Discover more from Unlikely: A Rookie's Ironman Triathlon Diary
#11. The final running leg of the 70.3, plus the fitness secret that took me decades to learn
I'll spoil the secret here. Walking. The secret is walking.
It’s taken me forever to post this, even though I wrote it over a month ago—perhaps because I didn’t want this race for which I’d trained seven months to be over, even vicariously! But other triathlon training adventures and retellings await…
One of the things that helped me get into running as a thirty-something adult, over two decades ago, was discovering that there was no shame in taking regular walking breaks—that in fact, it’s actually better for you. I count this discovery as one of the Top Five epiphanies of my life. No kidding. It’s the reason I’m fitter now than when I was in college. It’s also how I’ve enjoyed years of travel and exploration that include running, like a year-long quest I completed with my husband in 2017, running scenic trails in all fifty states.
As a kid (a very weird kid), I always dreamed of being able to run long-distance. I think I got the idea from a 1970s TV special featuring a middle-aged divorced woman who goes from couch potato to marathoner. I wanted to do that. (Why I related so intensely to a middle-aged divorcee when I was ten years old, I have no idea.) But of course, I didn’t know how to train. I’d run around my block, often in the dark because it was a time fewer people would see me. I’d get tired after a mile or two and go home, embarrassed because I assumed every person driving past me was watching for precisely that humiliating moment when I slowed from a jog to a defeated walk.
No one in my family paid attention to my little fantasy, not even when I ordered myself a subscription to a running magazine and started making countdown calendars for an upcoming Chicago Marathon. My child-brain assumed that the way to run a marathon was simply to start twenty-six weeks ahead of time and then add one mile per week, practicing that distance perhaps once a week (oops), until one could run 26 miles.
No amount of dreaming, whether as a child or teenager, could ever get me past mile three or four. Plus, I always hated the feeling of running—everything from shin splints to itchy gums. I panted the whole way, desperate to stop.
I didn’t understand that I was supposed to be building up my running ability slowly, with more sessions at a lower intensity. I also didn’t know something even more important: that it’s perfectly fine to alternate walking and running. Even serious marathoners will often choose to walk thirty seconds to one minute for every four to seven minutes running. (See Galloway method.) There’s evidence this could be better for the joints.
What does this have to do with triathlons? Walking during half or full Ironmans—as long as you have enough time in the bank and won’t exceed the maximum cut-off time—is even more common than walking during marathons. I’ve read estimates that over half of long-distance triathletes do it. There’s no shame in it, and a lot of reasons to expect it, and even train for it. Not that walk-running 13 or 26 miles is easy!
Have I changed at least one person’s idea about whether an Ironman might be possible to achieve? I hope so.
And now, back to the final leg of my 70.3 Ironman. (If you haven’t read the earlier parts, they are in the archive.)
Keeping mostly to a five-minute run, one-minute walk schedule—with permission to walk more if things got painful—I circled Elk and Beaver Lake once. That was 6.2 miles along a mostly shaded trail, with relatively few spectators. It was peaceful, and although my legs felt like stumps, I admired them for continuing to move.
The second 6.2-mile loop felt twice as long as the first. This again? My body felt vaguely apart from me—a contraption of slowly moving pistons that seemed to be functioning, albeit robotically.
I had managed to put enough time in the bank to take additional breaks beyond my planned 5:1 interval, but I resisted using it. Not because I was going for a “better time,” but only because I thought if I walked for more than an extra minute or two, I’d never run again. My little robotic-piston-body might decide it had better things to do. The trick was not to let it get any ideas.
Even aid tables and outhouses seemed dangerous, and I used the latter only once, cautiously, afraid that if I sat down or simply stood still, the whole thing would be over. Because I was so deeply tired, I might even fall asleep.
The last hour of the race fostered a sense of tranquil unreality as I kept up with or passed runners who were faring worse than I was—people who were limping, or in one case, an older man who had fallen on a hill. I could feel myself on the edge of tripping several times on the trail’s many roots and rocks. There was a wonderful simplicity to ticking off the kilometers, thanks to signage—and at times, simply losing track. It wasn’t possible to see too far ahead. The lake glittered. The trees formed a glowing green canopy. The afternoon had warmed to the 60s. Except for the surreal feeling of fatigue, it was oddly pleasant.
A few miles from the end, my husband spotted me at a trail intersection. I warned him that he’d have a hard getting to the finish ahead of me (spectators aren’t allowed on the trail) but he didn’t quite believe it.
“You’re looking really good!” he said, and I was able to smile back. Somehow, I was managing to jog at my close-to-normal pace. My gait was stiff and my feet didn’t lift far off the ground and my face was crusted with salt and if I ate another Gu or drank any more Red Bull I might vomit, but other than that, I was doing better than expected.
Sure enough, when I ran across the finish line, Brian wasn’t there. But that was okay. I wasn’t quite there, either. My brain tried to take a mental picture of the moment. I felt wary of any sudden emotional swings. I didn’t want to start crying, even though I knew it would natural.
But if this were a full Ironman, I found myself thinking, then I’d bawl.
If this were a full Ironman, it would be one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.
If this were a full Ironman.
No. Too soon.
I stood, amazed, as a medal was hung around my neck and my timing chip was taken off. At the start of my training, I thought I had a 30 percent chance of finishing. Pre-race, I was up to 70 percent. And now, I’d done it. I’d finished. Eight hours of physical effort. And it felt that way—like a long, long day of surprisingly constant, even brutal, effort.
I’d also glimpsed how easily it would have been not to finish. Instead of feeling wild, chest-beating pride, I felt humbled. It felt like each mile was only accomplished thanks to help and luck, both seen and unseen.
I felt dizzingly happy, certain that I’d done as well as I could. But I also felt not quite finished.
Not quite finished.
There was the problem.
I knew the desire to do a full Ironman might consume me at some point.
I just didn’t realize how soon.
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