16: Ironman, Two Years Later

Ironman was going to change my life.  It did.  Sort of.  The sight of that finish chute, the lights, the people, the carpet with all the Ironman logos…it’s all burned in my mind and it’s in slow motion like a movie.  I got that moment.  I got the medal.  I got the tattoo.  That race was epic.  The video that my sister put together still makes me cry every time because I can feel exactly what I felt that day.

Two years ago I wrote and posted this on Facebook the night before the race:

I’ve had an unusual break in the past nine months. Instead of “how can you defend those people?” the most frequently asked question of me is “why in the hell would you ever want to do an Ironman?” On the eve of the most difficult feat I have ever undertaken, I will attempt to answer this question and talk about what it has taken for me to get to this point.
For those who just want stats, here they are:
  • $2,400: let me tell you what, I don’t see how you spend less than this. I used equipment I already owned, had the benefit of free training rides, and someone to keep my bike in tip top shape. IM is not cheap. The race fee alone is $750. I did invest in a coach so I had one (reliable) place to get a training plan and nutrition advice.
  • Hours: 195.75 hours training (that does not include all the time spent in the car getting to the training)
  • Miles: 2,027.55 training miles between the three events. Almost 1,800 of those were on the bike including 7 rides over 70 miles.
  • Injuries: a muscle strain in my back that had me resting for two days. I also saw a chiropractor every 2-3 weeks to avoid pain while cycling.
For the full story read on:
2014 and 2015 were two of the most difficult years of my life. Everything I thought about the way my life was headed changed, and not because it’s what I wanted. I questioned absolutely everything about myself and the most prevalent byproduct was to return to my default insecurity: am I good enough? I have struggled with that question as long as I can remember. Most of the achievement in my life has motivated in some shape or form by the desire to be good enough for the people I cared most about. 2014 and 2015, and a really good therapist, showed me that life would continue to be exhausting if I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that the person I most needed to be good enough for was myself.
So, I reevaluated a lot of what I was doing in my life. I recommitted to physical, mental, and spiritual health. I tried out this whole vulnerability thing with the people I was closest with. I spent a lot of time being very sad and longing for the life I thought would be mine. Most of the time, it felt like was just going through the motions at best and faking my way through life at worst. I struggled with feeling so much of what I wanted was out of my control.
As Spring 2015 arrived, I was faced with a question I didn’t know the answer to: would I be able to return to triathlons? Triathlons were “our” thing in so many ways. His family inspired me to race, he planned our training, we trained and raced together. Could triathlon really be just “my” thing? Motivated partly from anger and partly from the intense desire to stave off depression, I decided I would run a marathon in May and do better than I had when “we” ran together the previous year. I broke four hours, shaved about 40 minutes off my time, and proved to myself that maybe I could do things, just me.
I found other ways to prepare for triathlon season. I joined Tri Wisconsin and utilized group workouts almost every day of the week so that I could remain motivated and consistent enough to be ready for my summer races. I PRed every race I competed in over the summer and truly felt in the best physical shape of my life. By the time my birthday and Labor Day rolled around, my TriWisconsin teammates were buzzing with final preparation in the weeks before Ironman Wisconsin. They were excited and completely motivated to take on this challenge. As I talked with them, they assured me that ANYONE could do an Ironman.
The day after Ironman Wisconsin 2015, I am sitting on the couch surfing the Internet, watching bad reality TV….and I did it. I signed up. As I got the confirmation, I closed my computer and screamed in my apartment. “What the fuck did I just do?!?” It took about three months for me to get past the total feeling of regret. And in January, I began training.
Nine months later, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours spent, training culminates tomorrow in this one (very long) race. I am eternally grateful for the friends and family who may have thought I was crazy, but never said a bad word to my face. People who accommodated my training schedule and who offered to ride or run or swim with me for part of long workouts. This is the hardest thing I have ever done…
I have been humbled in every way possible. From the first training ride on the Ironman course where I was the absolute last rider, completely unprepared equipment-wise, and clueless as to how to navigate those hills; literally the only scrap of dignity I maintained was not crying on that course. I spent about 12 hours feeling utterly defeated before deciding that I could let this travesty of a ride permanently intimidate me or I could use it as motivation to get better. Let me tell you some dirty details about training, and I’ll remind you that when I met my coach so she could devise a training plan, I told her that training for Ironman wasn’t going to be my life. I want to finish the race, not win it. I wanted life to be as normal as it could be which meant efficient workouts were key. Still, it took all-day Saturday workouts for the entire summer, two-a-day weeks, and missing out on (or being late for) a lot of stuff I would have loved to do with friends and family. It meant being tired…a lot, not drinking for the past three months, thinking of food as fuel so sticking with healthy whole foods every day except long training days. Even the taper has been crazy. I reached a whole new level of tired where suddenly and definitely hitting a wall was just the norm. In the last week, my face broke out for the first time in years. A couple other training truths – working out hasn’t been fun for months: it’s work, straight up work and to my surprise and dismay, despite burning 3,500+ calories in a Saturday work out, I am not the skinniest I’ve ever been. I am, however, the fittest I’ve ever been. My body has proven that it’s in autopilot: it knows what to do. Tomorrow is about getting the motor started and keeping it fueled well enough to just keep it running steady until it’s time to stop.
The decision to take on an Ironman wasn’t the smartest I’ve ever made. The journey hasn’t been fun, but this isn’t about fun. It’s not even about the medal or the tattoo, although I will display both with great pride. This is about doing whatever it takes to prove to myself that I am good enough. It’s about taking on a challenge bigger than what I think I can handle and conquering it. I’ve learned so much on this journey about what I’m capable of and how hard work and perseverance will pay off. I’ve seen the power of positive self talk. I’ve learned the difference between a ride and a race and the value in doing something just to finish, not to compare yourself to others. I guess what it takes for me to get these messages is just a lot more extreme than what it takes for other people. So tomorrow as I see the loving and smiling faces of the people who I could not be here without, crossing that finish line and hearing “Katie Bricco, you are an Ironman!” will be all mine. One unforgettable moment, the culmination of so much work, to remember in those yet-to-come moments when I think it’s just too hard. This process has taught me that it might be slow and it might be ugly but it IS possible, I WILL finish, and I think that will make it all worth it.
It reminds me of the work it took to be ready for this race and why it felt so satisfying to complete it. It was worth it. It was worth it to have a goal that seemed like it might be impossible and then prove it was possible.  It was worth it to see what my body is capable of.  It was worth it to have an experience that the majority of people will never have.
As much as things change, things also stay the same.  I look back at what was behind this decision: a need to regain control and prove myself.  I look back at the coping mechanism: intense physical challenges.  Two years later, I am struggling with the same insecurities and the same coping mechanism is what I want to fall back on.  Except there’s one big change.  My “dream team” is encouraging me NOT to engage in the same kind of intense physical exercise that I’ve done all my life.  There have been tantrums about this [“I (sniffle) just (sniffle) want to run…”] and some pleading [“what if I promise to keep my heart rate lower?”] and plenty of outright rebellion [“swimming IS good for you after all”].  It has legitimately thrown me for a loop and I’m still trying to figure out the compromise that works for me and works for them.
What do roller derby, marathons, triathlons, distance skiing, Lake Michigan (cold!) open water swimming, Crossfit all have in common besides the fact that I have done and love them all? They exhaust you.  They consume you.  You have no choice but to put aside the cares and anxieties for the day because you have no available energy for it.  One hundred percent of your physical and mental energy is on completing this task.  A morning walk or a yoga class, as lovely as they can be, just don’t require that same expenditure so all those thoughts and whatever you’re feeling just keep running through your head.
This is really the aspect of mindfulness and meditation that seem to appealing to me.  The idea of having the strength and skill to direct your mind to what you choose is pretty incredible.  The folks in my Buddhist groups are all talking about the same concepts; that practicing this kind of work requires a gentleness.  It is about accepting the reality of what is right now and not judging it.  It’s about a trajectory, not a destination.  None of these qualities are intuitive for me so there is a lot of work to be done.  As the last weeks of summer continue to fade away and the fall and winter more easily lend themselves to introspection, this year I’d like to really dive into spiritual practice as a means for this outlet.  I don’t want to eliminate exercise from my life, but I’d like to find that it’s not the only and best means for relief.  I’d like to find greater balance and integration between the physical and spiritual.  I’m going to try some things, things that have me even more out of my comfort zone than I’ve already gotten with this spirituality stuff, and we’ll see where it leads.  Probably not to a medal.  Hopefully I’ll learn to deal.
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