A little more than a year ago, I had a team of people sitting at their computers, ready and waiting to help me register for some far-off crazy race in Wisconsin. The sheer volume of hits to Active.com that day caused the server to crash, and WTC closed registration only to reopen it a few days later. So I went through the whole charade again — and after a few of the most stressful moments of my life, I finally saw this:
After weeks of ignoring the huge commitment I’d made, followed by months of intense training, followed by one of the hardest and most humbling days of my life, I can finally say that I AM AN IRONMAN. And it feels so damn good. Here is the story of all my ups and downs on September 11, 2011.
My alarm went off at 4:45. I rolled out of bed, showered, made a small bowl of oatmeal in the microwave, got dressed and had my mom braid my hair into two tight French braids. After checking and double-checking my special needs bags, gathering my wetsuit/cap/goggles (I’d had a nightmare the night before that I’d left my wetsuit at home for another race and had only 40 minutes to retrieve it before missing the start), we headed out in the dark to Monona Terrace.
The fabulous thing about the Best Western Inn on the Park is that it was just two blocks from all the action. Not to mention close to Starbucks, which I’m sure did fantastic business all weekend. We dropped my special needs stuff outside Walgreens and I headed into transition to get body marked and put my EFS bottles and Luna/Larabars on my bike. This is where the nerves, which I’d kept at bay for so long in my state of total calm, finally came out. Finding a pump was a bit of a challenge — it’d be great if race organizers provided one for every few racks for those of us who travel long distances — but I got everything in order and headed back up to meet my parents, put on my wetsuit and make my way down to the water.
Despite all my best intentions, race morning was chaotic. It took me longer than I anticipated to get ready to leave the hotel, battle the crowds around transition and the portapotties and squeeze into my wetsuit. I was a stressed-out mess, especially because, per my race plan, I wanted to get in the water early to swim around and warm up. But by the time I got down to the lake, every other racer was battling to get to the boat ramp and into the water as well. And somehow I was wearing a green cap while all the other women were wearing pink. That was disorienting.
I said goodbye to my parents, cried for a few minutes and then ran into Katie, which really calmed my nerves. I still couldn’t believe I was about to do this. We had a moment of silence in honor of Sept. 11, then it was my turn to get in.
The water temperature was perfect — somewhere in the low 70s, cold enough that I didn’t overheat in my sleeveless wetsuit but warm enough that I didn’t go into shock when I jumped in. I positioned myself somewhere in the middle of the crowd in terms of width but just three or four rows back from the first line of swimmers. I didn’t want to be right on the buoy line and get run over, but I didn’t want to waste a ton of time and energy trying to stay on track. Then I sort of lost all perspective of what was going on around me — Mike Reilly talking over the microphone, music playing, crowds cheering — and all of a sudden, almost without warning, the cannon went off and we all started swimming.
I was fairly nervous about doing the mass start. I’ve never been in the water with that many people before, and I don’t really like getting kicked and punched and pulled under (I mean, who does?). However, I think my positioning was perfect. I had enough people around me that I didn’t have to sight and I could draft, but I wasn’t getting pummeled with every stroke. On the first leg of the first loop I got kicked in the teeth twice, but for the most part I was able to play enough defense that I avoided contact. At the first turn buoy, people came OUT OF NOWHERE. This is obviously where things get bunched up, but all of a sudden there were swimmers pulling and pushing and swimming over and around everyone. I got pulled under once but kicked pretty hard (sorry to whoever that was) to stay afloat. The long leg of the rectangle on the way back went by really quickly, and I could hardly believe I’d already finished half of the course. I didn’t have any idea how much time I’d spent in the water because you don’t get out and cross a timing pad before continuing onto the second loop.
This is where things went a bit downhill. The crowds had really thinned out, so there were many times where I’d look up to sight and breathe and feel like I was all alone. I lost my draft. My cap and goggles were squeezing my head and giving me a headache. I’d swallowed a crazy amount of lake water in the first few minutes when I was jockeying for position. I really just wanted to get out of the water and run. Not bike. Run. But I finally made the last turn, picked up my pace and tried to swim strong to the arch marking the exit. I found the bottom, which had been covered in rubber mats, stood up and was very pleasantly surprised when looked up at the clock.
1:08:26, 1:37/100yds, 5th AG, 423rd overall
Analysis: I was very happy with the swim. I’d never done this distance in open water before and certainly never with that many people, and despite some of the moments of frustration, I was smooth and even and kept my stroke the whole time. Only once did I sit up to take a breaststroke and catch my breath after getting whacked in the mouth. I did most of my work in the pool in the early season and very few open water sessions, so all things considered this is a great baseline. In the future, I’d keep my swimming volume a little higher and work at a higher intensity throughout the training cycle — my plan assumed a lower level of swimming ability — swim with other (faster) people and get out to open water more than twice.
I was really excited for the wetsuit strippers, and they did not disappoint. I pulled my wetsuit halfway off as soon as I stood up and found a girl and a guy ready and waiting for me. I flopped on my back and the suit was off in half a second, then they pulled me up, handed it back to me and I was on my way. I immediately took off my cap and goggles as well to relieve some of the pressure on my head.
T1 at Wisconsin is AWESOME. Athletes get out of the water and immediately run up the parking lot helix (you know, the things cars drive up to get to various levels of the deck), which is filled with people three and four deep cheering you on. Susan (who I finally got to meet in person!) had told me that the helix was the most fun I’d ever have with my clothes on, and she was right. It was so exciting to be surrounded by people cheering and screaming the whole way up, and it’s definitely something unique to this race. There were people walking — I guess not wanting to waste energy — but man, I was hauling up that thing with the noise pushing me the whole way.
Another thing that is unique to Wisconsin is that transition is actually inside. I ran (literally ran, almost knocking people out) into the convention center, down the line of swim-to-bike bags, grabbed mine (I’d tied pink tulle on the strap of each bag to make it easy to identify in a hurry) and veered off to the women’s changing area. A young volunteer — I don’t remember her name, but she was the BOMB — met me at the door, took my bag, escorted me to a seat and started dumping things out and organizing them for me. She told me I probably wouldn’t need my arm warmers, then got my sunglasses out of their protective case and had them ready to hand to me when I got my helmet on. I strapped on my number, grabbed my shoes and was out the door.
One of the huge bonuses of being in the baby age group is that my bike was steps away from Bike Out. So instead of putting my shoes on and grabbing my bike and running 300m with it down a concrete lot, I carried my shoes and ran barefoot to my rack and only had to push my bike a few meters to the mount line. Volunteers were at the end of each rack, calling down numbers of racers running toward them so they could have the bikes off the rack and ready to grab. Again, the volunteers all day were the absolute BEST. I paused, put on my Sidis, took my Felt and made my way to the transition exit.
Analysis: I do not like to waste time in transition, even for a race of this distance. I generally pick up valuable seconds here in shorter races, and I had the third-fastest T1 time in my age group. I knew I wasn’t changing and had a very specific order of things to do, which went smoothly thanks to my volunteer. Most of the time spent here was running from the water to the convention center and from the changing room to my bike. At this point, I was feeling great about my day thus far.
The bike starts out with a ride down the helix on the other side of the parking deck, this time with no one cheering on the sides for obvious safety reasons. I was thankful not to be surrounded by too many people, as all the winding at high speeds with lots of bikes could spell disaster. Then it’s out of Monona Terrace and on the road to Verona.
I knew my parents were waiting for me somewhere on the road after T1, so I made a point to slow down enough to spot them as I rode by. My legs felt great and I was really looking forward to time in the saddle.
I won’t give a full review of the course itself because I did all that in my preview earlier this summer, but the one thing that caught me off guard was that you actually ride on a pedestrian path underneath the road and through the civic center parking lot to get onto the main course. Because we stayed past this point when we visited in July, I hadn’t been on this section. There’s a no-pass zone and a few hairpin turns, which is a little tough when you’ve got people who are nervous and still trying to get comfortable after getting out of the swim. Plus it was pretty bumpy. But we finally made it to the part that was familiar to me, and I settled in with every intention of executing my race plan.
I wanted to ride very easy for the first half of the day. I ignored my Garmin, let people pass me and got into a comfortable position, ready to start taking in calories. The plan was to take a SaltStick tab and Tums every 30 minutes (on the :00 and :30) and a bike of a Larabar or Luna Protein every 30 minutes (on the :15 and :45) with sips of EFS in between. I had a 300 calorie mix in my aero bottle and a 600 calorie bottle on my frame. I’d use half of that from hours 2-4 and the other half from hours 4-6. I planned to grab a bottle of water at every aid station, drink a few sips, dilute my EFS and toss (I am now the MASTER of the bottle grab). Unfortunately, the plastic bag with my salt tabs and Tums bounced out of my Bento box as I was trying to grab them around mile 5. I thought about turning around to get them but decided against it — I had plenty of electrolytes in my EFS and knew there was another bag at special needs. So I continued on. The weather was perfect. The road was not nearly as bumpy and the rollers not nearly as challenging as I remembered, and I quickly arrived at the start of the loop in Verona.
There were people cheering as we rode through the neighborhoods here, which was nice because we had plenty of empty, lonely farmland ahead. Then it was out onto the open road. I don’t have much to say about the ride itself. I was focused on keeping it easy, spinning up (rather than mashing) the hills and staying in my own zone rather than getting caught up in people passing me. And I did get passed. A lot. All those men who were slower swimmers were kicking my ass. But I knew it was critical not to let it get to me, otherwise I’d burn my legs out and have no chance of running the marathon. Little did I know.
Anyway, I had a huge smile on my face when I got to the top of Witte and Garfoot Rds because I knew I was about to go screaming down some awesome hills. The rollers along the way felt easier than they had when I previewed them and the downhills were faster and more fun. Some of the false flats had a headwind — I’d look down and think WHY THE HELL AM I ONLY GOING 11MPH?!? — but I felt strong and just kept riding my own race. Then we got to the actual climbs.
Yet another thing that is unique and awesome about Wisconsin is that the crowds come out to the middle of nowhere to help riders get up those damn steep hills. There are three of them that really suck. People set up tents, brought coolers, dressed up in costumes, painted chalk messages on the road, etc. It was like riding in the Tour. I had people run alongside me, waving and screaming. There were signs. There were guys in underwear. There were wigs. I nearly forgot I was climbing. And by the time I reached the top, I was smiling so wide at the fact that I’d just finished the damn hill and the entertainment along the way that my legs weren’t even tired. I laughed pretty hard at a guy and a girl wearing only underwear (not visible) and holding signs that said “Focus! I’m naked!”
Soon we were back in Verona, where there was a time check and a street festival going on. Crowds were cheering, someone was announcing names and it was great to finally be halfway. Then it was time to stop at special needs. The volunteer on my line of bags had the items I’d packed in his hand when I pulled up, and I grabbed the extra bag of salt tabs and Tums. Then I rode down to the portapotty, where a middle-school aged kid held onto my bike. No, I did not pee while riding. Yes, that would have been faster. Yes, I wasted about two minutes at this stop. Unfortunately, my body hates me and has bad timing and a stop was necessary. I mean, REALLY?!?
So I headed out for my second loop, relieved that I finally had all my electrolytes in hand. It felt more or less the same as the first time around, though I was starting to get tired by the time I reached the hills. Thankfully the crowds were still there to pull me through. I was trying to get a sense of what my final bike split would be and realized that unless I was hauling ass on the road back into Madison I wouldn’t be at the 6hr mark. But I didn’t let it get to me — I still had a marathon ahead.
That said, there was a slight tailwind on the stick back, and because it was fairly flat with only one noticable roller (which, honestly, I didn’t even notice), my average speed was way high for that last 18 miles at 20.6mph. I was a little bit worried here that I’d used too much energy on the bike and would really hurt on the run — my legs were definitely feeling it — but at that point I just wanted out of the saddle and onto my feet, where it would be all about me and what my body could do. The last mile or so along the lake and up to the Terrace was so exciting — I rode back up the helix and into the parking lot, where a volunteer was waiting to take my Felt as soon as I dismounted. My parents surprised me by being right there at the dismount line, so I waved as I headed into T2.
6:18:33, 17.75mph, 3rd AG, 725 overall
Analysis: Ok, so I’ll admit I was a little bit frustrated with this split. I mean, I worked my ass off on the bike all season. The course is hard, but I did plenty of prep for it. What about all those hillzzzzzzz? But then I had to step back and realize that in the grand scheme of the day, this was a solid ride. I could have ridden faster and destroyed my legs. There may have been changes in training that would have made this better. But I felt strong the whole time and rode my own race and got off still smiling (and passed two people in my age group along the way). And, as AJ said later that evening, it sets me up with a really strong cycling base on which to build.
In addition, my race wheels were a huge win. I never felt unsteady on them, even with the wind, and I definitely rode smoother. I also nailed my nutrition pretty well. I got all my EFS down at the right times and managed to eat one Luna Protein bar and most of a Larabar — a little short of the plan but all the solids my stomach could take. That put me at about 1200 calories for the ride, right on track with the 200/hr in my plan. Finally, I saw Katie and Ellen and Jared while out there — familiar faces were a huge boost.
I went flying into T2. I was still in my bike shoes, but I ran down the line of bags, grabbed mine and then met up with the lovely volunteer who would organize my stuff for me. Not kidding, I jumped over someone kneeling on the floor and almost mowed over someone else standing in the aisle between the rows of bags.
I’d put an extra pair of running shorts in my bike-to-run bag, which turned out to be the smartest thing I did all weekend. As much as I love my Soas shorts, I wanted out of them. So while my volunteer got my socks and shoes ready to go, I stripped down and quickly changed into my Nike shorts. Then I put on my socks, Newtons and visor, changed out my race number (I had a separate belt and number in each transition bag), grabbed my Nathans bottle and was out the door. A quick stop at the portapotty — I KNOW — and my marathon began.
Analysis: Again, very pleased with this transition. I probably spent about 25 seconds with the bathroom stop, but overall it was quick and efficient. Looking back, I don’t think I would have slowed down or stayed longer. I just wanted to get moving.
So the entire time I was swimming and biking, all I wanted to do was run. Once I hit the course, however, I did not want to run at all. But my legs felt pretty good and I followed my plan to just go by feel and ignore my Garmin. The crowds out of T2 and around the Capitol were great, and I felt like my marathon was off to a strong start. Unfortunately, my watch beeped at 8:13 for my first mile and I knew I’d have to rein it in a little bit or risk totally dying later.
At this point in the day (2:30-ish) it was hot. And sunny. A little bit too uncomfortable for a marathon. I slowed the pace a little bit and focused on getting some liquids down. Just a few miles in, my chest tightened up and everything seemed to get stuck around my heart. Nothing went down smoothly and plenty wanted to come back up. I couldn’t stand the taste of the EFS in my Nathans bottle, so I made the decision to pour it out and go with plain water (and salt tabs/Tums tucked in the pocket) instead. I was crazy thirsty but felt like the water was only making my chest worse. I got a little boost when we ran into Camp Randall Stadium to take a lap around the field (another thing unique about IMWI — where else do you get to run around the local football stadium?) but knew it was going to be a long 26.2 miles. I tried to just keep running, though my pace began to slow a little bit as the miles ticked along. I inserted short walk breaks in hopes my chest and stomach would relax, but to no avail. There are a lot of places on this run course where you double back, which is a huge mental challenge, but my first run split at just under 9 miles had me at a respectable 9:49/mile pace — including the two ENORMOUS hills through the U-Madison campus.
I also still had enough energy in me when we did a little out-and-back on State St., which was lined with crowds, to enjoy the cheering, and I did appreciate the beautiful view along the lake path. But I was really starting to struggle.
Miles 11-13 were really hard, mentally. The course doubles back on itself and takes you right back up to the finish line — also the halfway point of the marathon — before you go out and do it all again. I saw my parents as I hit the mat at 13.2 miles and told them I was really hurting. It was still hot and I’d had to walk a fair amount and nothing was helping my nutrition situation. And the thought of doing that whole loop again nearly had me in tears.
Once I jogged back around the square and out of the crowds, I started taking more frequent walk breaks. And longer walk breaks. I hated that I couldn’t run for more than a few minutes without feeling like I was going to throw up. Every time I stopped to walk it was harder to get going. I tried to play mental games, like walking to a certain point before running again, but I’d get there and push my start point a little further. A lot of people were shuffling along. It also was hard to tell who was on their first loop and who was making it through their second. I got passed by someone in my age group. I didn’t know what my place was at the time, but I’d already made the decision to let it go. It didn’t matter. The only thing that did was that I was going to cross that line no matter how hard it was or how long it took. I started running the areas I knew were flat and walking the hills. I tried to take Coke at one of the aid stations, but that didn’t do much. I tried a banana, which was a horrible decision. Nothing else on offer sounded appealing, so I stuck with water and ice when I could get it.
The last bit along the lake path really sucked. I totally lost my mental game. None of my mantras were moving me forward. I was so angry at myself for not doing enough long bricks, for not doing more tempo runs, for not anticipating this. I was afraid of crossing the line feeling embarrassed about having such a slow run time. I’m a runner! This is what I do! Why can’t I just push through this? Quitting never entered my mind, but I had to work hard to give myself permission to walk. I had to give myself permission to do whatever it took to finish. If that meant walking slowly, fine. At the time I thought it was a cop-out (part of me still does), but I could only do what I could do. I hit the mat at mile 22 (with a painful average pace of 12:57 for that leg) and made the decision that I was going to pull it together. I had a sub-5:00 marathon to finish, and if I got my head back in the game I was going to make it.
So I started running for longer than I would walk. Slow but steady. I reversed the game I’d played earlier and extended my deadline for stopping. I got to mile 23 and realized I could do anything for three miles. Anything. At mile 24 I ran. And ran. And ran. No amount of suffering was going to get in the way of my running two measly miles. I could see the Capitol dome, I could hear the State St. crowds, I could feel the energy of the finish. So I ran. I picked up the pace up the hill and gave it everything I had around the square. I went flying by everyone in front of me. The guy organizing special needs asked me if I needed anything as I passed and I shouted “NO, I’M DONE!” which elicited shouts from the crowd.
I saw the finish. I saw my parents. I saw the clock. It was real. There were a few people in the chute ahead of me, so I slowed down and let them have their moment so I could have mine. When it was clear, I jogged to the finish, paused, jumped in the air just as I’d planned (though there were moments during the run where I thought I might not land on my feet if I tried that stunt) and heard Mike Reilly say,
“Emily Long, from Washington D.C., YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.”
I was actually a hot mess at this point. In my efforts to jump, I knocked my visor and glasses off and had to step back and grab them. Then two catchers grabbed my arms and asked me if I was ok. I said “I think so” because I honestly wasn’t sure. There were plenty of times during the day in which I thought I’d probably end up in the med tent. So they held on tight, escorted me to a chair, got me a cup of Sprite, a finishers’ shirt, medal and hat and made sure I had someone coming to find me. I sat for a few minutes to collect myself, got my finishers’ photo taken and then saw my mom and dad looking for me on the other side of the barrier. I ran out of the finish area, hugged my mom (she’s a trooper, I smelled terrible) and burst into tears. Just like my Boston finish, I couldn’t believe I did it.
Analysis: Nothing in the world prepares you for how hard that marathon is. Katie has told me on multiple occasions that the run is all heart, and there’s nothing more true than that. It takes every last bit of heart you have to continue to put one foot in front of the other when you’re hurting like that. I thought I had the marathon down. I’m a runner, no problem. But the body doesn’t function in any way you might expect it to after 2.4 miles of swimming and 112 miles of biking. It was heart that got me to the finish line. I did lose my mental game multiple times, and I look back and question whether I physically had more and just let my head get the better of me. But I pulled through and ran to the finish and that’s all that matters now.
Looking back, my plan was decidedly light on the running. The reason for this was that I was injured in the spring and afraid of the problem returning. Plus, as a strong runner, I needed to focus more on the bike anyway. Would I have done things differently? Absolutely. I would have done my long runs at a slightly faster pace. I would have done longer transition runs during my bricks. I would have run off the bike every. single. time. I would have done more tempo work. On race day, would it have mattered? I’m not sure. The problem was with my stomach, not my legs, but I don’t think that smarter run training would have hurt.
I’m still unclear as to what exactly causes this heartburn sensation. It’s not my nutrition specifically, since it happened at Musselman and I wasn’t using any of the same products. It’s something about my body’s reaction to taking in calories at race effort. A guy next to me at the finish said he has the same issue and thinks it’s his salt tabs. Maybe. It could be a general electrolyte imbalance. It also caused sensitivity in the roof of my mouth, making it hard to eat for two days. For next season, I need to figure this out. I can’t do another run feeling that way.
Final Time — 12:32:38, 6th AG, 747th overall
Ironman is the hardest and most humbling thing I’ve ever experienced. It strips away all your pride and challenges your body and mind in a way that nothing else in the world can. It’s also the most amazing experience ever. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. To have that accomplishment under my belt is an incredible feeling — and one that most people can’t even fathom, much less attempt. Would I do it again? Maybe. It definitely isn’t my distance, and it required a lot of sacrifices in a lot of parts of my life that I probably don’t want to make on a regular basis. But to be out there with all these other inspiring people, whether they finish in 10:30 or 16:59, is like nothing else. It’s a community of people who go the distance — literally and figuratively — and push to the last extreme, and once you’ve made it you’ll always and forever be an Ironman.
I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about the day as I continue to recover and digest everything I went through, as well as a wrap-up of the midnight finish party and the weekend as a whole. If you have questions, feel free to ask and I’ll answer them in a future post. I want to say a huge thanks to my parents for being my sherpas for the weekend. It’s a job they do incredibly well and without hesitation. After the race, my dad picked up my bike and gear bags and then went in search of a 20lb bag of ice for my ice bath. My mom washed all my gear (wetsuit, tri suit, etc), which, I can promise, was not a fun task. I smelled disgusting. They fed me all weekend, got up at an absurd hour, stood outside on their feet all day just to see me pass a few times and took care of a lot of the logistics so I could focus. And my mom stood in line with me at 6:45am on Monday to get me a finishers’ jacket. They’re amazing and I’m so glad they were there to share the moment.
Another thank you goes out to my sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and followers. Without you, I wouldn’t have made it through all those early morning rides or my mental breakdowns and certainly not the race itself. I had a blast reading through the tweets and texts and Facebook messages and emails after I finished. You put up with this insanity for eight months, and now that I can finally be a normal human being I will be spending my free time drinking beer and catching up on everything I missed.
And finally, one last time, a huge thanks to all the IM volunteers. Every last one of them made the whole weekend run so much smoother. They spend the entire event taking care of all of us and making sure we have everything we need. They are absolute saints.
So, after all that:
I AM (finally) AN IRONMAN!