“Be confident in the work you did to prepare for the race. Take a look back at your training logs to remind yourself that you’ve done everything possible to prepare. The race is the fun part where you get to see the hard work pay off. Enjoy it.”
I went to bed at about 8pm the night before. I lay awake for a little while, excitement building. I want to relish that but I need to get some sleep. I’m not the best sleeper but I could tell that my body was ready and willing to slumber. I allow myself to briefly reflect on a couple of key things before drifting off.
The first was an undeniable message I received one year ago as my illness was taking over. On this day a year ago I knew my race wasn’t going to happen. At the Iron Prayer meeting with my FCA Endurance group a couple of nights before, both speakers referenced the same scripture. This was not planned or known to either speaker beforehand. Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We prayed in small groups after the messages and I informed mine of my situation. The prayer offered up was NOT that I would be healed for race day. Rather, that His will be done. I appreciated that. I already had my answer in my heart but was still hoping for that miracle. It is comforting to have others agree with me that not only is God’s plan bigger, but that He will give me whatever I need to get through it if indeed His will turns out to be contrary to my plan for the day. On my way home that night, I was surfing radio stations and landed on one as they were referencing that very same scripture as their message of the day. I couldn’t dismiss it as coincidence. I was still hoping that His will was that I’d be instantly healed in order to race but I felt like I was being prepared for either scenario. I think this is why I didn’t dwell on it or question why God allowed it to happen the way it did that day. I knew He’d help me to grieve and heal, knowing that He had a better plan. I had no idea at the time that the plan would still involve my Ironman dream.
The second thing I thought about was a question that was asked at the Ironman Foundation interview panel a couple of days before. We were asked if we had any fears about race day and for me, whether or not I was fearful as a result of what happened last year. I didn’t even have to think about that one. I had no fear. None. It was pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I felt. I even remarked that although I expected to finish very, very late, I would likely “…take a little extra time down that finisher’s chute just to take it all in.” What is it they say? Careful what you wish for?
I said a final prayer of thanksgiving, grinning through the entire thing. I think God can hear my smile through my silent prayer.
When the alarm goes off at 3am, I am suddenly very grateful for those painful 4am swims which required me to wake up at 3:15am. I start on breakfast as my hosts crawl out of bed and join me. They are volunteering on the beach and have to be there at 4:30 so they’ll be taking me with them. I am so grateful and relieved because I know they’ll take care of everything for me after the race as well. Greg puts some coffee on. For them, it’s to wake up. For me, it’s to ….. wake up my system and get things moving. (More Triathlonese). Greg has asthma too and also does triathlon. His wife Paula and daughter Ali join us sleepily a few minutes later. I am very much a morning person but I have learned to curtail my energy around those who are not, and I know that 3am is NOT a normal hour to awake for most people. We eat and I load up the car with my gear, making sure I have everything. As we head down the hill and the quiet chatter starts, Greg says the word “wetsuit” and I yell, “MY WETSUIT!” I’m so glad that happened a quarter mile away from the house! We go back for my wetsuit and now I’m certain I have everything. Whew! I wish this had been the only error I made that day.
As we drive to downtown Coeur d’Alene, I do a quick Facebook status update: “Dressed and ready to go! Heart is bursting with joy and gratitude; ready to take it all in and enjoy the day, sharing the experience with so many others. Rarely do you have the chance to participate in something where everyone involved (athletes, family, friends, volunteers) has put everything they have into preparation for the big event; and it all culminates on this day. So many heart warming stories. Can’t wait to hear more of them on the course today. All emotion right now and it’s a pleasure to let it out! It’s go time everyone. Godspeed! Philippians 4-13. LET’S DO THIS!!”
And then I do a rare Facebook “check-in.” Cathy Stephens is at Cda Ironman.
We arrive downtown and it’s still dark. I love this. It’s quiet, yet buzzing. We meet up with Alicia on the way. I love that I’m walking down to the beach with these people. Body markers haven’t started yet so I walk over and look out at the water as buoys are being placed. I tear up, but they are happy tears. I’m not scared at all and I know I’ll finish that swim. If my recent workouts are any indication, I may be able to pull it off in 1:43 or less. I would be thrilled with that!
I have three goals for this race: Have a blast, finish, and raise some awareness about illnesses that place limits on lives and in my case, encourage others with asthma to overcome. My finish line sign will be my only way of doing that for those who don’t know me but it’s at least something. Cousin Christine has prepared the sign and I know it will be ready. By the way, she and her almost-six-year-old son have asthma too. He’s the one who told me he hopes I win the Ironman and to have fun all day. If you insist, Dennis.
For the sake of authenticity and preserving the day as my friends experienced it, I have included the captions that they added to photos they took and/or posted on Facebook.
First up; body marking!
We make our way towards transition but it’s not open yet. A line is forming. I see a lot of nervous eyes, others very intense, and still others quite relaxed. Transition opens and we pour in, heading for our bikes. I wipe everything down and start applying tape to strategic spots on my Serotta. I had learned a great tip about how to carry my supplements without having to fish them out of pockets. I use a lot of Hammer Nutrition products, particularly Endurolytes and Anti-Fatigue Caps. I taped them to various sections of my bike so that I could simply pull them off when I needed them. Bike inspection complete, I make my way to check my gear bags. Mike Reilly is greeting athletes in T1 and is his jovial self. I have this urge to approach him which is contrary to my nature. I walk by the first time but the second time, the urge is stronger. I approach and I say, with a tiny bit of a lump in my throat, “I will be the one with the sign at the end that says, ‘Dear Asthma: I WIN!’” He grabs my hand, squeezes it, and holding it up to his heart he says, “Today, you will be an Ironman.” I suppose this happens to him a lot but this was quite a moment for me. I smile and walk away, taking in a huge cleansing breath.
Before I know it, it’s time to put on my wetsuit and start heading down to the beach. I take my Endurolytes to prevent cramping during that long swim in 58 degree water temps. My sister and nieces find me. I’m so glad. We have just enough time for hugs and Sarah snaps this shot of me, adding it and her caption to Facebook so that my friends who are not here can participate.
As I stand in a mass of athletes cocooned in rubber suits, I pull up on the shoulder of mine to adjust it properly. It rips. A tiny one, but it’s a rip! &*^$%#!! Eyes of those around me widen momentarily but then relax and one athlete says, “You won’t even notice it. Trust me.” Okay, I will. It takes forever for us to get out of the transition area. This bottleneck area is awful. I finally make it down to the beach and after we go through the arch that registers our timing chips, we are greeted by applause from volunteers who are lined up to cheer us in! And they are ALL my friends!! I hug them all as I move through. Paula, Greg, Alicia, Eric. I hadn’t seen Eric in quite some time until three days ago. He was generous enough to make sure my fund raising goal was met over the past couple of days. I was so grateful for that. He also knows how much of a struggle swimming has been for me. He told me that he would be catching athletes at the end of each loop and he’d be watching for me and couldn’t wait to pull me out of there. I get a hug from him and then move on to Brenda, Dennis and then I see Derek Garcia, friend and local pro triathlete/coach, who motions me over. He says he wants to pray for me. We embrace and he offers up a brief prayer and we’re all smiles. I thank him and continue on. I know Terry McGonigal, my coach’s dad and my coworker at Whitworth is there but I don’t see him yet. I see Denise who I haven’t seen in years. Everyone is here!
I find Connie and several other friends. Vicky, Tom, Shane, and I think Todd W. but I don’t remember. I get the back of my neck and my face wet. The water is cold but I can do this. I make my way towards the back as always. I know my friends are on a boat watching. Alison, Scott, Christine, Janine, Brian, Nika, Ann. And I know they have my Pirate Turtle mascot who will have an adventure today. Sort of like Flat Stanly. I know that the Dicksons and the Sharps are on the beach somewhere. My neighbors….no. My neighborhood is out there. People are watching online. My mom is watching on TV. She has been very ill lately and I know she isn’t able to get down there, but she’s with me. Laura, Bill, Julie and countless others. They’re all there.
I’m ready. The helicopter appears, the music wails, and the cannon goes off. I wait. And wait, and wait. I take my time getting in and am one of the last 10 or so to take the plunge.
I start in on that 20 minute warm up. It’s miserable as usual but I know relief is coming. I fall into a comfortable rhythm. I pass the first kayak or two and I smile as I pass them by, having no need for them other than the comfort of knowing they are there if I DO need them. Today I don’t. I make my first turn and I’m feeling great. At the second turn, I flash back to last year. This is the spot where I surrendered to my illness that day.
I cruise past it with a smile.
As I approach the beach, my heart rate and breathing quicken in anticipation. I feel the water temperature dropping though, and the waves are building behind me. I can tell the weather has shifted. But I see my friends! I see them! I’m heading right for Eric and Alicia is behind him. I can tell that they are trying to figure out if it’s me. On my next stroke out of the water, I POINT right at them before my hand enters the water and they know it’s me! Eric reaches out, grabs my arm and pulls me into a huge embrace. I scream in his ear!!! “AAAHHHH!!! One loop down! What’s the time? What’s the time?!” He yells through his smile, “FIFTY MINUTES!!!”
I’m on track! I have a surge of adrenaline like nothing I’ve ever had before. He passes me off to Alicia, who passes me to Greg, and then Paula, and we’re screaming and jumping up and down as I move forward. I have to remember I have another loop but the celebration is too precious to pass up.
I run through the arch and back towards the water and I see Terry. “Terry!! Woohooooo!! Tell Keats!” He yells, “Go Cathy!!” and I plunge back into the water.
Excuse me?!?! Is this the same lake I just exited? The waves are big and angry. I am so thankful for that day two weeks ago when we swam in this. The temperature has dropped considerably. My second loop took 15 minutes to the second longer than the first. I can see people being pulled out around me and I’m sad for them. I know exactly how they feel. But I keep moving. As I approach that beach, I almost start crying in the water but I can’t let myself do that yet. I will as soon as I’m out. I want to scream but I’m not there yet.
He spots me again. Eric sees me and grabs me and we all celebrate again but this time, we end up in a big huddle, all screaming and crying! It was glorious.
I was told later, and I heard the audio, that Mike Reilly commented, “Wow, that’s one happy athlete coming out of the water and it’s……number 616, Cathy Stephens!” I hear the beach erupt. My huge support crew has made it to the swim finish but I’m a little disoriented, partly with sheer joy. Tom escorts me through the arch and then Terry and Shannon catch me and escort me up the beach. Shannon is crying and saying things but I can’t hear her. Terry is proud and tells me he’ll text Keats. He also tells me that there is a monster storm system coming through so I need to dress warm. This photo is taken at that moment.
I hear people screaming my name in all directions and all I can do is keep moving forward, point and scream. I see Gretchen; I point and scream! I hear my sister and nieces and I spin around to point and scream and Christine who had been standing next to them (but had never met them before) snaps this shot.
Behind me in the photo are my neighbors and the Dicksons looking on.
I keep moving and I hear my name and I think it’s my neighbors. Point and scream!
I make it to the top and see the wetsuit peelers, all raising their hands and waving at me. But I’m looking for my friends Natalie and Greg Gallagher. I met them at the pool a couple of months before and after exchanging our stories, they insisted that they wanted to strip me of my wetsuit that day. I scan, pointing and I SEE HER just as she sees me! We point and scream!! I run to them. She’s crying and we’re hugging. They swiftly take my wetsuit off, we all embrace as this photo is taken and it ends up on the front page of the Spokesman Review the next day.
I grab my gear bag and head straight for the warming tent to change. My neighbor Chris spots me and yells my name. I point and scream as I duck into the tent. It’s wall-to-wall shivering, freezing women. I say a silent prayer for those whose race is clearly over at this point as they sit, blankets wrapped around them, shivering. There is barely any room to change but I manage to find a spot. I’m cold but I feel amazing; pure adrenaline. I hear Terry’s voice in my head as I layer up. We are literally stumbling over each other but I manage. I hand my bag to a volunteer as I exit, giving her a giant hug and I’m on my way.
My favorite part is next. My beloved steel Serrotta road bike and me.
Are we having fun yet?!?!