On November 20, 2016, I achieved the impossible. I completed my first Ironman. This is coming from the girl who only a few years ago hated to sweat and exercise. Who was morbidly obese and suffering from hypertension and osteoarthritis. If you had asked that girl if she would ever complete a triathlon, let alone a full Ironman, she would have laughed in your face.
I had decided that Ironman Arizona, would be the perfect race for me. I was able to register on the day it went on sale and made it in before it sold out. I had one year to get ready for this race. But first, I had to have reconstructive knee surgery to fix a severed right ACL and torn meniscus. That surgery happened on December 29, 2015.
I focused solely on rehabilitating and strengthening my knee for the next few months. I was finally cleared to slowly begin working out in April of 2016. That gave me 7 months to get ready for the biggest race of my life.
I hired a coach to help me reach this goal. He is also a physical therapist so he was able to give me a training schedule that helped keep me on track and healthy as I progressed.
Finally, race weekend arrived. I had put all the hard work in and was ready to reap the rewards. I packed my bags the night before I left. There was so much to bring! Way more than a normal triathlon. I had to bring enough nutrition and hydration to support me for a 15-17 hour race. There also needed to be items for a bike special needs bag and a run special needs bag. Also a bit of the "what if" items that you never know if you might need.
On Thursday morning, I met up with a few fellow racers to carpool from Las Vegas to Tempe, AZ. This was a great way to make the time go faster and to get out our nervous energy. We talked and laughed a lot!
On Friday, we met up with a few more friends and explored Ironman Village. This is where packet pick-up was located as well as lots of vendors
Our tri club, the Las Vegas Triathlon Club, was awarded a special athlete's briefing given to us by the race director. This allowed us to ask specific questions to help ease my first timers nerves.
For dinner on Friday night, I was able to meet up with several of my Coeur Sports Teammates. I had such a great time socializing with so many amazing women.
On Saturday, I needed to do a quick shake-out workout before checking my bike into transition. It included a 15 minute swim, 30 minute bike, and 15 minute run. As I was standing with my bike waiting for my husband to park the car, my rear tire popped. I was stunned. I needed to enter the water! Once my husband arrived, I handed him my bike and told him what happened. We decided to take it to the bike mechanic in the Village and get it fixed. I started my swim and he checked my bike in with the mechanic.
The water was cold but not too bad. They were allowing us to swim an abbreviate version of our actual race day swim. I completed 0.5 miles in 14:55. It felt good! I then exited the water and found my husband by the mechanics tent. He told me that the bike wouldn't be ready until 2:00-2:30 PM. That meant that I wasn't going to get a ride in that day. So I grabbed my running shoes and got ready for my run. I set off on the actual run course for my 15 minutes. It went really smooth and I felt great. I completed 1.35 miles in 15 minutes.
After the shake-out, I turned in my bike and run transition bags. Then I met up with my husband and sons and went to lunch. After lunch, we went back to the Village to wait for my bike to get finished. We finally were called up at 2:30 PM. They said they thought it was a faulty tube and had replaced it. We paid and I started to walk my bike down to transition. All athlete's bikes needed to be checked into transition by 3:00 PM. Right as I was about to walk in, my back tire popped again. I started to panic! I ran back up to the mechanic tent and told them what happened. They took my bike immediately and got to work. This time they replaced the tube and the tape that lined the inside of the wheel. With 5 minutes to spare, I finally walked my bike into transition. I said a quick little prayer that the tire would hold and left the Village.
Now all I could do was wait. Me and my family met up with a few friends for dinner and then we returned to our hotel for a quiet evening. I was a nervous wreck! I was so worked up about my tire. I had worked so hard to get to this point and if I couldn't race due to a bike issue, I was going to be devastated. I asked for prayers from my family and friends and knew that was all I could do. So I reviewed my bike and run special needs bags one last time, showered and went to bed.
It was finally race day! My husband wanted to take me to the race site so we woke up at 5:00 AM and left at 5:30 AM. We arrived at transition at about 5:45 AM. While he went and parked the car, I went to transition to check on my back tire. All the prayers worked because my tire was fine! Next, I went and turned in my bike and run special needs bags. I then headed back to transition to do a few final things. I was happy to see several friends as we were all rushing around.
I finally exited transition and found my husband. We stood together and he calmed me down as I waited to head to the swim start. It was an excited nervous feeling. As the time neared, we prayed together and he kissed me, then I was on my way. I walked towards the swim start. Ironman Arizona does a rolling swim start so you seed yourself in the time that you are expecting to finish the swim in. I squeezed my way to the 1:10-1:20 time section. It was very crowded and I realized that I should have made my way up there sooner. While I stood there, I nervously chatted with the athletes around me. I was excited! At 7:00 AM, the cannon rang out as the age group athletes started. We slowly started to move forward. I looked over and saw a Coeur sister cheering me on. After a few minutes, I was at the stairs and making my way into the water.
The morning was overcast which worked out great since we were swimming east and would have had the sun in our eyes. The swim is in the Tempe Town Lake which is actually a dammed river with concrete walls. The temperature is cold and the water is dark. I didn't let that shake me as I dove in. The rolling start helped with the crowding but there was still a lot of people.
Shortly after starting the swim we go under these bridges. It was cool to look up and see all the people cheering us on. I kept scanning for my family but I never saw them.
For the first mile of the swim, there was a lot of pushing, hitting, and swimming over by other people. I definitely did not like that. I had heard it was a common occurrence at these races due to the large number of participants and the fact that I was swimming with men. Most of the races I have participated in have swim waves and I start with women. Most women are not as aggressive in the swim as men are. As I approached the first turn buoy, it was very crowded. I decided to swim with my head up to avoid getting hit in the head. It may have slowed me down a bit but I felt like it was safer. Around this time I began to get calf cramps. This was something new. I had never had this happen during a swim. When I would feel them coming on I would stop kicking and just swim with my arms. The fact that I was in a wetsuit helped keep me buoyant even though I wasn't kicking. At the second turn, I swam with my head up again. After that turn, the crowds finally began to thin out and I no longer was getting beat up by other swimmers. I continued to have the calf cramps. I knew that if I got into trouble, there were plenty of kayaks and stand up paddle boards that I could have rested on. But since the cramps would leave when I stopped kicking, I just did that when they appeared.
I made the final turn that took me to the exit stairs. I was so happy! I was just about to finish the 2.4 mile swim! I finished in 1:19:21. At the stairs, there were volunteers there to help us stand. I'm glad they were there as I was a bit wobbly when I stood up. It was amazing to see and hear all the people cheering as we exited the water. I had a huge smile on my face and waved to the cheering crowd.
I ran to the wetsuit strippers and had them yank my suit off in one second. It was awesome! I then ran along the path to the bike transition bags. As I was rounding the corner, volunteers yelled out my race number so another volunteer could find my bag and have it for me when I arrived. I grabbed my bag and headed for the women's changing tent. I stopped by the bathroom first and then entered the tent. I had a volunteer meet me and sit me down. She grabbed all the stuff out of my bag and helped me get dressed and all my gear together. She was very helpful. I stopped by the sunscreen table and had volunteers lather me up with sunscreen. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich as I made my way to my bike.
As I approached my rack, a volunteer met me with my bike. The entire transition process went very smoothly. I finished my sandwich as I exited transition. T1 was 11:22. There was a long section between transition and the street that was lined with spectators. I finally saw my husband as I rode along that section. I smiled and waved and was then on my way.
The bike course is a three loop out and back. It starts in the city center and makes it way out to the desert. The roads were either partially or completely closed for the entire ride. Road conditions were good and the overcast skies continued to keep the temperatures down. Each loop climbs to the turnaround. There were very few times that I was out of the aero position. Luckily I had trained many hours in the aero position so I was prepared. As I was nearing the end of loop one, and making my way back into the city center, I passed an intersection that my husband and two sons were at. They yelled and cheered. I waved and smiled. It was awesome to see them there supporting me.
The bike special needs was located at the 65 mile mark. I had packed it with refill powders so I could fill all my bottles with fresh fluids. I had been drinking one bottle of Skratch every hour. This was a plan I had worked out after becoming severely dehydrated during a 70.3 race in October where I had to DNF and go to the ER for fluids. It was a schedule that worked well for me and was keeping me hydrated. I also grabbed additional nutrition. I was eating one item every 45 minutes. I rotated between four things: a Honey Stinger chocolate waffle, Honey Stinger cherry cola chews, a Honey Stinger caramel waffle and Jelly Belly sports beans. While at the special needs aid station, I used the bathroom and ate another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I had two volunteers helping me while at the station which was very nice.
As I returned to the city center to finish loop 2, I once again saw my family cheering for me at the intersection. It was such a boost to see them. I was still feeling good and was ready to attack the final loop. The first two loops had a head wind going up the hill and a nice tailwind heading down to the city but on the final loop things changed. There was a tailwind going up the hill and a headwind finishing the loop. That was a bit of a bummer. I take a lot of advantage of downhills and really fly but with a headwind I wasn't able to. Before I knew it, I was heading back into the city center for the last time. I was so excited! I had kept the speed I wanted to and was able to finished the 112 mile bike in 6:34:32. And to top it all off, I was still feeling good! I was hydrating and eating as planned and my back tire stayed inflated the entire time.
I made my way down the long narrow section from the road to transition. A volunteer met me and took my bike and directed me to the run transition bags. I was handed my bag and ushered to the changing tent. I stopped by the bathroom before I entered the tent. Once again, I was met by a volunteer to help me go through my bag and get the things I needed. It was so helpful! I put on my FuelBelt, changed my shoes, grabbed my visor, packed my back pockets with nutrition and headed out of the tent. I ate another peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my way out. I wanted to get real food into my system throughout the day and the sandwiches were a great way to do that. T2 was 9:04.
I gave high fives to volunteers as I exited transition and started my run. I was 2/3rds done with my Ironman and on cloud 9. I started running and was so surprised that my legs felt OK. Sure, I was tired but I felt OK. For the first 4 miles, I was running at a pretty good pace. I was continuing to hydrate and eat on a time schedule. I would drink one bottle of Skratch every 30 minutes and eat one thing (rotating between a chocolate waffle, cherry cola chew, caramel waffle, and sports beans) every 45 minutes. After the 4 mile mark, I started to slow down. I did the math and realized that I was good enough with time that I could walk the rest of the run and still finish the race within the 17 hour time limit. At the 2 hour mark, I stopped at an aid station and refilled my bottles with Skratch powder and water. I had the extra powder in Ziploc bags. It was a messy and time consuming process but it needed to be done.
The run was a two loop course bordering the Tempe Town Lake. It had sections that were lined with lots of spectators and other areas that were empty. There was even a section that was lined with some of my Coeur sisters cheering. Since it was mostly an out and back, you were never really alone though because there were always other runners nearby.
The run special needs station was just passed the half way point. I stopped to grab additional hydration powder and nutrition. My husband met me there and we chatted for a few minutes. He walked with me as I read a few notes that my coach and girlfriend had written me. I placed them in that bag because I knew that I was going to need an additional mental boost around this point. The notes made me tear up but in a good way. I gave my husband a kiss and went on my way.
I refilled my bottles at the next aid station. Once again, it was a messy and time consuming process but it had to be done. I also started to use the bathroom quit often. At least I knew I was well hydrated.
My goal had been to run for at least the first 13 miles. I had slowed down but I was able to run until the 20 mile mark. By mile 20, I was hurting. My feet were killing me. I stopped at a porta potty. I sat there for a few minutes and cried. I needed a minute by myself to talk to God. I prayed for strength to get through the final 6 miles. I exited the bathroom refreshed and determined to finish. I started to walk. I was OK with that. At about mile 21.5, a fellow Las Vegas Triathlon Club member ran up beside me and started to walk with me. He was racing after recovering from an injury as well. We walked and chatted for a few minutes. It was so nice because it took my mind off of the race for a few minutes. I told him that he didn't need to stay with me because I didn't want to hold him back. He said that he was going to walk to the 23 mile mark which was the crest of the hill so we might as well walk together. This was such a blessing. Before I knew it, we were at the top of the hill and we started to run again. We stayed together for the remainder of the race.
At about 1.5 miles out, my husband met us along the road. He told us the time and that we were going to finish this race. He told us that if we kept the pace we were at, that we were going to finish under 15 hours. I was in shock! My original goal was to just finish. My second goal was to finish with a smile on my face. My third goal was to finish in 15 hours. It was looking like I was going to hit all those goals. My husband then took off running so he could watch me finish.
Ironman had given all athletes a green rubber bracelet to give to someone who helped us over the weekend. It could be someone at the hotel, Ironman Village, a volunteer, your coach, a family member, etc. As we neared the final stretch, I took my bracelet off and gave it to my friend. With his help, the final 5 miles had flown by. Our chatting had taken my mind off the pain. I will forever be grateful for his help.
We made the final turn and could see the finisher's chute. We were finally there. My friend had completed this race a few time before. He turned to me and told me to run ahead of him so that I could have my moment. He would make sure that there was plenty of space between us so I could savor the final few feet of the race. I thanked him, touched his shoulder in gratitude and turned towards home.
The lights were so bright and the music was blasting. The chute was lined with hundreds of spectators and fans. And they were all cheering for me! I raised my hands and pumped them to the music. I saw a friend's husband along the side of the chute and gave him a high five. I was smiling so big. I slowed my pace and took it all in. For those final moments, I felt no pain. I finished the 26.2 miles in 6:26:58 for an overall finishing time of 14:41:17.
I couldn't see him but I heard Mike Reilly say "Sarah Girven, you are an Ironman! Come on Sarah, we're here for you. Sarah Girven, Las Vegas. Again, Sarah, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN! Sarah Girven, Las Vegas, Nevada."
I crossed the finish line and immediately burst into tears. I was overcome with emotion. The volunteer that handed me my medal asked if I was OK. I shock my head yes. She said "just emotional?" I shock my head yes. I pulled myself together and was usher towards the wall to get my finisher's picture. I was still in disbelief but I smiled the biggest smile ever.
As soon as the pictures were taken I could here my name being called. I turned around and my husband was standing at the barrier. I made my way over to him and we embraced. I cried again. He told me he was so proud of me. He might have cried a little too.
I was funneled through to the food tent and grabbed a piece of pizza and a drink. I sat down in a chair, looked up and could see my family. They couldn't come in to where I was so I got back up and made my way to the exit. We all hugged. My boys were so proud of me. We made our way over to another tent where I sat down and tried to eat my pizza. I wasn't very hungry. As I sat there, the exhaustion came over me. They helped me take off my shoes and put on flip flops. I was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel. On our way out, we stopped so my husband could take one more picture. I look so tired but happy.
We got back to the hotel just after 10:00 PM. My husband and I went to sit in the hot tub for a few minutes while the boys got ready for bed. We then went back to the room and I showered. I tried to eat a sandwich they had picked up for me at dinner. I still wasn't really hungry. I ended up just eating the meat and cheese. Then I went to bed. I figured I would go to sleep immediately and sleep like I was dead to the world. It didn't work out that way though. I had a very hard time going to sleep and had a very restless night of sleep. I've since heard that this happens a lot after big races.
I woke up early the next morning in order to go to the merchandise tent and buy some finisher's gear. My husband went with me. We spent way too much money but it was all worth it.
We then met up with my Coeur Sports Teammates again for a post-race breakfast. This is an amazing group of women that I am so fortunate to be associated with.
We ended the morning back at the hotel for a few pictures with two of my racing friends. We were sore but so happy.
We all spent hundreds of hours training for this race. Some of those hours were together but many of them were alone. Even though this sport is an individual event, it is most definitely a group effort. I know that I would not have been able to complete this journey if it had not been for the people I surrounded myself with. I had a fantastic Orthopedic surgeon, a great physical therapist, a knowledgeable coach, an amazingly supportive husband, and many wonderful friends. I met so many amazing people along the way. I will forever be blessed by their friendship and help.
On Sunday, November 20, 2016, I pushed my body beyond what I ever thought it was possible of doing. My mind fought off the darkness that attacks when you are in the depths of a race. My heart reached for that dream that seemed so far away. No matter what you are facing in your life, you are stronger than you can ever image. You are capable of achieving the impossible.