Self Help Coaching
How One MTM’er Achieved The UnbelievableJune 10 1 Comments
This incredible MTM’er will teach you a lesson in fighting for your dream as she completes her first Ironman Competition. And did we mention she only began running 5 years ago? Whoa…
Larissa's Story • MTM'er Since 2007
Over a week removed from my big race of 2009, I sit here reflecting upon my experience, still soaking it all in, and finding myself in complete disbelief that it actually happened. It’s hard to imagine that only 15 months ago I was buying my first bike and learning how to cycle and swim. Fast forward several months, under a dozen short-course triathlons, many long hours of training and you have yourself an Ironman!
Wow! If somebody told me five years ago that this is where I would be today, you would have to peel my jaw off the floor! You’re talking about an extremely focused musician who had barely anything to do with sports (let alone any time!) for most of her childhood. In 2005 I somehow managed to get talked into running a marathon (again, with no prior running experience) and the rest is history. The endurance bug bit me real hard. Hard enough to dream of doing an Ironman. Ouch.
I Love The Challenge
People often ask me “Why?” Why would you attempt such a grueling event? Why would you put your body through that? Honestly, it’s hard to come up with a reasonable response because often I’m not sure myself. I just know what drives me and what I feel passionate about. I love the challenge. I love seeing what my body is capable of doing. I love the energy I feel while training and that tired yet exhilarating feeling of “You done good!” afterwards. I feel energized. I feel healthy. I feel alive.
I realized that one of the most important parts about Ironman training is to enjoy the process. Enjoy becoming more fit. Enjoy becoming a better athlete. Enjoy the positive impact it has on other aspects of your life. (And yes, enjoy those grueling long weekend rides)
It’s also about consistency. Getting up every morning to fit in that workout even when you don’t feel like it. No excuses. Too tired? So what? It’s raining? So what? Not enough time? So what? Have your period? So what? Hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Thousands of mind-numbing laps in the pool. Endless often painful hours in the saddle, relentless pounding on pavement and trails. Get ‘r done, they say. Somehow you do it.
But I find the most joy in how my journey has impacted and inspired other people around me. My friends. My family. My students. It’s quite humbling when people come up to me and share how inspired they are by my training and determination to reach this goal.
They’ve inspired me just by sharing this! It makes me so happy! And motivates me to keep my eye on my dream and not give up. Even when it gets really tough.
Then one day you wake up and it’s the eve of Ironman. All the hard work is done. The long training hours have been put in; there is nothing else left to do. Except to rest and trust in your preparation. My number one goal for race day was to enjoy the journey and have fun, regardless of the final result. You will never have another first Ironman. Just to finish is to PR.
Going into race day I had only three things to focus on that day…
- Slow and easy
- Drink and eat
- Stay positive
The “Ironman Psalms”. Keep it simple. Because at some point during the race, it’s hard to think about much else.
I awoke race morning surprisingly well rested on a little over 6 hours of sleep (I got well over 8 hours Friday night). The night before I spent a lovely evening with friends and family but somehow managed to mistakenly walk around almost all of Mirror Lake (the lake I was to swim in the following morning) in search of a restaurant. Not the wisest thing to do the night before Ironman, but it turned out alright in the end.
The alarm went off at 4am and I immediately started taking in calories: banana, oatmeal, bagel with almond butter, espresso. I enjoyed it immensely knowing that this was the last bit of “real food” I would have all day. Liquid calories and gels were to be my diet for the remainder of the day. Joy! I got dressed, double checked my bags and got dropped off at the transition area. I felt surprisingly calm and collected. I don’t think it had quite sunk in that I was going to attempt 140.6 miles today. Just a reeeeeeealy long training day, right?
I got body-marked (1983 was my tattoo for the day), pumped my tires, double checked my transition bags, waited in port-a-potty lines, and tried to remain focused. Still didn’t seem real. Put on my wetsuit as it began to drizzle (let me tell you, putting on a wetsuit on already wet skin is not fun) and slowly walked towards the swim start with my fan club (Mom & Dad, cousin Lileya, boyfriend John, and dear college friends Gloria and Mandy). It still didn’t seem real!
For the bike and run portion, you can pack extra nutrition/clothing in a “special needs bag” which you can pick up at the half-way point of each leg. I walked my bags over which seemed like forever – by the time I got back it was only 15 mins before the start! The rain was still gently coming down as I said my good-byes and took pictures with family and friends. This would be the last time I would see them for quite some time.
The Day Has Come
I made my way over just as the pros were starting their race (6:50am). I crossed the timing mat and heard the beep. This was it. There was no turning back. Now it felt real. Ironman is such a demanding journey, both physically and emotionally, and the emotions were starting to kick in. As I walked into the water and heard the national anthem being sung, it finally all sunk in and I began to cry. Wow. This was it. The day has come. And now is not the time to get my goggles filled up with water!
Before I knew it the canon went off and the race had started. Music was blasting, spectators were cheering, thousands of arms were flailing in the water … it was quite the sight to see! And I just waited. Yup. I’ll let you guys go first. After you, please. I’ll just hang out back here and get a nice slow start. And I am so glad I did. I have heard horror stories of people getting kicked, elbowed, knocked around, losing goggles, black eyes, you name it. My small victory: emerging from the swim unscathed. I encountered your regular grabbing at the feet and being climbed over (yes, I was lapped) that you get at any race, but nothing compared to what I had been anticipating.
I completed the first loop in 53 mins and the second in 58 mins (1:52:03 total for the swim). I kept telling myself to take it nice and slow. This was going to be a very long day. No need to overdo it on the swim. And I had a great time. I breathe on my right side and enjoyed the beautiful views around Mirror Lake with each breath. The second loop certainly seemed longer then the first (and apparently it was, for me!), but it wasn’t nearly as mind-numbing as swimming that distance in the pool.
As I got out of the water and ran over the timing mats I heard my name over the loud speaker, “Larissa Smith, piano teacher from Springfield, VA!”, which gave me a huge boost. I got my wetsuit stripped off and started the long run to T1. There were rows and rows of excited spectators and I managed to see my family and friends and get a high-five from my cousin, Lileya. This was so much fun! I ran into transition, grabbed my swim-to-bike bag, and was lead to the ladies changing tent.
The volunteers at any Ironman event are absolutely incredible. The ratio of volunteers to athlete is something like 5 to 1. I took a seat as one of the volunteers dumped out the contents of my bag and helped me sort through everything. She put suntan lotion on my arms and helped me put my arm warmers on. I knew I probably wouldn’t need them, but it had just rained and I was concerned about getting cold on the descents.
8 1/2 Hours… 112 Miles On The Bike…
As a slow swimmer, by the time I get to T1 of any race, virtually all the bikes are gone, so it was not hard for a volunteer to find my bike and hand it off. I made my way to the bike mount, heard the timing mat beep again (T1: 9:56), got another boost from family and friends and was off. It was a little after 9:00am. I had until 5:30pm to complete 112 miles.
I wear a heart rate monitor when I train, and my goal on the bike was to stay in Z2 and Z3 on the climbs. The Lake Placid course is the hilliest on the Ironman circuit, if not one of the most challenging. There are about 8000+ feet of climbing. Because of this, you really have to pace yourself out and not overdo it on the climbs. An Ironman race is all about the bike. If you go too hard, you don’t have enough left for the marathon.
Overall, I can honestly say I enjoyed the bike. Don’t get me wrong, 112 miles is a long way; but up until about mile 80 or so, I was really having a good time. The bike course is absolutely beautiful and we had perfect weather for it (besides the winds). I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to descents so I held onto the brakes and got “low”. Not ready for 40+mph quite yet. My legs felt great (the taper worked!) and felt really strong on the bike. I did most of my training on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley, so those climbs really prepared me for what I was to encounter on the Lake Placid course. I managed to keep my heart rate down as planned and not burn out on the climbs.
My nutrition plan was to take in water every 10 mins and a sports drink (EFS) every 20 mins. I packed an almond butter & honey sandwich should I crave some real food but in the end didn’t need it. I’m not one for peeing on the bike (yet!) so I stopped twice to take care of business. It was a relief to get off the saddle for a little bit and stretch things out. I didn’t linger, but had enough time for volunteers to refill my bottles and chat a bit.
I’ve spent the majority of my training riding alone, so being on my own during the bike leg was not a huge problem for me. I talk to myself. I talk to my bike. I sing. It’s quite humorous. There’s a portion of the course which is an out-and-back (Haselton Rd.) so you have a chance to see folks and nod hello. I saw a few people I knew, so this gave me a good boost. At this point I was passed by the lead pro – on his second loop! It was really cool because all the media folks were following him and all the pros behind him. This went on and on until I got back into town. I picked up my special needs bag with a back up bottle and rode back to the transition area. People were cheering, I saw my mom right away and smiled for the cameras as my friends took pictures. What fun! It was so good to see everyone! And I was halfway done! (bike split to mile 36: 2:21:29, bike split to mile 56: 1:42:55).
OK. Here we go. One more loop. You got this. The second loop, of course, felt much longer. I was pacing myself well and sticking to my “Ironman Pslams”, but after awhile being on the saddle for so long starts to get a bit old. New things begin to hurt, your back starts to ache, the aero position is not as comfortable anymore. I think it was around mile 80 or so where I really started to get tired. My feet were actually getting tired. Was I not pedaling efficiently enough? Will I be able to run a marathon on these legs? And that’s when doubt started to sink in. I began to question whether or not I would make the bike cutoff. Other athletes around me began to wonder the same thing. I passed a good friend on the side of the road as he was struggling with digestive issues. I so wanted to stop and help him out, but knew I had to keep going. I felt a sense of panic. Can I actually pull this off? I tried to encourage as many people as I could, in hopes of keeping my spirits up as well. Think happy thoughts, happy thoughts. It was tough. We were really getting down to the wire. But I had to keep plugging along. No matter what.
The last 10 miles of the bike loop are all uphill. Not a whole lot of fun after 100 miles of riding. I was not a happy camper. I kept doing the math in my head and was pretty sure I would have enough time. But there was still that nagging feeling. I was close to tears and could feel my heart sinking. Just then, some race officials on a motorcycle rode up beside me. Oh no, I thought. They’re going to tell me I won’t make the cutoff. As they passed they gave me a thumbs up and continued driving along. A felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and an incredible sense of relief. I wanted to cry, I was so happy! I was going to make the cutoff!
The rest of the bike leg is pretty much a blur. I was running on adrenaline at that point and was happy to be in town again. You feel like such a rock star! I rode into transition and saw my fan club, giving them a huge smile and thumbs up. I did it! My final bike time was 8:19:05. I made it with just 10 mins to spare!
As I dismounted my bike, I ran into a fellow athlete who also works with my coach. She was a “bike catcher” volunteering in the transition area. It was so good to get words of encouragement and see a familiar face. We chatted a bit as I grabbed my bike-to-run bag and ran into the ladies changing tent for the final time. “Do not sit down and rest”, I kept thinking. Do what you need to do and get out of there. You have to keep moving. And I did. My T2 time was 5:44.
A Stinging Sensation Between My Toes…
Running is my strength. I only started running 5 years ago, but of the three sports, this is the one I am the most comfortable with. No mechanical issues to deal with, potholes to dodge, flat tires to worry about. Just you and your feet. But this is where the race gets real. This is what makes it an Ironman. It all comes down to the run. I once heard someone say “It’s not a good bike if you have a bad run.” Here comes the moment of truth.
I started the run feeling great. Pumped up. Energized. I was in the zone. I’ve got this now. I have 6 1/2 hours to nail this marathon. That’s almost a 15 min. mile. My race strategy was to run 9 mins/walk one min. Plan B: run 5 mins/walk one min. Plan C: run 100 steps/walk 100 steps. Just keep moving! There were tons of people on the course … so this is where everyone was! It was hard to tell who was on their first loop and who was on their second, because by this point, a lot of people are just plodding along trying to get through it. One aid station at a time. Thinking anywhere beyond that was not a good idea. As E.L. Doctorow said “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My Ironman headlights only extended to the next aid station, yet I knew this would get me through the entire race.
Around mile 7 or so I began to notice a stinging sensation between my toes. Hmmm … maybe I got some rocks or sand stuck between my toes? I stopped to check it out but couldn’t find anything. Just keep moving, I thought. Running was becoming harder and harder and I was beginning to get tired.
I ran the first loop in 2:23 (~11 min mile). Going through town again gave me another giant boost as I waved and smiled to family and friends. But I could not stop and chat. I had to keep going. There’s a portion of the run course which is a huge tease. If you’re on your second loop you turn right and run towards the finish chute; if you’re on your first loop you turn left and do it all over again. You can hear loud music playing, folks cheering, “(Insert name here) you are an Ironman!” being shouted through loud speakers in the distance. It was quite disheartening as I made that left and started my second loop. I could feel myself beginning to slow down. On a normal day, 13 miles was no big deal. But at the end of an Ironman it was a huge deal. My running spurts got shorter and shorter and I found myself beginning to walk more often then running. 100 steps of plodding (errr … running), 100 steps walking. Keep moving, I kept telling myself.
By this point it was starting to get dark and they were handing out glow stick necklaces and foil blankets to keep warm. It had gotten really quiet. All you heard was the sound of feet hitting the pavement and soft conversation. I think this is where I hit my lowest point in the race. Everything hurt. I was tired. I was emotional. I wanted to stop. I wanted to cry. Why oh why did I ever sign up for such a crazy race? Who in their right mind would want to do this? But I knew the answer to that. And I held onto my dream.
A few more miles down the road I got out of my slump and ran into a Team Z member, Paul Duncan, I had met a few days before. It was so good to see a familiar face and commiserate in our self-torture together. I actually started to feel good again and felt another wave of energy. We were running the same pace and he was using a 5 min run/one min walk strategy, so I just tagged along. We were both hurting but kept each other going as we chugged along through the last 8 or so miles of the marathon. Time began to go by much more quickly and before I knew it we were in town again. It was like a rock concert! Hundreds of people lined the roads screaming your name, ringing cowbells, smacking clackers, cheering you on. It was an instant lift which gave me extra energy I didn’t know I had. We passed a few athletes who were walking and got several “How on earth are you still running?!?!?” comments. It felt good. I was energized. I was ready to bring it home. I was ready to become an Ironman.
We ran the entire last mile together and parted ways right before reaching the oval. I wanted to savor this moment. It was unreal. There are so many highs and lows you experience through the course of an Ironman, most of them during the marathon. This was it. All the months of long training and preparation culminating to this single moment. I ran down the finish chute with tears in my eyes, a huge smile on my face and an extra spring in my step. I tried to soak in as much as I could. It’s so overwhelming. An indescribable feeling. I did it. I am an Ironman. As I put my arms in the air and crossed the finish line, I heard those oh so sweet words, “Larissa Smith, you are an Ironman!” Final time: 15:53:59.
How I Choose To Live My Life
It’s hard to put into words the impact your first Ironman has on you. I think it will be something I will continue to reflect upon during the months to come. There are so many parallels between the inner-meaning of Ironman and how you choose to live your life. I have yet to understand them all. In the meantime, I am as happy as can be and extremely proud of this accomplishment. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the constant love and support from my family and friends, especially from my boyfriend, John, who stood by me every step of the way. Ironman training comes with many hard choices and sacrifices and he saw me through all of it.
Behind the success of most athletes is also an amazing coach. I would not have been able to tackle such a huge feat without the constant guidance and care (and awesome training plan!) of my coach, Alan Melvin. Thank you!
On a side note: Remember that stinging feeling between my toes at the start of the marathon? You guessed it. Blisters. Two big ones between the pinky toes on both my feet. One of them healed nicely, the other didn’t. After seeing doctors and podiatrists for the past week, I am finally on the road to recovery from a badly infected blister. It has not been fun. Imagine months of constant activity, over 20 hours of exercise a week, and then having to stay off your feet and do nothing for days on end. Excruciatingly painful for a recovering Ironman. But I made it through. And am still smiling, as always.
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