I am taking a break from this blogging hiatus because someone I love has made me very proud. This past weekend, my best friend Megan competed in her first half Ironman. Wait. She did not only compete in the Ironman, she dominated that sucker and met several goals she set for herself. You know, I have to tell you guys that she is an inspiration to me every day. Not just when she competes in and completes triathlons, but every single day she works hard to better herself. She knows herself better than any one person I have ever met, pushes her own limits, and is really an incredible person. I stole this recap off of her Facebook page without asking her... Yes. I logged in under my husband's name and read every single word. SO without further ado, here is her very honest recap. Thanks for being funny, smart, and so determined. Also, yes. I think you should cut your hairdo.
Hard to believe, but on Sunday afternoon, I completed my first half Ironman. I can say I've been working for this since May, but honestly, I've been working towards this for the past 4 years. I'll never forget the first 5k I ran in 2009. It was the longest 3.1 miles of my life. I thought it would NEVER be over. And that I would never do it again! I was so tired afterwards that I took a 4 hour nap.
But I got stronger, learned how to run longer and little by little started realizing I could go further. I thought, "You know, I could PROBABLY do a sprint triathlon… I could PROBABLY do a half marathon…. But nothing further. Only crazy people run FULL marathons. Only ATHLETES do Ironman races…" Well, call me a crazy athlete. In my wildest dreams I used to think that I could one day relay a half Ironman-- only do 1 part of the 3-part race. That seemed doable.
Jump ahead to this past February when I asked my parents for entry fee into Ironman Augusta for my birthday. Yes, I asked for pain and punishment for my 31st birthday. By March, I was signed up for the race and already researching training plans online. Though I keep a good base of running, biking and swimming year-round, I'd have to amp it up in May to be ready for the race at the end of September. Through 2 bike wrecks, 2-a-day workouts 6 days a week, 3 triathlons, and hundreds of bottles of gatorade, September 30th slowly approached.
This past week, my stomach was a bundle of nerves. One minute, I'd be super excited and ready to go. "YEAH! Let's do this! I'm going to kill it!" Two minutes later I was dry-heaving into my office trashcan. "I can't do this! Why did I think I could do this? I'm not ready! I'm going to come in last!" And yet, on Friday, I was in the car with all my gear headed towards Augusta, GA. I could still turn-back, right?
Before the start on Sunday morning, I had to go pick-up my registration, my timing-chip, get tagged, drop off my bike at transition, EAT, SLEEP, try and just relax. It is exhilarating and also intimidating to ride around a town filled with cars towing triathlon bikes, spying very fit athletes walking around on every corner, and seeing that well-known IRONMAN logo everywhere you turn. THIS is big-time…. I can still turn-back, right?
4:30 AM Sunday morning came too fast. I was up and eating-- something I would need to remind myself to do for the rest of the day. Just keep eating and drinking. Dressed and ready to go, I was on my way to the transition area by 5:15 AM. And so were 3,400 other racers. It's an odd site to see a sea of athletes walking around dark city streets in the pre-dawn hours carrying packs of gear and food. Our bikes waited for us in the transition area that sat at the finish line of the swim. It was required for all racers to drop off their bikes the day before, so literally millions of dollars worth of bikes had slept overnight in a field by the Savannah River. After checking my tire pressure, I started strategically laying out the rest of my gear that I would need for each portion of the race. In the dark. You have about a 1'x2' piece of ground below your bike to claim as "your space". Bike helmet, bike shoes, socks, running shoes, water bottles, food, running hat, race belt, sunscreen, sunglasses… it all has to sit there, organized, just waiting for you to grab it.
By 6:30AM, I was standing in line with my swim bag to catch a bus that would take me 1.2 miles upriver to the swim start. I commented to the guy in front of me that I felt like I was standing in line waiting to go off to slaughter. I could still turn-back, right?
At the swim start, I met up with my parents and my friends who were there racing as well. As the sun began to rise, the "boom" of the starting cannon went off at exactly 7:30AM. The pro men were off! And damn, they made it look easy. The rest of us mere mortals watched from the side of the river as we waited our turn to start. Because the race is so large, they divide everyone into "Age Waves". These waves started every 5 minutes. Unfortunately, my wave didn't get to start until 9AM! That meant I had a lot of time to kill. And a lot of time to get nervous. With me in my swim bag was my wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, and food, so I tried to keep eating. And going to the bathroom. And eating some more.
As my swim time got closer, I put on my wetsuit and got ready to go. Want to do some excellent people watching? Go to a swim start and watch thousands of people struggle to pull on a wetsuit. It's hilarious. But any triathlete will tell you, wetsuits are awesome! The morning of any race, a water temperature is taken by race officials. If the temperature is BELOW 76 degrees, the swim is considered "wetsuit legal". A wetsuit is wonderful because it makes you buoyant, which in turn, makes you swim faster.
Finally, it was time to "walk the plank". I hugged my parents good-bye and got in line with my group. This was my last chance to turn-back. But I didn't. I put on my goggles, sat down on the pier and lowered myself into the water. 2 minutes to go. Surrounded by a group of about 60 other women my age, we treaded water and laughed a little. The current in the river was strong and we were having to back-stroke just to stay behind the start buoys. We wished each other luck. 10 seconds to go… I turned and waved to my parents on shore. Here goes nothing….
The cannon went off. I was swimming. I knew this would be my strongest part of the race, so I took off, trying to gain a lead on the other women. I wanted to quickly get away from the pack and away from kicking feet and flailing arms. The sooner I could find a little room, the sooner I could get into a rhythm. After about 200 yards, I was feeling good. Below me in the water I spied kelp growing. I could feel it as my arms went through the water. But the water was nice and cool and the current was strong. I did a good job of sighting and was keeping a straight line and as I took my breathes, I could see that I was quickly passing landmarks like bridges above me. This was good. I was feeling good. The anxiety went away and my thoughts started to wonder… "Should I cut my hair?… I need to remember to get trash bags at the grocery store… Ahh! Was that an alligator?… That bitch just cut me off! … Heeeeyyyy, Sexy Lady Oppa Gangnam Style!" Yes. This is what goes through my mind.
Before I knew it, the swim was over and I was starting to make my way to the exit point. As I come out of the water, I see my dad. As I'm running up the boat ramp, there's my mom! Yay! 1 down, 2 to go. As I run, I start to unzip my wetsuit and pull it down to my waist. Time for the strippers. Yes, these events include strippers. I run to a group of volunteers standing by a carpeted area. A man tells me to lay on my back with my legs in the area. With a deadpan-straight face I say, "I'm not the kind of girl" He goes BEET red. Everyone laughs. So I lay down, he grabs the wetsuit at my waist and in one tug, pulls it off. As I stand up, he throws me my wetsuit and I ask, "How much do I owe you?" Again, he goes beet red, and I run off laughing. Got to keep a sense of humor or you'll never get through the day.
In transition, I put on my socks, bike shoes, helmet, grab my sunglasses and food and my bike and head towards the bike start. Heading out of the chute, I see my parents once again, and they cheer me on. Now begins the part I've dreaded the most-- the bike. 56 miles in the saddle.
I was worried that I'd be out there, all alone, but for the entire bike, I rode with a continuous pack of racers. The miles slowly ticked by and I was able to find a good rhythm. I had decided I wouldn't push it too hard on the bike. I was going to stay conservative. As I passed the 5 mile marker, the 10 mile marker, the 15 mile marker, I tried to stay focused, and at the same time, entertain myself. I sang in my head (Heeeeyyyy, Sexy Lady), I made small talk with the other racers, and I tried to enjoy the scenery. So far, I couldn't have asked for better race weather. It was overcast with a SLIGHT mist in the air and chilly. Absolutely perfect. As I neared the first "hill" at mile 17, I worried about how I would do. Would it wear me out? Would I slow way down? Would everyone pass me? Well thanks to the wonderful "hills" of Nashville, I was more than prepared. With only a slight raise in my heart rate, I sprinted up those hills, passing other racers. Whew! Sigh of relief. Now, just get through the miles.
At high points, I was giddy with excitement. It was amazing to be riding with people who were strangers and at the same time felt like long-lost friends. I realized that all summer when I was training at home in Nashville, they had been out there putting in the miles in their own towns. Now, they were struggling with me and I with them. At my low points I thought of my friends Sarah, Daniel and Marianna and pretended they were there riding with me, pulling me along as they had done on so many training rides.
Mile 40 came with relief. I knew I could do this. My back was starting to ache a little and I cursed my bike and wished I had a tri-specific one, but otherwise I was still in good spirits. I focused on eating and drinking, conserving my energy, and the upcoming run. As I crossed back into Georgia, I knew I was getting close. I looked forward to seeing my parents as I rounded the corner of the last turn into transition. And then, I was there.
Off the bike and into transition was a great feeling. I took my time and went ahead and changed my socks, put on my running shoes, grabbed some more food and jogged out of the run chute. I say "jogged" but it was more of a slow shuffle. My legs felt like jello. I knew that they would. The first 2 miles on the run are always the hardest for me after the bike. My butt was numb, my toes were numb and I was definitely tired. But even then, I knew I could do this. I knew I could finish.
I used the first half mile to collect myself because I knew as I came around the first corner, I'd see my parents. I wanted to look strong for them. I wanted to look like I had my shit together. Slowly, a run/walk went more to a run and found my rhythm again. The run is a flat, 2-loop course that zigzags through the streets of downtown Augusta. This is great because spectators can see you up to 6 times. This is bad because as a runner, you have to go by the finish line 3 different times before you get to finish. Talk about a buzz kill.
I started to think about my friend Becca. I imagined that she was running next to me, helping me keep a pace. When I wanted to stop and walk, I pretended she wouldn't let me. The spectators were amazing and definitely kept me going. I knew where my parents were going to be standing and it was a relief to see them every single time. At mile 4, I started to struggle. I could feel myself starting to wither a little so I ate some Chomps and grabbed a Coke from the aid station. DEAR GOD! That was the best Coke I had tasted in my life! It was just what I needed. By mile 5, I was going again.
By this time, the mist was turning into a slight drizzle. It felt good. At mile 7, there were my parents again and my mom walked with me for about 50 yards. She told me I was looking great, that my time was awesome, that they were proud of me. Exactly what I needed to hear. Time for just one more lap. ONE MORE LAP and I'd be done. I was craving food. Real food. Cracker Barrel biscuits to be exact.
Mile 8, mile 9, MILE 10... So close. I was feeling good. "Imaginary Becca" was running with me again. With 3 miles to go, the rain started to pour. I didn't care. I'd been wet all day. Honestly, I smelled like shit, so this was probably doing me some good. As I passed my parents for the second to last time I heard my mom say, "We'll see you at the finish line!". Boom. That was all it took. I was off. I looked at my watch and realized I was going to make my time... I was going to meet my goal.
Sooner than I realized, I was turning the corner into the finish line chute. The crowds were cheering, I picked up the pace and as I crossed the finish line with my hands in the air I heard, "Congratulations to Megan Willoughby! You have finished Ironman Augusta!" Damn straight.
As I look back a day later, I don't have many regrets. My goal had been to run a conservative race and finish happy. And I did. Could I have pushed it more? Probably. Could I have done my transitions faster? Definitely. But in the end, I realize I can't go back, I can only race again. I have no doubt I will do it again and do it faster. I'm sure you'll ask, "Would you do a full Ironman?" My answer: Yes. When exactly? Ask me again in a month or 2...
As a final note, I have so many people to thank for supporting me through this. To my bike training buddies, Sarah, Marianna and Daniel-- thank you for all the great rides. Thank you for being there when I wrecked, for meeting me EARLY on Saturday mornings and after work... for laughing a lot... I will miss our rides this winter. To Becca, my favorite running buddy-- thank you for joining me on so many runs, for our great talks and for always believing in me. To Lauren and William, my BFFs-- I could hear you cheering all the way from Durham! To the entire East Nasty crew-- So many of you inspire me. I am never more happy than when I'm running and training with all of you! To my co-workers-- Thank you for allowing me to train during lunch hours, for encouraging me, and for sending me off to the race with a "cheering section". To my sister Sarah and brother-in-law Clint-- thank you for always telling me how proud you are of me.
And finally, to my parents. Or my "race crew" as I like to call them. Cathy "C-Dub" Willoughby: Nutrition-Specialist, Race Course Scheduler, and Cheerleader. Mike "Pack-Mule" Willoughby: Gear Manager, Heavy-lifter, Driver and Race Photographer. From the begining, you have encouraged me, believed in me and seen me through almost every race. You have driven me hundreds of miles, waited in the bitter cold and summer heat for hours on end for me to just "pass by" and then waited some more, fed my friends, fed THEIR friends...
But mostly, you tell me you are proud of me. And you hug me.
And that's all I need to keep going.