For majority of my life, entering an Ironman 70.3 was just not on my list of things possible. The 1.9km swim was just so far from what I thought possible. My excuse for sticking to Sprint triathlons or Olympic distance was that my swimming was not strong enough, and I needed more time to work on my swim. This was a very good excuse when my husband entered, and I did not. Being my husband’s supporter at the East London Ironman 70.3 in 2017 was my A-ha moment for why people enter this race, or rather, that is what I thought!
I always wondered why people go the extreme route of participating in Ironman 70.3. I spoke to a lot of “finishers” in the past to try and understand their “Why?” As many people I spoke to was as many different responses I got, thus I could not really come to a clear conclusion. My husband tried to explain to me his “Why?” for entering, but even by being completely convinced that I know and understand my husband, I could not fully understand his “Why?”.
Walking with my husband down to the beach in East London on race day just as the first signs of daylight broke through, was one of the most interesting experiences. I could feel his anxiety, fear and excitement like it was touchable. There was something different in his eyes that morning, I could sense the internal war that was going on. I was convinced I am getting closer to the answer I was so desperately searching for. I was watching my husband and all the other athletes finishing and fomo overwhelmed me. The emotions I observed that day made me realize that this race is much bigger than a physical race, it is a self-discovery, where you redefine the term ‘internal locus of control’. It is about the here and now, personal growth, and overcoming fear. My husband’s eyes were different after the race, he was different. I had to find my “Why?” and the only way was to go through the experience myself.
After arriving back home I made the decision that I had to enter an Ironman 70.3 and ASAP because I then developed a fear that I will forget the emotions I observed that day in East London. As we had reason to believe we might be living in France not long from then, I had many options to choose from in Europe. Obviously the first thing I did was Google ‘the easiest Ironman 70.3 races in Europe’… News flash – there is no easy Ironman 70.3 race. I watched many videos of the different courses and finally decided to go with Vichy because it was a flat course and not too far from Paris. I convinced myself that flat must be easier than not.
I then discovered that time management books and articles can’t increase the number of hours in a day, I still had only 24hours to be a wife, mom, employee and amateur athlete. Waking up over the weekends at 4am started to become a habit in order to get in our long rides and brick sessions. Waking up early in the week for our runs and racing to the gym during lunch to get in a swimming session became the norm, although our friends and family thought we have joined a cult and was petrified of the day we would pitch up with a red IM tattoo on our calves. The truth is that fear of not being able to finish the race was pushing me every time I did not feel like going for a 3-hour cycle, 10 km run or 2 km swim. There are many things that sounds more enjoyable to other people, but those more enjoyable things would not help me to fight the fear.
When I thought I had discovered my “Why?” for entering an Ironman 70.3 it did not become easier to prepare myself for this race, I just think I had a better understanding of why I am putting my body through extreme training. Fear also had some side effects like messing up my punctuality because I was spending more time than planned in most training sessions. It also contributed to my “new” sense of style, which I claimed as my well thought through “fashion statement” focusing on liberating women. Colleagues and customers quickly accepted when I exchanged my high heels for tekkies (running shoes) or best-case scenario: ballet pumps. My hair style changed to a more “natural” style and wearing make-up was dependent on the amount of traffic on my way to customers or the office. More times than not, my new “fashion statement” had reduced the odds of humiliating myself while franticly sprinting the 600m from my usual “late-comer” parking spot to the entrance of our office with my laptop bag dragging behind me in the air resembling superwomen’s cape, in my mind anyway….
Swimming was not my strength at that time, so using every opportunity possible to do open water swimming was good advice. The anxiety that comes with not being comfortable in water is worse than the first time I watched the movie “IT” at the tender age of 9. My HR goes up to about 200bpm, it feels like my heart is increasing in size with each beat and it is suffocating my lungs as an effect. I am trying my best to breath in, but I can’t. My asthma kicks in and usually I can’t get my asthma pump out of my zipped-up wetsuit. My legs become lead and starts sinking. There is nothing that compares to this, this is the effect of Fear. They (the clever people in magazines and on the internet) say the only way to overcome this is to spend time in the water. Apparently, I can float in my wetsuit, but my brain forgot to tell my body this. Every time I did an open water swim, I met Fear in the water. He was continuously trying to intimidate me; trying to convince me that I cannot do this and that he is stronger than me. Going from doggy paddle to freestyle because my head just refused to go under water never really got easier. Fear was there gazing at me. But the feeling when I succeeded made me go back for more.
As race day come closer; every time I thought of my race it felt like I was on a roller-coaster and suddenly I needed my asthma pump and wanted to vomit at the same time. Many times, I had thoughts of pulling out of the race because the anxiety and fear was just too great for me to physically handle. The real scary day was 14 days to race day. I kept on looking at my Strava App to calculate if I really did train enough. I had many internal battles: “Did I put in enough hours? At the right intensity? Did I get enough sleep? Will I be able to finish? Which tactics will Fear use during the race?”
As my alarm went off at 4am after not sleeping at all…. It was D-day. My husband reminded me about how important it is to eat something as I was so anxious I could not image putting anything in my mouth. I set a new PB for going to the toilet before a race, I lost count at number 12 and that was just before we arrived at the event. But when we arrived, the incredible beauty of the lake with the rays of sun reflecting on it helped me to calm down. I reminded myself of my “Why?” and that the only thing that matters is here and now.
As I jumped into the water like a typical first timer, I encountered my old friend, Fear. “Good morning Maria. I am not here to ask you how you are doing; I know you can’t do this; you will not be able to finish this race. Look how far you need to swim, what if you get an asthma attack? Do you really think your asthma pump will work? If by some miracle you make the swim, then you need to cycle 90km, then the run 21,1km. NEVER will you be able to do this, it is too much. Rather quit now!”
I looked fear in the eye, and I said: “You are my “Why?” Boldness grew in me every time I encountered Fear that day. It was a very long day and Fear made use of every possible opportunity. The emotions when crossing the finish line that day still gets to me as I am writing this. It is filled with tears of joy, victory, suffering and personal growth. I am proud that I beat Fear that day in Vichy. By entering the Ironman 70.3, I became a stronger person, more mentally than physically. I was able to focus on the here and now and push myself to a higher mental level unlike anything I have experienced in my life. By facing Fear and beating him that day gave me confidence that the next time we meet, I can do it again and again. Thus, I am addicted to Ironman 70.3 since I will meet my friend Fear there, every time.