92. Ironman

92. Ironman

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners


I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.
 ~Maya Angelou

I started running when turning forty, because who doesn’t need something dramatic and studly when turning forty? Now I was turning fifty and set my sights on the Ironman Triathlon, because there are few events studlier than the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and full marathon of an Ironman and who doesn’t need something dramatic and studly when turning fifty?

While running, I earned amputee world records in distance and sprinting, but the records fell, as they always do, to younger, faster amputee women. I wanted a record I wouldn’t lose. If I succeeded in being the first female leg amputee in the world to complete an Ironman, I would always be the first.

I called Lisa, my training partner of eight years, because I’m a relational gal and couldn’t even think of training for Ironman by myself.

“Lisa, what do you think about doing Ironman?”

“What do I think? I think you don’t know how to swim and you’re terrified of the water.”

“Well sure, but you can help me with that, can’t you? You’ve been an amazing swimmer since you were a toddler.”

The phone went silent. Then, “My swim career peaked before I graduated from the first grade, but no matter. I’m happy to help you with swimming. You can help me with the bike. I’m in!”

We chose the Madison Ironman, even though it had a killer bike course, because it was close enough that our families could be there and the September temperature would probably be on the cool side. Weather plays a huge role in my ability to manage a race; heat and humidity affect how my prosthesis fits and how much pain I’ll have.

That summer was cool for training but then unfortunately morphed into an autumn scorch. As Ironman Sunday approached, the prediction was for temps in the upper eighties with high humidity.

Prior to a race, I think anything’s possible. I might have the best race of my life, or I might “crash and burn.” Since I tend toward grandiosity, I usually anticipate having the best, but that morning, sitting on the banks of Lake Monona, my stomach churned. I didn’t remember ever being so scared before a race. Not even the Paralympics. There’s a special kind of stress with uncharted territory, in trying to be the first. Belatedly, I wondered why no amputee woman had ever completed an Ironman. I called upon my mantra from my first marathon: have fun with the day, focus on doing the best I could, be grateful for the opportunity to even be out there.

Maliq, my twelve-year-old son, a jock since he could walk, hugged me hard. “Mom, you are so gonna rock this course.”

My husband Jeff, witnessing my fear, seemed a little less certain of my rocking anything, although he would feel it disloyal to doubt my ability.

Lisa and I entered the water as the sunrise lit up the sky. This would be the first race in which we would be racing as the sun came up and, if all went well, when the sun went down.

The horn blew and we and two thousand other swimmers were off. Arms and legs mashed, fighting for space before finding rhythm. I thought it encouraging that I didn’t drown and sent out a silent “thank you” to the inventor of the wetsuit.

Once in the swim-to-bike transition, I grabbed my bike from its rack and ran the length of the parking lot, holding onto the seat post. Of the entire Ironman, this was my favorite moment, because not even most bipeds can run, full-out, steering from the seat post. I met Jeff by the exit so I could switch from my run-leg to my bike-leg.

On the second loop of the bike course, I passed through what looked like a battlefield, two-wheeler casualties strewn everywhere. The heat and wind were claiming an excessive number of racers. I then rode the course so conservatively that a gray-haired volunteer at the final water stop scolded me.

“You look really good.”


“No, you look too good. Pick it up a little.”

Had to be a coach; who else would admonish me for looking good?

I flew past Lisa a couple of miles before reaching transition. I was concerned; I shouldn’t have caught her, because she had been so far ahead in the swim.

In the bike-to-run transition, I had stomach cramps, the back of my knee was rubbed raw from my prosthesis, and I was lightheaded, which reminded me to take salt tablets. I waited for Lisa and unfortunately when she arrived, neither one of us was thinking clearly enough to assess her condition. Lisa is a tiny woman, but later one of our friends said she had looked pregnant.

The beginning of the run in an Ironman is brutal. After so many hours going in a circle, legs have a hard time adjusting to the up and down of running. I ran. I walked. I stopped to fix my leg. Lisa and I lost each other.

The heat was unrelenting. I finally saw Jeff and Maliq a few miles from the finish line.

“Where’s Lisa? I haven’t seen her in hours.”

“Honey, she’s in the hospital,” Jeff said.

“No!” Tears started. “What happened?”

“She lost consciousness when she saw us at the half-marathon point. The medics thought she was dehydrated but Mark called from the hospital. She’s hyponatremic; her kidneys stopped processing fluids.”

Jeff took my face in his hands. “Linds, look at me! She’s going to make it; she would want you to finish this thing.”

In that moment of perspective, the Ironman became “this thing” and I just wanted it to be over.

Maliq tried to help.

“Mom, let’s run up this hill together.”

I re-focused. “Darlin’, these legs have no more ‘run’ in them.”

But as we came up to the last hill, my feet ran on their own.

“Mom, you’re a beast!”

When you’re an almost fifty-year-old mother, there’s little sweeter than hearing your teenaged jock son call you a beast.

The announcer screamed into the microphone, “Folks, cheer in the first amputee woman in the world to get here! Lindsay Nielsen, you are an Ironman!”

I cried. Maliq cried. Jeff cried, and people I had never met cried. I had done it and I knew, despite my disappointment that Lisa wasn’t with me, it would be an accomplishment I would keep close forever.

We called Mark. Lisa survived, but she had nearly died that day.

Once back at the motel, my husband gingerly lowered my cramping body into the bathtub. I smelled like a neglected pig barn.

“I never need to feel this bad again. Maybe I’m a one-Ironman person.”

A look of hope sidled across Jeff’s face. Everything hurt, even my lungs and my tongue. Abs cramped with a ferocity that prevented me from standing up straight. My leg was rubbed raw in places and abrasions had opened up under my jog-bra. I felt like a human Velveteen Rabbit, full of bald spots.

Waking after a few hours of painful sleep, I started planning.

“When I do another Ironman…”

Whatever whisper of hope Jeff had dissipated into the stale air-conditioned room. He looked over at me with resignation on his face; we had been together for thirty years.

“Linds. I know you can’t help yourself, but I’m tired. Give me a day, maybe even a week, and then you can have at it, and I’ll be right there.”

What would any of this be without family and friends?

As Lisa and I move through our fifties, we’re looking for a new adventure, because who doesn’t need something dramatic and studly when facing their sixties?

~Lindsay Nielsen

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