Ironman Triathlon: The Call of the Mdot


February 19th, 2014: We just arrived in Melbourne a few days ago and preparations for Ironman on March 23rd are obviously underway.  The gorgeous stretch of road that hugs the coastline from Frankston Pier (scene of the swim) to St Kilda beach (the finish line) is packed with athletes, many of them sporting Mdot tattos, compression socks, and most noticeably, that fierce, exhausted expression that is a hallmark of the final weeks of Ironman training. For the cruise ship passengers in the area who might not recognize the tell-tale signs of an Ironman about to happen, there are other clues: A curious van with a large Mdot painted on the side; signs warning of impending road closures; fighter jets buzzing the beach in preparation for a race-day fly-over.  Ironman fan or not, you can’t possibly fail to notice the charge of electricity in the air.

I love the Ironman (can you tell?).  I’ve completed three Ironman races and I still get tears in my eyes when I think about the start, the finish (especially that voice over the loud speaker saying “Nan Dawkins, YOU are an Ironman!!!!”) and everything in between.

What is so compelling about the opportunity to swim 2.5 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon? I can’t speak for the thousands of people world-wide who have completed an Ironman, but for me, the spiritual part of the experience was perhaps more powerful than the athletic endeavor.  A moving meditation, my Ironman journey was a fight to quiet my mind, a battle between my head and my body for ultimate control over what happened next (one foot in front of the other or collapse and give up).

I’d like to say that I’ve “been there and done that” and that there will be no more Ironman races in my future.  I’m sure my doctor hopes this is the case (and believes that this is the case since I promised him several days before my last race that I would never do another one if he would just give me the cortisone shots I needed in my foot and shoulder).  But, like childbirth, time has passed and I often find myself toying with the idea of “just one more”.

Why do another one?  I’ve got the badge of honor (3 times in fact).  Why put myself through the agony of at least a year of gruesome training and the absolute certainty of another (maybe multiple) overuse injuries?

The most compelling reason is simply the opportunity to feel the intensity of race day again.  I love the butterflies in my stomach, the fear that I can’t do it, the moments that make me question my physical — and mental — capabilities.  I love it all and I hate the thought that I might never experience any of that stuff again.

I also love the remarkable people that inevitably show up in Ironman training groups. They say that a friend made in the Ironman is a friend forever and this has certainly been true for me.  The biggest gift I received from Ironman is three of my very best friends in this world (Stacy, Susan and Larry).

And yet….

I suspect that noble reasons such as the thrill of race day, the people and the opportunity for another spiritual quest are not what calls me back for another go.  Rather, it is my fragile ego.  The goal of a first Ironman is simply to cover the distance in the allotted time, but after that first trip across the finish line, a little voice in your head begins to whisper: “In my next race, I will [fill in the blank]”.  In both my second and my third Ironman, circumstances contrived to bring me across the finish line a full hour and a half after my goal finish time.  If I could just do one more race, I’m sure I could post a better finish time (says the little voice in my head).

And what’s wrong with that?  Setting a fitness goal is a good thing — until it isn’t.  In Why I Ran a Marathon, Qualified for Boston, and May Never Race Again, Laura Schwecherl describes the dark side of intense training for endurance events:

“Instead of feeling strong, I felt weak.  Instead of feeling like I was in the best shape of my life (which I was) I felt broken….My body was constantly hurting….my appetite was out of control….I became obsessed with numbers…Success was running under an eight minute pace on the roads — it didn’t matter if I felt steady or strong.”

I hear you, Laura.  I’ve been there (except for that 8 minute mile part — I WISH I’d been there).  On my last 100 mile training ride before Ironman Cozumel I too did a bit of crying and a lot of swearing, especially when I glanced at the Garmin and saw how slow my exhausted legs were pedaling.

And this, I think, is probably the real reason I haven’t signed up for another race.  At the end of the day, you have to love Ironman training as much as you love race day.  I’m just not ready to go back to an aching body, trips to the doctor to beg for a cortisone shot so that I can ignore the latest injury, and having my whole life swallowed up by running, biking and swimming a bjillion miles each day.

Today, this morning, I don’t want to go out and run, bike or swim (or a combo of those three).  I’d much rather rest up so that I can go to White Night in Melbourne tonight with my daughter.  We’ll eat a fabulous dinner, drink some wine and complain (incredulously) about how nothing fits when we go shopping afterward.

I’m sure I’ll have a moment where I yearn for the thinner, tighter body that was mine in 2011 when I was training for Cozumel.  But then I’ll sleep in tomorrow morning, head out for a light run or maybe just a yoga class, and have the afternoon to do whatever I want  — for example, I might poke around on the Ironman web site looking for 2015 races.

Naaaaaah….just kidding.  I’m on a quest for a more balanced life.  And since “Ironman” and “balanced life” are mutually exclusive, I’m going to resist the whispering in the back of my head.

But next year, who knows?  The call of the Mdot is never very far away.


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