I am Ironman: How I finished a 140.6-mile race during med school
In the quiet darkness, all I heard was the rhythm of labored footsteps. Nonstop movement over the past 14 hours had left my mind and body depleted and fatigued. I was surrounded by thousands of similarly weary strangers. Our punishing day had begun with a single mantra: Trust the training. After 14 hours and 50 minutes, I turned a corner to see the blaze of bright lights, and I heard my name: Lindsay Ercole, you are an Ironman!
The Ironman triathlon comprises a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. Each participant gets 17 hours to complete the 140.6-mile feat and be deemed an “Ironman.” Held throughout the world, the grueling events test the endurance and determination of athletes of all ages, abilities and motives.
In the fall of 2012, I had applied to medical schools across the country for the second time. Uncertain that my lifelong dream of becoming a physician was attainable, I took the fate of 2013 into my own hands by registering for the single greatest physical challenge I could imagine actually achieving: the ultradistance triathlon known as Ironman.
Journey to Ironman
In our twenties, my husband and I made an effort to reawaken the athletes of our youth. We started with holiday 5k and 10k races. My husband made the leap to the half-marathon, and I followed after realizing I had run just as far trying to cheer him on. (In all seriousness, have you cheered a runner from the sidelines recently? It’s an athletic feat in and of itself.) We ran a couple of marathons and even completed a few short-course triathlons. When we joined a triathlon club, we met several Ironman finishers, who turned out to be mere mortals like us.
They told me that Ironman was a lifestyle and that the training, not the race itself, is what transforms athletes into Ironmen. I accepted these sweeping statements with a smile and nod, trying not to show my utter fear of the many-miled endeavor. But at the same time, I grew curious. My husband and I flew to Phoenix to volunteer at Ironman Arizona 2012.
As we set up snack tables and handed out chicken broth, we were astonished by the athletes’ willpower throughout the race. Their exhilaration as they dashed to the finish line persuaded us to tackle the easiest part of the race: signing up. The race would take place a few months after my 30th birthday. Still buzzing with excitement, my husband and I laid out a plan to undertake the following year’s triathlon. This endeavor was to be unlike anything I had experienced.
“The most grueling portion of my training for Ironman would overlap with the rigorous work of my first term of medical school.”
A few months later, I learned that I would soon be starting another uncharted mission: I was accepted to the Midwestern University/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale—coincidentally, very near the site of Ironman Arizona 2013. My acceptance was great news, until I realized the most grueling portion of my training for Ironman would overlap with the rigorous work of my first term of medical school.
The first half of 2013 was a whirlwind as I finished my job as a research analyst, boosted my triathlon training, packed up eight years of life in St. Louis and moved to Phoenix.
I completed the base training for Ironman in the months before medical school. This transformative time included building up distances, working out several times a day and rewarding myself with healthy splurges that wouldn’t sabotage the next workout. I finished a half-Ironman triathlon, bridging the gap from prior short-course races to November’s ultradistance.
Trust the training
As we settled into Phoenix in July, our training regimen adapted to meet our new home. Longer Saturday bike rides required a 5 a.m. start to beat the brutal heat. I sought advice from a local triathlon club on riding groups, training plans and the Ironman Arizona course. But then my classes began. Cue “Carmina Burana”—or whatever hauntingly beautiful score best fits this daunting task.
Past and present students will understand quite vividly the mix of enthusiasm, frustration and terror that is the first term of medical school. Students dive deep into piles of notes and recorded lectures, coming up only to eat and sleep. But rather than celebrate after an exam or a long week, I would climb into bed early in anticipation of my sunrise 15-mile run.
Orchestrating the chaos of last fall into a symphony was the direct product of three things: a supportive spouse, a Google calendar that ruled my life, and my prioritizing school, sleep and Ironman training above all other items. I also found my sense of humor to be crucially important during this time.
With the bike being a key component of Ironman training, I worked out a creative solution for my midweek rides. I got an indoor bicycle trainer, which turns any freestanding bike into a stationary version; a stand to hold my iPad, which displays lecture notes; and headphones to listen along. I pedaled for hours, ticking through histology slides and anatomy flash cards. Sometimes I moved my bike from the guest bedroom onto the patio (a setup that surely confused our neighbors) and pedaled away until the virtual miles were done. My favorite memory of bike-meets-medical-school-studying was one Saturday morning when a good friend came over to run through notes and quiz me while I pedaled for four hours.
Is this the most enjoyable way to train for an Ironman? Simply put, no. Hours in the Sonoran Desert, just you and the landscape dotted with hot air balloons as the sun rises over the horizon, is my preferred method of training. However, when the situation calls for creative intervention, one must rise to the occasion.
The truth is, the hours of churning away on my bike sometimes left me tired and cranky. I felt a bit resentful of those triathletes logging miles outside and of my med-school peers, who seemed to collect a few extra hours of sleep or social time each week. I found myself trying to remember the bright-eyed version of myself, who happily handed over her credit card to register for this arduous task last year.
Oftentimes, I recalled the über-wise triathlete veterans, who told me so confidently the training was worse than the race itself. Yet I considered that a different version could be true. Perhaps the training was cruel, but the day of competition was even crueler? I questioned my resolve at times, but I somehow managed to keep putting the pedal to the road and setting the 4 a.m. alarm. Little did I know, those learned Ironmen were spot-on. Sure, the monumental day of the Ironman race is what you prepare for, but the reality is that the magic happens in the training.
Come Ironman day, I was joyful—and beyond nervous. When the cannon sounded, the day began. Each moment of forward progress bolstered my confidence. Once I reached the halfway point in the swim, I briefly stopped to take in the amazing sight of about 2,500 wetsuit-clad humans, feverishly swimming at sunrise. I was grateful to be cycling 112 miles outside, free of my indoor trainer. As I headed out on that first loop of the marathon course for the run, I grinned because I didn’t have to chug an espresso and drag my exhausted legs to the library afterward. I took solace knowing that in that moment, I was ready. I had logged the time, the effort and the hurt. This was a day to show myself what the months of training had prepared my body to do.
As we spent the day focused on the process of traversing 140.6 miles, I gathered a greater appreciation for what those miles offered. I learned that everyone has a reason for standing at the start line, and we each have a reason pushing us to finish. I saw 70-year-old triathletes cheered on by their grandchildren and heart transplant recipients grateful for the second chance at a full life. In the dark evening hours, I spent a mile running alongside a father celebrating a 65-pound weight loss and a leukemia patient determined to raise funds for research.
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See our full list of OMS Spotlights.
At 9:50 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2013, I rounded the finisher’s chute with the wackiest, widest grin on my salt-crusted, tear-stained face. Hands thrown in the air, I ran as fast as my legs could take me. I wish I could tell you I was applying the fall term’s biochemistry and anatomy to my current situation, but I’ll be honest: Though my heart was happy, my stomach was empty, and cold pizza never sounded so good.
Ultimately, Ironman is an outward representation of the ability of humans to deal with an immense challenge, face adversity with a plan and achieve success. Whether you finish with the elites or you’re the last person to cross the line, your mind has been to a place few others have experienced. You challenge your threshold for discomfort, explore the depths of your physical and mental tenacity, and leave the experience ready for the obstacles life will undoubtedly present.
I call on that perseverance during the more taxing days of medical school. I slip on my finisher’s jacket and I remember the moments I thought I wouldn’t cross the finish line. I recount the 14 hours and 50 minutes I spent testing my body and mind, and I use that power to work through the adversity and doubt we often encounter as students. Ironman, just like medical school, has taught me that each day I am capable of more than I imagine. And to always trust in my training.
Lindsay J. Ercole, OMS I, attends the Midwestern University/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale.