It’s December … and I’m just attempting to recap my experience at IRONMAN Maryland now. The race was held September 20th; almost 3 months have passed. I tried many times after the race to sit down and just write, but I often found myself staring at a blank computer screen. It seems almost foolish to write it now, but a fellow racer reminded me that it is never too late to document such a special and unique journey.
Why I couldn’t write it afterwards? I honestly don’t know. The last post on my blog has been of my DNF (Did Not Finish) in Lake Placid…so actually giving the full distance another try, and finishing is a dream I am so, so proud of. And I think that was part of the problem. I was so overwhelmed from the entire experience, I was fearful words wouldn’t do it justice. The race itself was so magical; so many emotions comprised those 16 hours, 28 minutes and 47 seconds. How could I possibly convey everything?! But, in the end, I write for me. I write because I like to, and I want to have something to remind me of this experience. And if it happens to help others who are thinking about embarking on a similar journey, then that is an added bonus – one that helped motivate me even more to finally sit down and write!
I registered for IM Maryland on September 10th, exactly 10 days before the race. … It took me a long time to actually register, but ever since I failed at my first IRONMAN attempt after 130+ miles (you can read about that here: https://erikaruns.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/ironman-lake-placid-my-first-dnf/ ), IRONMAN Maryland had always been on my radar.
But clicking that big red “Register” button and actually committing to Maryland was difficult – the thought of spending $700 for a race I had the potential to not finish again was scary. Besides the money, I didn’t know how I would handle another DNF; I would be devastated and humiliated all over again, and I knew that if I didn’t make it a second try, it would be a while before I tried again. But at the same time, I knew I would hate myself if I didn’t go for it.
After signing up, I tried to go into this race with a totally different mindset than with LP. Before, I had been extremely stressed and put a lot of pressure on myself. And I knew I was going to be extremely stressed with Maryland (maybe even more so!), but I tried my hardest to just relax. I was very aware that I could fail again, and I tried to be okay with and prepare for that possibility. I knew I didn’t have a solid nutrition plan. I knew there would be a lot of unknowns come race day. I didn’t know how my body would react to attempting another full IRONMAN just 8 weeks after Lake Placid, and 3 weeks after finishing a half. Would it be too much? But, with persevering and by not giving up, I also knew there was a possibility that I could finish, and that is what I clung to.
Whatever happened, I knew I would have a great experience with teammates and I was excited to experience the thrill of an IRONMAN race again.
My parents and I drove down Thursday night after work, and went through athlete check-in Friday morning. It was official, no turning back now! I had fun with my parents walking around athlete village and exploring the small, friendly town of Cambridge, MD. We ate at a cute little restaurant, took pictures, walked along the shore and checked in my bike and gear bags. And thanks to Got Chocolate Milk, my parents and I had VIP status for the race. I was extremely grateful, for I knew my parents were going to be treated well while I was out on the course for who knew how many hours!!
I also had a blast meeting some of my Got Chocolate Milk teammates — all of them have raced multiple IRONMANs and are pretty much all around a-m-a-z-i-n-g. They make these races look like a breeze, and being around them really helped to calm my nerves. We talked, we laughed … and they even convinced me to take a pyramid picture. Days Weeks before an IRONMAN, I walk around like bubble boy trying not to hurt anything, so getting on my hands and knees with someone climbing on my back was kind of a big deal for me. 😉 But it aligned perfectly with my goal of just trying to have FUN and enjoy the weekend with great people, no matter what the outcome!
Got to transition around 4:30 am or so … checked my bike, gear (all okay and ready to go!) and met up with the Team one more time for some pictures, laughs, and final “Good Lucks!”
The Swim ~ 2.4 miles (01:45:16)
With a high focus on nutrition, I remembered to have a GU about 30 min. prior to the swim start. After that, I put on my wetsuit, hugged my parents, and self-seeded myself in with the 1:30 expected swim time group. There were no pros at this race, so when the cannon fired at 6:50 am, the age-groupers immediately began entering the water.
Entering the water was a little slow, but we still all managed to be in the water by 7:05 or so. As we all had to enter through a narrow boat ramp, it was a little bottlenecked at first. But once we made our first right turn, it opened up. Having only swam in lakes (free-style anyways), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the Choptank River. It was brackish water, so half fresh, half salt. Thankfully, it wasn’t very different from my past open-water experiences. You could definitely taste the salt, but it wasn’t overpowering. But the water was dirty, and I couldn’t see anything. It was nothing but black/brownish water, then foggy cloud for the entire two-loop swim.
Knowing we had 2.4 miles to cover, I knew it was going to be a decent amount of time in the water. It was also a little choppy being out there, but not as choppy as the swim I had done in Lake George 3 weeks prior. I just tried to find my rhythm, stay swimming in the right direction, and to stay calm. If I did those things, I knew I’d be getting out of the water eventually. But dang, did the swim feel lonnnnggggg. I felt like I was swimming forever!!
And I guess I was. For when I finally reached the exit and saw my watch, my Garmin read a time of 1:45 — 15 minutes slower than my goal time. But even so, I was very happy to be exiting the swim! One part was DONE, and I made the 2:20 cut-off!! And I later learned that just about every athlete had a slower than expected swim time, by about 10 minutes or so, due to a current. Its weird to think that I was out there swimming for that long of a time, non-stop … no touching bottom, no grabbing onto a raft, etc. –> When I first took up swimming back in March, I had NO idea how I would finish a half-Ironman swim of 1.2 miles. It’s amazing seeing yourself progress, and to break through ceilings you previously believed in!!
T-1 ~ (10:32)
Coming out of the water, I was smiling, until I took off my goggles — OMG. I felt like I ripped off all the skin around my eyes. Those babies were super-sunctioned to my face … it hurt!! But the sting quickly wore off and I was back to smiling and running my way through T-1, smiling and waving to my parents! There was a quick stop at the wet-suit strippers, then it was off to the changing tent to switch into my bike gear!
The Bike ~ 112 miles (07:19:48)
The 112-mile journey was extremely scenic, and pancake flat. Totally different elevation compared to Lake Placid. Of course, there are pros and cons to a flat course, just like there are to a hilly course. With a flat course, you get no respite from pedaling. And if its windy, it can feel like you are climbing, except there is no reward of a downhill. But man, did we really luck out weather-wise! The wind was minimal: under 10 mph all day! It was just a beautiful, sunny day!! The weather could have easily been different; Cambridge often has much, much windier days. But as with any IRONMAN, weather is out of our control. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. And I think we were blessed with the best!
The first half was smooth-sailing. I was cruising at a moving speed of about 17 mph per my Garmin, and I was all smiles. I tried to sit back, pedal and enjoy all the wonderful scenery – it kind of reminded me of movie The Lion King! And at one point I looked down and saw a ladybug on my handlebars. That made me smile, as I took it as a good luck sign. And I immediately made a wish that I would reach the finish line — a wish I thought about many times during the next 10+ hours!
I was also EXTREMELY focused on eating and drinking during this segment, since nutrition is a huge weakness of mine. I struggle to consume enough calories and fluids … and my past plans have failed. Severe dehydration ended my day in LP, and when I experiemented with new things in my last half, I faced extreme stomach pains. So even though I was focusing on it, I didn’t totally know what to expect, or how I would feel. It was going to be another day of experimenting.
I made a bottle of Hammer Perpetuem, a high-calorie endurance drink (my bottle had 540 calories) at T-1, and again half-way through the bike. It kind of tasted like chalk, but it was an easy way to get calories and fluids in at the same time. I also had CLIF bars, Lara Bars, high-calorie granola bars I bought at Whole Foods, salt tabs (didn’t end up taking any), and a bunch of pre-made packets of GU Brew, an electrolyte powder I would dump in my water bottles at the aid stations.
I tried to drink at least one full bottle of water/GU Brew every half-hour, and consume 250-300 calories per hour –> more than triple what I did during the bike portion of Lake Placid. I think I succeeded, and for the most part, I felt good. And having to stop and quickly use the restroom each hour during the bike, I knew I was drinking enough.
The last 40 miles were rough. I’ve rode centuries before, both flat and hilly, and I’ve never had my toes hurt as bad as they did then. I had to mentally start breaking down the miles into segments of 5 to keep going; and I seriously contemplated asking a volunteer if they had a pocket knife or something so I could cut the tops of my shoes with. I didn’t, I kept pushing through, but I worried how the run would be with my toes being in so much pain. I was worried. … But I wasn’t alone. I stopped at one point to just put my feet down for a second on the ground, and another biker said she was experiementing the same thing … she told me to try pulling up more on the upstroke, and that did seem to help relieve some pressure on my toes for the final 12 miles in.
And I was OH, SOOO happy when those 112 miles were done!! And just like in LP, I was super grateful for no flats or mechanical issues!!
I pulled into the transition area after 112 long miles, and immediately saw my parents waiting for me. I think I looked better at this point than I did in LP (no tears!), but I also knew the next and final segment was going to be a longggg road to the finish. It was going to require every ounce of my being to keep moving forward. To start the journey, I knew I needed fuel, so walking out of T-2, I ate the chocolate brownie LaraBar I had left from the bike (220 calories).
The Run ~ 26.2 miles (07:03:32)
Starting the run, the sun was beating down strong with the temp being around 80 degrees. It was HOT, and there was virtually no shade on the course. Athletes who had already been on the run course for some time looked pretty drenched in sweat. Fearful of what happened to me in LP, I decided to start out walking. I figured when the sun went down I could start running. I knew I drank wayyy more during this bike portion, but I knew dehydration was still a risk since I was basically winging my entire nutrition plan.
And the run is where I started to struggle big-time with nutrition. The LaraBar I ate at T-2 was basically the last food I could stomach, besides a handful of potato chips at one of the first aid stations. After that, I survived 26.2 miles on nothing but water, Coca-Cola, and chicken broth. Definitely not ideal. I tried to grab 2 of the tiny cups of water at every aid station, but I was worried about my electrolytes and salt intake. I’ve heard horror stories of athletes having to be hospitalized from over-hydrating on water and depleted sodium levels. So I still tried to get things down, but I gagged trying to drink the Gatorade Perform, and I did the same thing with GU’s. After one such attempt with a GU, I thought I was going to hurl right on the course … which lucky for me, the photographer happened to capture:
…And it had the potential to be such a great shot!! 😉
The run was comprised of three loops, each loop being a little over 8 miles. I finally saw my teammates on the first loop of the run, who all gave me hugs! And being able to see my parents two times every loop was super motivating for me … but I also fell apart each time I saw them. Yes, there were tears. Lots of tears. I would cry, shake my head, and tell them I couldn’t do it. Every time I passed them, it felt like it would be forever before I would see them again, and I doubted if I could finish.
But I kept moving forward, and when my Team Chocolate Milk Teammates were finished, they were out on the course by the finishing area to cheer me on as I passed. And Dougin gave me great pep talks to keep going, making me believe I could do it. They were tracking my pace, and kept telling me all I had to do was keep walking, and I would finish. He told me I would be much happier with myself if I didn’t give up, and I needed that reminder. It couldn’t have been truer.
But by mile 11, my legs and toes hurt so badly I felt like I was walking on stress fractures. And knowing I wasn’t even HALF-WAY through was ROUGH. But talking to other athletes who were walking helped to distract me, and it was comforting to know I wasn’t alone. Everyone out there was experiencing the same thing, and no one was giving up. And everyone roots for each other. Such a beautiful thing.
I grew hungrier as the miles ticked by as I started the second lap, and I just kept trying to drink Coca-Cola (and I never drink soda!) … It was the only thing I could stomach with calories. The second lap was long … and making that third and final turnaround was the hardest. As it was about 9:30 or so at night, just about everyone was making the left hand turn towards the finish. They were done. I had to turn right, and venture into the darkness for another 8+ miles. I kept trying to tell myself just one more lap, just one more lap … but I was bawling as I ran at the only pace I could … a snails pace.
And then, out of the massive crowd, this woman came up beside me, running alongside the outside of the barrier, yelling, “I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BUT DO NOT GIVE UP!!! I DON’T RUN, AND I AM RUNNING NOW TO TELL YOU THIS! YOU CAN DO THIS; DO NOT GIVE UP!!!” She brought a smile to my face as the tears fell, and I can’t even tell you how much this stranger’s act of kindness impacted my race. Her words literally helped carry me through that final stretch … I will never forget it!
And when I passed my parents again on that final loop, my dad started walking with me along the sidewalk. We promised my mom we’d see her soon, and with his help (He stayed with me for two miles, waited for me to head out to the out-and-back, and then walked back those two miles with me!!), we saw her again around 11:15. I had about ONE MILE LEFT!!
We knew at this point I would make it … and the three of us headed towards the finish area from transition as one. When we reached the finish area, they went into the VIP tent as I headed up the street to do the last 1/2 mile turn-a-round. This time, turning LEFT into the cheering crowd instead of right back into the darkness. … I couldn’t have been more excited!
The Finish (16:28:47)
The finish was everything I had dreamed it would be, and more. To finally see and hear the finish around 11:30 pm, after starting at 7:00 am, was unreal. SO. MANY. EMOTIONS. I will always remember the song that was blaring as I ran (lets be real, waddled) down the finisher chute with the largest smile on my face and tears in my eyes – Pink’s “Raise your Glass.” People were yelling, clapping, whistling, and wildly offering their hands for some awesome high-fives.
And then I heard the six magical words I had waited so long to hear, “Erika Morrissette, you are an IRONMAN!!”As I crossed the finish, I waved to my parents and teammates who were right there in the VIP tent. I can’t tell them enough how much it meant to me to have them there. … I DID IT.
I’ve dreamed about crossing that finish line for over a year, and it will forever go down as one of the best days of my life. Even though I am extremely slow and finished almost last; even though I finished with less than 32 minutes to spar before the 17-hour cutoff. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about my time. For me, finishing signified so much more than just a time. I’ve quit so many things in my life, but today, I didn’t quit. Throughout this entire journey, I didn’t quit. I perservered when times were rough. I dug deep and found strength I didn’t know I had. I believed in myself and kept moving forward. I proved to myself soooo many things, and I will be forever grateful for that.
You doubt yourself. You say you can’t do something. And then you DO IT … There is NO greater feeling!!
Afterwards, I immediately caught up with my parents and teammates (who all rocked the course, and who stayed to watch me finish!) — for some hugs and congratulatory words. I was hungry, but I couldn’t stomach any food directly after the race. Instead I grabbed two bottles of chocolate milk (my always go-to!) and it has never tasted better! I drank them sitting with my teammates in the VIP area, talking about our days as we watched/cheered on the final finishers of the night.
When midnight fast approached, everyone started to head out, and I said my goodbyes to my teammates. I cannot even imagine how I would have gotten back to T-1 to pick up my gear and bike had I gone to the race solo. Again, SOOO glad my parents were there! My dad was able to grab my stuff from transition while I was on the run, so he had the car packed and ready to go. And instead of having to walk 1+ mile to the car, he grabbed the car and picked my mom and I up basically right at the finish.
But without a hotel room, we were heading straight back home to Albany. Note to self: after working out for approx. 17 hours, getting in the backseat of a car for a 7+ hour drive is not the brightest idea! I can only imagine what I must have looked like walking to the bathroom at rest areas. I don’t believe I’ve ever been as stiff and sore in my life!! BUT — there was absolutely no complaining from me! And since I couldn’t sleep (I was on CLOUD NINE!! — and maybeee the 4 liters of Coca-Cola played a role), I just sat in the back, rehashing the day, with the BIGGEST smile on my face … for the entire car ride home.
I think I am still smiling — 3 months later! Just the best weekend!! SO THANKFUL for every single person who helped me, believed in me … and for all of the amazingly kind words I received from friends and family. I am so blessed to have such caring people in my life!! This experiernce WOULD NOT have been the same without you all — so again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart!!
And last but not least … if dragging my parents to MD to spectate for a short 17-hour race wasn’t bad enough, they surprised me with this treat Sunday night. ❤
I wont tell you how big my slice was 😉
And … that 140.6 bumper sticker is finally on my car! 🙂