Race Report, Part One: Thunder, Lightning, Swim, and Bike

ironmantra by Shannon Thompson

The moment the alarm went at 3:15 on Sunday morning, I was fully alert, my first thought clear and immediate: I’m awake to do the Ironman. I am awake to do the Ironman.

I went through the tasks I had on my list: drink water, drink yerba mate, make oatmeak, poop (sorry, and I know–on a list? But hey, it’s the Ironman), fill water bottles, put on Garmin. Out the door at 4:30 when Mara and Chuck picked me up. We dropped off our special needs bags–the items we would access halfway through the bike and run–and organized our things in the transition area. The sky was still dark, but the Olympic Speed Skating Oval was brightly lit and buzzing with the pre-dawn activity and nervous energy of two thousand athletes. Spectators already lined the barricaded streets. It was bizarre, terrifying, wonderful. I cried.

The day was already warm, a relief after the previous day’s 47-degree start. The forecast called for thunderstorms, but I intentionally didn’t check the radar in the morning–too much to mess with my head. At about 6:00 I made my way to the lake, a few blocks from transition, where thousands of wetsuit-clad humans milled about like so many sea lions on a Galapagos beach. Music pumped from the speakers. A drone buzzed above our heads.

The cannon went at 6:30 to send the pros off ahead of the age-groupers, who were all self-seeded behind signs showing our projected swim time. I slipped in toward the front of the 1:11-1:20 group, where I found myself entirely surrounded by enormous, intense, muscular men–normally a dream come true, but in this case, I was intimidated and weaved my way toward the back where I found a cluster of women dancing to Call Me Maybe, keeping it light. A woman my age asked if it was my first Ironman and offered perfect reassurances.

Before I knew it, another cannon, and we were trotting in a column through the arches into the water. Once I was swimming, my nerves settled and my stroke was strong and steady. I kept pace with one guy, then another, watching his right arm tattoo come around every time I breathed to the left. Reached the end of the first leg with a time that pleased me. Drafted behind a guy with a beard the whole second leg. It rained like hell and ┬áthe sky grew dark as we exited the water to run through the arches again to begin the second loop, and I worried about the thunderstorms coming as I re-entered the water. A couple of times I thought I heard thunder, but with 2000 people slapping the water around you, you can’t know anything. At any rate, I was half a mile from shore, so what would I do anyway? I swam as well and as fast as I reasonably could.

As I stood up out of the water, I watched an enormous lightning bolt come out of the sky toward the ground in front of me. Now I was terrified, with visions of lightning striking this lake that still had 1500 people in it. I sat down and let the volunteer peel my wetsuit off of me, then ran with it in hand for 800 meters through the barricaded streets to the oval. Spectators dashed for cover as thunder crashed around us and buckets of gray water fell from the sky. Oh my God, I thought, this is the apocalypse. And I’m getting on a bicycle.

What else could I do? I got on the bicycle. There’s a climb out of town for a little while, and we made our way forward, heads down against the lashing, prayers sent up to ward off the lightning strikes. The skies crackled around us, and we made comments like “at least it’s not snowing” which weren’t funny but kind of helped. At some point, a guy pointed out that the odds of getting hit were infinitesimal, and I realized, okay, here I am. I am happier than I have ever been, and I cleaned the house before I left. I am going to be careful, but I’m not stopping. If it’s my time, so be it. I hope it’s not, but I might as well have a good time.

bike rain

bike 2

After the climb out of town there’s a 12-mile descent on new pavement that had me going over 45 MPH the last time I was here. I was looking forward to this hill for the thrill, and for the time it would earn me. A little extra weight, a fast bike, a high risk threshold and a love of speed make for some serious ass-kicking on the downhills. But not this time. I didn’t even know how to ride in this–I would never ride my bike in a thunderstorm! I took my cues from the men around me, and touched the brakes enough to stay with the crowd. It was scary, disappointing, and painful, as the rain hammered like nails from outer space into my face.

It was also freezing. By the bottom I was shivering hard, and I was worried. I knew the course leveled out at Keene, which would help, but if this rain continued I’d be hypothermic before noon and I wouldn’t be able to finish. I was kicking myself for not being dressed for it.

But the rain stopped just after I made the turn toward the hamlets of Jay and Ausable Forks, and I gradually warmed up. I rode along the river at a steady pace, and I realized I was having a ball. My body felt fantastic. When I’m training all the time, my body always feels tired. I’ve never done a long bike ride when I was well-rested, and it’s whole nother animal. It was wonderful. The lightning and driving rain at the start put things in perspective, too–you don’t worry about things like pooping or chafing when you think you’re going to be electrocuted. The entire race now had a different face.

I watched a chain reaction bike crash involving 4 or 5 people, and I stopped for the woman who skidded across the road in front of me, earning an ugly scrape on her shoulder. She was really rattled but so anxious to get back on her bike that I had to kind of hug her against the guard rail to keep her from jumping out in front of the oncoming crowds. We checked out her helmet and her bones and her bike, and I rode with her for a couple of minutes before wishing her well and pedaling on ahead, glad to see she was taking it easy. About 15 minutes later she came smoking past me, all smiles and waves and thank yous. We ran into each other the next day and hugged like old friends, and I was so glad to see she was fine. She beat me by about an hour and a half.

The rest of the bike was sheer joy. I couldn’t believe how much I was loving it, so much more than I thought I would. Nothing hurt. I held back on the hills to save my strength for the second loop and for the marathon. The sun came out, and banks of mist shifted around the mountains and rolled through the valleys. Steam rose from the fields. We chatted with each other as we passed and got passed, complimented each other and flirted and wished each other well. I felt like the luckiest person on the planet. Big crowds lined the steep hills on the way back into town, and a young man running around in only his underwear and carrying some kind of flag (sorry, never looked at the flag) sprinted up the biggest and last hill with me. I don’t know how many times he did this for how many athletes, but I’m awfully glad he did it for me.

Photo of that Underwear Man by Elizabeth Kreutz

I’d been taking in calories in the form of energy bars and sports drink with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio, but I think I ate too much solid food, and my gut was feeling it. The last thing I wanted was to be achy and bloated for the marathon. I stopped the bars and prayed that my tummy would settle down. The Ironman is also an excellent day to get your period, because even though you feel like shit, you can be especially smug when you pass large groups of extremely fit men. “Any of you guys have your period today too? No? Okay, well, good luck! Maybe I’ll see you later if my cramps get worse.”

We came through town to begin the second loop. By now the sun was fully out and cheering spectators lined the closed streets. As I came past the oval, I heard Mike Reilly (“The Voice of the Ironman”) on the loudspeaker: “Just LOOK at that smile! That’s Shannon Thompson!” and the crowds cheered and I laughed and hooted and hollered and I cry now with the memory of it.

The roads were dry for that second descent from Lake Placid to Keene, and I flew, tucked low in the aero bars, touching the brakes only once on a curve at the bottom. My Garmin recorded a max speed of 45.5. I don’t need to ever go that fast again, but I will tell you, it was awesome, made all the sweeter by how horrible it was the first time through.

At around mile 80 as I again cruised along the river, my belly was better but my attitude and energy were slipping, so I grabbed the double shot of espresso I’d chilled in a gel flask the night before, and that sucker pretty well changed my life. The final ride back to town was just plain fun, even when the sky opened up again and drenched us, as we spun our way along the trout streams and past horse farms and ski resorts.

I finished the ride with a near-even split and a total time of 7:11, well below my best-case-scenario goal of 7:30.

Of course, now I had to run a marathon.