They say that Ironman will change your life.
For some people, the bragging rights that come from being able to say they are an Ironman is all they need. For some, Ironman is one of those things they have to “tick off their list” in life.
It was never about either of these for me. Although looking back, I find it impossible to articulate exactly what I did expect.
In some ways it was just that it was the next challenge. I’ve heard other triathletes say you either aim to go faster or you go longer. And I wasn’t really getting any faster…
A common thread of those who have completed an Ironman is that the finish line is all the payoff you need, and I’m the first to admit that after watching the Australian Ironman last year in Forster, it certainly had its allure.
So, maybe the best place to start this Chronicle, is at the end.
Try to picture this...
It’s just after 11pm on a Sunday night. You’re a thousand kilometres from home and having the latest night you’ve had for six months.
Just over 16 hours ago you paddled into the water in the Hastings River – in which you swam 3.8kms. About 14.5 hours ago, after smearing on sunscreen and Vaseline and donning your helmet and well-worn gloves you embarked on a 180km bike ride. Just before sunset, this task behind you, you took the first steps of the first marathon you’ve ever completed.
Around seven hours ago, before you even finished cycling, the first female Ironman competitor crossed the finish line.
Nevertheless, thousands of people, a few of whom you know, line each side of a hundred metre long piece of extremely well lit blue carpet, screaming their lungs out.
All for you.
This is the moment you’ve imagined. This exact picture has haunted your consciousness and hung like a question mark over almost everything you’ve done for the last six months.
Everyone I knew who’d been in this position before gave me the same piece of advice. When you enter the finish chute, stop running. Walk the last few hundred metres and soak it all up.
But to be completely honest, I felt like a rabbit stunned by oncoming headlights – it was all so bright and loud after the hours of darkness. I could hear the music and I could feel the energy of the crowd.
Let me just repeat, thousands of people, only a few of whom I knew, were screaming for me, reaching out to me, like I were a rock star.
Amongst the crowd I spotted Karen, my coach’s wife, and stopped to give her a hug. Karen and I took up triathlon at the same time four years back – having come from very similar smart-not-sporty-kid backgrounds. She just pipped me to Ironman glory, having completed Ironman Western Australia just a few months prior. I think she was as proud of me as I’d been of her.
Next I spotted Phil’s parents, Jan and Ron, who had travelled from South Australia to see us both race, and stayed up way past their bed time to see me finish!
The hideous yellow squad supporter T-Shirt to my right turned out to be Chris – with Jill, Gilly and Bree. They stayed till the end to see everyone home after Jill’s impressive Ironman debut finishing in 11:44.
Just a few metres shy of the finish line, was my Dad. For someone who didn’t want me to do this in the first place, I have to say he seemed to be mighty proud of me. When I leaned over the barrier to give him a hug, he didn’t want to let go. He told me he knew I could do it (but I knew he’d had his doubts).
Standing with Dad was our “team manager”, Tina. As my flatmate of the last few months, she’d ridden the ups and downs of training with me, sharing many words of encouragement, always just at the right time. She told me afterwards that she got a bit emotional seeing me come down the chute.
I crossed the line to receive my Ironman finisher medal (and a kiss!) from Karen Pini, and had an event towel draped across my shoulders.
I was approached by two very kind and caring “catchers”, who almost certainly started to explain to me that it was their job to escort me to recovery…
I’m not sure though. I have to admit I didn’t hear a word she said. Because waiting patiently for me was Phil, with a tear in his eye, ready with the biggest hug in the world. I remembered how I’d felt the previous year when he’d finished his first Ironman, and hoped he felt everything I had at that moment.
This is one of the many memories I have etched in my mind, from one of the longest, most rewarding, and most exciting days of my life.
I also remember being less nervous that morning than I had been before most other triathlons I’d done.
I didn’t hear whatever it was that signalled the start of the race. Hayden has since given me a photo of a cannon – so maybe that was what had heralded the start of the Australian Ironman Triathlon for 2006?
I also missed the recent Australian Ironman tradition of playing “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2 at the swim start. That didn’t matter too much to me, because I had my own theme song – “Opportunity” by Pete Murray.
The first time I heard this song I was about a month into my preparation. On that first listen I knew it was my song for Ironman. It had a real impact on me. I played it three times straight up, and danced around my lounge room.
It meant different things to me at different times throughout my training and on race day.
I’d put it in my alarm clock to wake up to it at 4.30am each morning, as a reminder that my second chance at the Australian Ironman “may never come along…”
As I took the first strokes on race day, all I heard in my head was Pete singing “it’s fading now… it’s ending all too soon…”
But perhaps I was getting just a little ahead of myself – although today was payoff for many months of hard training, there was a hell of a long way to go on one of the longest days of my life.
I battled the current in the swim and won, exiting the water on target, between 1:20 and 1:30. My first transition went smoothly with the help of a volunteer sent from heaven. It seemed like before I’d had the chance to get my wetsuit down over my waist and sit down, she’d emptied out my gear bag and was offering me sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wet-one to wipe the river gunk off my face.
Before I knew it I had an energy bar in one hand and Lance in the other and I was running out the other end of T1 to the cheers of the Phoenix Phanatics!
The bike leg, at 180kms, was always going to be long. It never felt longer than when I was constantly being lapped on the second of three laps, by what seemed to be almost the entire field! I became extremely disillusioned throughout this lap, wondering whether there would be anyone else left out there with me for the third…
Triathletes on the whole though are a remarkable bunch of people. I was overwhelmed by how many of those that came flying past me shouted encouragement on their way through. And when Andy and Craig passed me, at different times, they both yelled to me “I believe in you Lyndell”.
I now consider the power of these four words as rivalling the holy trinity of “I love you”.
Eight and a half hours on a bike gives you a hell of a lot of time to think about stuff. Admittedly a lot of what goes through your mind is stuff like “holy crap my bum hurts”; “holy crap my legs hurt”; “holy crap my feet hurt”; and “holy crap… when is this going to be over!?”
I found myself singing along with Pete Murray... “don’t be scared of what you cannot see… your only fear is possibility”.
How many times had these words had me second guessing myself during training? From time to time I’d wondered what I was scared of – failing or succeeding? I remembered asking myself so many times during training what the hell I thought I was doing. It often went something like this…
“…what if I actually CAN do this? Someone like me isn’t supposed to do an Ironman. I’ve always been athletically challenged. And my training will be intrinsically flawed – at best I’ll only get six months of running in, and let’s face it, I came last in my qualifying race…” and on, and on.
Now, halfway through my longest day, it became so clear to me that Ironman isn’t about those that can. It’s about those who defy logic and commonsense, and challenge the boundaries others place on them.
If it was about those that can, there wouldn’t be 17 hour cut-offs, and people like Mike Reilly wouldn’t travel the world to cheer people like me home. People like John McLean, the first wheelchair athlete to complete the Hawaii Ironman, wouldn’t have a place in the Ironman Hall of Fame.
If Ironman was all about those that can, it would seem easy. And even athletes like Chris McCormack and Lisa Bentley, who were each competing for their fifth consecutive Australian Ironman titles that day, will tell you that it’s not.
Pedal stroke by pedal stroke, as unlikely as it had seemed, the possibility of Ironman was getting closer and closer.
The Australian Ironman course in Port Macquarie was new and bike course in particular was known to be primarily hills – the most notorious of which was on Matthew Flinders Drive, a few Ks out of the centre of Port Macquarie. We’d tried to feel more familiar with it by shortening it to MFD, and Andy at one stage proposed that perhaps MFD was also short for “My F%&*ing Dear… do we have to ride up that???”.
I rode MFD a few days before the race, after which I felt a little more comforted. Following that I didn’t give it much thought until the race briefing the day before the race, at which time I told my training friend Shiraz,
“You know what… if MFD all becomes too much, I’ll just get off and push my bike up.”
She agreed it would be a better option than to fall off and potentially do some damage. But even so I didn’t think either of us would actually do it…
Come the third lap, though, my confidence was fading. I’d taken longer than I’d anticipated on the bike leg, and although I felt pretty good, I knew I still had a long evening ahead of me.
As I rounded the corner on MFD, I was surprised to see a group of supporters still there to cheer the last of us up the climb. A garbled mess of “come on!” and “you can do it!” greeted me but even so I braked, unclipped and swung my leg over my bike.
I was surprised that my new fan club’s immediate reactions to this were some of the most reassuring words I’d heard all day.
“Don’t worry mate, everyone’s been doing that for the last 20 minutes. Nah, make that 30 minutes. At least!”, And when I told Hayden about this after the race, he assured me that he’d seen a very fit looking young bloke do it at about 9.30am that morning!
Especially in light of that, I’m 100% satisfied with my decision to push up MFD.
I approached Port Macquarie proper in the fading daylight hours. By this time most of the field were taking kilometre after kilometre off their marathon, and the spectators that lined the streets were focussed on the runners rather than the last of the cyclists steadily making their way to T2.
One by one, though, as we passed the groups of spectators, we were noticed and given probably more than our fair share of what was left of their voices. By now their cheers were more words of encouragement, along the lines of “don’t give up!” and “keep going!”
Nothing to worry about there… I didn’t get this far to pull the pin!
So into T2 I rode, and handed my trusty steed over to a bike catcher, who even this late in the piece was friendly and encouraging.
I saw Phil’s Mum Jan hanging over the fence, and was touched that she’d waited so patiently for me. I found out months after the race that she’d waited so long, she’d become worried she may have missed me. An obliging volunteer assured her that my gear bag was still waiting in transition, and reported back.
“She must be still out there somewhere…”
When I finally did check in to T2, Jan was so relieved I was OK, she reportedly blurted out in typical mum style, “Lyndell, where have you been!?”
And immediately, of course, wished the ground would open up and swallow her. The previously obliging volunteer agreed it probably wasn’t the best choice of words.
I meanwhile was blissfully unaware that Jan had said anything at all… just seeing her there was encouragement for me.
Another smooth change, and though I can’t say the volunteer was quite as slick as my first assistant, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry. On the other end of the change tent were Sue and Nicholas. I stopped and said hello before deciding that this marathon wasn’t going to run itself and I’d better get going.
Once I’d left T2, I never questioned for a moment that I’d finish. That moment of glory I’d thought about so much was only 42.2 kilometres away.
…did I just say “only” 42.2 kilometres away…?
Many of my best memories from race day are from the run. There is more opportunity to see people, to stop, to hug and to chat. I did just that with many of my fellow athletes, the people I’d trained with, and my “loved ones”.
Seeing Phil a few Ks into my first lap was wonderful. He was just starting his second lap and we took the time to have a kiss and a hug at a drink station. OK, so it doesn’t sound that romantic, now I think of it…
The next time I saw him he was only a kilometre or so from the finish line, and I was the same distance from the end of my first lap. I heard a spectator call out his number from behind me…
I thought to myself “that’s Phil” and I turned round as he sprinted past me.
“I can’t stop babe, I’m going to beat my time from last year!”
Unfortunately he missed his Forster time by just 21 seconds. Probably less time that we took for that kiss and hug the first time he saw me. I’ve never asked but I hope he thought it was worth it.
Only a couple of hundred metres further along was Gilly. She yelled out to me “Lyndell, I’ve been talking to Jae… she said to give you a hug!”.
I stopped in my tracks, held out my arms and yelled back, “well come on then!”.
The team tent was the main hub of support, but people popped up all over the place. Tina kept everyone entertained and on one of my laps ran with me for a few hundred metres, heralding my arrival to all and sundry with a whistle in the style of a West Indies cricket supporter!
On my way back out for the last loop, I passed the team tent again. It was full to overflowing by this time, with several of my fellow athletes having finished and joined the “Phoenix Phanatics” on the long wait. By this time there would only have been a handful of the squad still out there – Sharyn, Annie, Slippers, Helen, Miriam and myself.
Pretty soon, it would start getting really lonely.
I talked to every single competitor I passed or that passed me, with a joke, a smile or a word of encouragement. I thanked volunteers on every aid station. My spirits were soaring… though with every minute that passed there were less and less athletes left out in the backstreets…
It was late, and it was dark. I kept looking at my watch and doing the maths. I realised I’d been going for longer than I thought, but that didn’t concern me too much. I knew I had plenty of time.
As I approached the hill up to the furthest aid station I saw a yellow shirt. I imagined it was one of our supporter T-Shirts to give myself a bit of a lift. As I got closer I realised it was in fact a Phoenix T-Shirt – Hayden’s. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed to see him all those kilometres from town.
There was still a little way from the aid station to the final turnaround, and Hayden waited for me to go down the other side of the hill and return.
I was still trying to jog along as much as I could, after all it was slightly faster than walking and by this stage everything hurt a bit regardless of how I moved forward. Hayden kept popping up along the course all the way back into town on the other side of the road with words of encouragement. Once when I started into a jog I heard his voice from the dark,
“…you don’t have to run to impress me Lyndell…”
Of course he could have said anything. Him just being there was reassuring. The effort he went to to be there for me is one of the most emotive memories I have from Ironman.
A few Ks from town he crossed the road to wait for me again and explained that he’d parked his car here and so I wouldn’t see him till I got back to the finish line. The hug he gave me meant everything to me and gave me that little bit extra to get home as quickly as I could.
The rest, well, you already know.
So, having started at the end, let’s go back to the start, and that thing about Ironman changing your life.
I’m happy to say that I got my money’s worth.
At the start of this Chronicle I wrote that was finding it hard to describe why I did my Ironman in the first place. I think that’s why I thought many times about the words of wisdom one of the guys from my squad came out with on the eve of his Ironman debut, one year earlier.
“If you commit to something like Ironman, you’ll always get something back. It might not be what you expected to get, but you’ll always get a return.”
When I first imagined that I might be able to achieve an Ironman, I probably thought I’d feel like I was a better person when I did. That I was stronger, more invincible, and maybe even superior to other people.
My training buddies will perhaps remember quite an animated e-mail discussion about whether Ironman does make you a better person. A few felt quite emphatically that Ironman does, but Shiraz threw in a curve ball with her declaration that Ironman actually made you more selfish, because you have to give up so much to achieve it… sometimes to the detriment of relationships to even those closest to you.
The thing is that now that it’s all done and dusted, I feel none of those things. What I do feel is more humility than I ever imagined.
Probably the most powerful memory from my Ironman experience didn’t happen on race day.
The night before the big day I was feeling out of sorts. I couldn’t relax after dinner so I excused myself and went to bed early, to try and calm myself. I had hundreds of different thoughts racing through my head.
I lay there utterly overcome with the fact that Ironman was finally here. Shiraz was right on one count, I really had become quite self obsessed… I hadn’t thought about much else than Ironman for six months.
I was also grappling with the fact that I was ready – physically, mentally and emotionally – to do an Ironman… something that only 20,000 or so Australians had ever done. And as I dwelled on that, I realised that what I truly found overwhelming wasn’t really about Ironman.
There are a lot of people who never find the courage to step up to the plate when it comes to living their dreams, regardless of how unimaginable – or for that matter, how ordinary – those dreams are.
Even better than that, I realised how full my life was with people who love me. I’d been getting phone calls and text messages from people all over the world to wish me well in my big adventure. Several people had also travelled to see me compete.
Life was actually pretty good.
The following day as I swam, cycled and ran, all this was affirmed by the well wishes I received from our support crew – the Phoenix Phanatics.
Not to mention the countless times a random spectator cheered me just that little bit louder because I was female. I heard lines like “go girl!” and “keep going girlfriend” and “do it for the chicks!” more and more frequently as the day grew longer.
While I’d already reflected on how few people find it in themselves to step up to the plate and really challenge the boundaries placed on us – by others and ourselves – it struck me each time I heard those words that for women, this challenge is even greater.
Looking back now, I can honestly say that Ironman has changed my life, but I’ve gained something distinctly more profound than the achievement of a personal goal.
I have always believed in the ability of absolutely everybody to achieve anything they put their mind to, but the power of this statement has never been more tangible to me. Of the somewhat modest achievements I have to look back on in my life, I’ve realised that the most important has been my will to make strong choices in the face of difficult life experiences.
During my training for Ironman, one of my work colleagues told me about his wife, who teaches at a school where many students don’t have strong role models. She’d passed on one of my previous Triathlete Chronicles to some of them, and Marcus told me they really seemed to get something from reading about my experiences.
They were excited for me, and, dare I say it, inspired.
This is where some of that humility comes in… to imagine that my coming last in a triathlon might make some kind of impact on young people whose lives are perhaps otherwise destined to one of near-poverty and possible crime.
All I hope is that my Chronicle might be one of many things that helps them find the courage to challenge the expectations that society has for them.
And then there are all those women who cheered me on from the sidelines that day in Port Macquarie, who wanted me to “do it for the girls”. I hope they realise that they too can do it, not only for the sisterhood, but for themselves.
Ironman is proof for me that we can all change our lives, if we choose.
“Life is short but you’re here to flower;
Dream yourself along another day, and never miss an opportunity”
Race website: Ironman Australia