Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I am officially a Half-Ironman finisher

8/1/2009. Barb’s Race – 1.2 mile Swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile Run. My first attempt at becoming a Half Ironman. Sonoma, CA.

Alarm goes off at 505 am. Wondering if I slept or been up all night or if I have been dreaming. I feel ok. I feel rested. However, I do remember debating all night…can I do this? What if I panic in the water? What if I could say I’m not feeling up to it and just not do it? But all my friends are here for me, to cheer me on…I can’t betray them! How am I going to run a half marathon after riding 56 miles? Can I really swim 1.2 miles? What was I thinking when I signed up for this race? Was my training enough? Bla bla bla on and on and on… then at some point I told myself, I’m here for a reason. I’ve made it thus far. I can’t think of the entire race right now. I just need to swim when I’m swimming, then bike when I’m biking and run or walk when I’m running. I needed to stop driving myself crazy. The last I remember was telling myself I will do this, no matter what. Then I probably slept for real.

645am arrive at race site.

It is cold! Like 51 degrees cold, and a bit misty too. At least it’s not blazing hot first thing in the morning (trying to think positively). Detra and I finally see the rest of the gang – Shirley, Lilian and Jon – as we walk into the transition area, alongside the river where the swim part was to take place. We realized that the full ironman waves have already started (since 630am!), and basically us Barb’s race participants were the last two waves of the combined events. As I set up my transition area putting all my bike stuff together in order and put on my tight as heck wetsuit, Shirley, Detra and Lilian all showed up to cheer me up before the race. I have to say, all my nerves and excitement, as well as my gratitude for their support all welled up into a big ball of…tears and I hugged them as I thanked them for being there with me and getting on the course as a relay team to keep their caring eyes on me throughout. Let me tell you, I could not have gotten to the start line without these girls (and Jon, who was holding the “Club Minnie” sign and videotaping us the whole time)

815am – line up at the swim start, an in-water start

The gun goes off, my mind is empty. I just start. I have about an hour of swim ahead of me, so I really couldn’t afford to waste my energy worrying about stuff. Instead, I filled my head with random songs, the Lord’s Prayer (if you repeat that like a 100 times, you’re done), happy thoughts, pretending I was training, pretending the people grabbing my ankle and hitting on my face weren’t there, I wasn’t even thinking about where the turnaround point was, I was just going, stroke after stroke, completely mindless. No panic attacks (usually happens in the first 10 minutes of pretty much every swim, every race), no nothing…just swim. The only thing that kinda bugged me was that the goggles were fogging up a lot, but because there were so many buoys along the course to sight through the foggy goggles it didn’t bother me as much. Or I was forcing myself not to be disturbed by it.

After a while, finally I see two red gigantic triangular buoys where people were turning around. As I got closer, I could vividly see the bottom of the river, making it nearly impossible to keep swimming without scraping the ground and digging up rocks. I got up and started walking (water is only up to my knees), with a smirk on my face and also saw other swimmers doing the same thing. It was then I actually cleaned out my goggles and as the river started getting deep again I started swimming – woo hoo less than half to go!!!!!

At some point, I was swimming against stream, which made me a bit tired and stressed out. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress! Ugh, ok I can’t let this get to my head, I kept going….and next thing you know I saw the finish arch from not too far away, which got me excited as heck. I was wondering how long it has been taking me. I wanted to look at my watch but it was too murky in the water to read anything. I just kept swimming until I reached the bottom again and I was 5 feet away from the swim out area…I emerged out of the water the first thing I saw was Shirley, who was out of the water about 10 minutes ahead of me, and Jon and Lilian…friendly faces…and then heard their voices… looked at my watch, 52 minutes and change…STOKED!!!! A smile on my face, greeted by volunteers that were there to help me strip out of my sausage case, I mean, my wetsuit… free at last! I run to my bike and I’m ready for my next stage…

Bike – 56 miles

One thing I did differently this year was deciding not to track my mileage but only focus on my speed and cadence. I didn’t want to count every mile I was going because I didn’t want to drain my mind with the stress of how much longer I needed to go.

To make a long ride short (not literally although that would be nice), all I can say is lots of rolling hills, a couple of challenging climbs, and strong headwinds. I mean, what’s so interesting about this course was that it was magically set up so that every turn would pick up the wind right in front me, AGAINST me. This was a rare moment I was grateful for my weight that allowed me to keep riding against the wind without being blown around! At around mile 40, after a rather challenging climb, I started getting pretty bored of riding and dealing with the ups and downs of the hills and hence the frequent shifting. Several memorable moments, tho – around mile 8, I had two chain pops on an incline which may have slowed me down a little bit, but it was just annoying to deal with because…well because, it’s something that you don’t want to deal with during a race. I was chugging along a little disturbed and irritated after having to deal with that, until I saw something rather unusual about 20 feet in front of me. As I was approaching closer to that *something* I started realizing that it was another female cyclist struggling to go up the hill…as I got even closer my jaw dropped. This woman was pedaling with one leg, and as the hill got steeper, her body was shifting side to side and front to back more frequently to help her balance, as she was putting all her might to keep her cadence going before falling off the tip of the climb. My complaining mouth just had to be shut, and I went close to her to tell her how much I respected her endeavor – she smiled and said “have a great day!” I thanked her and I was able to get on the road with a renewed attitude. I felt like a selfish little kid for having been annoyed by a small chain problem. I was so over that at that point. God’s little reminder to focus on what’s important. I was out there in wine country, doing a half ironman, keep smiling!!!!!

The last 5 miles, as short as they were, felt a lot longer…most of it was flat and I really wanted to zoom through it all, but I wanted to conserve my energy and legs for the run. I thought it took me longer than 4 hours which kinda bummed me out, but I just saw in the official timing that it was 3 hours and 56 minutes. J a mere 4 minutes, but it makes me happy to have met my goal of 4 hours.

Run – 13.1 miles. It all started with a full-body spray of sunscreen.

The minute I entered the transition area, I heard familiar voices that brightened up my soul – Detra, Shirley and Jon were screaming my name and had a big sign with my name on it (and also a photo of me in an 80’s aerobics costume from last year’s Bay to Breakers). I had a big laugh while I moved on to my transition area…I saw Lilian, who guided me to where my run gear was as I felt completely lost in the middle of thousands of bikes. While I was putting on my running shoes and taking off all the bike gear, she sprayed sunscreen over me, from head to… I guess ankles since my toes were covered. Lilian had been waiting for me to get off my bike so that we could be on the course together, although Detra, who did the bike part of the relay, had come in over 30 minutes ahead of me. My friends, my angels…without them I wouldn’t have been able to get through this. I felt blessed throughout the race…and I needed to continue with the run, which I knew would be the most challenging part of it all.

Surprisingly when I started running I didn’t feel as bad as I used to during my brick training sessions – I could actually run for a change instead of limping right off the bike. I stuck with my original plan of 8 minute run / 2 minute walk intervals. The first 2- 3 miles were doable, and Lilian’s company made the run even somewhat enjoyable. As I was chatting and running with her, I caught something in the corner of my eye – a sign that says “Minnie You can do it”…and then I saw Shirley and Jon heading our way, apparently coming back from posting more signs. Gosh, seeing my friends over the course just made me so happy, made the long grueling race so much easier. Their smiling faces, their words of encouragement…sometimes all you need are those two things to get through a tough time. I was the happiest participant in the race.

Lilian and I kept going, she graciously slowed herself down to stay with my slow and sluggish pace. We were cracking jokes, encouraging other runners to keep going, enjoying the scenery and the occasional aroma of horse manure.

Starting around mile 5, what was very familiar but forgotten for a split second reared its ugly head – yes, my hip flexor pain! Took 3 advils out of my race belt and just kept going. Shortly thereafter, my already pretty slow run started getting slower, and some of the smiles were turning into cringes. I told Lilian that my pain was getting worse, and that we needed to slow down. She was very understanding, she still managed to slow down even more (if that was possible) for me. As we progressed regardless (slow and steady wins the race! Well in this case finishes the race), the pain got worse. As much as I asked Lilian to run at her speed ahead of me so that she could get a good run, I was so relieved that she was next to me at that moment. At the start of our second loop (around mile 9) a thought struck me, that I might not be able to get through this, as the left hip, both front and back, felt like they were being paralyzed. I could feel my arms and jaw shaking from the struggle, which caught me off guard. Suddenly I heard Lilian almost whispering at me, “Minnie you can do this, what can I get you” to which I answered, “I know…I don’t know, I’m just in a lot of pain.” Lilian then offered to run to the next aid station, about a quarter of a mile away, to find some advil – me, being someone never to accept people’s favor in situations like this caved in like a sick puppy and nodded “ok, ok” – I figured she could get her fast run in, at least.

As I was waiting for her return with all the goodies from the aid station, I kept going. Run, limp, skip, walk, whatever form it took me to move forward…I knew that in order to finish this race I had to slow down, despite my eagerness to go as fast as I could. I walked, stretching my hips as much as I could every stride. I also realized that there wasn’t too much left to finish, that I could do this. The 8 minute run/2 minute walk interval was already turning into like a 4 minute form of run but really walk speed/5 minute explicit walk. Egh. Lilian came back with cups filled with ice and 4 aspirins. I poured the ice into my tri shorts to numb the hip, and took 3 of the 4 aspirins. We kept going with the whatever intervals I could muster up, until we hit the last 2 mile mark, where we did our last turnaround. I almost kissed the dang sign.

I wanted to save my last running strength for the finish line (photo opp), I wasn’t sure at what point I could start running again, but I just kept going slow, walking more but as fast as I could. The downhills were excruciating, and the only humor left in the race was the slushy sound of ice in my shorts, of which some pieces ended up in some undesirable places which led me to occasional moments of shock, but definitely a welcome distraction from the hip pain. I realized, there was no way I could finish this race had Lilian not been on the course with me, the length of time to endure required for this race was way longer than what I had experienced before. And I knew that my friends were anxiously waiting for me at the finish line…I just wanted to get there as fast as I could, so that we could all stop waiting and start celebrating.

About 50 yards or so ahead of me, I saw the last curb that would eventually turn into the finish line area, I could hear the crowd more clearly, and I knew I had to just bite my tongue and dash towards the finish line – I think I whispered to Lilian that this is when we really run, and we both picked up speed, and I could hear her saying how great I was doing, and that we got this. My hands were shaking, my entire body was trembling, I was excited and relieved and shocked all at the same time that the moment was approaching. As I gathered my hands together before me and prayed for a final surge of strength, I started sprinting. Tears came out of nowhere, I felt the wind blowing in my face, which meant I was actually running – I heard the announcer mentioning my name, along with Lilian’s name…and we crossed the finish line side by side. We hugged, we were in awe, I was balling, Lilian was smiling, and we celebrated the moment with a joyful hug. I couldn’t believe myself. Despite the pain, I didn’t feel as tired as I did in other shorter races. I was elated. I was so amazed at how this day unfolded. Lilian and I both started looking for the rest of the gang – where are they? I couldn’t wait to see them and share the joy. It turned out that they thought we’d cross the finish later than we did… the run/walk lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes. Ah, that was a long time, but that was what was required to finish, whatever it took…

Finally, we saw our friends and we all celebrated the happy finish! I was officially on the course for 8 hours and 12 minutes. I had hoped that I’d be happy to be done in 8 hours and 30 minutes, assuming that I wouldn’t be able to run most of the time – so I was very grateful for my timing. Can I do better? Of course! Will that be next time? Heck yeah! I learned now that I could do this. I can do a half ironman – a distance I never thought I could attempt even two years ago. I would rather be the slowest person in a race than to quit out of fear or shame of being too slow.

Post-race recovery and thoughts

It’s been three days since the race. I’m still so grateful and thrilled I was able to cross that finish line…yet now my body has started feeling some of the inevitable pain as a result of such a physical exertion. However, I am feeling a massive amount of pride behind the pain, and I know that as long as I take care of it properly they will heal.

I have never prepared harder and more diligently for a race before, in my recollection. This was my first year of swimming more than 1500 meters (in fact, double that) and riding more than 50 miles during training. These were distances I used to think I could never break through without aggravating my pain threshold. This year, I knew I had to train these distances in order to do a half ironman race, and I slowly built up to it and I believed in my heart that it was doable as long as I managed it well. And guess what, it worked and I was able to survive the swim and bike portions of the race relatively pain-free – an unprecedented yet welcomed phenomenon. The mind is an interesting thing – when it tells us we can’t do something, we won’t be able to do them. But the minute the mind tells us even MAYBE we could, we get that much closer, and we can eventually do it as long as we keep pushing ourselves and reminding ourselves we can.

Training was one thing. But I am most grateful for my friends who took their time and resources to be on the course with me and cheer me on all the way through. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten my foot out the hotel room race day morning, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to go through the run without having some kind of mental breakdown. A smiling face, one word of encouragement, and knowing that I am so blessed with amazing people in my life, and that they were out there waiting for me no matter how long it takes… is what kept me going.

None of this was done on my own. I thank the numerous people I met through months of training, who taught me a thing or two on how to keep going and reminded me to never give up. Thanks for pushing me to get through the tough hill rides, thanks for being there in the ocean calming me down when I was in panic, thank you for reminding me how far I’ve come every time I felt overwhelmed with what was coming. I thank those who have been sending me words of support throughout, through my blog, through emails, through facebook, through twitter…help and support is all around. Sometimes we may be traveling on the road alone, but we should all remember that we are never really alone in the grand scheme of things. There is always someone wishing you the best, near or far.

And lastly, as corny as this may sound - Thank you God for adding purpose to my races.


K- ;-) said...

I am in tears and soooo proud of you! You have angels for friends in your life for sure... Know this friend cheers you on from afar. I love you! ;-) K-

Minnie S. Lee said...

Thank you very much K - it's just an honor to be able to do what i do and be able to reach out.

Anonymous said...


elaine from boston

sftriman said...

Congrats Minnie! You trained hard and you made it.

karen said...

unni!! :( i'm in tears~~!! i'm so proud of you!! i loved LOVED reading your entry and I felt like I was right there with you experiencing the whole thing!! Thank you so much for sharing your amazing experience and words cannot express how proud i am (of you)!!!!! YOU DID IT!! I'M SO HAPPY FOR YOU!! YAY! and as I have mentioned numerous times before, you are truly my inspiration~ <3

cole said...

I want to be a memeber of Team Minnie!!!! You are an amazing person and this story gave me goose bumps like 7-8 times. Congrats Minnie, I'm so proud of you.

small town small times said...

I'm over the moon for you. You DID IT! I've been waiting for so long to read this post.

Congratulations!! You are awesome.

Dina said...


I read your post out loud to my family(Me, my daughter and my mother all have Fibromyalgia)let me rephrase that, I "tried" to read it out loud! ;) I couldn't read without crying uncontrollably. I did manage to get through it and I wanted to say, "It was very emotional and inspiring!" Thank you for sharing such a touching triumph in a very eloquent way! Congratulations on your victory, best wishes with all of your endeavors and thank you for making a difference! (((Hugs)))

fman214 said...

oh my god i just checked your mail today! i don't use my shinbiro account these days so i didn't think to check it!
I'm just always amazed at how you do the things you do, and I'm so proud of you. and please update my email adress! I miss you sooooo much!

haeun said...

Wow!!I think that's soooooo awesome!!!>,< I'm not even good at jumpropes... I really hope I could be like you, Komo.

haeun said...

Oh!!!oh!!one more thing!!!
Pleeeease visit Korea soon!!
We are dying to see you!!!!!!!!

haeun said...

I forgot the mooooooooooost
important thing!!!!!

regina said...

My neighbor Kandy sent me this link to read about you. I am doing my first triathlon in 9 days. Thank you for the inspiration, you are a remarkable woman! God bless you always.