In late September, the Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga attracted elite and not-so-elite athletes to a 144.6-mile rolling hill race course in Tennessee. Like every other full Ironman, the race consisted of a 2.4-mile swim, a 116-mile bike course (not a bike ride…), and a 26.2-mile run (or a full marathon). Most athletes who sign up for the full Ironman complete those three events together; however, the Chattanooga Ironman is one of the last remaining Ironman races that allows for a relay option, giving up to three athletes a chance to compete in this historic event. About a year ago, I signed up for the relay with two friends. And about two months before the race date, I bowed out. The reality was that I was not ready. I talked a big game for almost a year, telling family, friends, and colleagues that I was training for this momentous race. I even made it "Facebook official," thinking that posting my intentions (and linking to my team page) on my social media profile might motivate me. But how did I get here in the first place?
Rewind to 2016. My youngest son, now 13, was in second grade. He came home one day beaming with newfound knowledge. That day, a student's parent came to class and assisted with the math lesson. The parent - a mom of one of his classmates - taught the students how to convert miles to kilometers and used her recent triathlon as the teachable moment. To my recollection, the conversation during the car ride home went something like this:
Ben: Mom, did you know that Grayson's mom did the math lesson today at school? She talked about her job and how it involves math.
Me: I did not. What kind of job does Grayson's mom have that involves math, and what did you learn?
Ben: She told us that her job is to train for a race. It is the kind of race where you have three sports - swimming, biking, and running. And she taught us how to convert miles to kilometers.
Me: Oh, she was talking about a triathlon. Sometimes it is a job to train for a race like that. What else did she tell you about the race?
Ben: She said it is a race called an Ironman.
I nodded. Then, silence. Quietly from the backseat, I heard: I wish I had a mom who was an Ironman. I teared up. I was less than a year out of my marriage, struggling to build a new identity. I wanted to show my young boys that their mom - questioning her self-worth and navigating a new normal - could do anything. I quickly responded. I said, "Ben, I will complete an Ironman by the time I am 50. You will have a mom who is an Ironman." Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a grin emerge, ear to ear. Shit. I not only put it into the universe but also committed to my son and made it time-bound—double shit. I reached out to my trainer, Nicole. I still wonder to this day if she muted the phone and laughed out loud when I told her what I committed to. But she agreed to train me.
As the years went on, I ran some races. I told everyone I knew about this Ironman race that I would do before I turned 50. I even started an Instagram account: @IronmanBy50 (which is no longer), where I would track my progress in the years leading up to this race. I visualized myself crossing the finish line. I imagined hearing the iconic finish, " Alison…YOU are an IRONMAN…" as I collapsed onto the ground after completing a grueling 144.6 miles. I started training. Stopped training. Signed up for relays where I was always the runner. But I never (ever) completed a full triathlon of any distance. I told myself that I must press on to keep my promise.
Nearly two years elapsed (thanks global pandemic), and the only distance I logged was that of the social type. As 2022 got underway, I invited two girlfriends to join me for the full Ironman Chattanooga race. They both accepted, and as the year went on, we each decided for different reasons that we would not be ready for race day. As I added September family activities to my Google calendar at the kitchen table one morning, I saw the reminder of the race dates. And as I hit 'delete' to free up the weekend for other activities, I turned to my son. I asked if he recalled the math class – the one when Grayson's mom taught the students about conversions through the example of an Ironman. He looked at me and said, "I have no idea what you are talking about…." I teared up again. I told him the story to help trigger his memory. And he looked at me quizzically. "Why would you do an Ironman race just for me? I don't need you to finish a race to know you are an awesome mom." Cue: tears. Again. I side-hugged him (he's 13) and typed "Homecoming weekend" in the newly-opened calendar field.
At this point, shy of age 50, by just a few years, I now have a newfound freedom—no need to 'prove' myself to my son or myself. I can now run (or swim or bike) any race I want - on my timeline. And I know in my son's eyes, I have already won.