“Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.”
Those are the words I repeated over and over throughout the day.
Also, “Breathe and believe,” which is something I had written on my aerobar hydration bottle ahead of the race so I would have it front and center throughout the bike portion.
I knew I’d have to rely on mantras and other mental toughness strategies at least a few times during this race, but Ironman California proved to be even more epic than I had imagined, even though it was a flat course and I had trained for it for ten months.
Before I share the details of the race though, I want to express my deepest gratitude for all the good things this year of training has brought. So much joy in pushing forward, doing the hard work of healing broken wings, and rediscovering how much fun it is to push outside my comfort zone. I couldn’t have done this without the unwavering support of my number #1 support crew, Jeffrey and Olivia, and my incredible coach, Matthew Tague. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Now to the race…IMCA was massive, with nearly 3,000 participants. The transition area was held in Sutter Health Park, a large baseball stadium near the Sacramento River. The day prior to the event we racked our bikes and dropped off our bike and run bags. Experiencing the scale of the transition area made me both chuckle and contemplate the best way to tackle this beast during the race. I made sure to at least memorize my row and identify landmarks in the stadium, knowing I’d be fuzzy after the swim and bike.
RACE MORNING: I awoke at 2:00 am filled with excitement. Race day had finally come!!! I drank my beloved coffee (aka elixir of the gods), ate breakfast (not easy), stretched, foam rolled and got my mind and body ready for the long day ahead. Jeffrey and Olivia arose at 3:00 am to take me to the transition area at 4:00.
After arriving at the stadium, receiving good luck send-off love and hugs from my peeps, I stood in line with other early bird athletes before beginning the long walk down to where all the bikes were racked at the bottom of the stadium. There I pumped up my bike tires, filled my bottles, and double-checked my gear. Next I dropped off my “Personal Needs” bags with volunteers a block away. Each athlete has a bag they can access half way through the bike course and another one for the run course. You try to put things in that will keep you going if/when things get tough (spare tube, food, band-aids, chamois cream, Advil, arnica, Tums, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt, Red Vines, etc.).
Next I boarded a shuttle bus at 5:00 to get to the start of the swim on the American River. I was happy I got on one of the earliest buses because I heard later the shuttle situation turned nightmarish, with some people arriving just minutes before the start of the race, and some even after the race started. This was Sacramento’s inaugural IMCA, so first year event kinks will certainly be worked out for next year.
I tried to keep warm while waiting for the 7:00 am swim start, hopping up and down and from foot to foot, still shivering uncontrollably, even wearing my wetsuit. No matter, I enjoyed meeting other athletes and sharing our nerves and excitement as we anticipated finally getting this party started.
I also heard numerous stories about last year’s Ironman California, which was cancelled just as the race was about to start. The story goes that everyone was standing in their wetsuits waiting to enter the water when a massive bomb cyclone hit. The torrential rain and wind made it too dangerous for the event to take place. All I could think about was the time, energy, effort, and finances all those athletes (and the Race Director) had invested, especially those who had traveled from overseas. It was devastating, but a year later, those who came back had great humor and perspective about it all. True IronSpirit on display.
SWIM: Those stories made me especially thankful when my wave finally started at 7:35. I was also grateful that instead of a chaotic mass start, it was quite civilized, with five athletes walking across the timing mats and entering the water every 5 seconds. With the humidity and cool air temperature, the 65 degree water temperature felt nice.
All in all, it was a great swim, even with the small yellow buoys many people struggled to see, and the one large orange turn buoy at the convergence of the American River and the Sacramento River that drifted in the water so we had to try to swim upstream a bit to get around it. With the river current, which felt oddly imperceptible most of the way, every athlete I heard from PR’ed by insane amounts. I took nearly a half hour off my last Ironman swim, which was an uplifting way to start the day.
TRANSITION 1: The transition from the river back to the the bikes was about .75 miles up long ramps, then on to concrete, then across the street, and finally on to rough textured flooring in the stadium. This pretty much erased all the time saved in the river, but how can you complain after a swim like that? I was happy I had placed some old shoes by the swim exit in the dark hours of the morning, because running barefoot on concrete seemed like a really bad idea after having had a foot injury not that long ago. Although I had little hope they’d still be there when I got out of the water, after the wetsuit strippers peeled my wetsuit off for me, I spotted them (!!!) and did a happy dance before I slipped them on and headed back to the stadium, but not before soaking up a joyful moment seeing Jeffrey and Olivia and hearing them cheer their hearts out. I love my people! The. Best. Support Crew. Ever.
Inside the top deck of the stadium, I grabbed my bike bag with all my gear and ran all the way over to the changing tent on the other side of the stadium.
After quickly drying off, slipping on my tri top, arm sleeves, and a light wind jacket (trying to warm up after the swim, and not wanting to waste energy being cold on the bike), I donned my helmet and glasses, jammed my wetsuit and swim gear in a bag, then ran down to the bottom of the stadium once again to drop my bag and get my bike. This time I was shuffling in bike shoes. Good times. All told, we ran an extra 1.15 miles in T1 before we even mounted our bikes. We all laughed about it (some cursed), but in the end, it was all part of the challenge.
BIKE: Next came the real challenge of the day–the wind. It had been perfect conditions the day before, and it was once again the day after the race, but on event day, there were sustained winds of 20-22 mph with gusts of 32-37 mph coming from all directions as we made our way from the city out into the open farmland area along the delta. It turned the two loop 112-mile ride into a sufferfest at times. If it had been a headwind one way and a tailwind the other, that would have been much less brutal, but this came head-on, sideways, head-on again, a tiny bit from behind, then sideways again and head-on all the way back. Yeehaw!
Without the wind, it would have been a lovely ride, as it meandered along the delta, through a pretty rural area on mostly nicely paved roads. I tried to look up and soak in the views as much as possible, and also marvel at some of the other athletes–especially the blind athlete powering along on a tandem and the elite athletes blasting past like rockets. At times though, it felt like we were riding through a historic photo of the Dust Bowl with dust swirling and tumbling, bottles and debris flying from aid stations onto the course. I have never gripped my aerobars so hard for so long. As I write this, my jaw is still sore from clenching my teeth for hours. I was just thankful I didn’t get blown over, which nearly happened on more than a few occasions. I saw several bad crashes during the day on the narrow two-lane road we navigated, which on this day did not feel quite adequate for the number of athletes, especially with steep drop offs in places, and a long section of rough road through Babel Slough, which was littered with broken hydration bottles throughout the day when cyclists hit a pothole hard and launched their hydration system from their bikes.
There are many things you can’t control in an Ironman, and weather is one of them. The only thing you can do is focus on what you can control–things like your attitude, your fueling, and clothing choice. Because it was often hard to safely ride with one hand and try to eat with the other, I ended up stopping more than I had planned. The last thing I wanted to do was take out another rider by losing control of my bike.
The toughest part mentally was knowing we had two loops to do when the first one was a beast. I was grateful Coach Matt and I had talked on the phone the day before the race. He told me to keep in mind that when things get tough, remember it won’t last forever. I repeated this over and over in my head as well as, “Just keep moving forward.” I was also happy that he reminded me to focus on maintaining a moderate to high cadence rather than grinding out the miles in a harder gear, which would have torn up my legs for the run.
The volunteers were the biggest heroes of this day. They were out there for hours for all of us, always smiling, helpful, encouraging, even when it was unpleasant. I thanked them profusely every time I stopped. Not only them, but people who were just out there for the day cheering us on. One trio of older women will forever be seared in my mind. They were standing on a corner where there was absolutely nothing around them (the area reminded me of the scene at the end of Castaway when Tom Hanks is delivering a Fedex package to a woman in Texas where there’s absolutely nothing but open space and dusty roads–IYKYK). Their hair was whipped up into crazy ‘dos from the wind, but their hooting and hollering as well as their bright lipstick, bright shirts and even brighter smiles lifted everyone out of their misery as they passed by them. Just incredible.
As I mentioned, the course was flat, which I thought would take 6.5 hours on a good day, 7 hours on an average day, and maybe 7.5 on a tough day. It ended up taking me 8 hours 23 minutes. My experience was similar to many other athletes. Even though it was soul-sucking at times, the positive part is that I never completely fell apart. It was just a grind. I stuck to my plan, focused on fuel and hydration, kept my head down, and just kept going until I got it done. Having said that, I can honestly say I’ve never been so happy in my entire life to be off my bike.
TRANSITION 2: Back in transition, I gleefully re-racked my bike and re-set my mind. The wind was still a factor, but my feet were back on solid ground, so I was feeling positive, even if I had expended far more energy on the bike than I had planned. Running shoes on, fuel belt on, visor on, it was now “Time to suck it up Buttercup, and get this thing done.”
RUN: Seeing my people again and having Olivia run alongside me for a few steps while cheering me on, helped lift me up, as did knowing there were only 26 miles left to go. As the sun set low, I settled into my run pace, which also included walking for a minute every mile.
This run course was a toughie mentally, especially since I started it as the sun was nearly setting, and there were few easy places for spectators to cheer after the first few miles. I’m guessing earlier finishers may have enjoyed the run much more than I did, but I did try to focus on the positives as much as possible, like the pretty sunset, the amazing volunteers, and all the other athletes overcoming their demons and powering on like champs. It became a huge stretch though, as we were sent down several long “out-and-backs” on dark, desolate paths through some sketchy areas of the city (along the freeway and in parks with encampments and no lighting). I was actually humming the banjo song from the creepy 1970’s Deliverance movie through parts of it. Ha ha. You just have to laugh, dig deep and keep on going.
I was glad I had brought a headlamp and another mini clip-on light, along with my disco shoe lights, which were a big hit. Many people didn’t because we were told it would be well-lit. My headlamp died at about mile 15 though, as did my Garmin. It was not a good tech day. At this point, a holy crap moment exploded in my head: I took so long on the bike, I need to stay totally focused to get this thing done in time, no matter what. I never imagined I’d be remotely close to the cut-off, but here I was, and without a watch, I had to keep asking volunteers what time it was, then calculate the pace I needed to keep to finish by midnight. Just keep moving forward.
My stomach was unhappy most of the run, having consumed Gatorade and gels for eight hours on the bike, along with salt pills, bananas, pretzels, dates and a PBJ halfway though. Ack. Balancing what and how much to consume on the bike in preparation for the run is an artform, which I clearly still need to master as the fourth discipline of endurance triathlon–especially when riding for so much additional time. I mostly chewed gum, then Tums and drank water on the run until I reached an aid station with chicken broth (THE best), then Coke, then Red Vines, which I had put in my Personal Needs bag. It was a low moment when the aid stations ran out of both Coke and Chicken broth. I tried to go back to Gatorade, but it made me almost lose my cookies. Mind over matter. Just keep moving. You are getting there!
The final push around Mile 20 took us past an elaborate homeless encampment in town playing lively music for us, which was fun and surprising. Music makes everything better. Then we reached the Capitol Mall area where the final 4 miles included multiple laps around the mall, passing near the finish line twice where you could hear the crowds, music, and announcers, but knowing there was still a long way to go, then down a weird little out-and-back in some random alley twice, then FINALLY down the finish chute.
Thankfully the throngs of people cheering as I entered the chute made all the weirdness of the run suddenly melt away.
There is nothing quite as magical as the finish line of an Ironman and hearing Mike Reilly (aka the Voice of Ironman) call out your name: “BECKY AARONSON YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!”
Euphoria. Relief. Pride. Gratitude. Exhaustion. Honor.
Oh my god, I pulled it off!
This day may not have unfolded exactly how I was expecting, but it definitely gave me everything I needed–the joy of reclaiming my fitness, the empowerment of pushing through and finishing no matter what, and the thrill of adding a beautiful exclamation point to an incredible journey this year. Mission accomplished.
Thank you to all of you who cheered me on from near and far, and who made a difference in so many ways. And thank you to all the volunteers and event organizers. My gratitude runs deep.