Ironman USA - Lake Placid, NY|
July 28, 2002
The Lake Placid sky was still dark when my alarm woke me at 4 a.m. I lay motionless for a few minutes, partly to reflect on the magnitude of the day ahead of me, and partly because I knew that, once I got up, I would be moving for a long, long time. It was July 28, 2002, and I was about to do an Ironman for the first time.
Two hours later I arrived at the race site and was reminded of this uncharted territory as I eyed the large medical tent. I recalled the Ironman literature, which had informed me it was legal to "run, walk, or crawl across the finish line." I walked quickly past sidewalks filled with spectators to the start at Mirror Lake. The sight there was incredible. Hundreds of blue and green caps filled the water and hundreds more stood on the shore as the sun started to peek over the trees.
Once I zipped my wetsuit, I waded into the water along with other dark suited athletes. My friend and training partner, Jessica, and I talked and laughed with nervous energy as we watched the countdown clock. Soon we had our goggles on and our feet were no longer touching the bottom. At exactly seven oíclock, all 1800 of us started swimming at the same time ó something, until then, I didnít believe was actually possible. There were bodies all around me and I was surprised I could swim at all. I didnít dare put my head in the water for at least a few minutes, for fear of getting a swift kick in the face. I finally felt I had some space in the water to myself. It was not as bad as I had expected. Even with other triathletes sometimes bumping against me or touching my feet, I could swim at a steady pace. Each of the three legs of the race was a double loop, so after 1.2 miles of swimming, I emerged from the water, ran over a timing carpet, and went back in to do it all over again. When I finished the next loop, 34 minutes later, I ran toward the volunteers who were pulling off wetsuits. "Sit down!" one of them barked at me. Five seconds later I had my wetsuit in my hand. As I ran down the street lined with cheering people, I couldnít help grinning and waving at anyone I recognized.
Once I reached the Olympic oval, I ran through a row filled with hundreds of white transition bags. A volunteer handed me my bag and I ran into the womanís change tent, where women of all sizes were frantically changing clothes. In an Ironman, volunteers are allowed to help you with your transition. At my request, my volunteer took out my glasses, put my wetsuit in my transition bag, and applied sun lotion all over my back as I clipped my helmet and put on my glasses. Susan, my volunteer, assured me she would take care of my bags, and I left the oasis of women to go find my bike.
As I got to my rack, another volunteer handed me my bike and I was off on the second, and longest, part of the day. It may sound obvious that one has to pace oneself in an Ironman, but I was surprised what a challenge this was. Seeing people I knew ahead of me stirred up my competitive nature and I had a desire to pedal just a little faster. But I forced myself to remember this was a whole day event and focus on my goal - to enjoy the marathon as much as possible. I had trained well but I certainly hadnít "overtrained". I knew I would have to pace myself if I was going to have a good run. The next seven hours were filled with breathtaking views of mountains and fields, a short rainstorm that soaked every part of me, but most of all, with continuous eating and drinking and pedaling.
After two 56 mile loops with many, many hills, I was more than happy to give my bike to a volunteer at the transition area. I went once again to the womenís change tent, this time to be helped by Sarah. She applied more sun lotion on my back and arms and I took a few minutes to massage my own legs, trying to loosen them for the run ahead. I jogged out of the tent with my yellow Powerbar hat shielding my eyes from the now unobstructed, hot sun. My hand clutched a plastic flask filled with Gu, which gave me an added sense of security as I went to attempt the marathonóa distance I had never experienced before that day. I saw more friends cheering when I ran by the crowds of people and could feel my smile filling up my face. As I ran away from the center of town, I looked in disbelief at a fit athlete on the side of the road next to an ambulance. He had an oxygen mask over his face with two EMTs attending to him. And I was running the same race he was? Oh my.
After a few miles, energetic spectators gave way to grassy fields and beautiful views of the Adirondack Mountains. Because the run was, again, two loops, I arrived back into town at mile 11, did a small 2 mile loop, and then headed out to repeat the same run. By now my legs were incredibly sore but I could still run. I passed many people who had resorted to walking and realized my cautious bike ride was paying off. I speed walked only on the uphills and through aid station where I drank Gatorade or chicken broth. Sometimes I squeezed a wet sponge over my head but the relief from the hot sun was only temporary. Hours later, the sky began to move towards dusk and I was heading back into town for the final time. I knew from the extreme tightness of my legs that I would probably not be able to walk very well the next day, but I didnít care. This was the race I had been training for all year.
With only two miles left to go, I approached crowds of people and the finish area. My emotions started to swell as I thought about finishing but I soon realized that any form of crying and running donít mix. My throat felt like it was going to close up. So I had to shove my emotions down and just run. With one mile left to go, I still, somehow, had energy left. I ran strong past a handful of people and towards the finish area that I could see looming ahead. As I turned the corner, the white Ironman banner was held up for me. "Liz Hale, from Cambridge, Massachusetts," an announcer bellowed.  "You are... an Ironman!" These words echoed in my head as I held out my arms and crossed the finish at precisely 8:22 p.m. Tears flooded from me, as I knew they would, and I barely remember someone putting a medal around my neck.
Many people have asked me since why I did an Ironman. When I explain the distances of the race, they look at me and say, "My god, why would you do something like that? That sounds painful. Thatís insane!" And they are right. It is painful. Years ago, triathlon taught me to accept discomfort as a natural companion to the incredible high that comes with pushing yourself physically - a lesson I have carried over into other parts of my life. But to do an Ironman, to train for and do something you never, ever thought you would or could do, breaks the myths you once held about yourself. And that alone can make one ordinary day in July, extraordinary.