A little over 1 year ago, I met with Coach T to discuss my racing plans for the year. While I ended up getting to race my big goal races in 2016, it had not been the year I had anticipated. Over the holidays, I had herniated a disc in my back, and spent the first half of the year trying to overcome the setback. With very little time to train, I managed to qualify for the Duathlon World Championships and race my first 70.3. But I had missed a lot of races that year, too, and after dealing with my back on and off for five years, I knew that there would come a day I would no longer be able to come back from injury.
With all of this weighing on my mind, Coach T, my husband, Matt, and I decided it was time to take on an Ironman. As a former figure skater, I already live daily with the regret that comes from giving up on your goals too early, and I didn’t want to reach the day I could no longer race triathlons without having tested my ability to do an Ironman.
Having become fairly injury prone over the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time in physical therapy in early 2017 while training for Oceanside 70.3. Toward the end of training, I was starting to develop a lot of soreness in my left hip. Several doctors’ appointments post-race determined the herniated disc was compressing my sciatic nerve. I was told I either needed surgery or could never run again. With Worlds and Ironman Arizona still ahead of me, I was crushed. I was terrified that surgery in May or June would mean both races were off the table, and it made me question if I’d even be able to race again.
I made the decision to put off surgery and figure out a path forward that included my goal races. I began doing Pilates, increased the amount of time I spent in physical therapy, and tried to spend as much time on the bike as possible. In May, I started having sciatica pain when I would walk a mile or so. I had my first steroid injections in my back the following week, but they didn’t help. Instead, the pain was getting worse. At one point I tried to run three miles, but I was in so much pain by the end I stopped trying to run at all. At the end of June, I had my second round of injections, and again they failed. By early July, I was no longer able to walk more than 50-100 feet at a time without having to stop because my left leg was in so much pain. I could still ride the trainer, but when I would try to do a “brick” and go for a walk after, I couldn’t even make it a block without having to stop and sit on the sidewalk (not a pleasant experience in downtown Oakland). On July 11, I was doing some work on the sofa after an appointment with my chiropractor. I stood up to get ready for bed and could no longer walk without the help of a cane. I laid in bed reading about discectomies while hoping the muscle relaxers and pain pills I’d taken would dull the pain enough to allow me to sleep for a few hours.
The next day, I pulled my coworker into my office. A top neurosurgeon in California, I asked him to evaluate my symptoms. Less than an hour later, I received an email from him telling me to check in at the main hospital on our campus; I was being admitted for emergency surgery with his clinical partner the next afternoon.
Matt and I spent a restless night in the hospital with frequent interruptions for neurological testing, scans, and X-rays. My pain had gotten so bad by this point that I ended up in tears by the time each scan was over. Being in any position outside of laying on my right side was becoming unbearable. Thankfully, time passed quickly and before I knew it, I was wheeled into the operating room. I woke up in post-op, and instead of bringing Matt in, they transported me back to my hospital room. I couldn’t wait to get there; all I wanted in that moment was to tell Matt that I was no longer in pain! My nurse had me up and walking around the hospital floor that night, and I had a big goofy grin on my face the entire time. I left the hospital the next day with strict instructions: no bending, no twisting, no lifting more than 10 lbs until my follow up appointment in 7 weeks. (Because they have to remove a portion of the vertebra to do a minimally invasive microdiscectomy, there is a risk of reherniating the disc while the bone heals.)
Six weeks later, Matt and I drove to Canada, where he competed at Worlds and I cheered him on as his number one fan. While I did my best to lead the cowbells, the pain that ripped through my entire body when my age group started was more than I needed to fuel my fire for the remaining 12 weeks before Arizona. (I owe a big thank you to my mom who came with us to support me through that moment.) I was cleared to start training (biking, swimming, and lifting 25 lbs) the following week, and then began running 6 weeks before the race. While Coach T had been a rock for me as I tried to will my body to be healthy all year, fighting to remain positive despite the countless tears we shared over Facetime, the trust that we had to place in one another as those last 11 weeks flew by was unparalleled.
Before leaving for Arizona, my surgeon and physical therapist both cleared me for the race. Their belief that I was not risking reherniating the disc slightly calmed my anxiety and nerves. I felt confident in my ability to swim 2.4 miles, but I had never come close to riding 112 miles on the bike and my running workouts were run/walk intervals designed to help me develop distance without putting too much pressure on my back too quickly. As we packed up the car to begin our two-day trek to Tempe, my mind was singularly focused on whether or not I could make the bike cut off. I’d never been on the bike for more than a metric century ride, which I’d done more than a year before IMAZ, and I was worried that I hadn’t regained enough of the strength I’d lost in my left leg to finish each lap in the 2:37 that I had projected would be necessary to make the cut off.
These thoughts played through my mind throughout the entire drive from Oakland to Tempe, and only intensified when we arrived at the Ironman Village the next afternoon for athlete check in and the pre-race briefing. I was simultaneously wild with excitement that I was actually getting to line up at the start line for the race I’d been working toward for almost a decade and terrified because I had no idea how my body was going to hold up. I tried to distract myself by assembling my gear bags and picking out snacks for my special needs bags.
Getting in a quick bike ride and run along the Beeline Highway two days before the race left my spirits soaring! The ride had felt so easy; without much effort, I was riding 17-18 mph on the “uphill” section, which was much faster than I would need to ride to make the bike cutoff. Coming off of that final brick, my confidence was steadily building that not only would I make the cutoff, but the 15 to 15:30 finish time I was estimating seemed well within my reach. I even started to entertain the idea of breaking 14:30.
The last 36 hours before the race seemed to fly by in a blur of prepping special needs bags and walking through final race day plans. I woke up race morning thankful I’d managed to get some decent sleep and went into autopilot following my carefully laid-out plans for the day. Arriving at Tempe Town Lake, I took in the smell of neoprene and Sharpie, which was electrified by the nervous energy filling the air. Finally convinced my gear bags and bike were ready to go, I wiggled into my wetsuit and listened to Coach T’s final pieces of advice. Almost 14 months since we first laid our plans for IMAZ, I was finally making my way to the start line in Tempe, knowing my Ironman journey had already made me stronger than I could have imagined.
As a slower swimmer, I joined the cluster of athletes waiting for the 1:45 group to move toward the water. For reasons I still don’t understand, the later swim waves were held up from entering the water. While we waited, the anxious athletes around me shared the stories of the journeys that had brought them to Tempe that morning. The distraction helped calm my own nerves for a bit, and I took a moment to savor the feelings of support and encouragement we all offered to the athletes around us before the mayhem of the day started.
Eventually I found myself jumping into the water, and my Ironman journey was underway.
I had read that the sun rising over Tempe Town Lake could cause some sighting problems on the first half of the swim, so I focused on finding the next buoy ahead of me to keep from getting wildly off course. The swim is one big loop between two bridges across the lake, and as I slowly made my way toward the first bridge, I kept counting breaths and buoys to help keep my stroking at a consistent pace. When I approached the far bridge, I realized I still had a decent amount of swimming to do after passing underneath before I hit the turn around. That was not the best feeling at the time, because I was desperate to get on the bike as quickly as possible. Once I hit the turnaround, though, I took a glance at my watch and realized I was a little ahead of my predicted swim time, and gained a little confidence.
My arms started to tire about halfway through the swim back to the dock, and I turned my thoughts to Yusra Mardini, the refugee who had helped swim her boat to safety before going on to compete in the 2016 Olympics under the refugee flag. Channeling her strength, I continued to work my stroke, once again counting down the buoys. As I finally neared the bridge, I expected to have more distance to swim before we made the turn to head to the swim exit, but I was ecstatic to see the red turn buoy earlier than I anticipated, and swam with everything my arms had left toward the stairs. Linking hands with that first volunteer and getting my feet back underneath me, I was overwhelmed by the realization that I had swam more than 2 miles for the first time in my life.
Swim split: 1:39:24
After making my way through wetsuit stripping, I picked up my T1 bag and headed into the changing tent. Every volunteer at IMAZ was amazing, but the woman helping me through T1 was one of the best. In 8:04, I was crossing the mount line and ready to ride, more than 10 minutes earlier than I was projecting.
I started to make my way through Tempe out toward the Beeline Highway and quickly realized that the conditions on race day were nothing like the conditions during my last brick two days before. A strong headwind as we were leaving town meant I was working harder and riding slower than I thought I would. All of my pre-race estimates were based on riding about 15 mph, but I found myself fighting to hit 12 mph. Instantly, I began to panic. The IMAZ bike course is three loops of an out-and-back. Despite knowing I’d have the wind at my back once I turned around, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make up the difference. Memories of how weak my left leg had gotten came flooding back, and the fear that I hadn’t regained enough strength to get through the course began to consume me. Only the day before I had confided to Coach T that I was most scared about finding myself in “the dark place,” without knowing how to fight through it, and less than 20 minutes into the bike course, I found myself entering a very scary head space.
Riding with every ounce of energy I could muster, I forced my legs to hold strong. The slight incline on the Beeline Highway felt substantially steeper than it previously had as I fought the headwind, so I focused on gutting it out to the turn around. After making it to the top, my legs immediately felt sweet relief as I made the turn to head back into town. Terrified I had fallen behind the pace I needed to survive the bike cutoffs, I dropped the hammer and tried to stay as close to 25 mph as I could, using the wind and descent to help me along. The dark place started to let up a bit, and I took a moment to savor the experience of riding through the dessert landscape. Unfortunately, by the time I finished my first loop, I was once again feeling the negativity creep in; how was I going to survive two more loops? How was I so tired and only 37 miles in?
I continued to push and fight with every ounce I could muster on the second loop, telling myself I just needed to make it to my special needs bag where I would get a little break. The climb to the turn around somehow felt even longer, and by the time I reached the top, I was starting to loose some of the joy I had felt when I first experienced the wind at my back. Part of my struggle at this point was that my stomach was no longer willing to accept the Bonk Breakers I had been eating all morning. I hoped that getting to the bag of salt and vinegar chips waiting for me down the road would help.
Pulling into special needs, I made the unfortunate mistake of educating two young girls about the pains of sitting on a bike seat for several hours before realizing just how young they were. Oops! After reapplying my sunscreen and chamois butter, and loading up on food, I headed back out to finish loop two.
Toward the end of that loop, the wind started to change direction, and I was no longer benefitting from as strong of a tailwind on the way back into Tempe. Feeling the fatigue (I was now well over the farthest I’d ever ridden) and frustration, I began reminding myself of every fight I’d had with one of my doctors for the opportunity to be racing on November 19. I thought about the tear-filled appointment when I was told I could never run again. I thought about the day I told my doctor I needed to do IMAZ because triathlon was how I cope with imposter syndrome in my work life and how failing to make it to the race would feed into my mental battles. And I thought about the hours I had spent on Facetime with Coach T trying to make sense of my rapidly deteriorating body as we both watched my goal continue to slip away. As I rounded the turn at the end of loop two, a look of complete exhaustion on my face told the question running through my mind: how was I going to finish another 37 miles?
Prior to the race, I had memorized the time of day for every cutoff along the course. I had just passed the first of the three bike cutoffs, and was anxious to see how much of a cushion I had given myself. In attempting to check my watch for the time of day, I hit the wrong button and sent my watch into counting my T2 time. While I was annoyed with myself for no longer being able to track my total race time for the day, I was relieved to see I had a huge lead on the bike cutoff times.
That relief was short-lived, though. As I pushed myself to keep pedaling, I felt every muscle in my legs begging me to stop. I was still struggling to eat (although the salt and vinegar chips had helped) and I was getting really sick of the orange Gatorade on the bike course. I began thinking about all of the squats my physical therapist had pushed me through, and all of the other strength exercises we’d worked on in preparation for this day. I thought about the days I was still able to ride before my surgery, when I thought that maybe I could just do the swim and bike at IMAZ. I thought about the first day I got back on the bike after my surgery, hot tears of happiness trickling down my cheeks, and I thought about the work Coach T and I had put into being on the course that day. I tried to find the deepest sources of strength and motivation within my heart, and rode with everything I had to give.
It wasn’t until I made the turn on the final loop that I finally believed I was going to finish the bike. With a weaker headwind, I had gained more of a cushion on the bike cutoff, and once I made that last turn, I focused on using the downhill as much as possible. My legs were exhausted. I had never been challenged more physically or mentally. And I wanted desperately to no longer be sitting on my bike seat. As I began approaching downtown Tempe, I could see the sag vehicle starting to pick up cyclists who wouldn’t finish the final lap heading out of town, and I took a moment to appreciate what I’d accomplished so far that day. Crossing the dismount line, fresh tears filled my eyes; instead of the possible 8 to 8.5 hour ride I had anticipated, I covered all 112 miles in 6:55:19.
Another stellar volunteer in T2 helped me swap out gear as quickly as I could. Starting to feel some stomach issues setting in, I made a quick pit stop before lathering up with more sunscreen and heading out for the run. T2 time: 6:49.
As soon as I passed through run out, I heard Coach T call to me from the side of the course. In what is possibly the biggest sunscreen- and sweat-filled hug ever, I began sobbing. One of the driving factors that kept me going when I wanted to stop on the bike course was knowing she was waiting for me, knowing how much she had worked to get me to race day, and knowing I didn’t want to be her first athlete to not finish. I told her the dark place was the scariest place I had ever been mentally, and I was so happy to be off the bike. With more than 8 hours to go before midnight, she told me I could walk the entire marathon and still finish. Her words, “You are going to be an Ironman tonight,” rang through my ears for the next 26.2 miles.
I had only been cleared to begin running just six weeks before IMAZ, and I knew it was going to be a run/walk battle to the finish line. I started out trying to stick to my 3 min run/2 min walk plan, but quickly realized I needed to focus on just walking for a bit. My stomach was getting worse and I was behind on my calorie intake, so as I made my way along Tempe Town Lake, I focused on getting my stomach to accept some gels. About twenty minutes later, I was in a much better place, and I took off on my run/walk intervals again. The IMAZ run course offers several opportunities to run through the staging area for the race, which had to be one of my favorite parts of the day. Group after group of (inebriated) spectators in some amazing costumes cheered on runners, and each time I ran through that section, I could feel their energy carrying me through.
Continuing along the route, I came up on one of the two blind athletes racing just as I was starting my walk break. After experiencing the loneliness of the bike course, I seized the opportunity to be inspired by another athlete on the course and took an extended walk break to talk and eat. I learned about how they run trail races together and the relationship they have built, trusting one another through each race. Hearing their story was motivating and powerful, and as I took off running again, I started thinking about the story each athlete on the course could tell about their journey to race day.
I made it another couple of miles before finding I needed a bathroom pit stop. In a recurring theme for the rest of the race, I would feel like I needed to dash to the bathroom immediately, only to find out I was just full of gas. This pattern would occasionally disrupt the rhythm I had developed, sometimes forcing me to stop running for a 10-15 minute walk break. But every time I was able to get back into my normal run/walk pattern, my running felt incredibly strong and I was holding a surprisingly solid pace, even without taking into account everything I had put my body through already. With each mile, a bigger and bigger smile spread across my face, eliciting endless comments from spectators cheering me toward the finish line.
Sunset on the course meant I was able to start getting chicken broth at the aid stations, and for a while the warm liquid worked wonders on my stomach. Finishing the first loop, I was looking forward to the licorice and potato chips in my special needs bag (they were not as helpful as I had hoped due to my stomach issues), but more importantly, I had asked Matt to write a note to put in my bag. When the day started, and during several moments on the bike, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it far enough to be able to read his letter, so as I pulled it out of my bag tears came to my eyes. I will never be able to fully describe the strength and support Matt provided throughout my injury and recovery, even while he also maintained his own training for IMAZ. His words of encouragement in his letter, which included a photo of Coach T with her cowbell, reminded me of the eight-year journey I had spent pursuing an Ironman finish line, and it pushed me forward to finish the last 13 miles.
Continuing to battle with my stomach, I began trying to figure out how long I had been on the course. After messing up my watch earlier, I wasn’t sure what my total time was, and I wasn’t even sure what time I had actually gotten in the water given the delayed start to really calculate. Given my best estimate, though, I could tell I was well ahead of my goals for the day, and I began focusing on minimizing the need for walk breaks. I found myself entering an autopilot mode on my final loop that would only get interrupted occasionally by my stomach. With about 10K to go, my stomach stopped accepting any food. Instead of dwelling on it, I became determined to run as much of the rest of the course as I could.
Crossing over the final bridge to make my way to the finish line, my mind began replaying the conversations I’d had with Coach T and the emotional rollercoaster we’d ridden together. I thought about the day before my surgery when I had to use a cane to get to work. I thought about the day of my surgery when I was in tears having to stand for X-rays. And I thought about the victory that every post-surgery workout had been. As the roar from the crowd at the finish line continued to grow, tears started filling my eyes. Making the final turn and seeing the finish chute ahead of me, my breath got caught in my chest. The faces of every single person that had helped me reach that day played through my mind as I heard Mike Reilly call out my name. Crossing the finish line, a wave of emotion washed over me and I collapsed on top of the volunteer helping me through the finish area. Tears streamed down my face as I made my way over to Coach T, basking in the moment and everything we had fought to accomplish together. Run split: 5:36:09.
Total time: 14:25:45.
Amanda Woerman, you are an Ironman.