August is always a big month for me - on August 11, 2001, I married my best friend. 8 years later, and so many happy memories later, we gave birth to our second son, Ty, on August 17, 2009. It's also a month I give thanks for all the amazing people and gifts in my life, as every year at this time I think back to July 31, '09, the day before August, '09, when I was told my life would always be affected by breast cancer.
This August is a biggie - Brian and I are celebrating 10 years of incredible marriage; Ty turns 2; Drew started Kindergarten and I had decided I would cap off an already phenomenal month by taking on my first half-ironman triathlon.
So, the night before the half, I go to bed at 8 pm like a good triathlete, thinking I'll just nod off and enjoy a happy 8 hours of sleep before my alarm goes off at 3:45 am. Yeah, not so much. Instead, I lay there thinking about anything and everything, including, of course, making it to the "2-year cancerversary". I pondered this for a while, thinking about how, when I was diagnosed, I was terrified I would miss milestones like seeing my kids go to Kindergarten, and that I would never again be able to take on the athletic adventures that I had grown to love so much. And here I was, on the eve of voluntarily swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 miles and running 13.1 miles, after walking my son to his first day of school last week. I then thought about what could have happened if I never told anyone about the lump I found that day. Would I be here today at all? Would I be going through something far more terrible than the treatment I endured? Would I be faced with living with cancer on a daily basis instead of just thinking about it every 6 months when I have a scan or meeting with my doctor? Honestly, I don't know. But it did make me incredibly thankful that I DID say something, that my doctors trusted that gut feeling, that I had incredible doctors to help me heal and make me whole again, and that I now get to spend every day with my incredible husband and two wonderful boys, enjoying watching them grow and being a part of their lives. I am so lucky.
I finally got to sleep that night, and did enjoy a blissful 6 hours of sleep before the race. I woke the next morning excited to push my limits and see what this half-ironman racing was all about. After all, I do plan to celebrate my next big "cancerversary" - 5 years - doing an Ironman, so better see if I like long-distance racing at all...
It turns out that I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. The race taught me to respect the distance, and that my body can (just barely!) handle it.
I swam my little heart out, keeping a calm, steady pace, as I really had no idea what racing nearly 7 hours might feel like. I told myself that I would be psyched to see anything under 50 minutes exiting the water, so when I saw 45 minutes on my watch, I was absolutely overjoyed. One down, two to go. Off on the bike, taking my sweet time in transition, something I NEVER do.
Off on the bike, and 2 miles into it, my friend Sonja (the same one who shaved her head with me 2 years ago and then won Race for the Cure bald) passes me with a "nice job, Aim!" A goal of mine was to not let her pass me in the swim (she started 20 minutes behind me, so I had a 20 minute head start!) so seeing her on the bike was not only awesome because it would be the only time I would see her during the race, but it meant that I had achieved a major goal! Yippee for me! Sonja would end up winning her age group in the race, and taking second place overall amateur female - what a rock star. That's her in the white sunglasses hugging me in the "post-race" picture. I was rocking the bike (for me), sticking with my plan of alternating water/Heed every 5 miles and eating a PowerBar Gel Blast or bite of Honey Stinger waffle along with it, but around 30 miles, I was not loving the bike anymore. Right around this point, my friend Gaye passed me, and I got pretty frustrated. She's an awesome cyclist, so I vowed I would stick with her and she would help me power through the bike. That worked for a while, but around mile 45 she just got too fast for me, and I helplessly watched her get further and further in the distance. I knew I had a lot of work to do on the bike, but it was downright depressing to see just how much work I have ahead of me. At mile 50 I was just done. A lady passed me and said "I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the bike to be over". I said "Amen, sister! Get me (the @!*) OFF this bike!" Really, in any triathlon I've done, towards the end of each event I am ready to be done with that discipline and onto the next, but especially so in this longer race. Little did I know that this would REALLY be true on the run!
As I pulled into transition, all I could think about (besides the fact that I never wanted to see my bike again) was how glad I was that I didn't get a flat out on the course. After blowing a tire a few weeks ago, I was terrified I would get a flat during the race and waste even more time on the course. Please, I'm slow enough without any technical difficulties, thank you very much! I intentionally took a good long time again in transition, putting on another layer of sunscreen and lip balm (not that it helped - I still got fried shoulders and lips), talking with other racers, downing a honey stinger gel and even putting the wrapper in the trash can. Again, knowing it was a long race, and I had 2 - 2.5 hours of running ahead of me, I was in no hurry to get out of transition. Thank goodness there wasn't a tent over transition or I never would have made it out of there! I felt really good going out on the run - glanced at my Garmin at one point and saw 9:44 pace - eeek, that might be a little fast for a half-marathon after 4 hours of working out already! Slow down, McDowell, take it easy. I have to say that, with the exception of the last 2 miles, I really did feel pretty good the whole run. Again, I stuck with my plan of running the whole race (no matter how slow my shuffle), walking through each one of the 12 aid stations, drinking water and dumping it over me. The wet sponges soaked in ice water became my "lovey" and lifesaver for the day. I can honestly say that I didn't really get that hot out there - I might have been delirious though, because the temperature gauge on Brian's car leaving the park said 96+! I took one more honey stinger gel at mile 5, which was a bit hard to get down, but I knew I needed it. I was glad 6 miles later that I had, because I really started to hurt around mile 11. I hadn't been able to see Brian and Drew going into the second loop, as they had gotten stuck in Rez traffic and missed seeing me. I was pretty bummed about this, and started thinking maybe they couldn't make it up at all. I just wanted to be done, for Brian and Drew to give me a huge hug and take care of me. I literally chanted in my head "keep running, just keep running". I am sooo proud that I did run the whole time - I passed a TON of walkers out there, including lots of men, and know that the mental game is huge out there and if you start walking it can be a dangerous worm hole. I wanted to know in my mind that I had the mental courage and determination to not walk when the going got tough - and get tough it did. I finally saw Brian and Drew, and started crying, I was just so tired. I quickly realized crying meant spending energy I didn't have, so just focused on powering through the last .1 mile (which seemed like forever) and crossed the finish line - "Amy McDowell, from Highlands Ranch, CO"!
I am proud of myself for achieving all the goals I set forth for the day - the big ones (finish, enjoy all three sports, be proud of my finishing time, whatever it is) and the little ones (don't let Son pass me in the swim, run the whole run, stick to my race nutrition plan) - and for accomplishing my first half-ironman. As for IM, I realize now that it will be an even bigger deal as far as training and racing than I originally thought. I still have it in my sights someday, but am glad it won't be next year. :)
I know I don't always do the best job of it, but I am trying to enjoy every moment and every person in my life - from the frustrating moments with my two-year-old (and there are many) to the simple joys my 6-yr old shares with me every day to the incredible love and support my husband shows me on a daily basis. I love you all so much and feel so blessed that I have been able to share these past two years with you. I am so glad that I DID say something 2 years ago, so that we can look forward to many many years together, and not regret what might have happened.
Much love and gratitude, Amy