Comeback 2012: Iron Girl Atlanta

Gen Matchette IronGirl AtlantaTaking the first step is the hardest, especially after overcoming illness, injury, or a significant emotional event. Don’t get me wrong, the subsequent ones can also rock your world, but that first one, well, it’s a doozy. Many of my fellow Athleta athletes including Teri Larson Jones, and Rachel Toor are great examples of this. Rachel’s most recent blog was about a spill she took on a trail run and how falling and failing are intertwined, while Teri has been sharing her return to competitive barefoot water skiing after multiple shoulder surgeries and rehab. I’m always so inspired by people who triumphantly come back from adversity and move forward with nary a backward glance. Power to the She indeed!

My own competitive journey during the past year has been filled with illness and injury. It has been humbling and joyous at the same time. While the awards and medals are nice, I race because I can; I race for those that can’t. I race to share a kinship with my fellow athletes and friends, to be a good example for my kids, to be a better wife, mother, daughter, and friend. If I inspire others to be better athletes or people than they were before, even better.

Before my cancer diagnosis, I felt like that guy on the Bowflex commercials, “I’m forty years old and in the best shape of my life.” While I was a few pounds heavier, and my skin was definitely not as taut as it was in high school, I felt like I could have kicked my little high school self’s ass. I’d birthed three kids, run a marathon, several half marathons, done multiple triathlons, and had just finished my first Half Ironman (1.2 mile swim + 56-mile bike + 13.1-mile run). And then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While I had several family members with cancer, and had treated patients with different types of cancers, I had very little firsthand experience with the cumulative effects of cancer on a body. I had no idea that cancer would take my body from being in peak physical condition, to being unable to even undress myself. I went from taking care of my husband and kids, to being cared for by them and many others.

While I still trained and raced as best I could during my treatments, cancer took its toll. I’m definitely fighting my way back to where I was two years ago, but I don’t know if I will ever be like the Bowflex guy again. As much as I don’t like to admit it, cancer has aged me a bit. My body, mind and spirit are forever changed, but not in all bad ways. Instead of forcing myself to train harder, I now train smarter. I cut myself some slack, but not too much. That’s just not me. Not to mention my training buddies — they would call me out faster than you can say Jiminy Cricket! I’m more appreciative of the good things in my life — family, friends, the ability to exercise and do the things I love, to get out and feel the wind and sun on my face…

Tri season 2012 has begun. So far this year, I’ve done four races in four weeks, three sprint triathlons and one 5k. Not my smartest move, but sometimes that’s just how the race season pans out. The results aren’t too bad — a personal best 5k, third place, second place, a first place finish, and I took care of some unfinished business.

My first race of the season was Iron Girl Atlanta. I had some demons to put to bed from last year. This was my third year racing Iron Girl Atlanta. In the two years prior, I’d raced it with friends, and this year was going to be no different. One of the gals in our triathlon group was doing her first tri, and the other was doing her second.

Gen Matchette IronGirl AtlantaThe course is a challenging one for newbie triathletes, and is a nice sprint distance for more “seasoned” racers like me. It is held in and around the Lake Lanier Island Resort. As well as a steep run to the transition area from the swim, IGA has a hilly bike course. The run is one of the prettier runs I’ve done and it’s mostly shaded and flat — priceless in the world of triathlon. There are a lot of places for spectators to hang out and cheer on their athletes.

In 2010, I raced Iron Girl Atlanta with my good friend and training buddy Stefanie. I finished in the top 100 and enjoyed myself immensely, despite the steep uphill run from the swim course to transition. One of the best aspects of the race was that there were no guys to contend with. Iron Girl events are women’s only races.

I really love the concept of women’s only events. While women can still be highly competitive, I think we tend to be kinder about it as a whole than men are. Women are more likely to offer words of encouragement when they see another athlete struggling. They may blow by you as they do it, but the sentiment is sincere.

Last year’s Iron Girl Atlanta was a vastly different affair from 2010! I raced with my husband’s cousin, Lynn, and both of our families were there to cheer us on. I had just finished chemo two weeks prior, but was bound and determined to race. I had been training and I knew what to expect on the course, but I didn’t factor in an asthma attack.

I’ve never been so close to DNFing (“did not finish”) a race as I was last year. I struggled to even finish the swim, much less the entire race. I got about one hundred yards into the swim and was having A LOT of trouble catching my breath. “You’re just overheated,” I told myself. (Poor temperature regulation can be a side effect of chemo.) Several times I just want to drag myself over to the kayaks and have them haul me in. No one, knowing what I’d been through in the past nine months, would hold it against me, except for my harshest critic — myself. It took everything I had in me to keep swimming, but swim I did.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the chemo had brought about not only allergies, but asthma as well. Throughout the entire race, I kept stopping to catch my breath — something I’d never done before. I felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest for the entire race. I finished the race and should have gone directly to the med tent. Instead, I downplayed my symptoms and we all went out for dim sum.

The next day, I went in for a regularly scheduled infusion and mentioned to the doctor and nurses that I was still short of breath. They popped a pulse oximeter on my finger and, when I couldn’t even walk fifty feet without my oxygen saturation dropping dramatically, immediately sent me to the hospital. I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma and was given an inhaler with strict instructions to use it when I exercised. It took about nine months, but thankfully I have my asthma under control now.

This year’s Iron Girl Atlanta was like night and day compared to last year! The swim course was changed up a bit, but everything else was the same, including the nice post-race spread that the resort caters. While my swim was a bit slower (Joe thinks the course was a bit longer than last year), my bike was about the same and I PR’d on the run. I was so fast, in fact, that he almost missed seeing me come in. I was really hoping to come in the top 100, but to come in breathing and not feeling like I was going to collapse was a HUGE victory. Bonus: really pretty medals and a beautiful lavender colored women’s specific tech shirt that actually FIT the way it was supposed to. Kudos to the Iron Girl merchandising department for both!!!

I wore my Athleta Energy Tank in Hydrangea for the race. It looked great, felt great, and performed great! It wasn’t too tight or too loose. The zipper pocket in back is great for training rides/runs to stow stuff, but is challenging to open during a race. Also, it would be nice to have some mesh panels in the back to aid with cooling during hot races. I spoke with several ladies after the race who wore the Ready to Run Tankini tops and LOVED them.

Gen Matchette IronGirl Atlanta

I would definitely recommend this race to any women looking to do a sprint tri in the local Atlanta area. The course is well marked, albeit a bit hilly on the bike. Volunteers are helpful and there are great viewing spots for each leg of the race. There’s a nice little expo before the race, although I wish there had been more Athleta merchandise to check out. After the race, there’s a great post-race breakfast. The schwag is really nice, and best of all, no boys. Power to the She!


July 05, 2012 at 7:34 am

Great article Gen! Way to start out your season – you are amazing! Thanks for the feedback of some of the Athleta tanks – I’m training for a sprint tri near me (in Kansas) and have been trying to decide what to wear.

Rachel Toor

July 05, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Go Gen, you super chick! Congrats on doing and inspiring. Come west for Iron Girl Seattle. I won’t swim or bike, but I want to run it and would love to run it with you.

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