Friday, October 4, 2013

Dreams Do Come True – I am an IRONMAN

Dreams can either be wonderful, uplifting experiences or absolute nightmares.  As the song says “Dreams can come true, they can happen to you, if you are young at heart.”  I know that we all have dreams of things we want to do, see and accomplish and we alone hold the key to not only making those dreams come true, but in determining if they are wonderful experiences or something fraught with the likes of Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
For me, a dream was realized as I complete my first Ironman 70.3 race in Raleigh on June 2nd, 2013 but I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn out to be a “dreamy” experience or was I going to be wrestling with the horror of Freddy Kruger.
My journey to Ironman competition is probably more common than I realize but none the less it is incredible to me.  I never learned to swim as a child and couple that with years of poor diet, bad habits and no exercise made me an unlikely candidate to complete an Ironman 70.3 distance race, let alone walk to the driveway without exhausting myself.
Roughly four years ago God took me by the shoulders and made it very clear to me the path I was going down was not going to have a happy ending. My father died of a heart attack at age 47 and was incredibly out of shape, gaining nearly 40 pounds, eating a meat and dairy filled Midwest diet and exercising only to walk from his chair to the fridge for another bowl of ice cream.  I was about to turn 44 and was definitely my father’s son in many positive ways but also in these not so healthy ways as well.  That Christmas day I made the decision to change my life and get back into shape.

Having made the commitment to change my life, I began a running program and turned to a heart healthy diet.  One weekend afternoon I was watching television and came across the coverage of the Ironman World Championships from Hawaii.  Have a new zest for working out and endurance training; I was mesmerized by what these athletes were doing.  Their determination, grace and unfailing spirit was inspirational, motivational and frightening at the same time.
The thought of staying in motion for 140.6 miles was mind numbing.  I had been working out for a while, was able to run three miles but was struggling with motivation. Being a goal driven individual and loving challenges, I was fast learning that I simply could not workout for the sake of improved health and fitness alone, I needed some concrete goals to keep me going.  Enter triathlon.
Watching the athletes compete that day in Hawaii stirred my competitive juices and at that moment I knew I had just set one long term goal, to complete and Ironman distance triathlon.  What had I gotten myself into? After all I could not run three miles without pure exhaustion and there was one other little thing, I couldn’t swim and was scared to death of the water!
I wasn’t completely crazy in setting this goal or was I?  First, setting a long range goal like an Ironman was one way to help me keep exercising. Sure I would have smaller goals along the way (like finishing a 10K without medical assistance or a trip to the hospital) but setting a goal that would take years to accomplish would help me keep exercising and stay after it.  It would also set a good example for friends, family and coworkers. 
The second reason behind setting the Ironman goal was the final catalyst to help me finally overcome my fear of the water and learn to swim.  Growing up my parents couldn’t swim and after many crying and fit pitching sessions before going to swimming lessons, my parents caved in and the third member of the Vokaty family officially joined the “No Swim Team”.  May and I were trying to have a baby and I didn’t want to be the father that could never take his child swimming because he never had the courage to beat back the Freddy Kruger of open water and the pool!

Having been very public with my Ironman goal, I now had to walk the talk.  I found a swim coach and at age 44 I was ready to learn how to swim.  Ironically, my coach wad 24 years my younger and being more than old enough to be her father the dynamic could not have been better.  I learned a lot from Amanda in terms of respect, patience, staying positive and undying support. 
Not being able to swim was one thing but being afraid of the water was still another.  Amanda and I were both committed to my learning to swim and we both kept after it, lesson after lesson after lesson.  While I learned to swim what may be equally important is the sense of community I would soon find in triathlon.  The respect, patience, positive and undying support I learned from Amanda is exactly what I found in the many new friends I would soon make in triathlon.
Having completed three Disney Marathons and two Goofy Challenges, my running and cycling were in good shape and my swimming; well it was coming along slowly.  While other triathletes effortlessly and rapidly knocked out thousands of yards every morning at the pool, I still struggled to finish a mile in under an hour.  They looked like graceful dolphins accenting the water while I looked I was wresting a small bear the entire length of the pool with enough grunting and splashing to make a cave man proud. But I pressed on and through a lot of prayer and sheer determination, slowly my swimming improved as did my confidence. I still didn’t “like” the water but I had a health respect for it and have learned not to fight it, and it leaves me alone for the most part.

During the course of my training, I started to meet local triathletes that were not only exceptional athletes and competitors, they were even better people.  They coached me in the pool, took me on group rides and ran with me in the rain and cold, often times having to slow down their pace so I could keep up.  Never once did they make me feel inadequate and continually encouraged me and boosted my confidence.  Could I really be a triathlete?  They thought so but I still wasn’t sure but time was soon to tell.
With a combination of excitement you feel before Christmas and nervousness before a big meeting or presentation, May, Elli and I were on the way to Raleigh, North Carolina for my first triathlon. This is it, the time of reckoning. Was I really going to do this or was my public goal going to turn into a big embarrassment?  Could I actually cover 70.3 miles in less than eight hours?  Would I survive the swim?  These were all questions that continually raced through my head as we check in, set up my transition areas and moved ever closer to race day.
I was blessed to have many of my new tri friends join us in Raleigh, some competing and others just supporting fellow athletes.  Having friendly and encouraging friends along with my wife and daughter was a comfort, but nerves are nerves and I was a bundle of them.
Saturday night at dinner I was a nervous wreck. Race day was only hours away and it was time to perform or go home!  I had done the training but I still was not a great swimmer and looking at Lake Jordan was like looking across the Atlantic Ocean. While I had some practice in a small lake close to our home, it wasn’t the same and there weren’t any blue lines, ropes or pool edges anywhere in sight that I had become accustomed to.  I had planned to wear my wetsuit but we were warned the water temp was going to make this a non-wetsuit legal race so I was faced with a decision to make and that was swimming without my wetsuit, which was way out of my comfort zone.
Waiting for our food to arrive I remember mumbling to myself “Lord, what I have I gotten myself into?”  At that moment I bowed in prayer and gave it all to Jesus, asking him to keep my family safe, keep all competitors safe and allowing us all to do the best job we can.”  I trusted in him to guide me in that race.  At that moment I had a sense of peace and knew I was going to finish that race!
Race morning arrived quickly as I was one of the first ones in the transition area. Still nervous (as I am before any event) but calm, I had made peace that I was going to have to swim without a wetsuit.  I had done it for thousands of yards and had nearly 60 swim miles of training in 2013 so no excuses.  Not thrilled, I had made up my mind that I could do this.  That said, I stuck it in my morning bag just in case.
The swim portion of an Ironman 70.3 event is 1.2 miles.  In years past, all competitors started at the same time and you have 70 minutes to complete the swim or you cannot continue in the race.  Due to new rules for improved safety, this year’s event swim start went in waves with the PRO men going off first, then the PRO women, and then the age group athletes go off every four minutes with the oldest going fist. Under the new rules you have 70 minutes to complete the swim AFTER The last wave started.  Being 47 and going near the front, that gave me almost two and half hours to finish the swim. This was excellent news, or so I thought, as I was not a strong swimmer and the 70 minutes lurked like the monster you had under your bed when you were a child.   With my wetsuit I was sure to be OK.
For a swim to be wet suit legal, the temperature must be 76.1 degrees or lower.  If the temperature is between 76.2 and 83.3 degrees you can still wear a wetsuit but not be eligible for any awards.  That is what I learned that wonderful morning at 4:30 am. That’s it, I will wear my wetsuit. I won’t be in competition for any awards so no harm in wearing it.
Unfortunately what I learned next deflated my brief high of excitement.  Should the water temp be between 76.2 and 83.3, I can wear my wetsuit but I have to start in the last wave which meant I was up against the 70 minute deadline.  So I had a decision to make, do I go without my suit and have 2.5 hours and risk sinking to the bottom of the lake, or wear my suit and bump up against the 70 minute deadline and face the real issue of possibly not being able to go on? Neither option looked overly exciting to me, kind of like being asked if you want to be executed by lethal injection or electric chair. Neither are what I would sign up for but I had to make a decision.   I bowed my head and said “Lord, I trust you to deliver me safely in this race. I’m not wearing my wetsuit but ask for your grace, love and protection. I can do this through you!
There were a lot of nervous faces that morning, a lot of folks that had anticipated wearing their wetsuit but faced with the realization that they were going to have to swim to England in their skin, or at least it looked far enough to be England as the water temp was to be in the 80’s.  I was peaceful and calm. There were kayaks, boats, scuba divers and a host of support personnel.  This was the SAFEST place I would EVER have a chance to swim so I decided to enjoy the moment.
As with any Ironman event, one hour before the event start they take the official water temperature to determine if it is wetsuit legal.  “The verdict is in” stated the race announcer. “The official temperature of Jordan Lake is….76 degrees!”  Not only was the race wet suit legal, it meant I could start with my wave and still have 2.5 hours to swim 1.2 miles. I bowed my head and silently thanked God for that pleasant little race day surprise.  At that point I knew for sure my constant training partner had my back and this race was mine. It was time to enjoy the day. I am sure many prayers were answered that wonderful as God smiled down on his creation.

I actually enjoyed the swim that day. I stuck to my plan of a slow and controlled start and once I reached 500 meters I knew I had the race licked.  I did the swim in 56 minutes but ironically I swam close to 1.4 miles instead of 1.2 and I learned quickly I need to work on swimming straight. I remember saying, “God, really,  1.4 miles,  wasn’t 1.2 hard enough?”  I had to laugh as I could only imagine him answering, “You asked me to give you a safe swim, and you never asked me to help you swim straight!”  It didn’t matter, I survived, May was not a widow nor was she set to become wealthy anytime soon, but we had our family and soon she and Elli were going to have an Ironman in their midst.
I finished my first 70.3 triathlon in 6:28 with tears of joy streaming down my face.  I was so excited that I completed my first open water swim competition, I could have savored that moment for ever and nearly didn’t get out of T1 but common sense kicked in and I hit the bike course with passion and energy!
While I learned a lot about myself that day and what God can do in your life, equally important was the true sense of community that I felt that day. What I witnessed on the course and experienced from friends is the true spirit of triathlon. The love and support that every competitor showed each other from the winner to the last person to cross the finish line was amazing.  This sense of community left an indelible mark on my life.
When I got out of Lake Jordan and went to T1, standing along the fence was my good friend Scott Prince. His wife Ann, who is also my tri mentor and  training partner, was doing the race that day as well. He made a point to locate me in transition to encourage my with high fives and shouts of “You did it!  You got this!”  I asked Scott to call my wife (who was back at the hotel with our two year old daughter) and tell her not to count on the life insurance money just yet and I would see her in Raleigh in about three hours. Scott knew of my struggles to swim and wanted me to know how proud he was of me.  Talk about a true friend, that was one of many times that day tears of emotion would flow from this triathlete in the making.
As we neared Raleigh on the bike, the sense of pain and fatigue was setting in, for some it was more pronounced than others.  I saw this one young lady in tears,  obviously wanting to get off her bike and get to the run.  “I can’t see the buildings, I can’t see the buildings” she kept saying over and over again in pain and anguish.  Knowing the area I told her “No fear they are just around the corner and up the hill. You are doing great, we are almost there.  Let’s take this hill together!”  I remember how great I felt when Scott cheered me on, it was time to help someone else. We made it up that hill and into transition.

When I arrive at transition two there was Scott once again with May and Elli cheering me on.  I was so excited and honored I could hardly believe it.  People were actually cheering for me!  Friends, family and complete strangers!  They asked how I felt and my response was “Well I feel like I just swam 1.2 miles and biked 56!”   “Chris, you look great, you are doing awesome and you GOT THIS” where their cheers.  Only 13.1 miles to go I thought, I may be a triathlete after all.
The run was hot and brutally hilly but it is my favorite. Being an extrovert and loving talking to people, the run provides the perfect opportunity to meet new people and offer words of encouragement to those that need it. 
On the run a few other incredible things happened to me that show the true spirit of community.  First I saw my friend Ann on the run. Both of us in pain and agony, she gave me a big smile and said “Chris, I am so proud of you!”  Wow, someone other than my family was actually proud of me.  With a new spirit I ran on.  I started to notice complete strangers cheer for me and for everyone.  I think they were working harder than I was with all the energy they put into cheering. Their energy fueled my passion and I ran on.

Less than a mile from the finish standing right by the road were two more people I knew.  First was Cindy, one of our riding buddies. Cindy had just had knee surgery and could not compete in the run but she made the trip anyway to swim and bike and to support her friend.  She made a special effort to find me and give me a high five with cheers of encouragement and support.
The next thing that happened was incredible.  There he was, a man that I knew from the pool that I train at in Columbia, SC but never had the chance to speak too much. I know he is a triathlete but we never had an opportunity to talk more than casual greetings.  You know you have a two year old and watch a lot of Curious George (The Man in the Yellow Hat) when you refer to some as “The Man From The Pool” but there he was, standing on the side of the road cheering me on by name, screaming encouragement.  What a humbling experience.
As I crossed the finish line in tears, there was Scott Prince once again screaming for me, throwing high fives and giving me a hug!  “You did it man, you did it!  I am so proud of you!”  I was starting to see what really made triathlon so very, very special. 
As I made my way to exit there area and I found Gregg Howell, another local triathlete and encourager.  Not only is Gregg a nice guy, he is a heck of a triathlete and has blown by me on numerous training runs, but always with a smile and words of encouragement. Greg finished that race over an hour ahead of me but waited at the finish to  give me a hug and congratulate me on a job well down. ”How does it feel to be a triathlete?” he asked me.  “You did it, congratulations, I am proud of you!” I was speechless! 
Later that day I learned something else that solidified what I had learned triathlon was all about.  Ann Prince, Scott’s wife and my training partner as she crawled out of Lake Jordan her first words were “Did Chris make it out of the water?”  She had her own race to worry about but she wanted to make sure I was OK. Now that is a friend.
As I made my way out of the finish area I was able to connect with May and Elli with yet more hugs, kisses and words of support and encouragement.  They are true heroes to me. Not only do they support my training, my events and my dreams, they love me and are always supportive.  The celebrate the good times and pick me up when I am down or need encouragement.  I can’t do what I do without them and will never be able to thank them enough.   As I look a back at a day that started at 4:00 am and was wrapping up at 3:00 pm, my wife had to entertain Elli, an active two year old for nearly 12 hours in a sea of people, I think she deserved a medal more than me.  There was nothing better than finding my family and hearing my little girl say “Daddy.”  I hope they are as proud of me as I am of them and my dream some day is for Elli and I to participate together in a triathlon.

As I sat at dinner that night reflecting on the day, I could hardly believe that I was a triathlete.  With God’s love and grace I did it.  But what was more impacting to me as the love and support I felt that day on the course and through all the training I had done.  No matter how fast or how slow, triathletes have a very supportive and tight community that is open to anyone that wants to join.  
I was recounting the day’s activity to a coworker on a recent business trip and became choked up when talking about the incredible support and sense of community triathletes have. It’s something special and is open to everyone.
I am still working on my goal of completing my first full 140.6 distance triathlon in 2014, but more importantly I work hard to be a good ambassador to our sport.  I strive to be the best I can be while continually encouraging others to adopt a healthy life style and tout the many benefits if triathlon. If I can do it, anyone can do it!  There is always room for more!

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