Sunday, was the single hardest thing I have done in my life. It was a physical, mental and even spiritual conquest that ended in a 16 hour 37 minute and 4 second victory! I’m going to attempt to tell the story of June 23, 2013 through my eyes that day.
The alarm rang at 4:00 AM Pacific time, and I sprang up quickly. One of my big fears was not being able to get a good night’s sleep, but that wasn’t the case. I felt very refreshed. I think part of the reason for this was traveling West which meant my body was feeling 6:00 AM Central. I know for a fact that the other reason was that Sarah sacrificed and slept on the couch since the bed was a queen the night before the race (more on her later). We ate a small breakfast as prescribed by my TriDot RaceX Plan and headed to transition. Tobey took the car and dropped us off as close to possible to our bikes.The transition area of an Ironman is different than the other triathlons that I had done before. It was quiet! I think each athlete is trying to find their own calm, and I was no different. I had my typical pre-race contemporary worship music pumping positive thoughts into my head about His love and His plan for me and the race of my life (so far). In the midst of about 2800 athletes I was approached by a man asking, “Are you Dr. Stevens?” I said, “I am Dr. Stevens, but I am not sure if I am the one you are looking for?” The man turned out to be Dr. Brett Andrews who I had met on Twitter back in February of 2012. He is a tri4Him member in Oklahoma, we prayed together in transition for safety, perseverance, strength, wisdom and to be His glory through the ups and downs to come. I believe Brett was also doing his first Ironman on Sunday. He persevered through a bike crash and still finished. Encounters like this are just one of the many reasons being a tri4Him team member is so awesome!
Transition in an Ironman is pretty easy because you drop off all your gear for each discipline the day before. Essentially you just add your nutrition and water to your bike, air up your tires and you are done. So it wasn’t too long and Frank and I met Tobey and the Ironmates outside transition for one more talk and words of encouragement. At this point in the morning everything was happening very quickly. We noticed athletes already beginning to “self-seed” on the beach so we got our goodbye hugs, kisses and fist bumps and headed that way. The first smart decision of the day I made was to immediately get in the water once we hit the beach. This was partly because I was well hydrated and needed to pee, but also to acclimate myself. The water was 62 degrees that morning. We had done a practice swim on Friday that was at 60 degrees, and honestly the water did feel warmer. I swam quite a bit and then went to find Frank on the beach. There we stood together after literally miles and miles of training. I was thinking of the many early mornings I zipped by his house to pick him up for those 5:15 AM swim sessions. Here we were together a long way from League City and this was really happening.A beautiful fog lay just above the surface of the water because of the cool outside temperatures, Mike Reilly counted us down and at 6:35 AM the cannon boomed! 2800 athletes were to funnel through a small arch, but we were moving fast. There was little time for more than a quick prayer and a fist bump for Frank. My eyes were welled up with tears, and I pointed both hands to the sky telling Him one more time that I trusted His plan and then I plunged into the cold lake. The first 5 minutes I could tell I was overly excited and breathing too hard, but I quickly got into a rhythm. Just another 90 minute swim is all I thought. The swim was two laps and when I glanced at my watch after the first lap I was right on schedule, I jumped right back in and finished the swim in 1 hour 30 minutes and 44 seconds. I was in my first Ironman transition, and I was on schedule!
I took my time in transition to dry off very well, because it was still pretty cold. In my plan I budgeted for 15 minutes, but I was able to head out in fewer than 10 so I was happy. The only bad part was that it had rained so much the days before the race that transition had gotten muddy and I got mud in my bike shoe cleats. When I mounted my bike it was very difficult to get clipped in and over the course of the 112 miles my cleats disconnected nearly 10 times. This really slows you down and makes you work just a little bit harder and in Ironman every ounce of energy counts. The bike was two loops, but really was a quick 14 mile out and back, then a very difficult 42 mile out and back in the mountains. You did this twice. I was really feeling good on the first 14 mile loop, but my heart rate was just a bit higher than I wanted it to be. I tried everything short of stopping to get it down but the slow rollers followed by some sharp inclines didn’t really cooperate. In the end, perhaps this is where I hurt my marathon. Lucky for you my watch is on the truck back from Idaho and I can’t dig into the metrics until later. Otherwise you might already be bored right now. Coming back through town we saw our support crew a couple blocks from our house. Sarah had blown up a picture of Carson in his triathlon racing kit. As I sped by I thought of him and lost it. I cried for about the next ten minutes, thinking of him and all the determination he showed in his first triathlon. One reason I started doing triathlons four years ago was to be a better role model for the boys. I thought maybe I accomplished my mission.The bike ride in town was very cool, the streets were lined with spectators which gave you that extra bit of adrenaline you needed. The ride over the bridge into the mountains had spectacular views, but it was honestly one of the most difficult 42 mile stretches of cycling in my life, and I had to do it all over again. My heart rate continued to be elevated and although it would drop on the downhill portions of the course, it would spike quickly on the climbs back above what I had planned it to be. I was “burning matches” that I would need later and I knew it. However, I really didn’t have tons of options at this point. I had to start making some decisions. We came back through town and I caught Frank who had about a six minute lead when we had started about 63 miles ago. It was very good to see someone that I knew and talk through the race to that point. We were just 5 hours and 46 minutes into the Ironman. We talked a little strategy for the upcoming second mountain lap and stuck together most of the way around the next 59 miles. At around mile 70 as the first major incline approached I made a mathematical decision. Since I was above my heart rate cap I had to make it back into T2 close to 9 hours to give myself ample time to walk an entire marathon if necessary. After some positive self-talk and prayer I pushed forward toward that goal. In the end, that decision may have been the one that allowed me to finish the race with 23 minutes to spare. It also could have been the decision that derailed my run.
Here is some perspective for us Texas flatlanders on the bike course mountains. What they consider gentle hills are at about a 3-4% grade. The Kemah Bridge is between a 4-5% grade. However the Kemah Bridge is less than one mile long. This course featured a 2 mile stretch of 6-7% grade followed by a 3 mile stretch at 5-6% grade. Some of the inclines took between 45 minutes to an hour of pushing at 6-8 mph to get to the top. Of course, you did get some downhill but before you knew it you were back over one of the “gentle” hills that equated to the Kemah Bridge. Note to self, my next Ironman will be on a more flat bike course! One of the cool moments on the bike was when a perfect stranger told me my tri4Him race kit reminded him of 1 Peter 3:17. He went on to talk most of the way up the mountain about the specific scripture, “Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!” I think we keyed on the suffering part as were both suffering, but what a blessing to share the gospel during such an incredible moment.So 7 hours, 39 minutes and 7 seconds later I was done with my first Ironman bike. I again, took my time in transition to make sure everything was in order. I stayed in the tent for 9:42 and so with 7 hours and 30 minutes left to complete my first Ironman (you only have 17 hours), I headed out for my first ever marathon! I walked the first mile before I even attempted to run. I wanted to make sure that I had my legs solid underneath me. I began running a little bit and caught up to Frank around mile 3 of the run. Again, it was good to have a familiar face to talk to. We talked some strategy, but he began to feel better. I told him not to wait up for me that if he wanted to run go for it. He did and ultimately had a great race, I was real proud of how Frank performed in not only his first Ironman, but only his fifth triathlon! Honestly, the rest of the marathon from about mile 3 – 26 was a complete gut check. I kept telling myself, just keep moving, just keep moving and you will be an Ironman. I prayed a lot and thought many times of the people that got me to this point in the race.
I can’t overstate what Sarah’s support and love meant to me during training and on race day. You may race an Ironman alone, but you don’t get there alone. She definitely earned her Ironmate title on Sunday. All the signs and words of encouragement were never far from my mind in the many dark cold moments out on the marathon. She sacrificed many Saturday mornings and early alarms along the road to Ironman. In the end, I believe she tasted the Ironman “Kool-Aid” and liked it. She was proud of what I persevered through that day, and I was proud that she was proud. Love you Sarah!I also thought of Frank and Sherry out on the marathon a lot. At the time I thought Frank would be finishing I was in constant prayer for him that his finish would exceed his expectations and that he was feeling okay and in good health. It is amazing that a meeting at a Boy Scout campfire listening to an Aggie football game has grown so quickly into such close friendships. Frank was an enthusiastic training partner, that truly pushed me to my best and Sherry was a friend to Sarah as we went through this whole process together. Love you guys!
Coach Boo and the entire tri4Him team are such a blessing also. I thought of Ronnie, Cindy, Kelly, Papa Joe and the other team members huddled around laptops and iPhones like I had done for them so many times before waiting on those splits. Every time I crossed a timing mat I envisioned their excitement in the fact that I was still moving and sometime there bewilderment in why I was going so slowly! The mountains!!! If you are reading this I promise you were not far from my mind at all. I appreciate each and every one of you that gave me advice and encouragement along the way. tri4Him!Mom and Dad, who did their own version of Ironman by keeping Caleb and Carson for six nights! There is absolutely no way that this happens without them. They both instilled in Tobey and me an incredible determination to reach for our goals no matter what they were. They not only provided inspiration, but we can’t forget that the bike I rode over those mountains was their gift to me. I could picture Dad sitting in the study following along, and I was hoping he was okay because I knew I cut it pretty close. Words can’t even begin to express my thanks for all you have done for me, Sarah and the boys. I love you both.
In addition to all the above I thought of Jim, Prella, and all Sarah’s sisters and our countless friends that supported Sarah and I during my training. Sarah was relaying your messages to me out on the course and they were all inspirational in the last few miles knowing people were waiting up to see me finish. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other for you.
So there I was well past the 23 mile mark of the marathon and feeling rather alone when through the dark streets I see Tobey approaching. What a welcome sight! Apparently Dad had given him orders to go and find me as the splits were coming into the computer rather slow. At that point I was losing ground and had slowed to 18:24 / mile pace. He walked with me as we picked up the pace. I thought about how in April 2009 I had gone to watch Tobey’s first race and it had inspired me months later in August to get off the couch at nearly 300 lbs. Tobey was the pioneer of this triathlon stuff in our family and it was great to have a 3 time Ironman finisher walking beside me in the final miles. His message was simple keep moving and pick up the pace, I didn’t fly all the way to Idaho to have you not finish this race. He stayed with me all the way to Sherman Avenue where they began to barricade off spectators.
So there I was all alone on Sherman Avenue. I had this scene as my desktop wallpaper for nearly a year, and now I was living it. Right before Tobey and I split off I started crying. I tried to compose myself and put on my tough Ironman face but it was difficult. I did pull myself together as I got close to the bleachers with thousands of loud fans cheering and yelling. Mike Reilly was waiting there waving his towel and working the crowd into fervor. I started to run, pain free, and seemed to glide down the chute slapping as many high fives as I could. Then I hear the words I had been waiting for 16 hours 37 minutes and 4 seconds. “First Timer Chad Stevens… Chad, you did it! You are an Ironman!” Praise be to God!
So, one of the cool Ironman traditions is that the race winners come out late in the day to hand out medals. So I was honored to receive my medal from 2013 Ironman Coeur d’Alene Champion Ben Hoffman and also get to meet Heather Wurtele the women’s champion. They finished in 8:17 and 9:16 respectively. Wow! I felt okay, but shortly after getting my picture and finisher swag I began to vomit. I would spare you all the detail, but we would miss the quote of the week when the nurse said. “Basically, your body thinks you are dying.” I opted to get out of the area to Sarah, Tobey and the rest of the crew which in my opinion could take better care of me. So there is the story of a once 300 lb. obese former athlete turned triathlete turned Ironman in 4 years. I feel great today other than some blisters, and I can’t wait to write Chapter 2!