98. The Heart of an Ironman

98. The Heart of an Ironman

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The Heart of an Ironman

A winner’s strongest muscle is her heart.
 ~Cassie Campbell

Surely the driver could see me.

A split second later, I went for the brakes. But it was too late and as the front wheel of my bicycle hit the bumper of her car, I was thrown into the windshield.

Rolling off the car and lying on the ground, I felt as though my body had become disconnected. My legs floated in mid-air. I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. I struggled for every breath. A few hours and many medical tests later, doctors confirmed a T-4 (chest level) spinal cord injury.

I would never walk again.

Earlier that morning, I’d stood in front of the mirror, staring at my five foot, eleven inch frame. I was in the best shape of my life. My long legs were lean, yet muscular, suggesting that I had logged many hours in the gym and on the bicycle. Having just completed my final races of the season, I was on top of the world. I knew it was time to turn it down a notch and take it easy. Still, my friend Matt and I headed to Lookout Mountain, just to feel the breeze on our faces and enjoy the sunny fall day. It began like any other ride, but by the end of the day in the Intensive Care Unit, my life took a turn down a whole new path.

As I lay four months in the rehabilitation hospital, as a bike racer who now had no use of her legs, I knew that in my case, the word “former” would always precede the word “cyclist.”

In a moment, I had gone from being an independent athlete who had spent two months alone, traveling the country and competing in races, to having to re-learn the most basic of life skills — getting in and out of bed, opening doors and learning to drive with my hands.

Five years and thousands of hours of physical therapy, rehabilitation and intense physical training later, I sat under the moon on the shore of Lake Hefner, in Oklahoma City, pulling a wetsuit onto my unresponsive legs. With every tug of the neoprene, my thoughts turned to the seemingly insurmountable task in front of me. What was I thinking? Could I really do this? Could I complete a 2.4-mile swim, then a 112-mile bike ride (on a handcycle), followed by a 26.2-mile run (in a racing chair), all in 17 hours?

When I told my coach, Neal, that I wanted to attempt an Ironman, he didn’t flinch at the idea. When I saw the training program he designed for me, I nearly fell out of my wheelchair. I had visions of what I would look like if my arms just fell off.

So there I was, entered in the Redman race in Oklahoma, preparing to make a mark in wheelchair racing history. Since I would be the only wheelchair racer among a field of 3,000 participants, I’d be in constant contact with the race director, Roger, so he could assist with my accessibility and race equipment.

At the race meeting, my boyfriend Steve and I listened as Roger announced that there were many first-timers registered for the event. He would not enforce the 17-hour cutoff for anyone. “If you’re still out there and you’re going to come in at 21 hours, I will be there at the finish line waiting for you.” That was a big relief. Now it was up to me and my physical conditioning as to whether I would cross the finish line or not.

At that meeting, I met the only other disabled participant, John, a below-the-knee amputee. “We’re going to get through this race!” he cheered.

Now, at 7:00 AM, Neal stood next to me as I sat in the water. Because of my injury, it was easier to swim backstroke so I had him as a guide swimmer to direct me through the water. Neal would yell, “Left,” “Right,” or point directly over my line of sight so I could stay on course, though I could barely see him through my dark goggles.

When the mass swim began, I swam over swimmers, unable to find a good space in the pack. But I kept up and even passed quite a few people. Finally I concentrated on Neal’s directions, and settled in for the long ride. I swam with my head up just a bit to see his hand signals, my neck muscles aching fiercely. I put my head back often, with my face totally underwater, and hoped and prayed I could keep an eye on Neal.

We hit shore at 1 hour 45 minutes and Steve and Roger rushed in, picked me up and rushed me to my wheelchair. My team gathered around me and took off my wetsuit. I was pushed into the changing tent, lightheaded and foggy. Two women threw my cycling jersey on me, handed me food and drink, got me in my handcycle, and I was off.

The first part of the 28-mile loop was flat, but it soon became hilly. One male racer passed me and said, “You’re awesome and you’re beautiful!” I smiled and kept pushing. As I was closing in on the end of the first loop, my average speed was dropping quickly and I began to get discouraged. I still had three laps to go.

When I got to transition, Steve and Neal were waiting for me, so I smiled as I passed and tried to get psyched for a second lap. But I was starting to feel sick. My stomach hurt from all the energy bars, gels and drink I’d ingested. The temperature was rising into the 90s.

As I pulled into transition the second time, I wondered if it was time to call the race. I felt like throwing up and expected to collapse at any moment. “Maybe I should quit,” I gasped to Neal and Steve. “It’s past 3:00 and two more laps will take at least six hours… it’ll be past 9:00 by the time I start the run.”

Neal said, “Well, you still have sunlight.” I gathered that meant stop whining and keep going. It’s hard to get sympathy from an accomplished distance athlete as your coach.

“Keep the van close to me,” I said as I headed out again. Steve got on his bike to ride with me to make sure I was safe. As we rode I went back and forth between whining and crying, wanting to give up. Steve turned to me. “If it’s your body that’s telling you to quit, go ahead, but if it’s your mind, you need to keep going, otherwise you’ll regret it.”

He was right. I didn’t come this far to be a quitter.

When we arrived in transition at the end of the third lap, Roger was there. “Are you sure you want to keep going?” he asked. Everyone else was off the course and the road was opening to traffic.

I can have doubts about my abilities, but I refuse to have others doubt me.

“I’ll be fine!” Then to Steve and Neal, “Let’s go!”

Neal painted “Race Support” on the back window of the van and followed Steve and me closely as we rode into the sunset. The air got cooler, the sky darker. My stomach was so inflamed, it was hard to eat or drink.

As we approached the final turn Steve encouraged, “You’re home free now!”

I thought to myself, “You know you’ve had a long day when ‘only’ having to finish a marathon is a relief!”

The transition area looked like a ghost town when I pulled in. All of the other racers were either already on the running course or had finished and were at home sleeping in bed.

With shaking arms, I quickly transferred from my handcycle to my racing chair to do the “run.” Steve continued on his bike and led me through the dark winding path. Exhausted, we rode in silence. As we hit the turnaround, one of the volunteers told us we were on pace to finish in three hours. “You have got to be kidding!” I thought. “THREE hours? I have been going since 7 AM!”

On we pushed.

Many miles and hours later, we saw big spotlights ahead. Steve pulled off the path and said, “It’s all yours!”

I pushed as hard as I could to the finish. There wasn’t an overwhelming crowd waiting for me as I had played over and over in my mind. Instead there were only a handful of volunteers as I crossed the line at 1:03 AM, 18 hours and 3 minutes after I had begun.

And there, true to his word, was Roger, waiting to put the Ironman finisher’s medal around my neck.

I thought I might doubt my status as an Ironman, having missed the 17-hour cutoff mark. I realized then that nothing in life is only about hours and minutes — it’s about heart.

Right then and there, I knew I had the heart of an Ironman.

~Tricia Downing

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