COURAGE MAKES A NICE GIRL A NEW GIRL IN NICE.
Allez! Allez! Courage! Courage!
[Alllllleeeeeeee! Allllllleeeeeee! CouRRrr-ag-ueeerr! CouRRrr-agueeerr!]
When people talk about an Ironman, courage is not often brought up. In France however, courage was in the breath of the day; in wind, in word, and in action. Courage is the at the heart of every athlete who attempts an Ironman; it is the fire that gets us out of bed at 5:00am for a Saturday 100-miler brick, it is the belief that enables us to dream and actually pay $650 to attempt the race, and it is the anxious confidence that we feel at the water’s edge race morning. 20x Ironman triathlete Mitch Thrower understands that this courage comes from perspective, and that gift of perspective is the very reason we pit our minds against our bodies for this ultimate endurance challenge. He says, “like life, where a cutoff clock with a different chime looms on some distant horizon, the triathlon gives us perhaps one of the greatest gifts of all — the gift of perspective.”
I was excited about doing my first Ironman in France, mostly because I was looking forward to hearing how the French would cheer, and also because I wanted a reason to return to the country that I love. By race day I had triumphed over my fair share of obstacles — primarily mulch and sidewalks– that lead me to a new pink Felt B-10 bike, custom painted to sport my favorite thing about the French: joie de vivre, or joy for living.
The French Riviera was alive and well race morning, with 40,000 spectators and French cheerleaders flooding the promenade and pebbled beaches. Yes, cheerleaders. In my twenty-two years of the sport of swimming I have never in my life been cheered for by pompoms. With a French DJ riling up the crowd from an elevated platform, I was herded down to the water alongside my closest 2,500 wetsuit-clad pals. The DJ had the bass and techno remixes bumping, and lucky for me, I had come prepared for the party covered in glittered wonder.
[Nota bene:] My priorities race day are always a bit different than most of my competitors. This day, my morning prep included gold glitter body spray, silver glitter eye shadow and Vaseline to make sure that the glitter would stay on. My bike-to-run transition bag included glitter hairspray and more body spray so that I could be sure to still look alive, happy, and sparkling during the marathon. It’s not the traditional approach, but it works for me and I make an endless stream of curious friends in the process.
Back to the pompoms. I have never seen pompoms close to water. I was overwhelmed with pride for the sport of swimming, which in my mind, at that moment officially became a contact sport. Little did I know what awaited me in the Mediterranean waters. It makes sense now that France would have Ironman cheerleaders pre-swim.
The swim was mortal combat.
I have been doing open water races since the ripe age of 9 years-old at the Jersey Shore. I can sight buoys through choppy waves, I can fight for space, and I have mastered my technique for gracefully running over anyone that gets in my way. This swim however was different. This was the hardest swim of my entire life, and I have done a lot of swims. This wasn’t a swim, it was a battle.
Gone were my glittered hopes of just finding smooth water, and my race plan of “enjoying the scenery” sunk faster than the bodies that were getting dunked in the first 100 yards off shore. Naively, I had started the swim still singing along with the DJ, without an ounce of a warm-up, and anticipating a leisurely swim in the Mediterranean where I was planning on looking for fish in the clear blue-green waters. Instead, I was faced with 2.2 miles of uninterrupted foot and elbow battle. I would try to sneak to the outside of the pack, and inevitably one of my fellow pack swimmers would scoop me back up and press me back to the center of the swimming, fighting mob. The upside is that I didn’t have to spot even once during the swim, for I found it much less dangerous to dig my head in deep and follow the churned waters than risk bruising my pretty, glittered face from an angry foot in front of me. In the final 0.2 miles I finally found some smooth water, able to sneak away from all the blue caps, which I am convinced, were extra committed to taking my pink cap down. Needless to say, when I finally was able to put my feet on the bottom to start my run up into transition, I was tempted to not even look at the clock, knowing that my swim was slow due to my 2.2 miles of thrashing about. Disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to swim any leisurely backstroke (which was in my original race plan), I did manage a glance at the clock on my way out of the water.
56:48 swim. Much better than anticipated.
People started shouting at me. I seemed to be getting way more cheering and encouragement than I normally do; it was sort of a V.I.P. treatment. I started hearing echoes in French of troisième fille (!!!!), troisième fille (!!!!) from the crowd, but it didn’t register until an official pointed to me, looked me in the eyes, yelled THIRD WOMAN, and, when I slowed down abruptly from shock, started yelling at me again, Allez, allez!!!! Courage, courage!!!!
Now this was a conundrum for me. What to do? Ham up the crowd and soak up this attention, or get on with the race and try to stay in front of some of the pros? After my two minute jog down the longest, yet most picturesque transition area ever, I decided to stay true to myself and to enjoy the glory! I double-checked the position of my hair bun and the alignment of my Pepto Bismal pink Rudy Project helmet, grabbed all my snacks for the bike (none of which I actually ate), and waved to the crowd like a champ with a huge smile, knowing that I was about to have my pride stomped by all of the professional women bound to blow by me on the bike. Now the game was just to see how long it would take everyone to catch up.
Originally I had been concerned about how to keep myself mentally occupied through the entirety of the 112 mile bike course, and lucky for me, I found myself equipped with this brand new game to play — how long could I hold the pros off? Not long it turns out.
The first hour of the bike was flat and fast. It should have been easy to get my heart rate into Zone 2, around 140bpm where it was supposed to be, yet all of my swim-to-bike transition excitement kept it at a solid 168bpm, my Zone 4. Not the zone for an Ironman. Yet spectators kept shouting courage to me in French and telling me that I was the third, then fourth, then fifth, then tenth place woman and well, I didn’t want to let them down.
[Nota bene:] A month before I left for France, I attended a fitness conference where a speaker challenged the crowd of fitness professionals from all across the world. In a room of over-achievers, NFL trainers and exercise science gurus, he challenged us to be the “most positive person we know.” Taking the challenge to heart, I included this goal in my original race plan for France. I knew this would be a battle till the end, as my dear friend Adam Chaney was also doing the race, and up to that point, Adam had been the most positive person I have ever known. This race was my opportunity to change that. I knew that this day would forever change my mindset, or my perspective as Thrower would say, and that the thoughts I chose to think those twelve hours would determine much more than the outcome of that day. Somewhere on that course I knew that, at any given time, Adam Chaney would be smiling, happy, high-fiving himself, and without a negative thought in sight. I had to not only match that, but surpass that. That mastery of positivity was more important to me than qualifying for Kona or breaking twelve hours, it was mind control that I had yet to have ever conquered.
There’s nothing like facing fear with a forced smile, which, in short, can summarize my bike report.
The climb of the course started with a 12% grade surprise and weaved itself up the switch-back roads of the Alps for three solid hours before breaking into flat road or downhill. The heat was especially intense in the altitude, and the aid stations were positioned on sloping scenic look-out points, where, after successfully dodging a potentially race-ending accident at my first station, I decided to take advantage of the company provided by the volunteers and began dismounting my bike at each following break point. Hopping off my bike, volunteers would be concerned, to which I then got the opportunity to practice a few jokes in French, pour two bottles of water on my head to cool down my body temperature, and then head on my merry way, refreshed from the minute of companionship and encouragement I received. The best part of the aid stations was that my love for pink and my joie de vivre bike really paid off: without fail, every time I prepared to re-mount and face the climb, a little French man would eagerly run over to me, wait for any judges to pass, and then grab the back of my saddle yelling allez-upppp, pushing me while running for a good 200 yards uphill. I whizzed by my struggling comrades and was able to get back on course without losing time at all. God bless the color pink.
The rest of the bike course was a series of struggles and triumphs of what seemed to be endless climbs, and then incredible downhills with switchback turns where my greatest struggle was to decide whether I wanted to be reckless and take my eyes off the road to absorb the breathtaking views, or to focus on the curves, many of which didn’t have any guardrails. I spent my time listening to spectators yell courage, courage, courage at me and gauging hills by playing a new counting game — this one was endless and sometimes disappointing, but entertaining nevertheless. Every hill I approached I took a bet with myself as to how many peddle strokes it would take me to get to the top. Nothing can pass minutes like a hill that you gauge will take you 400 peddles that ends up taking 3,578.
The last hour of the bike seemed surreal. Fighting off charlie horse cramps and side stitches, I couldn’t stop smiling in disbelief. I was on my way to becoming an Ironman. I had climbed the hills that I thought I couldn’t, and I had been able to smile the whole way. I had heard the word courage more times in those six hours than I have cumulatively my entire life. There is something about climbing the Alps with onlookers yelling at me to have some courage that has forever changed my perspective.
Bike: 6:38. Good enough for me, a girl with far too many bike wrecks to her name, in the Alps.
Transition two was flawless. I chatted with a neighbor as I changed into my yellow running shoes, and he complimented me on “being smart” as I took the time to re-apply my glitter body spray. I think he thought it was sunscreen, but I’m just going to be positive here and assume that he knew it was glitter and was jealous that I had the foresight to know the importance of sparkling during a marathon.
It’s a funny thing when you start running a marathon after already exercising for eight hours, there’s a sort of, well, je ne sais quoi about it that makes it sort of magical and almost fake. I trotted out of transition and onto the course, not knowing how my body would react, with bated breath just waiting to see if my body would obey my command. It did. In fact, I felt better than I should have, and that scared me. As I thought about slowing down, onlookers yelled Allez! Allez! Courage! Courage! at me and then something clicked inside me. Courage personified itself in the hot pavement of the road and with each jogging step I took, it was all I could think about. And so I embraced it. Confident with this newfound mastery of courage, I entered euphoria and began happily waving to every onlooker that would yell out my name.
Four loops of a 10k course along the Promenade d’Anglais, the run was transcendent for me. The turn around of each loop ended at the Nice Airport, and I have never been happier to see airplanes in my life. The other end of the course was where the finish line was, which in essence, was an all out dance party lead by the race DJ and cheerleaders. Instead of being jealous every time I had to pass the finish line and not get to finish, I was overcome with goosebumps and chills that propelled me into a deeper trance of determination. It was a strange twist of determined, painful joy.
I read once that perception makes time elastic, and that is exactly what happened along the French Riviera for me. I didn’t feel pain, I felt exhaustion. I didn’t feel thirst, I felt dehydration. I didn’t feel heat, I felt high. My eyes locked in on every aid station, with the occasional tourist glance towards the picturesque coastline and loud palm trees, only focused on getting from mile two to mile three, then mile twelve to mile thirteen, and finally mile twenty to mile twenty-one. Time meant nothing and seemed both forever and nonexistent.
With no ice on the course, no cold sponges, no chicken noodle soup, and no electrolytes, the aid stations were mere excuses for a small respite from the sun and a refreshing bite from an orange slice. They were amazing nonetheless.
Reaching the last three miles of a Ironman is an indescribable moment, perhaps more significant that actually finishing, for it is at that point that you know that you will finish. I was a kid chasing candy my last three miles, a delusional kid, yet still focused.
There is a moment of disbelief that overtakes you when you first enter the finishers’ chute. It isn’t shock. It isn’t even disbelief. It is pure, unadulterated joy. It is joy that I have never felt before, so monumental for a first-timer that, at that very moment, I was able to realize that I was crossing a threshold in my life. That moment changed me. It proved to me that I can claim courage, joy, and positivity to my identity. It was the moment that I, a swimmer who never thought they could run more than three miles in a row, achieved something beyond my wildest dreams. It was the moment that I realized that life, and our potential, is truly limitless.
As unexpected tears poured through my eyes across the finish line, I experienced satisfaction beyond understanding.
Ironman France: 11:48.16, 5th in Age Group 25-29. Courage forever changed.
Triathlon’s universal allure stems from the beauty within that worked to achieve the beauty without, and the awe-inspiring human form in motion can achieve breathtaking things. -Mitch Thrower