First and foremost, before I get into this race report, I have to say that there is no way that I could have brought myself back to my current fitness level, in spite of my weight gain, were it not for the physical and emotional support from my boyfriend Jim, my coach Graham, my immediate family and my GWO Gals! Having Jim, my sister Heather and nephew Rowen with my on race day to cheer me on and wait at the finish line, always gave me something to look forward too. I met so many great new people and really enjoyed looking for my good friend Nancy out on the course. Her comments to me on the run, "You are not alone, we are all out here on this course with you" are words that I will take with me to every race and every challenge from this day forward.
My accomplishments mean little to me if I can share them with the people that I love and care about...
As many of you already know, I have "Ironman Dreams." I dream of someday going the full *IRONMAN* distance in triathlon of 140.6 miles. My inspiration for being an Ironman comes from many different places ... a desire to challenge myself beyond my known limits, the known adrenaline rush that follows endurance events, the well being and fitness that accompanies the *triathlon lifestyle* and the inspiring stories of other who have overcome challenges to become an IRONMEN themselves.
One such inspiring story is that of John Blais, otherwise known as BLAZEMAN. I first heard John's story, as most triathletes have, during the 2005 NBC coverage of IRONMAN HAWAII. In October 2005, five months after his diagnosis, he became the first ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis - also know as Lou Gehrig's Disease) patient to race and finish the World Championship Ford Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.
Hearing John's story, at a time when I myself was about 7 months out from my own diagnosis of Malignant Melanoma and in the midst of treatment and getting ready for the Marine Corps Marathon, I felt an instant connection with this man. Both of us were triathletes, both of us were young adults in our early 30s and both of us were facing diseases that have no known cure and grim long-term prognosis.
Last year, in 2006, John returned to Hawaii to watch the race in his wheelchair as triathlete Brian Breen raced on Jon's behalf to continue the cause, finishing as Jon did the year before by rolling across the finish line. On May 27, 2007, just 2 weeks prior to the Eagleman Ironman 70.3 race, John passed away from ALS and the race director announced that Eagleman Ironman 70.3, which was already raising money to benefit John's ALS Warrior's Challenge, would be dedicated to the memory of John.
Eagleman Ironman 70.3 would be my first time back to the half Ironman distance since 2003. My first half Ironman since my cancer diagnosis and looked to be a long, long day. I wondered how this day was going to feel. I recalled racing my first half Ironman in 2003. My finish was slow - 8:01 and I crossed the finish line completely spent - knowing I had a long way to go in my quest for IRONMAN glory...but I had no idea just how twisty that road to Ironman would be....
So race morning dawned breezey and a little cooler than expected but compared to what I heard about last year swim start, the water was calm. The pros started at 6:45 and the race director noted the rays of light in a parting of the clouds and told us "I think that is Blazeman watching over you!" At about 7:55, I kissed Jim, Heather and Rowen "Goodbye" and got into the corral with the other yellow caps and got ready to start my day....
SWIM - 1.2 miles: 1:04:04
The swim is my weakest event. I have improved tremendously over the last 2 years, overcoming some serious panic issues but I am still slow and have some trouble swimming in a straight line. It seemed that the current for the 8:03 Women's wave had shifted some and I found myself pushed to the right some and worked hard to get to the turn buoys. I was all over the place but just kept doing my "20 stokes then sight" routine. I finally got the turn buoy and there was a current shift and now I was being pushed to the left, inside the buoy line that I was supposed to be swimming to the left of...ARRGG!! I just kept doing my thing and avoided peaking at my watch, hoping that I still had time. The swim cutoff was 1:10 from the start of your wave, I gave in at the last yellow buoy and peaked. 51 minutes. I had some time and I looked to the horizon and saw a break in the clouds with sun shining down and thought "Blazeman if you are out here, watch over me, I just need to get on the bike..." and I put my head down and swam for all I was worth, crossing the T1 mat with 6 minutes to spare....
Jim, Heather and Rowen were right there as I crossed the timing mat in to the long run to Transition One. I got a high five and "We love you! Go Holly" and I jogged over to my bike Sunshine. The transition was a little long but I took the time to put on a second pair of bike shorts over my TRI shorts with a thicker pad. That was worth an extra minute!
BIKE - 56 miles: 4:01:14 (avg pace: 14 mph)
My bike was wonderful. Coach Graham had specific instructions that I was not to push on the bike (which is my strength) but to maintain a steady pace and save my efforts for the run. I did my best to keep it free and easy. Even after my long swim, there were at least 5 folks that passed me between miles 15-25 of the bike. Being passed was slightly frustrating because by mile 30, I became the "Last Bike on the Course". This was some place new for me but I knew I could keep a steady pace and come in under the Bike Cutoff of 5:30 on the race clock so I tried not to let the title of "Last Bike" bother me too much.
I was also pretty confident that I would pass one or two people in the last 10 miles. I may not be speedy but I am a consistent pacer on my bike and I was sure that there would be racers out there that would burn up near the end of the 56 mile ride. Sure enough, around mile 40, I passed the first of two men, both my age,(36) and officially dropped my "last bike on the course" title and then I hit the headwinds and I literally said, out loud to nobody," Could you cut me a break here?"
I think in that moment, somebody heard me because as I rounded a turn, I looked up to see a beautiful eagle, playing in the wind currents less than 20 feet to my right. The eagle swooped along to my right and crossed in front of me twice, always headed down the road in the direction of the finish. Coincidence, maybe, but at that moment, my thoughts went to what the race director said about "Blazeman watching over us today" and I thought for sure that his Ironman spirit was right there with me, encouraging me down the road and onto my run. At the moment, I made up my mind that I was going to "barrel roll" across the Finish Line, within the official cutoff - as a tribute to John's life and his Ironman spirit.
True to form, my cheering squad was ready and waiting as I pulled up to the dismount line for the bike. More "We love You! and "Go Holly!", the perfect way to put a spring in my step and get me moving as I dodge the hundreds of triathetes who were already done for the day and gathering their gear from transition. A stop in the Port-O-Potty made this transition a long one. It didn't feel that long. Not much more to say about this.
RUN - 13.1 miles: 3:07:20 (14:18 mile pace)
My instructions from Coach Graham on the run were clear. "Save everything for the run and I want you to push yourself harder than you ever have." That would prove to be the biggest challenge and Coach Graham knew it. I can endure but I often to it by slowing down, instead of pushing myself to see what I really have left. Today I was expected to make that push happen and I knew it would be my greatest challenge.
I started off with a good strong pace. Miles 1 & 2 came at about 12:30 each with walk breaks of less than 30-40 seconds each. I just kept reminding myself that there was no room for walking in a "hard effort." Miles 3 & 4 showed a shift in pace to 13:00 and about that time I passed my good friend Nancy on the course, well on her way to the finish line just past mile 9. Nancy gave me a big high five and a kiss on the cheer and said, "You look strong, you ROCK! Remember Holly, you are not alone, we are all out here on this course with you." Nancy insightful words and that fact that I had just passed a gentleman with a walkie-talkie, who asked me "Are you the last runner on the course?" combined to bring a swell of emotion that I wasn't expecting and as I moved on the down the road alone, I began to cry. It is worth noting that crying and running do not really mix well, since running requires breathing so I pretty quickly took a little walk break and simply told myself to save it for the finish line.
Miles 5 & 6 were lonely, the majority of the triathletes on the course were well on their way to the finish line and I only saw a handful of runners coming back from the turn around. My pace continued to slow to an average of 13:30 - 14:00 per mile with longer walk breaks. At this point, I realized that I was at a crossroads. I could not allow my pace to go any slower than 14:30 and expect to finish within the race cutoff of 8:30:00 so I put all my focus onto running from point to point. There, to that street sign - walk breaks were only long enough to recover, never more than 30-45 seconds before I would pick a new spot.
Just about this time, I reached the 6:55 turn-around and was asked again "Are you the last runner?" This time, I simply said "Yes, I am..." and made my turn around the cones and stopped into the Port-O-Potty for a little break. Coming out of the Port-O-Potty, for the first time, I spied a triathlete up the road ahead of me. walking. My heart went out to him and I thought "He is having a hard time" and then I assessed myself and thought, "Well I can still run/walk, so I guess I better get going..." and I started working to reduce the gap between us. Ever so slowly, I caught up to the triathlete in front of me and with a gentle nod and a "Hi!" I slowly ran past him and moved on. At Mile 7, I officially dropped my title as "Last Runner on the Course" and just kept my focus on keeping my miles under 14:30, picking point after point to run to.
Miles 8 & 9 were more of the same. Pick a point and run there, recover for 30 seconds, pick a new point and run again. As I reached mile 10's rest stop, I was happy to see Orange Juice on the tables, which I happily drank down (such a nice change from water and gatoraide) and I was surprised to see a triathlete pop out of a Port-O-Potty. Being so close and so set on wasting none of the 45 minutes I had left until the official cut-off, I barely said "Hi!" to the fellow triathlete as I passed her by and struggled on down the road. But I could hear her just behind me, at nearly the same pace and as we passed a tent full of Cambridge MultiSport Triathletes, picnicking out on the course, we were both cheered on and she moved ahead to pass me.
As this fellow triathlete passed me, I thought "Wait, NO! I don't want to be alone any more" and I tried desperately to pick up my pace to catch her or at the very least not let her out of my site. She soon took a walk break and that was all I needed to bring myself up to her where I fell into pace beside her and said, "Only two more miles...Thank Gosh" and put on the biggest smile I could. She smile right back and within a minute we were exchanging names and triathlon stories.
Jen from Ottawa, Canada was here doing her first half Ironman race. We talked about triathlons, and racing and having our families waiting at the finish. We instantly bonded and when I told Jen that I *needed* to keep the pace up, to finish in the cutoff, she was right there with me, running point to point.
As we passed the 12 mile marker, we saw a young woman in the distance running with a jog stroller. I told Jenn I was pretty sure that was my sister Heather and nephew Rowen and then just behind them, Jen saw that her husband and 4 year-old daughter were walking up the road as well. We picked a point and jogged until we came to our families, did mini introductions and then with about half a mile to go, we split up. Knowing the finish was just around the bend, I asked Heather to take my water bottle and my left over gels. I told her that I was planning to roll over the finish line to honor John Blais, as I promised myself on my bike ride earlier. She took my gear and ran off to the finish line, so she could be there when I finished.
I continued on at my slow pace and rounded the corner and there it was, the finish line. There were still a handful of people at the finish and they gave me an amazing reception with cheer and high fives. My sister Heather was there with Rowen, videotaping the ending and she said "I love you Holly!" and I told her "I love you too!" Jim was standing just past the finish line, camera in hand, waiting for me to cross.
I ran down the finish chute, stopped before the timing mat and got on my belly, said a quite little "Thank you for watching over me Blazeman" out out loud and rolled across the mat. BEEP
FINISH - 8:24:40
POST-RACE: I knew that some folks from BLAZEMAN's ALS Warrior's Challenge were at Eagleman but I figured by the time I crossed the line, most people would have been long gone, so you can imagine my surprise when I was approached right after crossing the finish line by none other than IRONMAN triathlete Brian Breen, who raced for John at Ironman Hawaii in 2006. Brian thanked me for barrel rolling across the line, told me that John's sister, brother-in-law and niece were still here and saw my roll and were very moved. We took a picture together and he gave me his card and said to get in touch and then I had a chance to meet John's Brother-in-Law and Niece on my way to transition. It was a connection that I never anticipated and at that moment, I had no doubt in my mind at all that, on this day, John Blais was most certainly with us all at Eagleman 70.3.
So Eagleman Iroman 70.3 is officially in the record books and I look ahead to continuing my IRONGIRL LiveSTRONG Challenge with the LiveSTRONG Ride, CheasapeakeMan Swim and Marine Corps Marathon later this fall. I have a long. long road ahead of me toward my Ironman dreams, and I have no idea what other twists and turns fate has for me but I do know that we never travel these path's alone. There is always somebody by our side, if we open our hearts and minds to their presence.