Catching a Third Wind

The spectator Ironman – 140.6 miles of stress, running, screaming, clapping and supporting, followed by pure relief and happiness when the finish line has been achieved.

Athletes donned from 33 countries and all 50 states to push their body through hell and back in the form of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run.

The Swim. At 6:45 AM the pastel colored hints of sun were just starting to peek through the dark clouds in Tempe Beach Park, Arizona, as all 2,300 athletes were corralled to the swim start. The nervous anxiety and look of dread on the herd of wetsuits about to face the chilling 64.1 degree (questionably clean) water was called out by the unforgiving announcers voice. “Everybody get in the water!!!!! Stop delaying, just get in there!”. As Chris Self’s leg handler, (U.S Army veteran who sustained gunshot wounds to both legs during a combat operation in Iraq; one bullet severed the sciatic nerve in his right leg leaving it paralyzed, requiring it to be amputated below the knee) we got right up to the concrete edge of the river, I took his leg and with two hops, he was off into the water awaiting the canon which sounded the beginning of one of the toughest days in sport. BOOM! Thousands of arms flew up like bat wings and they were off!  Chris had one prior attempt at an Ironman title in Panama City, Florida but was unable to finish due to unbearable swelling in his stump. He had everything to prove today. Chris also made it very clear to always have a few backup plans in these situations. Plan A) Finish the race in record time with no problems. Plan B) If there is pain in his leg, switch prosthetic liners and keep running until they drag him off the course at midnight. Plan C) If all else fails, pack up and head out for beers.

The Bike. After their fuzzy heads cleared from the swim, athletes jumped on their bikes for the 112 mile 3 loop course. It was flat and fast but the sun was on full alert beating down on any exposed skin. We picked our spot on the corner and watched as bikes and riders of all levels and ages pushed through the grind and fatigue of the Arizona desert roads.

The Run. With the final push ahead, athletes dropped their wheels for running shoes and began the steady jaunt, each step just a little bit closer to becoming an Ironman. 3 loops completed the marathon, each time passing by the supportive fans and volunteers with signs like…’Dad, there’s beer at the finish line!’ and ‘WTF I thought this was a 5k!’. Some people smiled when we cheered them on, some people looked at us like ‘you get out here and do this!’, others so focused there was no breaking their gaze.

The Finish. Exhausted yet?! Two time cancer survivor, lost 150 pounds to get to here, paralyzed in a motocross accident at age 16, teacher and father of 3, the list goes on.  Every athlete had their own motivation to finish – whether they had something to prove or just simply proving they could do it. I tried to stay composed as each runner ecstatically made their way through the shoot with the most grateful, proud, depleted, elated, raw joy emanating from their face and body. As the finish line graced their last few steps, athletes crossed, danced, rolled under and clenched their fists while being awarded the title…YOU. ARE. AN IRONMANNNNN! Music was blaring, cow bells rang furiously, energy so thick you could feel it in your bones, family members cried tears of pure happiness. Proud.

Thankfully for Chris, his day was completed at Plan A and finished the race in under 12 hours. What an incredible accomplishment!

One of these days I will be out there suffering, but until then….Jenna, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN SUPPORTER!

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