It is dark but I feel the mountains around me. The highway is still quiet at this early morning hour and the headlights illuminate glimpses of rock faces on the road edge. As the sky turns from black to gray more comes to life around me. A smile creeps across my face and I can’t control it. Whenever I feel lost the mountains ground me. Full of wisdom and older than I can imagine, I feel safe in their presence. They’ve seen it all.
The sun yawns and stretches its rays up above the mountains and faint light wakes the trees. I can see the fog nestled in the valleys like a cold blanket covering slumbering fields. As we speed down Interstate 81 toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, I try to take everything in because my camera can’t do the scenery any justice. In the rearview mirror I can see the sky on fire with stripes of orange, red, yellow and pink as the sun rises higher. The world is finally awake.
Dave and I are headed to Chattanooga to see Erin race her first Ironman. As we roll up to the hotel a few hours later the atmosphere is laced with anticipation. More and more athletes arrive as Dave and I unload the car and wait for Erin, and I watch triathletes roll their expensive bikes into the lobby. I feel like I am caught up in another world, a world of organized chaos full of nervous energy shaking and rattling my psyche. The calmness of the mountains is gone, evaporated into the sky like the morning fog I spied earlier floating across the landscape.
Race day calls for record high heat, yet I don’t feel nervous for Erin. Not only has she been living in Texas all summer long, but when I hug her in the hotel lobby I sense a feeling of readiness. She is an island of serenity in the sea of madness only an Ironman event can create. She is my mountains – all knowing and calm.
On Saturday morning, the morning before the race, we head out for an easy bike ride and I follow cautiously behind Erin and her friend. I’m riding her other triathlon bike and it’s so light I feel as if I might blow away in the next wind gust. But as we ride out of downtown and into the countryside I can feel my confidence building. I feel weightless and free speeding down the hills and I feed on the energy radiating from the green mountains around us. It’s quiet enough I can hear the birds chirping in the trees and it reminds me of being a kid again in Robbinsville, NJ, when Erin and I would wake early on muggy summer mornings and speed down the hills in our neighborhood on our matching bikes.
Race morning arrives before I know it and I spring out of bed at 3:50 AM like it’s actually a normal waking hour. Everything is done in the dark: body marking, final checks of the bike, riding the bus to the swim start – and again I feel as if I am immersed in another world. I’ve run hundreds of road races, a few triathlons, marathons, and championship races but nothing compares to the start of an Ironman. I watch all the triathletes sitting around me waiting for the swim start and wonder what’s going on in their heads. How does one prepare for a 2.4 mile swim, 116 mile bike ride (bike course was long in Chatt – it’s usually 112 miles) and then 26.2 miles afterwards? They have to believe. And as cheesy as it sounds, I knew before Erin even started she would finish, because she believed so deeply in herself.
Other than the finish, my favorite part of spectating Erin’s Ironman was the swim. After they jumped into the river I ran down the river walk to get a good view of the water. Separating myself from other spectators, I found myself surrounded in the beauty of a race unlike any other. Hundreds of swimmers headed downstream in a wide line, and the sound of their arms hitting the water reminded me of the sound of delicate wings fluttering endlessly, softly dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, I watched silently as the swimmers migrated downstream together under a watercolor sky. Together they had one goal: to be an Ironman. It sent chills down my spine.
About 12 hours later I am standing at the finish line. I’ve spent all day tracking the merciless sun across the sky and finally we are immersed in a darkness bringing much welcomed coolness. Erin will be finishing any minute and the announcer’s voice booms at the finish line as other athletes cross and throw their arms up in triumph. Music blares and as each athlete passes we slap the cardboard signs tied to the barriers, screaming and creating a thunderous applause.
When Erin approaches I feel my heart skip a beat only to then beat what feels like a million times per minute. As I scream, “you are an Ironman” a smile splits across her tired face and her eyes sparkle with happiness. I feel tears well up in my own and my heart swells. To stand at the finish line of an Ironman is to experience more emotion than I can usually muster up in a month. Watching her run into the finish line spotlights I know I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life.
After the race we find Erin and walk away from the intense energy at the finish line. Sitting on a bench in pseudo darkness – the glare of the finish line behind us, the announcer’s voice thundering through the air – my sisters, mom, husband, friends and I crack open a beer. We drink slowly by the riverside as Erin tells us about the ups and downs of her race and I feel at peace even though we are surrounded by madness.
Every athlete has their own story. Their own triumphs and failures. The finish line means something different to each and everyone of them, and I feel blessed to have been able to experience Ironman Chattanooga as a spectator and see so many dreams fulfilled. Erin has a story of resilience and determination, a story of never giving up no matter the hardship.
Watching Erin race made me think about my own story and where I’m headed. As I sipped my beer riverside, I thought about how unclear everything seems.
I have dreams and aspirations I believe I can fulfill if only I could get my health settled. My shin pain has come back full force and I’ve put a halt on all training to try and get the pain to go away. I want to believe I can do amazing things but it’s hard to believe when I feel so broken. I’ve spent a boatload of money on extensive lyme disease testing and I’m nervous to get the results in a few weeks. I hope my injuries will resolve themselves because I refuse to let my story end on some shitty 5k I gave up halfway through. Right now, I feel like I am in limbo, and I don’t know which way to go.
As I drove back to DC from Chattanooga, still high from Erin’s triumphant finish, I realized she has found her calling. I’ve always known we are endurance athletes and after so many ups and downs in the running world I feel such a happiness knowing Erin has found what she truly loves to do. But I don’t know what I’m meant to do yet. But as I passed through the mountains one last time, their serenity quelled my feelings of doubt. Because when I’m in nature, I know what I want.
And those mountains are calling, and somehow, I will go.
© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved