“I don’t think I have ever exercised this much in my life!”
Overheard on the Las Vegas Strip
It was September 10, 2017. We stood with hundreds of others near the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. The sun had set, and darkness was creeping over “Madtown”. As the temperatures fell, I eagerly peered around the corner, hoping the next runner would be my sister. The minutes ticked by. All the streetlights were now on. Thirteen hours ago, we stood at the starting line as she plunged into Lake Monona for a 2.4 mile swim. After a full day, we were now standing at the finish line. More runners rounded the corner. No sister. I knew she was out there. Somewhere. I knew that at any minute she would finish this Ironman triathlon race. But when? It was getting darker.
The first Ironman competition took place in Honolulu on February 18, 1978. Fifteen competitors entered and paid the $3 registration fee. The race included a 2.4-mile rough water ocean swim off Waikiki, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run...all in one day. This race was designed to determine who was the toughest endurance athlete: the swimmer, the cyclist or the runner. However, what ultimately emerged was a whole new endurance sport, the triathlon. The athlete leading for the majority of the race ran out of water and drank too many beers. He subsequently lost his focus. Twelve competitors finished the race, and a local taxi driver won. Over the years, the Ironman has become a symbol of physical and mental toughness. The distance has remained the same, but the entry fee has greatly increased. Thousands take on the challenge hoping to complete the race in under the official cutoff time of 17 hours and earn the status of “Ironman”.
As I stood on the curb, I wondered what qualities make an Ironman. Craziness? Partially. Insanity? Perhaps. Watching the faces of runners come across the finish line, I realized it was grit that brought them to this point. True grit. But completing an Ironman is much less about possessing grit on race day and more about having grit for months leading up to the race, even years. My sister definitely has grit.
I remember years ago she came to see me in Kona, Hawaii, and we decided to visit some coffee plantations. We both enjoyed coffee, and the chance to drink Kona coffee where it is grown was an opportunity we could not let slip by. We had a vision of our day… leisurely biking along the gorgeous coast, cool breezes blowing through our hair, the scent of plumeria wafting in the air and sipping coffee in lush tropical gardens. We walked into a small bike rental shop tucked in the back of a strip mall. Our eyes scanned the shop as we stood just inside the door, unable to move any further inside. Bikes in all states of disrepair were piled everywhere. Old bikes. Rusted bikes. Bent bikes. Bikes without wheels were haphazardly thrown in every available spot. A man appeared outside the “store” with two bikes. “Sorry about the mess. Just trying to clean up after the earthquake.” As we adjusted the seats, I recalled the earthquake that shook the island three months prior. “Rough earthquake,” I said.
The bikes were rough, but they worked, sorta, and despite knowing the likely origin of these bikes, we had coffee to sip. The price was right, we were on our way and the warm sun shined on our backs. Well actually, it burned our backs. It was hot! The cool breezes were nonexistent, and our happy smiles started to fade.
The gentle hills we had earlier envisioned were also nonexistent. They were mountains. Mountains covered with black lava. At the top of the first mountain, we became two fried eggs sizzling in a cast iron pan. “It must be just over that next mountain,” I said panting. Ninety minutes and many mountains later, “It must be just over that next mountain.” As my sister cursed her broken bike gears, we continued up one more mountain. Another half hour later, there were no cool breezes in our hair, the only smell was our own sweat and the thought of a hot cup of coffee, even Kona coffee, made our stomachs somersault. With our goal seemingly out of reach and no true grit, we turned around.
As we flew down the mountains, the nonexistent cool breezes started to blow. After resting on the beach, we rode back to the bike shop. The gears didn’t work, the tires were rubbing, and the bikes were making strange noises. But the wheels were still rolling. We left the bikes on the ground outside the shop. Our smiles returned.
Perhaps the Ironman seed was planted that day in Kona. However, the true grit did not develop until years later. Following a deep look at priorities and a shift in mindset, my sister’s grit started to take root. It fostered courage to make changes and a firmness of mind. She grew as a person and achieved perspective and balance in her life. Buddha wrote, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” My sister lived this positive philosophy, and her grittiness grew. She could now take on any physical challenge, whether it was a 5k run, a marathon or a bike ride to a coffee plantation.
But where was she now? It was getting colder as we stood on the curb. Sam clutched the sign she made in anticipation of her Auntie crossing the finish line.
As we have traveled the country, we have seen countless examples of grit - Pony express riders, pioneers traveling west along the Oregon Trail, hundreds of men working tirelessly building the Hoover Dam, Indians facing rough weather and government demands, civil rights advocates fighting for equality, Gutzan Borglum carving four presidents in stone. Examples of true grit throughout history are numerous, and stories of grit continue to fill headlines today. Grittiness moves the country forward and makes the human race great.
As I continued to watch for my sister, my heart went out to her. Just the thought of covering 140.6 miles in anything but a car was mind blowing. During the day, I had taken a bike ride to the starting line to cheer her on, had a relaxing Sunday second breakfast, jogged along the lake, taken another bike ride with my nieces and enjoyed dinner with my family. All while she was still on the course logging mile after mile. Today though was just one small mile on her bigger journey. I knew she was out there somewhere enjoying her ride. But where was she?
Suddenly, she came around the corner. The capitol building now stood behind her, and the finish line was ahead. She had been moving for 14 hours and 16 seconds and wore a pained look. Our shouts and cheers caught her attention. She noticed her fans, and a huge smile broke out across her face. “Megan - You are an Ironman!” echoed through the air. One proud moment in time.
Grit, with a little bit of craziness, got my best friend across the finish line. She is gritti. She is my sister.
I can’t complete this story without mention of my sister’s gritti other half. Her husband also completed the Madison Ironman race. It was his second Ironman. Congratulations Dale! I have never known someone who can accomplish so much on so little sleep. I have great admiration for you both as athletes, parents, coaches and individuals. Your kind hearts have touched many. I raise a toast to you! Cheers!