Confession: I am afraid to fail. I have been this way my entire life. For the first time in my life I truly risked failure. This may not make sense but I did not know if I physically could finish the IRONMAN.
I had a goal and I was hell-bent on achieving it in 2016. Although it has been a lifetime goal, it was not until exactly 5 months ago that I started this Ironman journey.
The Arizona Ironman Nov 20, 2016 hit my radar. That’s perfect!
I was crushed to quickly find out that the event was sold out… And it had been sold out since the day after the race in 2015. There has got to be a way to get in. I will find it.
Sure enough, I found a way in. The Ironman Foundation has complimentary entry for those that commit to raise money, a minimum of $3500 for the foundation.
They support / help fund the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization that my wife and I appreciate and support so I signed up.
I got a slot! I had been training and had completed a half-Ironman, but now I’m committed. I need to seriously train and raise money. It’s a worthy cause so I feel good about it and I start forming my game plan.
I hurt my Achilles the next day… Yes, the day after committing to raise $3500, a non refundable commitment at that.
I did not feel right fundraising when I’m hurt and not even certain of my ability to race so I never told anyone. (Exactly one hour before the final cut-off, I confirmed my registered, about two weeks before the race to keep my spot.)
I was hurt. My achilles has been on the edge for 2 months. I was severely under-trained. I came down with the flu just 3 days before the race. Am I being foolish?
At the same time, I knew I could finish. I had no doubt. Short of re-injury, I was going to finish. I just knew. It’s very hard to explain this but I could see the finish in my mind.
All my life I have not ventured forward unless I was fairly certain of success. Or better put, the odds had to be significantly and overwhelmingly in my favor.
This time was different. The odds were against me. Severely against me.
If you were to look at my actual training schedule, those in the Ironman or endurance circles would say it’s foolish to attempt this. I trained for exactly 5 months. I had no coach. (This may have been naive but it was deliberate. I did not want a coach to tell me it was not possible.)
I was hurt and could barely walk for a few days 60 days out.
I did not run more than 13.1 miles in training. My bike miles leading up to the race were shamefully low. Pathetically low. When I look back at Stava where I log my training, I’m almost embarrassed.
However, I knew I would finish. I was determined but it went beyond this. How did I know? I had a “work-around” strategy physically and mentally and my “why” was clear to me.
I’d heard a few months before from someone I respect (GW) that most people have the ability physically, but very few have the ability mentally to complete an Ironman.
Upon hearing this, it gave me hope. Knowing I was limited by injury, I began to prepare mentally. And it was daily without fail. I formed my game plan.
This was my line of thought:
1) Be crystal clear on my “why”.
2) manage my heart rate (130+~ bpm).
3) solid hydration and nutrition plan.
4) go fast enough to make time cut-off’s
5) go slow enough to not hurt my achilles.
6) embrace and even welcome the pain.
7) visualize the finish line in my mind.
A few years back, I had hiked up both Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta. Each hike to the summit and back is a approximately a 15-17 hour day. Nutrition, hydration, and heart rate management is crucial to a successful summit and return. This became my reference point.
The Ironman cut-off time is 17 hours. Because of my injury, my goal was simply to finish. My strategy was to make sure that I did not re-injure my achilles while making each time check point time cut-off.
According to Ironman rules, 2 hours 20 minutes is allowed for the 2.4 mile swim, 8 hours for the 112 mile bike, and 6 hours 40 minutes for the marathon. Each discipline has some cut-off check points throughout.
It then became a chess game. It was game in my mind throughout the day and the heart rate would dictate my pace.
In the lead up to the race prior to getting hurt, I was scared of the swim. I had created a story in my mind years ago that I was not a strong swimmer.
Somewhere back in my childhood about age 7, I was placed in the same swim class as my 5 year old sister. About 2 months ago, I remembered that childhood moment.
Because of this, as I look back, I had doubts my entire life (up until recently) of my swimming ability.
Being hurt and limited in capacity to bike and run for training, I had the opportunity to focus on my swimming. Somewhere along the way, the day I competed an 1.8 mile training swim, a PR at the time, the story in my mind changed.
Now the thought of swimming is no longer a negative thought. I still have much technique work to do but I am confident and can swim the 2.4 miles in open water without apprehension.
That said, I now knew I could finish the swim.
I was fairly confident that with proper nutrition and managed heart rate, I could fight through and finish the bike. (Although I did not expect the head winds.). The marathon was the wild card.
In my mind I reduced each leg (swim, bike, run) of the race down to a series of simple check points… I had a series of small goals within the larger goal.
Swim- 2.4 miles.
– get to the 1.2 mile turn around point.
– take a 60 second breather.
– get back to 2.4 mile mark.
– check. Transition to bike.
Bike – 112 miles. (Three laps – 37.33 mi each)
– get up the hill / turn around point.
– get back to the start / see my family (Lap 1)
– get to the top of the hill again.
– get to the start / see family (Lap 2 – 76 mi)
– fight my way up the hill
– fight my way back to start. (Lap 3 – 112 mi)
– check. Transition to run.
Run – 26.2 mi. (Two laps – 13.1 mi. each)
– get to mile 6.
– get to mile 13.1 (family sighting)
– get to 15
– get to 18
– get to 20
– it was mile by mile from here on.
Each little goal was possible. It was hard to think beyond each micro goal in the moment. As I would reach the little goal, the next goal seemed attainable. And seeing the supporting faces of those I love is like rocket fuel. It’s hard to describe in words how emotionally fulfilling this few seconds of support is during the race.
In my mind, completing the swim and the bike was equivalent to making the summit of Mt. Whitney or Mt. Shasta. I still had to get back down the mountain. The decent cannot be underestimated. It just so happened that the decent time and my estimate run time were similar so I was mentally ready.
Then the night set in. And it was more than just darkness.
During the run I would call it going into “the dark”. When the night and darkness set in, it was both literally and figurative. The run is a place where I am truly alone to face my demons.
I recently heard and came to understand that we never truly slay our demons, but we do learn to live above them. A minute can feel like an hour. An hour can feel like a day. The darkness and “the dark” is palpable. It’s hard to describe. Both “the dark” and the pain would set in.
I am now very alone, in the dark, wet, cold, running into the night fighting off the dark and the pain.
Sometimes I would see it coming.
Sometimes it would sneak up on me.
To deal with both the dark and the pain, I had to change the story in my mind. When it would surface, rather than shy away, I would address it head on and even welcome it.
I would say, “There you are again. You are welcome to come and run along with me, but you will not stop me. I will finish this with you or without you.”
Once my perspective changed, the game changed. The pain no longer had the best of me. I now had the best of it. The pain and the dark, although lurking close by and could no longer overtake me. Almost like seeing a wolf peering out of the forest. I would call it out. I am not afraid of you.
It no longer had power over me. I now had the power. The body is the servant of the mind. The mind will submit to the spirit.
My run was slow. I managed my heart rate. My Garmin battery died at exactly mile 10 so I now was managing the run and my heart rate by feel. I found a pace that worked and I ran into the night and into the dark.
About mile 15, I felt my achilles talking back to me. It was tightening. I’d slow the pace and that seemed to help. It would come and go for the next 11 miles, but it never got to a compromised place. I expected it to behave and it did. About mile 22 I knew it would behave and I started to taste the finish.
It was raining hard at this point, but I did not care. I was cold on the outside but I was warm in the inside. Mile 23. I could feel the finish.
My strategy turned to helping those around me. I began to encourage those close by. It felt great. Mile 24. I was recharged and I encouraged others.
Mile 25. The dark is now gone. I know it won’t come back. I’ve got this. I can see the light off in the distance. I can feel it.
Mile 26. I’m floating now. I pick it up. The pain is gone. My family is close by. I know I will see my wife and kids soon. I hear the crowd. I hear the announcer over the loud speaker. I will be an Ironman within 90 seconds.
The final stretch is lined with supporters. There is distance between runners at this point so each finisher has the cheers and applause of over a thousand as they run toward the finish. It’s an electric moment.
As I turn to corner into the home stretch, I hear my wife over the crowd yell my name. I don’t see her yet. I well up with emotion. Then I see her and I see all my kids, their eyes on dad, beaming with pride.
My little guys run outside the line of people and race me to the finish. I can see them jumping and waving and hear their excitement.
I turn toward the finish for the last 20 meters and float toward the finish. It’s a surreal state. I run down the traditional red Ironman carpet toward the infamous red and black finishers archway just 20 feet from my final destination.
I hear my name over loud speaker. It’s quite loud yet is simultaneously is distant. It’s a dream state. I hear, “Mike Hardy, from La Verne, California, YOU are an IRONMAN.”
I feel my hands raise and my eyes go closed just as a cross the finish line as 5 months of training and 15 hours culminate into one single second. I made it. I did it. I don’t know how, but I did it.
I’m in shock for a minute. A volunteer grabs me wrapping me in a solar blanket and places the finisher medal over my head and around my neck. He walks with me for 10 feet or so and senses I’m OK. I’m grateful.
I hear my kids. I hear my wife. I’m numb for a minute and then the emotion begins to well up. I contain it. I see my wife over to the left running up the side of the finisher channel.
I float over to the side and grab her over the barrier and we hug. We hug tight. I don’t let go and she does not either. She starts to cry. I start to cry. She tells me how proud she is of me. It hits me all at once. Then I am sobbing. She is too. It is a perfect moment.
It’s at that moment that I realize… I am an Ironman.