Before there can be iron, there is ore: A primitive mineral lying dormant for countless millennia beneath numerous layers of debris. It possesses little value until it is first wrested to the surface and then pummeled into a fine dust, mixed with coke and limestone and then fed into a white-hot blast furnace measuring 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the slag waste is raked out, it can then be poured into pig iron ingots—the base material for what will eventually become the steel I-beams used to construct skyscrapers, railroad tracks and bridge girders. Iron smelting is an energy intensive, brutal process. But it is the necessary transformation required to produce a tremendously durable, yet flexible building material.
We are all beings engaged in the process of becoming.
My journey to becoming an Ironman* began in earnest eight months ago when my friend Misty Brawner suggested we take the next leap forward in our athletic adulthood. We had trained for and finished numerous half and full marathons and several triathlons of varying distances. But, to us, the full Ironman distance had always been a daunting jewel dangling impossibly high above and beyond our limits. In the back of our minds, we’d always felt like quasi-athletes, but never the serious sort capable of covering 140.6 miles in a single day. I don’t recall exactly what inspired us to sign up for the 2013 PPD Beach2Battleship Full Ironman race, but dropping $600 on this race’s registration signaled a change in our tune. In the year we would both turn 40, we wanted to become Ironmen. And we had somehow managed to rope our good friend, Beth Shepard into joining us for the Half Ironman distance. Armed with a solid training plan and the go ahead to spend vast sums of time away from our family from my wife, Suki , thus began our dedication to wrecking ourselves by running, biking and swimming an average of 20-25 hours a week. In the six months leading up to our race, I covered approximately 1700 miles biking, 600 miles running and 70 miles swimming. Over the last two months of our training schedule, our weekends consisted of little social interaction outside of our triangle. And this crucible became apparent in the faces of the loved ones in our lives, as our lengthy absences had become a serious point of contention. Fortunately we’d endeavored to persevere and had managed to acquire bits and pieces of multi-sport swagger as the miles wore us raw. You cannot do this alone. And you absolutely cannot do it without the full support of the people who matter the most to you in your home life. By September she had decided that since Beth had covered just as many miles as we had, she would up the ante and race the full Ironman distance with us. The pre-race plan was to finish our race as we had trained—together. October 26th had arrived impossibly fast. After a 17 hour drive to Wilmington, North Carolina our race day had leapt upon us before we had a chance to rethink our decision.
Rather than give you a mile by mile break down, what I’d rather say about my race day is that those 14 hours and 52 minutes were the best day of my life. I know convention dictates by best day be the day I married, or the day my daughter was born. I can’t lie. As a young man I had expected to one day marry. As an adult I was fairly certain I would eventually become a father. But I had never anticipated, nor planned for the day that I would become an Ironman. Not in this lifetime, any future lifetimes or lifetimes spent in parallel universes. It just wasn’t supposed to happen. Honestly, I don’t care much for surprises. As a matter of fact, there isn’t much I do that hasn’t in some way been rehearsed. But I was truly floored when I saw Beth and Misty pull into our bike special needs** stop at mile 56 of our bike leg. Exactly as we had planned. The day before our race, the three of us agreed the first one who reached this spot would wait ten minutes and then ride on to finish his or her race. We all wanted to run our own races, but if it were possible for us to finish together, this ten minute window was an easy sacrifice to make if it meant we could make our team finish dream a reality.
I came out of the water about ten minutes ahead of my teammates. Save for the fact that the transition from swim to bike (T1) included hobbling in bare feet over the coldest pavement that ever graced a Siberian gulag (the air temperature at that point of the day was 41 degrees Fahrenheit) my swim went exactly as planned. Even though I ended up swimming a bonus .4 miles, my sighting skills are worse than terrible, the water temperature was a blissful 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the tide was a gentle roll inland and the sight of the sun popping over the skyline of beautiful beachfront condos was breathtaking. As a memento I swallowed some inter-coastal Atlantic Ocean brackishness and am reminded of it every time I eat something salty. Once out of the water, I ran to the wetsuit strippers and threw myself on my back, both legs splayed and hiked up high in the air as two volunteers descended upon my suit. I shuttered to myself briefly on the thought that this was as close as I would ever get to a pelvic exam. Once collected, I lumbered through a warm shower stall that felt like heaven on a biscuit. This brief sip of joy ceasing once feet were back on the pavement. Spirits soared when I passed by our amazing Sherpa team and waved a half-assed “Hi” on my way to the men’s changing tent. Here I managed to pull on my cycling gear despite the carnage of sweaty, musty humanity surrounding me. I’ll go light on the details, but the unique form of scrotal humidity created by the salves, creams and balms being applied chased me out of that tent like I was a convict just released from a Turkish prison. Add to this the fact that any and all lithe, youthful flesh had already exited that tent thirty minutes prior. Nothing in life could have prepared me for this. You know what else you can’t anticipate?: That frantic search for your bike. I exited the changing tent and scanned a horizon littered with bikes, most of which were a lot better than mine. Some of them were cleverly marked with helium balloons or scarves draped over their handle bars. Yeah, that woulda been a good idea. Naturally, my bike was way over in the back row. I grabbed her and clip-clopped over to the area designated “Don’t mount your bike before this spot or a volunteer will tear you a new one” and then waved another confused “Hi” to our amazing Sherpa team. Have I mentioned our amazing Sherpa team? More on those very special later.
The first half of my bike leg was unremarkable and probably best characterized as one of my lower points of my day. I was lonely, had been battling boredom and a head wind most of the morning and I was ferociously looking forward to the Coca Cola, Bert’s Bees lip balm and a refreshing replacement smear of Buttonhole cream for my backside waiting for me at Mile 56. I made a huge left turn at mile 50 and leapt out of my skin when, once again, I saw the familiar faces of our amazing Sherpa team. Did these people hop in to a wormhole? Their cheers succeeded in making a morose sunny day joyous, and my speed over the next six miles reflected this. Upon reaching my scheduled stop, I dismounted my bike and handed it off to an angel of mercy who racked it for me and then retrieved my special needs bag. I had just cracked open the Coke when Beth’s gorgeous smile pulled into the special needs stop, with Misty immediately behind. They were only five minutes behind me. And the miraculous sight of their faces was a gigantic shot of vitamin B12. With our team assembled, our Ironman finish was simply a matter of time and patience. And the last half of our bike leg proceeded beneath an endearing halo of fellowship, with Misty as our time keeper. We had taken a page out of our Ironman Coach Mackenzie Rickman’s playbook: We would all eat something every 15 minutes. Which we did. And I don’t think either of us has eaten a Shock Bloks since. Of the three of us, Misty is the strongest cyclist. Her jokes, even the bad ones, pulled us out of the last thirty miles. Regardless, those miles were monotonous: Like listening to a bad Maroon Five song, stuck on repeat. I’d become so transfixed by the surface beneath me that when I saw “110” marked in white paint it hadn’t dawned on me what that meant until I moved my gaze up towards the skyline of Wilmington and realized the longest bike ride of my life would be finished in just two miles. I sounded Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp, elated that this chapter would soon be over, that my pummeled posterior would find some relief, and that I would no longer have to eat Shock Bloks or cold cheeseburgers. BTW, take a quick guess at who was waiting for us at T2? Our amazing Sherpa team.
I’m glad I took the advice of fellow Ironman, Amanda Gerke and made a full change of gear at T2. Armed with a fresh change, good spirits and the prospect of doing something besides sitting on a bike seat, I anxiously joined my teammates and embarked upon our next travail. Riding centuries is something we’d grown accustomed to, but none of us had come remotely close to covering 26.2 miles running after one. Daunting, to say the least, but we’d planned on running to and stopping at each aide station in order to break the distance up. B2B did a fantastic job of keeping them loaded up with carbs, fruit and my new favorite marathoning treat—hot tureens of chicken broth. Once my body figured out how to metabolize the 3000+ calories I had ingested on my bike, the first thirteen miles of our marathon were total bliss. The run course was two lengths of the same out and back, which put the finish chute tantalizingly close mid-run. After the turn, we headed back out of town and passed our Sherpa team at mile 14. It was encouraging to hear from them that we looked like we were having so much fun. Because we were!
All of our fears about not finishing were melting as we approached each aide station. In preparation for my run, I had packed some prescribed painkillers in my SpiBelt in case my fragile glass ankles provided the need for a nuclear option. No need. By mile 15 it had begun to get dark and seeing our own feet had become an issue. Overall, I will fault B2B on little, but the lighting they provided was Spartan, at best. What looked like illuminated hot air balloon canopies awaited our arrival at each aide station, and we heard rumors that alligators had been spotted on certain portions of the run course. Personal safety was now an issue. Regardless, we sallied forth, mutually agreeing that as long as we made progress forward our Ironman finish was imminent. We had made a big left turn at mile 20 to the songs of two young women whose vibrancy was so uplifting I had emailed the race director afterwards to let him know. While your body, mind and spirit might give you an Ironman finish, it’s the charisma of others who make it pleasant. The next faces I recall were those of Amy Livesay and Colleen Parsons, right around mile 25. As they ran alongside of us, with Amy pushing a stroller loaded with both of her young children, and Colleen pumping her fist enthusiastically, the three of us sped up to our fastest pace of the day. Amazingly, despite only having trained four months for our race, we had power in reserve. Our last half mile covered cobblestone, which felt like a cruel joke, but the site of the finisher’s chute, pulled us forward. We crossed at 14:52, eight minutes shorter than what I had expected.
If you are looking to read a conventional race report, stop here. While those fourteen hours and fifty-two minutes comprise my all-time favorite day, they are a tiny blip on a voyage wandering across a map that took six years to chart.
Grateful that in my journey I would stumble upon the frankness of Dr. George Prica. Six years ago I had blown a life insurance application on the grounds that my blood sugar was three times higher than average. Dr. Prica assessed the problem on his first sight of me: “You’re a diabetic. And if you don’t make some changes in your life you won’t be able to walk your daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.” Moments of extreme gravity find their way into the long term memory verbatim. This diagnosis as a Type II diabetic would mark my first baby steps towards becoming an athlete. My journey to becoming an Ironman began in principle that day.
Eternally grateful that the arc of my life includes the inextinguishable light of Amy Livesay. My journey to becoming an Ironman begins in practice early one morning, in a dark back room of Wilson’s Fitness Center. I had just started occupying the back row of her 5:45 am spin class. It takes an incredibly vibrant personality to illuminate a dark room at that hour. She’d mentioned over her microphone this crazy idea of training for a half marathon. Imagine, me a distance runner? Never gonna happen. Regardless, I followed her plan as if it were a religion, and after eight months completed a joyless half marathon on a sweltering Midwest July 5th morning. Hardly a coincidence, it was in that same spin room that I heard Amy utter what is now my mantra: “You are stronger than you think you are.” That statement ignited the spark on what would become my Ironman dream, albeit that faint flash of light was still several galaxies away. Notwithstanding, I am convinced, now more than ever, that there are no coincidences in life.
Over the years that followed my quest to becoming a legitimate athlete began gathering steam. I had competed in dozens of half marathons and become a marathoner twice. I also participated in several sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. And then, in the Winter of 2013 I fractured my ankle while roller skating. (Okay, technically, posing for a picture while *wearing* roller skates.) Suffering as a teacher: In truth, I had become over-confident. I had forgotten that I was and always will be a mortal athlete. Desperate for good news, and an easy way back to my feet I consulted three podiatrists. All of them, to a man, said the same thing: I would need to find a new hobby that did not involve running. I spent the next 2 ½ weeks sulking as a deep snow fell on Central Missouri. Eighteen days of staring despondently at the Flemish tapestry hanging above our couch and cheesing out to “Downton Abbey” and Percocet– my rock bottom.
I acknowledge now as fact the following: Few things in life can turn a piss-poor attitude around quicker than having people believe in you. In the weeks immediately following my accident I was the beneficiary of this dynamic force, which I would liken to the mysterious substance anti-matter—once existing only in theory, but now credited with the explosion that created our universe. A thimble of anti-matter contains the energy equivalent of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It’s powerful stuff. And I owe an unrepayable debt of gratitude to those who bestowed there’s upon me. Over the course of a few months my ankle healed and in April I ran a half marathon at Rock N Roll Nashville, where I set a PR on Nashville’s rainiest day of 2013. Ironically, that same month would mark the spot I fell in love with swimming, and a few months later I would begin training for the greatest day of my life.
Over the years I have discovered a force that is even more profoundly compelling: Having my family be proud of me. My quest to becoming an Ironman required the sacrifice of those things most injurious to me—cigarettes, refined sugar and alcohol. This last one I have not consumed in almost two years. On June 4th, 2013, the anniversary of my first year of sobriety, my wife told me she was proud of me. While training for Wilmington, on days when I thought I had nothing left—that I was spent and raw to my soul—I would recall that conversation and a jolt of super-charged blood would surge through my heart, restoring energy reserves and elevating my spirit. The night before my Ironman race she quietly handed me a note handwritten by our then 10-year-old daughter, Madeline. In it Madeline also told me she was proud of me, and that she would buy me an ice cream when I got back. I slept that night the peaceful slumber of angels, eager and not he least bit afraid of my race the next day.
We all possess the base material needed to become an Ironman. Our only limitation holding us back from achieving our dreams is a malleability of spirit and willingness to surrender to the sort of transformational changes needed to become one. But we do nothing alone. Also essential is surrounding yourself with good people. I have countless to thank, but here I will mention a few:
My wife, Suki Lycke: You are the poet in my heart. Thank you for being there, believing in me and being proud of me. You are an Ironwoman of the highest degree.
My daughter, Madeline Lycke: You are the finest human being I know. You never fail to make your Mom and Dad proud1
Team TEEM!: Misty Brawner and Beth Shepard. Was it destiny or dumb luck that the three of us would fall into each other’s lives and finish 2013 as Ironmen? We covered 140.6 with smiles on our faces the entire day. We rock!
Ultramax Sports/Amy and Mark Livesay: Amy, because you believe in people, even when they cannot do the same for themselves. And Mark, for negotiating with B2B to get Beth in to the race after the deadline had passed. TWICE.
OUR AMAZING TEAM OF SHERPAS!: Colleen Parsons- we literally walked to our swim start because you are a master of logistics. Karen Rouse- for coordinating their movements. Jennifer Lycke, for awesome photography skills. Amy and Suki, for reasons listed above. And to little Eli and Emery Livesay—for being such awesome troopers.
Our Ironman Training Coach Mackenzie Rickman—Thanks for delivering to us a training schedule ready right out of the box. And for tolerating our countless stupid questions.
Misty, Beth and I are already looking toward the future, and the prospect of another Ironman, possibly Ironman Brazil, Florianopolis, 2015. I promise that race report won’t be so long.
*Full-disclosure: Beach2BattleShip is not an Ironman branded event. It’s 140.6 miles regardless, so if you’re the sort of ninnies who would like to point out that I am technically not an Ironman, I warmly encourage you to find a way to deal with this one your own.
** If you’re unfamiliar, special needs in an Ironman race is a bag you pack with any nutritional, gear or “comfort” needs you might need at the halfway point of your bike or run leg—gels, tubes, air, etc.