Thursday, August 28, 2014


I. Am. On. Patrick. Dempsey's. Blog. 


Oh my word. Thanks to Dr. McDreamy for re-posting this wonderful story by Rachel Thomas for the Pen Bay Pilot about my escapades. See the actual thing in real life, all mixed up with his race cars and TV and movies and philanthropy here

Shannon Thompson challenges herself & her friends to support the Dempsey Center
When Shannon Thompson crossed the finish line after her first Ironman, she saw how much energy a challenge like that can generate.
“You get to see the best in humanity,” Thompson said. “It’s just people wishing the best for other people in an in-your-face-out-loud way. It’s a real privilege to be in that.”
She also saw that she could use the support she’d received to do something for others.
“I was so blown away by the breadth and depth of support that I received,” Thompson said. “During my training, through my blog. All of these people read it and said nice things to me and followed me through this race. I mean they were tracking me while I was racing and I came over that finish line and picked up my phone and I had 146 Facebook notifications from people who’d been watching me all day. And then I sat there and watched all these people go, ‘you just finished, you just finished!’”
Thompson was grateful for all the support she received, from friends, family, fans and training partners.
“But there are people that need that more than I need it,” she said. “So if I can take that support and leverage it and make it bigger — because this whole thing is bigger than me anyway — I want to turn it into something that makes a difference for a lot of people.”
For Thompson, making it bigger means challenging her supporters and friends to help her raise $10,000 for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing through their annual fundraising event, the Dempsey Challenge.
The Dempsey Center is in Lewiston. It provides free support to patients suffering from cancer, with everything from support groups to massage. Actor Patrick Dempsey and his siblings founded the organization with the Central Maine Medical Center in honor of their mother, who passed away from cancer.
The Dempsey Challenge allows competitors to choose between a 5K and a 10K walk or run on Saturday, and between various distances for a bike ride on Sunday. After her Ironman, Thompson knew she wanted to really challenge herself.
“I want it to be hard. I want to raise a ton of money for this organization,” Thompson said.
She plans to ride her bike up to Lewiston on the Friday before the Challenge, a distance of about 75 miles. Then she will do the 10K run on Saturday, and the 100-mile bike ride on Sunday.
“I just decided to make it as hard as I possibly could within reason,” Thompson said. “The hardest thing I could come up with that I thought I could actually do. And based on how I feel right now I’m a little worried. But I’m going to do it.”
Thompson has a lot of reasons for choosing the Dempsey Challenge.
“At a very basic level I really love the Dempsey Center, and what they do and how they do it. They are incredibly loving. The way they run that place and the way that the people who work there interact with the people who rely on it is so—they’re really professional, and they manage to operate from this place of unconditional love,” Thompson said. “It’s really hug-y, it’s call-me-at-home. Somehow they strike that fine balance of having good boundaries and operating in a completely functional and healthy way while also extending themselves to people in a way that most organizations can’t do. There’s just some magic there.”
Thompson has seen that magic work for a friend of hers, another cyclist, who relied on the Dempsey Center after his cancer came back. She also has family members who have suffered because of cancer.
“Everybody has connections to cancer,” Thompson said. “I had a niece who died three and a half years ago. She had brain tumors. So that drives a special interest in trying some way to help people who are struggling with cancer.”
Last year, her brother and sister-in-law, her niece Phoebe’s parents, agreed to match a $1,000 donation if Thompson and her supporters could raise that much in a week. They managed it in a day. This year, Thompson said, her brother has agreed to match all donations, up to an unspecified but substantial amount, given on Phoebe’s birthday, Thursday, Aug. 28.
Thompson realized through her Ironman experience that, as hard as it was to complete a 140.6 mile triathlon, she has been lucky.
“One of the things that I’ve been acutely aware of through this process is how incredibly lucky I am that I’m choosing the challenges that I face,” she said. “I took on the most challenging task I’ve ever taken on, and that’s an incredible luxury, to be able to do that, and to not be in the position of responding to challenges that just landed on me. I can’t even tell you the depth of my gratitude for being in this position.”
Thompson knows she’ll be faced by challenges outside of her control, but when she is lucky enough to choose, she’s chosen the Dempsey Challenge.
For more information on the Dempsey Center, click here. To view Shannon Thompson’s Dempsey Challenge donation page, click here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Final reflections, the next challenge, and an invitation

Almost two weeks after my first Ironman, I still feel just like this:

I was a little worried about re-entry, but I'm sliding back into the real world easily and enjoying things like sleeping until 6 am, a glass of Pinot Noir, and reading books without pictures. My body feels fine, even though I got my ass handed to me by the Varsity Girls on Wednesday morning's bike ride. I feel great until I exercise, and then I feel like my bike weighs a hundred pounds, the pool water is liquid metal, my running shoes are elephant feet. It's OK, plus I have the best excuse ever. How long you think I can get away with this?

I'm still celebrating, and I don't want to let go of this thing quite yet; my medal hangs from my rear view mirror and I can't bring myself to cut off my Ironman plastic bracelet.

So this is all great, but here's the thing. For all the celebration, the praise and attention, the pride and joy and gratitude, for the extent to which this has been a life-changing experience, there's something lacking.There's a part of me that feels wholly unsatisfied. Because as much as this has been a  peak experience for me personally, what has it done for the world? Yes, it sounds like my experience has inspired some people to do some positive things, which makes me so, so happy. But I want more! I want this Ironman to make a difference not just to me and a handful of friends, but to a much larger audience. I'm inviting you to help make it so, and here's what I have in mind.

[Here's the link I'm headed toward if you want to stop reading now:]

Last year I participated in the Dempsey Challenge, a fundraiser for the Dempsey Center, which provides totally free services to people with cancer and their families. The event is an emotionally powerful and inspiring weekend that allows participants to choose the challenge best suited for them--a 5k or 10k walk or run on Saturday, or a 10, 20, 50, 70, or 100 mile bike ride on Sunday. Last year's Dempsey Challenge was my first 100-mile bike ride.

But this year: How do I do something called a "challenge" right after I've finished my first Ironman? When I consider what it's like to have cancer, or to love someone who has cancer, I know that no "challenge" I dream up for the weekend could ever compare. One of the most profound realizations I've had during my Ironman training is that, for right now, I am in the rare position where I get to choose the things that challenge me physically--I'm not being hit with a terrifying diagnosis, struggling through chemo and radiation, caring for a loved one. The enormity of this privilege strikes me every time I get on the bike, or in the water, or into my running shoes. 

So now, in honor of all the people who don't get to choose their challenges, and in deep appreciation for my own miraculously good health, I'm planning a weekend that will be physically and mentally demanding, and I'm hoping you'll feel inspired to support the center with a donation of any amount.

The plan is to ride my bike to Lewiston on Friday, a distance of 75 miles. On Saturday I'll run the 10k. I'll ride the 100-mile bike route on Sunday. It's about 14 hours of exercise in three days. I am a little nervous about this much volume given how tired I feel when I exercise right now, but it's 6 weeks away, and I'm reasonably confident it will work.

Why am I doing the Dempsey Challenge, of all things? Like just about everyone, I have lost people I love to cancer. My niece, Phoebe, had a brain tumor that took her life a little over three years ago. She would be 9 this month. Two young friends, Forest (age 18) and Carole also had brain tumors that took them away just two months ago. My uncle Tom died in his 40s. I'm riding and running in their memory. I'm also going in honor of a few special friends and family members who got the horrible, scary news of cancer and faced it with a kind of grace, courage, and determination that makes my Ironman look like the puny little game that it really is (I will not name you, but if you know me, and you've shared your cancer story with me, then I mean you, and I am thinking of you right now). Finally, I'll be there in honor of my dear friend Tom, who discovered the Dempsey Center when his cancer came back. I can't tell you how happy I am that he'll be riding his bike with me this weekend. 

I love the Dempsey Center for what they do and how they do it. They provide support, education and integrative medicine to anyone impacted by cancer. This means nutrition, counseling, massage, support groups, programs for kids whose parents have cancer, reiki, yoga, fitness classes, grief and bereavement services, all kinds of things. And tons of hugs. This organization is the real deal: grounded in professional excellence, powered by love. 

Would you consider helping me help all these people who don't get to choose their challenges? Last year, my generous friends and family donated over $3000, which was staggering and wonderful and amazing. This year, I have set an especially ambitious goal of $10,000 (Which, ahem, also happens to be the number at which I would be invited to go on a private bike ride with a bunch of professional cyclists and Patrick Dempsey, a.k.a. Dr. McDreamy. Which would be, you know, nothing short of awesome. But, oh right, it's not about me, so let's just raise as much as we can.)

I would look so good in this photo.

Here's a little more news to sweeten the pot: I was invited to be one of two adults on an AWESOME team of students from Edward Little High School in Auburn. This means everything I raise will be matched, dollar for dollar, by the Positive Tracks Foundation, whose mission is to get kids involved in athletic events to raise money for other causes. Win win win win win.

If you'd like to give any amount, even a couple bucks, I would be so grateful. 

To donate, just click here:

And if you'd like to spread the word, please feel free to share this post. 

Thank you so much!


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Race report, part three: recovery and re-entry

I had already decided that I would register for Ironman 2015 on Monday morning after the race. Athletes can register for the following year on Thursday and Friday before the race, but even though I fully intended to do it, I just couldn't bring myself to make the commitment until after I'd actually completed my first Ironman. I mean, let's be reasonable, people.

I was flying high after crossing that finish line at 9:00 pm Sunday night. The flood of congratulations coming into my phone was unbelievable, the feeling of accomplishment so great, the energy of the place just phenomenal. I got to see my friend Mara cross the line. I got a massage from the volunteer LMTs in the massage tent and a ride back to my hotel with an exceedingly handsome and flirtatious man.

But man, for all my good cheer, I felt HORRIBLE. Holy shit, that thing is tough on the body. I really thought I was going to throw up. I couldn't even look at my gels and energy bars. Nothing in the fridge appealed. I knew I was running a serious calorie deficit, but ugh. I just couldn't. Every cell of my body throbbed and ached. I drew a bath, dumped in a bag of epsom salts and soaked until I pickled. I crawled into bed and finally dozed off around midnight, the aforementioned exceedingly handsome and flirtatious man in his own room on the other side of the hotel.

At 3:00 am, after mostly not sleeping due to nausea and pain, I decided there was no way in hell I was doing this again. Why on earth would I put my body through this? I am old and smart. This is foolish and brutal. I ate a couple protein bars and fell asleep until 5:00, when the aches woke me again and I decided that moving around might feel better.

The Ironman store puts their finisher gear out at 7:00 am the day after the race. You can buy general Ironman T-shirts, towels, jackets, shorts, water bottles, you name it--and Lake Placid gear too--before the race, but if you want something that says "finisher" on it, you have to wait until afterward. Which is fine, because what would suck more than spending $150 on a "finisher" softshell and then not finishing? But it's also brutally clever marketing, because the unavailability breeds incredible demand. And believe you me, if you finish that race, you want everyone in the whole world to know it, and you will pay through the teeth. It's a total racket.

"Be there early," I was warned. "And don't drink coffee first, because you have to stand in line." So, tired as I was, I went over to the store right at 7:00 to see if I could pick up something cool. When I arrived, it was pouring rain and 55 degrees, and there were 200 people waiting to get in to the store. It was like the city's hottest nightclub: two people came out, two were let in. A daytime nightclub of misery and out-of-control capitalism.

I decided very quickly that there are limits to how much I am willing to suffer in order to give this company my money, and that my 14-hour-28-minute contribution the day before was sufficient. I decided my time was far better spent with my cousin Heather over a decent breakfast.

But I had some business to attend to first. Registration for 2015 started at 8 and would probably sell out by the end of the day. I really was conflicted. I talked to some friends and strangers, and the consensus was clear: "In two days you'll want to do it again."

Oh, shit.

So I did it, signed over another huge bundle of cash to the Ironman corp and started to consider how to improve my time next year. And my advisors were absolutely right--by Tuesday I was feeling ready to start planning my off-season training.

I hobbled around Lake Placid in kind of a blur for the day. Athletes all wore their finisher gear, but it wasn't necessary: everyone who had raced was walking around like C3Po from Star Wars. We all knew each other on sight. It was a big limping street party of felicitations.

I had an outstanding massage from Tim at Balanced Bodywork, then stopped at the Rite Aid for more epsom salts, where I saw the race on the cover of one of the local papers. I took a look and started to open it up to the inside, absently thinking, wouldn't it be funny to be in the paper in a strange town? I caught myself--don't be ridiculous. This article is about the people who won, not the middle aged women who came in 1672nd. I had lunch and was pulling in to the hotel lot when I got a text:

Hi, it's Tim from Balanced Bodywork. Hope you picked up the local paper with you on the cover! 

It was in the other local paper. I zipped back to the Rite Aid, where I let out a squeal, showed everyone in line and the checkout guy and and bought an extra copy for my parents. I know I already posted this twice, so I am sorry, but it makes me giggle so hard I just--

(Uh, I am not the one on the right.)

I just loved the ride home with my finisher shirt on and my sexy bike on top of my car and my new 140.6 sticker on the back, and my medal hanging from the rear view mirror where I could pet it like Gollum and his ring. Myyyyy PRECIOUS! Been a long time since I achieved something I'm this proud of.

My body hurt like hell on Monday and Tuesday, but I soaked for 15 minutes in the Belfast Y's hot tub when I rolled into town on Tuesday night, and woke up on Wednesday morning with no pain. None. I literally felt better than I felt before the race. It's some kind of crazy miracle, right? These bodies of ours are so resilient. My gratitude keeps growing.

I do feel the effects of the calorie deficit and the nutrient deficit. My overall energy level is low. The first few days I was back, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to eat. My belly has just come back to normal. My fluids are all screwy--my feet swell like Grandma's during the day, my eyes puff up at night.

Yesterday was my first day of exercise, a short and easy bike ride. I felt like doing something earlier in the week, but I just could not get out of bed. Today I swam the length of the Rockland breakwater with friends and marveled at my good fortune--even though I'm a little tired, my body felt strong enough to swim almost 2 miles with ease (okay, yes, I've been in bed all afternoon since, but still.)

I'm still a big puddle about the whole thing. People outside the bike shop today noticed my shirt and treated me like a rock star. I shook their hands and burst into tears. The hero's welcome I received coming back into town has been absolutely wonderful and totally embarrassing.

I do feel proud of my accomplishment, and so incredibly grateful for my good health and for all the love I'm feeling from friends and strangers alike. But something is missing, a small part that feels unfulfilled...and people are asking what's next. I have a solution in mind that I'm putting the final touches on. If it interests you, then please stay tuned for the final report and what lies ahead.

And you guys? Thank you so much for reading this. I hope it makes you happy. You sure make me happy.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Race report, part two: running and running and finishing

I got off the bike feeling like a million bucks, ready to burn my shoes and the bike itself, but still on top of the world. I took a longer time in transition than I intended, making sure everything was just-so and going to the bathroom a couple of times, and then I had to go back when I realized I'd forgotten my race number.

Even after all this time, I still feel like an awkward, slow, unnatural runner. It comes at great effort. I've considered it a miracle that I'm running at all, given how messed up my body was through the fall and the winter, how when my plan started in April I was unable to run even a block. I built my run volume very quickly, and I got really damn lucky that I didn't get hurt. I've never run more than 18 miles, and I only did that once, so I faced this full marathon with no small amount of trepidation.

I've been training my body to run right after the bike, and over the season my legs came to crave it. This time was no exception, even after 112 miles. I hit the ground in my running shoes on the downhills out of town with hundred of people rooting me on, and I cruised along with relative ease and total delight. My plan was to walk through all the aid stations, which gave me something to look forward to and broke the marathon in to bite-sized pieces, just one mile at a time. I was astonished to see great numbers of really fit-looking athletes walking all the time. I had heard this would be the case, but still I was surprised at how many were doing it. This is a truly epic ass-kicking, I thought.

It was at mile 4.5 when, for the first time all day, things started to get a little dark in my head. "This sucks," I thought. " I can't run for shit. This is going to take forever. It hurts. This is Just. Not. Fair." I looked up and in front of me there was a huge hand-lettered sign that read


I laughed so hard I nearly fell over, and I really haven't stopped smiling since.

It sounds corny as hell, but for the last couple of years, I have been actively practicing being positive, being happy, choosing the bright side, creating joy. Not ignoring sadness, anger or grief, but experiencing them fully and then choosing gratitude and delight. Of course I have a long way to go, but it gets a little easier and a little more natural all the time, and one happiness begets another. It actually works.

I have many powerful role models, among them my training partner Mara; my friend Mish; my buddy Brian, who beat cancer at age 40 and is a serious badass; the amazing Mike, who does not want to be thought of as an inspiration, so I'll just call him another serious badass; and dear Forest, a very young man whom this world lost to cancer just in June. At his memorial service, his mother Johanna told a story that moved me deeply. About three weeks before he died, Forest was lying in bed in the living room, blinded by his tumors and unable to care for himself, but very much present. Johanna had just finished washing his face when Forest beamed at her and said, "I am overjoyed."

Running through horse farms in the golden light of an Adirondack late afternoon, at the prime of my life in peak condition, my only pain being that of my own choosing, surrounded by thousands of people at their very best all wishing each other well: how could I not be overjoyed, too?

The run route goes out into the country about 6 miles, then turns around, comes through town and out the other side about a mile, then goes back out to the country to do it all over again. At about mile 7, I wondered if the pain would continue to get worse--and at the same rate, or a different rate? Or would it stay the same, and the challenge would be to endure it for so long? This is hard, I thought. And I'm fucking TOUGH. I had no idea. I am really fucking tough.

I knew some people back home were tracking my progress online, and every time I ran over one of the wires that grabbed the signal from my ankle bracelet and sent it to the Interwebs, it felt like my moment to communicate with the outside world, to send my message home: I'm OK, I'm still moving, I'm happier than I have a right to be, I love you, I'm trying to get to the next signal as fast as I can.

My wonderful cousin Heather--an exemplar of selflessness, humility, and generosity, and an all-around excellent companion--had texted me the day before to let me know she was coming up and that she'd be on the run route. She appeared at about mile 8 on my way back to town and ran a good three miles with me after I recovered from screaming and hugging. We high-fived the little kids, caught up on family news, and laughed the way we always have. She spoke of my grandmother, one tough cookie, and my grandfather, who would cry if you complimented him sincerely. "You have Gran's fortitude and Grumpa's tears," she told me. Good Lord, I really do, I thought. The company and the diversion was life-saving. Just before we reached town, Heather stopped so she could run with me again when I came back.

The cruise through town was a blast--the crowds, the music, Mike Reilly announcing the finishers as they crossed over the finish line (oh, to be done instead of facing another loop!)--and I was beaming as people shouted, "Go, Shannon! Keep smiling! You've got this!"

At the halfway point I realized that if I held exactly the same pace for the second half of the run, I would finish in just a minute under 14 hours, my miracle dream time. I went back down the hill energized beyond belief. Saw Heather and ran another couple of blessed miles with her. How can you be so happy? She kept saying.

And about here is where I realized the thing that feels most significant to me today: I am not only tougher than I knew, but I am also capable of having a damn good time even when I am horribly uncomfortable. I am happy and cheerful and capable of kindness even when I am in real pain. This is a new development. I used to be much happier being angry. I used to want everyone to know it and to feel it, if I was hurting. Of course I'm still a critical and grouchy jerk, but MAN, having fun is so much more fun. You know what I heard all day? "Look at her smile!" You know what I felt all day? Total joy. I made the cover of the local paper, and I'm convinced that it's because I was the only one other than the winner who was smiling. (Now I'm wondering if there isn't some angle for getting a sponsor based solely on cheerfulness instead of speed, looks, or athletic ability. Probably not.)

The implications of this are staggering. I can be happy when I'm hurting. I can't think of anything more thrilling, any better news for my future. One thing I can count on is that I'm going to feel pain again, and it's not always going to be my own choice. But to be happy through it? I wonder. I'm gonna try.

I soon found out that the idea of holding my pace was wildly unrealistic, but in the meantime, I dug as deep as I could--deeper than I've ever been. My spirit was willing, but the flesh--well, I'm not going to say it was weak, but it just couldn't do it. It was actually something of a relief to realize I had no chance of hitting the 14 hour mark--I mean, my real best-case-scenario goal was 15 hours anyway. I continued walking the aid stations, and I ran every step of the race in between them, except the one steepest hill coming into town.

I'd heard that mile 18 of a marathon could be really ugly, and it was indeed pretty damn quiet as darkness fell at the back end of that loop. My stomach was in rough shape, and I knew I wasn't getting enough calories. I choked down some sports drink and another squirt of the horrific gel I can't even look at today, 5 days later. People kept offering me chicken soup. I felt worse walking, so I just kept kept shuffling along in my slow jog, one foot ahead of the other, cracking jokes when I passed, then got passed by, then passed again, the four guys whose old knees couldn't run downhill. I sang Me and Bobby McGee. I thought of Phoebe, and Caleb and Kerry, and my parents, and Forest, and Mara and Doug and Don, and the many dozens of people who have been so supportive and kind.

At mile 19, I got the surprise of my life--MARA was walking the marathon! My friend and role model had injured her foot and could not run, and I really didn't think she was even going to walk the distance, because who the hell would do that? In Mara's own words, here's what happened:

I was out on the bike thinking (you have a looooong time to think on that bike) & I realized that the major reason I was gonna skip the run was Ego... I had trained so hard in the running & to have to do 15 minute miles was depressing. Then I rode with a young lady & I told her about my MS & ankle injury... I told her I was happy & honored to be there but sad about the run... She said "my mom has a saying... "Move forward with gratitude & grace" & that's what you're doing"... & it hit me "Mara Crans... Do you have any idea how many people with MS in wheelchairs would kill or die to be able to walk a marathon? Put your big girl panties on & go as far as your body will carry you & do it with gratitude & grace"... So I high fived all the kids, I danced with every man dressed in a gorilla costume, I thanked every state trooper & volunteer & I did it all with a huge ass grin on my face... & this amazing body carried me the whole way! Feeling incredibly grateful...

Finishing the Ironman is a huge accomplishment for anyone, but I do believe that Mara Crans achieved new levels of badassery that day.

I was also thrilled to see my friends Don Mansius and Doug Blasius out there, and we midcoasters all finished within half an hour of each other (except for Scott, my coach, who had been done for several hours when I got in.)

I can't describe how it felt to come into town that final time. It was just getting dark, but the streets and the Olympic oval were illuminated. Scott went wild behind the barricade when he saw me come in to the final stretch. I FUCKING DID IT! I FUCKING DID IT! I shouted as we high-fived. YOU FUCKING DID IT! shouted all the spectators back. I savored every second. I was acutely aware that this most precious thing, My First Ironman, was almost gone forever, and I wanted to soak up every speck of it, feel it in every cell. The crowds grew in size and volume as I ran onto the oval. Dozens upon dozens of hands reached out for a high-five. When I came around the corner and saw the grandstands and the finish line, Mike Reilly announced my name--"Shannon Thompson of Camden, Maine!"-- I jumped up and down and threw my hands into the air, pumping my fists. "Look at her go!" he said. "She's an Ironman!"

I had barely held it together, and the second I stepped over that line, I burst into tears as two volunteers took me by the shoulders and made sure I was OK. I had my photo taken and then headed over to my bag to get my recovery drink. I turned on the phone as I waited for my free massage and saw that I had 146 Facebook messages. As I lay on the massage table trying not to throw up, my phone started going crazy with messages of congratulations. I laid there and sobbed with humility and gratitude.

I hadn't realized there was video of the event, but all of a sudden everyone was writing I JUST SAW YOU FINISH! One friend posted a photo of my finish, another grabbed the video--both genuine treasures.

I can't describe what it felt like. I simply could not believe how many people were watching, how many were celebrating and crying along with me. I felt embarrassed and overwhelmed and profoundly grateful. I went to Lake Placid carried by a current of love and support from family, friends, and acquaintances. I spent the day immersed in humanity's best--every single minute of that 14 hour and 28 minute journey, I heard or saw someone offer help, encouragement, kindness to another human being. Yeah, it's just a sporting event, but I think it's bigger than that. It's different for everyone. For me, for now, it's a practice course for how we want to treat ourselves, how we want to treat each other.

My commitment is to take what I've experienced here and multiply it, to be kinder and more generous and more encouraging and more thoughtful. To be more loving. Of all the wonderful messages I've received, my favorites are the ones telling me that someone is inspired to do something good for themselves--to go to CrossFit, to try to run again, to go for a walk. I don't care if it's exercise-related or not, nothing makes me happier than seeing people treat themselves well, because that's where we have to begin if we want to treat each other well. I would consider it a huge honor if my blabbing away here had some small role it it.

Because I am also here to tell you that if I can have the time of my life finishing an Ironman, you can do any damn thing you want to do.

I make an enthusiastic cameo appearance in this video at 10:21. It's the section where they're saying that the slow people are the real winners. And where the guy says the Ironman is the best high ever. 

Race report, part one: thunder, lightning, swim and bike

The moment the alarm went at 3:15 on Sunday morning, I was fully alert, my first thought clear and immediate: I'm awake to do the Ironman. I am awake to do the Ironman.

I went through the tasks I had on my list: drink water, drink yerba mate, make oatmeak, poop (sorry, and I know--on a list? But hey, it's the Ironman), fill water bottles, put on Garmin. Out the door at 4:30 when Mara and Chuck picked me up. We dropped off our special needs bags--the items we would access halfway through the bike and run--and organized our things in the transition area. The sky was still dark, but the Olympic Speed Skating Oval was brightly lit and buzzing with the pre-dawn activity and nervous energy of two thousand athletes. Spectators already lined the barricaded streets. It was bizarre, terrifying, wonderful. I cried.

The day was already warm, a relief after the previous day's 47-degree start. The forecast called for thunderstorms, but I intentionally didn't check the radar in the morning--too much to mess with my head. At about 6:00 I made my way to the lake, a few blocks from transition, where thousands of wetsuit-clad humans milled about like so many sea lions on a Galapagos beach. Music pumped from the speakers. A drone buzzed above our heads. 

The cannon went at 6:30 to send the pros off ahead of the age-groupers, who were all self-seeded behind signs showing our projected swim time. I slipped in toward the front of the 1:11-1:20 group, where I found myself entirely surrounded by enormous, intense, muscular men--normally a dream come true, but in this case, I was intimidated and weaved my way toward the back where I found a cluster of women dancing to Call Me Maybe, keeping it light. A woman my age asked if it was my first Ironman and offered perfect reassurances.

Before I knew it, another cannon, and we were trotting in a column through the arches into the water. Once I was swimming, my nerves settled and my stroke was strong and steady. I kept pace with one guy, then another, watching his right arm tattoo come around every time I breathed to the left. Reached the end of the first leg with a time that pleased me. Drafted behind a guy with a beard the whole second leg. It rained like hell and  the sky grew dark as we exited the water to run through the arches again to begin the second loop, and I worried about the thunderstorms coming as I re-entered the water. A couple of times I thought I heard thunder, but with 2000 people slapping the water around you, you can't know anything. At any rate, I was half a mile from shore, so what would I do anyway? I swam as well and as fast as I reasonably could. 

As I stood up out of the water, I watched an enormous lightning bolt come out of the sky toward the ground in front of me. Now I was terrified, with visions of lightning striking this lake that still had 1500 people in it. I sat down and let the volunteer peel my wetsuit off of me, then ran with it in hand for 800 meters through the barricaded streets to the oval. Spectators dashed for cover as thunder crashed around us and buckets of gray water fell from the sky. Oh my God, I thought, this is the apocalypse. And I'm getting on a bicycle.

What else could I do? I got on the bicycle. There's a climb out of town for a little while, and we made our way forward, heads down against the lashing, prayers sent up to ward off the lightning strikes. The skies crackled around us, and we made comments like "at least it's not snowing" which weren't funny but kind of helped. At some point, a guy pointed out that the odds of getting hit were infinitesimal, and I realized, okay, here I am. I am happier than I have ever been, and I cleaned the house before I left. I am going to be careful, but I'm not stopping. If it's my time, so be it. I hope it's not, but I might as well have a good time.

After the climb out of town there's a 12-mile descent on new pavement that had me going over 45 MPH the last time I was here. I was looking forward to this hill for the thrill, and for the time it would earn me. A little extra weight, a fast bike, a high risk threshold and a love of speed make for some serious ass-kicking on the downhills. But not this time. I didn't even know how to ride in this--I would never ride my bike in a thunderstorm! I took my cues from the men around me, and touched the brakes enough to stay with the crowd. It was scary, disappointing, and painful, as the rain hammered like nails from outer space into my face.

It was also freezing. By the bottom I was shivering hard, and I was worried. I knew the course leveled out at Keene, which would help, but if this rain continued I'd be hypothermic before noon and I wouldn't be able to finish. I was kicking myself for not being dressed for it.

But the rain stopped just after I made the turn toward the hamlets of Jay and Ausable Forks, and I gradually warmed up. I rode along the river at a steady pace, and I realized I was having a ball. My body felt fantastic. When I'm training all the time, my body always feels tired. I've never done a long bike ride when I was well-rested, and it's whole nother animal. It was wonderful. The lightning and driving rain at the start put things in perspective, too--you don't worry about things like pooping or chafing when you think you're going to be electrocuted. The entire race now had a different face.

I watched a chain reaction bike crash involving 4 or 5 people, and I stopped for the woman who skidded across the road in front of me, earning an ugly scrape on her shoulder. She was really rattled but so anxious to get back on her bike that I had to kind of hug her against the guard rail to keep her from jumping out in front of the oncoming crowds. We checked out her helmet and her bones and her bike, and I rode with her for a couple of minutes before wishing her well and pedaling on ahead, glad to see she was taking it easy. About 15 minutes later she came smoking past me, all smiles and waves and thank yous. We ran into each other the next day and hugged like old friends, and I was so glad to see she was fine. She beat me by about an hour and a half.

The rest of the bike was sheer joy. I couldn't believe how much I was loving it, so much more than I thought I would. Nothing hurt. I held back on the hills to save my strength for the second loop and for the marathon. The sun came out, and banks of mist shifted around the mountains and rolled through the valleys. Steam rose from the fields. We chatted with each other as we passed and got passed, complimented each other and flirted and wished each other well. I felt like the luckiest person on the planet. Big crowds lined the steep hills on the way back into town, and a young man running around in only his underwear and carrying some kind of flag (sorry, never looked at the flag) sprinted up the biggest and last hill with me. I don't know how many times he did this for how many athletes, but I'm awfully glad he did it for me.

Photo of that Underwear Man by Elizabeth Kreutz
I'd been taking in calories in the form of energy bars and sports drink with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio, but I think I ate too much solid food, and my gut was feeling it. The last thing I wanted was to be achy and bloated for the marathon. I stopped the bars and prayed that my tummy would settle down. The Ironman is also an excellent day to get your period, because even though you feel like shit, you can be especially smug when you pass large groups of extremely fit men. "Any of you guys have your period today too? No? Okay, well, good luck! Maybe I'll see you later if my cramps get worse."

We came through town to begin the second loop. By now the sun was fully out and cheering spectators lined the closed streets. As I came past the oval, I heard Mike Reilly ("The Voice of the Ironman") on the loudspeaker: "Just LOOK at that smile! That's Shannon Thompson!" and the crowds cheered and I laughed and hooted and hollered and I cry now with the memory of it.

The roads were dry for that second descent from Lake Placid to Keene, and I flew, tucked low in the aero bars, touching the brakes only once on a curve at the bottom. My Garmin recorded a max speed of 45.5. I don't need to ever go that fast again, but I will tell you, it was awesome, made all the sweeter by how horrible it was the first time through.

At around mile 80 as I again cruised along the river, my belly was better but my attitude and energy were slipping, so I grabbed the double shot of espresso I'd chilled in a gel flask the night before, and that sucker pretty well changed my life. The final ride back to town was just plain fun, even when the sky opened up again and drenched us, as we spun our way along the trout streams and past horse farms and ski resorts.

I finished the ride with a near-even split and a total time of 7:11, well below my best-case-scenario goal of 7:30.

Of course, now I had to run a marathon.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

If love propels you

Oh, you guys. I have found a whole new kind of gratitude through this thing. No matter what happens tomorrow, this has already been one of the richest, most powerful, humbling experiences of my life. The outpouring of love and support that I have experienced fills my heart--fills every cell with an appreciation so deep that I can't contain it. My hope is that it comes pouring out of me so that someone else might feel this loved. I experienced this feeling once before, when my little niece Phoebe died. To be able to feel such compassion and kindness now, without the overlay of heart-crushing grief, is a privilege beyond measure. 

Thank you for following along, for thinking of me, for asking about the race, for sending me little notes and poems and videos and photos and cards, for making me signs and for shaking my hand. Your words and thoughts are my fuel!

I want to especially acknowledge my "team" for healing and strengthening my body and really making this physically possible: Kate McMorrow and Thrive, Dave Orsmond at Waldo County Sports and Orthopedics who was exceptionally generous with his time, the PT guys at Orthopedic Associates, and my coach, Scott Layton, who has been an invaluable advisor, cheerleader, and font of knowledge. I feel like it's a miracle to be here. Thank you, guys.

My dear Aunt Sue sent me the "feel loved" card pictured at the top. Inside, she wrote, "If love can propel you, you will lead the pack."

It can. It does. I do.

Thank you all, with so much love back to you-

Only 140.6 to go. See ya on the other side. :)

Gear drop-off and a total freakout

I can't believe how scared I am. Holy shit. My anxiety is off the charts, and it's over something that is actually of no consequence whatsoever. That's the part that makes me laugh and keeps me relatively sane. It's all so freaking absurd, really it is. I mean, COME ON. Yes, yes, yes, I've worked hard and it's going to be tough and blah blah blah, but WHO CARES? It's a totally made up thing. It's not cancer, it's not violence, it's not the Kardashians or any of these truly scary things. I'm not worried about getting hurt, or anything that matters. Not even worried about not finishing. A little worried about being so uncomfortable for so long. Mostly just terrified. It's like I feel when I fly: I'm not actually scared of dying, I'm just scared of being that scared.

I'm also scared of my own mind. How kind will I be to myself tomorrow? We'll just have to see.

So la la la. Spent the day organizing my stuff into bike and run gear for the transitions after the swim and the bike, bike and run "special needs" bags, for halfway between both events, the stuff I need after the race, my nutrition for the whole event. Checked it all in, was so stressed out that total strangers told me to breathe, got talked off the ledge a few times by my fabulous coach, Scott, and a few kind IMLP veterans, then had a pretty good time soaking up the excitement of the scene. Picked up my quadruple espresso from the coffee shop to stick in the fridge for bike mile 56 and the start of the run.

Scott Layton, Ironman athlete, coach and hypnotherapist

Back to the hotel, where this rather fit fellow and I met in the parking lot and hit it off. I said no to the 4:00 movie because I have to be asleep at 7:00, and, well. But still. Hallelujah. 

I'm serious. It is not a joke.
Feet up, foam roller, the Lake Placid hockey movie "Miracle" streaming on the laptop, a hot bath and a light dinner, earplugs, two alarms set for 3:00...

My training buddy is an angel

She would hate this, because she's the one who doesn't want attention, but I can't let this thing go by without publicly acknowledging what a profound influence my training partner and dear friend Mara Crans has been on me.

At the Timberman 70.3 last year
Even though our schedules didn't allow us to work out together all the time (well, that and the fact that she's too fast for me), Mara and I followed the same training plan, so we were doing the same things on the same day for the last 16 weeks. That alone was a huge help, being able to compare notes and strategize and complain and celebrate the same things on the same days.

But I could do that with anyone. Here's the thing. Mara is one of the most genuinely and persistently positive people I know. She's not a pollyanna, all goopy fake and sunshine; she's real about her challenges, but she accepts them with such grace--actually, no, she doesn't just accept them, she embraces them, she tackles them, she stomps them to the ground, then she picks herself up with a big laugh and makes 12 lasagnas because her 4 teenage boys have invited the whole high school and the US Naval Academy over to the house for dinner.

And here's the other thing. Mara was diagnosed with MS eighteen years ago. In the meantime, she has become a powerful athlete who has learned to push her body to its limits while also keeping her MS in check and maintaining an overall level of good health that anyone would envy. She's real about the disease and the additional challenges it offers, but she does not feel sorry for herself in any way, shape or form.

I am kind of a naturally complainy person with a low tolerance for discomfort, so you can imagine the effect that just being with someone like this has had on me. I'm pretty much inspired to shut the f*ck up every time I see her. It's not that she's not sympathetic--she totally is (although she's quick to tell me to put on my "big girl panties" when I complain without merit), it's just that when I feel compelled to whine about, I don't know, how early I had to wake up, I consider how cheerfully she lives with chronic pain, how maybe she can't even get out of bed first thing, and I bite back my grumbling. (I would never know if she can't get out of bed first thing, because she would ever tell me that unless asked directly, by the way.) I have a long way to go for sure, but all this practice has already made me a more positive, less complainy person.

Beyond all that, Mara is an exemplary athlete: she's committed and organized and motivated and she's never late for a 4:30 a.m. workout.  She's smart and she knows things. Did I mention she's a doctor who studied exercise physiology? She knows her body extremely well, and knows how to push herself without getting hurt. She is a yogini. She takes rest days. She eats well.

Which is why it's all the more heartbreaking that a month ago, she experienced an ankle injury that has kept her from running. There were no signs that it was coming. She was doing everything right. Not just right: textbook right. She was the exemplar of healthy training. She was also doing the best and fastest running of her life. Then pop: she was hurt. A month before the race, after 4 months of intense preparation and a huge emotional and physical commitment.

She kept on training, swimming and biking and subbing aquajogging and the elliptical for the run. She is here in Lake Placid determined to do the swim and the bike portion, deciding whether to walk the marathon. She has registered for next year's race.

This week, Mara's sons devised a plan to carry her through the marathon: the eldest would carry her 14 miles, and the other two would take the remainder. Only when they realized that she would be disqualified did they scrap the idea. When she learned of it, her response was 100% Mara Crans: "I mean, who am I to complain...Big whoop, I can't do the run...But I've created these incredible young men who would carry their momma 26 miles." 

Whether you walk those 26 miles or not, Mara dear, my big slow marathon tomorrow is all for you. I'm putting on my big girl panties and I'm gonna try really, really hard not to complain.