Accepting, and Conquering, an Ultimate Challenge: The Ironman
By Alisa Carbone
Video of finish
After running several marathons and participating in a few sprint triathlons, I decided to sign up for an Ironman Triathlon. Not just any long “tri” event but an officially sanctioned Ironman-brand triathlon – the Ford Ironman Florida on Nov. 5, 2011, in Panama City, Fla. I spent more than an hour online the day registration opened with a friend who was also signing up. We were in this together so we signed up together. My family was only partially supportive at this time; they were familiar with the hours of training that I put into marathons and the upcoming half Ironman that I had still been training for. This would be the full Ironman distance: 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run. However, I was determined to do this so I signed up. I made the 3,000-person field and the training world soon began.
As most of us are aware, distance training is something best done with friends. Now that I was to begin training for three distance events simultaneously, I was in need of many friends. As a working mother with three active daughters my training schedule was extremely tight. Swimming laps in a pool is not very social, like running, so that can be done solo. However, when it came time to get into the open water for the one- or two-mile swims you absolutely need someone along with you for safety reasons. Fortunately we chose an event that allowed us to train through the summer when the water temperature in this area is warm. We found local lakes that we could access to do laps of up a quarter-mile. For me our family vacation in August to warm and sunny Aruba, with the clear blue tropical water, was wonderful. I would go for a morning run while the kids were sound asleep in the room or allow them to play in the pool while I got my laps in. Back home in September and October as the days got shorter and the water cooled off it was time to get into the full wet suit and rely on friends in their kayaks to paddle along with me.
The bike training took the most time of all to accomplish. One hundred twelve miles requires quite a bit of training. My training rides ranged from two to seven hours. The longer rides were generally done on the weekends. Riding was also something that I would need company while doing. I was able to find small groups willing to do some portions of my long 100 milers. I would ride 40 or 50 miles with one group and the remainder of the ride with someone else.
Running was the easiest part of my training. Having already run six marathons at this time I was very familiar with hydration, fuel, and tempo. I have many friends who are runners and their schedules are varied so it was easy to find someone that was going to be running when I needed to.
The really fun days were those during which I needed to do two or three disciplines. Coordinating all the different times, not just my training, but my husband’s work, my girls’ activities, babysitters and carpools required a multi-page Excel spreadsheet. These long training days allowed me to learn how to eat and drink to sustain myself for the 12-plus hours I was anticipating the Ironman to take me. Gatorade, Perpetuem (endurance fuel), bananas, Porta-Potties, rest stops, they all played a vital part in training.
Finally after months of training it was time to pack everything up, ship off my bicycle and travel down to sunny Panama City Beach for the Ironman. The day we arrived was not a relaxing check-in. We needed to pick up my bicycle, visit the expo, check out the beach and start the carbo-loading. By the time we got into our hotel I also needed to get out for a run to loosen up and work out the travel cramps. The hotel pool was available but its small size was not going to be any fun to swim in. For the next two days it was nonstop preparation for the event. Get in a familiarization swim, walk through the transition chutes, drive the bike course, prepare the special needs bags, and continue to build up my fuel reserve. Sleep was not coming easily due to the crescendo of anticipation as the time drew closer. A cold snap the day before the event drove everyone to the expo for arm warmers and jackets, all the items that were left home in anticipation for the warm Florida weather. Finally race day arrives. I woke at 3 a.m. to eat, digest, recheck all the bags, and get to check-in by 4:30. The race would begin at 6:50 a.m. with the elite athletes. Myself and the remaining 2,900 others awaited the cannon shot to start the race at 7.
The swim was probably the most nerve-racking for me. It was a bit overwhelming to have us all start together. I was more accustomed to wave starts. It reminded me of an agitation cycle in a washing machine, legs and arms just all over. I decided to stay in the back to try not to get in a panic situation. My plan worked, I eased in and had to go slow at first and once we spread out enough I was able to swim and take my time until I was acclimated. I can recall the jellyfish below being fluorescent pinks, blues and greens. It almost felt as though I was in an aquarium. This particular event had a double loop swim, which made it more comfortable for me. I had already seen the buoys at the 1.2-mile mark, which can be very intimidating. Coming out of the water I was relieved that portion was done and just thought ahead to the next.
The next event, the bike, is the longest part of the day. During transition I made sure I took care of everything to make me comfortable as possible for the next six hours or so. The bike was pleasant, fellow athletes were chatting at the start until we got spread out. Although a bit of a headwind, I took it slow and steady to get to my special needs bag at mile 56. To my surprise, my husband was up at mile 56, which made me happy to see a familiar face. We talked a bit and then off to the remaining 56 miles. The second half had a tailwind, which made for a great confidence booster. I would look down at my odometer and be surprised at the speed I was able to go without any discomfort. Coming into the final nine miles it was tough. The wind came across in big bursts as the tall buildings were in rows along the beach. Coming into transition the crowd was yelling and cheering loudly as if each and every one of us were the lead person.
Off to the marathon, this is the event I was most familiar with. The beginning of the marathon I took it slow with many people passing me. Again a double loop course, allowing each athlete to cheer one another on as you pass each other. The spectators and hydration areas all kept things interesting. Each station had a theme, Santa was on the course. I can remember thinking half done, almost there. During a six-mile stretch I ran with someone by the name of Veteran, he really kept me going until I came to mile 25, where my husband was waiting for me. I had a glow stick around my neck which was given to me at one of the mile markers. We walked for a short time, I gathered myself and then off to the finish. He said he would go to the finish to get my finish photo, but unfortunately this never happened as getting in position near the line was impossible. As I was approaching the finish the crowd was roaring, and the finish chute was an incredible feeling. You just could not take it slow. Hearing your name, “Alisa Carbone from Valley Cottage, N.Y., YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” is something I will never forget. My arms pumping up and down, with a huge smile on my face. What a sense of accomplishment. My final time was 12 hours 49 minutes 46 seconds.
Coming away from this I believe I will be a role model for my kids. I often say, if there is something you want to do, with determination and dedication you can do it. I am very happy I did this Ironman and if this is something you might want to do, you can do it too.