The common response I received when talking about my IRONMAN goals and training would always go a little something like this…
1-OMG – that is crazy. 2- How do you even? 3- BUT WHY?
After finishing the training and the race itself on April 28, 2018, I can now tell you yes, it is crazy. Absolutely, but equal parts amazing and life changing as it is crazy. To get thought the HOW, you have to know your WHY. My WHY begins back in 2016 and like most, it was inspired by someone else’s journey.
After a wild day of weather and support crew duties, I watched my oldest brother cross the finish line at IRONMAN Texas 2016. I watched and cheered for so many athletes that day – of all shapes, sizes, abilities and ages. That finish line is a magical place and inspirational. The seed was planted, if they can do it, maybe I can too.
Somewhere between inspiration and brotherly competition, my other brother decided he would do one too. A year later, we came back and I watched BOTH brothers race and cross that finish line. I made my mind up that night that I’d give this triathlon thing a try and 2018 just might be my year.
I went home to Virginia and found a local sprint to enter, bought a bike and kind of started training. I knew I could conquer the bike and run, but like many others, the swim was going to be my biggest obstacle and fear. And it was, I was third from last getting out of the water. But I survived and became motivated to get better. I then set my sights on IRONMAN North Carolina 70.3 – it had an ‘easy’ swim and flat run/bike course. I trained out of pure fear and completed the 70.3 miles by the grace of God. I then took the plunge and registered for IRONMAN Texas 2018.
I knew I needed a lot of help to be successful at a full distance IRONMAN. I hired an “amazing I don’t know what I would have done without her” coach, dialed in my daily nutrition (MACRO counting) and made the commitment to myself to stay committed and consistent. 170 days of consistency to be exact and that I did. I emerged myself in all things triathlon and soaked up every bit of knowledge I could.
It wasn’t easy, some days it wasn’t pretty, but I made it work. From 3 a.m. bike rides to swimming laps on Friday nights, I juggled life and training the best I could. I also asked for a lot of grace from my family as it took a huge toll on everyone. Without their support, it wouldn’t have been possible and in the end, it was worth every single moment.
The stars aligned and going into race weekend I was in a really incredible place. I was well trained. I was well rested. I was injury free. The weather forecast looked amazing -- especially for Texas. I watched the daily water temperature readings like it was my job and a week out it appeared to be highly probable the race would be wetsuit legal for the first time in years. I prayed for these conditions just about every day of training and the big guy upstairs came through for me like no other.
However, even with all this, I was scared. I was overwhelmed. I was stressed. The nerves are real and so intense.
Week of race Prep
First of all, that week leading up to IRONMAN, you will not think or talk of anything but IRONMAN. It consumes your every waking and sleeping moments.
IRONMAN is a logistical feat. So much stuff, so many bags. Deadlines and drop-offs. We flew into Houston on the Wednesday before race day and I’d say that’s when the nerves started to kick in. That feeling of “did I forget anything” you have when you leave for a trip – imagine that times 10.
Thursday morning we went to athlete check in around 10 a.m., bought all the swag and listened to the athlete briefing. Just an FYI – there is no shade and the only place to sit is on the ground. It’s in a large parking lot so just know that if you’re reading this as a future participant.
I then headed over to the Tribike Transport tent to pick up my bike. I had some bike drama, not from the shipping of the bike, but I had rented race wheels and tires from the shop in VA that I dropped my bike off at for shipment. I didn’t stick around for them to change them out, I trusted it would be done correctly – trust no one! I spent the next few hours getting new tires and brake adjustments at a local shop. They were super awesome and did a solid once over on my bike to make sure nothing else was wrong. We also had dinner plans with some local friends who brought me a skewer, bike drama over.
Friday – bike and bag check-in
I got up that morning and sorted my bags out. I had somewhat presorted everything when I packed at home. Items were in gallon Ziploc bags that I needed for each race bag and I was advised to keep the items in the Ziploc bags so the items wouldn't get lost if the transition bags came open or got ripped - it happens. I had a pretty solid list I’d gone over and over, however, as I sorted out my bags that “what am I forgetting?!” feeling crept back in.
We headed out to transition to drop off bike and bags. The volunteers told us to let air out of our tires so they wouldn’t heat up and pop during the day – OMG, could you imagine? I then headed over to bag drop with my brother. I had meticulously put my race number stickers on my bags AND wrote my number on the bag jut incase the stickers came off. As we were standing in line I noticed I had written the WRONG number on my bike bag. Nerves. On the nerves. Luckily the nice volunteers had sharpies so I could correct it. Headed to lunch with the family after and then to find our names on the Lululemon storefront window.
It was an early night; I ate a Chick Fil A salad and laid down around 9, but didn’t get to sleep until 10 p.m.
I woke up around 2 a.m. race day morning and dozed in and out of sleep until 3:30 a.m. when I decided to get up and start eating my breakfast of a blueberry bagel, Gatorade, and half a red bull. I’ve always subbed half a red bull for coffee before any type of race. All this prep and training and the day was finally here. I couldn’t believe it.
Headed off to T1 at 5 a.m. and as usual, arrived ‘on time’ but felt like we were late.
There’s always so much going on and so many people. One of the first announcements I heard was Mike Riley confirming it was a wetsuit legal swim – praise baby Jesus! Aired up the bike tires, dropped my fuel (Infinit) off on my bike, went and checked both run and bike bags to make sure everything stayed put throughout the night. One last restroom stop before we made the half mile walk over to swim start. T1 was relatively well lit. BUT I was super glad to have had my headlamp – definitely bring one.
We reunited with the family and cheer squad at swim start, gave hugs and then stood in line for one last pre-race restroom stop. Got out and put on wetsuits, dropped off special needs and morning bags and then went to find our swim wave. I always seem to get on the verge of tears before entering the water at races. Its fear and nerves all rolled into a lump in my throat. Thankfully before I broke down, my brother who was also racing walked up and we started chatting to the guy in front of us as we inched our way closer to the water. Before I knew it, go time. Told brother to have a good race and I’d see him at the finish line. Swim – 2:04:16
Into the water I went and bring on the panic attack. I knew I needed to calm down and I’d be able to catch my breath. I just couldn’t seem to make it happen and it lasted a lot longer than I’ve had it happen before. I thought my day was going to be over before 8 a.m. I got myself together and just kept going.
With each stroke I said to myself: I can. I will. I can. Breath. I will. I can. I will. Breath. I just kept repeating that over and over to myself as I took stoke after stoke. I finally got into a rhythm and felt like I was making progress. My goggles were really hard to see out of for some reason, I may have gotten some Vaseline on them and it made sighting hard. At one point I ran into a girl and she had some not nice words for me. Sorry!
I’m a bilateral breather but my breathing rhythm kept getting off and I was favoring my right side which also made me swim off to the left more than I’d like to admit. I felt like I did a lot of direction correcting.
I was 40 min in when I made it to the first turn. I did the math; I had no time to spare but was on track to make the swim cut off. It felt like going back and getting to the turn for the canal took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Once I got in the canal I kept thinking and wondering to myself how far did we swim up the canal? Man I really should have walked this yesterday. Oh hey paddle boarder following me, it's cool. I’m ok. Thanks for checking. Am I there yet? I can’t see, is that the last buoy? OMG, it is! I swam up to my puller and told him I had never been so happy to see a stranger. He laughed and got me on my feet.
I've read horror stories about the swim but have no complaints. Water didn't taste like duck poop, I didn't get beat up too bad, and the canal wasn't a washing machine nor discussing by time I got there. Maybe having a 2+ hour swim isn't such a bad thing after all.
Bike - 7:36:17
Miles and miles and miles of peddling. The first 10 miles getting from the Woodlands to the toll road flew by. When going by a neighborhood along the way I had a cat dart across my path. I joked with the photo guy and asked him if it was good luck?
Merged onto the toll road and immediately saw the first of two huge pelotons. Cheaters, cheaters! I tensed up as they engulfed and then passed me. My neck was already pretty sore; something that I usually don’t feel until mile 50, but am guessing it was from all the sighting in the swim. I took an Advil I had stashed in my bike bento box.
Those overpasses were no joke. Don't let anyone tell you Texas is a flat bike course. I saw so many flats and accidents. I just kept thanking God for keeping me safe. The aid stations and volunteers rocked. It's such a well-organized machine. I laughed to myself at the first aid station when I grabbed a water bottle from the volunteer like a pro as I rode by -- oh my, how far I've come.
My second lap on the Hardy was sparse and pretty lonely. Felt a lot like a training ride. Made it to mile 85 ahead of the cut off time and had a huge sigh of relief. Finally caught up to and passed one of the fat bike guys with a few miles to go. What a best, he was looking pretty rough but was still in good spirits.
I finally made it to the last turnaround and then shortly after got to exit off and head back to the Woodlands. The best part about the ride was seeing my support crew - they showed up for me big time throughout the day and this was an unexpected pop up! My uncle Dave who had quadruple bypass 2 weeks prior was even with them. So happy to see them all and get some laughs from their shenanigans. I rolled into T2 and was greeted by them again. The lovely volunteer took my bike for me as I made the jog to pick up my run bag and get ready for the run.
Run – 5:58:42
Just a marathon to go. As I came out of transition and onto my first lap of 3, my support crew was there again as was my local tri club buddy who was also racing. He’s a beast and was on his LAST lap of the run. We chatted for a few seconds; I was so out of it I asked him if he was finished. I couldn’t comprehend why I was seeing him. Ha! I asked him how his day was going, he was hoping for a sub 12 and said he was on track for it – I remember feeling so happy for him in that moment. He told me to just keep moving as he jogged off to crush that sub 12.
The IMTX run course is by far the most fun I’ve ever had in a race. As a back of the packer, most of the fan fair is gone by time I roll by. But the beauty of this being a 3 –loop race meant I got to enjoy the peak of the fan fair too. It was like a big tailgate – so many spectators and so much energy!
My run overall felt great. I stuck to a 9 minute run and then 1 minute walk rotation and also walked the aid stations. I carried a water bottle with my Infinit run mix but also drank extra water at the aid stations. I was so worried about getting dehydrated; it was taking people down left and right. I kept thinking to myself, just keep going. You’re doing great. You feel good. OMG, you feel good. You’re so going to make it!
That last lap was a lot like the last lap on the bike course, sparse and a bit lonely. I had been given the suggestion to bring a headlamp and am so glad I did. There were parts of the course on the back side of the lake that were dark. I missed my special needs bag, thought I’d be able to grab it on my last lap but missed the cut off by 15 minutes. All the bags were packed up and long gone. Luckily, I had trained with a variety of things and knew the on-course nutrition would work for me. So I continued with water, Gatorade and Gu. By this time the Gu was actually a nice treat.
I finally made it to the last turn around and got to ring the 3rd lap bell. Finally! It was then a quick jog to the split to the finish line. I was going to make it and I felt great. I could not believe it.
I found some of my family along the way and gave high fives and then got ready for the red carpet. A piece of advice I received that I would have never thought of was to slow down that last mile, take it all in and make sure you don’t come across with a lot of people – you don’t want to come that far to then NOT hear your name. A look back and all was good, the guy behind me was far enough back and then it was THAT time, the moment I had thought about and envisioned for months and months. My WHY, my finish line moment.
Mike Riley, the voice of IRONMAN said “Amber Callahan, Virginia, You are an IRONMAN, Amber!” I made it. I MADE IT. I DID IT. And I’m now an IRONMAN, Mike said so.
As I was being escorted by my finish line volunteer I see my sweet Lucas on the other side of the fence crying and holding his IronMOM sign. I leaned over the fencing to kiss and hug him as I thought something was wrong. He told me he was just so happy for me to finish. And in that moment, I knew this entire process to crossing the finish line meant so much more. He got it. Even at 5 years old, he understood the accomplishment and that’s something I’m proud to have taught my son.
I’m truly humbled by the support and encouragement I received along the way by friends, family and complete strangers. I’ll forever be grateful for the ability to participate and be part of such an extraordinary experience and community of people. But above all, I am grateful for what it has given me.