95. In It to Finish

95. In It to Finish

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

In It to Finish

If you set a goal for yourself and are able to achieve it, you have won your race. Your goal can be to come in first, to improve your performance, or just finish the race; it’s up to you.
 ~Dave Scott, triathlete

“Why in the world would you drive all that way when you know you aren’t even going to finish the race?”

“Thanks for the pep talk, Mom.”

Historically, my parents have supported me in whatever I decided to try. But as I was about to get into my car and drive from Wisconsin to Florida to compete in an Ironman triathlon, they thought I was a little crazy. To be fair, my nickname had been “Chunk” while I was in high school. I had always lived by the philosophy that I wasn’t going to run unless I was being chased. So with just a couple months of training, maybe it was a bit of a stretch to think that I could swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. Any one of these things by itself would be an incredible feat. Put them all together and it seemed impossible.

I had done my first triathlon a couple of months earlier. It was completely on a whim. I borrowed a bike from a friend of mine and just decided to go for it. Three hours later, I crossed the finish line. The feeling of accomplishment was something that I could never have imagined. It didn’t matter that I was one of the last people to finish. I finished.

As soon as it was over, I started looking for more races. I had read about an Ironman distance triathlon that took place in Florida. This wasn’t like the one in Hawaii where you had to be an elite athlete to even get to the starting line. For this one, you just paid your entry fee. To make sure people weren’t out there for a week, there were cutoff times. You needed to be out of the water by 2 hours 20 minutes. You needed to be off your bike by 10 hours and 30 minutes. And you needed to complete the run by 17 hours. If you didn’t hit one of the cutoffs, your race was over. But, if you kept hitting the cutoffs, they let you keep going. That was my plan. Hit the cutoff times and finish. I wasn’t out there to win. I was just in it to finish. That was what I kept telling myself: In it to finish.

It was a long drive down to Florida. I kept thinking about what my mom had said. What if I really did drive all that way and didn’t finish? What if I didn’t make it out of the water in time, and I had to get back in my car for the long drive home, defeated. All of the people that I told about the race would be sure to ask me about it when I got home. How could I tell them that I didn’t finish? That would stink, to say the least.

When I finally made it to the race site the night before, I was totally intimidated. There were a few hundred really fit people walking around, and me. This was crazy. I didn’t belong here. What was I doing?

I got to my hotel and started getting all of my stuff ready for the next day. I put the race number on my shirt. I put some new laces into my running shoes. Made sure that I had everything ready to go. At the longer races, they have what is called a transition bag. It holds your clothes, and you can put some food in it to help keep you going. I wasn’t into all of the special, technical foods like carbohydrate gels or power bars. I made a couple of PB&J sandwiches. I packed a big bag of Chips Ahoy cookies. I figured that I could get through anything knowing that I had some cookies waiting for me.

There wasn’t a whole lot of sleeping that night. I really just kept thinking about the swim. As long as I made it out of the water in time, I was pretty confident I could finish the race.

The funny thing about an Ironman is that they start everybody at the same time — 7 AM. So you have a few hundred people all standing on the edge of the water waiting for the gun to go off. What happens after that can only be described as a human washing machine. Arms and legs flailing around. You get kicked in the face, people trying to swim over you. The group starts to thin out after a while, but the start has all of those people all trying to get to the first buoy at the same time. That’s the way it is for everyone — except me. I knew that swimming was not one of my strengths. So rather than dealing with all of that commotion, I just stood on the beach until every other person was in the water and on their way. Then I casually walked in and started my day. I made it around the first lap in just over an hour. For comparison, the fast people were done with the whole 2.4 mile swim before I made it through the first lap. I didn’t care. I still had plenty of time to get around before the cutoff. I used every swimming stroke in the book to get my body around that course. Side stroke, back stroke, breast stroke, whatever it took. Two hours and 10 minutes later, I was out of the water. I think I was the last one by about 30 minutes, but all I cared about was that I still had 10 minutes left before the cutoff. Whew.

I was so excited to get on my bike. I had gotten past the swim that could have ended my day early. My excitement didn’t last too long as I got my first flat tire right around the 10-mile mark. Fortunately I carried two spare tubes, because I ended up with another flat tire at around 95 miles. I kept on riding, and rolled into the transition area at 5:20 PM. It didn’t matter because I had a whole 10 minutes to spare.

I had a strategy. I figured if I could walk really fast, each mile would be around 14 minutes. That would put me into the finish line a little before midnight, and I would be done before the final cutoff of 17 hours. So that is exactly what I did. I never actually ran a step of the 26.2 miles. I walked fast and clicked off each mile on my stopwatch. I crossed the finish line at 16 hours, 40 minutes and 20 seconds on the race clock. I finished. I was now an Ironman.

The next morning I headed back to the race site to pick up my bike and they had pictures that were taken throughout the day, including a photo of me crossing the finish line. The whole ride back to Wisconsin I had the pictures sitting on the passenger seat for me to look at. To remind myself of the fact that I had done it.

That race ended up changing my whole life. I went to graduate school for Sports Administration so I could put on events like that and let other people achieve goals that they might never have thought possible. That is how I met my wife. Together we produced a series of races called the “In It To Finish” duathlon series. We have since completed four Ironman races and over a dozen marathons together. Never looking to win, but always “In It To Finish.”

~Chuck Matsoff

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