An Ironman race is the monster of all triathlons. It is comprised of three events; swimming, biking and running. Having 17 hours to complete a 3.8 kilometers open water swim, 180 kilometer grueling bike loop and 42.2 kilometer marathon run, this event is the ultimate test of endurance.
On August 21st 2016, exactly 20 days before our wedding day, Joey and I joined an elite group of athletes when we finished our very first Ironman with a time of 15 hours and 20 minutes. But our journey didn’t start on the day we completed our first Ironman, it started nine months before when I first jokingly tossed around the idea.
Joey and I were no strangers to triathlons. Being both seasoned triathletes and well rounded athletes, we have done our fair share of endurance sports. But as much as we’ve competed in physically demanding events, racing an Ironman is a totally different ball game.
Apparently Joey and I were suckers for the challenge because about a month before Christmas, the training officially began.
Despite our busy life, we made room for the intensive training and dedication. Six days a week we were either on our bikes, in the pool or on the pavement. I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t hard, mentally draining and slightly depressing. Finding the drive and willpower to dedicate all of your free time to training can be very isolating. Alone I don’t think I could have done it. Together Joey and I found the strength and motivation to keep on top of our training.
It was one thing to hear stories about athletes not having the energy to finish their race. It was another to actually witness it. Athletes not eating correctly and having uncontrollable diarrhea explosions in their wetsuits, athletes vomiting and collapsing due to dehydration.
Most recreational athletes don’t put much thought into sports nutrition, and I will be the first to tell you I was one of them. I have always understood and applied the concept of eating healthy and making sure to refuel after a workout. But it was only after meeting with a couple of amazing dieticians, that we realized how this step in our Ironman preparation would make or break our race.
With Mohamed Rezk at Redirect Nutrition Joey and I worked on our hydration plan and salt consumption. I have never been a big fan of sports drinks and find them hard to consume while in the midst of a workout. Under Mohamed’s guidance in the early stages of our training, we tested our sweat ratios while biking and running (the two biggest and most demanding portions of the Ironman race). I was shocked to see that during training Joey consumed one bottle of gatorade for every two bottles of water (of the same volume) that I drank, and I still ended showing more signs of dehydration than him. Scientifically I understand that sports drinks are meant to help with hydration, but I had never imagined that I would see it so drastically in a three hour cardio workout. Needless to say from that day on I made sure to incorporate some sports drinks into my hydration regimen.
The second nutrition resource that we consulted with, is a family friend and active triathlete who had previously completed a half Ironman. Registered Dietitian Julia Besner at Fundy Nutrition Consulting was an invaluable resource for figuring out carb loading, our race day food plan and post workout snacks. Her exceptional knowledge of endurance sports and the foods that are easy for your body to breakdown while in the heat of a race gave us a base to create a nutrition plan. Thanks to Julia’s advice; plan your diet and stick to what your body has trained with, we had a flawless race with no vomiting, no bowel issues, no nausea or discomfort that typically happens after 10 hours on the course. As far as I am concerned we had fuel in the tank and didn’t stop until we crossed the finish line!
Considered to be the best run Ironman event in Canada, the quaint village of Mont Tremblant is the perfect setting for a world renown race. Joey and I arrived in Tremblant a week before the race to get out on the race course and get used to our accommodations. It was a bit of a stressful week for both of us, me trying to finalize a few of our impending wedding plans and Joey trying to get rid of a recurring back injury that had been haunting him for the better part of the summer.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, two days before the race a scary family incident brought to light a hereditary heart condition that could have been passed on to Joey.
Long Q-T syndrome is a rare heart condition that gets its name from the longer than normal QT interval seen on an electrocardiogram. As miniscule and unnoticeable as this interval may be, this delay in the repolarization of the heart after a heartbeat can lead to episodes of syncope, cardiac arrest or even sudden death.
Ever hear of those mysterious cases of marathon runners dropping dead in the middle of a race for no apparent reason? That can be attributed to an undiagnosed case of long QT syndrome. Given that we were about to take on one of the hardest and most physically strenuous challenges of our life you can imagine how our world was turned upside down.
Just when things were looking pretty grim for Joey competing in the Ironman, we managed to get a last minute electrocardiogram at the local hospital. The test results, while not 100% conclusive, showed that he was in the clear. Tremblant Ironman bring it on!!
At 3AM our alarm clock resonated through the apartment and we got up to make what would be our last solid meal for the next 20 hours. We arrived at the racecourse at 4:30AM and did a gear check before getting our body marking. By 6AM the transition area was closed and every athlete and spectator made their way down to Tremblant Lake.
Aside from the sensory overload that I was feeling from the sheer size of this event, one thing was going through my mind as I geared up for the start of my race; what if I don’t finish? Looking at Joey’s face I could tell he felt the exact same way. Heart racing a million miles an hour, thousands of people with all eyes on you, nervous would be an understatement to describe how we were feeling in that moment.
We decided that we would run this race the way we run our lives, the way we had trained; together. We both didn’t come this far to not finish, and by gaining strength from one another and making sure the other would not give up we knew we would finish the race.
Split into gender and age categories I started almost 10 minutes behind Joey. As the hundreds of women in my group gathered in the departure area, I took a spot towards the back of the pack, I did not want to end up trampled by this herd of women about to be set free in the lake. The countdown started and fireworks broke the air instants before we hit the water. It was complete chaos for the first 200 meters with bodies and arms flying everywhere. Once the crowd thinned out I found my rhythm and slowly made my way through the rough chop of the lake.
My first Ironman milestone was running up the beach after the swim and pulling off the top portion of my wetsuit. A little disorientated from coming out of the water, a “Stripper” volunteer yelled at me to lay down on the ground. In one swift motion almost lifting me off the mat he yanked my wetsuit from my body. Throwing my suit over my shoulder I raced barefoot through the sea of people all the way to the transition tent. Along the way I caught sight of my family, cheering louder than anyone out there, for the first time since they’d dropped us off at 4:30 that morning.
The weatherman had called for a miserable day and that finally came true when we were on our bikes. Pouring rain and chilly wind drenched us in no time as we completed the first loop of the bike route. I passed fueling station after fueling station, throwing my empty gatorade bottles into hockey nets and gathering new ones. At every opportunity I gathered as much food as my pockets and hands would hold and forced myself to eat and keep up my strengths.
At a particularly treacherous part of the course I climbed by a gory bike accident that happened only instants before my arrival. The crash easily involved 10 athletes, one in particular who was lying unconscious face barely recognizable from being scraped across the pavement. My first gut wrenching reaction was to look for Joey in his red helmet.
I caught Joey on our second lap of the bike course, not before he had blown a flat tire and hydroplaned down a hill. We kept each other moving forward, refueling at the food stations and making sure the pedalling didn’t stop. We passed Mom, Dad and Beaner on the sidelines. Even though it had been raining for hours they never left the course. As we closed in on the transition zone we handed our bikes off to some volunteer staff. It was a real treat to have someone else take and parked our bike in the huge transition area.
Hardly believing that we were now two-thirds of the way done this crazy life goal, Joey and I ducked into the changing rooms to suit up in dry running gear. It was then that I chose to read my motivational letter. Prior to the race, a friend who had previously competed in an Ironman recommended that we ask someone very important to us to write a sealed letter that would be opened during the last leg of our race. A motivator that would help us, in spite of being tired and in pain, reach the finish line. I had asked my sister to write a little something, so you can imagine how my heart melted when I opened it to find a little something written from my entire family.
At around 3PM we set off for the 42.2 kilometer run, the first time Joey and I had ever run a marathon. It was about at this point in the race when I told Joey to never let me do something this stupid ever again.
We alternated between running and walking sections of the running course. Watching the athletes around us, the rate we were speed walking was pretty much just as fast as running and at this point it was significantly less painful on the body.
When nighttime fell volunteers started handing out glow sticks to athletes on the running course. Joey got me about 5 so I could make bracelets and a head band. I was a glowing neon iron-princess.
At 10:15PM we began to approach the stadium. Even from a few kilometers away I could hear the crowd roaring as athletes crossed the finish line. As we entered the village the die hard spectators, that had weathered the miserable day, kept us going with positive encouragement. There were so many people and so much noise that, even at the end of such an exhausting day, it was hard not to find that surge of adrenaline to race across the finish line.
The only thing I can remember as I crossed the finish line is running hand in hand with Joey and seeing my family screaming their heads off in absolute pride and joy. The booming voice of the announcer came over the loudspeaker: “Alisha and Joey you are Ironmen” and it almost sounded surreal. It was like I was watching everything in slow motion.
As soon as we crossed the finish line our metals were placed around our necks. Not gonna lie, mine felt so heavy I almost topped over. I think it was the sheer exhaustion from the day that was to blame.
Right after we had gotten our awards, volunteers walked us to the finisher area making sure we didn’t need medical attention. Next we were wrapped like baked potatoes in a tinfoil heat blankets and given huge plates of pasta and chocolate milk. Even though I didn’t feel hungry I forced myself to eat as much as possible, knowing I needed to fuel my body. All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep.
After gathering our gear, we made our way back to the Airbnb, grabbing that burger I had been craving on the way. Then the following day we checked out of our accommodations and made the trip back to Toronto. Thank goodness for my mom and dad who took care of all the driving. We were exhausted and I can hardly imagine needing to drive five hours home after such a demanding event.
In the few days after the Ironman Joey and I could barely move, but surprisingly our bodies bounced back really quickly. We were even in tip top shape for our wedding a mere two weeks later.
Completing an Ironman was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. If it was easy it wouldn’t be called an Ironman. The race and everything leading up to the race challenged me in ways I could never have imagined. It was the ultimate test of mental, emotional and physical fitness. But now that I’ve done it, I feel like anything is possible.
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