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. 


  1. Not sure if my original comment posted so I'll try again. Forgive if this is duplicated!

    Man, Shannon you capture the essence of a life well-lived; thanks for sharing this story. Understanding that life is half grit and half attitude has propelled you to greatness and gratitude. Gratitude allows one to share with others and to be at one with the world. You have walked the walk and can now talk the talk. I have known you to be of fine spirit and ruled by love; perhaps exhaustion is what breaks one down to accept the humility that is necessary for gratitude to take up the space previously occupied by anger, jealousy, hate and exhaustion and this great feat certainly centers on exhausting your physical body and allowing emotion to surface. You are truly an IRONMAN!

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