My Ironman Goal and My Surprise Realization

by Niki Lake

In 2008, I ran for the first time since graduating high school. Over ten years had passed by, fifty pounds had been gained, I had become a smoker, and I was suffering mild depression. It took one simple life choice to change everything. The pounds dropped off, I quit smoking, and I started running. Come 2009, I crossed the finish line of the Illinois Marathon 5K and I cried. A racer was born that day. I came alive with my new obsession and from there on out I set a goal each year for myself. My life changed that day with one decision – nine years later I crossed the finish line and became an Ironman. This is my story.   

After my first 5K, I went insane racing every 5K and 10K I could find. I believe in 2010 I raced over 30 races. Yikes. This year I have raced 4 times so it sounds crazy to me now. Running started off as a way to keep the weight off and still enjoy an occasional cheat meal and beer. It quickly changed though. I loved running. I loved racing. The first time I ran 6 miles I was in shock. I could not believe I ran 6 whole freaking miles! Training for my first half marathon I remember loading up my camelback with water, my phone, and other aid to run 8 miles. Now on cooler days I may leave for 10 miles and forget water! But crossing the finish line of the Mahomet Half Marathon and seeing how proud my parents and soon-to-be-husband were had me tearing up. I was so proud and I had come so far. Long ago were the days of overeating and depression and now I was a half marathoner. It was unreal!   

After feeling such a high from the half marathon you can imagine my disappointment in 2012 when I crossed the finishing line of the Illinois Marathon and felt absolutely nothing. I wasn’t happy it was over, I wasn’t proud of myself, I was just... whatever. Take it or leave it, but it was confusing to me. Maybe I had post-marathon depression? I had no clue. I had the best pace leader and blew my “just finish” goal away and finished in 4:00:52, but I was still feeling empty. I continued to race every chance I could get and ended the year again with over 30 races.  

 When 2013 rolled around, I decided to race the Illinois Marathon again and my hip started not feeling great. I end up walking most of it and finished, but it hurt and was miserable so once again I felt nothing. Later on in the year after racing way too many races again I would come to find out that I had a hip stress fracture and would be out of running altogether for a few months. Heck, I would be on crutches! This was almost a relief. I had taken my love of running and turned it into an obsession and started hating it. Every time I stepped out to race, anxiety would take over about being first in my age group or getting a PR. Running had become all about winning in some way and I had lost the love for it. The hip stress fracture was the next best thing to happen to me.   

But injury was no cakewalk – 2013 was rough on me. The start of 2014 was, too, but then I discovered cross training. Swimming, biking, and rowing all caught my interest and even though I swore I wouldn’t, I let the triathlete bug hit me and sooner or later I was signing up for my first TRI. I did so horrible at that race it was hilarious. I was on a hybrid bike where most people were racing tri and road bikes. I swam in a sports bra and short running shorts which I also wore on the bike (ouch). When it came to the run, well, I am not sure what I did could be classified as running, but I loved it. This was new to me and I had so much room for improvement it excited me.   

I spent the next few years upgrading bikes, learning to swim better, practicing nutrition, and understanding the 5th, 6th, .... , 100th discipline of training for an Ironman event. Come 2015 and I conquered my first Half Ironman. Holy crap it was the devil. So hot, hilly, bumpy, the water was cold, the run was hard, everything about it was tough. I crossed the finish line at 6:54:45 and I cried I was so proud of myself! I found a new love in triathlons. I had to do more and the next year I was signed up for 2 more Half Ironmans. I remember while training asking Bruce Hajek, ‘Mr. Ironman Pro’, if a marathon was super simple to him now that he had done so many Ironmans. His answer will stick with me forever and I will come back to it soon.   

2017 was the year for the Ironman. After 3 years of building up, I had a tri bike, I could survive the swim, and I was going to do it. I chose Chattanooga after Bruce told me that the swim was with the current so it was one of the easier ones and the bike was rolling hills and I liked rolling hills. But, Bruce forgot to mention that the run was one of the hardest. I mean, just add in Mountain Goat 4 times after the 2.4 swim and 116 miles of biking (yep, Chattanooga is too good to stop at the normal 112).   

This is getting long so I am going to wrap up my views of Ironman training and the actual race in a paragraph. Training was lonely, boring, exhausting, depressing, and sometimes unforgiving. Many times I questioned my ability and even if I actually wanted to do this race. I missed friends, family, SWRC, and fun for an entire year for this. Race day was another story. It flew by so fast. I had a panic attack at the swim start right after I jumped in but then I leveled and the rest of the day was great. It was painful! I had cramps in my feet, heartburn most of the day, I was hot, I couldn’t eat much, I drank so much coke I was up the entire night after the finish. Despite all this, I enjoyed every minute that flew by. It was fun, I dare say much more fun than the marathon or half Ironman I did. That year of training had paid off. As I approached the finish line, the one I had dreamed of and prayed for during the year leading up to this race, I felt a huge amount of... NOTHING. I felt absolutely nothing when I crossed the finish line and Mike Reilly said, “Niki Lake, you are an IRONMAN.” I still to this day haven’t really felt much from it all. I think I am finally ok with that.   

Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of myself. I am proud of myself for being able to change from the person I was 9 years ago to the person I am today. I think the moral of this story is that I was proud after my first 5K. Heck I was proud after I ran a mile without stopping. I didn’t need the Ironman to be proud of myself. I think I thought I did. It took actually doing it to realize that I have been proud of myself since the minute I made that initial life change.   

Back to Bruce Hajek. He told me when I asked him if the marathon was easier after doing an Ironman that they are totally different races. I laughed at him. How could he think a marathon was as hard as an Ironman? Now I know, and it is not because I recovered faster and hurt less after the Ironman than I did after the marathon, because I did. It is because each race is going to be hard for whoever is racing it. If I were to race a marathon right now it would be harder for me than doing an Ironman. In a few weeks there will be the Mile at the Pine and a gentleman that works at Subway asked if I was racing it because I had on a marathon shirt and he said it would be easy for me. I laughed and said, “Have you ever raced a mile?” A mile would be a harder race for me right now. It depends on the person, race, goal, life. Never underestimate a race’s power. A 5K just may make you feel more than an Ironman.  

This race report originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of In Passing.