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Becoming An Ironman

Ironman Boulder 2019 swag, including a shirt, medal, and bag.
Ironman Boulder 2019 swag. Photo courtesy Ashley Drayer.

Some people enjoy spending their weekend watching a new movie and maybe trying out a restaurant. Others enjoy spending 8 to 17 hours outside, putting themselves through an intense test of mental, physical and emotional fortitude.

I have done both, but over the last year or so, I’ve done more of the latter.

Now, before you call me crazy – it would not be the first time someone did – hear me out. Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Or have you ever wanted to do something badly, but a physical ailment or limitation made you think it was never going to happen? That is where my obsession started.

In 2009, a serious accident left me hospitalized, with the possibility of having my leg amputated. After 28 hours of surgery, my medical team was fairly confident my leg was safe. But they weren’t as confident about my ability to walk unassisted in the short term, if ever.

My whole life, I had played sports: mostly softball, soccer and swimming, but I was also always down for some basketball or skateboarding. In fact, you name it, I was probably game. I was a dancer; I did drum and bugle corps. I was always active. So being laid up for months, and then relying on a wheelchair and, eventually, crutches in my early twenties sent me into a bit of a depression.

I was in recovery for a long time. I couldn’t do much, so I watched a lot of television. At one point, I saw a triathlon recap on a sports channel. These athletes were completing three physical challenges back to back to back. First a swim in open water (a lake, reservoir, river or the ocean), followed immediately by cycling, then running. I was intrigued. Through my painkiller-induced fog, I fantasized about competing – but only for a while. Then I locked that fantasy away.

Eventually, I could walk on my own again. After I gave birth to my second child, I yearned to get back into doing something physical. The locked-away fantasy of the triathlon came back to the forefront of my mind. My big goal was to compete in an Ironman competition.

Although triathlon competitions are thought to have started in France in the 1920s, Ironman began in Hawaii 1978. Three separate events – the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), the Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles) – joined to form the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. In its first year, the race had just 15 competitors.

Not all triathlons are this intense, but the Ironman was my end goal. I wanted to prove to myself that not only was I walking, running and lifting again, but that I could be one of the estimated 0.01% of the population to achieve the title of “Ironman.” Challenge accepted.

In 2018, I competed in four shorter-distance races. These included one sprint-distance race (a 300-yard pool swim, a 12.5-mile bike and a 3.1-mile run); two Olympic-distance races (sometimes also called “international,” which includes a 1,500-meter swim, a 24- to 30-mile bike and a 6.2-mile run); and one Half Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike and a 13.1-mile run). Every time I competed, I ended with the same thoughts: “This is so fun – and so hard!” And also: “How in the WORLD am I going to pull this off?”

BASE performance team group photo.
The author with some BASE Performance teammates.
From left to right: Darren Dukart, Melissa Dukart,
Ashley Drayer, Leslie Williams, David Williams,
Maggie Williams. Photo courtesy Ashley Drayer.

Luckily, I live in Colorado, where I have been able to find many other like-minded psychopaths. Boulder, Colorado is a mecca for endurance sports, so I have access to a lot of fantastic opportunities to train and prepare for an event like an Ironman. Boulder has also been the home of both an Ironman 70.3 and 140.6 race. Sadly, 2019 was the last year of the full 140.6 distance.

In October 2018, I registered for the Boulder Ironman scheduled for June 9, 2019. In February, I got a coach to help me streamline the training process and write my workouts for me. I trained 8 to 23 hours a week. This included a total of 133 hours on the bike, 65 hours running and somewhere around 100,000 yards in the pool, in addition to strength and yoga training.

Balancing training and racing with all the other amazing things in my life proved to be a great challenge. Between caring for two small children, managing family responsibilities, working both a full- and a part-time job, and occasionally traveling, there was never a dull moment. I learned to plan weeks in advance. From nutrition, to workouts, to identifying the best and most efficient time to shower, the entire process was choreographed, beautiful and exhausting chaos. Most days included two workouts, sometimes three. I took four-hour runs and six-hour rides, all to prepare for what ended up being a 15-hour and 27-minute race day.

After almost six months of training, the day I had dreamed of for years began with a 2:45 a.m. alarm. By that point I had already checked in, attended athlete briefings, seen a pro panel – professional athletes race on the same course as us mere mortals – and set up most of my gear at the race site. I had trouble eating much that morning due to nerves. Although I had one major breakdown during training, for the most part I had remained calm – until race morning.

Most races start by 7 a.m. and have a mandatory cutoff at midnight. This means you have roughly 17 hours to swim, bike, run (or often walk, shuffle or even crawl) a total of 140.6 miles. I had trained, and I had a plan to break the 140.6 miles into more attainable chunks. Now it was time to see what I was made of. I did a final check of my bike, ate what little I could, congratulated my teammates and friends for making it this far, wished them a safe race and got lined up for the swim.

There is always a buzz at these events. Competitors display amazing levels of focus, determination, tenacity, nervousness and camaraderie. I was lucky to have Mike Reilly announcing my race. Mike has called more than 350,000 finishers “home” across the finish line. When I envisioned myself racing Ironman, fighting through all those tough training sessions, Mike Reilly saying the famous phrase “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” played on repeat in my head. Mike was at the start of the race, all smiles, pumping people up, wishing them good luck and already announcing everything going on. Something about his high-five – and the amazing teammates lined up with me – helped me to calm me down enough to feel ready.

Even so, I was in tears before the race even started. I had worked so hard for this. Other people had sacrificed for me to make it this far. What if I failed?

The race began. My swim went well; I am a strong swimmer, and my biggest worry was pushing too hard with such a long day ahead of me. You can’t win a race in the swim, but you sure can lose it. So I stayed steady and strong. I got out of the water after one hour and 18 minutes, feeling good.

Little did I know the swim would turn out to be the warmest part of the day. In 2018, the high temperature the day of the Ironman race was 95 degrees. The day I raced, the air temperature was 42 degrees when we entered the water. The high only reached about 63 degrees. It was warmer in the water than we would be in the air all day.

My bike leg was uneventful. I’m a decent cyclist, although I am not very experienced. The 112-mile bike course included almost 4,300 feet in elevation gain. The race mostly consisted of rolling with a few punchy climbs. I had some stomach issues that led to a pretty rough stretch between miles 50 and 80, but I was able to finish strong. My bike time was 6:53:08.

Such a long race tests you mentally and emotionally. Most people want to quit more times than they can count. You experience intense highs of feeling like you are invincible. Seconds later, feelings of doubt crush you, and you question why you have made such awful life choices. The bike ride included a lot of those swings for me.

Ashley Drayer and Lauren Brandon.
The author (left) with Lauren Brandon,
the female winner of Ironman Boulder 2019.
Photo courtesy Ashley Drayer.

I got to the run thankful that I only had a marathon left. (Who says that?) Unfortunately, I am not a strong runner. It is by far the weakest of the three sports for me. But with 114.4 miles completed, there was no way I would stop until I crossed that finish line. The run was slow. I was in a dark place; though I was beyond thankful for friends and family cheering me on, I was ready to be done. In the end, I finished the marathon in seven hours. It shouldn’t have taken me that long in theory, but your body reaches a point where it takes every ounce of your willpower, energy and effort to stay upright and moving forward. You have to dig deep just to keep one foot in front of the other.

At 10:06 p.m. on June 9, 2019, I heard Mike Reilly call me home. Running through an Ironman finisher’s chute feels amazing. It’s a red carpet leading to the finish line. Crowds line the path, cheering for every finisher. There are no strangers at that finish line; everyone is supportive and everyone is family. I was in tears as soon as I turned the corner onto the carpet. There were many times throughout the day when I was not sure how I would get there. But I always knew that – unless something terrible happened outside my control – I would get there one way or another.

The next few minutes were a blur. I got my medal, finisher’s hat, flag and shirt. I tried to soak everything in: the music playing, the smells and all the emotions. I was tired – beyond tired – yet it was still one of the most amazing feelings in the world. I couldn’t have made my Ironman dream a reality without all the support I am so blessed to have from my family, my coach, my friends and my co-workers. The experience taught me more than I ever expected, and I am beyond grateful for all its lessons.

We are too scared to do or try many things in life. Yet those things are often the most fulfilling. Dream big because, as our friends at Ironman say, “Anything is possible.”

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Palisades Hudson’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

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