The other day I shared my motivational speaking program, Reaching Your Finish Lines, with a group in Denver. In my hour keynote, I share with the audience my life as an athlete, subsequent accident, recovery and return to sports as a wheelchair athlete, competing in national and international competitions and completing two Iron distance triathlons. After my speech a woman came up to me to tell me that she was inspired by all I had done, and she said, “I can’t believe you can do an Ironman with just your arms! I would never be able to do a triathlon.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard a statement like that and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But every time I hear it I begin to wonder. I think some people make that statement because they know they could never do a triathlon, and for no other reason than they don’t want to do a triathlon. They know it takes work, effort, dedication, motivation….all those things that it takes to accomplish any goal and if it’s not something that you’re truly invested in, then of course, you will never be able to do it. Just like I watch my husband tinker with his motorcycle and think, “I could never fix a motorcycle.” Not because I’m not capable, but because I don’t have interest in investing the time and energy in learning how to do it. But then I think there are those people who just don’t know their own greatness. They think they can’t, so they don’t even try. How many times do we talk ourselves out of things because we are afraid to try, afraid to fail or just don’t have the gumption to put ourselves out there?
I remember when I first decided to do an Iron distance triathlon, there had not been a female paraplegic wheelchair racer who had completed the distance before, so I didn’t think it was even possible. When I brought it up to my coach though, he didn’t wince, or shake his head. He simply told me it was going to take a lot of training and we needed to have a plan so that I could complete 2.4-miles of swimming, followed by 112-miles of handcycling and 26.2-miles in the racing chair.
I remember saying to him, “Well maybe I could just do the swim and 80-miles of the bike for the first attempt.” He looked me questioningly, wondering why I was shooting for half a race instead of the whole thing. But the truth was, I had already determined in my mind that I wasn’t capable of making the 140.6 miles.
Worries aside, we made a plan and I began working out. I started out with modest distances and added a little more each time I went to the pool, rode the handcycle, or pushed the racing chair. When I first started 60 miles on the handcycle seemed like a major undertaking. Little by little though, I increased the distance until I was riding 80, 90, even 100 miles. It took a lot of time. I spent up to 10 hours on the handcycle in one workout. I still wasn’t sure I could do it, but I also wasn’t ready to accept defeat.
Finally, after months and months of training, hundreds of miles swum, ridden and pushed, I arrived at the start of my first Iron distance race. Even that morning, as I sat at the edge of the lake, I don’t think I believed I was good enough, but I knew I’d never make it, if I didn’t get in the water and take the first stroke. And even then, the race handed me challenge after challenge, but eventually I made it through 18 hours of competition to find myself raising my arms as I crossed the finish line.
I dug deep that day and realized that ultimately greatness doesn’t come overnight. It comes one step at a time. And in the beginning, it’s easy to talk yourself out of really going for it. But if you don’t allow yourself to begin, to try, or to dream, it will never happen at all. So the next time you think to yourself, “I could never…” Take a minute to think before you complete that sentence. Does ‘I could never’ mean I just don’t want to, or does it mean, I don’t believe in myself. If you don’t want to, move on. If you do, but you don’t know if you can—start small. Do a little more everyday. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Whether you believe it or not, greatness does reside within you. You just have to be willing to look for it, embrace it and finally, believe in it.
Following is an excerpt from my memoir—Cycle of Hope: A Journey from Paralysis to Possibility. It is my race report from my first Iron distance race, the Redman Triathlon in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
In 2005, I decided it was time to step up the racing. My life seemed to be falling back into place after the accident and I was ready to challenge myself. I had a new coach named Neal and he was so encouraging and positive that he made me feel like 2005 was going to be an exceptional year. As I sat in his office discussing my training plans and the races I wanted to do, I listed off the marathons, the Olympic distance triathlons, and then I blurted out, “And maybe I’d like to do an Ironman triathlon!” I said it quickly and then held my breath, waiting to see if he was going to laugh me out the door. But he just looked at me, processed what I had said for a bit and then said, “Okay. You’ll have to train a lot, but I think you can do it.”
An Ironman, or Iron distance, is the granddaddy of all triathlons. It’s the biggest, baddest race you can do and all my triathlete friends seemed to be doing them. Not one to be left out, I decided that it was time I try one, too. I had completed a half Ironman in 2004, which is, as it implies, half the distance of the Ironman race. The Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Aside from the 26.2-mile marathon run, I had never done those other distances since my accident. In fact, the longest I had ever even ridden my two-wheeled bicycle was 107 miles and I remembered how much that had worn me out. I couldn’t imagine doing all that all with my arms, but I wanted to try. Neal told me to get online and find a race I could do and he would put together a training plan for me.
It didn’t take long before I found a small race, called the Redman, in Oklahoma City. Neal gave me my workouts, which consisted of a steady increase in hours on the bike and the racing chair, and more yardage in the pool. At one point, he told me I was going to have to train for eight to ten hours at a time on my handcycle. I could feel my eyes popping out of my head as he said it, but I wasn’t going to give up without giving it my best shot. He taught me how I needed to eat to sustain such a long effort and I did what he told me. I would wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning, eat breakfast, ride all day, come home, eat and go to bed. My house turned into a pigsty, my social life came to a halt and Steve had to either endure long, slow, boring rides with me, or meet up with me on the couch, when I was beat down and exhausted, to watch movies. He was a great sport even when I offered ideas that were less than appealing.
“Since I’m a little nervous about the Redman, I thought we could drive to Oklahoma for Labor Day weekend and check out the course,” I mentioned off-handedly one day.
“Wow. That sounds like…fun,” he said with a sarcastic tone.
“Please?” I gave him my best puppy-dog look.
“Um. Well…okay, but only because I love you.”
“You love me and you want to go to Oklahoma for a romantic Labor Day trip? This is my lucky day!”
The description on the Redman website said that bike course was flat. When we arrived in Oklahoma City, we found something completely different: rolling hills that felt like mountains to me. It did nothing to calm my nerves, but at least I knew what I was up against, so when September 24, came around, I was as ready as I could be.
There are a few things you should know about an Iron distance triathlon. There are these pesky things called time cutoffs. In other words, you can’t take two days to do the race. And although the time cuts are basically arbitrary numbers, if you don’t finish an event in a certain amount of time, you are taken off the course and not allowed to finish. Most Iron distance races stick to the following cutoffs: two hours and twenty minutes for the swim, 10.5 hours for the swim and bike combined and 17 hours for the entire race. Going into the Redman, I was more confident that I could finish the distance than I was that I could actually make the time cuts.
Because triathlons involve so many details and logistics, there are often pre-race meetings the day prior to the event to make sure that everyone is on the same page. The Redman meeting did a lot to calm my nerves. Roger, the race director, shared with the racers his philosophy about the race. He said there were many first-timers registered and we had all trained hard to be there. He didn’t want a time cut to stop the race for anyone. He was not going to stick to the 10.5-hour bike cutoff or even the 17-hour race cutoff. He said if we were still out there and we were going to come in at 21 hours, he would be there at the finish line waiting for us. That was a big relief to me because it meant that the times wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, it was up to me and my physical condition as to whether I would cross the finish line or not.
The next morning, my alarm went off at 5 a.m. When I opened my eyes and my brain kicked in, I realized I was about to begin one of the longest days of my life. Looming ahead of me was a 140.6-mile day.
I had all kinds of questions and doubts in my mind that morning. I had never swum a full 2.4 miles in open water. Nor had I ever ridden a full 112 miles on my handcycle. I wasn’t sure I deserved to be at the race and my ability to finish was anyone’s guess. But, as always, I reminded myself that I needed to remember where I had come from if I was going to be able to appreciate this race, no matter the outcome. I had to remember lying gasping for breath on the pavement after the impact with the car. And remember the day the physical therapists sat me up for the first time in the hospital—the pain, nausea and the lack of balance. That day, I wondered if I would ever be able to sit up again by myself. And I remember when a long ride was four miles through a local Denver park. No matter what happened at the Redman, I’d be miles ahead of where I was five years prior.
As I sat under the moon on the shore of Lake Hefner, in Oklahoma City, Okla., I pulled my wetsuit onto unresponsive legs. With every tug of the neoprene, my thoughts turned to the seemingly insurmountable task in front of me. What am I thinking? Can I really do this? Steve kneeled behind me and rubbed my shoulders, whispering encouragement in my ear.
At 7:00 a.m., we got in the water in the dark under the moon. Neal was swimming with me as my guide, but I could barely see him through my goggles because I had dark lenses. I figured the sun had to come up eventually, so I didn’t worry too much. When the mass start began, I thought we had gotten mostly to the back, but I found myself running over other swimmers and not being able to find a good space in the pack. I had previously been used to having a lot of room as a back-of-the-pack swimmer, but this time, I was keeping up and even passing quite a few people. Finally, I settled into the swim and tried to concentrate on Neal’s hand signals. I was shooting for a 1:40-1:45 swim time, so I knew I would just have to settle in for the long ride. The good thing for me is that I pretty much only have one swim speed. So in this long race, I didn’t have to worry if I was going too hard or too slow. I just put it into gear and went. I was almost at the end of the first lap when I felt my neck muscles go. Usually, I swim with my head up just a bit so I can see my guide as I swim backstroke, but I knew there was a good chance my neck muscles wouldn’t hold up for that long of a swim, so I just put my head back—often, with my face totally underwater. I figured if Neal really wanted me to make a direction shift, he’d find a way to get his hand right in my face to point which way to go. I was surprisingly relaxed and kept remembering in my head the little blue fish, Dory, from the movie Finding Nemo…“just keep swimming…just keep swimming.”
Finally, we hit shore at one hour forty-five minutes, and Steve and Roger rushed in, picked me up and took me to my chair. I had a group of people gathered around me to take my wetsuit off and then I was pushed into the changing tent. I was so lightheaded and foggy at the time that it took everything I had to stay balanced in my chair and not fall over. I had two women take off my tank swim top because there was no way I could hold myself up and change at the same time. The flaps of the tent were partially open and one woman said to me, “I don’t think you’re flashing too many people,” as she took off my top. I told her I was pretty sure I didn’t care. Then they threw on my cycling jersey and I was on my way. I got in my handcycle, got my food and drink and I was off.
The course began by following the dam road that surrounded the lake, and was the only truly flat part of the course. That lasted about three miles, and then the fun began. Heading out to the turnaround wasn’t such a bad ride. It was hilly, but there was an overall elevation loss. As I was going out, I averaged well over the twelve miles per hour that I needed to go to stay close to the time cut, so I was feeling good. I had a guy pass me who said, “You’re awesome and you’re beautiful!” It made me smile, and I kept pushing. But as I hit the turnaround to come back, the breeze kicked in and I began climbing. By the time I got to the “Igloo Church”—(there were about nine churches on the course, so we referred to every part of the course by religious landmarks) about 9.5 miles from the transition, my average speed was dropping quickly and I instantly got discouraged. The bike course was a 28-mile loop that you had to do four times, and I was thinking that on lap one I was already down to an 11.9 average, and I still had three more laps to go.
As 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. I felt okay going out, but coming back, I was starting to not feel so well. My stomach was killing me from all the PowerBars, gels and Gatorade that I was ingesting, it was getting super hot and I was tired of wind and climbing. My average had dropped to just over ten miles per hour.
I pulled into transition the second time not feeling so chipper. I was trying to figure out if it was time to call the race. As I was heading out on the third lap Neal and Steve were standing by the side of the road and I stopped to share with them my thoughts on quitting the race. It was just past 3:00 p.m. and I was thinking that two more laps were going to take six hours or more and it would be past 9:00 p.m. by the time I started the run. I pulled up and shared my time dilemma and asked what they thought I should do. Neal said, “Well, you still have sunlight…” which I gathered meant “stop worrying and keep going.” With an accomplished distance athlete as your coach, a little pain doesn’t get much attention. So I asked that they keep the van close to me, especially because at the time I felt like throwing up and thought I was going to collapse at any moment. They told me they’d pull ahead and get Steve’s bike out so he could ride with me and make sure that I was physically okay. I started feeling more positive about things when Steve was riding with me. (Technically, that’s against the rules, but as the only wheelchair racer in the event, it worked out okay.) Besides, at that time, I was one of only a handful of racers left on the course. When Steve was riding with me and I was going back and forth between whining and crying, he said, “If it’s your body that’s telling you to quit, go ahead, but if it’s in your mind, you need to keep going…otherwise, you’ll regret it.” He was right. I didn’t go there to be a quitter and I had to take advantage of the fact that the race director was offering to let everyone finish if they could.
When we arrived in transition at the end of the third lap, Roger was there and I knew we were going to have to have a talk. Time for the sixty-second pow-wow. “Are you sure you want to keep going?” he asked me. Everyone was off the bike course at that time and the road was beginning to open up again, and I would be riding with traffic for my last lap. “Plus,” he added, “It’s starting to get dark.” I was beginning to feel his doubts about me finishing and decided that that was not okay. I can have doubts about my own abilities, but I hate to have other people doubt me, so that got the fire started. I told Roger we’d be fine and said to Steve and Neal, “Let’s go!” The guys took a minute to paint the words “Race Support” on the back window of the van and we took off with Neal driving while Steve and I rode. Neal stayed right on our tails as Steve and I watched the sun set and rode along at the best pace I had been on all day. The air got cooler and the sky got darker. Neal drove between 8-16 mph as we climbed and descended the rolling hills, following us with headlights glaring so that we could still see. The bugs were so thick we had to keep our sunglasses on even though it was dark out. At the intersections, Neal would check with us to see if we needed water or Gatorade or gels. My stomach was so mad at me at that point I felt that all I could handle were gels.
We passed the Igloo Church (9.5-miles down), and then we passed the Baptist Church. Thankfully! That meant the turnaround was near. Neal stopped the van with Ozzy blasting from the speakers. We put on headlights, taillights, made a few adjustments and we were off on the last leg of the bike. Steve kept telling me, “You’re home free now!” You know you’ve had a long day when finishing a marathon is the least of your worries. I knew that it was far from the end, but at least I could get my head around that and I knew I had it in me to push through.
We pulled up to the Methodist Church, which meant we were almost there. A quick pit stop and one last gel, and we started toward transition. Roger met us as we pulled into a nearly empty transition. Most people were done with the race and probably asleep in their beds, but it was 9:30pm and I was ready to do a marathon. My transition was quick and I was off in the racing chair. Steve led me through the race because it was on very dark and windy paths through a big park at the edge of the lake. It was a little dangerous because of the lack of visibility in the dark, but we both had our headlights on and we just put our heads down and were quiet. We were exhausted. I couldn’t believe that he had ridden with me the whole time. His jumping on the bike during my ride was an impromptu gesture—he hadn’t eaten much before his ride or planned to ride in excess of 80 miles that day, but that was a big sign to me that no matter what, in our lives together, he would go the distance.
When we hit the turnaround, one of the volunteers told us we were on a three-hour pace. I was thinking, You have got to be kidding! Three hours? I have been going since 7a.m.! Finally, the mile markers started getting in the twenties and I knew that I was going to be an Ironman. The time was ticking away and I was going to be over the usual seventeen-hour cutoff time, but I was going to make it. Everything I had been through during the day was going to pay off in a completed race. When we saw the big spotlights ahead, Steve pulled off the path and said, “It’s all yours.” I pushed as hard as I could into the finish. Not that it was a grand finish with hundreds of people watching—there were only a handful of volunteers left—but when I crossed the line at 1:03 a.m., eighteen hours and three minutes after I had begun, I became an Ironman. And there at the end, true to his word, was Roger, waiting to put the finishers’ medal around my neck.
I thought I might doubt my status as an Ironman, having missed both the ten-and-a-half and seventeen-hour cutoff marks. But then I remembered the one other runner we passed at midnight. In the pitch black and stillness of the night, I heard his labored breaths as I passed. I could feel the determination oozing out of him and knew that I had the same resolve. I realized then that life is not measured in hours and minutes, but in heart. Right then and there, I knew I had the heart of an Ironman.