On Sunday, my family had the privilege, and I do mean privilege, of witnessing our friend Chris Hollinden complete the Ironman Triathlon in Louisville, KY. We had never been to an Ironman competition, and thought it would be fun to watch, and we wanted to support Chris in his effort. Well, let me tell you, fun does not begin to describe the day. And as hard as I try to put our experience in words, I can assure you, I will not be able to do it justice.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Ironman format, it begins with a 2.4 mile swim…in the OHIO RIVER! Can you imagine? I would be crying as soon as I hit the water. After the swim, the competitors transition to the cycling portion – 112 miles of cycling. Once they get their legs warmed up by cycling, and they have already been competing, oh, say six or seven hours, they have to…run a full marathon! 26.2 miles! That is a grand whopping total of 140.6 miles for the day! I don’t run that in a month.
Our day started early; we left our house at 5:15 am. The first wave of the race was to begin at 6:00 our time, but I really am not a morning person, and did not want to leave at 4:00. We arrived at the riverfront in time to watch the swimmers come out of the river. What a sight it was to see nearly 3000 athletes swimming in the river. Since we couldn’t find the Hollindens, we texted back and forth so that we would all see Chris come through. We positioned ourselves where we could see the swimmers running through to the transition area, and then take off on their bikes. We were afraid we would miss Chris, but spotted him (or whom we thought was him), and then received a text that it was. We were able to see him take off on his bike, and he saw us as he began that leg of his journey.
After he left the area, we met up with his wife Kelly, and his parents Tony and Rhonda. We drove to Lagrange, Kentucky to the viewing spot for the cycling portion. We were in awe. These men and women came cycling through, smiles on their faces, waving to the crowds. We all stood together anxiously awaiting Chris’s entrance into Lagrange. Of course, we saw him for about ten seconds, but it was worth it to get to cheer him on. The Hollinden clan stayed to watch him come back through Lagrange, but we headed back to Louisville to do some shopping (I can always work that in!).
After our shopping, it was time to travel back to the riverfront to watch the transition from bike to run. At this point, I was just so impressed with these athletes. To even want to attempt such an incredible event is just so admirable. We stood watching as the athletes started the marathon leg of the Ironman. Some were beginning to wear down; some were dropping out. I must mention that by this point it was in the 90s. And sunny. I whined trying to run eight miles Saturday and it wasn’t even the hottest part of the day. These people are beasts! Once again, we were so fortunate to get to see Chris as he began his run. He still looked so strong.
At this point in the day, I decided I am a wimp. I had, for the past couple years, felt pretty good about my so-called athletic ability. I can run 13.1 miles – I was proud of that. As we watched these amazing athletes who were completing 140.6 miles, 13.1 miles seemed like nothing. Nothing at all. 13.1 miles? That’s hardly a warm-up for these people. Please note, that absolutely does not mean I have the ambition to ever in my life attempt an Ironman. I would cry, vomit, and throw a tantrum – all in the first mile. My daughter confirmed that I was a wimp as she pointed out every single woman who was in my age range and competing in the Ironman.
After watching Chris take off for the marathon, we knew we had some time, so we hit Joe’s Crab Shack for our only meal of the day. I felt rather guilty as I ate my fish and chips in the comfort of air conditioning. Not too guilty, I guess, because I enjoyed every bite! Once our bellies were full, we took off again. We headed back up toward Fourth Street toward the finish line. We arrived there at about 4:00, and many athletes were already coming through the finish. We somehow ended up getting the perfect spot to watch the finish: we were about 15 feet beyond the finish line right on the fence, so we could see everyone come through the finish. Wow. Let me attempt to describe this experience.
The first things I noticed were all of the wheelchairs lined up. Seriously. These athletes had just finished 140.6 miles, and their bodies were spent. I would venture to guess that 20% of those who actually finished (many had long since dropped out – some literally), had to be wheeled through the finish area once they hit the line. Many people just collapsed into waiting volunteers. They had lines of volunteers on both sides just past the finish line, and they were instructed to immediately aid the finishers as they walked through the finish area. Some runners would wave the volunteers off thinking they were fine, only to have their legs give out. Others came through looking pretty good. There were also those who headed to the nearest trash can to vomit.
There were those who came through raising their hands to God in gratitude, and those who sobbed, overcome by the emotion of the moment. Some grabbed their loved ones for hugs, others grabbed the nearest volunteer. A couple of people rolled across the finish line (I don’t really know the story behind that), and a volunteer told us one man immediately got down on one knee and presented an engagement ring to his girlfriend. As you can imagine by now, emotions were running high and free. I have watched the end of many races and have run three half marathons, yet I have never experienced anything so moving. My daughter Addison kept laughing at me because I teared up every time someone crossed the finish line. I watched as a young man went straight to his mother and they just hugged and cried. Sniff sniff. We stood there for almost three hours, and were in absolute awe the entire time. What an amazing accomplishment for all who finished. And then Chris came through! He still looked strong, walking unaccompanied as if he did this on a regular basis. We went to meet him at the end of the chute and were so impressed with his composure. He was an Ironman! He told us he felt pretty good, just hungry. Gary and I laughed on the way home because after we had run a half marathon, we ate uncontrollably for a couple days. I couldn’t imagine what these folks would consume in the coming days!
We got home at about 9:00 last night, and do you know what? There were still athletes running the marathon. They were 15 hours in, and still going at it. The Ironman truly is a race in which time doesn’t matter in the least. If one can complete this grueling triathlon, he or she is a winner – plain and simple. As we watched the Olympics a few weeks ago, we kept hearing that the winner of the decathlon would be deemed the World’s Best Athlete. I beg to differ. The endurance, passion, and dedication shown by all we saw yesterday make them the World’s Greatest Athletes in my most humble opinion. So, congratulations to all, especially to our Ironman – Chris Hollinden! You inspire us all!