From Occasional Athlete to Ironman Triathlete

Just a few years earlier, such an athletic feat would have seemed impossible

Athlete Emily Johnson, 36, recently completed an Ironman competition–something akin to climbing Mt. Everest for endurance athletes. She told her story to Peg Tyre

Just a few years ago, in my early 30's, completing an Ironman competition would have seemed impossible. For years, I'd had a bad knee. Even taking a long walk could be difficult. Sure, I went to the gym three times a week, but I never really pushed myself.

I'd just gone through a difficult divorce, though, and I needed something that would get me outside of myself – outside of my head. Skiing was first. My ex didn’t ski. So after we split, I tried it again and I was like, “Wow!” I craved the sensation of speed even after winter came to an end. I went to a doctor to see if there was something I could do to make my knee hurt less or if I just had to accept it. He gave me orthotics, a specially-designed foam inner sole, and my knees felt better fast. I decided to take on a challenge, to recreate the fun I had on the ski slope and do a triathlon. I found a training progam online and later signed up for a class so I could train for the triathlon with other people. I bought a bike and a wetsuit on the same weekend. All of a sudden I felt like a triathlete-superhero.

It was a great high—especially the bike riding. Even when I started this, five years ago, it was really fun.

I quickly got hooked doing short-distance triathlons and even helped found a triathlon club in Brooklyn (which now has over 100 members!). After a couple years I decided to challenge myself with longer "half iron" distance races, which seemed like more than enough for me. I never thought I’d do a full Ironman competition, which includes a harrowing 2.4 miles swim, a 112-mile bike race and then a marathon—26.2 miles. It was the furthest thing from my mind. My goals were to make friends, lose weight, forget about everyday stress, and feel good.

But I noticed after a few years of doing "tris" that there were many newbies who would jump right into an Ironman after a year or less of doing triathlons. Eventually, I thought, why shouldn't I give the Ironman a shot too?

I started training slowly at first, then picking up in intensity for a year before the event. The training for an Ironman becomes very intense, requiring 12 to 17 hours a week for many months leading up to the event. I would do a long run once a week after work, 16 miles or so, then a long bike ride –100 miles or so—on the weekend. I had some minor setbacks. I have allergies and asthma so I’m just a lot more worn down in June when hay fever season hits. And though I conquered my initial knee problems through orthotics, my knees are still tender. Add to this the regular life issues of having to work long hours now and then, and you can imagine that I didn't always hit all my workouts. Sometimes I just chose to catch up on my sleep. I did manage to complete one 18-mile run and bike the Ironman course in Lake Placid, New York, a few times, where the event was held. I did enough training so I figured that if I didn't get sick, I would probably be able to finish the race.

The actual event was in July 2009 in upstate New York, and it was more thrilling and more difficult than I’d imagined it would be. I had worried that I’d get thirsty or bored during the long swim. That didn’t happen. Because there are over 2,000 swimmers racing in a small lake, all starting at the same time, I was too busy trying to avoid getting kicked in the face by other swimmers (luckily, I was only kicked in the nose once). I was tense and ready for the swim to end. When I emerged I felt relief.

I was not prepared for the wetsuit strippers forming a gauntlet along the swim exit. Ordinarily, getting a wetsuit off is a bit of a struggle and it requires practice to do it quickly. In the Ironman, you get assistance. I made eye contact with the first available stripper and he told me to lie down, then he quickly pulled off my wetsuit! I popped up and ran two blocks to the transition area. The whole route was lined with spectators cheering, which was really exciting.

The bike race was great. I focused on keeping my heart rate low so I didn't go to fast and get exhausted, and was thrilled to complete my first 56-mile loop in less than 3.5 hours. I yelled “I’m killing it!” as I rode up the last big hill.

I had water, energy gels (which give you calories), and salt pills (which replace the salt you are sweating out), which I had planned to take at regular intervals. My legs felt good on the second loop, and I was popping salt pills like candy, but by the time I got to the last 10 miles--which were uphill--I had no more interest in consuming my energy gels or anything else. I felt full, which I predicted was a bad sign.

At the run transition, I sat down and dawdled. I didn’t feel particularly tired, and was happy to run after being bent over my bike for seven hours. But my stomach quickly made itself felt. Have you ever run with an upset stomach? You feel it with every step. This feeling only got worse the further I ran. By the time I was at mile 3 I had also developed a blister. Luckily, at mile 6 there was an aid station stocked with moleskins, so I sat down and tended to my blister. At the station I was offered some chicken broth, which is a great way to take in salt and liquids. Shortly after I began running again I stopped, bent over, and unleashed the contents of my stomach. Luckily, running was easier now that nothing was in my stomach. Still, at mile 13, the halfway point, I found myself dry-heaving and shivering. I thought a medic would pull me out of the event–I would have been happy if he did–but he looked at me and said that I had that look in my eye that said I was determined to finish this race. That was all it took to convince me that I could endure another 13 miles.

At one point in my jog-walk I met a man who really inspired me. He was also walking. I sighed to him about how much it sucks to have to walk so much. He said to me: “What do you mean? Two years ago I had a tumor the size of my fist removed from my brain. When I survived, I vowed to do the Ironman, and here I am – I’m going to finish!” Wow. That put it all in perspective. Then I’d see Matt Long, the New York City firefighter who had about every bone in his body smashed four years ago when he was hit by a bus, but who was here shuffling along to the finish line.

I finished in a solid 14 hours and 34 minutes. (Finishing time is very unpredictable but usually, courses are closed after 17 hours.) I had given my life over to this race and I actually finished. All I wanted to do was go home and watch TV, but my friends at the finish line made me eat and drink something first. When I got home, I had a bath while I drank a beer and ate an amazing sandwich my boyfriend had bought earlier that day: bacon, avocado and Russian dressing. It went very well with hot bath water. After my bath I was able to watch TV for about five minutes before I fell asleep.

These days, my life is more normal. And I'm savoring it. On the weekends, I can stay out late and not have to worry about waking up at 5 a.m. the next day. I’m remembering what it's like to do other things with my time besides train -- like cooking dinner, going out the movies and seeing friends. It is a more comfortable life.

The Ironman is expensive and training is time-consuming, so I won’t be back next year. I would not miss an opportunity to watch the race again, however. I would love to be there at midnight when the final finishers come in. Go ahead and search for the video of midnight finishers on Youtube–it’s really inspiring. The beauty of the Ironman is in the spirit of the people who are struggling to complete it. The pros who complete it–well, they are amazing athletes. But it’s the regular people battling the pain of the day who inspire me. I will never forget Matt Long or the cancer survivor, people who reminded me that deep inside we all have that kernel of strength that we can draw on when we need it.
For more information on the Ironman competition, click here.

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