Why I Will Never Do an Ironman

Last summer, I volunteered  at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. One of the results of that experience was my deciding I will never do a 140.6. I wrote a blog about this on another site. Reading my coach’s IM race report reified that decision. I figured I’d transfer that 13-month old blog post to here, just in case the conversation comes up. This past weekend, I volunteered as an athlete catcher at the finish line of Ironman Coeur d’Alene for the last shift. Forget Disneyland: the happiest place on the earth is the finishers’ chute at an Ironman.

Leading up to the event, I fully anticipated I’d spend my entire shift crying. Seeing people meet an amazing goal makes me very emotional. A few hours before my shift started, I was standing on a sidewalk, watching a woman about five blocks from the finish line. The top of her tri suit was down around her waist. (If you haven’t heard, it was very hot at IMCdA this year. So hot they started an hour early, and wetsuits were NOT allowed.) Her stride looked good, especially given she was at about mile 140.3. I noticed she was wiping away tears. I got teary imaging what was going through her head. So yeah, the finish line was going to be one big tear and snot fest for me, I figured. I even brought a bandanna to handle all the snot.

But it wasn’t. It was a very emotional place. But perhaps I recognized I needed to be the level-headed one so the athletes could be emotional. And for the most part, they were.
My most recent triathlon was several weeks ago. It sucked. (You may read all about why it sucked in my previous blog, “My Dreadful Race Report.”) One of the benefits of that awful race is that I was prepared for bitchy, mean, cranky athletes. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was mean to several of the volunteers at my last tri. I’m usually a pleasant person, but I am downright awful when I’m nauseous. It prepared me to be polite and pleasant and remember that these Ironman athletes are emotionally and physically exhausted. If they’re assholes, it’s likely a temporary condition and I should just let it go.

It was my job to hand an ice-cold bottle of water to the athlete and keep them walking through each of the stations: medal, hat & t-shirt, timing chip removal, picture, and then hand them off the medical staff. Most importantly, keep them walking. I saw one athlete cross the finish line and then ten feet later his legs stiffened up like boards. He could barely move. The physical therapists grabbed those athletes.

Most of the athletes needed prodding to keep walking. I half-carried a few. One started to bend over to help remove his chip and I could see his quads cramping and twitching. A few rejected the water at first, but accepted it after a minute or two. One athlete – not someone I was assisting – immediately started vomiting the water she’d just taken in.

I had a few weepers and a few sobbers. To all of them, I said, “You did this. All that training, all that work, you did this. Your brain got you through this. You’re amazing. You earned it!” To the sobbers, I added, “Let it all out. Enjoy it. You’ve just done something incredible.” The sobbers hugged me. Hard to keep them walking when you’re hugging. One of the sobbers told me I should be in his finisher’s photo with him. That may have been the most touching moment of the day for me.

Several athletes told me they would have died but for the volunteers. It sounds melodramatic, but the heat was simply too much for a lot of people. I heard that one of the vendors put a call out for any available volunteers to come to mile two of the run because athletes were “dropping like flies.” A lot of the bike times were 8-9 hours. When I first arrived as a spectator, I was standing near the end of the bike course and the start of the run. A lot of people coming in from the bike leg were already caked in salt.

I heard the announcer say this was the hottest Ironman ever. I do not know if that’s true, and I’m not sure if that factors in a heat index, or just the temperature. (105°F in Coeur d’Alene probably doesn’t feel as hot as 90°F along the Gulf Coast.) Regardless, it was HOT.

The heat is probably the biggest factor in my decision that I will never do an Ironman. I can’t imagine having to decide, the morning of an Ironman I’d signed up for, is it worth risking my life to do this? I would probably go ahead and do it, because I don’t know if I could live with the disappointment of not trying. To spend a year training so much it’s almost like a second job, the sacrifices my husband would have to make, to have to set everything aside, and then come race day to be faced with that awful choice. It’s different when the race officials cancel or change a course – that would be out of my hands, no gut-wrenching involved.

Only about two-thirds of the registered athletes completed the course. I don’t know how that stacks up against other IMs, but I’m sure the weather had a lot to do with it.
There are other reasons I’m never going to do an Ironman. I recognize that some of them could change. For example, I really miss my bike. I’m down to one bike ride a week, and that’s a Brick. I’ve been riding 1.75-2 hours. That’s nothing like my 5-6 hour long Saturday rides. I was over-training, and I told my coach I was willing to give up commuting and a second bike workout each week. I have to remind myself it’s temporary, and it’s another sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. I still miss the bike, though.

I also doubt I have the discipline, and lacking discipline means I wouldn’t find the time. Truth be told, I’m pretty busy. We both have full-time jobs, but The Hubs also has a 75-mile (each way) commute. We have a garden, and it needs a little attention almost every day. We also have cats that need some interaction with their humans, and since those humans are gone twelve hours a day during the week, they’re little attention sponges when we’re home. (I can’t imagine trying to do all this with children.) I really crave sleep, and I’m not going to try and stagger through life on six hours of sleep a night.

I’d also need to really dial in nutrition if I was going to be training for an IM. I eat fairly healthy, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. I’ve decided I’m giving up beer for the rest of the summer in hopes that will make it easier to eat healthy. I love beer, but it’s not doing me any good. Even if I only have one, I can feel it the next day. And I’m hopeful my beer belly will start to wither away if I cut out the beer.

As I was walking through the Ironman Village, eyeing all the geegaws and paraphernalia, I recognized that if I did an IM, I’d probably be the type who buys every possible bit of IM gear, wears it all the time, and never shuts up about it. I know someone like this. I’ve never seen him NOT wearing something related to IM or marathons. And every conversation I’ve had with him has revolved completely around him. It’s draining. I don’t want to be that guy.

My final reason for never doing an IM is fear of the let-down. You completed an IM; now what? You have your life back – now what do you do? I fear I’d fall into post-IM depression. It sounds miserable.

I’m really glad I volunteered. I may just do it again next year. I will never be an Ironman, but that’s okay. I’m happy to cheer them on, let them cry on me, and share in a total stranger’s moment of triumph. 

August 2016 update: Nothing has changed. I’m enjoying watching my friends make that journey, reveling in their successes, supporting them through DNFs and injuries. I just don’t believe it’s a good choice for me.

I’m currently setting my sights on the Badger Mountain Challenge 50K. It’s likely that if I complete that course within the 8-hour cut-off, I’ll be susceptible to the argument that “If can do this, I can do a 140.6.” But I don’t think I really want to do that. Will I be tempted to try a 70.3? Yes, but that’s as far as I’m likely to go. Even a 70.3 would put a significant strain on my time & obligations. And y’know what? It’s enough. I don’t have to do a 140.6. More importantly, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to do one.

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