Just say ‘Yes’
“If the only time you say YES is when you have a guarantee that things will turn out just the way you hoped, then you will almost certainly never step through fear to chase the dreams God gives you.” – Michael Chitwood, founder of Team World Vision.
I said ‘Yes’ to Ironman Wisconsin back in October 2016. It took me until February 2017 to actually go public because of the fear involved in truly staying obedient to something so outrageous. There were no guarantees in how this would turn out. As you all know, God brought me through the finish of Ironman Wisconsin for His glory last week. The account of my race day is below. If you don’t read the entire recap (it’s lengthy!) know this – I’m so glad I said ‘YES’!
Its 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, September 10. My alarm goes off (not that I needed it as sleep was impossible) and I quickly silence it so I don’t wake my family who was calmly sleeping in the hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. I step into the bathroom where I methodically placed all of the gear I needed to start Ironman Wisconsin the night before: wet suit, jammer swim trunks, green swim cap, goggles, timing chip, body glide, and warm clothes to wear until race start. It’s all there on the counter waiting for me to start my day. My ride was leaving at 4:30 promptly to take me to the race start at Monona Terrace 2 miles down the road.
That moment I was officially on the ‘clock’ so-to-speak. If I missed my 4:30 a.m. cutoff my day would be off to a rough start. My mind began to go through, for the thousandth time, all of the time cutoffs I needed to hit in order to finish Ironman. It was in that moment that I needed to get my mind to do what it didn’t want to do…move into the unknown. Every moment from here on out required obedience to a call God gave me back in Africa nearly 1- year ago.
I found the strength to get dressed and convince myself that I had all the essentials to at least officially start the race. I took a quick look back at my family and the emotion that had building since I arrived in Madison on Friday overtook me. I found myself weeping. Fear hit me like a wave – did I respect this event enough or was I foolish to think I could complete an Ironman distance without ever doing a triathlon before? How will the swim go? What if my body shuts down, how will I know and what will it feel like? What state of mind will I be in the next time I see my family next? What if I don’t finish? Will my donors and supporters understand? Will my family, with all they have sacrificed, still love me if I don’t finish this race?
It was a messy head space to be in and I just cried, as quietly as I could, stealing one last glance at my family. It was then that Tricia woke up and gave me a huge hug. My words to her was this “You need to pray me through that swim. It’s the biggest unknown for me today.” She gave me her everlasting vote of confidence and told me how proud she was that I was here about to start an Ironman and that she’ll be praying.
Arriving to Monona Terrace with my teammates went smoothly. We arrived, pumped our bike tires with air, and filled our water bottles for the bike, and then went to the Team World Vision (TWV) area inside the convention center. We were encouraged to find a seat to stay off our feet. I found a table and went into a zone. The candid picture below summarizes the emotion in the moment: uncertainty, fear, but a willingness to stay obedient.
I can honestly say that getting to the start line was the first time I’ve been 110% obedient to God without knowing how things were going to turn out. I fully expected to have quit or have gotten injured before I ever had to face the reality of doing this event. Now that I was there I also began to think of all of the people that have come alongside me on this journey. The gravity of it started to weigh heavy. I was about to represent 185 people (total number of unique donations); I better give it my all. Before I knew it, it was time to do the TWV rally clap, which made me cry. Then we prayed, which made me cry. Then we got our wet suits on and walked outside, which made me cry. I was a mess.
The Monona Terrace is a 4-story conference center. Our transitions and bikes were on the top floor which doubled as the roof of the parking garage. To get to the water we had to walk down the parking ramp helix. This helix was already lined with spectators screaming and cheering for you. I was trying to hold it together. I finally made my way down to the shore where our corals were. The sun was just peaking over the horizon and I got my first good look at what 2.4 miles looks like when marked by buoys. It looked endless. I was still a mess and had to empty my goggles a few times of tears. The raw emotion seemed uncontrollable until…
2.4 Mile Swim
…I step into the water. Every swim workout I had this year, whether in the pool or open water, took my breath away when I submerged myself to prepare for the workout. I prepped for my breath to be taken away this time as I pushed forward towards the start line, but an amazing thing happened. My breathing was strong and I felt at peace. It was as close to an out-of-body-experience as I could imagine. I was going to line-up far right towards the shore. That’s where the weaker swimmers are encouraged to go if they have anxiety over the swim. I can’t explain it, but I wanted to be in it with all of these amazing athletes and choose to line-up in the middle.
The cannon blasts for my wave to begin and a flurry of 500 people take off. I see feet coming towards my face. I feel shoulders bumping into me. I have my back grabbed. I accidentally kick someone. Bodies are ramming into each other in chaos and I’m…smiling. I couldn’t believe I was in the swim of an Ironman triathlon! I was there and it was finally happening!
My stroke was strong and smooth right from the cannon blast. My breathing stayed in a normal pattern and I never panicked. Before I knew it I was ‘mooing’ around the first turn buoy. It’s tradition at Ironman Wisconsin to literally ‘moo’ around this turn. It made me smile even bigger. I was able to find open water often but I could tell the turns were coming as it would get congested.
The longest straight-away is after the second turn and I was fully expecting to have to stop and float or wade to rest. I never swam the full 2.4 mile distance in training. Before I knew it though, I was through a few more turns and was able to hear the crowds and music again. My stroke
picked up the pace with the adrenaline of that moment. I was so elated that I wasn’t paying attention to where the end really was. I was startled when the swimmer in front of me stood up! I did the same and couldn’t believe it. The water was only up to my waste and the finish arch was just yards ahead of me. I had finished the swim of an Ironman triathlon when just 10 months prior I couldn’t swim 50 yards without my heart rate going through the roof!
Swim time: 1:34:44
I emerged from the water to find volunteers clamoring for the chance to strip off my wet suit. True story. They have volunteers whose job is to rip that wet suit off as quickly as possible for you. I had one unzip me, two take my arms, and one who told me to sit down while they ripped the entire thing off my legs. It took less than 5 seconds. It was awesome. I’m still wide-eyed and in a fog as I see my family cheering. I stop quickly to high-five but then remember I have more work to do.
The helix we walked down was the same helix we had to run up to get to our transition gear and bikes. No tears this time. Just pure adrenaline. I had planned to walk up the helix, but I found it impossible. I was being sucked up the four levels running on the cheers of the thousands of fans screaming for every athlete there.
In hindsight, I believe this choice to run up concrete in bare feet that have just been soaking in the water was a mistake. I had a brutal marathon experience due to blisters and I believe this was the culprit.
I thought I was flying through transition. I got my bike gear on was out on my bike and heading down the opposite helix in, what I thought was, blazing time. Turns out I won the slowest transition award for this transition at the TWV breakfast Monday. Blazing it was not…
Transition time: 00:19:02. (Rookie!)
112 Mile Bike
The bike course is relentless. Over 5,300 feet of climbing. Nearly 100 actual turns to make. Road conditions are marginal at best, meaning pot holes, jolting bumps, and debris that force you to stay focused the entire time. They truly label the Madison course as the toughest bike course within all of Ironman. You don’t spend more than 3-5 minutes doing any one thing. You’re climbing, shifting, avoiding bumps, or taking in nutrition. It’s as much mentally exhausting as it is physically. Minor mistakes out there cumulate to big problems when you get to the marathon.
The first 15 miles were ok. My stomach was a little off as I was trying to take in nutrition after the swim. My goal for the bike was to stay ahead of my hydration and nutrition and ride based off of feel. I intentionally did not use my Garmin watch on the bike course as I didn’t want to get caught up in keeping a certain mph. I knew if I was patient I’d finish with plenty of time.
I was executing this plan perfectly through the first half of the ride. I was feeling strong and still reflecting on the fact that I’m on the bike course of an Ironman, which means I finished the swim of an Ironman! There were plenty of spectators out there, my family included. There are about 4 major climbs out on that course and the spectators lined every one of them like it was the Tour de France. Costumes, music, people running alongside you. It was very energetic, even as I walked up the steepest hill called Barlow. No judgement out there. It was pretty cool.
The course is shaped like a lollipop. You ride out the stick, do two loops of the lollipop, and ride the stick back in. As I mentioned, the first half of the ride was going great. Every time I’d see my family I was fist bumping, smiling, and energetic. I even stopped at the top of a big climb at the start of my second loop to talk to my family. I assured them that the ride was going great. It was after that short pit stop that my day started to get tough.
It was mile 75 where my day started to get tough physically. My right hip was cramping on every climb. I’d have to get out of my saddle at the top to stretch it out while coasting down the road. It progressively got worse. My first-loop energy waned as I passed my family each time and I could tell they were starting to get worried a little. I did think to myself, however, that I’m well into this day and I’m just now experiencing my first true test of grit. We were told over and over again in prep for this race to have a plan A, B, C, D, and E. Your day was not going to go perfectly. You need to find solutions while out there.
About a month before the race a team of us got together in Madison for a training weekend where we rode the entire 112 mile course. I was glad we did. I knew what to expect and I had fresh memories of how I felt that weekend as a baseline comparator to how I was performing that race day. The second loop a month ago was incredibly painful and full of long rest stops and walking up some of the later climbs. On this day, even though my hip hurt, I was powering-up every climb on the second loop and was continuing to move forward towards Madison.
Getting back to downtown Madison was fun as I saw the swim course I survived nearly 8 hours earlier. I had a laugh as I passed the lake thinking I still can’t believe I’m out here. Rolling up to Monona Terrace, however, reminded me I had one last climb on this bike. That’s right, we had to bike up the 4 levels of parking ramp to the roof to transition to the run. Relentless.
Bike Time: 07:48:20
As I ran into the changing room and found a seat I was hit once again with uncontrollable emotion and found myself crying again. I was elated to have made it this far but the fear of the marathon was overwhelming. Up to this point in training the longest run I had to do immediately following a bike ride was 45 minutes. I realized suddenly I’m entering uncharted territory and based on how my legs were feeling the thought of 26.2 miles scared me.
Sitting across from me was an Ironman Veteran named Fireman Rob. Google him some time – his story is crazy inspirational. He runs the marathon portion with full fireman gear in remembrance of his brothers and sisters killed during 9/11. I saw Rob getting into his gear and it snapped me out of it. Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.
Transition 2 Time: 00:13:53
26.2 Mile Marathon
As I left transition I knew I was in for the toughest portion of the day as I felt sharp/hot pains in the on the bottom of each foot. I had blisters forming and I knew it immediately. I was trying to fight back the defeat but unfortunately, the hits kept coming in quick succession.
The marathon course is a 13.1 mile course that you do twice. Exiting transition takes you over 1 block to the finish chute where people are finishing and you’re hearing the official voice of Ironman, Mike Reilley, call out finisher after finisher. I wasn’t prepared for that. I took a right and saw our special needs bags for the run and was hopeful I could grab my bag to get these cherry candies I placed in there to pick my spirits up. Nope. Those were only available at the 13.1 mile turn. I had to keep going. Keep in mind this is all within the first ¼ mile. My mind was quickly defeated.
After passing the special needs bags I look up to see my parents. This was a surprise to me as I knew they could only stay for the bike. The fact that they waited for me and sought me out again was overwhelming. Given the headspace I was in I hobbled up to my mom, gave her a hug, and immediately started crying. I could tell they were taken aback by my emotion as I had been strong all day up to that point when seeing them. I immediately felt guilty knowing they were heading out for a 4.5 hour drive home and the last thing they were going to see was me so low. I was sure grateful to see them though.
I shuffle away from them trying to figure out how I’m going to survive this. My feet are now fully on fire and I kept thinking ‘Why?!? I had zero blisters all through training. Why now?’ Running up that helix with wet feet after the swim…never trained for that. Oh well, I told myself to move to plan C.
About 200 yards after seeing my parents and thinking I was mentally capable of pushing through the pain of blisters I see Tricia. This is when reality crashed all around me. I had to give up this notion that I could do this by myself. I embraced Tricia and cried my hardest cry of the day. I told her I didn’t know how I was going to finish this. My legs were shredded from the bike. My feet are on fire. I have 25.7 miles to go. I can’t do this.
Tricia whispered into my ear her steadfast vote of confidence in how she knew I was going to finish this race today. She told me about the mobilization of my supporters and church family online. How they are tracking, watching, praying, and engaging with each other on Facebook and through texts. It was just what I needed. I knew Ironman wasn’t going to be easy, but I needed a reminder that I wasn’t out there alone. I had to remain obedient to what I truly felt God was leading me to by completing Ironman Wisconsin and trust He would sustain me to fulfill His plan. There is a verse in the Bible that reads:
“Therefore I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1.
In the moment, I didn’t think of this verse. It was the thought of not being alone out there and to stay obedient, no matter the cost, that got me moving again. In hindsight, however, this verse has made me reflect on the spiritual act of worship I was in for 16.5 hours that day. I’m no theologian or Bible expert, but I do view the experience as having been a living sacrifice as I advocate for the poor.
After I left Tricia I crafted a new game plan. Let’s do 5 minutes of running 1 minute of walking. I found myself in the groove for a while with that. In fact, I felt pretty good about it. In the distance I saw an aid station and told myself to run the rest of the way there. I did and was hit with another defeating mental obstacle as I saw a sign that read ‘MILE 1’. I thought I was at least 2-3 miles in. Upon seeing this mile marker I finally resolved myself to the fact that the pain I was feeling was my new reality and that I’d have to keep praying my way through the low spots.
I should note that the marathon course is beautiful. It goes through downtown Madison and through the U of W – Madison campus. We even got to run around the football field within Camp Randal, where the Badgers play. Pretty cool. The problem with the course, for me, was all of the switchbacks. In my head, every single runner out there was on their second loop and I was going to miss the cutoff.
Going as slow as I was there was so much time for your head to get in the way. My body hurt and I was trying to figure out if the pain in my thighs and calves was de-hydration or simply muscles protesting the effort. I was very paranoid of my body shutting down so I took in nutrition and fluids at every rest stop to once again stay ahead of it. My go to in the moment was grapes, pretzels, red bull, and Coke. Sounds like a weird combo, but it’s what sounded good and sat well in my stomach. It was an odd balance to deliberately push your body to the brink but respect it enough to not go too far. It was a constant give and take battle out there. Every step literally felt like a step into the unknown as I didn’t know at what point my body would completely shut down.
Fast-forward a little to mile 13.1. The turnaround. I handled the turn pretty well considering all of the people I saw finishing. I looked at my watch and saw that I had completed the first loop in 03:02:00 and I dug in mentally preparing for another 3 hour effort. The problem is my pace kept slowing. At mile 14 I really didn’t know if a finish was going to be a reality. Tricia posted on Facebook that I was struggling and urged people to pray. The response, I learned the next day, was overwhelming and I feel it was yet another example of God’s provision out there. The next time I saw my family my mind and my heart was right. Confidence returned to my voice and I told Tricia not to worry. I’m moving to plan D! The only way I’m not finishing is if my body shuts down. It won’t be because of my head or my heart.
Plan D consisted of doing 15 minute miles. That would get me to the finish with plenty of time to spare and within my original goal of 15 – 16 hours. I timed my first mile and it came in at 16 minutes. Ok, don’t panic. Pick up the pace this next mile and make up the time. Mile 2 came in at 18 minutes, with me thinking I was picking up the pace. Time for plan E! 20 minute miles. This was going to cut it close, but it’d still be an Ironman finish. Thankfully, this was the pace I was able to maintain at my maximum effort given the pain in my feet and legs.
It wasn’t until I had 2 miles left that I knew a finish was all but a guarantee. I couldn’t believe I was there so close to the end of this journey that started nearly a year ago. I got up to State Street and was overcome by the genuine encouragement from everyone. I smiled the entire way up to that Capital building and was growing stronger by the second as I could hear music, cheers, and Mike Reilley.
The final 500 yards of Ironman was everything it was advertised to be. It was one huge finisher party! I made the second-to-last turn and saw thousands of people screaming, cheering, and willing myself and other competitors through to the end. No judgement for those in the back of the pack. Everyone out there gets it. You willed yourself to the end of an Ironman and they reward you for it. The pain melted away and I was high-fiving people all along the straightaway towards that final turn. When I hit that turn I went numb. Pure pandemonium. Red carpet. Film crews. Photographers. Bright Lights. Mike Reilley. Massive video screens. And even more people celebrating your effort. I tried my hardest to soak it in.
What happened next was such a blur. I tried to remember to smile and I remember thinking I was the only one out there. Looking back at videos and pictures I went nuts! I was screaming and pumping up the crowd. I was shocked to see my reaction played back to me the day after. Even more shocked to see all of the other finishers out there with me! Seeing my feet in for the first time proved to me what a miracle it was that I finished.
As I was triaged at the finish line and given the green light to exit I was finally reunited with my family and my TWV family. Hugs, smiles, pure joy and elation! It was the perfect end to a day I never thought I’d have the guts to follow-through on.
Marathon Time: 06:32:39; Total Time: 16:28:38
1,151 Lives Impacted Forever!
Even though I ultimately finished this race I will always maintain ‘Nick Can’t Run’. Much of my reflection during the event focused on how far God had brought me this past year. I wouldn’t have been able to toe the start line and ultimately finish the biggest endurance race in the world if it were left up to me and my own abilities. The biggest takeaway I have is to trust the nudge that God gives you, get out of your own way, and just say ‘yes’. God will use you if you’re willing to step through fear and be okay with not knowing how it will all turn out.
My encouragement to all of you is to listen to what God is asking you to do and if you think “I can’t do that”, that is probably the thing you’re supposed to do. If ‘Nick Can’t Run’ and you can’t give our brothers and sisters in Africa can’t live. Staying obedient to God’s call resulted in the most important number throughout this 140.6 mile day…that is the 1,151 people we brought life, hope, and clean water to in Africa.
Thank you for joining me on this adventure and sustaining me through my lowest and darkest moments. It was a privilege to represent all of you out there on that course that day. 1,151 people…what a sweet victory we can all celebrate together!