Sports nutritionist Bill Nadeau and I began working with Heather as part of the Tri2Lose program back in April. Her goals were to continue to lose weight and to finish her first ironman race, Ironman Louisville. It was clear from the start that Heather’s determination, enthusiasm, and work ethic were going to be her strengths in this journey to become a fit & healthy ironman. Heather, Bill, and I worked as a team to fine tune every aspect of Heather’s training and nutrition, making sure that no stone remained unturned in our pursuit of preparation for this race. But not everything went as planned. There were good days and bad days, and we learned from every situation that we were dealt. On one particularly bad day, Heather was involved in a pretty serious bike crash, leaving her with shoulder damage and a concussion. For nearly the entire month prior to IMLou, Heather was unable to swim! And to her credit, she persevered. After thousands of miles and hundreds of hours of training, and a total weight loss of 141lbs, the result is that Heather is not only an ironman, but an inspiring woman!
The following is Heather’s blow-by-blow recount of how her day at Ironman Louisville unfolded…
Heather W’s Ironman Louisville Race Report
The alarm was scheduled to go off at 3:40, but my body decided that my Ironman day would start at 2 a.m. instead. I got up and drank a smoothie I had in the fridge and then hopped back in bed. I tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep, but it just wasn’t happening. When the alarm finally went off at 3:40, Jane and I got up, made some coffee in the coffee maker I had lugged all the way from California, and walked downstairs to get some good pre-race food in the lobby of our hotel. My pre-race breakfast consisted of a bagel with egg, cheese, and avocado and 2 cups of coffee. After getting dressed I grabbed an electrolyte drink and we headed out to T1.
Dave and Rob were there to help Jane and I carry our bikes and run special needs bags down to T1 and to offer some much needed emotional support. On the walk down to T1, I made the observation that you can tell the first timers from the people who have done IM before by the size of their special needs bags. The guys who have done this before had a Powerbar and extra bike tube in their’s, I, on the other hand, had enough stuff in mine to live off of for the next 2 months.
We got down to T1 at 5:05. We thought we were in good shape because we had been told T1 was open from 5-6:30. Our goal was to get into the front of the swim line so we could start as close to 7 as possible. We got in and out of T1 with surgical precision, dropped off our special needs bags, and started the long .75 mile trek down to the swim start. On the long walk down to the swim start, Dave and I talked about how this crazy journey to Ironman started a few years before with one simple conversation between us about wanting to lose some weight. At the time I weighed 315 pounds and was miserable. That conversation had led to our first sprint triathlon 6 months later which we did together, and that led me to a few more sprints, an olympic, a hal,f and now this full IM. Not to mention a weight loss of over 140 pounds. That simple conversation led to life changes that I didn’t even think possible at the time, as well as one of the closest friendships I’ve ever enjoyed in my life. It was amazing to have him there. He helped to start me on this journey and now he was there to see it come full circle.
We got down to the swim start and were surprised to see the line went on for what seemed like at least a mile. It turns out people had sent their friends and family in the wee hours of the morning to sit out with chairs and sometimes air mattresses to save them a spot. Jane was really worried about the overall 17 hour cutoff, and we knew we’d need to get closer to the front if she wanted to finish under the cutoff. Luckily, we found some friends up at the front of the line and decided to hang with them.
I left my morning clothes bag (that had my goggles and swim cap) with them so that I could go to the porta-potty. I had been in line for what seemed like an eternity when the officials announced they were going to start moving the line into the swim start area. I abandoned the porta-potty line and ran to find my friends and my bag. When I got to the spot where I had left them, the line had moved and they weren’t there. I jogged to the front of the line and luckily found them, but unfortunately in the excitement of the moment they had forgotten my bag. I went into full panic mode at this point because I didn’t have my goggles and cap. I started walking (no, running) down the line looking (in the dark) for my bag. I became increasingly panicked as the minutes wore on and I couldn’t find it. At that point (with my HR around 170) I decided to switch strategies and ask if anyone had an extra pair of goggles I could borrow. I found an amazing soul pretty quickly who said she brought extra ones for just this reason and she selflessly handed them over to me. I was glad to have goggles but bummed they weren’t mine because I wasn’t sure if they would work for me or not. At that point Dave suggested we look at where the volunteers were collecting all the morning clothes bags to see if maybe someone had picked mine up and brought it over there. We ran to the 450-500 box and, in an amazing stroke of luck, the volunteer found it and handed it to me. Ok, now that I could breathe again, it was time to try to weasel my way back up to the front to find my friend Jane. We had been on this journey together and I wasn’t about to start this thing without her.
My panic attack over and Jane found, I was ready to start the race. The next thirty minutes were spent in relative quiet because at that point, what is left to be said? My dad had found his was down to the swim start and now Dave, Rob and my dad were all waiting to see us hop in the water and start out on our endeavor. My dad and step-mom had driven all the way from Massachusettes in a PT Cruiser to be there. I felt so supported and loved, and I knew that feeling would help carry me through the day. We watched as the pros started at 6:50, swimming by at blazing speed. We knew it was almost our turn, but I was blessed with an amazing calm. I had written “Slow is steady” on one forearm, “Steady is fast” on the other with black sharpie to remind myself through the day that it was a long day and I needed to pace myself. The first time my coach said it to me I didn’t understand what it meant. But after 4 months of training with him, I finally got it.
6:59 am . . . the national anthem plays, 7:00 a.m. . . . boom! the cannon fires and “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones starts to play. Jane and I give each other one final hug and a few encouraging words and start the walk down the dock to start our Ironman. Two years, 140 pounds, and 1 new life late,r it all came down to this moment. I was ready.
The start of Ironman Louisville is a little anti-climactic. Instead of the mass start that you see in the TV coverage of Kona, it’s a time trial start where two lines of athletes walk down two side-by-side docks and jump into the water one-by-one, 2 seconds apart, kind of like lemmings jumping off a cliff. I start my watch and plop, I’m in the water 2 seconds after Jane, less than 3 minutes after 7:00 a.m.
I start my 2.4 mile swim with the same mantra I had written on my arms. Slow is steady, steady is fast. I get into a nice smooth three stroke breathing pattern right off the bat which is huge for me, because the excitement of the swim start usually leads me into a choppy state of hyperventilation for the first 20 minutes. But I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my coach about this, and all the mental rehearsal has worked. The swim starts out against the current around a small island. I stay close to the inside in a straight line with the buoys. I’m getting passed by a lot of people, but I try to remind myself to “race my own race” and not worry about what everyone else is doing. As I take a breath, I see Jane in a smooth, steady stroke to my left and I’m reminded that 2 years ago she didn’t know how to swim, and now here she was, fearlessly battling 2500 other athletes to make it to T1. Amazing. Inspiring.
The swim was relatively uneventful for me. I took it slow and steady. Each time I would get to a buoy, I would sight for the next one and then focus my energy on just getting to that next buoy. Not the one after that, not the exit, just the next buoy. One buoy at a time . . . . As I got ready to turn the corner into the main channel of the river, I saw the sun over the horizon, a big red ball of fire rising up in the distance. It was a beautiful sight, the first of many throughout this unbelievable day. I made my way around the buoy knowing I was 1/3 of the way done with the swim. I breathed a sigh of relief and set my sights on that next buoy. I did this for the next hour or so and finally saw the final buoy and T1. I couldn’t believe it; the swim was almost over. I got to the stairs, one of the volunteers pulled me up to the first one, and I was soon back on solid ground. I hit my watch and saw 1:29. After a moment of disappointment – I had 1:20 in my head – I reminded myself that I had gotten in a bike wreck 7 weeks earlier, sustained a concussion, and separated my shoulder. I needed to cut myself some slack. Four weeks earlier I couldn’t swim without crying; now I had just finished 2.4 miles with relative ease.
I took it easy, jogged through transition, and grabbed my swim to bike transition bag. The volunteers at this race were amazing, making everything flow quickly and gracefully. I made my way into the women’s changing tent and dumped my bag. A volunteer came over to help, separating all the stuff in my bag and helping me figure out what to put on next. I took my time in T1 as my 10 minute time would suggest. But I knew I had a long day ahead of me and thought it was more important to get everything I needed than to do it quickly. On my way out of the women’s changing tent, I stopped at the sunscreen station and had these funny women with plastic gloves slather sunscreen all over me.
After a quick stop at the porta-potty, I was on my way to my bike. I grabbed it and started to run toward the bike exit. I heard someone screaming my name and looked over to see Dave, Rob, my Dad and Step-mom, JoJo screaming my name. It filled me with the energy I needed to get through the next 112 miles. I gave a quick fist pump and a huge smile, then hopped on my bike.
The first 10 miles on the bike were flat and fast. But my strategy was to “Just Ride Along” for the first 56 miles, not letting my heart rate get up above zone 2. That was easier said than done. I was getting passed by hundreds of people. But I was trying to remember more words of wisdom from my coach, that if you’re getting passed at the beginning of the bike you’re doing the right thing, and you’ll more than likely be passing a lot of those people at mile 90 on the bike, after their legs give out from going to hard at the beginning. It was 8:30 a.m. and already in the 80s. It was going to be a hot day.
I made my way to the first out-and-back on the course. This signified the beginning of the rolling hills section that would not end until mile 100. The out-and-back was beautiful, a little shaded, winding, and hilly. I focused on drinking and eating to fuel myself for the rest of the day. Almost to the end of the “OUT” section of the out-and-back there was a guy dressed in a devil costume standing in the middle of the road telling people to slow down; there was a crash ahead. That ambulance was the first of MANY I would see throughout the day. In fact, I would hear later that they had to call on ambulances from neighboring counties because there were far more people who needed medical than originally anticipated.
I made my way carefully through the turn around and back out of the out-and-back section. On a climb up one of the many hills, I saw one of the coaches from Endurance Nation standing on the side of the road. I had watched his video the night before on 4 keys to Ironman success. It’s all about “The Line” (mile 18 on the run) and how the you need to pace yourself so that you don’t fall apart and walk the last 8 miles of the race. I yelled out to him that I loved his video and he yelled back “Mile 18! The race doesn’t start until mile 18!”
On my way out of the out-and-back section, I see Jane coming in the other direction toward me. I yell out some words of encouragement. I am so excited that she’s doing so well.
I made the right turn on my way to La Grange, where I knew I’d get a much needed boost from my Dad and JoJo, Dave and Rob. As I got onto the La Grange loop, I made my way past some volunteers yelling about special needs bags. I made the first timer’s mistake of stopping at special needs on my first loop through, instead of waiting until the second loop when I’d really need stuff. I realized it right away, but because I was already stopped, I decided to grab some nutrition and more water. I jumped back on my bike and made a conscious effort to put the mistake behind me.
I was on my way into La Grange, where I knew there would be thousands of people lining the roads (including my own personal cheering section) cheering us on. As I raced through town (it was a slight downhill, so I was flying), I tried to see if I could find my dad. I was almost all the way through town and never saw him. I was a little disappointed, but didn’t want to look too hard. I knew it was more important for me to stay upright on my bike than to see him. But at the very end of La Grange I do see my dad and JoJo standing by the side of the road with a sign that said “We Love You Heather.” It instantly filled me up and gave me the energy I needed to make another loop.
Thirty-eight miles down, 74 to go. At this point my heart rate monitor crapped out and kept telling me my HR was 38, which I was pretty sure wasn’t the case. It turned out to be a good thing, because I decided to be conservative and keep things mellow until the half way point. As I rode along, I was glad I brought all my nutrition and hydration on the bike because I saw several crashes at the aid stations as people going way too fast tried to get fluid and bananas. I always kept left and sped through with no incidents.
As the ride wore on, it got hotter and hotter. The temp was peaking at around 95 degrees with 65% humidity and a heat index of 110. This was not for the faint of heart. But luckily, I was mentally prepared for the weather so it never really got to me. The rolling hills in that loop back to La Grange were brutal. I thought it would be easy because there were no sustained climbs, but the continual nature of it was more strenuous that I had anticipated.
I stopped at special needs again to use the port-potty and grab more fluids. I had been following my nutrition plan 100% thanks to MANY conversations with Bill (my awesome sports nutritionist) about it. I knew the one thing I needed to “up” was my fluid intake due to the extreme heat, so I grabbed extra water w/electrolytes, got some sunscreen, and headed back to La Grange.
Mile 68, 2nd trip through La Grange. I got some more energy from my dad and JoJo with their awesome smiles and sign by the side of the road. I knew the next time I would see them would be coming out of T2. The next 32 miles on the bike were brutal. There was human carnage as far as the eye could see along the sides of the road. All the people that had pushed too hard or had not hydrated enough were lying by the side of the road under any tree they could find, waiting for the energy to continue, or for the next available ambulance. It dawned on me that as a first timer with less than one and a half years experience in triathlon, it was amazing that I was doing so well and feeling so strong. Then I had another realization. It wasn’t amazing at all; it was due to the amazing guidance I’d received from Lee, my coach, and Bill, my sports nutrition guru. Without them, I’d likely be passed out by the side of the road like many of the people I saw there.
Mile 100. All flat and downhill from here. During this last 12 miles of the bike an amazing thing started to happen: I started passing tons of people that had passed me earlier on the bike. I felt strong and solid, while everyone around me looked wiped out and done. The only issue I had was a cramp that had been slowly developing in my right calf. I tried to stretch it out as I rode, but it was really starting to worry me for the marathon. I decided to save the worry for later. For now, I just needed to get this bike ride done.
Two miles to go! I couldn’t believe it, I was really doing this. I looked at my watch and realized that I had more than 8 hours to finish the marathon. I knew at that point that it was going to happen. Even if the worst case scenario happened, I’d still be able to walk 20 minute miles and make it before midnight.
Into T2. I grabbed my bag and ran into the women’s changing tent. I felt amazing with the exception of my calf. I changed into my run gear and was on my way out of the changing tent when I saw this women slathering Vasaline all over her body. I stopped and asked her what her strategy was. She said she put it everywhere there was a seam, especially down her shorts So I followed suit and greased up!
I made the decision to stop at the medical tent before leaving T2. There were some pretty messed up people laying on stretchers in there: people with road rash from crashing on the bike, people vomiting due to heat stroke. It hit me again how amazing it was that I felt relatively OK. I asked one of the people in the medical tent if someone could try to massage the cramp out of my calf. A girl came over and said “I’m not medical. I’m a physics student, but I’d be happy to try to massage it out for you.” So she spent 10 minutes trying to fix what was likely caused by changing my cleats on my bike shoes the day before. I figured it was as good as it was going to get, so I decided to head out of T2.
With 114.4 miles down and 26.2, to go I ran out of T2 with a huge smile on my face. I saw Dave, Rob, Dad and JoJo screaming by the side of the chute. I asked how far back Jane was; they said an hour. I gave a sigh of relief knowing that, although she’d be cutting it close, she would make it before midnight.
I started the marathon feeling great with the one glaring exception being my calf, which basically felt like I had a charley horse. Not fun. But I kept remembering the phrase “Pain is temporary, pride is Ffrever” which kept me going. My strategy for the marathon was to run at my easy pace of around 12 minute miles, and walk through every aid station, located at every mile. At each aid station, I grabbed cold sponges and squeezed them over my head and shoulders. I also put ice in my shirt to cool myself down. It was hot. Really hot!
My mental strategy for the run was to “stay within the mile,” that is, only worry about the next mile marker. I wasn’t’ going to worry about mile 18 at mile 2. I wasn’t even going to worry about mile 4 at mile 2. I was just going to run along at my easy pace and just focus on the next mile. One mile at a
time . . . .
It was working. I got to mile 4, 6, 8 and then I saw Jane running past me in the opposite direction. We stopped, hugged, shared some encouraging words. She looked like she was hurting, but she had found another Jane to run with, making it tolerable.
On to mile 10, then 12. I saw Sandy just coming out onto the run as I was about to finish my first loop. She looked at me with a sense of panic on her face and asked, “When is the half-way cutoff?” I told her that it was 9:15 and she needed to get moving to make it. It was going to be close for her and the look on her face showed that she knew it.
One more mile and I would be making the first pass by 4th Street Live — the finish line — that magical place I had dreamed about for the past 10 months since I took the leap of faith and signed up for this race. I thought it would be painful to run so close to the finish line while still having almost half a marathon to go, but the reality was it filled me up to hear Mike Riley screaming “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” to all the people who were finishing. Soon he would be screaming that at me. Only half a marathon to go . . .
I ran by Dad and JoJo holding their bright pink “We Love You Heather” sign. They were screaming at me to go! go! go! As I ran by my dad asked me when I thought I’d be coming back to the finish line. I said “10:00” with the most hopeful voice I could muster. He said “Okay, we’re going to eat some dinner. We’ll see you at the finish.” I laughed and kept on running.
On my way out of town onto my second loop someone yelled at me as I ran by, “HEY! Aren’t you that girl that lost 141 pounds?!” At the athletes welcome dinner on Friday night with 3000 athletes, friends, and family, I had gotten an award for losing the most weight training for this race. I turned and shouted back “YES!” As I continued running by she screamed, “You are my HERO!” In that moment, the magnitude of the changes I had made hit me. Three years ago I weighed 315 pounds, was trapped in a miserable marriage, and just plain struggling. Fast forward three years and here I was, running down the street in Louisville at my first Ironman, 141 pounds lighter, free from the relationship I struggled to get out of for years, and probably most importantly, 2 years 8 months sober. And some woman was screaming, “YOU ARE MY HERO!” at me from the side of the road. How cool is that? A few years ago, I was at the lowest point in my life, and now I get to be someone’s hero. Amazing.
It was starting to get darker and my strategy of running and then walking the aid stations had broken down to walking both the aid stations and a minute or two at each mile marker which were, thankfully, spread out from the aid stations. Each aid station was like an oasis. I would grab sponges, dump water on my head, and grab some water or sports drink. I was executing my nutrition plan exactly as Bill and I had laid it out, not diverting from it plan at all. I knew that to finish I had to follow it 100%, and that was my intent.
At mile 18, I saw the Endurance Nation guy again. I chuckled — it was no accident that he decided to camp out there. I yelled at him “HEY! The race starts now, right!? I’m going to start running my 6 minute miles now. Watch!” Ok, so I had no intention of running 6 minute miles, but I was really proud of the fact that I was at least still “running” or at least doing the ironman shuffle.
But, oh, how quickly things change. By about mile 18.5, I had started walking in earnest. The running wasn’t happening. I thought to myself how painful it was going to be to walk this last 7.5 miles. Then these two guys came up from behind me and one of them said, “Run with us; we’re going to run to the that light up there.” So as if on autopilot, I started to run with them. We walked when we got to the light, then a minute or two later started to run again. One of the two guys peeled off saying he wasn’t feeling well but we should go on without him. We wished him luck and kept running. The next time we stopped to walk my new running partner introduced himself to me. His name was Lee. He was 44 and from Tampa, FL.
For the next few miles, we pushed each other. Sometimes it was me pushing him to run the next three cones; sometimes it was him pushing me to run to the next ambulance. (There were a lot of them out there picking up the human wreckage on the sides of the road.) Together we were able to do what neither of us would have been able to do on our own.
At mile 20, I see Jane running in the other direction. Rob is running with her at this point, and, though she is hurting, I am confident that she will make it. We hug and then I keep on running. At mile 22, I see Sandy and she is on the edge. She might make it, she might not. I give her a hug, tell her I believe in her, and off she goes.
Lee and I keep each other going over the next few miles. He tells me some intimate details of his life: how he had lost 125 pounds over the last 4 years; how his mother, his biggest supporter, had passed away from cancer a few years earlier; how his wife’s daughter had passed away when she was 4; and how he was racing for both of them, because they couldn’t and he could.
I reciprocate, telling him how I lost my mom to Lou Gehrig’s disease 12 years earlier, how I took care of her for three years, and how her illness and death brought me to my knees. And that for me, this race was about much more than just finishing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. It was about coming back from the dark place I had been since her death and redefining myself, allowing myself to live again.
We keep pushing each other, knowing that the other is in an intense world of hurt, knowing that we couldn’t do it without each other, knowing that we need the other to get to that line.
Mile 25 — I see Maria heading in the other direction. We both know she won’t make it by midnight, but she’s going to keep going as long as they’ll let her. It takes a lot of heart to keep going when you know they’re going to pull you off sometime soon.
We’re almost there. Lee and I both had 15 hours in our heads as our goal finish time. Because I started the swim before Lee, we both realize that he’ll meet his goal of breaking 15 hours, but I won’t. He helps me feel OK about it. He tells me to stop looking at my watch as we inch closer to the finish line. He tells me that when we get to the chute that I should go first, because he has at least 5 minutes to spare.
Mile 25.7, we can hear the faint screams from the finish line. I look at him and say, “We’re running this in. Let’s go.” He says, “You’re trying to kill me.” We bothlaugh as we get closer to the finish. Mile 25.9 and people start yelling “You Made It” and “GO!” from the sides of the street. I start to tear up but manage to hold it together.
Mile 26.1, I thank Lee for helping me make it to the finish. I had heard about the special things that happens during the Ironman. People coming together to help each other get to the finish no matter what. Lee was that special thing for me. We turn the corner and see Fourth Street Live. Thousands of people lining the sides of the chute, the huge spotlights shining out into the darkness. Somebody screams, “Run to the Light ! Just Run to the Light!” I see two signs in front of me. The one on the right says “2nd Lap” and the one on the left says “To the finish.” I move to the left and start running down the chute. I take my time, savoring every moment. I hear Mike Riley say: “Heather W—– from Albany, California: YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I pass under the time clock and it says 15:09:22. I feel elated. a volunteer puts a medal around my neck and starts walking me toward the chairs to take off my chip. I stop, turn around, and see Lee crossing through the finish. I run back and give him a big sweaty hug and thank him again for helping me make it to that line.
I see Dave, Dad, and JoJo screaming on the side of the finish line. I go over and hug them and thank them for being there. I couldn’t have done it without them either.
Life is good.
My final finish time adjusted for the swim start was 15:07:44
Lee crossed the line at 14:49:21
Jane crossed the line at 16:44:24
Sandy crossed the line at 16:58:11
Maria didn’t make it. She got to mile 20 of the run before they took her chip, but she showed a lot of heart, and there’s always another IM just around the corner.