I DID IT, Y’ALL!!! WHAT. A DAY.
The week leading up to the race was crazy. It was the longest 7 days of my life. I spent most Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nervous-cleaning my house, doing laundry, frantically cooking, and otherwise trying to keep myself busy. Thursday and Friday was spent in The Woodlands picking up my packet, attending the pre-race briefing, attending the athlete dinner, doing the practice swim and dropping off my bike. By the time Friday evening rolled around, I was an overly emotional and terrified mess.
I woke up Saturday morning at 2 a.m. after just four hours of sleep. Drank some coffee, got the rest of my gear together and was in the car by 4 a.m.
At 5 a.m. we arrived at the course. I stopped in transition, aired up my bike tires, dropped off some food and then Jason and I walked, not to the start line but to the finish.
I needed to see it. I needed to see where I was going.
I took a moment to really think about what I was going to do that day. I wanted to soak it all in. After a couple of minutes of standing there in silence, it was time to walk the mile plus to the start line. Once we got there I spent 10 minutes trying to wiggle myself into my wetsuit and I was ready to go!
After the cannon went off, it took about 15 minutes for me to make my way to the water because of the crowd. I seeded myself with the 1:30-1:40 pace group which turned out to be perfect.
Once I was in the water I immediately got overwhelmed. This was only my second triathlon (the first was a sprint) and only my fourth open water swim. I had little experience navigating murky lake water and even less experience fending off the hoards of other swimmers. I swam a couple of hundred yards then went over to a kayak where I stopped for just a second to let my heart rate slow down and get my bearings. Once I was calm, I put my head down and started swimming.
It went by fast!
The course was crowded and the visibility in the lake water was less than 12 inches. With my face in the water all I saw was a greenish haze with half-second glimpses of the outside world everytime I turned to breathe. I swam the entire course doing a modified catch up drill – kinda like a boxer with both fists up to protect his face – I didn’t bring one arm down until the other arm was in front of me. Protecting my face from the kicking feet of the swimmer in front of me was a priority. It slowed me down significantly but it saved me from losing my goggles at least once.
Before I knew it, I had left the lake and made the turn into the canal. Swimming through the canal was amazing! Hearing the spectators cheering, and seeing them on the bank as I turned my head to breathe was energizing, to say the least.
At one point about a half mile from the swim exit I turned my head to breathe and I saw Jason who had spotted me and had his cell phone out.
As it turns out, the part of the race I was the most worried about was my favorite. I like open water swimming!!
Total Swim Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes; 4397 yards; Average Pace: 2:11/100 yards
A quick trip through the changing tent then it was onto the bike.
The beginning of the bike portion was uneventful. It was around mile 25, that things started to get interesting. I noticed a little tickle in the back of my throat and I started coughing. I attributed it to the wind and kept on going.
The majority of the bike course was on the Hardy Toll Road. The highway offered zero shade and even though it was a calm day the wind funneled down the unprotected road. It didn’t seem to matter which direction you went, the wind was always there.
Knowing my watch battery wouldn’t last the entire race, I had taped a portable battery and my charging cable to the aero bars of my bike so I could charge my watch as I rode. Around mile 38, I hit a bump in the road. The charging clip fell off and dangled precariously beside my front wheel. I panicked a bit and tried to reach down to get it back but before I had a chance it caught in the spokes. The clip pulled right off the cable, and disappeared on the Hardy Toll Road. I never saw it again. The charger was useless.
My watch battery was destined to die. It was only a matter of when.
Around mile 62, I noticed the inside of my left knee started to hurt. Not bad while spinning easily on the flat portions but noticeable when I was climbing the overpasses. With 50 miles left to ride, it was concerning to say the least.
At mile 70, I started sniffling and coughing uncontrollably. Earlier that week, Evelyn had spiked a fever and everyone in my family, except me, got a nasty cold. In the middle of the bike leg my immune system finally gave up.
By mile 82, my knee started hurting badly enough to change the way I was riding. I couldn’t use it to pedal uphill at all. I was forced to pedal one footed for the climbs and slow down significantly on the flats. Pushing down with my left leg was unbearable. I was praying that the muscle that hurt wasn’t one I needed to run.
The coughing and sniffling got worse. I started blowing snot rockets off the side of my bike so I could breathe. My throat was so sore I had to stop drinking Gatorade because it hurt to swallow. I switched to only water.
It got HOT out there on the road. The sun was unrelenting. In my mind the Hardy Toll Road was one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell – I spent at least a half hour trying to decide which one it was.
Sometime around mile 90, I met a guy named Daniel. He came up from behind me and slowed down to talk to me some. It felt great to have some company though it hurt my throat to talk. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in almost 5 hours. He stayed with me for about 45 minutes until we left the Hardy Toll Road at mile 103.
Total Bike Time: 6 hours, 47 minutes; 110 miles (the course was 2 miles short), Average Speed: 16.2 mph
By the time I finally got off my bike I was beyond tired. I stayed in the women’s changing tent for what felt like forever just trying to regain my composure.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“Ugh, I’m fine.”
Was I really fine? No. I was exhausted. I wanted to go home and take a nap. I was ready to be finished. But I still had to run a marathon. Holy smokes.
Just after I left the transition, I heard my name shouted over a bullhorn, “JONI BUCK!”
A couple of friends were waiting for me. The bullhorn scared the crap out of me and I felt my whole body tingle as the adrenaline shot through my system.
“What were you doing in there?”
I joked, “I was hoping that if I stayed long enough they’d give me a pedicure.”
“How do you feel?”
And so the run began.
Thankfully my knee that had been giving me problems on my bike didn’t bother me on the run. The first few miles were fine. I ran between the aid stations and walked a bit so I could eat and drink. They had coke at the aid stations and thankfully, that was something I could swallow without it making my throat hurt. I survived off coke, orange slices, a few potato chips, and base salt.
At the mile five aid station, I wiped snot off the side of my nose and when I looked at my hand it was covered in blood. The combination of the dried salt on my face and the nose blowing had rubbed the skin off the side of my nose and it was bleeding uncontrollably. I had a baby wipe in my belt so I blotted it as I ran but it wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Around mile 7, I went under a bridge and was shocked to see my sister-in-law, with my infant niece, screaming at me. I had just finished thinking that I wished I could see my family. Her timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“Oh my God, you’re here!!!!”
I kissed the baby on the head and felt a wave of energy.
I finally made it to a medic tent at mile 8, and they gave me some Vasoline to stop the bleeding. By that time I’d soaked through the baby wipe AND a wet sponge that I picked up at an aid station.
By mile 10, the incessant coughing and heat combined to make it insanely hard to breathe. I occasionally have bouts of exercise-induced asthma and though I haven’t had issues with it in a couple of years it chose Saturday to make a reappearance. For 8 miles, it felt like I was breathing through a straw. I was feeling desperate and beginning to wonder how I was going to finish. I passed some friends on the course.
“How do you feel??”
“I. Can’t. Breathe.” pant “I can’t catch my breath.” pant
It was then that I starting fighting the tears.
If the bike course was a circle of Hell, then the run course was the Pit of Despair.
I had to start walking just so I could breathe. Once the sun went down and the heat relented, the asthma got better, unfortunately, by then my legs had turned to useless bricks. My quads and hamstrings were all but seized up and to run I had to swing my legs back and forth with as little motion as possible. But it worked so that’s what I did.
At mile 16, I began having stomach issues. I took a swig of coke and had a slice of orange and felt like I was going to vomit. By that time it was 7 p.m. and I’d been going for 12 hours. I was STARVING from not having eaten solid food all day but the thought of eating made me want to barf. I switched to only water and base salt. I quit taking in calories entirely for fear I couldn’t keep it down.
Around mile 18, I found a friend. As I was talking to him I was panting, and crying. I was in a significant amount of pain and was miserable. I wanted to quit. He reminded me that walking was an acceptable mode of transportation. So I started walking with the occasional “running” break. In reality, the run wasn’t much faster than the walk but it made me feel a little better.
Around mile 20, the lack of calories caught up with me. I got dizzy. REALLY DIZZY. Like I might pass out, dizzy. I couldn’t even walk in a straight line. In fact, I walked right off the edge of the sidewalk into the bushes – not on purpose.
Someone asked me if I was okay and I told them no.
“There’s an aid station just around the corner. They have chicken broth. Go get some.”
It probably was only a couple hundred yards to the aid station but it took me 10 minutes to get there. At that point, I was walking a 30 minute/mile…and it was a dead sprint. That was all I had.
It was then, in that 10-minute walk that I started to think that I might not make it. I had NOTHING left. No energy. No will. No desire. Nothing. Zero. And I was still 6 miles from the finish line.
At the aid station, I stopped and sat down on a bench. It was the only time during the entire race, save the first 200 yards of the swim, that I stopped moving. A volunteer from the aid station brought me two cups of chicken broth and two cups of Coke, and I didn’t move until I was sure my blood sugar had stabilized and the dizziness had passed.
Once I started moving again I felt slightly better but only slightly. It was then that God introduced me to Oscar.
We ran into each other on the course. He was suffering from awful blisters on his feet and his stumble resembled mine. We spent the next 4 miles distracting each other. Cussing. Making jokes. Complaining about how we never wanted to see the Hardy Toll Road again. A few other people joined us.
Someone mentioned how beautiful the moon was, then someone else joked that all those poor people that had already finished didn’t get to enjoy it. We all chuckled a little but realized he was right.
Magically my 30 minute/mile turned into a 16 minute/mile.
When we passed the mile 24 mark I knew I was actually going to make it, I left Oscar and was determined to run the rest of the way. I needed to finish alone. I needed to do this by myself.
At the last aid station, someone offered me Gatorade and I waved them off yelling, “I’M NOT STOPPING FOR ANYTHING!” The volunteers erupted in cheers and that’s how the last mile of Ironman Texas started. When I saw that mile 25 sign I told myself something that I’d said hundreds of times before.
You can do anything for a mile.
…then my watch died.
For a mile, I limped, hobbled, stumbled, grimaced and fought tears but I finally found the arrow pointing to the finish chute. When I turned the corner there was my family.
MOM!!! The kids ran toward me and started running along beside me on the sidewalk. I gave them hugs and left them there to make my way down the finish chute.
When I saw the spotlights, the crowd, and the red carpet the tears I’d been fighting off for hours erupted out of my face. There was no stopping them.
Before I even knew what was happening my feet hit the carpet, and I heard those words…
Johanna Buck, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!
I had been thinking about that moment for the last 4 months. Every time training got tough, I imagined hearing those words in my head. Over and over. I pictured it happening. Hearing them for real was a moment I will never forget. EVER.
Then I collapsed into the arms of a stranger and cried some ugly but very happy tears. I was done. I actually finished.
140.6 miles. 15 hours, 28 minutes.
According to my watch, I burned nearly 7000 calories that day. The equivalent of running almost 3 marathons. It was the single most difficult and painful thing I’ve ever experienced.
Though I can view the activity on my watch, since my watch died the file is incomplete and I can’t get it to upload to Garmin. I did an Ironman and have no record of it, which I’m strangely okay with.
You know that phrase mind over matter?
The whole you can do anything you put your mind to thing is WRONG.
My mind gave up at mile 130. With 10 miles to go my mind quit on me. It no longer cared if I finished. It said, “This is impossible and stupid. Do the smart thing. Get in a golf cart and go home.”
My heart, however, had not given up. I wanted it. I wanted it more than I’ve ever wanted anything else. I’d spent thousands of dollars and I’d given up hundreds of hours with my family to do the training. I missed early morning cuddles with my son and late-night TV watching with my daughter. I’ll never get that time back. I wasn’t about to let my weak mind derail all that sacrifice.
At 6:57 a.m. I started Ironman Texas with my mind, and at 10:28 p.m. I finished it with my heart – because that was all I had left.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat. It was the most rewarding experience of my life. I had a lot of time to think on Saturday and I learned a lot about myself and about perseverance.
There’s an important lesson here and it’s this:
Don’t do hard things, do IMPOSSIBLE things. Because once you’ve done something IMPOSSIBLE nothing will ever seem hard again.
In my mind, completing an Ironman was impossible. Though I’m a good runner, 18 months ago I couldn’t swim the length of the pool, and I’d never cycled more than 10 miles. I didn’t even own a bike. It was a year of learning, growing, taking risks and working harder than I’d ever worked in my life to do something that I’d deemed impossible.
Will I do it again? You bet.
It’s been four days since the race. The four days leading up to the race were some of the slowest of my life, the four days since have been the fastest.
I woke up the morning after without even a twinge of soreness. Tight, maybe? Sore, no. I went running again not even 48 hours after I finished. I’ve scrubbed off most of the race tattoos, the sunburn on my legs is turning to a tan, and the cold is almost gone. It’ll be a while before I take off these bracelets though. They’re gonna be around for a while. 🙂