Ironman again at 45

author : alicefoeller
comments : 0

After an 11 year break, a normal Midwestern mom goes for it again

I promised to keep the BT community updated as I took on the Iron distance for a second time in 11 years. I completed the Rev3 Cedar Point full distance race in 2010, and afterward promised I wouldn't do another until my kids could drive. Well, it's 2021 and my oldest is zipping around in what used to be my car, so it was time.

I am older and a little wiser, and actually faster in training, but not enough wiser because (spoiler alert) I somehow had a rubbing front brake during the bike segment. But all was well and it was great being back at a maniac distance again:

I've been training since January for the 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running. Along the way, I never thought I might actually have trouble completing the race. I was focused on getting faster and trying to beat my previous time of 13 hours and 34 minutes in 2010, when I was 11 years younger. My training really started to come together in August, and my running pace broke through a barrier and was faster than I've run since ... college? Still not the kind of speed I would need to qualify for any elite races, but really exciting. I bought a new bike and got comfortable on it and started getting faster bike training times, too. I endured a little adversity, like a bad fall on a run in Long Island that messed up my knee for a bit, a few bouts of foul weather on Wednesday mornings when I scheduled my very long bike training rides, some technical issues with running shoe sizing and a wetsuit that took two minutes to remove, no matter how many times I practiced doing it more quickly. But I was mostly very lucky. Others training for the race suffered catastrophic injuries in bike crashes, became ill, had to deal with family or financial crises that prevented them from getting to the starting line.

I arrived at the starting line strong and ready. I was at peace.

I was primed to perform.

I even managed to get my 1998 motorhome into the tip-top shape it could be in, and I camped overnight in the race parking lot. I made myself the perfect dinner on the stove and ate it at sunset. I met friends coming in from far away to cheer for me, and gave them a tour of the acre or two of bike racks, entrances, exits, beach, swim course, etc. John Hogan and I met for the first time, having known each other for a year through a program at Landmark Worldwide. He agreed to come from Connecticut to head the fan club so I could concentrate on me. Gail, Tara and Mo arrived from Detroit. Mikko made it in after dark from New Orleans. I went to sleep on time at 9 pm after a phone call with my partner, Daniel, and my brother Jim, who were heading to the race Saturday from Columbus.

I woke up at 4:30a when the race volunteers came streaming in, ready to make our day possible. They were pumped up and ready. I went back to sleep for a bit, then used the meditation app on my phone, got dressed in my race clothes, triple checked all my lists, and strapped my plastic timing chip to my left ankle. I walked to the transition area and helped a few people with their bike tires. There's nothing like pre-race nerves to make air not flow into a tire valve! I walked back and forth to the RV a few times getting odds and ends and using my own bathroom instead of the race porto-potties. It was great. I was calm. I was ready. It was going to be the perfect day.

I lined up for the swim start next to a young woman who was in her first triathlon ever. Melody had never done a community sprint tri, never swum in open water with hundreds of other people, never run through a transition area pushing her bike to the mount line. We chatted and I told her some of the things that might happen on the swim, like being accidentally hit or kicked by others, having your goggles come off, etc. We gradually wound our way toward the starting line as they sent three swimmers into the water every three seconds. I lined up with the medium speed group, and had predicted I would finish the swim between an hour and 20 minutes and an hour and 45 minutes. After a few minutes, I spotted some very bright orange on a spectator and it was the orange Buff/gaiter that my friend Vickie printed up for my fan club! This particular orange gaiter was worn on the head of my friend Mikko, who had made it to the swim start and was standing along the edge. It was much easier for me to pick him out than vice versa, since the 1,200 triathletes were almost all wearing black wetsuits, goggles and regulation Ironman swim caps. I got his attention and we shouted and made happy gestures to each other and he took some cool photos. Before I entered the water, I noted there was an athlete behind me who had both legs but just one arm. I marveled at what it would take to do this race without a left arm. Soon enough I was in the starting chute and the starting team dropped their arms and the timer beeped and Melody and I ran into the water. It was cold, of course, and I got on with it. I had a great swim. Every time I tipped my head up to look for the next buoy, I was right on course. There were tons of swimming bodies all around me, but I didn't take any major blows and occasionally had a clear space in front of me to swim. I was having a good morning. I was able to monitor my surroundings well and noticed when other swimmers were treading water or had their heads up longer than normal and asked if they were alright. Each one said yes. I kept going. It was a two-loop swim, so we swam in a rectangle, reached the beach, jumped out, ran a few yards, jumped back in and did it again. The first swimmers entered the water at 7:30 a.m. and I didn't enter until 7:58, but still I was surprised to see that when I emerged to run down the beach for my second lap, some swimmers were already done with their entire swim and were heading up to the bike racks. The second loop was similar to the first. Uneventful for me.

I finished the swim in an hour and 23 minutes, which was a great time for me. I pulled off my cap and goggles and the top of my wetsuit and ran toward my bike, in the sea of 1,200 other bikes. I saw John on my way in to get my bike and shouted his name. I threw a cycling jersey on my wet torso, put on my bandanna, and sunglasses, and struggled a bit with my helmet. Something wasn't right and it wasn't seating on my head correctly. Knowing how long I'd be cycling, and I took a deep breath and spent a minute fixing the straps and getting it settled correctly. I rolled my socks onto my wet feet and rolled my bike out of transition, jogging along happily through the grass, feeling good. At the bike mount line, I got on my new shiny BMC TimeMachine01 and headed into the Muncie countryside.

To my surprise, within the first hour I saw a bright orange blaze in the spectators and picked out Mikko, Tara, Gail and Mo on the side of the road on the bike course. I yelled, "Hey!" and they saw me and cheered. The sky was overcast, the roads were quiet, and my speed was what I expected, although a little slower than I had hoped. I was thinking with the two weeks of rest, good fuel, good strength, I would shock myself with my fastest speeds ever. But whenever I checked my watch, I was just doing OK.

Most of the bike course is out on a highway, which they generously closed to traffic all day for the race. There were pretty strong crosswinds, but I wasn't worried. But then it just seemed to get harder, and I was going slower. I stopped as planned about halfway through at an aid station to use the bathroom and fill my water bottles back up. I was having trouble settling into a comfortable position on my bike seat and it was a relief to be off it for a couple of minutes. I was aware of the clock ticking the entire time for my four minute break. I jumped back on, heading down the road, and took the exit for Lap Two, and headed out to do another 56 miles. That's when it started raining. The rain itself wasn't terrible, but it made it harder to see, which made me lift my head higher in the aero position, which made my neck start to hurt. I was going slower than I had predicted, and I knew it, but pushing to go faster would only guarantee a terrible marathon afterward, so I resigned myself to just doing my best and not getting discouraged. I saw a few ambulances with their lights on, and I knew people were crashing on the slick roads. I took the turns slowly. I stayed off the painted white line. I ate my energy bars. I saw the Mikko-Gail-Mo-Tara gang a bunch of times on the bike course. I didn't know how they were getting around all the road closures, but they would pop up every hour or so, cheer wildly, and then pop up somewhere else! It was really fun seeing them.

I wasn't very thirsty because it was cool and rainy, so I didn't drink as much of my sports drink as I had done on long training rides. That would come back to haunt me. After seven hours (instead of my hoped-for six hours) I finished the bike section, and passed yet another ambulance tending to a fallen cyclist just before the dismount line. I saw Daniel and Jim and John at the edge of the fence and I was so grateful to see them. I also felt a little bad for being late compared to my prediction.

Usually at a full Ironman, they have changing tents so you can completely change clothes if you want. Because of Covid, they didn't have those. I wanted to keep my tri shorts but change everything on top, so I draped my towel over my bike on the rack, crawled underneath, and emerged with fresh clothes and no penalty for nudity, so that was a success. My legs were covered in mud, chain grease and grass clippings. I was tired and a little downhearted. I was definitely not going to have some amazing 12-hour Ironman today. It was no longer physically possible for me to hit my goal time, even before I started the run.

The run course is pretty hilly, and I had good energy coming out of transition, but chose to walk up the big hills so I wouldn't burn myself out. I ran on the flats and the downhills. After a couple of miles, when the sound of the crowds and the transition area had faded away and I was in the countryside, I spotted Melody ahead of me. I caught up and asked how her race had been going. She described a grueling swim where the cold water caused a reaction in her body and her diaphragm went into spasm. Luckily she had practice dealing with this from being on an underwater hockey team! I didn't even know that was a thing.

We stuck together and kept talking for the next 10 miles, through the entire first loop. We ran most of the time, but took walk breaks to get water and energy gels at the aid stations. By the end of the first loop, I could tell I wasn't feeling right. My legs were OK, but my head was buzzing and I seemed unsteady. My mind was good enough to maintain conversation with Melody but not sharp enough to figure out what was wrong. I realized I needed to get a handle on it if I planned to finish the race. I buckled down mentally and determined I must be low on electrolytes. Probably from not drinking enough sports drink on the bike, and avoiding the overly sugary Gatorade on the run. I tried to force down a cup of Gatorade at the next aid station, but only managed a couple of sips. Soon enough we were back at the transition area for the end of the first loop. I could hear people finishing, and the announcer saying their name and the iconic, "YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!" as each one crossed the line. I knew I had another 13 miles to go, and wasn't feeling good.

I was grateful to see Daniel and looked in his eyes and said it wasn't going well. I grabbed my Personal Needs bag from the rows of bags, fished out my headlamp and put in my sunglasses. Finishing before dark was now a ridiculous fantasy. It was sunset. I had 13 miles left, and I did not feel like I could run at all.

I said goodbye to Daniel, Jim and John as I jogged through the turn cones and headed back out into the falling darkness. I told Daniel I needed salt, and he asked if I could get some. I said I thought so, but my thoughts weren't too clear. Melody had gotten a boost from seeing her family too, and was moving along at a steady clip up ahead of me. I saw her turn around and look for me and I yelled for her to go ahead and keep going.

I was now determined to fix my electrolyte problem, but I wasn't too hopeful. Prior to the race, the aid station volunteers had asked us triathletes, via the race's Facebook Group, what extras we would like to see at the aid stations, and we suggested a bunch of stuff like salt tablets and peanut butter sandwiches, but I suspect Ironman only let them put out the regulation items of water, Gatorade, gel, pretzels, chips, grapes, bananas, coke and chicken broth. I took some Gatorade and pretzels. My stomach didn't like them, so I went slowly, with just a sip of Gatorade and one small pretzel stick at a time. I somehow overlooked my original plan of eating a gel every 3 miles, which would have given me calories and electrolytes. But it's hard to make good decisions when your executive function is offline because your neurons aren't firing.

Between my head and my stomach, running was out of the question. I started doing the math on how long it would take me to walk 13 miles. Just the idea of it sounded crazy. Walking 13 miles? I've run marathons plenty of times, but I've never walked 13 miles. That would take forever. What was I even doing? I didn't need to prove anything. I was just inconveniencing a bunch of people so I could walk for three or four hours more. Wouldn't it be better just to pull off my timing chip and go to the RV instead? I tried to jog. My stomach cramped. I walked again.

Instead of the mile markers ticking off every 9 or 10 minutes as they had in training, it was taking 14 or 15 minutes for me to get to the next mile, and it seemed like an eternity. And I was getting farther and farther away from my family, friends, car, warmth and lights with each step. Everytime I neared another racer, I said hello and sometimes we would start a conversation. At one point, I ended up walking next to a guy named Eugene. I told him about my electrolyte problem and he offered me an Endurolytes tablet, which is like a pill full of electrolytes. I was super grateful and waited until we reached the next aid station to swallow it with water. It seemed like an eternity to get there.

It was pitch dark now. All I could see ahead of me was a stream of triathletes trudging through the dark with headlamps on. Mine was on too. At some point I saw Melody heading back to the finish as I was still heading north and I waved and cheered for her. After about a mile I started feeling more normal in my head and could think straight again. I spoke to more athletes, thanked the volunteers, and picked it up to a jog now and then.

I made it to the farthest point on the run course, which was marked with floodlights, a few cones, and some arrows taped on the pavement. As I approached, I heard a man talking into a radio, saying he was going to shut down the turnaround in about 15 minutes. I thought he was talking about the one I was passing through just then and it sent horror through my body. Was I really pushing the edge of not making the cutoff time? Was I actually in danger of not completing this thing? I started jogging as best I could. Later I figured out he must have been talking about not allowing more runners to come out for their second lap, if there wasn't time for them to finish it. I kept going and was mentally buoyed by the idea of heading TOWARD the finish line instead of away from it. My Garmin Fenix 5S had long ago run out of battery (despite me researching the best settings for battery savings and changing them all), so I had to wait until my headlamp hit on a mile marker to see how much more distance I had to cover. I had no idea how fast or slow I was going. By this point, I knew my legs were capable, but my stomach didn't like the jostling, so I began speedwalking as best I could. I jogged for short bursts. I met up with Luis, who was completing his 181st Ironman that evening. He has completed an Ironman in every location around the world that it has been offered. Since this was the only year for a full Ironman in Indiana, I guessed he had to suffer through even though he said he had three flat tires on the bike. But he reminded me that any day we get to do an Ironman is a great day.

Toward the end, I was faked out by an aid station that I thought was the finish line, and then still had to run another half mile. In the darkness, I spotted bright orange and I said, "Is that one of mine?" I heard, "Yeah, that's one of yours!" It was Gail! A minute later there was another splash of orange in the darkness and it was Mikko! He was cheering for me anyway but then realized it was me and I gave him a hug. I could hear the finish line but was a little disoriented and not sure how much farther I had to go. People around me were zipping up their jerseys and straightening their race numbers for the finish line photo. I saw John next and then a whole group of Tara, Mo, Daniel and Jim as I turned into the brightly lit grassy area. There was some gravel to run on, and music, and then I heard the announcer say, "From Columbus, Ohio, Alice Foeller! Great job Alice, you are an Ironman!" You can see it here the 6:52:22 mark.

So I did it.

And Melody finished, and Eugene finished and Luis finished. About a thousand total people out of the 1,200 who started in the morning also finished. And another thousand or so people who started the 70.3 half-Iron race at 10a also finished.

And it turns out no one really cared if I finished in just under 15 hours instead of under 12 hours. We were all just happy that I finished.

Thank you for supporting my workouts. Thank you for being in Zoom meetings where I was off camera because I had just finished a hundred mile bike ride. Thank you for following my race on the app. Thank you for your texts and Facebook messages. Thank you for cheering me on in your head.

Thank you for the opportunity to remind myself that it's good to set out to do something really difficult, and take all the steps to do it well, and then COMPLETE it, all the way, even when it doesn't turn out exactly the way I pictured. I'm joyful and peaceful.

And last week, after finishing the Columbus Marathon and registering for American Triple-T, I took my bike to the shop to see if something was wrong with the front disc brake. I've never had disc brakes before, and I noticed a few times during race week that the front brake made a squealing noise. But when I spun the wheel, it seemed to spin freely. It rained a lot that week, and I was on the trainer for all of my rides. Later I learned the brake can act differently when loaded with weight. It can seem free with a spin of the hand, but it can be rubbing when under load. That's what was going on, and explains how I was riding quite a bit faster in training than in the race. Now I'll have to do another one to see how fast I can go without my brake rubbing.


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date: October 31, 2021


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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