BEGINNING THE JOURNEY
To finish the Ironman 70.3 began as someone else’s dream. It was the dream of a man who had always believed that when it came to physical training, everything could be achieved with discipline and perseverance. Beau lived a life on the edge and when he set his goals on something, he focused with such precision that it left little room for error, much less failure. It was no wonder then that he looked the part. He had molded his body like clay, with every part sculpted patiently; belly flat from a thousand crunches, back and arms strong from the long hours traversing the walls and climbing up inclines.
I on the other hand was the complete opposite. I shared the passion for sports and the competitive spirit, but instead of willpower, I had the willfulness, patience and sweet tooth of a seven-year old child. I didn’t like extended periods of pain. Competitive sport climbing suited me. Although it required long hours at the gym, training required short bursts of power, not the long heart squeezing, slow burn pain of cardio training.
When Beau first suggested we do a full marathon together, I just said yes because I thought it would eventually erase my hatred of running. Oh how I hated running. It was a program that required 6 months of training, training that my mind seemed to consciously reject. There was always an excuse — my job, my health, and family responsibilities. Come race day I was nowhere near prepared for it. But it was our first year anniversary as a married couple and I imagined it wouldn’t do at all to have a husband rendered romantically incapable by running his first 42km while I waited around twiddling my thumbs. I might as well run with him. I decided to run one loop of 21km with him then wait for him when he gets to the finish after completing the full Monty. I ended up suffering through the entire 42km. But I did it. He told me then, as he hugged me, tears streaming down my face, that he always believed in me. “You could do whatever you set your mind to babe,” he said beaming. “You just have to start believing”. I lived in the afterglow of that accomplishment for weeks.
One day, months later, he told me he wanted to go into triathlon. I told him I would support him all the way, as I always have in all of his endeavors. When he told me he wanted us to do it together I smiled brokenly and told him there was no way I had the confidence to swim, bike and, God forbid, run in a flimsy piece of lycra. It was bad enough that I have lived my life being the overweight athlete, the one who surprised everyone with an above average performance not because it was truly amazing but simply because I just did not look the part. But my husband had a dream and I was not the one to stand in his way. We found ourselves at a Century Tri Hard triathlon clinic shortly after. And the rest was sharply bitter history.
On the day of valor, while the nation celebrated courage and heroism, my handsome, adventurous husband took his own life; defeated by a foe that nobody saw coming. It was like a fog that descended heavily into our lives, as if our happiness was a farce and we were mere puppets pulled by the universe with strings that we did not know existed. I wrote his eulogy in a daze, more eloquent than I have ever been. And in those final words I made a promise — I would finish the Ironman 70.3 for him. I knew that to him it would mean more than finishing a race. It meant I would have begun to have faith in myself, something he promised me he would spend a lifetime helping me gain. I never imagined a lifetime would be so short. And if a lifetime were so, then 6 months felt like nothing. Before I knew it, it was time.
A RAINY RACE DAY
When you make a promise like mine, the thought of not being able to fulfill it summons demons of extraordinary power. In the week running up to the Ironman I could barely sleep. My stomach felt permanently out of whack, my throat sticky and dehydrated and my mind kept serving images of failure. I was haunted by all the reasons why I would not be able to finish the race, all the hours of training that I had missed, my inability to change a flat on the fly. It didn’t help that I was booked in the city, 30 kilometers away from the race venue and that my bike, although also in Mactan, was on the other side of the island. Post-race my parents and my brother in law, who had raced with me, would be parroting lessons learned. First, arrive at least 2 days early to get a handle on logistics. Second, triathlon is an expensive sport. Book at or near the race venue even if economics has turned your dream into a cash cow. Third, no matter how anal one can get about preparations, things can always go bonkers on race day.
The one thing that is predictably unpredictable is the weather. While I am sure all 2,000 athletes prepared to bake in the heat of the southern sun, I doubt even half of us were prepared to handle the sudden squall. The night before, I stared out into the burgeoning swells of the sea from a hotel room balcony. Memories of a time not so long ago, when I bawled like a baby from fear of sea creatures and drowning in the open sea, came flooding towards me the way the water pounded the sand below. Whatever will be, will be.
It was a riot. The water seemed calm enough when I dipped alongside the throng of athletes trying to expend nervous energy and warm up before the gun start. But when it was our turn to begin, the waves decided to up the ante and give us something of a challenge. We marched shoulder to shoulder like cattle being herded towards the starting line, which apparently was a string of small buoys 50 meters offshore. We looked like a bunch of yellow and pink apples bobbing in a bucket on a stormy Halloween day. I didn’t actually even hear anything. I lost all sense of direction. I concentrated on keeping calm while I floated up and down on what felt like titanic swells. Then just like that I was in the middle of a frenzy of flailing arms and legs going I knew not where. The buoy line had all but disappeared. I had no choice. It was follow the throng, find a space to swim or sink to the depths. I muscled my way through those first 200 meters. My heat rate was racing and I feared I was expending too much energy too early on. But I didn’t even know where the buoys were. If I chose to stop I wouldn’t even know what to hang on to. I might as well swim. I swam hard. Eventually I found my little space of calm, found my rhythm and began to slice methodically through the water. Periodically I would be alone in the deep, swimming too far from any warm bodies, then without knowing how, I would find myself in the middle of another group of arms, elbows and kicking legs and I would have to disentangle myself, propel myself through until I found my own space again. I have never wanted to get out of the swim so badly. I was out of the water a little over 40 minutes but it felt like so much longer.
I have always loved a good bike ride. I loved to go fast. There was something so exhilarating about the wind on your face when you ride. In a mostly flat course I was more concerned about conserving as I had a tendency to lose myself in the moment and pedal with reckless abandon only to find myself nursing a creeping cramp before the run began. When I ride I feel free, the steady release of energy from muscle and sinew was empowering. Too soon, a pothole. And another. The smooth ride was over and I worried about the creaking and grinding of my complaining bike at each bump in the road that tried to slow me down. Thankfully there were a lot of distractions and the road conditions quickly relegated itself as a necessary evil I could do nothing about. There was also a lot of cheering from schoolchildren along the length of the road, probably promised a star on their little hands if they cheered for people they didn’t even know. There was also a lot screaming, this time from teenagers, mothers, cougars all beside themselves at the thought of catching a glimpse of “Mattio”, “Irwan”, and of course the iconic Papa P, who surprisingly, had the time and energy to smile and wave to everyone. The screaming followed him like a never-ending wave. Then silence.
I have mixed feelings about silence. It unnerves me at times because I wonder why I felt alone in a field of over a thousand athletes. I felt left behind and a part of me wondered where everyone else had gone. I busied myself trying to spot teammates and people I knew but they were few and far between. But I welcome the calm that the silence brings. It is when I truly enjoy the race, when I go back to who I am, why I am there and what I need to do to bring myself home. I make no apologies for being an emotional athlete. It is the well from which I draw from. I felt it strong, that headwind that I had been warned about for weeks. But it bothered me little. I consciously maintained my level of effort, looked to the sea, colors dead from cloud filtered light. I would sigh, stretch, hunker back down and continue spinning.
The specter of the Marcelo-Fernan Bridge was intimidating. While it was a beacon that heralded the end of a long ride, it loomed in front of me like a circus clown ready to crack a joke at my expense and blow my confidence away. I loved the tunnel but I do not like hills. Hills are highway hold ups that rob me of my joy. It was frustrating to be pushing hard and not be gaining any speed. I could see the crowd, they waited and I just knew I would do anything not to walk. But sometimes what we imagine is worse that what is actually there. Before I knew it I was over the peak and on the way home.
I finished sub 3-hours on the bike. Surprised I readied myself slowly for my arch-nemesis, the 21km run.
I don’t understand why people don’t believe me when I say I cannot run. And to be honest, I don’t even know exactly why I can’t in the first place. Having finished 2 full marathons already, one would think I had made peace with running. Runners talk of the second wind, that moment when you breach the crest and you feel like you can keep running forever. I have never reached it. My peak is to realize that I refuse to continue panting like an asthmatic dog and give in to the need to stop. It is rarely my legs that give me trouble. I think I give up far too early for my muscles to feel the stress of overuse. Heck I started walking after 1.2 kilometers and began to execute a whim-driven run-walk strategy. Forget Mr. Galloway. Even his evenly paced intervals had no space in my defeated mind. This is it, I told myself. Barely two kilometers in and tears were pooling under my lids. 19 kilometers to go. It seemed impossible I would survive it. And to be honest, I don’t know how I did. At least the weather was perfect. Had it been as hot as we thought it would be, I felt like I would have dropped dead at the side of the road. Not because I was really that tired but because I thought it was all I could do.
I looked at the side of the road and focused on trees, people, other athletes, using anything and anyone as mental landmarks as to how far I had to run before I would allow myself to walk again. They were intervals of hardly more than 20 feet each; it was as far as I can imagine pushing myself. When the illusion of the constantly moving finish line failed to fool me, I would look at the crowd, concentrate on little details of their faces, strain my ears to listen to Visayan conversations I could not understand. The aid stations were little pockets of heaven. At least when I walked towards one I felt it was a valid excuse to stop running, unlike the constant walk breaks that my plan did not originally include. I can imagine my coach scratching his head at my lack of willpower. There I was again, the 7-year old child, more willful and impatient than focused and enduring. As always I got angry with myself, a virtual Gollum with an internal struggle that probably showed on my sweat-drenched brow. I carried on like that for most of the race. Physically capable but mentally crippled. People who had not even seen my behind during the bike began to pass me one by one, and with each of them went pieces of my shattered confidence.
It was the belief of others that again saved the day for me. Beau would have been shaking his head if he were there. Fellow triathletes, teammates and friends who would bump into me along the course and say I was doing a great job. They saw it. They said I looked strong. That I was well on my way to the finish. I smiled at them because I thought it was ironic, but at least I smiled. Before I knew it, I had hit the halfway mark and last 10 km did not seem so daunting anymore.
I picked up the pace, ran faster than I knew I should to make up for the walking I absolutely needed in between. It wasn’t ideal and was far from any plan a coach would advise me to do but it was all I had then. I remembered my last race and focused on my breathing. The kilometers fell away and there it was, Shangrila.
Shangrila is described as a secluded and mystical hideaway, a place of great beauty and peacefulness. In a way that was how it really felt for me. I ran as fast as I possibly can, mindless of those who passed me in the last 100 meters.
It took me 2:48 to finish 21km. But it didn’t really matter. All I knew was I was there. I was done. I had finished. J
I began this journey because my love for Beau was so encompassing that I couldn’t bear the thought of not fulfilling what was then his greatest aspiration. I crossed the finish line to fulfill someone else’s dream. But to me, the line had a more pregnant meaning.
To me it is the beginning. The birth of a hundred more dreams just waiting to be fulfilled, not for Beau but for me, and for all those that I hope to inspire as I continue my journey through life. I will forever feel an emptiness that Beau had been destined to drop out of the race. Why that had happened is between him and God. But for those of us who live, there are countless finish lines yet to be crossed. I still believe in rainbows. I still believe in love. I now believe in me.