Trench Ambassador, Heather McAlinn, shares with us what it is like to race in an Ironman. When the training, preparation, planning and all of the other things leading up to race day have been done, and there is nothing else to do but… GO!
Here is an inside look at the mental game of racing in an Ironman.
4:15am - Saturday, September 28, 2018: RACE DAY! Rise and shine! Millions of questions were running through my head faster than I could process. Did I sleep enough? Do I have everything I need? I better double check my nutrition bag. What time do I need to be at the bus shuttle?
Maybe I should go to the bathroom again. I need to eat now. Bagel with peanut butter to the rescue! Thank goodness I am never too nervous to eat because that would suck. Do I really need to go to the bathroom again? I just went!
5:15am - Leaving the hotel room, deep breaths, it is go time. I’ve been training all year for this day. I got this! Last minute prayer, please keep me safe and no MS symptoms today!
Finishing is winning, no pressure on time, just make the cutoffs. I should have wrote the cutoff times on my arm with a black sharpie so I don’ t forget. Ohh well! I will figure it out during the day.
Swim: need to complete in 1 hour 20 minutes or disqualified.
Bike: need to get past mile 58 by 1:30pm and finish the entire bike course by 5:30pm or disqualified.
Run: need to be at mile 22 by around 10:55 pm. or disqualified. I can do it! I feel strong!
6:10 am - Arrive at race site. Better use the restroom again! Last chance before I start. While waiting in line, I met an awesome father and daughter from NJ who traveled to do the race together. Had an interesting 10 minute conversation with them. We all gave each other a good luck hug and went our separate ways.
6:35 am - Time to put nutrition on the bike. I dumped protein bars, Kind bars, pretzel sticks, uncrustable sandwiches, Fig Newtons, and Gatorade energy chews in the bag on the bike.
Checked the tires to see if I needed to pump them up. Oh no! The back tire needs air! Warning call by the officials: “You have two minutes to get out of the transition area. We are closing it off. The race is about to start.” I pumped the bike tire quickly and got out of transition.
It is still dark outside. I can hardly see anything. I hope my right eye doesn’t give me too much trouble today. I still have to get into my wetsuit! I better hurry! Oh here is my family! Nice to see my Aunt, Uncle, and cousin. Suit is on now and I need to line up for the swim. Wait! I forgot to put on the jellyfish repellent!! Word on the street - we may encounter jellies in the water. I better apply the lotion to avoid any stings if possible!
6:45am: Time to line up for the swim start. A young boy sang the National Anthem. I stood at the time marker corral I felt most comfortable. Party at the back! I am not the fastest swimmer, so I chose a later leaving time to enter the water.
I met a female triathlete in line around my age. She seemed very calm and we engaged in small talk. She swam in the “Chop Tank” before so she gave me a few pointers which was awesome!
All of a sudden, I hear my friend Rachel yelling Walshy (my nickname) from the crowd. I ran over and gave her a big hug! She was in the right place at the right time! Was so thankful to see her! She helped me feel calm by just by being there.
The swim was a rolling start, two people at a time were released every two seconds. I looked at my Garmin watch when I entered the water. The time was 7:07 am. That was my official starting time.
I waded waist deep a few yards into the river, touching the water with my finger tips while taking wide long steps. Then I began swimming, the water didn’t feel too cold. It was brackish and dark.
I could see the first line of buoys in the distance so I played a counting game in my head with every freestyle stroke. A tactic from my swim coach. I felt strong! The waves were crashing over my head, but I was able to maintain control of my direction in the water. The current was flowing with me. This gave me loads of confidence.
Then I started to feel legs kicking mine, hands grabbing my feet and sometimes an occasional slap on the back. Typical of a race like this, lots of triathletes in the water swimming at all different paces. Bodies bump and graze each other. Luckily, no one swam completely over my body.
I had to swim the loop twice and there was a chip timer set up in the water after the first loop.
Some swimmers missed swimming under the timer and had to swim back through the timer. I felt bad for them, some of them were removed from the race. Some swimmers got out of the water after missing the timer, they knew they didn’t have enough time to get around again and make the cutoffs. You train all year for this, it broke my heart to see the race end for them so quickly.
Second loop was tricky, I couldn’t see well out of my right eye to sight in the water. The current was stronger, I had to work harder to stay straight.
While turning my last left, before the final straight away, I slammed a swimmer into a buoy on accident. I was on such a mission, the adrenaline was pumping, and I had no clue he was there. I apologized and he laughed. We both continued to swim.
I started to think of my Mom and grandparents who helped raise me. They are all in heaven. I prayed for them to keep me safe.
Lifeguards in kayaks, stationed in the water, started to move in closer to us. The water was rough and they were helping us swim straight.
Some swimmers got annoyed and yelled at them. They were accidentally swimming into the kayaks. I really pushed during this final stretch. I palmed a few small jelly fish and encountered no stings. I couldn’t wait to get to dry land.
Finally, I got out of the water and was greeted by the race director. He said good job and sent me on my way. I ran up to the wetsuit peelers and sat on the ground. They pulled my wetsuit off of me and handed it back. I ran to grab my bike bag and get to the changing tent.
9:00 am - I was very dizzy as I ran into the changing tent. I talked with a volunteer. She took the bag out of my hand and escorted me to a seat. I asked her how long for the 1st cutoff on the bike. I completely forgot the cutoff times due to nerves. She said 1:30pm is the first cutoff but you’re fine.
“You made it Heather, you will reach that point with ease.”
That moment almost brought me to tears. I was so happy and relieved! Best feeling ever! I put my bike shoes on and grabbed my helmet. I poured water over my body to get the green algae off my face.
I grabbed the bike and ran slowly with it to the mounting area. The official gave me the green light and I started riding. I was starving so I reached into the bike bag and opened my uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I ate half of it, hit a bump and lost the second half. I laughed at myself because these things always seem to happen to me.
I rode for miles making sure I drank water, endurance gatorade, and ate every 20 minutes. Nutrition is key during this part of the race. It doesn’t matter how great of an endurance athlete you are, if you don’t have your nutrition dialed in properly, you’re going to bonk.
I managed to only stop twice for bathroom breaks. It did slow my time down. I had to rack the bike and wait in line to use the port a potty. Rules are strict along the course. You can’t pull over and go to the bathroom in the woods. You can get a penalty or disqualified. You have to stop at an aid station.
I continued on the bike and the head winds were crazy. The roads were flat, but there was a lot of cross wind as well. The volunteers on the course were awesome and very encouraging. I saw the race photographers laying low to get photos of everyone cycling by.
After I made it past the first bike cutoff, I saw my family and friends. They had signs and made a lot of noise! I was so happy to see them! I started to bike a little faster after I passed them! They gave me the energy I need to tackle the second loop.
All I heard was wind rushing by my ears the whole ride. I completed 112 miles and rode through the main straight away to the bike transition and dismounted. I was extremely dizzy after hopping off the bike.
I had to walk the bike into transition. Running wasn’t an option until I got my balance back. Damn MS! Not now, please! Saw some friends and I yelled out to them, thanks for the support!
4:00pm - Headed into the changing tent for the run. I met a volunteer who helped unpack my run gear. She got my sneakers ready for me and my racing belt. She was really supportive and gave me some solid encouragement before my run. I gave her my red bracelet. I wore it all day and was asked to give it to a volunteer that really helped me out. She was the one! Thanks Pam!
I was able to get rid of the dizziness and my run started out great. I wasn’t tired from the swim and bike. I felt strong and then mile 2 happened. My left ankle started to throb and I later found out that I incurred a bone bruise on the ankle.
My run was my strongest discipline during training and it was slowly falling apart. This is where the mental strength kicked in. I knew I already conquered 116.4 miles. I knew I needed to ignore the pain and keep moving forward to get this done.
I thought about my kid who was cheering me on. I couldn’t let her down. I thought about everyone who donated money towards stem cell research. I thought about everyone suffering from MS that can’t get up and walk. I thought about continuing for those that can’t because right now I can! I thought about how lucky I was to have an amazing support system of family and friends. I wouldn’t quit! It wasn’t an option!
I maintained a positive attitude and ended up running with Chris, from Virginia, who claimed we played leapfrog all day on the bike. He made me laugh, we shared a few stories and ran a few miles together.
Then I met a woman who tossed her cookies at mile 13. She was a marathon runner and told me she was having a bad day. Her husband was sick a day earlier and she believed he unfortunately shared his illness with her. She asked me what she could do to keep from getting sick. I told her to suck on ice chips and run/walk when necessary. Just keep moving.
During mile 22, I was told by a volunteer I passed the run cutoff time. Didn’t make my ankle feel better, but it did make me smile.
I met a gentleman about 15 years older than me. We were both running in the dark. He went on to explain that he completed this race in 2017 and crossed the finish line 17 seconds shy of the final cutoff at midnight. I was really inspired by his story and complimented him on not giving up.
Finally, it was time for me to cross the finish line. My ankle was killing me but I didn’t care! Adrenaline kicked in and I ran like I had no pain! The pain will go away, the finish will last a lifetime. I kept thinking about my 11 year old daughter and the impact my finish will have on her.
I heard the song Bulletproof blasting in the background. I saw the red carpet, jumbo-tron, smoke, crowd, and bright lights. It was time for me to cross the finish!
Then I heard Mike Reilly’s voice say, “Heather McAlinn you are an Ironman” “You’re an Ironman Heather, a first timer.”
I will never forget that moment. I got it done!
I took the medal off my neck and gave it to my daughter. She is my greatest achievement and this was my greatest fitness achievement. They belong together. Anything is possible!
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Heather is currently biking for a world free of MS.
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