From Sea to Bike to Feet

Author: Angela North '95

When I first met my husband, that fateful day in June 1994, I learned that one of his favorite retorts was, “Why not?” In his mind, anything is possible, even if it involves swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles, all in 17 hours or less. There’s no prize money or fame involved when you are a middle-of-the-pack athlete, but there’s definitely plenty of glory in finishing.

That summer we met, Ed was training for his first marathon in Chicago. I thought he had a screw loose. I had never run more than 3 miles at a time myself and never knew anyone who’d completed a marathon. Of course, I tried to be nonchalant about my doubts. The relationship was still new, and I was trying to hide my closet pessimism from his unbridled optimism, at least until he fell for me.

When I returned to Notre Dame in the fall for my senior year, we remained in casual contact. One Sunday morning that October, I woke up (doubtless hung over) and happened to flip on the TV to Chicago’s WGN, where they were covering the marathon live. After watching the inspiring broadcast, even though I never caught a glimpse of him, it hit me that this was the man I wanted to marry. He made me want to be a better person. It wasn’t just his athletic pursuits; he challenged me spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. He wasn’t hiding anything, and he was helping me come out of my shell.

Fast forward to January 2001: Ed and I have been married for a year and a half, we have 8 marathons between us, and numerous shorter triathlons. The Ironman-length triathlon eluded us. Ed wasn’t convinced that the training required would be compatible with his full-time job. I was convinced that no amount of training would get me over the Ironman finish line. But one fateful night that month, in typical Ed-like fashion, he announced that he had signed up for Ironman Florida: “No more excuses, I’m ready to take some action.” Ed and I have always had a healthily competitive relationship. I signed up for the race the next day.

The countdown and the training began in anticipation of the big day, November 10, 2001. We spent the winter and spring lifting weights and preparing for a June marathon to get our strength and endurance up to par. Once the weather broke, we spent our weekends biking and swimming along the Chicago lakefront. In August, we successfully completed a half-Ironman distance race in central Iowa. At last, now 12 weeks out, the final preparations for Ironman began.

Fear and doubt were waging a war in my mind against logic and pure desire. Surely if the hours of training were logged, how could I fail? It wasn’t fear that got me out of bed and on my bike at 5 a.m. most Saturday mornings, it was a longing to succeed in this crazy quest. But in order to assuage my fears, I was soaking up all the information about Ironman racing I could find on the Internet, in books and from firsthand reports. One thought I came across stuck with me through the rest of my training and I carried it with me through the race:

“Competing in Ironman requires core strength. This won’t take a membership to a gym. You can’t get it in the weight room. I’m talking body core. You’ve got to get right with God because you’re going to pray out there.”

I began to reflect on the sacrifices Ed and I had made over that year of training. Friends and family had many times taken second priority to our schedule, but in spite of that, they were still our biggest fans. Not a word of discouragement or skepticism was uttered by them, only expressions of support and awe of the task that lay ahead. I drew on the strength they provided, and I thanked God for giving me these people and this body of mine.

Soon enough, Ed and I found ourselves well trained (we hoped), healthy, and on our way to Florida. The first thing I checked upon our arrival in Panama City was the weather forecast. It was going to be sunny and 75 on race day! Now, I only had to hope that the sharks didn’t mistake me for a seal in my wetsuit and that the wind wasn’t strong enough to kick up any major waves. For two days, we wandered around the race headquarters, relaxed in the sun, and soaked up all the Ironman energy that abounded on the hotel grounds.

On race day, I woke at 4:45 a.m. and rolled over to look out the window. The palm trees were not moving, which was a good thing. If the trees weren’t moving, then the water shouldn’t be either. Despite the fact that our stomachs were in knots, we managed to eat, dress, and check our gear one last time. At 6:40 a.m., we were on the beach, in our wetsuits, and listening to the d.j. play some lackluster tunes by Yanni. Thankfully, he must have realized that half the crowd was sleepwalking, and he started spinning some real music (i.e., Madonna!) after that. At 7 a.m., the starting gun went off. Ed and I wished each other luck. The last thing I heard before my head went under was the announcer saying, “there they go on a 140.6 mile journey,” and U2’s “Beautiful Day” playing in the background. Outside of a little chop from the TV helicopter above us and the 1,800 fellow swimmers around me, the water was cool and calm.

I finished the 2.4 mile swim right about when I expected and headed towards the transition area to change and get my bike. By now, Ed was about 15 minutes ahead of me, and I knew I likely wouldn’t see him again until the run course. Of the three events, biking is by far my weakest. Given that it typically occupies 40 to 50 percent of the elapsed time in the Ironman triathlon, I was counting on some serious mental toughness to pull me through.

The day was hot, the course was not shaded, and near the end I spent some long miles with few other competitors in sight. At about mile 90, I caught myself singing Prince’s “Delirious” to myself (“I get de-lir-i-ous…do do do do”) and I knew I better snap out of it get moving. I wondered how Ed was faring and thought back to all the training sessions we had done together. We would go for long swims at Ohio Street beach downtown, even though he knew he would end up on the beach, wet and cold, waiting for me. On more than one 100-mile bike ride, he stayed within sight of me the entire ride, even though he was capable of finishing miles ahead. Each and every time I whined about the training and doubted my abilities, he was there telling me how strong I was and how proud he was of me. So, I grabbed an Oreo and a Nutter Butter from the smorgasbord I had attached to my body and my bike and really got spinning. Surely I couldn’t let myself down, but I didn’t want to let Ed down either.

I came into the bike-to-run transition area ready to sob from pure elation for having completed the 112 miles. However, I held my emotion inside out of fear that the race officials would think I was injured and not let me continue. I channeled those emotions to my precious feet, which were getting ready to carry me for the final 26.2 miles of the race. Oddly enough, running completely re-energized me. Instead of being virtually alone, like I was on many stretches of the bike course, I was constantly surrounded by other athletes, spectators and volunteers. I actually had fun, chatting it up with other runners who looked like they could use some encouragement, joking around with the beer-drinking spectators and extending my many thanks to the amazing volunteers.

I saw Ed at two different points on the course and each time rejoiced that he was healthy and on his way to the finish line. As the night grew darker, the realization that I was also on my way to finishing well before the midnight deadline grew brighter. About 2 miles from the finish line, I could see the bright lights and hear the faint hum of the crowd in the grandstands. I thought back to my silly childhood dreams of being an Olympian, knowing that this was probably as close as I was going to get and relishing how damn good it felt.

My aches and pains disappeared as I grew closer, and I soon found myself sprinting. As I came down the finisher’s chute, my name was announced and I couldn’t help but do a few celebratory high kicks. The race was only one day long, but I knew in my heart I would be an Iron(wo)man for life!