This is a tough race report to write. I don’t really know where to begin, as there is so much of the story that happened long before I jumped off the dock to start my swim on race day. Long before I heard the words, “Laura Philpot from Maple Valley, You are an ironman!”
Completing an ironman is such an emotional event. To think about what I was able to train my body to do still astounds me. It has caused me to do a lot of self-reflection before, during and after the race. One thing that kept coming to the front of my mind on the plane home is how in the world did I get to the point where an ironman even seemed attainable.
And the answer is people. It’s almost funny how much impact a person can have on your life and they might not even know it.
The first two that come to mind are Tiffin and Correne. We built up to running 3 to 4 miles a day at lunch together. We used to see a guy run by us who ran 6 miles every day. SIX MILES!?! That just seemed down right CRAZY. Running 5Ks and 10Ks were fun and the idea of getting faster was appealing, but six miles a day!? Tiffin always said, “If you want to get faster, you have to run with people who are faster than you.” She was such an inspiration and such an amazingly talented runner/athlete. There is no doubt that she helped make me a better and faster runner.
But really, it was Correne who pushed me to the next level. Correne suggested we run a half marathon. So in the fall of 2006 we stepped way outside our comfort zone and trained for and ran the Black Diamond Half Marathon. That seemed so far; 13.1 miles! What a sense of accomplishment I felt that day. Then Correne had the bright idea of running a full marathon! Okay I said. But I also said that I would only do one marathon. The training, the commitment was huge! Unfortunately, Correne tore her ACL and could not compete; when she said she was out, I almost backed out too. Dennis said, “You’re crazy, you’ve trained so hard!”, and so I ended up completing the marathon without her. Dennis was there cheering me on more confident than I was that I could do it. The moment I crossed that finish line, I knew it wouldn’t be my only one.
From there I connected with other runners. My friendship with Trish grew and she provided so much guidance and coaching. She answered a thousand questions and her passion for running became infectious. I remember the day she called me a runner. I had to pause. Even though I had run multiple marathons, I wasn’t a “runner”, she was a runner.
Somewhere in this mix I met Robin. I won’t go into the long random story about how we met, or how we went on that first 6 mile run together. But I will share that we started doing a weekly track workout. She provided the workouts and the group grew and shrunk multiple times. I didn’t meet anyone on those Wednesday morning track workouts that wasn’t an amazing person. Although the group changed over the years, Robin and I were the constant from the start. In these later years, it’s been Robin, Michelle and Laura – just the three of us. Our weekly running sessions have become more than a track workout; they are filled with therapy sessions, understanding and friendship. Early on we learned that Robin was also a triathlete. I thought it was crazy that she stepped away from her running focus each year to do “Olympic Distance Triathlons”.
In 2011 Jill, my adopted big sister who has provided guidance and love to me since college, asked me to do the Lake Stevens 70.3 with her. Dennis said, “Why wouldn’t you?” What?! I can’t swim with any form or with my face in the water. I don’t own a bike. Should I really attempt this? Dennis said yes. Robin said yes. Jill was waiting….
So I bought a bike from Northwest Tri and Bike. I met Patty and Brad. They provided all kinds of free advice and seemed so sincerely happy to share their love of the sport. Robin taught me to swim with some form. This would be my only triathlon. After all, I’ve conceded that I’m a runner, but I’m not a triathlete.
Unfortunately, like my first marathon, Jill got injured during training and had to withdrawal from the race. But like that first marathon, Dennis said, “You’re crazy to back out now. You’ve put so much into this and you CAN do it!”, and so I ended up completing the race without Jill. Again, like my first marathon, the moment I crossed that finish line, I knew it wouldn’t be my only one.
There are probably 100 more people that I’ve met and been inspired by over the years. I love that I eventually joined the Raise the Bar team. I love that I eventually added Alissa as my coach. I love that triathlons starting becoming my norm.
But the truth is if one of the events above had not happened, I don’t think Chattanooga would have happened.
September 29, 2014 at noon, we pulled the car over to find cell reception on our way to Atlanta from Augusta so I could sign up for Chattanooga 140.6. Wow. I couldn’t believe that I had committed to something so huge. But I had my husband’s support, I had my kids’ support. I had friends signing up with me. I had my coach who had helped me drop an hour off my 70.3 time. This was doable.
Fast forwarding to September 23, 2015, it was time to get on a plane, it was time to face the challenge, it was time to test my preparation, test my physical abilities and my mental toughness.The few days leading up to the race in Chattanooga seemed a bit like organized chaos. I felt like we spent a great deal of time planning the next meal and worrying about getting the last few workouts in.
Even though we had lots of time, Saturday felt hectic and we didn’t finish dropping off all our gear bags and bikes until after noon. I had wanted to watch a movie and it started at 1:00 PM at a nearby theatre. The problem was we weren’t able to get something to eat before the movie and at that point I started to feel panicked. My plan was to watch a movie, but I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Long story short, we ended up skipping the movie and finding a great place for lunch, but my anxiety had peaked and I started to cry. After lunch, my nerves settled. I went and took a short nap at the hotel and then we went to dinner at 5:30. I had a small steak, some mashed potatoes and bread. It was perfect. My nerves seemed very calm at this point and I was in bed resting by 8 PM.
Then finally, it was race day. The day we’d been working towards for a full year. The alarm was set for 3:30, but I was wide awake at 3:15 AM. I met Lee Ann in the hotel lobby at 4:15 AM and we loaded up to head to the race start. Dennis drove us up to the front and dropped us off. It was so nice not to think about parking logistics. I had packed my breakfast, race nutrition and special needs bags and had them all with me. I got my body marking done. I checked on my bike, filled all my nutrition bottles and dropped off my special needs bags.
Then they announced the river temperature. 77 degrees. It was not going to be wetsuit legal. I had to find Dennis to give him my wetsuit. We found Robin and Rocky, said goodbye to Dennis and loaded on to the shuttle bus headed to the swim start.
The swim start was pretty cool. So many athletes milling around and waiting. Eating breakfast, resting, talking and waiting for the race to start. We were probably in the front 1/3 of the line. It was a rolling start and when we finally stood up and started moving I felt goose bumps.
The national anthem brought tears to my eyes. My emotions were at an all-time high and then we walked down the shoot and onto the dock. Lee Ann and I were right behind Robin and Rocky, but once I got on the dock, I lost sight of everyone and it moved so fast. I saw Lee Ann jump in and I jumped in, but that was it. It was all about me and my race from that moment on. Alissa was in my head saying, “The swim is just the warm up. Just find a nice steady pace and use this as transportation to your bike.” I started noting that it took me about 4 minutes to get from buoy to buoy. The water was pretty open at first, but then as more athletes got in the water and swam past me; it became more crowded and a little more physical than I had anticipated. A few times I had to move around to find my own space. Before I knew it, I was halfway. Seeing the buoy colors change was awesome. Just count buoy to buoy. 4 minutes each. By my count I should come in at about 1:15 or 1:20 and I felt extremely happy. Then there was a larger man who kept swimming in my space pushing me closer and closer to the buoy line almost pushing me out of the course. I tried to hold my ground and maintain my space, but he elbowed me in the head. It hurt, but I pushed hard and swam away from him. I knew instantly that it my head was going to hurt. But “ignore it” I thought. NO NEGATIVE thoughts allowed. If I dwell on my headache it will hurt worse. Out of the water! I had heard that first step was hard so I reach for a volunteer’s hand. Running up the exit, I heard Dennis and Wyatt yelling from the bridge up above! That put a huge smile on my face. Then I turned the corner and saw my friend Michelle! Yea!
Transition 1. I didn’t fully understand how helpful and amazing the volunteers are until I was in the tent. I set my bag down and was starting to get out of my swim skin when I saw a volunteer picking up garbage and she grabbed my bag. I thought she was taking the bag away. I was like, “no no, that’s mine!”…. she just looked at me and dumped it out and started helping lay my stuff out and asking what I wanted/needed for the bike. What a dork I was…. She was amazing.
Once I was geared up, off on the bike I went. I had three bottles of liquid nutrition and my plan was to drink one per hour, supplemented by Honey Stinger Wafers and base salt. After which I had planned to switch to e-gel and water. I finished the first bottle in less than 30 minutes. All three bottles were done in 2 hours and 15 minutes and I only ate one honey stinger wafer. After that I grabbed water at every water station and filled my aero bottle up. I took an e-gel every 45 minutes. My head hurt, but not too bad. The bike was a bit crowded on the first loop and I had to kick it in a little hard a couple times to pass and find my own space. I found it incredibly frustrating when someone would pass me and then coast in front of me. I started calling them (in my head) roller coasters. A few times I had to really kick it in to get away from the roller coasters. Otherwise they’d just ride hard and pass me again and start to coast again. No coasting I kept telling myself. “Don’t be a roller coaster!” I kept repeating to myself. The course was amazing and the road conditions were good. There were a few railroad tracks that you have to cross early on and water bottles were EVERY where. Thank goodness, I didn’t lose anything. The hills were gently rolling without any hard climbs. I heard other riders make comments like, “no more hills!” I had to laugh in my head thinking, “this isn’t much of a hill!” So glad Alissa had me do hill repeats all summer. Even though I didn’t love them while I was doing them, they prepared me well. I tried to keep my heart rate right at 135.
About half way into the race, we went through a town called Chickamauga. That is where the special needs bags were for the bike. I zipped right through it. With the fencing and the crowds it felt like something you’d see on TV. At this point my head started to really hurt. But I saw I was 3:08 at mile 58 and I just felt elated! I had wanted to come in under 7 hours on the bike and I knew I’d be able to bust that by at least 30 minutes (or at least I hoped I would!) I kept going, but I had to come out of aero position anytime there was anything that resembled a bump. The jarring was hell on my headache. I kept thinking, “just get to transition 2 and find some ibuprofen.” I know my heart rate dropped as I couldn’t ride as hard when I was slowing down for the bumps and getting out of aero so often. Also, the course was much less crowded on the second loop than it was on the first loop. Maybe riding easier on the second half helped my run!? I’ll never know for sure. I took my last gel just before getting off the bike. I had taken one every 45 minutes on the dot starting at 2:30.
By the time I got back to town and crossed the final railroad tracks again, I had to REALLY brace myself as my head was pounding. It felt great to get my helmet off and I walked through transition. Again, I have to give kudos to the volunteers, they take your bike from you and you’re on your way. Into the tent again. The volunteer helping me was awesome. I changed my gear out and stopped by the porta- potty and I was off. I asked for Ibuprofen, but was told no.
I saw Dennis and Wyatt as I came into transition and as I was leaving. My head hurt, but all I had to do was get to mile 13. I had liquid gel ibuprofen in my special needs bag. Start out slow. 11 minute mile. Don’t push too hard. You have a long way to go. Keep your heart rate at about 135. And don’t forget to be thankful. Oh and only concentrate on getting from one aid station to the next. So much to think about….
The run part was much more spread out than the start of the bike. Love the crowd. Love my name on my bib. Everyone cheering. The energy is amazing. When I hit my first 10K, I was stoked. ¼ of the way through! Now from Thankful to Focused. I kept repeating. “I am focused on the next aid station. Stay focused Laura!”…. I saw a few Pro athletes walking.
After I started running my headache felt better, at least until about mile 10. Then it started pounding again. Not so horrible as it was on the bike, but bad enough. I took an e-gel every 4 miles. I walked through every water station long enough to drink at least one sometimes two cups of water. I took a lick of base salt every mile. At mile 13 I saw Dennis and Wyatt. Half way! No way! This was going by so fast. I took two ibuprofen with a swig of efuel that was in my special needs bag and then I was off again. Holy cow I thought! I have finished two 10Ks and I only had two more to go. I was now determined to finish this race and finish well. Within 10 minutes my head stopped pounding. No longer did I have to think about my head. I just stayed determined to run until the next aid station.
Then I hit mile 20! Per Alissa’s race plan, I can RACE now! 10K left until the finish line. Goose bumps covered my skin. I started telling every runner, “Let’s do this! 10K left!” I was smiling and cheering and they looked at me like I was crazy, but I drew a few smiles out. I have had the endorphin high from great achievements before. But nothing like this. I literally felt high. So high on life. I saw Dennis and Wyatt again at mile 21 and I just wanted to jump up and down. I wanted them to see my excitement and know how great I felt. Dennis seemed overwhelmed and I could hear the pride as he cheered for me. The more animated I stayed the more the crowd whooped and hollered! That was an amazing trip across the Chattanooga River. The rest is a blur and it went SO fast. I DO recall that I kept telling myself that I was strong and that I knew I was finishing strong. I DO recall that every time a spectator asked me how I was doing I smiled and answered GREAT! That always drew amazing cheers from the side. I know that I had a smile that wouldn’t leave my face. I heard spectators comment on my smile… I remember when I hit 23.1 miles. I yelled out – “5K to go!!” I got a couple grumbles from people who were on their first loop. Oops.
But then I came down to the last river crossing. While I was on the bridge I felt the energy of the finish line grow. I could hear the announcer calling out finishers. It brings tears to my eyes right now just thinking about that moment. The emotions that are stirring are indescribable. I was almost to the end of the bridge and I heard Wyatt…. He was yelling at me and I heard the pride and excitement in his voice. I heard him yelling from behind the crowd as he ran towards the finish line. As I made the final turn, a volunteer said, “1/2 mile to go!” Again, the joy and excitement that manages to surface after such a long day is incredible. I started running hard. Giving it all I had. Dig deep… I heard Dennis and Wyatt yelling for me to finish strong. I saw the finish line. The crowd was thick. They were all yelling for me. They were yelling MY name! I started throwing my arms up. I was beyond excited. I wasn’t spent. I felt I could keep going….
The volunteer grabs you at the finish. “are you okay?” “yes!” I answered! He escorted me to get my chip removed, to get my medal, to get my t-shirt, to get my photo. Tears? Where were the tears?? I have thought about the finish line a 100 times and almost cried every time over the last year. But here it was and there wasn’t a tear in me. I saw Lee Ann first. I think we hugged. She said she cried when I finished. Pizza and coke is where I was headed. Then I had to find Dennis and Wyatt.
I know this is long. I know that it may seem over the top, but this was a life changing experience for me. A moment that no one can ever take from me; a moment in time when I felt that there is nothing that I cannot do.
I am wary of the crash. The moment I will cry because it is all over. I’m not there yet. I’m still reveling in the success of my day; the success from a year of hard work. I feel a new special bond with Lee Ann and Robin. Even though we didn’t race side by side, we were out there together.
I feel a renewed gratitude for my family and for my husband. None of this could have been so amazing with their unwavering support. Thank you to my husband for letting me spend hours away training and listening to me complain about being tired. Thank you for not caring that everyone in the house has been getting dressed out of laundry baskets and my car looks like an isle from a sporting goods store. Thank you for not caring that I haven’t blow dried my hair in six months and for not saying a word as I spent a small fortune on triathlon gear… all of which I just had to have!
No matter what I write, I can’t seem to make the words express the inner excitement and joy that I experienced last Sunday; the inner joy that hasn’t quite left me yet.I feel ready to tackle the world. I’m ready to fold laundry and weed my yard. I’m ready to try to Qualify for Boston. I’m ready to call myself a triathlete.
Funny, the moment I crossed that finish line, I knew this will not be my only one.
I am an Ironman.