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My Journey to IRONMAN Texas and Why You Can Do This Too!
By Katie Bielat
It’s hard to put into words what finishing IRONMAN Texas means to me. I’ve wanted to do an IRONMAN for a very long time, and this race was the end of a great journey that was years in the making. I can remember watching the NBC coverage of the IRONMAN World Championships over the years, but it was kind of like watching the Super bowl, the Olympics, or the Masters. It was great sports entertainment featuring phenomenal athletes and inspiring human interest stories, but it never occurred to me that I might one day consider doing an IRONMAN.
While my husband, Brendon, was in grad school back in 2009, a bunch of his classmates got together and decided it would be fun to try a Sprint triathlon together. An invitation to join this group was extended to spouses and friends, and for some reason, the whole triathlon idea really intrigued me. Brendon passed on joining the group, but I decided to give it a try. We were all clueless and new at this, so it didn’t seem very intimidating or that I had anything to lose by joining in. I had been a runner back in the day: nothing spectacular, but good enough to take pride in it and really enjoy it. However, after sustaining a knee injury in my first marathon as a Senior in college, and then trying (and failing) to have physical therapy, bracing, and orthotics get me back on the track, my interest in running seemed to slip away. Life got busy enough that I soon forgot all about it. My husband deployed a couple of times, we moved a couple of times, and I had two children over the next few years. Although I would walk the kids in the double stroller every day, I hadn’t had a solid workout or run in years. But, I figured that at the Sprint distance, I could put the training into the swimming and the biking, try to build up to running again, and then turn the running part into walking if my old injury resurfaced. And so it began. My husband’s friends created and shared a wonderfully nerdy spreadsheet that listed everyone in the group and our weekly workouts. There were only 15 of us or so, but I was motivated by how the little blocks in the spreadsheet would magically turn green when I input “C” for cleared once my workout was complete. Not doing a workout meant that the block would remain red, and so I strived to turn each of my workouts blocks green every week. The peer pressure of being held accountable for completing my workouts and the realization that I was going to commit to doing a triathlon at the end of this training was highly motivating for me.
I didn’t have much gear when I committed to doing a triathlon, but then again, I didn’t know what I needed. I had an old swimsuit and an even older pair of goggles. I had some running shorts, running shoes, and some old cotton t-shirts. I had a gym membership. The gym had a pool and I figured that I would try a spin class and use that as my bike training.
The first week of training was fairly simple: 20 minutes of swimming, 30 of biking, and 30 minutes of running. For my first swim, I hopped in a small pool that was used primarily for swim lessons and therapeutic exercising. I remember that this was a very conscious decision because there was no way that I was getting into that scary looking, deep, olympic-sized pool that was built for college swim meets. I struggled to breathe and didn’t get in very much distance during these first 20 minutes (not that I even knew the various pool sizes or how one counts swimming laps), but I did what I could during that time. Later that week, I went to a spin class. And then I ran/walked on the indoor track. Training was officially underway.
As the weeks went by, I started to really enjoy my training, partially because I realized that I was starting to make some real progress. There were “time trial” points along the way where we had to time ourselves for certain distances and then record our results in the spreadsheet. I can’t remember what my times were, but I had gone from not exercising at all and barely being able to get across the pool, to starting to feel like I might be able to complete this triathlon within the permitted time frame. I was enjoying it. I was doing something for me. I was getting healthier. I was feeling stronger.
It was less than two weeks before race day. I didn’t have a bike yet. I didn’t know what I should wear. I had never done any open water swimming. I didn’t know how the whole transition from sport to sport actually took place. I found out that I was pregnant. Most doctors advise against doing a triathlon while pregnant due to the inherent risks associated with sports that might involve getting kicked (swimming), crashing (biking), and overheating (running). However, I was very early on in my pregnancy and wasn’t feeling sick yet, so I decided that I would continue with my plan to do the race but take extra care to be safe.
That next week was a whirlwind of acquiring gear and figuring out how to put our training into practice for a race. I found a place that rented wetsuits. I bought an ill-fitting helmet and an entry level hybrid bike (I was too scared to ride a road bike with curly handles and skinny tires). I found some tri-shorts online. Our little training group got together to listen to someone who had done a triathlon before who could give us some advice, answer our silly questions, and calm our anxious nerves.
Race day arrived and it was unseasonably cold, but we were too excited to care. We lined up for pictures in our wetsuits. We gave cheesy thumbs-up and took pictures with our bikes (some rented or borrowed, some newly purchased). We set up our gear in transition. We waded in to test out the water and surveyed the swim course. We still felt nervous, but we were as ready as we would ever be.
From that point on, I was hooked. I finished that first race and loved the feeling I had of accomplishment. This was actually fun. This made me feel like I was part of something really exciting and part of a wonderful community. I loved everything about it: the training, the gear shopping, the race selection process, the people doing the sport, and the challenge of it all. It took guts to get off the couch and try something that I knew nothing about, but this stretching of my comfort zone proved to be just what I needed. I had learned so much from that race; about myself, the sport, how to improve for next time, and how I could make this a regular and healthy part of my life. I would do this same race again after my pregnancy the next year, but this time, Brendon joined in. He had seen through my experience how rewarding this could be and how easy it was to jump onboard with this. The next thing we knew, we put an Olympic distance race on our calendar and bought our first road bikes. I bought the rental wetsuit. We were committing to making this our sport.
However, registering for an Olympic distance race felt like quite a step up from our experience with the sprint distance. It felt scary and unknown, and like we were beginning all over again. But, we were on a roll now and we knew what to do. We drew up a new training plan suited for this longer distance, shared it online with anyone who we could convince to join us, and focused on what it would take to reach this next goal together.
From here, things just snowballed. The more triathlons we did, the more fun we had, the more we sought to find new ways to challenge ourselves. As the years went by, we moved a few more times and added another kid into the mix (if you’re keeping track, I have four kids now), but we kept coming back to triathlon. I had various injuries and setbacks that would keep me down and out for a few months here and there, but I always found a way of making a comeback and building back to where I had left off. Together, we found that triathlon helped us feel connected in our new communities. We learned about the local triathlon, swimming, and running groups, and we got to know our new hometowns and nearby cities by participating in local races. We made great friends through the sport and enjoyed encouraging new friends not involved in the sport to give it a try.
We were content with doing sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, but with those around us completing longer distances, we wondered what that might feel like and if we had it in us to go longer. In 2011, we finally signed up for our first half iron-distance, Timberman 70.3. We loved it. We were amazed at the talent at the race, and were star-struck when Chrissie Wellington hung our medals on our necks. We enjoyed the big-league feeling of this challenge, and, well, if we could do a half…
In the fall of 2016, the timing finally felt right. My kids were in school now and I had two half Ironman races under my belt, a tri-club full of friends and experienced triathletes to lean on, the unwavering support of my husband, and the honor of representing Coeur Sports for my upcoming race season. I made the leap and signed up for my first Ironman race: IRONMAN Lake Placid on July 24,2016. I had done a lot of research as to which race to select as my first (and most likely only) IRONMAN, but I had eyed this race in particular for many years. I had long ago fallen in love with the idea of racing in the picturesque town of Lake Placid with a beautiful lake swim, a challenging but gorgeous bike ride with rolling hills, a well-supported run course, and a spectacular finish line in the iconic Lake Placid Olympic Oval. I paid the hefty entrance fee, committed to lodging for the week, and readied myself for what was going to be a solid six months of training. Although I had used online training plans for my previous triathlons, I was intimidated by the large increase in training time and race distance, so I hired an online coach to help me structure my workouts and keep me on track. I started training around Thanksgiving, and I spent the cold and dark Winter mornings getting up before dawn and pounding out my workouts.
As I got stronger, faster, and built up my endurance, I felt more confident that I could actually do this. Things were really coming together for me. I felt really, really good, aside from a little nagging pain in my right food. In an abundance of caution, I decided to get it checked out, just so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it developing into a bigger problem. Needless to say, I didn’t see it coming when my doctor gave me the news; I had not one, but two fractures, the high-risk types that don’t heal very well. All of my training came to a screeching halt. I wore a boot for the next few weeks and watched all my hard-earned fitness slip away. My doctor had said that not everyone was built to be able to do an IRONMAN, and given my recent injury, that maybe I should readjust my goals. I tried continuing to swim a little, but my foot hurt too much. This was a really tough time for me, as not only was I experiencing physical pain, but emotional pain as my dream slowly died as time ticked by and I remained sidelines with a slow-healing fracture.
I moved to Florida that summer and IRONMAN Lake Placid came and went. I tried not to think about it that day, but I was keenly aware of how differently my summer was unfolding than how I had pictured it many months ago. I was freshly out of the boot, just beginning physical therapy, and starting a couch to 5k running and walking program. Here I was starting from ground zero again, an all too familiar place for me now, and uncertain of whether or not I should try again to train for an iron-distance race. Nothing seemed certain except for the fact that I knew I need to give myself some time and find my way back to the sport that I loved and had given me so much.
Although I had intended on connecting with one of my local triathlon groups upon moving to Florida, I hadn’t linked up with them yet. It was terribly hot and I was busy slogging away at my recovery, which was continuing to make progress at a snail’s pace. Given how defeated I felt about IRONMAN Lake Placid and my slow recovery, I figured that waiting a bit before diving back into the triathlon world might be good for me.
I had blamed my bike for my foot injury, and I knew that it was time to work on getting over that and start riding again. During my first ride around the neighborhood, I noticed a woman wearing an IRONMAN running hat. I hesitated for a minute, but ultimately decided to turn around and strike up a conversation with her. As luck would have it, it was Stacey, my soon to be IRONMAN coach, and one of the founding members of my local triathlon club.
Stacey added me to the local triathlon group on Facebook and introduced me to the group before I even got home from my ride. I felt nervous about plugging into the group and answering some of their questions (What were my accomplishments? My goals? My pace? All intimidating questions for someone who is a bit down and out!), but I decided that I might as well jump back in. I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t in shape, but that was exactly where I had been when I started this whole triathlon journey to begin with years ago.
Being a member of the triathlon club gave me the bug to try again for an iron-distance race. Now that I was living in Florida, IRONMAN Lake Placid was no longer the logical choice. I needed to pick a race that made sense for the type of training that I would now be doing. Generally speaking, Florida is hot and flat and so is Texas. Texas wasn’t as far away as Lake Placid, and the timing of the race seemed perfect: an early season race during the school year that offered an earlier chance for redemption. I found myself chomping at the bit to get going and trying to the twist arms of my new tri buddies into joining me in training for IRONMAN Texas.
About the same time that I decided to commit to IRONMAN Texas, I applied to be a part of the Equally Inspiring Team, an initiative to connect athletes to coaches as a way of encouraging more women to become involved in the sport of triathlon. I had realized how valuable it was to have someone in my corner cheering me on through some of the tough workouts and keeping me on track, so I was thrilled to be accepted into the program, and happier still to be matched up with Coach Stacey. I connected with her right away and loved her positive, real life, down-to-earth, give-it-to-me-straight style. Stacey has lots of personal experience racing at the IRONMAN distance and helping others reach their goals, so I was very lucky to have her in my corner.
Training started in earnest in November. Although I thought that my foot was better, it would send me some occasional warning signs during my training, but I managed to keep any significant issues at bay and, with Stacey’s help, modified my workouts as necessary. Training was tough, but I was tougher. As with any well-laid plan, life handed me a few other curve-balls during my training, but I tried to take them in stride. I was a passionate woman on a mission, but I also wanted to maintain balance in my life. Family comes first, and my goal to finish happy and healthy meant that I needed to focus on my training, but keep some perspective along the way.
When race day finally came, I was excited. I wasn’t nervous because I was ready; I had waited years to toe that starting line. I had no pressure or expectations of a certain finish time, but was merely focused on finishing the race and enjoying the day. Race day was my victory lap; I had made it through the tough training days, the injuries, the moves, and all of the ups and downs of the last few months. Although I was somewhat surprised to see how male-dominated the population of athletes was at IRONMAN Texas, this made me feel all the more excited and proud to represent Equally Inspiring and Coeur Sports. I thoroughly enjoyed the swim, held strong to finish the bike despite the wind, and completed a solid run. I smiled the whole day as I thought to myself: I GET to do this. I finally got the chance to be here!
To be honest, I’m still digesting the significance of accomplishing this long-time goal. It almost doesn’t seem real that I raced IRONMAN Texas and I still feel overwhelmed by the love and support that poured in from my family, friends, Coach Stacey, my Coeur Sports and Equally Inspiring teammates, and complete strangers. To have finally accomplished this goal, I feel very humbled by all that it takes to get to the finish line. It wasn’t an easy journey, and it wasn’t without heartache along the way, but I am truly touched and honored to have had so many who wanted to see me succeed.
Almost as soon as I crossed the finish line, though, I was asked the question: what’s next? Although this is the end of my journey to becoming an IRONMAN, I’d like to think that I’m just getting going. I plan to focus on shorter races for the rest of the season (I’m currently eyeing IRONMAN 70.3 Maine and I plan to sign up for some Olympic distance triathlons and some running races).Â
But, and perhaps more importantly, I plan to continue encouraging others to try something new, to get off the couch, to get outside, to enjoy nature, to celebrate feeling empowered and strong, to have fun, and to challenge themselves in new ways outside of their comfort zone.
If you’ve read this far, I’d like to assume that maybe my story has sparkled a little interest in you. Maybe this is something that you’d like to tackle sometime soon, or maybe a year or two down the line. Start small: register for a 5k, take some swim lessons, and then let your goals snowball from there. Do not be intimidated by distance, the perceived need for fancy gear, or by what others are doing. We all approach our goals in different ways and for difference reasons. Do this for you, and enjoy the journey. Race day is the goal, but the journey is what makes the goal meaningful.
For me, the most rewarding thing about successfully completing this whole journey was hearing how I had inspired others along the way. This means the world to me and lights a fire in me to continue doing what I’m doing so that I can reach others as well. I am a strong believer that any man or woman of any age, ability, or size can do a triathlon and fall in love with all of the amazing life changes that come along with this sport. The triathlon community is very welcoming, so dare to jump out of your comfort zone and give it a try. There is a strong domino effect at play here; if you get out there and start pursuing something that makes you enjoy being active, others will want to join in with you. And, you never know, maybe you’ll change your life for the better through triathlon and set a crazy goal that you never even knew that you wanted to pursue.
A note from Equally Inspiring – Thanks to Stacey Underwood of Fishhawk Triathlon Club, Inc for donating her expertise to Tri Equal and the Equally Inspiring program!