I was a typical kid who, from kindergarten to 6th grade, filled in the “what would you like to do when you grow up?” line with becoming some sort of professional athlete. Very typical.
That was just the thing to do, I suppose. Similar to many of my peers, I started playing 5 different sports at age 5 and plunged into the cycle of constant practice, lessons, and tournaments all year round. To be honest, I think that that routine is great. It keeps kids in shape, focused, and builds solid life skills going forward. My youth and the path that my parents chose for me created a 13 year old only-child who had a pretty ridiculous competitive drive.
The phrase, “if there is a will, there is a way” gets thrown around quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I am a believer, but sometimes it’s just better to try something else. I had this epiphany freshman year when lined up across from a 6’2” 170lb linebacker in a tackling drill.
Needless to say I moved on from football after that year. With football being out of the picture, all I had left was baseball. I attended The Woodlands High School in Texas which is home to 4000 students and the 2006 5A State Championship and #1 National Ranking in baseball. As much as I loved baseball, I was painfully average and ended up leaving baseball after sophomore year. Long story short, I spent my junior and senior year doing a whole lot of nothing, but still had that lingering desire to compete.
Along came 2011: The year of graduation, moving on to the University of Georgia, and a new chapter. In May, I overheard my dad talking about some endurance race coming to The Woodlands in a few weeks and what a hassle it was going to be with road closures, etc. Turns out that on May 17th, 2011 the inaugural Ironman Texas was to be held.
At this point, I knew nothing about it other than it happened to fall on the same date as my senior prom. I did some research, finding out that this one day event consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile marathon to finish up. I remember my jaw dropping and thinking that is just not humanly possible.
After a brief moment of fascination, I switched my focus back to what was really important: senior prom. Tux on, bird’s nest hair in full force, and not a complaint in the world. We lined up for pictures along the waterway in The Woodlands which coincidentally was right next to mile 20 of the marathon in the Ironman. This was the first action I’d seen of the race so naturally my buddy Dan and I walked out in the middle and took an action shot of us running in tuxedos with athletes in the background.
This was the only experience I had the first year, but the following two I spectated for at least 6 hours and was hooked. You see some incredible things out there. The effort that goes in to achieving your dreams requires some serious soul searching on that day, and the way that some people show that struggle is the most inspirational thing that I have ever seen. I signed up 364 days before Ironman Texas 2014 and began my journey.
At this point I had only done sprint triathlons which are virtually insignificant distances in comparison to a full distance Ironman, so I had an incredible amount of preparing to do. I set out a plan in which I would spend the fall semester trying to build a good base, then get a lot more specific with workouts in the Spring and fine tune everything leading up to May.
There were times when I really wondered what I had gotten myself in to, and if I really had any shot of actually finishing. Even my mother, the woman who has supported everything, had some doubts and suggested to me on multiple occasions that I shouldn’t start the race until later in life. I was doing the training and going through the process alone, so these low points hit hard, but I always would go back to that competitive nature that has defined everything I’ve done and remind myself that tomorrow was a new day. I kept chugging along.
The process of training for an Ironman, searching for internships, taking classes for 3 Terry majors (UGA’s Business School) and a minor, serving as treasurer of my fraternity, and enjoying college can definitely sound overwhelming. I will say that it was the best decision I ever made. Nothing keeps you on a schedule like constantly having things to do. The busier days included a 6 am swim, class from 9-1, an afternoon run, fraternity chapter, and if necessary studying at night.
There are few better feelings than getting in to bed after a day where you knock out everything you had to do, and after a while I fell in love with the process. Aside from the low times, I would get goose bumps when I’d think about just another normal day on the schedule.
I could have definitely done better with the quantity and quality of training that I got done over that year, but by the time May came around I had the mindset that there was nothing more that I could do at that point. Just trust what was in me, reach deep mentally, and hope for the best.
The night before the race I drove out to the lake with headphones and just took it all in. I am a big fan of that kind of thing, and no other night have I been more motivated and inspired. It was time, and I was as ready.
Nothing makes getting up at 4:00 AM easier than when you have an opportunity to achieve a life goal. I rose, ate some bread and a banana and headed off to the lake. I drove separately from my parents so I could get some more time with thoughts and music; which fits right in with the mood at race morning of an Ironman. The majority of people are quiet, deep in thought about what’s coming for the rest of the day.
While standing around pre-swim, the courtyard starts to fill up with 2500 of your closest friends. It hit me that I was about to line up and start swimming in a whirlpool with all of these people. When the gun finally went off, it was absolute chaos. For the first 400 meters, arms and legs are just smashing in to others, goggles are falling off, and heartrates are through the roof.
A lot of people panic during this time, but somehow I remained calm and knew that after a bit of time things would settle in, and they did just that. The rest of the 2.4 mile swim was very smooth, just coasting along in the murky water of Lake Woodlands and hoping not to swallow too much water before the bike ride.
I came out of the swim with a time of 1 hour and 18 minutes which was about 2 minutes for every 100 meters. I made the jog in my speedo (shout out to the other 5 bold people I saw who were only wearing a speedo) to transition and saw my parents cheering ecstatically. This was the last time I’d see them for the next seven or so hours, so I tried to harness the motivation that I could, and it was on to the bike.
I put on my star trek looking space helmet, spandex tri suit, clipped in and tried to mentally prepare myself for 7 hours of sitting on a rather hard seat. The first 30 miles were a walk in the park; adrenaline was pumping and lots of spectators were still around. What eventually lead to my struggle was the first time I started to get a little fatigued and sore, I realized that I had another 80 or so miles to go, and that I had only completed approximately 25-30% of the second stage.
That was an eye opening moment. I was able to go non-stop for about 70 miles and then I got so dehydrated and hungry that I had to stop for a while at each aid station and try and refuel as best I could.
The middle part of that ride was so empty and desolate that you couldn’t help but try and remember what you did on July 15th, 1998 to do something to keep your mind off the race. Mile 100 finally came and I saw my good friends on the road which gave me the kick to finally finish up the 112 miles in 6 hours and 51 minutes.
I sat in transition for 12 minutes inhaling gels and Lay’s potato chips (God send). 26.2 miles of running alone in the humid Texas summer is a daunting task even before a swim and a bike, but running is the one leg that I am somewhat decent at, so I was ready to start the beginning of the end. I erroneously thought it would be a good idea to begin running at a 6 minute and 50 second pace.
I am convinced that the rollercoaster of physical and mental feelings that I had during that marathon will never be rivaled – At one moment you’re running along the waterway with family alongside feeling on top of the world, then the next you’re sitting on a bench with a peanut butter sandwich talking to a stranger about life for 20 minutes while trying to muster up some strength to keep going.
It was a 3 loop course, so every time I came around I’d see the split off between going on to the next loop and heading up into the finish chute. It’s difficult to see people rolling up to the finish when you have another hour and a half loop ahead of you; nevertheless, as the sun set I continued on and kept riding the rollercoaster of emotions. Eventually, my time came and I turned right at the fork to enter the finish chute.
All pain, stiffness, and doubt left my mind instantly and there is no other way to describe it than with saying I was on cloud 9. As you jog past the fans and give a couple high 5s, it comes to fruition that you’ve just completed the most incredible feat of your life.
Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, greets every finisher with “So and so, you are an Ironman!” Those words have made every finisher the happiest (and most relieved) person on the planet for a brief moment. I crossed the line in 13 hours and 51 minutes and collapsed into the arms of my parents on the side. I am not even remotely embarrassed that I had tears, and I could finally say that I was an Ironman, just like everyone’s idol, Robert Downey Jr.
Throughout the day I had told myself multiple times that if I would never do this again, and never did I feel it more strongly than the hour after finishing. I sat in a chair with my head in my hands feeling absolutely awful.
So many gels, energy chews, and salty foods over the course of 14 hours do not combine well. On the walk to the car I stopped, threw up 7 times, finally felt somewhat alive again, and all I could think about was which Ironman I was going to do next. It is truly addicting.
People continued finishing that race until midnight, which comes out to be 17 hours of racing. If seeing raw emotion and absolute ecstasy is your thing, I would suggest watching the final hour of an Ironman. Those people have been in constant motion from 7am – midnight and had to dig deeper than anyone that day. A lot of people have asked me,
My answer has always been that I have never felt more alive than when I’ve been that beaten down, exhausted, and on the verge of collapse. The best part about the whole experience is sharing it with so many people: the volunteers, other athletes, and family and friends. There’s so much support, love, and passion that comes from everyone involved in the race that it can’t be described any other way than being a family.
I am very blessed and thankful to have finished, but even more thankful for the support that I got from everyone because I know that even I hadn’t finished, I’d still have that. I will be doing Ironman #2 in Boulder this coming August.
I think finding something that challenges you every day is vital to health. I found mine in Ironman, but the word “challenge” could mean literally anything, in any aspect, that allows you to become a better person in some way. I’ve found taking opportunities to help others in even the smallest ways has brought (not the same as Ironman) but that sense of advancement and satisfaction as well.
Whatever it may be, always have your eyes open for the options life gives you to reach deep and do something amazing. And remember, amazing is relative.