Beating a Demon in Ironman Brazil

I was never much of an athlete when I was growing up. It is not that I was terrible. In grade school I was one of the faster kids. With four grade schools feeding into my junior high, the competition improved and my ranking fell. In high school my ranking continued to fall. My demise was not due to raw physical talent, but due to my inability to work hard. I did not have guts. I watched the other kids who had guts and admired them. I knew what hard work was, but I could just not bring myself to do it.

Flash forward thirty years and this lack of trying hard still plagues me. In many areas of my life, I learned how to work hard, but in athletic competition, I was a slacker. Now some might say that if you do an Ironman, you must work hard. In a sense this is true, but for me, it is not how others perceive it, but how I perceive it. I had always been a lazy athlete.

In the summer of 2004, three friends and I signed up for Ironman Brazil. The race was going to be held on May 29, 2005 on an island off of the mainland of Brazil. The host city was beautiful Florianopolis. Jon, Steph, Lynda and I gathered for a lunch on my backyard patio and we signed up for the race. At that moment, I committed to finally rid myself of this demon that had been plaguing me since wrestling practices at Wheaton Central High School. I was going to work hard like Ralph and Roger McCausland used to in wrestling practice. They were the epitome of hard work. They have been my heroes since high school.

To prepare for this race, I hired a coach because of my difficulties in Ironman CDA. Sergio Borges is from Brazil so I had a “hometown” coach. Sergio would be the second Ironman coach I had used. His training schedule was similar to Paul Huddle’s. Really all the schedules I have seen are quite similar. I managed my way though Paul’s to complete my first Ironman, but I had vowed to master Sergio’s schedule.

If I was going to rid myself of this demon, there would be no more cheating as I did in wrestling practice. When the wrestling coach asked for 40 pushups, I would do 45. Roger and Ralph would do 60. When the soccer coach had us do wind sprints, I would run them, but take it easy and just make sure I did not come in last place. When my muscles started to burn, I would back off. I hated the feeling of the burn, but I also hated how this demon was stronger than me.

So when Sergio’s schedule called for a track workout with sprinting, I gave it everything. When my lungs gasped for more air, I continued on. When my legs were on fire, I continued on. I kept imagining great athletes and envisioned their pain and their ability to push beyond the pain. Sergio was not asking for that pain to last for hours, just for minutes. When we did the track workouts, there were often 10 to 20 others who were training with Sergio. I was by no means one of the fastest and if Roger or Ralph were there, they would probably race past me. However, I was trying and pushing myself to a new limit.

So for six months, I explored new limits in myself. I swam harder than ever before. When my arms felt like I could give no more, I kept swimming. I biked hard when the schedule call for it. I biked long when the schedule called for it. When there were optional workouts, I did them. Of course, I had bad days, but they were not the norm. I continued to envision success. I continued to feel the pain and worked past it. I was on a mission.

On race day, I had one goal and that was to run the entire 26.2 miles. In the Florida Ironman I walked/ran the last 13 miles. In the Coeur d’Alene Ironman I walked/ran the last 20+ miles. I was convinced that I could run the entire course. I was convinced that I had trained hard enough. I was convinced that on race day my challenge was only going to be mental. I was physically prepared.

As with all Ironman races, there are moments of despair. In the swim, this is not really a problem for me. I know I am a middle of the pack swimmer and you really can’t see much in the race except for hundreds of bobbing heads and thrashing arms. There were hundreds in front of me and hundreds behind me. I worked hard and was glad to get out of the water feeling charged up.

The first moment of despair came in the bike. For the first 25 miles or so things looked good. I was moving at a decent clip and even passing some other riders. This is not the norm for me so I was feeling pretty good. At mile 25, there is a hairpin turn on the course and in just seconds after the turn, I had my first moment of despair. That good clip I was cursing at was wind assisted. Now I was riding directly into a significant wind. I had 10 or so miles of riding along a beautiful beach front boulevard into a strong head wind. I focused on success, just kept pedaling and the feeling of despair passed. I figured everyone else was facing the same conditions and the only way to finish was to buckle down and work hard. The bike portion of the race is a two loop course, so the second time I came to the hairpin turn, I was a bit more prepared for the wind.

After 6 hours and 45 minutes of biking, I was now facing the bigger challenge. Was I going to be able to run the entire 26 miles? I had spent six months training and constantly facing my demon. Up to this point, the longest distance I had ever run was 19 miles. I had only done this twice in my life in preparing for the Florida Ironman and this Ironman. I maxed out at 15 miles in training for Ironman Coeur d’Alene. All the coaches and all the books on training say you can go farther in a race than you actually do in training. All I had to do was believe.

So I started running and despair struck quickly. My desire to crank out ten or so miles at a nine minute pace was shattered in the first mile. I had trashed my legs in the bike. I thought I could maybe pick it up in the second or third mile, but no such luck. So I settled into a slower pace and kept running.

When I reached mile fourteen, I was elated. I had broken my record for Ironman racing. I had run father in a race than ever before. The next record for me would be at mile twenty. From mile fourteen to mile twenty I was tired but determine. Minor aches and pains were not going to stop me. I was wearing a Garmin 201 in the run which tracks your mileage via a GPS signal. Even though there are mileage markers along the course, I must have looked at my Garmin a thousand times between miles fourteen and twenty. I guess it is like watching a car’s odometer turn over to 100,000 miles. I wanted to see my Garmin go from 19.99 miles to 20.00.

When I reached twenty miles I was tired but so excited. I have never in my life run that far and each step constituted a new personal record for me. All my feelings of despair where gone and now and I was just anxious. I still had an hour to go. I knew I could finish and I wanted to feel the joy, but I had to wait. I had to keep running.

I kept running. I finished. I felt great. The funny thing is, after four hours and thirty five minutes of beating this demon, I realized that I had not rid myself of it. It always will exist in me. For the first time in my life, I realized that we all live with this demon, even Ralph and Roger. I just learned through this experience that I was capable of beating it.

Thanks Ralph and Roger!

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2 Responses to Beating a Demon in Ironman Brazil

  1. Debbie Fritzer says:

    Mark,

    The demon is your mind, we all deal with this….this article is an awesome example of you focusing on “running the entire race” and doing it! Awesome job! I’m sorry I’m just now getting around to reading this – loved every minute of it!

  2. John says:

    Ralph McCausland was one of my coaches in high school (a year of so before taking the EIU job). I saw this guy who couldn’t be more than 135 lbs & I thought I would try my luck (thinking I might be able to take him down think considering I was 20 lbs heavier; note- I was a freshman). BIG mistake!!! He would routinely clean the floor with anyone who wanted to try their skill against him. At the same time, he made us better. The worst thing is I don’t think was was trying 100% either. I’m guessing most of his wrestlers remember him with his mustache but when he coached me, he had a full beard. He was a heck of a guy.

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