My name is Alix and I am an Ironman.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
In April of 2012, I completed my very first triathlon with Team In Training. An Olympic distance race in St. Petersburg Florida consisting of a 0.9 mile swim, a 25 mile bike, and a 6.2 mile run. I’d never done anything like it before in my life. It was hot, I was injured, but once I crossed the finish line, I was triathlete. I was hooked.
Later that summer I had the opportunity to volunteer for Ironman New York, a race that would be the first and last Ironman for the city. For those who don’t know, an Ironman distance triathlon is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run all to be completed in 17 hours or less. It was a typical NYC August day. Hot and humid. Brutal conditions for racing. I was signed up for the late shift at an aid station on the run course. It was all the way out in Palisades Park in New Jersey. Those who have ever run there know that it’s like running uphill both ways. While standing there trying to hand out cups of a disgusting sports drink that not even the bees wanted, I was struck by the type of athlete running by me. They weren’t the lean, sleek, young bodies on the cover of the running and triathlon magazines. They were old, heavy, blind and otherwise “disabled”, just your average Joe. In other words, just like me. Then I saw him. An athlete who I would come to find out is named Hector Picard. A multiple Ironman finisher who has NO ARMS! He took a cup of water in the crook of his one remaining elbow, thanked the volunteers, and kept going. My first thought was “How did he swim?!?” (on his back apparently), then I thought, “Well if HE can do it, I can do it”. A seed was planted in my mind that day, and it began to grow into a plan.
First I would have to do at least two more Olympic distance races before I could sign up for a Half Ironman. But I had never run more than 6.2 miles and running was not my strength by a long shot. In a Half Ironman I would need to run a half marathon. Could I run 13.1 miles? Only one way to find out. I signed up to train for that too. In 2013 I completed The St. Anthony’s Triathlon (again), the NYC Triathlon, and the Hamptons Half Marathon. Right on target. I also registered for Ironman Mont Tremblant 70.3. My half Ironman. But there was still that question of 26.2 miles.
In February of 2014 I ran my first full marathon in New Orleans. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it. With that out of the way I began training for Mont Tremblant. I had a blast with the best team I could ask for. They became my family as we crossed the finish line in Quebec. Half Ironman complete.
I signed up to volunteer at Ironman Lake Placid 2014 that summer and cheer on four of my friends who were racing. I also had come to claim my spot in the race for 2015. With that done, I joined TriLife NYC, an incredible team whose sole focus is training for Ironman and Half Ironman distance races. It was the best decision I could have made.
The final phase of my plan began when I started training with TriLife in October 2014. I’ll spare you the details of this intense program, but know that it included twice weekly 4 a.m. alarms (5 a.m. the rest of the time), 5 weekend training camps, including a 4 day camp in Lake Placid over memorial day weekend that I had nicknamed “suicide camp” because it was designed to make race day seem easy. I am forever grateful for that camp. It was a long road. It was tough on me, my friends, my family, and my boyfriend of 8 years who had no idea what he was getting himself into when we started dating. But I had a goal, and nothing was going to get in my way. For 3 years I’ve dreamed of hearing “The Voice of Ironman” Mike Reilly call my name and say those four magic words: “You are an Ironman”. It became my driving force. On those cold, dark mornings when I wanted to be anywhere but in a freezing pool. On all of those long bike rides when my legs and crotch were screaming for me to stop. Those four words were the one thing I wanted most in the world. Those four words would carry me across the finish line.
Friday July 24th, 2015. Race weekend has officially begun. Before dawn I packed up my rental car with my boyfriend and the enormous amount of crap I would need for the race and set off to pick up a teammate who would also be racing that weekend. My plan was to make the 5 hour drive in time to make it to packet pickup by 11 a.m. Murphy’s Law soon took effect and I somehow wound up smashing the rear window of the car to bits. CRAP! Good thing I got the insurance because two hours later the rental company showed up with a new car and we were on our way. Once we checked in, got our race packets, gear bags, and race swag, we checked into the amazing house I was lucky enough to rent a year ago. Accommodations seem to book up faster than the race itself. We settled in for the one night where we could get our best sleep before the race.
Saturday July 25th, 2015. After a quick warm up swim, and easy spin around Mirror Lake, I racked my bike and hung my bike and run gear bags on their respective hooks. In an Ironman race, you don’t have a transition area where you set up your gear. You have bags that you fill with all the gear you will need for the bike and run legs of the race. You change in designated tents with the help of volunteers who then place all of the gear you take off back in the bags and hang them back on your hooks. That done, I listened to the athlete briefing and headed back to the house for the big pasta dinner we had planned for the 26 athletes, support crew, and coaches that were staying in that enormous house. With the help of one of my coaches, I finalized the gear I would have in my special needs bags (bags I would retrieve at the half way points of the bike and run legs, where I would have extra nutrition, special treats, and anything else I might need like body glide or a long sleeve shirt). Then I mixed my nutrition bottles and put them in the freezer, ate some pasta, heard some last words of wisdom from my coaches and went to bed early.
Sunday July 26th, 2015. Race Day. My alarm buzzed at 3:30 a.m. I quickly and quietly dressed in the clothes I had set out the night before, strapped my timing chip to my left ankle, and went down to the kitchen to join the 5 other athletes in the house as we tried to choke down a good breakfast. Granola with a banana and almond milk and a cup of coffee. At 4:15 we were walking down the hill to transition. A very chipper volunteer marked both my arms with my race number 905 and wrote my age on the back of my right calf. I checked my bike and dried the previous night’s rain off the seat, dropped my nutrition bottles into place and clipped on my bike computer. Then I headed to the hooks where I had placed my gear the day before. I added my frozen nutrition and some last minute items and hung my morning clothes bag with them. My wetsuit, official pink race cap, and goggles in hand, I dropped off my special needs bags in their designated spots and walked to Mirror Lake beach. Swim start.
After struggling in to my wetsuit and making my way to the middle of the crowd of similarly dressed athletes, I sang the national anthem and took some deep breaths. Goggles on. Game face. The cannon blasted at 6:30 a.m. Ironman Lake Placid 2015 was underway as just under 2500 athletes filed into the clear water. My swim went smoothly. Two loops of 1.2 miles with a short beach run in between. On the second loop, one guy decided to draft and swam so close behind me that he was touching my feet for about 400 meters. After he didn’t take the hint from my occasional aggressive kicks, I stopped and let him swim past, but not without getting in a good kick to his gut. All’s fair in triathlon swimming. After just under an hour and half, I was out of the water and lying on my back on the beach while a burly volunteer stripped me out of my wetsuit. Total swim time – 1:24:30
After a quick change in the tent with the help of another volunteer, I was out on the bike. Two loops of 56 miles each. Having ridden the bike loop 3 times before at suicide camp, I knew that the first section out of town was mostly uphill and that I needed to go easy in order to save my legs for the climbing that comes at the end. At the first aid station at I grabbed a bottle of water ready to dump it into the large bottle I have secured to my handle bars, but it wasn’t open like it was supposed to be. I tried to open it with my teeth, but couldn’t. I had to pull over. As I pulled off to the side of the road, another rider came up my right side and clipped me and my bike as she passed. I fell, but was unhurt so she kept riding. My bike however, was not as lucky. She had ripped out the cable to my rear derailleur and I was now stuck in my hardest gear in the back. This was mile 5 of 112. CRAP! There was a brief second where I thought my race was over, but putting that out of my mind, I got back on my bike and began to push back up the hill out of town. I flagged down a race control motorcycle and told them that I needed SAG (support and gear). They took my number, radioed SAG and let me know support would come find me. Down the 7 mile, scary fast descent to a town called Keene I went. At mile 18, SAG found me.
We pulled off the road into a small parking lot where I told the mechanic what happened and what was wrong with my bike. He fished some tools out of the seat compartment of his motorcycle and set to work on my bike for what felt like ages. All I could do was watch other riders fly past me. A man cheering on the side of the road next to me began asking me questions about the course. I tried to answer as politely as I could, but I was in no mood to chat. Finally the mechanic was finished. He told me that he was able to get me most of my gears back, but due to what he called “extreme grumpiness” I wouldn’t have use of all of them. “Choose wisely” he said as he sped off to find more riders in need of help.
As I re-entered the race, I soon found out what he meant. I shifted through my gears and found that I didn’t have use of my two largest gears in the back. My climbing gears. The gears I would desperately need to make the climb back to transition. The climb up the fabled “Three Bears”. At this point, my race became all about strategy. How was I going to finish the bike leg before the cutoff time while still saving energy in my legs for the full marathon I would have to run as soon as I got off my bike? As I was pedaling through the flat section of the course that my coaches call the “Buffet Line” due to it being the best place on the course to take in significant calories, the answer came to me from the dark recesses of my brain, delivered in the British accent of my coach: “Momentum”. Although the next section of the course was primarily up hill, they were rolling hills. I would have to build up as much speed as I could on the short downhills so I could shoot myself at least a third of the way up the other side without exerting much effort. This was something we had practiced in training, but I was never very good at it as I was always a bit scared of descents. No time for fear now though, I had a deadline.
The first climb up the bears felt easier than I remembered from camp, even without my climbing gears, but I knew that might come back to bite me on the second loop. I made it back to town and saw my family and friends cheering with big inflatable unicorn heads and giant cutouts of my face on sticks and I was ecstatic. But with no time to waste and another 56 mile loop ahead of me, I dove into the bike special needs area. The volunteer that helped me was amazing. She obviously had a lot of experience. As I was changing out my nutrition bottles, she read me the note my boyfriend had placed in my bag the night before. I cried. When I needed to re-apply chamois butter to my already sore crotch, she dumped the contents of one of my Ziploc bags and yelled “This is how we’re going to do this!” She slid the bag over my gloved hand and emptied the small squeeze tube of skin lubricant onto the bag. GENIUS! Then she sprayed me with sunscreen, wiped some on my face for me, and I was on my way.
Predictably, the second loop was harder. My legs were beginning to tire and the sun had come out, sending the temperature into the 90’s. Much higher than the cloudy 70 degrees that had been forecast. Word of my mechanical issues had spread through my network of coaches. They were stationed at different points along the course, waiting for me to pass. I continued with my strategy and made the most of the long descent to Keene, clocking more than 45 miles per hour, and carrying that momentum through the flats. The second climb up the bears was tough, but not as tough as thought it would be. Maybe my run wouldn’t be so bad after all. At the dismount line a volunteer grabbed my bike as I headed back to the changing tent. Total bike time – 8:14:03
With the help of yet another volunteer, I changed out of my bike shorts and into my tri shorts for the run. Running shoes and hat on, nutrition bottle in hand, sunscreen smeared all over, I was out of the tent and headed down the sloping main street out of town for the first 13.1 mile loop of the run course. My cheering section was waiting on IGA Hill, an incredibly steep hill that I would have to come back up twice over the next 26 miles. My legs felt so heavy and my lower back and glutes (ass) were killing me as a result of climbing all of those hills in harder gears than I should have. My run quickly turned into a run/walk. It was hot and I started shoving ice down my bra. I was feeling a bit light-headed as I made my way toward the enormous Olympic ski jumps and the turn onto River Road for the majority of the run. My parents and boyfriend were volunteering at an aid station at about mile 4 and I was glad to see them, but I couldn’t stop to chat. My hopes of finishing the race in 15 hours had been dashed at mile 5 on the bike course, but I still had to finish this marathon before the midnight cutoff. I WAS going to become and Ironman that day, no matter what.
My mood started to go downhill after that. I was hot, tired, and in pain. About half way down River Road one of my coaches was waiting. He remained there to taunt me about how slow I was moving for the rest of my run (he knows what motivates me). After the turn-around on River Road I ran back through the aid station my family was at. My mom wanted a picture of me, but I was suffering and in a bad place mentally and waved her off. A lot of people were suffering in the heat. No one had planned for it since all weather forecasts up to the night before had been for cool and cloudy. I saw many people vomiting from the heat and exertion. Several people went past me in ATV’s headed back to the huge medical tent in transition where they could receive IV fluids, but I couldn’t think about them. I had a job to do. I needed to stay on top of my nutrition and hydration so I wouldn’t wind up in their situations, and I needed to keep moving forward. My coaches have a mantra, “Relentless forward progress”. I repeated it over and over in my head as I climbed IGA hill, unicorns in tow, toward the next turn-around and the start of my second loop. On the next loop the sun began to set and the temperature dropped which made it easier for me to run a bit more. My mood picked up as well as I knew that at the end of this loop, Mike Reilly was waiting to tell me those four words I came to hear. I started picking small landmarks to run to before I could take another walk break. At times I was the only person running on the course as it seemed everyone else was just walking. I saw my family two more times as I came through their aid station, and my coach yelling to not make him have to go to “plan B”. As I came up IGA hill for the last time, two of my unicorns had formed and arch for me to pass though as I came to the last mile of my run. I was headed home. My coaches were waiting at the entrance to the Olympic Oval and the finish chute. I high fived them and everyone I could as I made my way around the oval. With the finish line in view I got a burst of energy and ran towards the arch. Then I heard it. “Alexandra Muenzberg from Brooklyn New York, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I cried. Total run time – 6:12:59
Total race time – 16:11:15
As I passed under the arch I was overcome with every emotion at once. The volunteer that was my designated “catcher” should I collapse, kept asking me if I was OK as I laugh/cried all the way from having my photo taken with my medal to where she left me with my slice of terrible but amazing pizza. I picked up my gear bags and left the transition area to meet my family who had already picked up my bike. I put on sweats and sandals and cheered the last finishers across the line as midnight drew near. In the final seconds, the frenzied crowd counts down as if it is New Year’s Eve. 5…4…3…2…1! Ironman Lake Placid 2015 is over. My thoughts briefly drift to the runners, still on the course, who will be told the bad news by race officials. I hope they will try again next year. Back at the house, the five of us who raced re-hash our days over leftover pasta before finally collapsing into bed. We are Ironmen.
The rest of the week is spent doing every touristy thing we could find in and around town. But as I drove out of town on Friday on my way home, I passed the ski jumps and cried (again). This was an experience that was three years in the making. One I will never forget. I am truly grateful to my family, friends, teammates, coaches, and to all of the incredible volunteers that made the final stage of my Ironman journey an epic one. I can’t wait to do it again!