Ever since I did my first triathlon at age 13, I said that “someday” before I turned 30, I would do a full Ironman triathlon. Someday was July 26. I traveled to one of my favorite places in the world, Vancouver, British Columbia and competed in the Ironman Canada. Over 15 years ago I committed to making my personal challenge, and over nine months ago I joined Team In Training, to give birth to my dream.
An Ironman is a triathlon that consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run, a daunting task. It takes months of training, focus, and determination.
Throughout this journey I have met incredible people, reconnected with old friends, raised money for a cause I believe in, and pushed myself and my teammates to achieve our dreams. During the training season, we each swam over 175 miles (1/2 the distance from here to San Francisco), rode our bikes 2,221 miles (that will get you from LA to Chicago) and ran over 662 miles, for a grand total of over 3,057 miles of training, which basically gets you across the entire country from California to Maine.
Race Day is a day I had prepared for a very long time and it is a day I will never forget. On July 26, 2015, Sunday morning, we bolted out of bed at 3:50am, with enough time to prepare our bottles and supplemental nutrition before meeting our teammates at 4:45am to head to the start line of Ironman Canada.
Nervous bodies gathered in anticipation of the start. We repacked our bike boxes and filled transition bags, fit in a warm-up run and zipped up our wetsuits for a massive swim start of over 2,000 people.
I headed to the swim start with my teammates and my swim buddies Breanna and Hannah. We are the IronChicks. We looked back on the sea of bright pink and green swim caps, amazed at the sheer quantity of people. The canon shot off at 7:00 am SHARP and we were on our way.
What I love about these women is that we push each other and encourage one another to be our best selves. Breanna and I swam each stroke side by side for the full two loops in Alta Lake averaging around 1:40 splits per 100m. (I admit, I don’t swim in the straightest of lines so I think I ended up swimming 2.9 miles.) Just like practice, we pushed a little faster at the end of the swim course and into the pouring rain through transition. We jogged out towards the “wetsuit strippers” who peal off your wetsuit as fast as possible before you go into the changing tent. I had a quick turnaround and was out.
The rain was beginning to come down hard as I headed out for the ride. Within about 5 minutes my chain fell off, and I shifted it back into place, dropped into aero and picked up my pace. Just as planned, I spun out my legs, powered up the hills and had a blast catching up to and then riding with some of the fastest guys on our team. We played rounds of leap frog as we sailed through the wind.
By the time I reached the top of Callaghan Road and Olympic Park, my hands were so cold that I could hardly shift. At one point, I had to shift using the palms of my hands since I had lost dexterity in my fingers. I raced down the hill maxing out at 45mph, was focused, determined, and on track.
As we passed Whistler Village we heard the crowds and coaches cheering “GO TEAM!” At Pemberton I declined my special needs bag, and shortly after heard my back wheel go out. I quickly pulled over and began changing my tire with the little feeling I had in my fingers. I found a shard of green glass nestled into my tire; I couldn’t pull it out, so took it out with my teeth. I was feeling frustrated but pretty hardcore at this point. My training as a Backroads leader and being able to change a flat quickly came in handy and I was on my way to catch the 50 plus people that had passed me. One by one, I caught up and was cruising at about 20mph into a headwind on the return flat stretch. I was in the top 10% in my age group.
At some point, now this is where my memory goes foggy, I noticed I was short of breath and wanted my inhaler. I knew my fingers may have been too cold to grab it from my jersey and I remember seeing the edge of the road and then it’s blank… And dark. Then I could hear my teammate Quinn asking me questions. I was disoriented and confused and not sure where I was. “Where am I?” I asked. It all felt very dreamlike and confusing. I heard Breanna and Hannah catch up and stop by. I remember saying, “I’ll catch up. See you on the course.” That was far from the case. All I knew was my name and birthdate.
I am so grateful that Quinn was behind me to see the crash and help me while the ambulances and race officials came by. I was placed in a collar, wrapped up and taken off the course. I had suffered a concussion and amnesia and the universe had other plans for me.
We called my brother from the ambulance and my family was waiting for me when I arrived in the ER. My mom, dad, stepmom, brother, sister, and godfather were all there. I am so grateful to my family who was immediately at my side and particularly to my older brother, Clarke, who not only kept everyone calm but was my cornerstone all weekend. He is my hero. I have been in a roller coaster of emotions and altogether transformed through this whole experience.
Once I was released from the medical center, I rested for several hours and then made a quick visit to see a couple of my teammates cross the finish line. With tears of joy, dreams were coming true one by one. With each person that crossed the announcer would exclaim, “You are an Ironman!”
Despite the accident, waves of disappointment, embarrassment, and pain, the weekend was one of the most rewarding, difficult, and confronting weekends of my life and I am grateful for it all! It is clear that the race isn’t what becoming an Ironman is about. As one of our coaches said, it’s about “the willingness to attempt things that scare others and even ourselves.”
Who says an Ironman won’t change your life, eh? I just didn’t know it would be this way. I have a lot of questions to answer, decisions to make and lessons to learn. We don’t know a lot about concussions but what I have learned is that they are cumulative, and I need to take care of my mind now so it won’t affect me in the long term. I am restless and want to get out there right now. You can’t see concussions so you don’t know how well they are healed. I am young and healthy and with a little TLC and patience, I know I’ll be back again. I have reached out to my community to support me through this transition.
The life lessons are pouring in ten-fold and I realize that I am entering the hardest–or at least most confronting–part of training: recovery. I don’t like it. However, what I have realized is that I go from activity to activity so that I don’t have to sit with my thoughts and with myself. If enough people and projects need my attention then I don’t have to sit still with myself. On top of that, you know that feeling you get when you are reaching for a goal? The crowd is cheering and then you get there and there’s a big celebration and then what… Sometimes it is coming down from a goal that’s the hardest part. What now?
It is said that most deaths on Mount Everest occur during the descent from the summit in the so-called “death zone” above 8,000 meters. I am beginning my descent, and while I keep looking at what’s next I have to put one foot in front of the other to get down.
There is a quote that hangs above my medals at home that says, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” We all have that courage inside of us! We start the moment we say “YES!” That also goes for saying yes to proper recovery and self-care.
A week after my accident I went to visit my friend Marina. She is a new mom and her daughter is a month old. When I told her how I was feeling depressed, sluggish, locked-in, and foggy-brained she exclaimed, “You sound like you just gave birth. You sound like me!” I laughed and then really thought about it. It was true. I had given birth to an Ironwoman and the delivery didn’t go as I had planned. I had put my body through tough circumstances and now I needed to rest.
I no later found myself in Hawaii for some serious rest and recovery. I had planned on racing with my team and now was the team’s honorary Team Mom. My role was to serve my team, support them and love them. I had gone from being the center of attention in Canada to being the space of total support. What a change! While in Hawaii, I stayed open and learned some things that I hope to carry forward through the islands of life.
- Surround yourself with people who will help you, laugh and cry with you, watch your back, and help you get back on your feet. You don’t have to heal or recover alone.
- The pause is part of the dance. You don’t need to do everything right now.
- When you feel unbalanced in any way, reach out to friends — on a trail and in your life.
- Give up that you know what’s best and learn to listen to your doctor and people who love you.
- Unplug, enjoy the people you’re with.
- Dance in the rain.
- Don’t scratch your mosquito bites.
- Be a marshmallow kid. (Look up the Marshmallow Experiment)
- Be patient with yourself and your body. There will be times when you get frustrated and you must surrender and let your ego go.
- Slow Down and Breathe.
As you gear up for your next adventure, challenge or chapter, remember the climb down. Step by step and hand in hand with people who love you, including YOU.
Photos at top and bottom by Paiwei Wei