Let me tell you about my ironwoman wife, Janine.
If you’ve talked to her at all in the past nine months, you know that she has been training for her first full Ironman Triathlon. She’s been training a lot. Many, many early mornings, getting up at 5:00am to go swim, or bike, or run while I slept in our nice warm bed. Sometimes she’d come home from her morning workout and I hadn’t even realized that she had left.
Anyway, after a total of 443 hours of training (or 18 and a half days straight), on September 13th, at the Challenge Family Cedar Point Triathlon, she did it. She completed the IRONMAN in 11:39:27.
I was so excited for her that I wanted to write this article for her, just so I could brag for her a bit. So here’s the race-day report: this is how my beautiful wife, Janine, completed a 3.86 km swim, 180.25 km bicycle ride and 42.2 km run, all in one day, in under 12 hours.
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On the Friday before the race, Janine drove down to Sandusky, Ohio, with her good friend and training partner, Karen “Nate” Natho. Nate was the one who had been waking up at 5am to train with her for many months now. In fact, it was Nate who had initially convinced Janine to sign up for the full Ironman distance; previously Janine had thought maybe she’d do a full Ironman in the future at some point, but did not really have any clear plans.
“I really wasn’t sure I’d ever do a full Ironman until I actually signed up for Cedar Point,” Janine told me. We had both heard about the Ironman race twenty years ago when we were working together at a Running Room store in Toronto. When I saw how long the race was (you have to do a FULL MARATHON after at least 8 hours of swimming and biking?!) I was slightly horrified; Janine was impressed and inspired. At that point, it was still something for super-athletes; not something she actually considered ever doing herself. In the intervening years, Janine has done 11 full marathons and more half marathons than she can count. But it took twenty years for her to get the confidence to sign up for the full Ironman.
And then she had signed up. And then done all that training. And now she was on her way.
I would be there to watch her and cheer, but we decided to travel separately so Janine could stay in a hotel with Nate while I stayed in a campsite. That way I could take care of kids and dog, and Janine would only have to take care of herself and her gear.
So Friday. The two women drive to Ohio. And the weather is terrible: it rains most of the way there. The rain is the kind that makes it scary to drive on the highway. It’s also very windy. They make it and settle into their hotel room for a good night’s sleep.
The next day (Saturday) they bring their bikes to the race course, where they are supposed to check them in. They notice that there are huge waves on Lake Erie. They learn that the Sprint distance race, which was taking place that day, has had its swim section canceled because of the roughness of the water. They are told they can’t drop off their bikes because of the wind: there is concern that bikes left in the transition area will get blown over and damaged. They were planning to do a short trial swim on the course but they aren’t allowed; they are told that their swim might in fact be cancelled.
They drive back to the hotel room.
I arrive after my harrowing drive (it’s still raining periodically). I’ve brought our dog and our son, Caleb (the other two kids opt not to come). We meet the women in their hotel room.
The hotel room is littered with triathlon gear: there are bikes and tires and clothing spread everywhere, maps are spread out on beds, helmets hang on the backs of chairs. The room is thick with all of the excitement and anticipation and nervousness that Janine and Nate feel at this point: to be here, now, after so many hundreds of hours of training and to hear that part of your race might be cancelled, the water is too rough, a boat capsized, there’s blue algae in the marina, wait no the waves broke up the algae, ok the swim isn’t cancelled just moved, yay we can swim after all.
They relay their excitement and tell me about the weather-related drama. We make arrangements of where we will watch them, then they tuck into their cozy beds and Caleb and the dog and I drive to our campsite, set up our tent in the rain, and huddle in our sleeping bags. It’s a cold night.
Race morning. It’s cold and windy.
They get up at 4:15, bring their bikes to the course, drop off their transition bags. It’s still dark. They want to be early because the swim now has a staggered start: every five seconds they will let two swimmers go, first come first served, with the first two swimmers starting at 7:00. Athletes are milling around in their wetsuits in the cold grey morning.
At 6:40 the race directors open the swim course allowing athletes to do a swim warmup in the water. The air is cold but Janine finds the water quite pleasant. She splashes around a bit, and then it’s time to line up for the start. The sun still hasn’t quite risen.
Finally, they’re off, starting on their ironman journey by swimming out of the marina. Janine isn’t quite sure where she’s going, as they haven’t been able to swim the modified course ahead of time, so she just follows the swim cap in front of her. The water in the marina is sheltered, and she’s having a great swim. Then they go through the marina entrance and swim around the lighthouse, making their way back on the other side of the breakwater. Suddenly the waves are much bigger. Janine can see the swim cap ahead on the crest of each wave, but when she’s in the dip of each wave, she can only see the water around her. The waves push her towards the rocks of the breakwater, and she scrapes her hand on the bottom a few times, but she doesn’t care. She’s excited: she’s doing it, her first ironman. She feels great. The swim course is a double loop, so she goes back into the sheltered marina, then back around the lighthouse. This time the waves are even bigger.
Afterwards, she recalls to me how she felt: “The waves were huge… but I actually found it fun! I heard a lot of people saying how hard it was, and it was hard, but for me the overwhelming emotion was how fun it was!”
So. Swim section finished. One down, two to go.
Volunteers help Janine strip off her wetsuit (they’re called “Strippers”! haha) and she has to run almost a kilometer to the transition area, because the swim had been moved. Her hands are cold, and she has a hard time getting her compression socks on. In fact, she spends ten minutes in the transition between the swim and the bike.
Finally she is ready. She jumps on her bike and starts the long ride. She has a fancy racing helmet that a training partner had given her: he had bought it on Kijiji but it didn’t fit his head. It fits her perfectly and makes her feel even faster. The course is a double loop. She and Nate had driven the course the day before, so she recognizes landmarks, thinks of the conversations she had with Nate. She’s feeling strong and fast.
She knows that Caleb and I are waiting in the city square of a small town called Milan that the course passes through. We’re waiting there with friends: Erv and Betty Krause have made the trip to Ohio just to watch Janine’s triathlon. They are new church friends that we haven’t even known for a year yet. Janine feels incredibly blessed that they have made the effort to come for their first triathlon spectating experience. She looks forward to seeing all of us.
Before coming into the town of Milan, there is a short steep hill just around the corner from where we set up our chairs. When we see the first cyclists coming though, we see them huffing and puffing, often taking a drink or eating something. Most of them are going pretty slow after the exertion of the hill. We see the lead men breeze through, then a slow trickle after the lead pack. We cheer for all of them. There’s a small gaggle of girls cheering with us, dressed in costumes as clowns and bumblebees and ballerinas. They are shouting themselves hoarse and ringing cowbells. We sit and wait.
Then I see the pink compression socks that took Janine so long to put on: here she comes! She looks fast and strong. She gives us a wide grin and a wave, even shouts at us. I’m thrilled: she’s doing well. I’ve watched her breeze by me at many races where she barely made eye contact, especially if she was in pain. But today she doesn’t look in pain. She looks like a happy pink blur.
Erv and Betty and Caleb and I twitter together about how happy she looks, and how she waved at us, and how she’s only got two women ahead of her. Then we settle in to wait for the two hours it will take her to come around again. We’re cold unless we sit right in the sun. I wonder how Janine is feeling on the bike with the wind, and if she is as cold as I am.
She is, in fact, feeling a bit cold. She hikes up the pink arm-warmers she is wearing to try to cover her shoulders. It helps a bit. As she comes around to do the loop a second time, she gives a whoop and a cheer. Three hours in: she’s half done the bike! It’s a long time to ride on your own. Triathlons have strict no-drafting rules, so you can’t ever ride close enough to anyone else to be able to talk to them. Janine prays to help pass the time: she even prays out loud sometimes. She prays through each member of our family as she pedals and dodges potholes.
“Loved the bike course,” Janine said to me afterwards. “Loved it!” We can tell. We’re thrilled when we see her’s pink socks and arm-warmers blur past us again in Milan’s town square. This time we’re really ready for her. We cheer and call her name and take pictures and video, and she breezes through and in about 10 seconds flat she is gone again. She looks lean and mean, all grit and focus.
We gather our chairs. We have about three hours until we see her on the run course.
Janine’s transition from bike to run is much better than her transition from swim to bike. Just over two and a half minutes to get her running shoes on, and away she goes.
Bike section finished. Two down, one left.
Running is usually Janine’s strong suit, but she feels nervous about this marathon. She injured her hamstring in May, and wasn’t able to get in nearly as much mileage as she would have liked. Her longest run in training was only 32km; in the other two sports she had surpassed the distance that the ironman required. For the run she had gone 10km short of the fill distance.
Never mind. She knows how to run. Just put one foot in front of the other. Off she goes.
Meanwhile Erv and Betty and Caleb and I have gone for lunch, then come back. We find a strategic point on the run course where the athletes will pass us three times, then another three times on the second loop. We’ll get to see Janine six times. Hope she’ll be glad to see our faces.
We sit and wait. The half-ironman runners are passing – their bibs are red with white numbers. We watch for the black full-ironman bibs. It’s actually getting hot in the sun.
We notice that MANY MANY athletes are walking. Caleb sees the first place female run by. Then we see her a second time, and a third time to go off and finish her first loop. Still no Janine. We see the second place female. We wait some more. I am getting thirsty. I feel like it’s a marathon sport even being a spectator at one of these events.
Finally we see Janine’s bobbing pink socks. She runs up to us, and we hoot and holler. I run with her for a few hundred meters, just to talk a bit and encourage her. Her gait is a bit off: she seems to be limping a bit. I’ve never seen her run so slow. Her face looks pained. “I’m just trying to keep going,” she says. “I’m not fast, but I’m keeping going. Just keep going.” I can almost hear the words she is repeating to herself in her head, keep going, keep going, keep going, with every footfall, keep going, keep going.
She runs off. I don’t tell her that I’m a bit concerned for her. She’s only a third through her run. Still, she’s held on to her third place position, and she’s still running.
Nate runs by with a big grin on her face. We cheer for her. “I’m so happy,” she says.
We see Janine come by again, then a third time as she heads off to finish her first loop. She hasn’t slowed. I’m feeling better for her. She runs past us and gets to the loop point where she gets a “special needs back” of items she has packed previously. She has a fruit juice and a small bag of salt and vinegar chips. The juice is like nectar on her tongue. She wonders why she didn’t get a larger bottle. She walks for a bit while she munches on the chips, because she doesn’t want to choke on them. The walking feels good.
Maybe I can just powerwalk, she thinks. Maybe I can walk almost as fast as I can run. She starts walking. She can tell pretty quickly that she can’t walk anywhere near as quickly as she can run. She doesn’t want to start running again, but she does. Keep going, keep going, keep going.
We see her pink socks bobbing back down the road. This time she looks rough. The pain is clear on her face. This time, Caleb runs with her. He tells her to take a break at the water station just past us, and to refuel properly. She does: she decides to try to drink some Coke (they offer water, gatorade and Coke(!) at the stations). The Coke seems to hit the spot: she feels invigorated.
When we see her the second time she is looking better, and actually smiles at us as we hold up our “Go Janine Go” sign. We send her off after seeing her the third time, and hop in the car to the finish line.
The finish line is right in the Cedar Point Theme Park, with roller coasters rumbling overhead. We wait. This race lets family members run across the finish line with the athlete (how cool is that?!) so Caleb and I get ready when we see Janine coming. We jump up and follow her, cheering and yelling. I can keep up with her! Caleb is pulling our little dog along with him, and the four of us cross the finish line together.
“I did it, I did it,” Janine says, over and over. She is close to collapsing in my arms, and tears are in her eyes. I guide her over to a chair and she sits down. “I did it.”
She did it.
We’re so proud. We all surround her and hug her through the tinfoil blanket she is wrapped in. She’s the third female in spite of a very difficult run. I pull her close and kiss her forehead. She tastes salty.