Three years ago, on December 1, 2013, in Cozumel, Mexico, I finished an Ironman triathlon. An Ironman is an endurance contest that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run. I’ve told people about the experience, usually in short anecdotes, but I’ve never told the entire story from the beginning. The experience had a profound effect on me that is becoming clearer the more distance I get from the race.
My first encounter with Ironman came nearly twenty years ago when I was in High School. A motivational speaker gave a talk at a leadership conference. He told his Ironman story. Everyone in the room sat enraptured by his dramatic retelling: His troubled childhood and the salvation the sport of swimming gave him. His decision to attempt an Ironman. The epic early morning training sessions. The shin splits he developed that his doctor warned might cause his bones to snap when transitioning from the bike to the run. The agony of the elements: the heat, the wind, the rain. The blisters on his feet that fused his socks to his skin. And finally, being carried away on a stretcher at the finish line. Oh, the pain. Oh, the suffering. I heard the story and walked away with absolute certainty that Ironman was something out of the realm of my possibility. It was a lofty accomplishment for real athletes.
Ten years later I found myself living in California and working at Disney when a co-worker mentioned over lunch that the company had a triathlon team and they were in need of swimmers for a relay. Early in my youth, I was a member of the YMCA swim team, so I said, “Sure I’ll do it. I think I remember how to swim.”
At the time I was in the worst shape of my life. I hadn’t exercised in years and in the transition to life in California I put on twenty pounds, which was a lot for someone with a small frame like me.
At the first swim practice, they split the groups into advanced, intermediate, and beginners. I was in the lane next to the beginners, in the beginner-beginners lane. I could barely swim two lengths of the pool. I forgot how exhausting swimming could be. But I showed up every week. I swam a little further each time. And eventually, the form came back to me. I also started running. That summer of 2008 my longest run was four miles, but the combination of swimming and running introduced fitness back into my life and I dropped over twenty pounds.
I went to the Nautica Malibu Triathlon and I did the swim portion of the race, which was a 0.5-mile ocean swim. I handed the timing chip off to the biker and then took my place as a spectator. I watched thousands of triathletes finish the race. The energy was contagious. And the look on their faces when they finished the race… I wanted that. I decided that the following year I would do the entire race.
So I did. During the off-season I bought a secondhand bike and the next summer I added cycling to my routine. Throughout the week I would swim or bike or run. On Saturdays, I’d drive to Malibu and put it all together. In September of 2009, I finished my first triathlon: 0.5-swim, 18-mile bike, and a 4-mile run.
After that race, I thought, what’s next? A relationship I was in at the time was ending. It was heartbreaking and I desperately needed a healthy outlet to focus my energy. I found it in triathlon. I signed up for the Vineman Ironman 70.3 race. This was a big leap from the sprint triathlon I had completed - an Ironman 70.3 race consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run - so I hired a triathlon coach to help me prepare and dedicated six months to training. I was nervous the day of the race. All of these distances were intimidating and to do them back-to-back-to-back seemed ridiculous, but my coach told me to trust my training. I had no other choice but to. He was right. All of my training came together that day. It was hard, to be sure, but I felt strong and I finished the race in a respectable 6 hours.
Something else happened on that hot July day in 2010, the impenetrable wall of impossibility that surrounded the 140.6 mile Ironman race began to crack. I thought a sprint triathlon would be difficult, then I did it. I thought an Ironman 70.3 race was almost impossible, but I just finished one. I started to see that maybe, just maybe, that which feels so impossible may not be all that impossible after all.
Three years later, I would prove it.
My first triathlon, 2009.
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A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES