I am brought water and drink as many small cups as they’ll bring me. The cramping eventually subsides, I put on my running shoes and I walk my way out of transition to see my wife and friends who are waiting to see me on my way out of T2. I make a joke about how dumb a race like this is, that “I’m going to quit triathlon and become a competitive eater instead”, but then have to unfortunately inform them of what happened on the bike. “I’m going to do what I can, but I almost didn’t make it off the bike. It’s hot, I’m cramping, and at a certain point, I may just be done. Don’t expect me back soon, but they’ll have to take me off the course at 17 hours if that’s what it takes.” And with that, I head out on the run course.
After a few steps to get acclimated, I’m astonished to find out that, though my biking muscles (quadriceps and glutes) were completely spent, my run muscles (hamstrings and calves) still had a little life in them. I make the first few miles alternating running and walking at about even intervals. It’s still daylight and people seem to be doing fairly well. Many are walking, but I pass more than pass me.
I complete the first loop (two 13 mile loops) and head out on the second loop. The sun is going down, and volunteers have begun handing out glow-in-the-dark loops to be held, hung, or tucked somewhere visible so that athletes can be more easily seen in the dwindling daylight.
I had wanted to finish in daylight. I had wanted lots of things, but now I know I just needed to finish. My running had given way to more and more to walking. The feeling of a cramp began to grow in my hamstring, but I pushed it away for as long as possible with salt tabs and water. As I made the turn for the last 3 miles of the race, I was reduced completely to a walk. I would have been embarrassed by this, but I was 137.6 miles into the race and conceded that walking was the only option.
It was then that I notice everyone was walking, and all of a sudden I realized where I was: I was one of thousands in what was so affectionately know as the “Death March”! It was now completely dark out. All the spectators had made their way to the finish line, and people, family, and kids no longer lined the streets of the racecourse. It was now just those of the Death March. Eerily silent, with just the rhythmic sounds of your own steps to keep you in the real world, we had been in constant motion since 7a.m., that was 14 hours ago. We had seen the sun rise, follow us as we rode, and mock us as it set, getting rest hours before we would. At this moment, just 3 miles from finishing the goal I had set forth, I knew nothing but one foot in front of the other. It becomes that you don’t remember a time when you weren’t doing what you’re doing. One foot in front of the other, if you stop, you won’t be able to keep going. Just keep moving, you’re almost there. 17 hours…just finish under 17 hours.
From the most silent place on Earth, the Death March, a light shows itself over the horizon. The taller buildings of downtown Louisville emerge and the faint sound of cheering is heard. Members of the Death March silently rise into a quick walk, and then, out of the darkness, muster the energy to run. The cheers become louder until they are deafening. Out of the crowd I hear my childhood friend call my name. “BEN! You did it buddy, you’re there!” I come down the finishing shoot and find my wife, just yards from the finish. As she yells “Baby, I LOVE YOU!” I give her a big hug and take my last few paces to the finish line, bend down, and kiss the ground.
It’s an amazing experience to complete an Ironman. I realized that you can go so far past your “limit” that it becomes less a limit and more a starting place. I’m not a world-class athlete, but I know the words of Winston Churchill to be accurate: “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking one’s potential.” When asked how long it took me to complete the race, I respond the same each time, “under 17 hours”, and I will brag for the rest of my life.