Ironman began as a challenge thrown down from my aunt over a year ago. Along the way, I have enjoyed getting to know her more closely as we talked, planned, encouraged, and trained together. Triathlon has a way of connecting people! As we walked over to the transition area, I read to her my latest text message from my daughter and my aunt almost cried. It was beautifully written and helped both of us calm our pre-race jitters.
Since I was the one who had the most triathlon experience, I was always the one helping my aunt along but today was different. I was in panic mode as we dropped off special needs bags, aired up bike tires, tried to find the body markers, scurried to suit up for the swim and stand in line for one last potty break. My aunt was the calm one as she reminded me of my daughter’s message for the day, smile and have fun or it’s pointless!
We crowded our way through to the swim entrance. I had worried for weeks about the water temperature but our practice swim the day before was therapeutic on many levels. We jumped in and said goodbye to each other as we made our way to open spots in the traffic of 2500+ athletes. Surprisingly I felt all alone. The emotion of a year’s worth of preparation hit me and I started to tear up as every swimmer was yelling in answer to, “Who’s going to be an Ironman today!?”
Then it was back to business; calming my heart rate, treading water while cleaning out my goggles of salty deposits and repositioning myself in a nice open spot of water. I kept repeating my race phrase given to me from my best friend, “I got this!” The cannon went off and all of a sudden my open spot of water wasn’t so open anymore. It was like being in a washing machine, although I’ve never actually had that experience before. I had talked to some locals in previous days and they told me just to survive the swim.
After about 800 meters I finally was able to get in the groove but I had made the mistake of positioning myself on the inside lane. Once again, total chaos ensued at the turn around point. Then I started catching slower swimmers but there were so many of them I couldn’t make a pass. Fine by me. I was content to just enjoy the battle. That’s when a swimmer behind me grabbed my ankle for leverage and started pulling me under! No sir! One kick and I decided it might be worth it to make a pass.
The finish was just as wild as the start but I climbed out and immediately sought out my wife who was volunteering at the water exit. I hugged her and got a sweet kiss! That’s all I needed. I got this!
I was smiling at everybody as I made my way to the transition tent. I just finished an Ironman swim! I am racing in an actual Ironman! The weather was absolutely stunning for this day. As I made my way out on the bike I was still smiling, getting caught up in the reality of what I was doing. Then I proceeded to get back down to business and check my heart rate. Way too fast! I had experienced bonking before and there was no way I was going to go through that today. I didn’t care about my speed on the bike, only my targeted heart rate zones. The 3 lap, 37 mile looped course was exactly like the locals had said it would be; a false flat heading up into the hills with a wind in my face, then reversing that for the way back into town. I was flying on the return trip!
Again, I soaked up the crowds as I scanned for loved ones, grinning all the way. That’s when the day started to get hard. The wind had shifted and stiffened for the last 2 loops. Not to mention that I had to go to the bathroom really bad. My coach had advised me not to waste time stopping and just go right on the bike but my bike mechanic threw a fit when he heard that and told me to find another mechanic if I followed that advice. I couldn’t take it any longer and stopped at mile 50 for some relief. It’s a blessing to have to empty your bladder during this long of a race; it means the nutrition plan is working.
The second loop finally thinned out the mass of racers and I thought I was doing great…until the pros started passing me like was I standing still. I was so impressed! Those guys and gals are good! I had put my competitive drive to bed long before this race so there was no temptation to be like them. God made me as me and all I wanted to do was be able to use me for His glory!
The mental games started on the third loop. I loved what the race organizer said the night before, “Don’t try to control Ironman. You’ll be in for a long and disappointing day. Let the race come to you.” One hundred twelve miles is a long way in the desert wind with your main motivation coming only from within. That’s when all those supportive text messages, phone calls, emails, and training days with partners come into play. It’s weird to say and I even considered chalking it up to hallucinations, but I literally felt the prayers and people back home pulling me along. It’s also a great time to have some ongoing conversations with God; His presence is never more real than in the desert of loneliness. With each passing mile I was convinced, I got this!
Never before had I ever run 26.2 miles. This was going to be my first. After a quick change, I exited the tent and began my first of 3 laps. I noticed I wasn’t smiling as much. I also noticed the GI problems that started on the bike were getting worse. I expected leg pains but this was a new kind of pain and a new level of doubt. Not to mention that every advice I received in the past was telling me to expect “hitting the wall” at some point during the run. I thought it would come at mile 18 or 20, my furthest ever distance. I hit it at mile ONE! I knew the aid stations were every mile apart so when I got to the first one, I was ecstatic. That was an easy mile. I was making this worse than it needed to be. I was trying to control Ironman. Then I looked back and noticed that I was only 200 yards from the start!
I was in trouble. My mind was playing tricks on me. My gut was playing gymnastics in me. And now I was starting to notice I was getting dizzy and my vision was cloudy. I checked my heart rate and it was good but I then noticed that I wasn’t sweating as much. I attempted to stick to my nutrition plan but it wasn’t working. I was supposed to run every 10 minutes and walk 1 but that wasn’t happening either. The walks kept getting longer and longer until I passed a Godsend in the crowd who said, “Just keep moving forward. Get some calories and keep pressing toward the goal.”
The sun hadn’t even set and I was already freezing; another warning sign. So I stopped as soon as I could to get my long sleeve shirt and it helped. I wasn’t going to take the on-course nutrition until way later in the race but I had to do something different. Starting at mile 10, I was downing the coke, water, perform, chips, oranges, bananas, and chicken broth at every aid station. I was expecting my body to completely rebel but the opposite happened. God was right. I needed those calories and He made sure I got the message.
I passed mile 18, then 20 and no wall. In fact, the last 6 miles felt better than the first 20. Could have been adrenaline or the calories but I’m convinced it was God. By this time in the race I was preaching to myself. The Bible records that Moses thought he couldn’t lead the Israelites away from Pharaoh and God told him, “I will be with you.” Gideon thought he was too weak to take a stand and God told him, “I will be with you.” Jeremiah said he wasn’t good enough to be God’s prophet and God told him, “I will be with you.” Jesus Himself made a promise to me that “I will be with you, even to the very end of the age.” Translated, that means, “Kouba, don’t worry about it, I got this!”
One last piece of advice the race director gave us was to relish the finish. He made a wise crack that he thought it was silly for athletes to struggle through 140.5 miles and then sprint to the finish. Savor it. Enjoy it. Soak it all up. And that’s exactly what I did! I had longed for and dreamed of the day when I would hear, “Mike Kouba, you are an Ironman!” Words cannot express the feeling of crossing that finish line; nor can they express my deepest appreciation for my relatives, my coach, my friends and my God who were with me every step of the way. It was your dedication to me that fueled the accomplishment! Coach Booher is so right, “It’s not about the T-shirt, it’s about the transformation.” Not to diminish anything about this journey, I long for and dream of the day when I hear a much higher voice proclaim a much more meaningful phrase, “Mike Kouba, well done good and faithful servant. Enter into your Father’s rest!” As Ironman has taught me, I just need to follow the training plan, draw strength from God’s people, allow Him to receive all the glory when He crosses me over that line as I see His face nodding, “I told you I got this.”