Lured by the Siren’s Call: Libby’s Half Ironman

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For those who have heard the term Ironman, they immediately think of Hawaii. The Ironman World Championship is held in Kona, Hawaii every year and it draws thousands of people who either participate or watch these amazing athletes. Swimming, biking, and running long distances for a very long period of time also comes to mind. However, most people do not realize what it really means to be an Ironman. I didn’t know until I finished Racine’s Half Ironman this July.

As an athlete, I was always in awe of these graceful, confident, amazing Ironman competitors. I told myself that there were not enough hours in the day to get everything done that I needed to get done, plus train for running such incredible distances; yet it was always something I wanted to do—and in 2006, I got talked into my first triathlon. I was instantly hooked as soon as my foot crossed that finish line. I was astounded at the fact that I was still standing. I had convinced myself that my body was going to give out on me. Instead, I felt amazing and couldn’t wait to do more.

A couple of years after my first triathlon, I moved from La Crosse to Milwaukee and again told myself there were not enough hours in the day to train for another triathlon. But the dream of completing an Ironman was still at the front of my mind. I even volunteered for Wisconsin Ironman in Madison one year. And let me say, being around that energy and athletic power made my desire to be able to call myself an Ironman Finisher grow stronger. I just had to figure out how I was going to pay for it, and where and how I was going to train for this huge race.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I decided I was going to stop saying that I was going to do an Ironman and just do it. A full Ironman just seemed like a huge undertaking, so I decided to start with a half Ironman. I somehow talked myself into signing up for Racine’s Half Ironman in about 4 hours. I then had to convince my boyfriend that it was a great idea and that he had no choice but to be there to cheer me on no matter what, which he lovingly agreed to do.

The moment I clicked the submit button for my payment to this race, I had my first “What did I just get myself into?” moment. I instantly tried to see if I could get my money back because I kept thinking there was no way I could do this race and survive. But there was no refund—and my fate was sealed. I had 6 ½ months to train for this race. I told everyone what I was doing, even complete strangers. Much to my delight, most of my family, friends, and even clients seemed excited about my newest adventure. I had clients asking me for weekly updates, wanting to see how my mileage was adding up. It was really encouraging to share my training journey and answer everyone’s questions. It made me committed to my training, because I didn’t want to let them down, but I did have my moments when I questioned what I was doing.

As it got closer and closer to the race date, I felt as if the odds were stacked against me. I was spending more and more time on school work. I got really sick one week, and could barely stay awake let alone workout. Then there was buying a house and all of the do-it-yourself projects, including totally remodeling our kitchen by ourselves, which did not give me enough hours in the day. My boyfriend and I also decided that it was a good idea to add another puppy to our family (well, I decided it was a good idea). Then about 4 weeks before the race, I had my worst bike accident since buying my bike 6 years ago. It was actually my first bike accident ever for that matter, and one of the scariest moments of my life. After I shook my head clear, and basically realized what had happened, I immediately reached for my bike. I had to make sure it was not injured in the crash and that I could still ride it. After coming this far, I wasn’t about to let this accident stop me. So, to prove to myself that I was still physically and mentally able to do the half Ironman, I ran Summerfest Half Marathon that weekend. Each step was painful, but it made me stronger. I finished the race with a smile and the confidence to go on.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the only mental hurdle I encountered during the last 8 days leading up to the race. I literally had what I consider panic attacks almost on a daily basis. I would wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming about not having enough food during the race or seriously injuring myself on the bike, similar to my bike accident only much worse. There was even a moment when I was at REI buying my tri shorts and bike jersey when I almost started crying. I was standing in the middle of the store with my hands full and I could feel the tears swelling up in my eyes. The idea of 70.3 miles just became overwhelming and so real.

It had gotten to a point where I wasn’t even excited about the race any more. I had spent so much time and energy preparing for the race that I was ready for it to be over. I spent more time reading the results from last year, calculating how long I thought it was going to take me, looking at water temperatures for Lake Michigan for the last 5 years and even memorizing the route. I had everything planned out to the smallest detail, except for what I was going to wear and how I was going to get my wet-suit. Yet, everything seemed to be falling into place to make this a successful event. I felt ready and confident that I was going to do this and be great!

Then the day of the race came. I think I slept a total of 5 hours that night. And let me say, there really isn’t a whole lot happening in the world at 3:30 am, and even worse there is nothing on TV or the radio. Since I didn’t want to wake anyone, nothing got turned on. The silence did not help my mental state at all. My cat was the only one awake at the time, and she graciously helped me recheck my bag before I put it in my car to make sure I had everything. I even had a list that I checked it against, but I was still nervous about forgetting something. I stopped about 4 times along the way to make sure I had everything.

Once in the transition area, I had my race number marked on both arms and my age on my left calf. Then for good luck, I had a smiley face marked on my right calf. I checked my bike over since it was left overnight in Racine to make sure everything was still working. I then laid down a towel and put out everything I was going to need for the race. I grouped it according to the event so it was easier just to grab what I needed for each part of the race and just go. Then there was nothing else to do but walk to the beach where the swim was going to start and wait for my wave number to be called.

That down time was the hardest part of the entire race. As I’m surrounded by about 2,000 of my newest and closest friends, I was lost in thoughts. I sat on the beach, staring at the water with everyone warming up for the first event, and I was just in awe. Here I sat minutes away from embarking on a huge undertaking that I did not feel ready for. I felt completely overwhelmed at what I was about to do. Even though I was surrounded by all of these athletes, I felt alone because it was just me. Part of me wished that my family was there to keep me company before the race, but I knew that I wouldn’t be much company at that moment. I was too lost in thought (and trying not to throw up).

I put on my wet-suit and decided to get in the water. This was my first time putting on the wet-suit I rented, and I just prayed that it fit right. It fit like a glove and was easy to put on. In the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it off after the swim. I didn’t spend too much time on that notion, because before I knew it, my wave number was being called. I lined up with all the other girls that are in my age group (25-29) and slowly waded into the water towards the announcer. Then “BOOM,” the cannon signaled that it was time for me to swim! Whether I liked it or not, the race began and there was no turning back.

Now I wish I could sit here and say that the next 7 hours and 57 minutes of my life were amazing and that I loved each and every stroke, foot step, and wheel rotation. But honestly, it sucked. It was one of the toughest races I have done so far (including Tough Mudder). The 1.2 miles of swimming felt like forever. It was very quiet and almost peaceful in the water. The distance was marked by yellow and then orange buoys, and I just prayed that they would hurry up and change color. I was relieved when I saw the beach signaling that I had survived the swim. I finished the swim the quickest I ever had, and I thought that was a sign of good things to come.

I quickly got out of my wet-suit with the help of a volunteer, and got ready for the bike. I thought this was going to be easy, since I had been biking to and from the gym every week and even going on some longer rides. I apparently was faster in my mind than I was in reality. The bike path was full of soft rolling hills and went out into the country. The roads out in the country are not the smoothest roads. So every time my bike would go over a bump or hit a hole, my whole body tensed up. I had to keep telling myself to relax. There were times that I just wanted to stop and get off the bike, but my desire to finish the race made me keep going. It also didn’t help that around mile 12, I discovered my back tire had a slow leak in it, and I had to wait 45 minutes for the Bike Tech van to show up so I could change the rubber tube.

As I rounded the last turn before the transition area, I was so happy the bike was done. I was disappointed in my time for the bike, because I didn’t expect it to take me four hours after an amazing swim. But the end of my adventure was almost near, and when I started running, I felt great. I had life in my legs and even had the energy to run. The temperature was hot at this point, and I couldn’t wait to run underneath the sprinklers that were set up. The run wasn’t too terrible, since I could to a combination of walking and running, but 13.1 miles was still hard.

As I approached the finish line, I had so many different emotions going through me. Emotions that were entirely different than the ones I was feeling just 8 hours before. I was so overwhelmed with a sense of pride for everything that I just accomplished. This was the longest race that I’d ever done. I was so excited to see my boyfriend and best friend waiting for me at the finish line that I almost started crying. I had to fight back the tears as I crossed the finish line. I couldn’t believe that I finished this race. I felt so proud of my accomplishment, but I was also exhausted and couldn’t wait to get home to take an ice bath and to get some sleep.

I still stand by what I said earlier, this race sucked—but I’m excited to do another one! So, look for me at Ironman Madison in 2014—that is my 30th birthday present to myself.

-Libby Harty, Personal Trainer
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