Thirteen hours, forty seven minutes, and eight seconds after I began my first Ironman Triathlon, I finished!
Let me see if I can explain the significance of those words…first for me, then for you.
For those who may not know, an Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim in open water, immediately followed by a 112 mile bike ride,l topped off with a marathon…that’s running 26.2 miles to finish the race…thus totaling 140.6 miles. People who participate in these don’t just decide to do one a few weeks prior to the event. Rather, they spend months and months and months learning, preparing and training day after day after day so they can show up the morning of the race and finish. For the competitors and their support crew, this is a big deal. Personally, I’ve been dreaming about finishing for 15 years when I watched an Ironman race on TV for the first time. Watching the demanding efforts of the athletes and the joy of crossing the finish line drew me in years ago. Then, on May 16, 2015, it was my demanding effort that was needed to experience the pure joy of crossing the finish line.
An event like this requires so much from a person, even just to get to race day.
It required a whole lot of time. For me, the road to this dream began 15 years ago. My first half marathon was completed 6 years ago. I finished my first triathlon 3 years ago. My training for the 140.6 Ironman event began 4 months prior to the race. It required 5:00 AM swim workouts, too many treadmill sessions, and a lot of time on my bike saddle…lots. I worked out, on average, 6 days a week totaling about 12 hours each week.
It required a whole lot of mental toughness. Putting my feet on the floor at 4:45 AM, so that I could jump into a cold pool when the outside temperature was 35 degrees, took a lot of mental toughness. Running when it was 50 and raining outside required mental toughness. Sitting on my bike riding a bike trainer in my office for 3 hours (because it was below freezing outside) literally going nowhere, required mental toughness.
It required a whole lot of support. My wife was my biggest cheerleader. My kids were excited that their dad could be an Ironman. My friends always encouraged me. My fellow triathletes helped coach along the way. Although the triathlete competes as an individual, the triathlete never ever gets to race day alone.
Every triathlete knows that all of this is required simply to get to race day. This is just prep. Then the race begins!
The swim began around 7:00 AM in Lake Woodlands, TX. I knew my fitness was solid, but the hardest part of the swim wasn’t actually swimming. It was that there were so many people! Trying to find a clear path of a minute or two was next to impossible. I would bump into swimmers ahead of me. Swimmers would swim into the my legs. For well over a hour, I was bumped, kicked, and pushed in the middle of a lake with over 2500 swimmers. Swimming was easy but getting my goggles kicked off by some angry guy in front of me wasn’t so fun. But I finished!
The 112 mile bike ride took me through the hot, humid, rolling hills of piney east Texas. The landscape was magnificent. But sitting on the same seat for six hours and forty-seven minutes was a challenge. At some points, the sun was scorching and the headwinds were gusting to nearly 30 mph. The chip-and-seal county roads shook my bike like a jack hammer. After some hours, chafing of skin began. The burn and sting of clothes rubbing skin took its toll. However, overall, I felt really good. My legs were strong. I ate and drank properly, so I made it to the last miles of the bike in solid shape. That’s when I began riding next to another age-group athlete who had finished the previous year. We had talked and ridden together for a short time when he gave me a piece of advice that I’ll never forget…
“Whatever you do, don’t quit!”
We had experienced the swim and the bike, but he knew what was ahead…a full marathon…26.2 miles in 87 degree Houston, TX humidity. That was perfect advice for that day and I’m convinced, that is excellent encouragement in all of life.
The run was hot. The pavement burned. The sun baked. The lack of wind gave no relief. The humidity oppressed. However, there was a finish line 26.2 miles away and I was determined to get there and hear the famous words from Ironman announcer Mike Reilly, “Tony Cammarota…You Are an Ironman.” On the run, there are miles of incredible crowd support and miles with nothing but your thoughts, chafing skin, aching feet, upset stomach, fears of cramping, hopes of a better pace, the reality of burning muscles…I think you get the picture. But because there was the finish line ahead, I kept going. I didn’t quit. Even when my muscles almost cramped on mile 24, I didn’t quit. Even when I was disappointed with my time, I didn’t quit. Even when the sting of chafing poked each step, I didn’t quit.
Then I heard it. The crowd at the finish line. It was only a quarter mile away. The cheering, the music, and the celebration was growing louder and louder. The lights of the finish line were brighter and brighter. Then I saw the finisher’s chute. My joyful adrenaline moved me forward as I began looking for my family. And right before the finish line, I saw them all. My wife, kids, and parents. There they were yelling and cheering and screaming and rejoicing with me. I approached them and said over and over…
“I did it! I can’t believe it! I did it!”
Then I heard it. The words that I played over and over in my mind for years. The words that somehow motivated me when I was all alone on training runs. The words that strangely provoked my heart to do this. The words that even now bring watery eyes of joyful accomplishment…
“Tony Cammarota, You Are an Ironman!”
I, along with all the other Ironman finishers, know the pure joy of crossing that line, because we didn’t quit. No matter what, we didn’t quit.
NOW, WHAT ABOUT YOU?
You’re race may not be an Ironman. It may not even be athletic. But it is no less important or meaningful.
One reason I’m drawn to triathlon is because it requires so much from a person, and this is a lesson for many areas of life. There are events that you are involved with that are demanding, exacting, tiring, exhausting, and painful, but if they are important, by all means, whatever you do, don’t quit! The pure joy of finishing is only experienced by those who don’t quit. There are some who quit things because they choose immediate relief over meaningful accomplishment. For whatever reason, some decide that the present pain must go away, so they forfeit the future joy. Don’t let that be you.
Whatever you do, don’t forget all of the effort and preparation you’ve put into your work. Don’t forget the hours, the daily grind, the planning you’ve done. Don’t forget the months of desire and intention and money you’ve expended.
Whatever you do, don’t forget all the support you’ve had. You’ve had a support team on your side. You’ve had friends and family cheering for you. You have them waiting for you at the finish line. They are there. And be sure not to forget that God loves you through all of this. The God Almighty of the Universe wants the best for you. He is on your support team!
In the race you’re in, focus your mind with steely determination on the finish line. Think about what it will be like to finish. Play that over and over in your mind. Imagine the sights and sounds you’ll experience and let those propel you forward, and be sure, whatever you do…