Beginner’s Luck: Just Keep Moving Forward

Illustration by Hunter King

No matter what, you can always put one foot in front of the other.

I raced Ironman Lake Placid in July—my third 140.6. I went into the race in the best shape of my life, secretly thinking it was most certainly my day for a fantastic Ironman PR. But like many things in life, race day comes with no certainty, is often full of surprises and sometimes doesn’t pan out exactly as planned.

Sometimes race day is not about glory. The beauty of a long-distance triathlon can suddenly turn hideously wrong, leaving you thinking, “How did I get here? And how do I get home?” At the end of the day, sometimes that finish line is about learning an unwelcomed lesson in perseverance, gratitude and what kind of grit you have to drag yourself to the finish. The finisher medal is not a thing of splendor, but a strange piece of hardware holding your heart and soul and love for the sport together. As I stood on the shore of Mirror Lake, right before the race cannon went off, I began to cry—I am a sissy and I cry before every major race.

Fear? Maybe. Gratitude? Definitely. Many, many emotions run through my head, and I release the tears right before I release the can of whoop ass. I entered the water with a wide range of emotions, but mostly I was just excited to have the race get underway.

I was kicked in the head during the swim several times in a very short window. I was rattled but did not stop. I exited the water with a solid swim PR, and was eager to get on the bike to show off all my hard cycling work. My bike leg was tough and slower than I had hoped, as I was fighting dehydration and a massive headache from the swim. By the time I made it to the run with raw feet and blisters, I knew that I was in trouble. The bright beacon of my “well-deserved” PR had fizzled, and I knew that all that remained were the voices in my head.

About 3.5 miles into the marathon, I had a rough talk with myself. It went something like this:

“Can you run without tearing the blisters on your feet?”

Answer: No

“Can you walk?”

Answer: Yes

“Can you walk 22 more miles?”

Answer: Yes. (But I don’t want to.)

“I know you don’t want to. But can you?”

Answer: Yes, but I don’t want to.

“Yes, we have established you don’t want to walk. Irrelevant. What do you need to ensure that you are ready to walk the next 22 miles?”

Answer: Lobotomy.

“No, frontal lobe surgery is not an option. Try again.”

Answer: I need to hydrate the hell out of myself, and eat the party buffet at the aid stations to get me through the next seven hours. Oh, and mind tricks and a song.

“Exactly. Your mind tricks are counting the people passing you and figuring out what city they have come from. And your fight song is literally ‘Fight Song.’”

Answer: No, I can’t sing “Fight Song” for the next 22 miles. Pick another.

“How about ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ by Billy Joel?”

Answer: You have to be kidding me … I am done talking now.

“Just keep moving forward.”

Answer: Don’t say that to me.

So it began—the tears and the emotions that go hand-in-hand with the monumental task that is Ironman. The waaaaaaah state that we, as triathletes, can sometimes find ourselves in during a race.

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In those moments, I could not figure out why I had begun the sport of triathlon in the first place. Going 140.6 miles, at that moment, seemed like the dumbest thing anyone would ever want to do. So why was I there? Why in the world was I pushing my body to these extreme limits for a silly medal and finisher’s hat that never fits? What a stupid thing to do. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

Then I saw a familiar triathlon outfit run past me. Where have I seen that pink and purple kit before? And on a man?

Then I remembered. The runner was Chris McDonnell, a father and athlete who raced Kona to fulfill a promise he made to his daughter, Grace, a first-grader who attended Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. I had watched their family’s story on the Ironman Kona broadcast in 2013. He and his wife and their son, Jack, had lost Grace during that terrible attack at the elementary school.

I stared at him and my mind immediately rushed to my children—my son being the exact age that Grace was when she died. How could I go on if that happened to me? As I watched Chris and the determination on his face, I was brought to tears. I remembered his words on the broadcast: “No matter what the day dishes out to you—no matter what life dishes out to you—you can always put one foot in front of another. And you keep going. And you cross the finish line.”

I knew my race day was not going to end up as I had planned. But unlike my day, my life was immeasurably blessed and full of so many things for which to be thankful. Racing has often been the lens through which blessings and joy are truly revealed. In that moment, I cried some more, and I was thankful and in awe of seeing Chris on the course. I was thankful for the sport that has taught me to push forward in spite of adversity, tragedy and pain.

In Grace’s honor, in gratitude for my family, I knew I could not—would not—quit. I knew that I would be walking off a course for ridiculous, selfish reasons. I continued to put one foot in front of the other. I moved forward with purpose, with gratitude and a full heart—all the way to the finish, where I planted a smooch on Mike Reilly’s cheek and heard those magical words: You are an Ironman.

Through Chris’ example, I was reminded exactly what the sport can mean: Peace. Love. Grace. n

Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is a 2015 Klean Team USA member, lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.

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