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Chasing a dream for 70.3 miles

Last year, my fiancee Mark and I decided to add a half ironman triathlon to our bucket list. This hefty race comprises of a 2km open water swim, followed by a 93 km bike ride and wrapped up with a 21.1 km run. A total of 70.3 miles. This was bigger, longer, scarier and harder than anything I had ever taken on before. With my fiancee Mark as the ultimate training partner, and the help of coaches and tri veterans at the University of Toronto Tri club I started my training in January. This was going to take a lot of hard work. My training consisted of hill running, swimming (both technique and distance), pilates, long runs (sometimes in the snow) and hilly bike rides in the 90 degree heat. We trained at least 5 times a week, sometimes at 7am, sometimes at 9pm. We enjoyed taking 4-6 hour bike rides to different cities, and got used to running a half marathon week after week. Next thing we knew, it was Sunday, July 17th, and we were in Geneva, New York. Our race day was here and it was going to be a scorcher at 34C.

Our day started at 5am, with a tasty breakfast of oatmeal and tri chips and a bottle of Gatorade. At 530, with our bikes and snacks in hand we walked to the car and drove 3km to the race site. I was excited but also ready for the day to be over. Once we were at the race site, I was anxious to have my gear setup and get into my wetsuit. I setup my phone to be able to text my family and friends across Canada who had supported us during our training but were not able to join us in Geneva NY. We would send them notes throughout the race so they could be a part of our big day.

The first heat of swimmers started at 7am. Mark was in the second heat. With a countdown and the shrill of the bagpipes he was off. I stood on the beach watching him swim away, I put on my swim cap, and began to think about my race. I felt alone. I looked around for some other purple capped swimmers (I was in the purple heat!) and joked with a couple of girls and found myself talking to another Canadian. After joking about the race, and trying to make light of what we were about to do, I asked if she would be willing to give me a hug. I needed it. One minute later, the bagpipes blared and full of ambition and stubborn persistence, I started my first half ironman.

The first 300m of the swim was shallow so I walked 30 steps before dolphin jumping in. Breathe Martha, breathe. Besides clumps of seaweed, the first 500 meters were smooth and I was feeling strong. After the sharp left hand turn I found myself amongst waves that were hitting me on my right side making breathing on that side difficult. I pretended I was in the Pacific Ocean and aimed for the next buoy. After the following left turn , I was able to ride the waves. I had found my groove. I kept a keen eye on my swim line and made my way through the next 1000m. I even surprised myself by streamlining in behind a swimmer for the last 200m. I felt great as I swam into the dock and walked briskly to my transition area.

As neared my row of bikes, I saw Mark standing there, with a big smile on his face, congratulating me on my swim. He was already dressed and ready to get started on the bike. I tore off my wetsuit, put on my biking clothes, lathered myself with sunscreen, texted my family and friends (“We are done the swim both feeling good lots of sunscreen on, here we go”), went to the loo, had a snack, grabbed my bike. We were off.

The first third of the race was hillier than I had imagined and my gluteus maximus (yes, my butt!) was not firing, causing a pain in my butt and my legs to feel weak. I was able to have a good stretch at 10 miles which loosened it up and making my ride MUCH better. We were told to watch for Mennonite carriages on their way to church during our bike ride, but all we saw was horse poop and gorgeous farms and vineyards. At one point when no one was behind us, Mark came up alongside to say hello. Unfortunately, at the same moment the official drove by and gave Mark a penalty for blocking. Too funny. That is what he gets for being interested in his fiancee’s well being !

In the second half of the race, powered by jelly beans, a LARA bar and some Heed, I felt stronger and sped up considerably. It was fun passing people on the straights, digging deep up the hills, and racing to see how fast I could go on the down hills. I hit 54km/hour, smiling the entire time. Following advice from friends and tri magazines, I ate a ton on my bike. Shoving granola bars, gel squares, and jelly beans into mouth every 5 to ten minutes.

In true Martha fashion I thought it appropriate to talk to people as I passed them. Sometimes saying hello, or commentating on their bike, or asking them about their race. This is my favourite part of triathlons. Had my Gran been a tri-athlete, I think she would have done the same !

After 3 hours and 42 minutes we came to the transition, SUPER thankful that we had not had a flat tires. We dismounted, put on our running shoes and water belts, texted our family (“we had a good bike, now for a half marathon both are feeling good. More sunscreen and we are off”) and started our run. Only 21.1 km to go. It was 12:03pm and blazing hot.

The first two miles of the run were along the lake in open sunshine. Our plan was to run 10 minutes and walk 1 minute as long as we could stopping at rest stops to cool down. My first mile was brutal. My legs were fine but I was over heated. I needed to cool down. Luckily the first rest stop was 10 minutes in. At the stop I took three salt tablets, put some water on my face, drank some Heed electrolyte drink, and put ice cubes down my shirt. After about 3 minutes, I felt re-invigorated. Ahhh, I was going to make it.

We ran 10 and 1s for the first 6 miles and then walked the hill to mile 7. I felt good. My spirits were high and we had less than half way to go. Mark, however, was feeling gross. As we made our way past mile 8 he had a sudden realization. He remembered that the race was 1/3 mental, 1/3 nutrition and 1/3 physical. He had forgotten to tell himself that he was having fun and feeling great (note I was already on this happy train!). So he did and attacked mile 8 with a smile. (Note: We are talking in miles because we were racing in the US! – mile 8 is km 12.8!). Mile 9 through 11 were downhill, fun, and mostly shaded. This mixed with people hosing us down with their garden hoses kept us cool and smiling. When we turned the corner for the last 2 miles I could taste the finish line. We were ready to be done. We decided on a race strategy of running for three minutes and walking for two minutes until we could see the finish line. At the final rest stop, we took a final drink of Heed, got one more sponge over our head, and started our last mile.

We decided we would cross the finish line together, as a team, the same way we had trained and raced the event. With smiles on our faces, a rush of emotion that can only come after 8 months of training and the thought of crossing off something BIG on our bucket list, Mark and completed our first half ironman triathlon. The BHAG made up of a 2k swim, 93k bike, 21k run was ours.

Finishing the race

After our race, we sent a text to our family and friends saying “We did it !!! 7 hours and 18 minutes of crazy hot fun!” Half Ironman DONE !

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. One might say, that life is 1/3 mental, 1/3 physical and 1/3 nutrition. One must feed your mind, body and soul to achieve your dreams. Last month, that dream included a half ironman.

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