Long story short … the Titanic sinks.
I had a dream. One night last December, snuggled indoors on my couch next to my wife, I drifted in and out of sleep with the television blaring bright as my trusty night-light on mute. I woke up to the sound of silence and was absolutely floored as I saw a contestant from a past season of The Biggest Loser attempting an Ironman. I lay bug-eyed to a bug zapper as this particular obese person for my standards attempted to swim for 2.4 miles like a blowfish and climbed out of the water as if he was the first mammal to ever reach shore. He continued onward and upward onto his bike and didn’t break his white rabbit stride for 112 miles (at least when the camera footage reeled him). I couldn’t go back to sleep as this former Biggest Loser and now just pedestrian Big Guy on my television sprinted-adorned with his best trusty Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” head and wristbands beside a camera crew apparently only running tape when this guy was at his top speed-for a finish line that he eventually crossed after many moments of nightfall. He crossed the finish line and cried. He had finished the distance, but with one major problem. He had not finished the course in the required time to be considered an official Ironman Finisher. I rolled over, threw my hands in the air, and immediately told my wife, “I have no excuse!” She rolled her eyes with a smile and fell asleep. I was finally awake.
You see; nearly a year and a half before the Stay Puff Man ran into my dreams, I had already been privy to hear every single detail from Secretariat’s mouth about the greatest story ever lived yet seldom ever told (The legendary account of Ironman Carter Conley: the only man to become an unofficial Ironman Finisher without technically ever being there or being accounted for by anyone other than his now wife/girlfriend at the time-a story sure to be written and told at a later date of course). I had a dream to become an Ironman before the end of my 31st lap around the sun. Thanks to Stay Puff, I was inspired to finally chase that very dream.
The next morning when I woke for the second time, I contacted Ironman and Coach Carter Conley to tell him that I had signed up for the amazing race he had completed in Louisville, KY in 2008 for its next occurrence August 29th, 2010. Ecstatic, he immediately drove down that Saturday and we attempted a make-shift Half-Ironman at the Margaret Maddox East Nashville YMCA. We bought Powerbars, Gatorades, and brought our swimsuits, goggles, and shoes. We marked the time and jumped in the pool head first. Nearly forty minutes later, I jumped out and changed into my biking clothes. Carter jumped out and found me beside the only other open stationary bike. For the near four hours that followed, we biked roughly 60 miles along a cartoon screen as many onlookers surely thought we were the cartoon characters sweating like pigs and eating our food on the hour marks. We then stumbled to the streets as the gym closed and made our way through the brisk winter night around East Nashville until we found ourselves at home about 8:30 hours after we originally jumped into the pool … starving and shaking. My wife, Emily, was our angel to the rescue with a hot dinner, clean clothes, and a good laugh at two self-admitted crazy people standing at her front door. Carter gave me his confident blessing. He said I was ready … ready to train.
For the next 8 months, 6 days a week, ranging from 2-4 hours a weeknight and roughly 3-7 on the weekend days, I spent the majority of my life at that very same East YCMA and East Nashville worlds where my training journey first began. Carter would send me weekly workout agendas that he had saved from his original Ironman Trainer Brian Mountjoy (one of the best all around guys you’ll ever meet … fact), and all I had to do was complete the workouts (much easier said than done per usual). Not having a clue whatsoever when I signed up for the Ironman, I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that hours and hours and hours and hours at a YMCA and around the neighborhood that I would swim so many laps that many of the people swimming around me thought I was an in-pool lifeguard-prepared on-call to save anyone at any given second that I passed numerous times a minute if need be. Or that I would bike so many spin classes, some back-to-back in fact, and laps around the city for that matter that many of the other people biking around me thought I was an extra instructor on hand to help fix their stationary bikes to their reach and height specifications accordingly, help keep the actual instructors in check, or just a random guy who made random jokes as I sweat more than the two people surrounding me combined. Or, better yet, that I would accumulate so many hours on the treadmill and in the neighborhood that I think I watched every known episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as many times as anyone who grew up in the 1990’s saw every known episode of Saved By The Bell! In fact, not only did every employee, from the janitor to the floor supervisor’s supervisor, know me by my first name, many of the people I spent the majority of my 8 months of life in training rarely knew why I was actually spending most of my waking life at the YMCA. It’s not like I didn’t have a home, a dog, a cat, and a wife to happily go home to that were all waiting for me. Well, at least the dog and the wife were happily waiting. It’s just that I knew it was very important that every second I was away from my wife and family had to count towards making me a better all around person without wasting any moments because my Ironman dream had now (even if at times it became a nightmare or a dream I never could wake from) become OUR Ironman and I knew it.
On the other side of the coin, there were a few people that knew that I was training and helped me along my training schedule exactly when I needed it most without even having to ask to lend a hand. I’ll save Emily for last, but aside from Carter helping to continually point me in the right direction, another fellow Centre College Football teammate from my past by the name of Nate Woodall was and always is by my side when possible. Nate, who had not really ever biked more than 30 miles at once before in his life, gladly and numerously threw on his helmet and went on 3-5 hour bike rides accompanying this novice around our made up routes within the depths of the Shelby Bottoms Greenway to the Percy Priest Dam and even back to my home hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky! AND we only wrecked 2 times in 8 months (once a piece … without one single trip to the hospital).
Throughout the process and self-learning curve, I tried to balance training and my regular life by continuing to hang out with friends, take family and friend road trips, and spend as much quality time with my wife as possible. For the most part, I feel I succeeded. I only heard on occasion that I needed to be more of an ‘Iron-friend’ than Ironman. But there was one particular thing that bothered me for some reason. I never did quite understand one phrase I was told from time to time. Sometimes some people asked how much longer until the actual event was to happen. Because I knew the exact amount of days until IT was to hit me, I tried to pretend to be a newborn’s mom telling giddy guests how old their child was. Whether I said 7 or 3 months away, those people would inevitably put on a face as to appear to understand my state of mind and body perfectly and say, “Oh, you still have time” and smile as if they had gone through this specific event before. ‘Still have time for what?!’ I would instantly imagine to myself. I honestly didn’t feel like I had time for anything!
Time is always a relative thing, but time, like my very own personal Ironman prison of sorts, is all I had during the majority of my training. You learn a lot of things about yourself when in your own prison. You learn your limits, you learn your advantages, and you learn who you really are after countless conversations (hypothetical and actual) with yourself. With so many workouts under my belt by this point, I started to label myself on the spot. After good, solid workouts, I would begin to feel as though I could easily rock and conquer the Ironman right on the spot if the option was magically presented … and no flame-spitting dragon or full-body cramp would be able to stop me. After draining workouts that may have actually been shorter on the average in reality but felt more like an eternity, I would instantly second-guess my capabilities, wishing I could reset the time on my training period altogether or push back the date of mE-Day all the while teaming up with a trainer to share my load … simultaneously knowing that this particular predicament and any chance of fighting a flame-spitting dragon was neither going to happen. That is the major thing you have to come to terms with and realize about the core that makes Ironman. You, physically, are alone. Like trying to build a thriving and positive nation of inspiration while stranded on a lonely island with no electricity whatsoever (you aren’t allowed to use any electronic music devices to help ease your burden along your journey, so why bother practicing and torturing yourself to the habit of that energy assistance, right?). Nobody is truly there to really decide when it is okay to stop yourself from going on or that anything you do is ever good enough. Like life in general and specific, it starts and ends with you … your ideas and confidence.
Then, as if out of nowhere, it happened. It was suddenly the week of the race.
At this point, I was neither scared nor intimidated with the monumental task I was about to face. After all, I had gotten myself into this situation and felt prepared to the fullest extent possible that I believed I whole-heartedly could take mind and body. While still possessing some iota of sanity I had before I began such a crazy quest so many others live a hundred years over without attempting or thinking about, I realized that I needed to taper down my workouts and physically prepare myself for battle as much as I was ready mentally. I fully became conscious that no workout, no matter how good or bad, could make me, but that any ever-so-small mistake would break me and the dream I had been playing on reply for nearly 9 months now.
I drove into Louisville and checked in at the check-in desk the Friday before the big event. Avoiding the hype, avoiding being THAT guy sporting my hopped-up triathlon suit all around town on my expensive road bike and letting every passer by know that I was in town for the BIG race even if they didn’t have to say it out loud (note: I neither owned a triathlon suit nor an expensive road bike, but would not have sported anything other than my favorite Rusted Root t-shirt and cargo shorts otherwise), and still they said it out loud … every time. No, I was merely bib #1252; a willing, unassuming, crazy participant in something 1/10 of 1% of the world’s population ever competes and completes. BUT, I had an original, heart-warming secret weapon no other participant had thought of and that was totally regulation legal. I was doing it for more than just myself. I was doing it for two families and several charities that needed love and help.
Two things were discussed and not missed by my wife or myself the night before the race. First, I was about to check in my gear (Where less is definitely more; try thinking of that feeling that you always have when you are packing for a long trip and you sense that you’re forgetting something. Except this time it is a long trip that you have planned nearly a year of your life for and if you forget something, you can’t get it when you get where you’re going because your money is no good due to the fact that they don’t take money, you don’t have money on you, and nothing can be bought! Take that thought times 10 and jump back into this story here.) when I pumped my bike tires one last time. BAM! The back tire blew out. Merely an hour before final check-in was to close on the other side of town, I was about to be closed shop before I even had the chance to get started. Not to mention that when I finally got the bike fixed and ready to roll at a local bike shop en route to the race check-in, I heard an absolute horror story from the same event the year before. Apparently some local punk kids had thrown tacks, yes … actual like Wile E. Coyote tacks, on the road for the bike course and flattened many a tire and hopes for a successful Ironman or few. I was prepared for me and how I would perform, but not for any evil outside sources such as that I was told about and couldn’t comprehend or fathom good people doing. So … at that moment of stress, I took a deep breath, thought about one of my personal heroes and prayed to my Saint Gilda. Gilda Radner had once inspired me with her book and words, “It’s Always Something!” Ahhh, comic relief. I was ready.
Now, finally laying in bed where I was prepared for possibly my final rest, IT hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in for the fight of my life and there was no turning back. I literally could not sleep and I hit the ground running for the bathroom. Not too too nervous, the symptoms suggested that I was over-prepared, over-hydrated. I spent over an hour and a half collectively pacing back and forth while stopping to pee twice as long as Tom Hanks in A League of their Own every single stop. I was glad I was getting it all out before the race, and on that note, I was ready to fight the good fight. I trained myself to respect the race as one respects and trains for the ultimate professional prize fight champion opponent. This was my Ivan Drago. This was my Mount Everest. This was my Ironman.
I woke up hours before dawn and start time. I slowly walked into the pitch-black living room, sat on the couch, breathed-in deep, and gathered my thoughts and all I needed for the extremely long day ahead. Aside from the day I was born (again, another story for later), this would inevitably be the longest day of my life, and I knew it already. I could feel it. I ate what I could stomach and was off to the races to meet my maker.
Like the day I was born, I arrived early and ready to go while others around me were stressing out. A little kid drew numbers on my arm and leg, the gates opened, and although many people had waited in line waiting to test death directly in the face since before I ventured into the living room a few hours prior, the flood lines parted down the middle and I found myself effortlessly in the front of the pack of anxious animals ready to take a polar plunge into the mighty, dirty Ohio River. I totally took in the fact it would without a doubt be the last effortless thing I was going to do for the next sum of fears and hours to come so I totally relished in my last moments of company beside my wife and coach.
The national anthems played (which included The Rolling Stones “Start Me Up”, the actual USA national anthem, and finally, a personal favorite, “My Old Kentucky Home.”). I was home. I jumped.
Swimming 2.4 miles in the mighty, dirty Ohio River is not for the weak. Muscles relaxed and primed for a constant, repetitive flux of strokes for what I was expecting might take up to or at least an hour and a half if caught in bad mad river traffic, I didn’t really think of much of anything. Except for the occasional gag from a few attempted breaths gone terribly bad by murky river water entering my body instead of clean oxygen down the ole’ gully while attempting to see if I was paddling straight ward bound, which I indeed found myself doing just fine, and the sporadic bump into a fellow participant (usually welcomed with a split second exchange of apologies before the next stroke ahead) which inevitably felt as thought I was driving a bumper cart race while at night with my eyes closed but with good intentions, I was steady as he goes. With about 400 meters to go, give or take 300 meters since you couldn’t truly distinguish your hand from dirt under the water of the mighty, dirty Ohio River or make out any sort of clear horizon line up ahead, I felt my first baby cramps of the day. The toes beside my BIG toes on both of my feet locked up. It was just enough of a cramped feeling to make me chuckle and fight to the shoreline smiling. I knew that I was lucky. In the end, jogging through the transition crowd and tent glowing without trying, I had finished the first leg of my journey in 1 hour and 14 minutes and was happy. Swimming the 2.4 miles in the mighty, dirty Ohio River was like … was like swimming 2.4 miles in the Ohio River. I wouldn’t suggest it to others because it is both dangerous and dirty, but I was glad that it was over.
I saw a wave of glorious goodness, which turned out to be my wife and fellow friends and family, while grabbing an energy bar to bite and my bike to ride. My strategy for the day was to kill the swim, glide the bike, and survive the run before my time was done. I had killed the swim, threw on some brand new shoes and suntan lotion, and clipped in the bike for the good, bad and the ugly to be had in the unresearched, unexpecting great wide open. I waved good bye and before I got five minutes down the road, I saw my first 2 ambulances at work. Not waiting there for me, and nothing I could help with, I trotted on. I was feeling good and the fresh morning air in my face truly never felt better. Never thinking beyond the current moment, I relished in the rollercoaster experience that every hill presented at the beginning stage. Turning my monitor on, I started my planned nutritional plan of drinking every 5 minutes, eating a gel bite every 15 and half an energy bar every hour to a Mr. T. The hills were no joke though. In every valley, which felt more like a constant pendulum swing of physics for quite a spell, I sped down hills as fast as 42 mph and slowly climbed the steep parts as turtle-like as 4 mph to conserve my energy for the long road laps that were sure to lay ahead. So many people passed me by, at least in my head, that I felt like I was back on the stationary bike even though my tracker was telling me that I was going well beyond my typical training speeds. From professionals on there second lap to the average Joe with an expensive road bike practically peddling itself (I only say this because they didn’t reply with the mutual ‘Good luck!’ or anything half as excellent to give back to my good karma support that they more than happily took for their energy fuel), I wasn’t feeling very loved while spinning around my all too familiar lonely island without music.
Then, from out of nowhere, I got a second wind. Maybe it was the beautiful, rolling farms of the great Bluegrass state surrounding me, or maybe it was the crowd of rabid supporters in downtown LaGrange that welcomed all of us crazies on bikes like a herd of holy cows, or maybe it was the fact that with my nutritional worries sound and at ease, I was starting to feel the love from a few fellow riders that returned good graces on more than one occasion and welcomed the thought of making the laps feel more like an ‘Indian run’ than a full-on, winner-take-all sprint. Maybe it was all in my head. Either way, I saw the signs. I heard Rocky theme music in my head and over the speakers at one of the aid stations. I saw Rocky’s trainer, Mick, on paper telling me to “Eat thunder and CRAP lightning!” I saw a man two times over tell the world that “Chuck Norris never did an Ironman!” With two laps around the desolate boonies, I was never so glad to see the same, never worked out in their life, sitting on the edge of their gravel, pink flamingo and gnome-loving paradise while drinking a beer at noon on a Sunday day, cheering on every passer by with phrases like, “YOU can do it!” and “At least you don’t have to ride through here any more!” Yes, you were correct sir. I was finished with my second lap almost as quickly as I had started the first loop and the sunshine had transformed from a pleasant sea breeze straight into a full-on Mojave heat wave with little to no shade assistance in sight.
I would not be returning. A lot of riders, expensive bikes and all, were not returning either, but they were actually getting off their trusty steeds and sticking around. Aside from many a persons changing flat tires for reasons other than tacks on a road, I slowly began to notice many of the people that didn’t say ‘Good luck!’ back to me were by now laying on their backs under any shaded tree they could find on the farms. Karma had returned … maybe. Heat exhaustion … more likely. Nearly 7 hours into the ride of Hades, my own clipped in feet were beginning to feel like my now not-so-new shoes were literally crucifying me slowly. Every pedal down, I felt the nail go in a bit deeper, but still I was reminded of the constant waves of sleeping riders by the roadside to tell the little voice on the side of my shoulder to tell me that if I was to attempt to get off of my bike to take such a break, such a break might just lock me up and break me. Break me … not today you won’t!
Like in life, a bike ride of Hades has few things you can count on. One thing we all could count on was a bike aid station filled with a plethora of cold water, Ironman sponsored energy drinks, bananas, snacks, and cheery volunteers every rough 10 ten miles roughly. Like an oasis in the desert they were for stuggling travelers nearing the point where they would gladly eat the sand not knowing the difference. Then, oasis no more. Suddenly, from miles 80-112, roughly rough speaking now, there was nothing. Sure we were told there might not be much of aid there before the start, but saying one thing and then having to do something is always totally different things. I’m typically not a crier. Having only cried maybe 3 times in the past 10 years (don’t feel sorry for me, I just do things about what I am upset about if that is possible to do so instead of crying about it and it typically is in most cases), I found myself crying for different reasons around mile 70, mile 80 and mile 100. I’m not sure after the fact if it was something somebody in the crowd yelled for desperate inspiration, a random thought behind my personal motivation, or just that I had too much sodium in my body, but I let the tiny rivers flow as they came. Before I knew it, I was back in the city and back on track. I saw Carter in the crowd yelling and waving a not-so-terrible towel around his head like a helicopter and I spun perfectly into transition.
Getting off of my bike was another story. Nearly seven hours, twenty-two minutes after I had last touched my feet to the ground, my feet let me know that my welcome home party back to the Earth was going to be as rough as a space shuttle re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Gravity hit me hard; specifically in the hamstrings. Before I could smile back at my wife and support team now pulling me forward with love, I had to laugh at myself learning how to walk again as if for the first time. I put on a smile so others would not worry so much and to mask the pain. I immediately thought of my good friend Jonathan Sexton and The Big Love Choir and my favorite song of the moment “Babylon.” Spirit was definitely picking me up now, and Jonathan’s cover, my all-time favorite cover song, of the 1980’s “Break My Stride” rang louder in my head and heart than Mozart during Andy’s solitary confinement in Shawshank Redemption. Nobody was going to break-a my stride, nobody was gonna hold me down. Oh no, I had to keep on moving!
It was then I realized that a112 miles of bike riding of Hades was very similar to High School. There would be cliques and accidents throughout. There would be fast times that felt so fun and easy that you could effortlessly get ahead by simply biding your time in the sun and the breeze. There would be times when you were at your slowest and on an uphill climb that you thought would never end or find your way or enough strength to get back down the other side again. There would be people to help inspire you with words and signs to show you the way when you felt more lost than ever. Some would fall. Some would fail. Some would give up. Still, there was a finish line to all the madness in the far off distance and if you were strong and lucky enough to get out, you were happy just to survive and move on while knowing confidently that if ever given the chance, it would forever be better to look back and smile going forward than ever thinking twice or choosing in your wildest dreams to turn back the hands of time and actually relive any of it for a second. I had to keep on moving! (Oh, and you can have my bike t00!)
I changed into another pair of new shoes, this time with the help of a happy, assisting volunteer much more capable than me at the time. God bless the people that help the needy and think of others ahead of themselves! I threw on some more suntan lotion as it was still blazing hot outside of the transition tent, mama didn’t raise no fool, and I actually felt as though someone had yanked out the nails from the bottom of my ailing feet. I was back to quasi-normal!
It also hit me that the transition tents served all of us crazies similar to the base camps that help climbers onward and upward to the peaks of Mount Everest. The volunteers are the locals that have knowledge of the terrain and other elements that adventurous tourists may not be too keen on but need to know about and appreciate if they indeed intend on surviving their quest for greatness. What we were doing is not a thing for normal people. We were extra special (I saw that on a sign as well and possibly shed a tear).
Before I started my marathon … let me say that again. Before I now started a marathon, I saw my wife as if spotlighted from above in the crowd and I gave her a kiss. I saw smiling familiar faces and funny signs made from my closest friends and I gladly returned my polite gestures to let them know that I fully appreciated every single thing they were doing, if not only just standing there for me and others to know we were not alone. Every little step, every little bit helped.
I walked across the bridge with a friend, returned back to the city side to give a lost family a hug, and I trotted on. Well, trot meaning that I was walking with a pep in my step. A pep that if altered to a faster speed would instantly send me into full-body cramp mode and if lessened to a snail-like speed would entice my mind to shut down for the day. I had no excuses or other options … I had pep.
I was also lucky to add one more person to my support lifeline team at around mile 4 or so. Michael, with the same name of my favorite angel and movie about angels, swept down at a pace similar to my own and we struck up a conversation. He was waiting around for a friend that had first interested him in doing such a feat on this given Sunday, and the friend was nowhere in sight. I told him that I’d be that friend for him. Seriously, Mike had a watch and we calculated if we maintained our Olympic walking style pace without letting up or giving out, we would be able to finish the race before the people that put it together would kick us off for not making it. So that is exactly what we set out to do. We set out to survive.
“Who would have thought it would be so tiring WALKING a marathon, eh?!” Michael, the angel from Texas spoke aloud. I just smiled an ‘I know, right!?’ I just smiled because I didn’t want to waste my energy too much talking or anything other than one step after the other. This was mile 8 and my legs were tight, my mind was racing, the mile marker aid stations couldn’t come any faster, my head was sending out a reverb with every sound I made so if I did choose to talk when I felt it absolutely necessary, it was telling me what I said aloud two times over like I was under water, AND my mouth was starting to cramp. It was a full day filled with all kinds of firsts for sure!
We saw Michael’s friend on the even slower side of the road when we were about at mile 13 and he was pretty much zonked. Even if he did have much energy left, he would have had to run and not walk the rest of the mileage ahead of him to finish on time. I didn’t have time to worry about him … neither did Mike. Michael, in town with just his friend and with his own family still at home, was adopted by my family and friends and coach as a lost family member returning home. I slowed down Mike’s pace a few steps when the elevation changed to make sure I didn’t freeze up and over for good. Mike was a good, great friend. He and Carter also served as my team doctors. I would tell them the various symptoms that ailed my body and that my body was telling me in more than words every mile, and they both would then prescribe what I needed to take for medication at the next aid station. I never passed up an ice cold sponge for my head and neck, I drank ice water with mouth and hands, I had an occasional sip of cola and energy drinks, and the occastional intake from the variety of pretzels, oranges, chicken broth, and snacks didn’t hurt things either. I had everything I needed to finish and I knew that I had no excuse not to cross that final finish line and myself alone to blame if I didn’t make this dream happen.
The sun set but the heat stuck around. Many succumbed to the wild-eyed, euphoric, ambulance chasing race, but Mike and I joined the ranks of the 2nd triathlon of the day. After turning the corner at the exact location of the finish line for our second lap, we entered in to the Ironman Louisville Zombie/Night of the Living Dead race. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, and whatever differences you can imagine were present and no certain combination of genes or history or money or nothing other than your heart and feet continuing to beat on the street could get you through. Throughout the checkered streets of Louisville’s not so finest areas after dark, the walkers walked and the rest fell to the wayside. Every mile felt like its own galaxy. We trekked through the light-headed phases of seeing stars side by side with the encouraged words of Carter and our gang. The aid stations began to slowly shut down the full-on aid they had provided earlier, trading in some of the refreshments to be boxed up for the boom boxes of my own traditional workout music. The songs were all too familiar but hit home heavy. One station had REM’s “Everybody Hurts” blaring across the wounded streets and fields with no names. I took comfort in my friends until the next mile, around 22 marker, sent visions of my childhood favorite book/movie Lord of the Flies. With Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” ringing 3 times over in my noggin due to the ongoing reverb, I couldn’t help but smile thinking I had been standing at the gates of Hell all day long up to that point and now I was witnessing a fire of goodness surrounded by an adult version of ‘Piggy’ and his Castaway like dancers singing us onward and upward. Carter screamed with excitement every mile marker as he was a pedestrian walking alongside the course for awhile by now monitoring our health and spirits with an actual Ironman mask on backwards as if to say that a transformation was a-coming our way.
Mile 25 marker sign: With 1.2 miles left, Michael tried to finish strong and jog ahead. I saw him cramp up but push on through his walls of pain back into a fast walk a few blocks ahead. I had time and I had my stride. I had to remember that nobody was going to break-a my stride! Carter asked me, “Is there any happiness inside you yet, buddy? You are gonna be a freakin’ Ironman! I mean, you could have done anything … ANYTHING when you first woke up today and you chose this! Un-freakin’-believable!” I could only reply with the truth per usual. I recanted, stuttering over every syllable as if learning how to talk again, “Not gonna smile until I cross the finish line. There is still a chance my body will turn on me and lock up.” Like I said … I spoke only the truth. I was like a washed up, terrible magician on a public access cable television show. I had no tricks left but you couldn’t stop watching the show. My last show of the evening was a possible train wreck that was yet to be derailed. Up to that point, the last 20 miles had been a steady source of time-checking, stride-breaking, and continual pain-taking. Sure, the 10 salt pills I had swallowed the last 7 miles had sufficed my mental army to fight back the growing strain in my legs, but my body was a cage. My body was now a cage containing a washing machine filled with all my vitals and soul within. Whenever I tried to pick up the pace, the machine stalled for a second to let me know that if I tested it more than it wanted to be tested that it would shut down for good. BUT, that being said, if I appreciated the effort it and I were making in unison, it promised me that it would last me a lifetime without need for any receipt for warranty. I banked on my stride, my body, and the thought that if I kept the machine washing me forward, I would come out of this thing okay and with a clean soul.
Mile 26 marker sign: I grabbed the Ironman mask from Carter and walked alone. I turned the corner. The lights, hallway of crazed bystanders, and full waves of cheers, love and unconditional respect and admiration hit me like the hurricane and freight train combination that I was scared that I was capable of derailing from before. I walked on. I walked straight into the lights. I didn’t hear my name called and I didn’t hear the lovely strangers screaming in joy and laughter after seeing many extraordinary, larger than life super-human beings cross the line that day but finally witnessing an Ironman in full garb. I crossed the finish line with nearly 40 minutes to spare. I threw my hands up. No time for tears; I had nothing left in my tank. I was living a dream. I had nothing to complain about. I was awake.
I threw my head up and saw my wife, my parents, my friends, and other family smiling at me less than 5 yards away. I was finished. I was home.
I have talked long enough. I’ll spare you more details about the post-race recovery and the story about the charity cancer money people gave to and have entrusted me with to give to several families in Nashville and Louisville and the overall goodness that this crazy dream and idea gave birth to in the end and continues to do so by every passing minute there after. But, I do want you to know that if you are reading this and sharing it with others, please understand that you were there with me. In all seriousness, every prayer, positive thought, every single person I have ever met that made me smile helped me finish and survive this Ironman race with a smile on my heart and pride on my face.
That being said, THEY did tell a BIG lie though.
Life is not a marathon. It is a marathon after you have been thrown in the water for dead and kicked around endless amounts of ups and downs worth of mountainous hills. Life is a marathon and then some more. Life is an Ironman where we all have to cross the line and finish the race together before time finishes us. We all have to discover that if we put forth genuine time and effort and goodness, we are never alone and everything is going to be okay.
Yes, I had a dream; a dream over 99% of others consider to be impossible and crazy or just impossibly crazy. In the end, I lived an impossibly crazy dream. I was continually falling all day long after my energy level started at its peak, but unlike the last march to the shoreline in the movie Big Fish or following urban myth suite, I was not being walked towards the afterlife just yet as I passed by all of my close friends and family I’ve ever known near and far or gonna let myself die when I finally allowed myself to hit the ground. I lived a wild dream and I loved every second of it. I lived a dream, and I woke up ready for a new day … ready for today. I am smiling to live another day and dream to the fullest that I possibly can and I plan on taking it one step at a time at my own pace before my time runs out. One impossibly wild and crazy dream down, next dream up … stay tuned.
Short story long … I did not sink.
I could not have even imagined to the thought of attempting such a dream, more or less actually making that dream a reality, without the love and support of my family and friends and by far the most important person of my life … my wife, Emily Frances Harper Beard, that kept my mind, body, and spirit afloat while on such an amazing journey few can say they have traveled. Together, we finished OUR first Ironman and together we retired from such craziness by declaring it was at the same moment in time OUR last Ironman. Muddy Buddy here we come 😉
Life has so much love when you open your eyes, mind, body, heart, soul and self to it.
I am an Ironman. I am an Iron-friend. I am Chuck Beard. I am mE.