(Warning: This one is a long post!)
Rise and shine!
I woke up at 4am and within the first hour I stated that ‘this is crazy’ about 25 times! I was in good spirits and far less stressed than prior races, but I also could not fathom why on earth I thought that this was a good idea. I laughed it off, and just kept repeating ‘this is crazy’.
My boyfriend, keeping count. Ha!
So crazy. Looking back I realize that the times we push ourselves past our limits, both mentally and physically, are in fact crazy moments. Crazy exciting. Crazy scary. Crazy amazing.
I tested and was 7.2 when I woke up. Perfect! I gave my usual insulin for breakfast, with my 1 unit for 10 grams of carbohydrate calculation. I ate toast with peanut butter, and drank coffee with cream. For me it’s important to make sure that I eat early enough to not have any insulin on board when the starting gun goes off. I know that my insulin is active for about 2.5 hours, and so I made sure to give my insulin by 4:15am. Some athletes have race day rituals – I simply made sure to eat breakfast, and pack up all of my transition and morning bag necessities. I wrote down a list the night before to make sure that morning nerves wouldn’t interfere with my packing. A few must haves:
- Morning/Beach Bag: Timing Chip, Cap, Goggles, Wetsuit, Tri suit or bathing suit, Any food or drink for the start, Flip flops or running shoes for the walk from transition to the beach, extra blood glucose tester and/or insulin pump supplies, small towel, extra sunscreen.
- Transition Bags: Any additional fluid (I bring my water bottles the morning of the race), as well as any additional nutrition that I forgot the night prior. In the past I used to bring a bike pump but with so many other triathletes, as well as a bike shop, I now don’t want to risk getting separated from my family and consequently stuck with a bike pump as I walk over to the start.
I wanted to be out of the hotel by 5, giving myself 30 minutes for the 6 minute drive. A touch ridiculous, but buffer time is key! More time at transition = less stress. Less stress = steadier blood sugars.
Arrived early enough that we managed to park in the closest parking lot and walk over to the transition without having to wait for a shuttle. I separated everything in my bags – run and bike special need bags (I had counted out my food and marked ziplock bags for 2 hour intervals.) I left half my bike food in the bike special needs bags, and a bit of run food in the run special needs even though I had a feeling I would be fine with the food provided at the many run aid stations. I then went to drop off my boyfriend’s Garmin watch in my run transition bag (we were planning for my watch to die since it only lasts about 12 hours), and I also dropped off my water bottle for the run (which I didn’t really need to bring on the run with me, but it was helpful to have some water ready as I got into T2.)
I dropped off my water bottles on my bike, and connected the bike computer (some people left their computers on their bikes overnight but I preferred to charge it overnight and keep it safe). I also took a look at the notes I had written on my aerobars – cut-off times, names of my family and loved ones, my quote for the day: ‘She believed she could so she did’, and some reminders that I was supported by the T1Ds (the type 1 community), as well as reminders of some of my previous accomplishments: medical school, and my first marathon. Lastly I had notes reminding me about how hard I had worked for this goal, by waking up early, and putting in the time. I thought about my DNF last year, the long day ahead, and felt calm, and ready. I remember thinking this is crazy (#26?) but amazing, as I walked off to join my family and head to the beach after being body marked. I was smiling and taking it all in.
Never give up. Thanks Peter for the picture!
My blood sugar when I got to the beach was 10.1. I know that the adrenaline of the start would cause my numbers to go up, but I also knew that the swim would lower my numbers significantly. As my mom and boyfriend kept up the conversation, making sure that I was calm and ready (I was), all I was thinking about was by how much to lower my basal rate. Time and time again in triathlons I have come out of the swim with a high blood sugar. Then I would start the bike with a high blood sugar and not feel strong or well. I would consequently not eat enough early on in the bike portion of the race, and I would struggle to regulate my numbers for the entirety of the bike leg. Friends would tell me, treat the athlete then the diabetes. But it wasn’t so simple. I couldn’t bring myself to eat when my numbers were 4 times higher than normal. Maybe that was part of the reason why I never loved the bike portion of triathlon races – my sugars weren’t cooperating and my confidence took a hit. I’ve had type 1 for 30 years. I should know what I’m doing. So this past Sunday, for this race, I knew I had to be a touch riskier with my management decisions. I needed to trust my gut. I needed to realize that although I’d be in a lake for approximately 1.5 hours (read – without the ability to test my blood sugar and hence would have to rely on my body’s own symptoms), I would be alright. I would have access to sugar (I swim with two gels under my wetsuit sleeve) and I would have access to safety lifeguards and kayakers if I didn’t feel well. But how do you know if your blood sugar is low when there is so much going on around you – from military jets flying overhead (so cool!), professional athletes sprinting into the water, family and friends being emotional and excited, first timers who are equally nervous and energetic, not to mention swimmers kicking and bumping into you. As my boyfriend and mother kept talking I calculated, considered, and confirmed in my mind my decision. I would lower my basal only by 40%, which was a bit less than in previous races. I would eat the gel during the swim only if I really felt like I was low – if I started swimming in a messy line, if I had any troubles with vision, if my body simply felt ‘off’.
Once the wetsuit was zipped I received a last minute hug from a wonderful medical school friend who I hadn’t seen in years (has it really been years Jac?) and thought about his influence on my decision to complete my very first marathon, now almost 10 years ago. I remember he distinctly told me that “Of course you can do a marathon. You just have to work for it.” Can I thank/blame him for my being here at the Ironman start line!?
Swim start, photo courtesy of Thomas McArdle.
Took 10 minutes to do a proper warm-up (again, something that I highly recommend), and lined up in my group of 1:30-1:35. The self-seeding start was interesting. Every 5 seconds approximately 10 athletes are allowed in the water. The start is less hectic, but the swim becomes quite packed. If you accurately select your swim time you will be surrounded by swimmers the entire way. The benefit is that you can draft a bit, but you also have to be prepared for kicks and bumps. My swim was easy and comfortable. My coach told me to use the swim as a warm-up for the bike, and that’s what I did. I had a bit of trouble with sighting on the way out, with the sun rising behind the mountain, but managed to sight off the large buoys quite well on the way back.
The swim only has two turns, as it is an out, across, and back. You can swim on either side of the yellow and orange buoys, but you have to swim on the outside of the two red turn buoys. The water was pretty clear and quiet, and I really enjoyed the swim.
Feeling great post swim!
I exited the swim with a time of 1:37 and spotted both my family for a quick air kiss, and my friends who were volunteering as wetsuit strippers (You were super speedy wetsuit strippers Lori and Katrina! Thanks!). On my jog over to the transition I felt good and so gave myself 2 units right away for the missed basal insulin during the swim, and because I knew I would want to try and eat within the first 10 minutes of the bike. I changed into my cycling jersey and checked my blood sugar in T1 and was 8.2! YES! I gave another 1.25 units for the gel I was about to eat, and grabbed my bike to start my bike before 9, just like I had hoped. Received some encouraging words at the Bike Out from my friend Kim, who yelled out to remind me ‘You LOVE the bike buddy!’, and I couldn’t help but laugh. This runner was about to bike 180km. Yikes.
So far this day was going as planned! But as they say, the Ironman never goes as planned. It’s too long a day, with too many sports and logistics. Throw in type 1 diabetes and you really never know what to expect.
The Mont-Tremblant bike course is a two lap course of 90km. The section is often divided into 3 sections. There is the Montee-Ryan section which consists of rolling hills, short and punchy ones with nice little descents. Then the longest section is on the 117 highway, first going north to Labelle, with a couple of slow and steady climbs, a speedy descent, and false flats. On the way back into town there’s a not so speedy ascent of the latter descent (surprise surprise!), easier riding due to the false flats which are now a bit of a descent, and a little loop of St-Jovite where amazing locals and volunteers cheer you on. The third section of the course, once you return on Montee-Ryan, is the 20km ascending and descending on Chemin Duplessis. The climb up consists of 3 punchy stair climbs, where I spun up the hills and even passed a few cyclists (win!), and the descent back into transition and/or to the second loop is downhill and fast. There are only really 2 ascents but they are short and very doable. Having raced and trained in Muskoka this year I found the Chemin Duplessis to be perfectly manageable, provided you are patient.
My strategy going into the bike was to mentally split up the distance as 100km, 50km, and 30km. I knew that the bike section would be the hardest section for me to mentally conquer. I knew that I had the physical strength this year, but still doubted my ability to enjoy or persevere through 180km. The first loop was comfortable and felt easy (I know, an Ironman shouldn’t be easy but I still had to do another 90km, and run a marathon!). I followed my plan and was happy to come up to 90km after 3h45. I was eating, my blood sugar was steady (I kept my usual 100% basal, and would give between 0.5-1 unit/hour depending on what I was eating), and I, gasp, was kind of enjoying myself. After blowing kisses to my family and friends, and stopping at special needs for some extra food, I made my way back to the 117 highway.
This is where I started to have a hard time. The wind had picked up and I felt like I was barely moving. My numbers on my Garmin confirmed my worry. The more I worked against the wind, the hotter I became. It was a beautiful day but with the sun shining down on the highway, and there being no shade, I was hot. I started taking in a bit of Gatorade but couldn’t stomach it. I knew I simply had to keep moving forwards. All of a sudden the 2 hour buffer that I had was an hour, and then, when I reached the turn around at 123km I only had a 45 min buffer to make my bike cut-offs. Mentally I was struggling too. I wasn’t enjoying myself and all I wanted was shade.
Why on earth would I decide to do an Ironman on an open highway with full sun exposure in August I thought? Why would I do a race that involved 180km of biking when I didn’t really enjoy long distance biking? I enjoyed rides of up to 4 hours, but after that point I became cranky and unhappy. Why-oh-why did I voluntarily choose to do this? I couldn’t help but laugh. Because you like the challenge I thought. Because you wanted to push your limits. Because at one point in your life you didn’t think that you could ever do an Ironman. Because only other people did Ironman. Because you can.
Because you can.
Feeling grateful for the opportunity to move, to be physically active, in this beautiful area, to inspire other type 1 diabetics, to show my friends and family that all of the sacrifice was worth it, to prove to myself that if I put my mind to something I could do it, I continued pedaling. I stopped and took breaks. I put water down my jersey to cool down. I focused on breathing. I shed a few tears. Physically my legs felt fine, but my body was not happy. In a dark moment I texted my coach that I was struggling. Keep pushing. Put your head down and push he said. My watch would vibrate anytime that I received a text. I didn’t read the texts but knew that people were watching the tracker, likely seeing that my speed had significantly dropped, knowing that I was struggling. I saw other participants slowing in front of me too – likely also affected by the heat – and gathered strength from their journey too.
Keep pedaling. Keep moving. Never stop moving.
I wanted to make it to the 150km mark so that I only had 30 km to go. I discounted the last 10km on Duplessis because they were mainly downhill. Yes, only 20km to go until I no longer have to ride this bike. Then only 15km to go until I never have to ride this bike. For a runner like myself this was the hardest portion of my day. I was acutely aware that I was close to heat exhaustion. I would never risk my health for an Ironman finish, and I put my doctor hat on to make sure that my heart rate and breathing were still in check. You’re almost there I thought when I hit Montee-Ryan. Even though I still had ample time to make the cut off I suddenly doubted myself. My mind was getting a bit foggy and the idea of biking 15km in an hour seemed like a lot of hard (mental) work.
I found my cheer squad right before Duplessis and had a minor anxiety attack. (Sorry mom for scaring you!) It’s one thing to internally deal with your emotions and demons, and yet another to show them to others. I didn’t know at the time what I wanted to hear, or what I needed to do. Rationally I knew that I had plenty of time to make the cut-off. I was motivated by the idea that there was no way that I would not make the final 180km cut-off. Just imagine. Making it this far to only be told that you didn’t make the very final cut-off. No way. After a few deep breaths I continued on the hardest part of the course. Up Duplessis I rode, knowing that I had fewer than 20km to go. And then I would be free of this bike. Running shoes make me happy. Even if I would be sore and suffering on the run no doubt, I would be wearing running shoes. It would be cooler, and as the night would fall I would hopefully start to feel better. The heat exhaustion would fade, and I would have a second wind.
As I rode into transition almost an hour later than planned, I knew that I made my big goal for the day – make it to the run course. My coach gave me a pat on the back with the best text of the day – ‘You freaking rock’. Thanks coach!
I checked my blood sugar and was 5.4. Could it be even more perfect?! I disconnected from my pump, knowing that I would not need insulin at this level, and slowly started on the run course. I had a lot of time to make it to the finish by midnight. I would simply have to put one foot in front of the other. I could even do a run/walk. Since my body still felt off I decided to be cautious and do a run/walk pace. I mentally broke up the run portion into quarters, going off for 4 x 10km runs. The last 2.2 kms would be icing on the cake, coming into the finishing chute. I wouldn’t run up big hills, and I would walk the aid stations.
The run course is a two loop path, with about 5-6km on a winding road with a few hills, and the remainder on a smooth and flat trail in the woods. My first loop went by relatively quickly. My long legs helped me out, as I would pass slow runners with my walking pace. When I ran I felt at peace, and content. Running I thought, is my thing. My love. I knew that even though I had swam 3.8km and biked 180km, I could physically do this run. Mentally I was tired though, and felt like I needed support. My mind was still foggy and when I saw my family and friends at the turn-around I knew that I needed reinforcements. I wanted someone to join me, even if for parts, on the course. To run and walk alongside me. To tell me that I am keeping the right pace. To make sure that after all of this nonsense I would see that finish line. I passed by my medical school friends, who yelled out not to quit, ‘NEVER QUIT’, he repeated. It sunk in. Life lesson, right there.
When the going gets tough, never quit. Never quit.
As I made the turn to the second loop (which is terribly placed only 25m or so from the finish line!), I reconnected my insulin pump as my numbers were slowly going up from the food I was taking in. I remember thinking that I wasn’t yet deserving of an Ironman medal. Yes the bike was hard, and yes I dug deep. But I could still push, still challenge myself. This second loop was where I would really become an Ironman.
With support on the second loop I started to mentally do better. My coach told me to run/walk in 2 minute intervals. Run at any speed he said, just be sure to make your run faster than a walk. My boyfriend counted down as I switched from walking to running to walking to running. Two thoughts were going through my mind:
- You can do anything for 2 minutes.
- The more you run, that faster you’ll be finished. (Thanks Eric for the reminder!)
Motivated by the finish line, and knowing how many people were following my race, I kept pushing. I passed numerous runners on that second and last loop, all of a sudden starting to realize that I was getting closer and closer to the finish. With only 4km left I was surprised by two friends from my triathlon club who saw me at the turn around and heard me asking for support. They walked out in the dark and joined me for the final few kilometers of running and walking. They told me stories and bad jokes (thanks Katrina!) and before I knew it they were letting me go as I entered into the village for the final stretch to the finish.
This is where it really got real and emotional. Strangers and friends (Merci again Isabelle and Danny!) giving me high fives. Smiling and congratulating me. In awe of my perseverance. I expected to be coming in a couple of hours earlier, but was thrilled with my decision and ability to push hard to see that finish line. To hear my name. To be an Ironman.
I thought about my journey – about my type 1 diagnosis 30 years prior and the many challenges I faced while training with type 1, about my father’s sudden death twenty years ago and my desire to soak up every bit of life that I can, about my family, specifically my mom and brother and sister-in-law, supporting me and my crazy athletic decisions, about the Diabetes Sports Project and the type 1 community who never doubted my ability to complete this race.
I thought about the selfless love and support from my boyfriend who drove me to early morning workouts, and took care of the household so that I could train, take longer baths and go to bed earlier.
I thought about life, about how we are all destined to live an exceptional life – filled with adventures and experiences. How many of us don’t take full advantage of this exceptional life. How we are able to choose our path and surmount any challenge that we may be faced with. How, at the end of the day, we are all so fortunate to see the sun rise and set, every single day.
As I crossed the finish line, soaked in the finisher chute experience, (had to give Mike Reilly a hug!), I checked my blood sugar and was 7.3. BOOM! I had the most perfect diabetes day. I stayed in range, between 4-8 ALL. FREAKIN’. DAY. Who knew that Ironman races are the cure for Type 1 Diabetes!
I also spent the night looking through all of the messages of love and support on my social media accounts – thank you all so much! Your support throughout the whole process has been unbelievable.
Finishing this race is about a lot more than swimming, biking, and running. It’s about stamina and commitment. It’s about passion and perseverance. About community. Support. And love. And I am the luckiest girl in the world to have the best support crew by my side. So thank you!
You guys! I did it! I am an IRONMAN!
And so just like that, I am now an Ironman! I finished one of the more challenging endurance races out there. Now what? What’s next? I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, and am excited to share my thoughts with you in my next post. Obviously this adventure and experience junkie needs a new challenge now! Let’s make this exceptional life unforgettable! Stay tuned!
(Thinking of racing IMMT or simply want to get a better feel of the day? Here’s the official race video:)