Back in January when I signed up for my first Ironman 70.3, I was set to put in all the training to attempt this new challenge. I began trying to get a mile-and-a-half swim in twice a month so it would make the 1.2-mile swim on race day seem easier. I took spin classes to get a jump on the bicycling while waiting for winter to break. And I was running well as I recorded my sixth Boston-qualifying marathon time on February 18 with a 3:18:18 at the Warm-up Columbus Marathon.
Then, on the morning of February 28, everything changed. At around 5:30 a.m. as I was halfway through my commute to do a training run before work, I noticed the truck in front of me swerve to the right as if to avoid something. The next thing I knew, I had been hit head on.
I realized immediately that my left foot was pinned under the dash and I had no idea what kind of shape it was in. My driver’s side door was smashed shut as the impact of the oncoming car had caved it in. I had a panicked feeling as I realized that I was stuck in the car and could not get out. When the firefighters finally arrived and started working to get me out, I could tell that my foot was still attached. Even though I was thankful to be alive, I was also pretty sure that my plans to run the Boston Marathon in April had just come to an end.
Long story short, an x-ray revealed a fracture in the second metatarsal and badly bruised ribs. Ironically, the pain in my ribs is what prevented me from trying to test my foot on a run. Eventually, I started to walk to see what my options might be for continuing my Boston and then half Ironman training.
Four weeks after the accident, I tried to run and realized that there was still something wrong with my foot. An MRI revealed not one, but multiple fractures in the foot. After seeing an orthopedic surgeon, I was put in a boot and we tried to let the foot continue to heal without surgery. However, the decision was made to have a plate and screws put in my left foot on May 15 after x-rays showed the fractures were not healing. Having already missed the Boston Marathon, I just wanted to move forward and let the healing start.
The surgery went well. My recovery started with 10 days of no activity as I had the surgical dressing on my foot. Then, I was placed in a cast for the next five weeks and spent the time building up my upper body strength since I was on crutches. On June 29, the cast came off and I was able to transition back to my walking boot and start physical therapy. At my follow-up visit on July 20, I sheepishly asked if I would be allowed to attempt the half Ironman that was just nine days away. Surprisingly, the doctor said if I wore the boot, walked the run portion and stopped if something hurt, then I could go for it. Well, that’s all I needed to hear.
I got in the pool a couple of times before the race to try to prepare for the 1.2-mile swim which would be my first open water swim. This part of the event was my biggest fear going into the race, but I knew that the distance was doable for me. The key was not panicking.
In addition to physical therapy twice a week, I was also able to get several bike rides in including 51 miles split into two rides while wearing the boot two weeks before the race. As for walking, I only managed four one-mile walks just to see how the foot might feel. I knew that the 13.1 miles to finish the event would probably be my biggest challenge and I was certainly not over-trained.
I was naively unaware of the whole process of what was involved with a triathlon, let alone a half Ironman. Having only done one previous event that included only swimming eight lengths of a pool, biking 12 miles and running a 5K, I was far from being a veteran. My plan prior to the accident had been to do the Central Ohio Triathlon in June which featured a 1.35-mile open water swim, a 41.8-mile bike and a 9.3-mile run. That didn’t happen.
So, I called my friend Melanie on Saturday afternoon the day before the race (nothing like waiting until the last minute) and she proceeded to offer me numerous tips such as what to pack for the two transition areas, how to best fuel for the race, how to attack the three stages and some tips about the course and what to expect on race day. I also went to the pre-race participant meeting and for the first time heard all the rules. My head was spinning and I definitely had more than a few moments of self-doubt as the full realization of just how demanding this was going to be both physically and mentally hit me. I dropped my bike off at transition one at Delaware State Park and then headed for home to carb load and get some sleep.
Race morning came and the forecast was perfect. I left my house at 4 a.m. and arrived near the finish line to drop off my transition bag for the run portion at Selby Field about an hour later. From there, I walked about a mile to catch the shuttle to the start. I knew it was going to be a good day when I found two dimes in the dark on my walk to the bus.
What should have been a 20-minute bus ride to the start at Delaware State Park ended up taking nearly 45 minutes due to traffic. It hit me how unprepared I was as I listened to others talk about their training for this race.
When the bus finally arrived, there was only enough time to drop off my bike helmet, gloves, shoes and nutrition for the ride before we had to exit the transition area and get our body marking done to prepare for the start. Each participant had their bib number (1762 in my case) written on each arm and their age by the end of the year (47) on their left calf. A quick trip to the port-a-potty and it was time to choose which wave I wanted to start my swim in.
Having never done an open water swim, I wasn’t sure what my best starting point would be. I decided to line up with the 47 to 50-minute group. Following the national anthem, the fastest swimmers got started as we began inching towards the starting line. They were letting four swimmers go every three seconds. After about 28 minutes, I stood on the edge of the water for three seconds to wait and then it was my turn. There was no turning back now!
I was not sure what to expect except that I knew I would need to keep my head up most of the time since the water was so murky and there would be other swimmers all around me. I also did not want to get off course and swim any more than I had to. I made it out past the first few buoys without much issue and was pleasantly surprised with how calm I was.
I think sometimes not having any expectations other than surviving and finishing helps take the pressure off because I just kept swimming and swimming and felt relaxed doing it. There were several times when it got congested and there would be contact with other swimmers, but nothing like I had imagined. I kept telling myself to just make it to the next buoy and before I knew it we were making the final turn to head back towards shore.
At that point, I was determined to not stop so that I could say I made it completely through my first open water swim (and half Ironman distance at that!) without stopping to rest. Soon, I had reached the shallow area and was able to walk to the shore. I had conquered the first leg and the one I feared the most. Official swim time – 55:29.
The transition area from swim to bike was tough for me. The parking lot was very rough and for someone who had not been walking much over the past five months and especially not barefoot, it hurt walking from the beach to the bike and I had to go slow. As I put on my socks, shoes, tank, sunscreen and then bike helmet and gloves, I did take the time to fuel knowing that I would need it to help propel me through the next 56 miles on the bike. I spent 8:31 in the transition one.
The bike course is very flat and can be monotonous miles of roads and cornfields as company. I got off to a good start and by mile three, I was riding at an 18.2 mph clip. I went on to hit my fastest two miles during miles 5 and 6 at 18.5 mph and 18.6 mph respectively. Not bad for riding a low tier road bike and for not being clipped in.
Melanie had advised me to not go too hard on the bike and save my legs during this portion for the run that would follow. She also reiterated how important fueling on the bike would be. I made sure I worked on the bike to keep a steady pace, but I also made sure that I wasn’t going all out all the time. I had 16 miles where I held over a 17 mph average and even at mile 17 I still posted an 18.1 mph mile. I also took advantage of the aid stations along the course for extra fuel and hydration.
The final eight miles of the ride were the most challenging with rolling hills on tired legs. I don’t mind hills on the bike if you can take advantage of the downhills. Unfortunately, the best two downhills had sharp turns at the bottom that caused you to brake going down them.
As I neared the end the bike portion, I caught a glimpse of my running partner Cindy up ahead. It was great to see a familiar face and it lifted my spirits.
I entered the transition area and had finished the 56-mile bike ride in 3:27:20 (16.2 mph average). I only had one mechanical scare at about mile 50 when I was switching gears and they momentarily locked up and I thought the chain might come off. Fortunately, it stayed on and I had my second leg of the event done with no stops.
Transition two started with reapplying sunscreen (or I thought I did as I found out afterwards I had missed a couple of spots). I racked my bike and ditched my helmet. I also took off my left shoe and put on my walking boot per my doctor’s orders. I refueled quickly and grabbed a cold bottle of water as I started my 13.1-mile walk.
Immediately, the crowds and other participants noticed I was attempting the 13.1 miles in a boot. Their comments and encouragement as I started out led to a 13:37 first mile. I managed to keep the pace below a 14:00 per mile average through the first five miles as I just tried to knock out the distance.
The comments were amazing and helped keep me working as hard as I could. I grabbed water at every aid station and began to grab a handful of chips and even a small swig of Coke to stay fueled. I made it through the first loop of the course and knew that the second loop would be tougher as I was starting to tire. By mile 8, my pace had slowed to 16:01 per mile as the efforts of the day began to take its toll. The next four miles slowly ticked away (16:20, 16:00, 15:39, 16:32) and then I managed to pick things up as I knew I was almost done.
I had been on the course so long they were beginning to tear things down as I finished the second loop. Participants who had finished were heading to their cars along with their families and I appreciated every single person who paused and cheered me on. They made a difference. As I got within a quarter mile of the finish line, a group of elite athletes waiting to receive their overall and age group awards stood and cheered for me as they saw I had done a half marathon with the boot on. The emotion got the best of me and I started to jog. Then, as I entered the stadium for the final half lap to the finish, the cheering grew louder and my pace quickened. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was running at a 7:09 clip in my first run attempt since March!
I crossed the finish line with my arms in the air and felt so proud of what I had just accomplished. My half marathon time was 3:18:21 (15:08 per mile) and three seconds slower than my marathon time in February, but I’ll take it!!! I had also finished the 70.3 miles overall in just under eight hours at 7:56:03. Wow!
Reflecting on the day and the past five months of agony since the accident as I was unable to do the things that I love doing, I am so thankful that I could complete this major goal that I had planned. I heard over and over on the course on Sunday that I was an inspiration to so many people. The truth is they were all inspiring to me. People like the 81-year-old man who blew by me on the bike. The volunteers like my friends Brian, Doug and Joe who gave up their day to work an aid station. The spectators, family and friends who came out to support and had to stand for hours and hours just hoping to see their participant for 5-10 seconds as they went by. The police officers who had to put up with disgruntled motorists who were forced to wait while we biked, ran or walked by. They are the true inspirations.
Fortunately, as the week has gone by, I think I avoided doing any further damage to my injured foot despite all the activity. Yes, my physical therapist is not happy with me, and yes, I was tired, sun-burnt and sore afterwards. But for the first time in five months, I felt like myself. And that is a better reward than any finisher medal could ever be!