The best race memories aren’t always about athletic execution on any given day. They’re about the people who populate the journey to the finish line.
My first Ironman was in 2005 in Taupo, New Zealand. When I dig deep into my memory bank, I recall the actual race details—like the constant, painful rat-a-tat-tat of six-plus hours cycling chip-sealed roads and how I was convinced my ribs were cracked by the time I started the run. I remember the challenge of trying to get comfortable enough to pee on the bike—and the nightmare of eventually ducking into an all-day-sunbaked Porta-Potty on the run.
I remember lying in bed that night, my body feeling destroyed, wondering how the pain compared, for example, to being rolled over by a semi-truck. And sure, I remember my race time.
But when I think about my rookie experience Down Under, those are not the immediate memories that rise up. What comes to mind first are the lighter, brighter moments, like the group of drunk Kiwi guys that my then-boyfriend’s mom organized into a frat-style cheer squad for me as I exited T2. I remember the carload of locals driving up and down the run course, urging me (and a few hundred other athletes) on by name. It was my first race with a customized bib, so I was a bit taken aback that they really seemed to know me. And I recall the paradisiacal appeal of another local’s backyard barbecue, where a fun-seeming group of friends were set up to spectate and swig margaritas, and even invited me to join.
Since then I’ve raced a handful of iron-distance events, with varying degrees of success. The memories that stick? At Ironman Coeur d’Alene it was an anonymous note of encouragement on the electronic message board. To this day I have no idea who it was from, but it did the trick and lifted my spirits at exactly the right moment. I actually thought that note cosmically and coincidentally popped up just as I ran past; it wasn’t until lap two on the marathon that I noticed the timing mat which obviously triggered the message. Still, it was no less magical or meaningful.
At Ironman Australia it was a young girl, maybe 7 years old, running alongside my bike as I pedaled up a climb. “Where are you from? What’s the hardest part of the Ironman? Would you do it again? Do you like Australia? Will you come back next year?” she asked, showering her curiosity over me. I could barely breathe from my effort on the bike, but I did my best to answer, wanting so badly to encourage her interest. The kids on the run course at that race were also unforgettable—a trio of young friends who, in the final few kilometers from the finish, sprinted ahead of me repeatedly, leapfrogging one another and trying to high-five me as often as they could. The energy of their 5- and 6-year-old hand slaps nearly knocked me over, but I wasn’t about to deny one of their uplifted palms.
At last year’s Challenge Penticton, I could have sworn I saw Jackie Onassis spectating—a sophisticated woman in white, a sort of half-ghost, half-goddess who appeared at least a half-dozen times along the bike and run course, always with a smile of deep admiration across her face. I didn’t know her, but she seemed to stand proxy for my own mother and grandmother and aunties (plus one of America’s greatest icons)—and I sure wanted to make her proud!
Four months after the fact, it’s not standing on the podium at Challenge Taiwan as the age-group champion that is my favorite memory from that race—it’s the hug I received from my dear friend Belinda Granger as she handed me my award, and as we celebrated her own 50th iron-distance race and incredible career. (That, and a few fun but slightly fuzzy memories from the after-party dance floor that shall remain under wraps.)
Reading this, you might think I’m the “all for the experience” sort. But I’m actually as competitive as they come. I want desperately to PR, to wallop the women in my age group, to beat my best of friends, to chick as many guys as possible, to get on the podium and to bring home some hardware. I want to win—and sometimes I do. And believe me, for a few days post-race I’ll talk your ear off if you’ll let me. I’ll tell you the nitty gritty details of my day, what went right, what went wrong, and how my splits compared to my prior performances.
But soon enough, those details will dim, and the forever memories will come into focus. These are the snippets of joy that have nothing to do with a finish time, or a bike or run split. My absolute best race memories—my count-my-lucky-stars moments—are not at all about my athletic execution on any given day. Rather, they’re about the people—be they random strangers or BFF’s—who populate the journey. They’re about the friends, family members, volunteers and spectators who have seen me through, whether with perfectly timed messages of motivation and kindness, or simply with taunts of tequila or a helluva good laugh.
And so, in the interest of finding your happy place in the sport, let me suggest something. Next time you’re worried about how fast you might go in a race, lighten up and look around. Smile at a stranger. Make a few friends out there. Accept the warmth that comes your way—and the post-race cocktails. And remember, the longer you’re out there, the more memories you’ll make that will truly last a lifetime. Rather than stress, slow it down—and let the good times roll, on and on and on.