all I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other. “Sam, just keep moving. You can quit, but just not right now.” I changed my clothes, feeling so disoriented, starving but nauseated, thirsty but tired of water, and so unbelievably hot. I’m not sure how I got on my bike, up that initial hill, or through the remainder of the day, but I do know having my family there at the right moments was part of it. This race was the least enjoyable of all of the challenges I have done so far, and one that at this point I don’t have any interest in repeating. But I made it, I finished the swim I doubted I could do, and 12 hours and 20 minutes after the swim and after a time chip debacle, I crossed the finish line. Through this experience I was reminded that the gear does not make the athlete, neither do physical capabilities, what makes the athlete is the same thing that changed me as a little girl. The willingness to challenge yourself even when you’re all alone and the determination to finish even in the absence of glory.