Monday, 25 June 2012

The most incredible experience !

What a truly incredible experience! I will never forget what has been one of the most amazing days of my adult life, Sunday June 24th 2012 when I lined up with Team LIVESTRONG Ironman and raced Nice. Well all 170km ish...I ran out of knee and out of time literally. I will say this Ironman is a worthy adversary. I remember Chrissie Wellington saying that you train for Ironman giving it the respect it deserves. Well I can safely say I get that one now. What I don't get and am sure I never will  is how are the pro triathletes actually human beings?

I need to say the biggest Thank yous it is possible to express here to my amazing friend and fellow LIVESTRONG Leader Shu Milne, to say that she has gone above and beyond in friendship over the last few days is putting it mildly. I also need to say Thank you to Team LIVESTRONG Chris Brewer and Helen Knost for their unbelievable support and warmth. Racing with LIVESTRONG is more like being in a family as opposed to being on a team. We had the most fantastic lunch with them and other members of the team on Friday. It really kicked my weekend off meeting them and the team  and hearing other peoples stories about why they race LIVESTRONG. The team is made up of a really diverse group of people but what we all have in common is what LIVESTRONG means to us and why we want to race Ironman for them.

It only hit me what I was actually doing when we went down to check my bike in to the bike park and leave my bags in to transition on Saturday evening. There is nothing like the sight of 2,500 bikes under the fading pink Mediterranean sun to make you feel oddly surreal. I had great plans to sleep well and of course I clocked about 3 hours in the end and found myself upstairs at breakfast in the hotel with my fellow athletes at 4.30 am . Shu met me in my room and we brought my special needs bags and swim bag with us for the walk to the start line.My impression of the  warm air in a dark morning walking through Nice carrying my wetsuit  as other athletes and their families made the same pilgrimage to the start line will never leave me. Again another surreal moment of many I was to have over the next few hours.

Shu had to leave me at the gate of the bike park and I was allowed to check my bike and sort out my bottles and then we had to move up and leave our swim bag in and then get changed for the swim. The whole time you move up through the bike park and on up to the swim start line friends and family can walk alongside you from the other side of the railing. Shu tracked me the whole way up and it helped so much. Once I was suited up though I had to head down to the beach on my own and that is when I psychologically started getting in to a bit of trouble. I was really overwhelmed. I will not pretend otherwise. There where so many people or should I say so many men and we where packed on to this small pebbly beach and they where pumping out this dance music and I was just getting more terrified by the second as jet skis and boats circled in front of us and the furthest swim buoy was pretty much invisible to my eye.

Then suddenly a girl was by my arm and she said hello and we started to chat. She said to me do you know that we make up 7% of the entrants in the race and I said I had some idea but I didn't realise it was that small. She told me she was from California and had just done the Triathlon escape from Alcatraz a few weeks ago and she just loves racing. She emphasised how she feels it is important for us as women to get out there and be visible racing. Then she told me that she is originally from Afghanistan and she was lucky enough to get to leave there when she was a child. She carries it with her always this thought, as she see's it about this opportunity of freedom that was afforded to her as a woman and how she must not waste it. Her way of honouring that freedom is to race strong . Her story completely took me out of myself and then all of a sudden she melted off in to the throng but she left me with her story and I felt stronger.

Not so strong that I was able to take to the water with everyone else when they crashed in like an avenging army. I can put my hand up here and say I did a sort of slide on my bottom in to the water while I watched it all spread out ahead of me in shock. So I just started slow and tried to pretend I was on my own and I stuck to the side so canoes where close by. By doing this eventually I must have caught up with a group of swimmers and then I just focused on them and watching whoever was next to me swimming. I only looked up too sight the odd time and just to listen if they shouted at us to get back over and if we where being led around a buoy. I didn't allow myself to think about where I was in relation to the coastline or how long I had to swim, I just kept it about my stroke and breathing and whoever was next to me. I had to swim slow too. My shoulder had been pretty bad on the swims since I had arrived and they had been 600 metres or so. This was 3.4km! There was one moment during the swim when the sun really started to rise and all I could think was how beautiful is this and how lucky am I to be sharing this ocean with 2,500 people on a Sunday morning.

After the swim I felt amazing but I realised as well that I had been quite slow but at this stage that didn't bother me as I was just reeling with delight from completing an Ironman swim. Like all my dreams I had ever had suddenly coming true in front of me. I ran past Helen coming out of the swim and she was cheering me on and then as I got on to my Bike Chris was there with his huge smile and that was fantastic as well. I felt good getting on to my bike but then I started to feel really sick in my stomach and this was the start of a day where pretty much thinking about your tummy off and on is an ongoing obsession, hence now I get this nutrition thing and how important it is. One lesson I have learnt is I actually cannot eat anything solid, like anything. I actually almost collapsed laughing at km 70 when they handed me my special needs bag that I had packed a baguette and crisps in to! I looked at it in horror and grabbed the Pepsi and handed the rest of the bag back.

I felt really sick for I would actually say about 100 or so km. I just kept on taking gels and water and coke anyway and kept on following a 15 minute rule with getting something in to me. I sort of had this routine in the end that I stuck to on the run with gels, coke, power bar mix and small bits of banana. Every time I even tried to have a bike bar I nearly got sick but I knew I had to keep getting calories in so it must have worked because I completed 180km of the most brutal, beautiful and terrifying bike course I have ever been on in my life. I met some great people a long the way too. Not many triathletes as the pack was long gone, I was very much one of the lone rangers and there where times that I really felt as if I was actually not even on course as I was just climbing up these mountains just me and the bike and the twisty road and this unrelenting sun searing you across your back as you inch up. It was so quiet at times that I found it meditative. I found it really peaceful up there just the bike and me up against those steep roads. It was painful and slow though. I was going very slowly and I was aware of that too. Once the descending starts though it is a whole other ball game as then I was fighting off vertigo at times trying not to look sideways on turns as I just did not want to know how far up I was descending from. At some point up there I pulled my knee pretty bad and it really started to kick in on the way down. By the time I was 60km away from Nice I was in a good bit of pain every time I turned the peddle on the right side. 10km out and it was screaming at me. But the adrenaline of trying to make it back before the bike cut off time was really pushing me on and I was getting a massive second wind. As I was biking along the promenade the marathon was in full swing and it was really spurring me on. As I jumped off my bike I asked did I make it? It was actually a spectator who told me that it was by 17 minutes!

I think I sort of knew after lap one of the marathon course that I wasn't going to finish but I just wanted to stay out until I knew for sure. There was this conflicting dream/reality thing still going on. The cut off at Nice is 16 hours not 17 hours and so because of that it was going to be really hard especially as my knee was getting worse. I jogged the first two 10 km laps only walking through the aid stations so I could do the coke, water and gel thing. Then on lap three I started walking and running was pretty much limping at that stage on the knee. I just wanted to stop I was so upset. I did think then of people who inspire me and LIVESTRONG and I kept saying come on just keep going. I really wanted it as well for myself and all day those words Allez Vanessa had been ringing in my ears. From early in the morning all through the day and now in to the night on the promenade des Anglais those two words had been shouted to me whether it was from young french cyclists out on a training ride bounding like kangaroos up the hills in front of me shouting out their encouragement in their wake, or people on the sides of the road, at the aid stations and now lining the promenade all calling my name. All my wonderful team LIVESTRONG Shu, Chris and Helen. Chris told me how proud he was of me when I started on the run and it really spurred me on and then Shu and Helen stood tirelessly about a third of the way from the finish line cheering us all on. I told Shu to give me an idea of my time doing the third lap as my garmin had died up on a mountain hours ago and anyway I was too tired to think for myself at this stage. When we realised that I had actually gone down to the snails pace of 1hr 30 minutes we knew that Ironman France had , had his day with me and he had won by 10km or so. 

It was hard walking back to the bike park on the other side of the finish line and hearing the spectacle that is an Ironman finish, especially one in the South of France. It is like magic the setting. Nice at night time with the Ironman party all around is again something surreal. But Ironman is not fair. It is your adversary and you either win or you lose. I think I lost fair and square. I did not expect to finish and I think I only got upset because it happened so close to the finish but once the reality of what I had actually achieved sank in I was able to let go of that pretty fast this morning. I decided to keep on with the Ironman this year so I could fulfil my commitment of racing with Team Livestrong Ironman. As I started training properly with the help of my amazing coach Claudia yes as each week went by I did keep thinking hey maybe I can aim for more than the swim , oh maybe I can do the whole bike and yes last week I started to think I might get off the bike too. Never once did I think I would finish and actually when I got to Nice and became very intimidated by the whole Ironman environment and the other athletes I started to feel like a fool and that I really shouldn't start, but I made myself start because all the support from Shu and Team LIVESTRONG and the inspiration I draw from the people in my life who are either cancer survivors or are people who are out trying to live their best lives, all of it pushes you to just try, and then finally that girl from Afghanistan her story probably got me in to the water. All our stories bound together can help us to do anything we want to do.

The only time I started wanting to finish the Ironman was as my amazing day unfolded in front of me. I will not pretend I was not terrified or felt completely out of my depth as an athlete compared to most other people. I wont say that I was not in a lot of pain too but what overrode it was the trip. The journey of that day in the sea and on my bike and on that long run was just amazing. I actually loved every single second of it. Ironman is a sensory , emotional , physical and mental experience like none other. Everyone is out there driven by something. Everyone is pushing themselves so hard you can feel it and to be part of all that energy even as the lone ranger close to the back is like none other. My coach said to me that Ironman is about you being empowered to see that anything is possible, well she was not wrong.

The only thing is Ironman France has 10km or more belonging to me. As I took off in the plane over the promenade today I looked down on to the marathon route and I said I will be back. Last night I lay with a cold heinekin can in place of ice on my knee as Shu said the ice machine was well and truly cleared out. Suprise suprise! As I lay there I said never ever again, but as every good defeat you wake up the next day feeling stronger.  I replied to one of Helen's emails just before deciding to write my blog before sleep and I thanked her for all of their support. I also said that it had been so inspiring hearing all the team members stories. I told her that I will be going back to Nice in 2013 in exactly the same tri vest  racing for LIVESTRONG and both raising funds and trying to get that last 10km or so for my medal. More than ever now I want to keep racing for LIVESTRONG and more than ever I want to keep racing Ironman. What ever happens in the future Team LIVESTRONG Ironman will keep getting stronger as a team both in Honor of the ultimate athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and also to keep raising funds for the LIVESTRONG mission to serve the 28 million living with cancer. I have a feeling that there are a lot more potential team LIVESTRONG Ironmen out there!

Thank you to every single person who supported me in my dream to be a member of Team LIVESTRONG Ironman and most especially to all my donors. As in the absolute bigger picture we are all out there supporting the 28 million living and fighting cancer every day of their lives.

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