“Becky Aaronson from Santa Barbara, California….YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
Those are some of the sweetest words I’ve ever heard, ranking right up there with “I do” and “It’s a girl!”… life-changing words that will forever be tattooed on my heart.
Let me start at the beginning though. Since many of you have followed me from the very beginning of this epic journey, I want to share the final details with you so you can cross the finish line right alongside me. Your support and encouragement have meant everything to me this year.
This is looong, so buckle up, grab a cup of coffee or tea and kick back. If you only care to read about the race, you can scroll down to where it says RACE MORNING.
I left Santa Barbara early Thursday morning and arrived in Tempe in the late evening after a long 8-hour drive, including a lovely traffic jam through much of Phoenix. Needless to say, I was glad when the eagle finally landed at the hotel and I was able to crash for the night after unloading an absurd amount of gear.
Friday morning Matt wanted me to get on my bike, so I went for an early morning spin, trying to steel myself against the shocking 43-degree temperature (I know, I’m such a weenie Cali girl now). Yowza. I immediately started worrying about the weather on race day, knowing it would be a loooong, miserable bike ride if it stayed like this.
Swinging by the Ironman Village though, erased every ounce of discomfort I had that morning. I still had goosebumps, but it wasn’t from the cold; it was from knowing my Ironman dream was finally going to become a reality.
Later that morning after a quick breakfast, I walked back over to the village to meet my Smile Train team, get checked in, and pick up my race packet.
I don’t think there’s any more electric, eclectic, or neurotic place in the world than an IM expo, with hundreds upon hundreds of Type A, amp’ed up people in all shapes and sizes, wearing all things compression, milling about, out of their minds, having trained long and hard for months on end all to reach this one point.
Being part of Smile Train’s Team Empower made it all relaxed and fun. My awesome Smile Train ambassador, Jeff Krebs, warmly welcomed me, walked me through the entire check in process, then snapped a picture of me in front of the team banner.
Matt had warned me about the expo before I left Santa Barbara, explaining that it can be a huge energy suck if you’re not careful, so after picking up my race packet and swag bag, going to a required athlete’s briefing, and spending way too much time shopping in the IM merchandising tent, I hoofed it back to the hotel to get out of the sun and put my feet up. It had gone from 43 to 80 degrees in a matter of a just few hours. Gotta love the desert.
I made a concerted effort to stay hydrated all day and eat small amounts of healthy food throughout, but I was running low on energy. I was glad I’d chosen to stay at a hotel with a full kitchen so I could avoid the hassle of trying to figure out where to eat for every meal. I whipped together a sandwich and chilled until later in the evening when I went back for the opening ceremony.
I also worked on getting everything organized for the next day’s practice swim and gear drop, and prepared for my family’s arrival later that night.
Even though I’ve been told I’m the queen of organization (aka-a nutty list-maker), I found one of the most challenging parts about doing an Ironman was mastering race day logistics and organizing all my gear for it. It sounds simple enough, but a lot of thought goes into it.
Unlike a sprint or an Olympic tri where you simply have your checklist, mark everything off, then throw it all in one transition bag and go, for an Ironman, you have to divide up all your gear into the five bags you’re given at registration: a bike bag, run bag, special needs bike bag, special needs run bag, and a morning bag.
Most of it’s straight forward—helmet, bikes shoes, shorts, etc all go in the bike bag, running shoes etc. in the run bag. The tricky part is trying to think through nutrition and the special needs bag, especially knowing you won’t get your special needs bag back at the end. It’s like trying to use a magic ball to predict what you think you’ll need, and hopefully not waste a bunch of stuff.
My husband and daughter flew in late Friday night, so I didn’t get to sleep until nearly midnight—not good for the night you’re supposed to get your best sleep, knowing you’ll never sleep well the night before your event. As with this entire journey though, I decided that if I didn’t let it matter, it wouldn’t. I rarely get solid sleep anyway. It was great to have the loves of my life and #1 Support Crew with me, so it was worth every lost zzz.
Saturday morning, I got up early to do another short ride and a run, and then headed back to the race venue for my practice swim in Tempe Town Lake. My family and I also attended our Smile Train breakfast, sign making, and awards ceremony.
It was a huge relief to have the practice swim go well. Everybody had been talking about how miserable the water was the year before, so I was thrilled the 63-degree water felt much less shocking than our ocean water at home.
Aside from the actual race event, one of the most special parts of doing Ironman Arizona was being part of Smile Train. We had 115 team members who raised over $600,000, providing 2,400 kids around the world with new smiles and much brighter futures.
I was proud that with the help all of my amazing supporters, I was acknowledged as being the 5th place overall fundraiser on the team, raising $9,170, which will provide 36 1/2 new smiles. It made this event all the more meaningful.
After our team gathering, we were led on a VIP tour of the transition areas. This may not sound like a big deal, but it helped ease all our anxieties about the unknowns. The race coordinator also answered a plethora of questions about rules and logistics—yet another little perk of being part of this team.
At the end of our Smile Train gathering, I racked my bike in transition, then walked with my family back to the hotel to rest before returning once AGAIN to drop off my gear bags.
I had this shirt made back in January to celebrate my 50th birthday and my journey to Ironman Arizona. It seemed appropriate to wear it again on this day. I received more than a few knowing smiles from people who could appreciate the “Keep Calm and BRING IT ON” sentiment.
By the end of the day my Garmin told me I’d walked over 20,000 steps—not exactly staying off my feet like Matt and several other people suggested, but that’s the best I could do.
Around 8 pm, after chilling with my family in the hotel for the remaining part of the afternoon, they left to go check into another hotel for the night so I could have the room to myself and get into my Zen race space.
This was right as our dear friends, Kimberly and Sullivan, swung by to say hello, after having just arrived from the airport. They were like a warm blanket of comfort and positive energy. I’m still completely blown away they flew to Tempe just to cheer me on.
Wow, just wow.
No surprise, I didn’t sleep the night before the race (I never do), but I did catch a few zzzzs off and on, then popped out of bed at 2:30 to force myself to eat breakfast.
OMG, my big day had finally arrived!!!
In between eating my delightful breakfast of Ensure, white toast with jelly, and applesauce (ack!), I did a whole lot of deep breathing, stretching, visualizing and getting my water bottles and nutrition ready for my bike and my run bag.
Four thirty arrived in a blink, then it was time to head out the door to walk to the race venue. It was such a surreal experience silently walking in the dark with all kinds of Ironman zombies, completely lost in their thoughts.
The transition area brought us all to life with volunteers in neon orange shirts buzzing with energy, reminding us they were all there just for us.
I went directly to our VIP Smile Train tent and was greeted by our energetic organizers, Lindsay and Kristina, who were wearing crazy wigs and tutus, along with several ambassadors. They had a full breakfast spread ready for our supporters, private porta-potties just for our team, and a fantastic cheering area for our families and friends to base themselves throughout the day.
After placing my water bottles on my bike and dropping off my special needs bags, I pumped up my tires, then got body-marked by a hilarious volunteer. When I told her my age so she could write it on my calf, she screamed, “Girlfriend, you are soooo NOT 50. No way. You go get it, girl.” LOL.
I also tried to keep my wits about me in the midst of all this and do all the things I needed to have a successful day, like eat a PowerBar and sip on water so I wouldn’t bonk on the swim.
Then it was back to the Smile Train tent where I prepared to put on my wetsuit. Butterflies were getting busy in my stomach, so I borrowed a Sharpie and wrote BELIEVE in big letters on my arm and JOY on my right hand, symbolic of what I hoped for the day, and also initials for Jeffrey, Olivia, and YES!). On my other hand I wrote “Fly Tough Bird,” a little shout out to my dad who would have appreciated this day and this journey on so many levels.
Right as I started to head to the swim, Jeffrey, Olivia, Kimberly and Sullivan arrived with hugs and good wishes. This was such a special day for all of us to share together, and I was so appreciative of all they had done for me all year, liquid drops of happiness poured down my cheeks.
After snapping a few pictures, we heard the cannon go off for the pros and I suddenly realized I had spent so much time with my peeps that I needed to rush to the other side of transition to find my place in the age group start.
The swim start was self-seeded, meaning we placed ourselves with other athletes who’d likely swim at about our pace. I had planned to be in the 1:30 group, but couldn’t push my way up through the sea of wetsuits, so I settled in with the 1:40 group and decided not to stress. I knew it was going to be a long day anyway, and preferred to pass people rather than have them swim over me.
As I waited in line with all the others, I made sure to soak up every moment. The sunrise was beautiful, and the weather was perfect—low 50s and partly cloudy. The best part was knowing we wouldn’t be swimming into a blinding glare the first mile.
Photo credit: Ironman Instagram feed
As I looked around, only one or two people looked relaxed. Everyone else seemed like they were trying to manage their own fears and/or expectations. One young woman was crying, several were nervously shifting their weight from foot to foot. One was singing to himself and another neurotically adjusting her wetsuit.
A few dudes pushed their way through the crowd in a brash, entitled kind of way, which didn’t sit well with people who had made sure to get there on time. I just tried to stay in my calm happy bubble and force myself to chow down a Gu and some water so I wouldn’t bonk. Stay grounded and focus on what you need to do to make this a great day.
When it was finally time to jump in the water, I had this moment of terrified euphoria, like I was taking one of the biggest leaps of faith in myself I had ever taken.
“It’s just another swim,” I told myself. “You got this. You’ve done the work. NOW GO GET IT!”
And in I went. Sure enough, I did have it. I felt calm, strong and steady, even when I got clobbered every once in awhile. I had mentally prepared for much worse, so when it only happened a few times, I didn’t fall apart. Just keep going. Just keep going. Stay strong and steady. Relax. Enjoy this moment. You are doing it!
When I reached the first red turn buoy, just before the half-way mark, I glanced at my watch. Thirty-eight minutes. I knew I had this. I even had space to get into my regular swim groove…at least until somebody swerved in front of me or suddenly stopped for no apparent reason. Then I’d have to regroup and dig into my stroke again.
When I saw the final red turn buoy, it felt like a mirage. I thought I still had quite a ways to go, so you can imagine my joy. As everybody else saw the swim exit nearing and heard the loudspeaker booming, it suddenly became chaotic with people trying to sprint to the end, arms and feet flailing in all directions. I tried not to get caught up in the craziness, but rather stay centered until the end.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs to exit the water, I was giddy with relief. A volunteer reached down to give me a hand up and as soon as I reached the top, I found myself doing a full-on happy dance, throwing my arms up in the air and yelling “Yesssss!” I felt like I’d just won the day, getting through what I thought would be the most challenging part of the race for me, and doing it nearly 50 minutes faster than the cut-off time. Halle-freaking-lujah!
I high-fived a whole line of volunteers who were cheering us on, then took off my Garmin (celebrating my 1:33 time) so a volunteer could help me get off my wetsuit before I jogged along to grab my bike bag and continue on to the changing tent.
For those who have never done an Ironman, I have to share the unique detail of the “wetsuit strippers.” After you get your arms out of your wetsuit, they have you lay on your back with your feet up in the air and quickly peel off the rest in the matter of seconds before helping you back up and sending you on your way with your wetsuit.
I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome the volunteers were at this race. So Kind. So positive. So energetic.
The only thing that happened is that when the fabulous volunteer helped pull me up out of the water, I must have turned at a weird angle because I felt a sharp twinge in my hip flexor and inner thigh, like I’d strained a muscle. Yowza. Not good, but I tried not to think about it.
Instead, I focused on the task at hand, getting changed, sunscreened, fueled, and out the door without forgetting anything in the midst of lots of action in a crowded tent.
I wanted to be comfortable on the bike so I opted to put on dry bike shorts instead of wearing wet tri shorts for 112 miles. I also slathered Traumeel on my knees, which get cranky on the bike, and also slapped some on my hip flexor and inner thigh in hopes that would help ease the wonkiness.
A volunteer ran to my bike to unrack it for me. Then I mounted my Garmin on it, which took FOREVER, then eventually ran my bike out of transition and hopped on. Woohoo!!!
Jeffrey, Olivia, Kimberly and Sullivan were right there cheering along the narrow shoot leading out toward the street, which fired me up even more.
Then it was on to the first 38-mile loop and the biggest mental challenge of the entire race. Pros were already on their second or third loop and speedy age groupers were finishing their first loop as I was heading out.
I’ll be honest, this course is tough—not because it has crazy elevation or technical turns—but because it’s monotonous and you always seem to hit wind, no matter which direction you’re going. It’s also tough mentally, knowing you’ll be doing the same loop three times, and the first half is uphill.
About 4 miles into this ride, I was starting to get seriously worried about my hip flexor/inner thigh. Riding in the aero position was miserable. This is NOT happening, I told myself. No way. No how. Just relax and it will go away. Pain is your friend.
But it did not go away. It got to where I could only ride in an upright position, which I knew was a big waste of energy and would surely slow me down, especially with the wind, which picked up as the day went on.
I stopped at one of the first aid stations and tried to stretch it out, but it didn’t help, so I hopped back on and kept going. At the turn around spot at the top of the Beeline Highway, I got off my bike again and tried to massage my hip and stretch it. It also didn’t help.
Thankfully it was mostly downhill back into town. It was just the mental boost I needed to take my mind off the discomfort. The other thing that lifted me right back up was the raucous crowd cheering as I came in to start my second lap—especially my personal fan club. They were THE absolute best.
With each lap the wind got a little stronger, and the road thinned out as the pros were already on to the run, and many age groupers were finishing up their final lap. Clouds were looming and rain was threatening.
Believe it or not, despite all of this, I was so appreciative to be there competing in my first Ironman, I could not stop smiling. Seriously. My face actually hurt from smiling all day.
The other thing that made me smile was remembering that my brilliant coach, Matt, suggested I throw some ibuprofin in my special needs bag in the unlikely event I might need it on race day—something I never would have thought of as I rarely ever take it.
Reaching mile 56, the half way point, was like reaching the Holy Grail. I dug into my special needs bag and quickly popped three Advil, hoping and praying it would do the trick.
Sure enough, not much longer into the ride, everything turned around. I can’t say the pain completely disappeared, but enough to ride in the aero position again, and enough to put the zip back into me to zoom back in for my final loop.
Once again, my peeps re-charged my batteries with their crazy cheering and chanting. And then it was back up the damn Beeline Highway.
This time I knew I was 2/3 done though, and I knew all I had to do was get to the top and it would all be downhill. Also, I think the Advil must have launched some serious happy mojo in me because I was suddenly humming Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
I was also cheering for tons of people, especially all my Smile Train teammates, and I even started passing people on the way back. My goal was not to stop on the final lap, but I could never bring myself to pee on the bike like most do. Instead, I opted for what felt like the tenth porta-potty break.
The one thing I was diligent about during the ride was staying hydrated and fueled so I wouldn’t bonk and so I’d be prepared for the run, but when you’re drinking 24-30 ounces an hour, you gotta “go.” Let’s just say this did not make for my speediest ride, but I got it done and I did truly enjoy it, bumps and all.
I was so stoked to finally be off the bike, I was loopy. Fortunately, all the volunteers guide you along the way and get you to where you’re supposed to be next.
This time it was back to the changing tent with my run bag. Off with my bike shorts and on with my Smile Train tri shorts. And lots of Icy Hot sprayed on my knees and hip/thigh. Then run shoes, visor and my hand-held water bottles and off I went.
A frantic volunteer ran into the tent yelling, “Who’s #533?”
“That’s me,” I hollered.
“Do you want your Garmin? You left it on your bike.”
“Oh my god, YES…”
Before I got the “please” out she bolted out the door to get it for me, returning in a sweat.
Did I mention the phenomenal volunteers?
At the expo when we picked up our race packets, inside we found a green wristband with instructions to give it to a volunteer who made a difference in your day. This was the person. Having my Garmin made a huge difference in my run, and I have her to thank for it. Sadly, I was long into the run before I realized I forgot to give her the band. 😦
The first mile of the run was what I expected, a peg-leg run that soon eased into a regular gait. I was stoked to finally be passing people, making up time from my bike. This race wasn’t about beating other people AT ALL, but it definitely gave me an extra mental boost.
After a short out and back jaunt, Mile 4 brought me back to my cheering squad. The Smile Train tent was rocking and lifted me ten feet off the ground. Olivia had a megaphone and Jeffrey organized the group, all chanting, “Becky. Becky. Becky.”
It would be another 9 miles before I’d loop back around and see them again, but each aid station was just 1-mile apart so there was support all along the way, even on the “lonely side of the lake.”
I felt surprisingly strong, and was happy I never hit “dark moments” for which I’d mentally prepared. I saw tons of people battling demons all along the racecourse, walking, limping, looking miserable, and barely hanging on. Maybe it was popping more Advil at the halfway point, but somehow I managed to skirt the darkness, and for that I’m grateful. I tried to offer encouragement to as many people as I could, and even handed out Tums to those who were losing their cookies.
I fueled almost my entire run with the unlikely combination of Coke, chicken broth, water, Red Vines, and pretzels. Who would have ever thunk?
Somehow my stomach survived this wicked combo, and only had me seeking out a porta-potty a couple times along the course.
You’re going to think I’m nuts, but the run actually went by much faster than I ever imagined. Between the rocking aid stations, my cheer squad, and simply knowing every step was bringing me closer to hearing those magic words at the finish line, I was never discouraged. Not for one minute.
In fact, the last 3 miles I started picking up the pace and quit stopping at aid stations all together. “Whoa girl, you go,” I heard more than once. “You got this. You look strong.”
The last mile felt like it took three days, but I could hear the finish line and knew that I would soon become an Ironman, which gave me a huge lump in my throat.
Every step was a mix of agonizing joy, my body ready to be done, but my spirit totally on fire.
A flood of thoughts and emotions washed though me. At one point my mom popped into my head. She was never athletic so when I grew up doing sports, and later running marathons, she’d always worry and say things like, “Don’t overdo it, Becky,” which of course made me want to push harder to prove that I could overdo it and be just fine.
After powering on from 7:00 in the morning until 9:30 at night, I chuckled and thought, “Look mom, I’m overdoing it again, and I am more than fine. In fact, I’ve never felt better or more alive!”
The last turn into the long finisher’s shoot was magic. Throngs of people were cheering and high-fiving me as if I were the first place finisher.
Then I heard Mike Reilley’s voice call out those magic words, “Becky Aaronson from Santa Barbara, California…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!”
Holy crap, I did it! I threw my arms in the air and celebrated every second of that electric moment.
Any limitation I had ever placed on myself had just been shattered.
A volunteer placed a medal around my neck and then my peeps bombarded me with flowers and a massive bottle of champagne…the perfect exclamation point to an incredible journey.
“Life isn’t measured by the breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away.”
I never want Olivia to feel like she shouldn’t “overdo it” because as we know, some of the best things in life happen when we push beyond our limits. I was ecstatic she could experience this with me…not to mention, the love of my life, Jeffrey, who was the true super hero of this year, pulling yeoman’s duty so I could make this dream come true.
Here’s to dreaming big and surrounding ourselves with people who believe in our dreams as much as we do.
Thank you everyone for all your love and support this year and for believing in me.
And a HUGE shout out to Matthew Tague for being a phenomenal coach. He’s one of the biggest reasons I arrived at the starting line in one piece (no minor miracle for this injury-prone runner). Not only did Matt put together a training schedule that fully prepared me physically for this race, but he also continually reminded me to work on my mental game, and all the little details of race day like nutrition, clothing, and logistics. Most of all, he reminded me to appreciate the journey along the way. That my friends, I did with ease.