These wise words aren’t mine, any sports fan – especially any student athlete from NC State – can tell you this quote came from the epic Jim Valvano (aka Jimmy V) acceptance speach at the 1993 ESPY Awards. This quote has always spoke to me because as an athlete you are often faced with the question “to continue or to quit.” And everytime I ask myself that question, I think about Jimmy V and his outlook on life in a fight greater than whatever (trivial) obstacle I am facing. And I instantly gain perspective and I continue on with more passion and enthusiasm than before. Jimmy V said, “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities, It cannot touch my mind. It cannot touch my heart. And it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” And he followed up by saying “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” While this has always been on of my favorite quotes – it was my mantra on April 1st, 2017.
After a few physical health set backs, a ridiculous work schedule and what I can only refer to as “The Ronald McDonald Diet” I still decided to give IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside a shot. If you’ve read my previous post, you know the history – but reguardless – I committed to race and come hell or high water I was going to stick to that commitment.
My doctors gave me the thumbs up but gave me the instructions to “Have fun and be smart – if it’s not fun anymore or you’re working against your current treatment, STOP!” So I made the trip to Oceanside, a race I had been successful at in the past and have competed at the same distance three times previously. And I told myself I was going to give it a shot and stop whenever it became to much and I was mentally prepared to receive a DNF (race code for Did Not Finish). And most importantly listen to my back specialist, acupuncturist, occupational therapist, physical therapist and general practitioner (who already scheduled an MRI for the week after the race be she wanted to “plan ahead”).
I am an anxious triathlete. And by that I mean that I get really bad race anxiety the night before a race. If you are an over anxious triathlete too we should start a support group (meetings start every Monday at 6:00pm… I’ll be there at 4:45pm and then wonder if you remembered it was 6:00pm and check my post repeatedly to confirm the time till you arrived).
The night before a race I have to sleep alone (no one else in the room) the night before a race because I have trouble sleeping and slightest noise or movement will trigger my impulse to reorganize my transition gear and double check every item I brought to the race. March 31st (Day 0) wasn’t too bad – I only organized my gear 5 times, race to my car 3 times, went to the grocery store once and the convenience store twice (I had to get my “lucky” Gatorade I can’t race without).
So sleeping less than 2 hours before race day I left my hotel at 3:30am and was the second person to park in the parking structure at the race site. I forced myself to eat my Pre-race rawberry Poptart (again – tradition or obsessive compulsive – you decide). Then I got to the transition area exactly at 4:30am when it opened even though my race time didn’t start till 7:40am, but like I said “anxious.”
Usually I have a race crew, but with the events leading up to the race I honestly didn’t think I was going to attend and told my support crew (partner, parents and siblings/nieces) not to make plans to attend. My first words of advice to anyone doing a big race (“big” is up to your personal discretion) is to have someone there for moral support – big fail on my behalf. I’m pretty confident (“pretty” being an understatement) but I missed having someone to assure me that I was going to do great, pick up my transition items for me and be there to cheer me on through the course and be there for the finish line. The feeling of being on a risky solo mission only increased as the thousands of spectators and family members lining the perimeter of the transition area and not having anyone there sucked (my mature adult point of view). My point of this rant – the anxiety continued to build.
Thankfully I ran into a good friend who was doing the race with me who helped me gain some confidence before the race started and in true millennial fashion – took a pre race selfie!
The morning was FREEZING. I’m talking 45-50 degrees outside and on the concrete harbor with the ocean breeze making the air miserable. The perfect temperature for being in lightweight spandex and a wetsuit (which immediately makes you regret eating every French fry you’ve have in the last year). THEN the race begins – oh wait, never mind. The “rolling start” began… This new approach to starting the swim start is new for IRONMAN and is great for the majority of competitors, but not for those who get over anxious. I watched as the Pro Males started, the Pro Females started, the 30 minute finishers started, and so on, and so on… People kept pushing their way infront of me in an already cramped and uncomfortable situation (don’t get me started on wetsuits) and it was not the a good start to the day. So after getting in line at 6:45am – I didn’t enter the water till 7:40am – but atleast the water was 63 degree which felt great compared to the chilly harbor breeze.
Don’t get me wrong – IRONMAN hosts and amazing race and Oceanside is the perfect location – please don’t misread my insanity as a poor review – I’ve just sharing my personal experience (it’s a positive story, I just haven’t gotten there yet – please hold).
To summarize the rest of the race – I had to tell myself to suck it up, tell my brain to inhale confidence and exhale doubt, put faith over fear, adjust my strategy and game plan multiple times and constantly tell myself not to give up – not to ever give up.
Why so much drama you ask? Well here’s the recap -I got elbowed in the head 200 meters into the swim by Robocop and nearly drowned. I have two bruises from two other WWE moves I was victim to from my fellow triathletes at the mouth of harbor. My front wheel came off my bike on a bump. My bike chain kept derailing. I couldn’t switch to lower gears between mile 29-45 (aka the most inclines on the course – so I walked… at one point I even carried my shoes as I pushed my bike). When I had my bike upside down to fix my gear issue My water bottles leaked and left me without water for somewhere between 6-9 miles on the course (my GPS watch died so I really have no idea). I almost swallowed a bee. I had a bee fly into my neck strap of my helmet. Oh yeah, and I’m the guy who competes in a Triathlon with a spraind trapezius muscle, two muscle contusions in his back and has some neck issue he can’t even pronounce. The race was the most difficult physical obstacle I have ever experience.
But I wouldn’t allow myself to stop. I wouldn’t give up (even though the race support crew in the grey Toyota RAV4 asked me 3 times in the bike course if I was still racing). And it was about 3 hours and 30 minutes into the bike portion of the race I came to the realization that I might not finish, and not because I made the smart move to stop – but because I would miss the strict time cut offs on the course. And without a watch, I had to start asking my peers for the time. And since I wasn’t moving very fast – I actually had some phenomenal conversations on the course that kept me going. To mention a few, I met an athlete pushing themselves at a 70.3 race to took off once I let them know the worst was behind us. I met a woman who didn’t care if she finished because she was losing weight and couldn’t have imagined doing the race a year ago. And I met an awesome woman named Chris who missed the bike cut off in 2016 and was back for redemption. And in these interactions I used my mantra and shared it with others!
I made it to the bike transition as plenty of pro athletes and conditioned athletes were returning to collect their bikes wearing their Finisher medals – and i was mentally drained… I had cheered myself on as much as I could and used whatever fuel I had let to cheer on those I passed on the way. I sat down to take off my cycling shoes and was shocked to see how long I was out on the course. And as I told myself I was DONE – I did 2/3 of the race and I could throw in the towel right then and there.
Then I heard a familiar female voice say “Let’s go! We have 3 hours to knock out 13.1 miles!” And in that statement I realized I was down, but I wasn’t out! So I put on my running shoes and started on my way to the race course. I’ll admit it, as a usually pretty good athlete I was given so many awkward looks from the staff and athletes that finished and their looks all said the same things – “He’s just now starting the run?!?!?” I passed a group of finishers who made a joke and they all laughed – the little confidence I had to get up and get going on the run was crushed and I considered turning around and getting my gear right then and there… then I saw Chris! And she made the bike cut off! And seeing her reminded me that everyone on the course has their own challenges and their own personal goals. Mine was just give it a shot and have fun… and while I wasn’t really having fun, I had made it 57.2 miles without pain killers and that was enough to commit to 13.1 more! I would trot 1/4 of a mile and speed walk the other 3/4 of each mile.
And since I knew Chris lit up when I yelled her name when she was in sight, I made it my goal to remember people’s names from their bibs and encourage them to the finish! I was the annoying guy who kept asking every volunteer for a time check – but I was also the guy who asked people to push, cheered them on as we passed each other on the turn around and gave more high fives in 13.1 miles than I have probably given in the last 13 years! I kept encouraging others and reminding them to keep going – and don’t give up! I met a man who was in his 60’s and threatened to kick my ass if he passed me who lightened my mood! I met Nicole, Brian, Mike, Karen, Bianca and there was Chris!
When I made the final right hand turn with the finish line in site I took off sprinting – I wish that was the storybook ending but I only made it about 15 seconds before I started cramping and my back spasms picked up… so I made my walk to the finish line with a very brave pace – finishing the race at 3:54 minutes, only 6 minutes to the race cut off! And even though I didn’t have support crew waiting at the finish I was welcomed by hugs from the volunteers and the IRONMAN crew who welcomed me past the finish line as if I just won! My pace (or lack there of) allowed me to high five and thank everyone who was still cheering on the finishers and out of the four 70.3 races I’ve completed – this one left me with a whole new set of feelings and emotions.
It was the most difficult race I’ve ever experienced, I was humbled by my bodies physical ability, I was challenged mentally to see the positives when the negatives were tipping the scale and most importantly I didn’t give up.
And as I was posing like a total idiot for my Finisher photo, I saw Chris making it to the finish line! I ran to her as she crossed the finish line and we both screamed as she got her Finisher medal! We hugged as if we were long lost relatives reunited after a decade apart! She didn’t even get through the bike last year and today she is a Finisher! She didn’t give up and we kept each other going on the course and provided the mental toughness to keep going!
And it was just brought to my attention by my fellow IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside finisher, Nick (with an impressive sub 6 hour finish) – out of the 3,430 triathletes who attempted the race on Saturday, there were 1,052 that DNF or DNS… So I FINISHED and that’s quite an accomplishment in itself!
This was much longer than expected but I have to say the Jimmy V quote means something totally different to me now than it did before the race. Somewhere along 70.1 miles in Oceanside I realized that having a mantra is great, but sharing it means so much more. So if you are still reading this, Don’t give up – Don’t ever give up!