Medal for Mettle: A Guest Post From My Medal Gifter.

I am so pleased to introduce Todd to you. So much of what has happened since June 24th is because of his gesture in giving me his finisher’s medal after I crossed the line at 17:00:23. I still haven’t the right words to express my gratitude. I have enjoyed getting to know Todd and his wife, as well as his story. He has agreed to share his perspective of that day as a guest writer and if you would like to know more about him, you can find him on his blog at http://staggerforwardrejoicing.com. With that, I leave you with his thoughts:

Ironman History

In 1977, John Collins started an argument that would end with what we now know as the Ironman race.

On February 18, 1978, 12 competitors, including Collins, finished the course and despite not being cheered in by Mike Reilly, they were the first ever Ironmen.

Collins finished in 9th place with a final time of 17 hours and 38 seconds.

Cathy Stephens, you would have been a top-10 finisher in that race.

My History

I completed my first Ironman in 2008.  I had been running and cycling my entire life and I was looking for a challenge.  Just like so many, others, I was inspired by the finish line I saw on the NBC specials.  Racers were so moved and showed deep and meaningful emotion.  I wanted that experience.  I wanted to race Ironman and feel the spiritual elation that seemed to come to everyone in this race.  I signed up and started an extensive training plan.

A couple of months later, my wife was pregnant and in the final months of training, it became very clear that Ironman training and a growing family were at odds.  While competing in that race, I was completely aware that I would not have the time with a young family to do another Ironman.  I needed to get this race out of my system that day.

I had a good race and finished in under 13 hours.  On paper, I accomplished all of my goals, but something was missing.  I finished.  I received my medal.  I beat my goal time.  Then I went back to my hotel room, ate some pizza, drank a beer, and went to sleep disappointed.

I remember my catcher’s name (Ed), and I remember the swatch of grass where I sat and played with my son.  I told my family stories about the day.  I had the heavy medal sitting on the hotel room nightstand next to where I lay.  But I had not had the emotional and spiritual journey that I was looking for.  I just lay in bed that night in pain.  The most uncomfortable thing was that I was not satisfied.  The finish line had not met my expectations.  I did not have that spontaneous roll across the finish.  I did not cry with joy or pain.  I did not triumph in the face of disaster.  I was terrifically normal, and so was my experience.

In 2008, my brother was not physically there, but he was constantly on the phone with my wife and mother tracking my every move.  He was with me all day, but I never knew it.  I knew he wanted to be there racing, but that would have to wait.  Ironman was his dream before mine, I had co-opted it over the years.  When I toed the line, the seed was replanted to grow in him.

In June of 2011, as Cathy signed up for another try at Ironman, my brother registered for his first attempt.  He called and asked if I would join him.  I now had 2 children.  I knew what the training entailed and knew I did not have the free time.  We had a family discussion about the sacrifices that racing would bring.  I wanted another shot at the Ironman experience to look for the finish line I felt I had not seen and I thought the chance to race alongside my brother was it.

Ironman 2012

I stood on the beach at the back of the pack with my brother.  We had good conversations to keep the nerves down.  There was one minute to go and he slapped me on the back and headed to the front of the pack to compete with the stronger swimmers.  The cannon report echoed across the lake and the rubber clad athletes charged into the water like thousands of lemmings.  I remained on the beach.

After a minute or so, I wandered into the water and began to try to swim.  I could not put my face in the cold lake.  I breast stroked out to the first boat.  The majority of the pack had gone, but there were a few faces around me.  I like to imagine that at some time, Cathy and I must have noticed each other.  For a while at the beginning of the race, I was an official member of the turtles.

Although I am not a strong swimmer, I can ride a bike and run well, so as soon as I came out of the water, I knew I would finish.  I caught my fish of a brother midway on the bike course and we had many great miles riding together and enjoying the day as brothers and competitors.  I left him behind and the rest of my day was a game of looking for him to cheer as we passed each other on out and backs.

I had a great day and set a personal record of 12:42:53.  My wife needed to get the kids into bed and left while I waited for my brother to cross the line.  I talked my way into the finish area around 14 hours and waited for him to come across.   Catching my brother as he finished his first Ironman was one of many highlights that day.  He really wanted to stay until midnight to cheer on the final finishers.

We picked up our gear and loaded the rig to go back to the hotel, and then we went back for the finish.  I was so tired.  I made my way to the front of the crowd and used the crowd barrier to prop myself up.

The crowd was so loud.  They danced and jumped with the music.  The stadium seating hopped and bounced in rhythm to the beat.  The crowd hammered on the fence encouraging the final finishers.  I had heard people say that the last hour of Ironman is the best hour of sports.  I now agree.   I was in the middle of it.  I could see people come out of the darkness and down the chute.   Some high-fived the crowd.  Some sprinted.  Some could barely walk.  I saw stories on all of their faces and wondered what their journey to the finish was like.

The final moments arrived.  I could see the glow of a racer entering the chute.  The clock rolled past 17 hrs and my heart sank as she ran past.  I hoped an exception would be made.  Just 23 seconds.  Mike Reilly confirmed my disappointment when he declared she was not an official finisher.  He was standing right in front of me and with no thought at all, I called him over to give him my medal.

I figured the effort that finisher put into the day was the same as I did, but she did it for a whole lot longer time.  I could not imagine being on course for 17 hours.  That is huge!  She raced 30% longer than I did; she deserved a medal.

Mike came to take my medal and his body language immediately changed.  He had been standing on Ironman finish lines for years. Thousands of names he has called.  He has seen success.  He has seen failure.  He knew what that medal was worth to people.  He respects the medal.  He was feeling what everyone there was.  He wanted to give the finisher a medal and now he was grateful to have one to give.  I will always remember the hug that Mike Reilly gave me at that moment, and then he headed into the finish area to find the finisher.  The crowd around me gave hugs and high fives and then with encouragement pushed me over the fence into the finisher’s chute.

By this time the finisher was standing with Mike Reilly.  I gave her a big hug and said, “You are an Ironman.”  She hoisted a sign that said, “Dear asthma, I win.”  I knew there was a story there, but I would go on with life never knowing what it was.  I just knew she had the medal that she had earned.  I was of no more use there, so I headed out the chute giving people high fives the whole way.

I found my brother behind the grand stands.  He patted me on the back and said, “That was absolutely the right thing to do. Lets go.”  I said, “The coolest thing is that she will never know who I am.  It will be this magical mystery to make it all even better.”

The Future

I snuck into my hotel room at 1 a.m.  My son was asleep and hogging most of the bed.  I kissed my wife as she shared a bed with our daughter (by share I mean daughter gets 95% and mom gets crowded).  I moved my son over and lay down, satisfied.

The next day, my brother told my mom and wife what happened at the finish, but the story was brief and the rest of the day the stories regaled were about waves on the swim, mistakes made on the bike, and how much the last loop of the run hurt.

Those were all the stories. Until that night. I had a message waiting for me on my blog.  Those pesky race numbers sure make it easy to track me down.  A friend of Cathy’s had found me.  It was an interesting, conflicting, weird feeling.  I liked being anonymous, but I suddenly was excited to hear Cathy’s story, and boy does she have one.

I am satisfied with my Ironman experience not because of my race.  Not even because of Cathy’s finish, but because I have gotten to know how Cathy made it to that line.  It has taught me some very significant lessons about perspective, being stronger, and loving people.

My perspective of the competitors has changed in some ways and solidified in others.  First of all, I have made this exact comment in the past, “I have seen people get pulled out of the water in the first 100 yards of the Ironman swim.  What were they thinking?  They had no right entering that water.”   Of course, reading Cathy’s blog and specifically her post about 2011 rocked me.

She had every right to be there; her race was taken from her.  I know what it is like to not reach a goal because I did not prepare for success.  I blame myself and find it pretty easy to deal with.  The answer every time is, “Next time I will work harder.”  But to have a dream stripped from you for reasons that are not your own is different.  Her drive was stronger than anyone else in that water.  She came further to enter that race than other competitors.  She prepared more thoroughly.  The hand that was dealt was bad, not how it was played.

Yet, the lessons she teaches with these stories go beyond how I judge other athletes.  It taught me strength.  This is not found in the part of the story that is about struggling with her performance.  It came from how she handled the DNF.   She took the lump of disappointment for what it was.  She let it hurt, but was grateful for the opportunity to feel the pain.  I am sure the tears were there, but they were balanced with the comfort of warm supporting shoulders to land on.  She realized the foundation she had in people, friends, family, and herself.  The “failure” of that day gave her something to stand on to see farther into the future.  Signing up for the first Ironman must have been massively difficult.  So many told her no.  So many told her impossible. Signing up for a second after such failure must have been crushing.  But her story had changed, she had learned to be strong for herself, and she showed others how strong she was.  If there was any waning of her own drive, naysayers now believers, step in to remind that Cathy is strong.

Cathy’s stories have a common truth. She is surrounded by supporters that offer her love and encouragement so strongly because that is exactly what she gives to them.  Cathy stops at every friend on the course.  She recognizes how important they are to her success.

And her success is defined in three ways, “to finish, to have a blast, and to increase asthma awareness.”

Not only did Cathy stop to show everyone on the course her love, she carries on today.  I see her active in the online community supporting others with asthma, giving them hope, offering solutions they may not have considered, and showing them options to help achieve their dreams and to possibly dream new ones.

Cathy’s effect goes farther than just the asthma community, though; she has inspired people to stop making excuses.   There are a ton of stories on the Ironman course that are like Cathy’s.  Some are more extreme, some are not, but they all overcome hurdles to that finish line.  We all have them.  It reminds me of a Henry Ford quote that I use often:

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals.”

Thank you Cathy for adjusting my perspective, showing me how to be strong, and teaching me to love everyone around me.  Most of all, thank you for giving me the chance to know you.  The 23-second gift you gave to the world is very great.  You gave seconds to family on course.  You gave seconds to friends.  Many people would say that the accumulated seconds you gave lead to 17 hours taken from you.  But you have refused to see that.  You have found worth in those 23 seconds.  They made a great day longer, and has in fact and reality extended it far beyond just June 24.

Todd telling Cathy, “You are an Ironman.”

And here is the video that captured it all…

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4 thoughts on “Medal for Mettle: A Guest Post From My Medal Gifter.

  1. Anita Jenicek Stephens

    I am Cathy’s mom. I have sat by her fearing she was going to die and wishing I could just breath for her. I have asthma so I know how it feels but I’ve never had my lung collapse. To see her come across that finish line was amazing to say the least. I’m so glad I got to be there. Her sister, Wendy, and I were in tears because of the disappointment we worried she would feel after 2 years of training and 17 hrs. and 23 seconds of racing. Then Todd stepped forward and made it more than okay, even though her time wasn’t the issue for her. Her story is being told over and over because of 23 seconds and you, Todd. Thank you so much from this proud Mom.

    Reply
  2. Scott Burkhardt

    That is absolutely amazing – God bless you and your family Todd! Thanks for what you did for Cathy, and thanks for sharing your story!

    Reply
  3. Kelly (Cathy's neighbor)

    What an amazing display of sportmanship this was the first time around, when I got to see it from across the chute. Hearing your perspective on it all, Todd, makes it that much better. You and Cathy are both an inspiration 🙂

    Reply

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