IronMan Lake Placid 2012
Beyond the Finish Line
By Tony Sforza
The Peak of emotions began for me on the downhill slope of Mirror Lake Drive. As I made a right turn and then a quick left into the Olympic Oval, the next 30 seconds leading up to the moment I went through the finishing arch were filled with both physical pain and joy. It was a moment in time that will remain with me forever. I felt a deep sense of pride in what I had just accomplished but at the same time felt very humbled by; the 2.4 miles of water I swam through battling against the flailing arms and legs of other athletes, the 112 miles of road I traveled by bike dealing with heat and wind and the 26.2 miles on foot fighting physical exhaustion and dehydration. All the hours I spent training had now come to fruition, and for the first time in 15 hours and 15 minutes my body stopped moving as I stood still and absorbed my moment beyond the finish line.
Now rewind one week... My wife and soul mate Jen Howard developed a kidney infection and she was placed antibiotics. Two days later she did not feel any better and had an elevated body temperature so her Doctor changed her medication to a different antibiotic. At this point she began to prepare herself mentally that if by the end of the week she didn’t feel better it would be possible that she wouldn’t race on Sunday. At the same time a flare up of my chronic left shoulder impingement made it difficult for me to even raise my hand above my head. Just the thought of swimming for me was impossible. With the help of ART (Active Release Technique) I was able to get to the point where my shoulder pain was tolerable and even though I had finished two Iron distances in the past two years achieving the status of "IRONMAN", my shoulder felt more like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz with his squeaky arm in need of oil. By mid week, I was ready as I could be to race, but Jen was still not feeling better. On Wednesday during our trip up to Lake Placid from Northport Jen started feeling worse than she did early in the week and we ended up going to the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. Jen was placed on an IV, had blood work and was evaluated by a Physician's assistant. When she told him she was scheduled to do the Ironman race on Sunday he said "Hey that's the Run, Bike and Swim thing here this weekend right?" Jen and I looked at each other and smiled, thinking quietly to ourselves, how many times we have heard that question posed in the wrong order. He then asked the distances, to which we responded and educated him on the correct sequence of the three disciplines. He then said, "Oh my gosh! You guys don't do that all in one day, do you? We both nodded, Jen wasn’t smiling anymore, she was worried and I knew it. He told Jen he would like to add 600mg of Ibuprofen to her antibiotic regimen and as far as the Bike, Swim and Run thing went, Jen would just have to see how she felt over the next couple of days. Friday night, Jen made the decision she would do the race but proceed with caution. For those of you who know Jen, you know she always gives everything she has not only in her training but in every race and in her life in general. I know that for her, realizing she would not be able to go full throttle when she needed to at this event with her best effort was a disappointment to say the least, but I must say I glow with pride at the fact that she did this race and completed it anyway.
This year Jen and I rented a house along Mirror Lake with friends and the days prior to the big dance were filled with a relaxed atmosphere, which certainly helped minimize some of the normal pre-race anxieties. There were lots of laughs and stories of triathlon life. A strange breed we are, and some of our stories would find your average folk shaking their heads in disbelief, but to us, this is our life. A life we thoroughly enjoy and embrace to the fullest extent. I heard stories from friends, one a cancer survivor, and another who found himself in the midst of a torrential storm just a few days prior. These and many other stories bring light to the fact that the physical condition of an Ironman triathlete seems to prepare us well for life's battles.
Well, Sunday was to be yet another battle and it began with a 4 am wake up knock on our door. I finished assembling my race day bags and at 5 am walked about a mile with Jen, Coach Donna McMahon and TRE mate Anne Silverman to the transition area to get body marked and slip into my wetsuit. At 6:25 am it was time for our entire team to gather and share a moment of inspirational words by Team Coach Jose Lopez who reminded us all to “give love out on the course and you will get it back ten fold in return”. These words proved to be very true for many that day. At 6:50 the Pro's began their race and I stepped through the swim start arch and entered the water. There were 2896 athletes in a very small body of water and somehow at 6:59, I along with Jen and Teammates Anne Silverman, Marc Blumencranz, Christine Grippo and Gina Giordano, we found ourselves right in the heart of this mass. Christine exclaimed "Guys, we’re in trouble!", and I thought yes we are certainly “not in Kansas anymore”. The canon shot rang out and this mass of swimmers started to move. I just buried my head in the water and began to move forward along with this wave, battling most of my way to the first turn buoy.
Exiting the swim was a tremendous relief and my Iron horse awaited me. The Lake Placid bike course is beautiful but very challenging. The sky was a mix of hot sun and clouds as well as wind during a good portion of the second loop. I felt great on the bike and improved my time from last year by thirteen minutes. But what I did not realize along with the majority of athletes that day was that the wind, which seemed to have a cooling effect had actually been a veil of deceit for us, for it was a lot hotter then we all thought. As I finished the bike segment of the race and proceeded to run the marathon, I started to experience symptoms of dehydration. I felt horrible during my first 13.1 miles and combined running with walking. I saw fellow athletes hunched over, or on the ground to the side of the road. Ambulances and EMS vehicles were now prevalent on the race course. Everyone’s faces were changing, the shout outs to fellow athletes diminished to merely a nod as we passed each other. I focused on that immediate stretch of pavement in front of me and nothing else. What was happening? I realized it was not just me, but just about everyone was feeling the same way. I finally made it to the half way point and grabbed my run special needs bag, in which I had some Energy Gel and a Red Bull. It was still somewhat cold from being wrapped in foil. I took a few sips and put the rest in my hand bottle. As I made my way down Mirror Lake Drive to begin my second 13.1 mile loop I passed the Team Runners Edge/ LITC band of saints. They were dancing and giving everyone high fives and shouts of encouragement. As I made my way past this band of brothers and sisters, I felt an arm around my shoulder, it was that of Bob Cook, he asked how I was doing and I said "not so good Bob", he told me "just keep a steady pace Tony, you will get through it". He gave me a tap on my back and off I went. I must have somehow been able to hydrate my body during the first loop, because I started to feel better as I picked up my pace and maintained my run without walking for the majority of my second loop. Or was it something else? In retrospect it was this special group of fellow athletes that where not racing and did not have to be there. They were there because they wanted to be there. They were there for reasons I didn't realize until I went beyond the finish line.
So down the last incline on Mirror Lake drive I went and sped into the oval on an emotional high. They say you can't argue with numbers. My second split time was about an hour faster than my first. How was that possible? I am not a good runner; this wasn't what I normally was able to do. My second split was usually slower than my first.
As I passed across the finish arch I first saw Dominic Oliviero and Jose Lopez who I gave fist bumps to, then I had the finisher’s medal placed around my neck by a volunteer, and finally I saw Jen. We gave each other a big hug. We needed no words at that moment for we knew what we had accomplished.
In the minutes that followed my body began to shut down. I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I grabbed Jen's arm I told her I needed help because I felt myself losing consciousness. I wasn't able to hydrate as well as I thought, in fact I was severely dehydrated. I put everything I had into that last loop. I was transported into the medical tent, wrapped in blankets and given an IV. My body temperature was 92 degrees (normal being 98.6). The place looked like a M.A.S.H unit. I couldn’t believe how many athletes were there. Thankfully, within the hour I felt much better.
So how did I negative split my marathon under such adverse conditions? What did I come to realize beyond my finish line? It’s simple, yes there is a lot of hard work involved by each of us as individuals, but it is the collective love and support of the ones we hold close as well as the special friends who spend an entire day cheering and supporting us which enables us to really do something special. It also goes beyond just that day. It is the compounded interest of all the days of training with team mates who each in their own way inspire us to do better and who are constantly helping us improve.
Thank you to all of those who have helped me understand that my ability to complete an Ironman race goes way beyond the finish line.
Thank you most of all to Jen, for she is my ultimate inspiration and without whom, none of my dreams would have ever become a reality.