Alternately – “Seeing all kinds of carnage and embracing the marathon shuffle”
The run course was two laps of a course that went on both sides of the river. We went up a main road, back on the river walk to Memorial bridge, crossed it, then went out and around on the other side of the river to cross back over on a different bridge. Then we did it again. The run starts uphill (really kind of the race director, I know) but it meant a down hill finish. I ran for over a half mile until the steepest part of this hill which I decided to walk up in order to take an inventory of how my body was doing. My feet felt happy to be out of bike shoes and weren’t giving me any trouble. My heart rate was staying down despite the heat, I was able to breathe smoothly in and out through my nose. My legs were tired from the bike but not trashed, they were moving quite well. The only real problem at that point was that despite over five bottles of liquid on the bike, plus a cup of water in transition, I still had not peed.
I managed to find a tiny bit of shade on this first stretch, despite being on open road, and appreciated the long downhill after a short uphill. Approaching the mile 3 aid station I heard a man on a megaphone and then saw brightly colored inflatable Christmas decorations. This aid station was announcing 91 days till Christmas and asking us to think cold thoughts! It was highly entertaining and made me laugh with their enthusiasm and dedication to the Christmas theme (think t-shirts, hats, lots of decorations.) He promised ice cold ice for us.
At the mile 4 aid station I figured I had to at least try to use the port-a-john. Sweet relief! I had a good long pee! I have never been so happy to use up that much time during a race to use the bathroom! Knowing that my hydration was in check and that I just needed to keep it up, I left that aid station with a smile on my face and made it to the turn around point.
It was still hot. And I was starting to see the carnage. Athletes doubled over in pain or vomiting, others walking for really long stretches at a time, calculating out loud if they could walk the rest of the race and still make the time cut off. I felt surprisingly good, and really appreciated the shade of this Riverwalk section of the course, and it’s lack of any real hills. Between miles 6 and 7 I passed by the Boathouse and had a cheering section! I smiled and waved and got a little kick of energy to my stride! I didn’t ask how far ahead Julie was. The next aid station had a high school band playing, the drumline giving a nice running beat. I just went from mile to mile and watering down some Gatorade, eating ice, and trading out sponges that I kept on my back and upper back or adding ice underneath it and in my hat. Before too long I was crossing over the Memorial bridge to the “back side” of the course. What a long, long bridge, exposed to the sun… I made it to the other side and saw the hills I had heard about. Most everyone was walking up them. I kept running, because I still felt okay, then suddenly I saw Julie ahead of me! Just as I was shouting to her I saw Chen and Sally along the road beside me! I high-fived them, thanked them for being out there and ran to catch up to Julie.
Julie had made a friend, Roxanne, and was run/walking with her. I joined them for a bit and got a recap of how Julie’s race was going. I took advantage of the walking intervals by getting some solid food in me – pretzels, potato chips, and a mini clif bar. We got through most of that part of the course together and then I started running the last downhill and didn’t see them with me anymore so I continued on on my own to the second lap. I crossed the Walnut bridge, passing by some restaurants where people looked like they were thoroughly enjoying their beer while I snuck jealous glances their way. My feet were starting to hurt again because my socks were soaked through from all the water and ice that dripped down/ was dumped on my head. I was kind of hoping that my cheering squad was going to be on the walnut bridge to give me a little lift, but I didn’t see them there so I assumed that they were planning to be at the Boathouse again.
The second lap meant I sort of knew where all the hills and aid stations were, so I tried to conserve energy while still running the uphills. The sun started setting which was 1) a relief because the temperature was going to go down and 2) gave me a push because I really wanted to catch part of the sunset on the river from the Riverwalk portion of the course. I chugged along in what I call the “IMChoo Shuffle” of just moving my body forward in a running-like form. More carnage littered the course with carts hauling off 2 and 3 athletes at a time. I made it back to the Christmas aid station and the mega-phone guy was encouraging us to think of how our finisher medals would look as ornaments on our Christmas trees. It was nice to have a little something to laugh about. I didn’t quite make the river by sunset but I did get to see the sky turn a nice pinkish orange color. When I made it back to the Boathouse restaurant, I was at about mile 18 and Mike and my dad cheered my on from the ground while my mom and everyone outside at the restaurant cheered me on from the balcony! I told them that the second part of the course was brutal but that I was still doing okay. I just kept moving forward with my IMChoo shuffle. I tried to pee again at the next aid station but was not all that successful, which had me a bit worried. I increased my water intake a bit in hopes that more water plus the cooler temps would help. And I just shuffled along.
On the hill up to the bridge to get to the second side I saw Chen and Sally again! I also started running alongside a woman named Heather who was getting some support from her family and husband who ran/walked with her for a couple minutes. She and I ran together and chatted a bit over this hilly part of the course. My shuffle was really effective on the uphills, in fact I was one of the very few athletes still running up any hills, but it was not a very good downhill stride. I just couldn’t get into my normal downhill stride. This meant that Heather and I would separate on the uphills and then she would catch back up with me on the downhills and/or at aid stations. She had made the trip from Fort Worth so we shared a few fellow Texan moments together!
Darkness fell faster than I thought it would. It’s really kind of strange how when you are hours and hours into a race, (and have skipped any since of normal meal times,) you lose all sense of real time. I was trying not to look at my watch too much- both my race time and the real time- but did some math and realized that if I kept up my pace, I could definitely go under 14 hours. All the spectators I passed while running uphill enthusiastically cheered for me which was a great feeling, I must have not looked like I was struggling too much (although I definitely was hurting!) I shuffled up the last major uphill, and Heather told me to go get it, it was pretty much downhill to the finish from there with the exception of the Walnut bridge. I had yelled out loud when I saw the 23 mile sign and I blew a kiss to the 24 mile sign, but I genuinely don’t remember the 25 mile sign (I think it may have been on a dark part of the course.) The spectators were as incredible as ever over the last bit, one of them told me I was half a mile from the finish when I was on the Walnut footbridge, thanks to him I knew I was going to be sub 14 hours for sure!
All the awesome cheering at the end of the bridge caused me to start tearing up. I made the corner, then it was just a straight downhill run to the finish. I hit the blockaded finishers chute and it was just people and lights. I worked my way up the chute by zig-zagging to both sides of the barricades to high five as many people as I could- I wanted to thoroughly enjoy this finishing experience. I heard and saw my family and friends cheering. I got to the finish line and with my hands raised, tears in my eyes and a joyful smile on my face, I heard those words I had been working for, “Elizabeth Sager, you are an ironman!”
A ‘catcher’ put his arm in a supportive way around my back at the finish, congratulating me while someone handed me a water, someone else took the timing strap off my ankle, and another put a medal around my neck. I got handed off to a nice woman who led me to the photography backdrop and talked to me to gauge my coherence. She felt pretty assured that I was doing okay after I told her my family was there and I asked for another bottle of water. A few minutes later I saw Chen and Sally and the rest of my family who were beaming with pride and couldn’t get over the permanent smile on my face!
We went back up the finisher’s chute a little bit together to wait for Julie. Not that much time passed before I saw Julie’s hat, she was arm in arm with three other athletes who were crossing the finish line together!
Julie spotted us and said she was going to take a picture with all of her new friends then meet us on the other side. I was moving pretty slowly and gingerly on sore feet. Once we caught up, we headed to the massage tent. I’m used to a wait at massage tents, but either because of the spread out nature of race finishers for this length of race or due to the number of finishers having to use the medical tent, we barely sat down before there were two tables open for us. After being worked on for a little while my movement was better and after having my back stretched out, my parents said I looked a little taller! Sally and Chen called it a night and said there goodbyes, I was so so happy to have them out on the course and at the finish!
Julie and I headed to the athlete food tent and I was a little disappointed to see the same fruit, chips, and pretzels from out on the course in the tent. The only new items were cookies and pizza. I removed the cheese off of two pieces of pizza and grabbed a couple of cookies – I know, really healthy. My parents bid us adieu as we debated whether to head back to the hotel or hang around at the finish, wanting to shower won out. It was around 11pm by the time we got back to the hotel, Mike had an early morning flight the next morning and was trying to sleep, but Julie and I were a little wired. Compression gear was difficult to put on but I knew it would help, sleep did not come easy though.
I finally was able to sleep but woke up around 3am hungry, then again at 5am. This time I couldn’t really go back to sleep. After my dad woke up he met Julie and I for breakfast and I easily put back three plates of food at the breakfast buffet – eggs, potatoes, French toast, fruit, and a half a waffle – real food was so satisfying! The rest of the day was spent basking in the post-race glow, looking at the finishers gear, going to the Tennessee Aquarium, and enjoying a wonderful lunch. My parents caught their flights and Julie and I drove back to Asheville that afternoon (through a terrible rain storm.)
I am so happy that I got to share my first Ironman experience with Julie, and thankful that she convinced me to do the race a year ago. I’m also thankful for my parents support as well as Mike’s. I cannot imagine training for this and getting through the race itself without their unconditional love and support.
This 3-part race recap was epic and I wish I could end it on some profound thoughts. This was an experience I will never forget, will I do another one? Probably, although I’m not exactly ready to figure that out since I’m headed to Uganda for four months and am happy to take a break from training. I set out to see the limits of my body, to know if an Ironman is something I am capable of, and I proved that to myself. What else am I capable of both mentally and physically? Only time and my next adventures will tell!