My goodness, I was nervous in the weeks and days leading up to IMLP. On Saturday, I was almost in tears on the phone with my coach, wondering if I would finish. I kept thinking to myself, “just get through the swim” since I usually have a bit of panic at the swim start, and then realizing that, unlike shorter tris, the swim is like 1/10 of the race. There is 112 miles to ride and a full marathon afterwards. A million things could go wrong. It was overwhelming. “It’s just a long training day, I reminded myself,” as I visited the toilet for the nth time on Saturday.
Morning. Does anyone every sleep well the night before a big race? I dreamt two nights prior that I overslept and missed the start. That certainly wasn’t happening in real life so I was checking the clock every 15 minutes starting at 2am. 4am wake up. Coffee, breakfast, bathroom, get dressed and head to the start. I felt pretty good, all things considered. In transition, my bike was in good order and I saw some teammates. All my gear was together. The forecast was fantastic. I met my teammates at the Mobil station in town for a photo. That’s also where I saw my family. Good luck, hugs and kisses. And I was off with my wetsuit to practice swim. This is really happening!
Swim. For the swim, I seeded myself at the back of the 1:15 to 1:30 pace group. I felt ok, excited actually. I was a little nervous about the fog laying on the water and its implications for visibility, but aside from that I was eager to see what the day would bring. Athletes were filing into the water 10 or so at a time. The mob was moving faster than I thought it would. I waded in and started swimming slowly. At first, it was crowded. I was in a cluster of people getting hit. I soon realized I couldn’t see ahead to sight because of the fog. I knew I wanted to stay away from ‘the line’, which is a white cable that runs the length of the swim course (and where everyone swims so they don’t have to sight), but I ended up there a few times since my only guidepost was other athletes. The swim is a loop, but really it is mostly out and back because the ‘across’ section is super short. The way out was rough, but I managed not to panic. I found some open space on the way back and got into a groove. I ran up on the beach and back into the water. People bunched up again and this time I got a heel to the left eye. I took a few above water strokes and settled in again. In no time, I was out of the water and having my wetsuit yanked off of me by a stripper. I saw my TL friends and my whole family as I exited the swim!
Bike. T1 was a bit of a cluster. Somehow I thought I’d have a dedicated volunteer helping me put my bike gear on, but the changing tent was crowded. I got myself sorted, exited and went looking for my bike. Volunteers were pulling them off of the rack and bringing them to the end of the row for athletes. Only my bike was still racked when I approached so I shouted my number and a volunteer went to fetch it. I took it really easy on the way out of town. Most people did. It felt like we were crawling. I let people pass. I was determined to stay in zone 1 or 2 for the entire ride. The weather was fantastic, still cool on the first loop, and the scenery was beautiful. I enjoyed the descent into Keene and the flats to Jay. For some reason, the long out and back was my least favorite part of the course both times, but it passed quickly and I started climbing. I was executing my nutrition plan perfectly. When I rode up Papa Bear at the end of loop 1 I saw my dad and Michael cheering. I stopped at special needs to refuel, and then saw my aunts on the way out of town to start loop 2. My legs definitely felt more tired climbing this go round, but I did my best to keep it in zone. By mile 80 my rear was hurting. I kept shifting around, but I just couldn’t get comfortable. I also started experiencing some gas around this point, but it wasn’t bothering me, I just tried to let it pass because I know gas on the run is no good. During the hills, my heart rate crept up and around mile 90 I stopped trying to control it. I just wanted to get off the bike so I spent some time in zone 3. Still, nutrition was on point. Legs were tired. How would I ever run a marathon after this?
Run. Transitioning to the run was better supported. I had a dedicated volunteer who helped me unload my bag and brought me water. When I started going my legs felt ok. I was being passed by the speedy folks who were already on their second loop. Mentally this was tough, mainly because I hadn’t expected it. I ran for the first 3 or 4 miles and then I began walk / running. Pressure was building in my stomach, first just some sloshing and then tightness, which I think was a result of gas.
By mile 12, it was bad. I turned around for the second loop and wondered how I was possibly going to make it through. My pace was slowing and my stomach was getting worse. “I might not finish this,” I thought to myself, which seems ridiculous now since there must have been 4 or 5 hours before cutoff, but just moving forward was really tough. I had only gotten down one gel at mile 3 before switching to water and coke. The coke wasn’t sitting well. I was walking almost totally by mile 15. I kept gagging so I stopped to puke just before the first aid station on River Road. Nothing was coming up – probably a good thing, but it also provided no relief. I kept telling myself, “Just keep walking”. Four walkers who I’d previously passed caught up to me and invited me to join them. Uncertain if I could keep up, I decided to try. Pierre, a shaggy Canadian who had done IMLP 6 times prior, was telling us stories about hitchhiking and camping. It helped take my mind off the discomfort I had in my stomach. The four of us walked together from mile 15 to 20. I was taking ice at every aid station. I noticed the pressure in my stomach dissipated a little bit so I started to pick up the pace. John and Emily came with. We walked, faster now, until mile 22, discussing our time goals and how we wouldn’t finish before 10pm.
That’s when I saw Michael for the second time on the run. It was just after 9pm at that point and I felt like maybe I could run. And maybe if I could run, I could finish in less than 15 hours. My watch was dead and I didn’t know my official start time so I didn’t really have a clue, but I had some hope. Emily and I started to run. Michael left for the finish line. Emily stayed with me for a while but then had to walk. Then I met a woman named Lisa. We ran together for a while. I was feeling good so when she stopped I kept going.
The crowd was into it now. I guess I looked fresh. I held on to this idea that I could finish in less than 15 hours. My stomach hurt a bit, but the discomfort was tolerable. I walked up the steep hill into town, where I passed Michael chatting with a friend. He was surprised to see me so soon, I think, and took off for the finish again. Just over 2 more miles. Atop the hill, I was running again. It felt like I was sprinting. The crowd support was fantastic and I just kept going. At the turnaround, I knew there must be less than a mile left. One flat mile or less. Maybe I could do this. I caught sight of signs that said, “finish” and I picked up the pace. Would I make it? I entered the finisher’s oval. The crowd had such energy. High fives, cheers. I must have been beaming. The finish line was in sight. The timer read 15:08…. I was sure I started less than 12 minutes before 7am, but was it less than 8 minutes? I knew this would be close.
Finish. “Katherine Dugan, You… Are … An Ironman!” I heard that over the loudspeaker, threw my arms up, and was collected by a kind volunteer who asked me my name and where I was from. I was told later this is a coherence check. I got my medal, a water and a foil for warmth. Snapped a few photos. And then rushed off to see my dad and Michael. I did it. I finished. “What was my time?” 14:59:05… YES!!!
All in all, and despite not having the run I wanted, taking on ironman was a fantastic experience from beginning to end. It was tough and terrible and a stupid idea and also incredibly empowering, rewarding, and fun. I think the best thing about ironman is that if you decide to do it and put in the work, you can certainly do it.
I’d like to give special thanks to my partner, Michael. M, thank you for your support, inspiration, coaching, and your unwavering belief that I could do this. It made all the difference & I never would have taken on such a challenge had it not been for your example and your encouragement. xo!!!