Jody Genessy: Crossing the finish line made it all worth it for this Ironman
June 26, 2011: It's about 11:30 on this beautiful Sunday night in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Stores and restaurants are long closed, but the resort town is pulsing with music, cheering and an enthusiastic man with a microphone loudly telling people what they want to hear. I'm walking and have forced myself to keep moving forward almost nonstop for 140-plus miles since 7 a.m. I convince my exhausted and aching body to resume jogging as I turn onto Sherman Avenue. I smile knowing that my wife, my three children, friends and the finish line await me at the end of this street.
A year ago, I challenged myself to accomplish a lofty goal that admittedly seemed somewhere between impossible and insane for a lazy guy who packed around an extra hundred pounds and used to tip the scales at 371.
But hoping for a midlife reboot, I willingly signed up (and paid money!) to tackle a triathlon that included a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. Back-to-back-to-back. In one day.
Late Sunday night, I lived that sweet dream.
Move over, Ozzy Osbourne. And excuse me, Robert Downey Jr.
I AM IRONMAN.
OK, I don't actually have my own heavy metal song — or a decked-out costume.
But I swam, biked and walked, waddled and slowly jogged for 140.6 miles to beat the 17-hour midnight deadline with 23 minutes and 56 seconds to spare.
And, yes, my body — especially the bottom half — still feels like it exercised for a consecutive 16 hours, 36 minutes and four seconds.
I was anything but calm race morning. Amazingly, I actually slept for five hours after dealing with internal issues Saturday (mostly butterflies from the enormous task ahead, and perhaps partly from the big beef and salami sandwich I inhaled). Dealing with an 11th-hour bike problem didn't help.
Being with my wife's witty and wise uncle, four-time Ironman Chris, and chatting with amazing friends from my triathlon club, the Desert Sharks, helped ease some race-morning jitters. But as the time to toe the starting line on the beach approached, I couldn't help but thinking: Did I train enough? Can I finish my first marathon after doing the longest bike ride and open-water swim of my life? Will I even make it out of the bitter-cold lake alive? Am I completely nuts?!
Before I knew it, a cannon exploded and I was swimming, churning and trading accidental blows in a school of 2,350 wetsuit-clad fish. Until mid-May, my average swim time was dangerously close to putting me at peril of not making the cutoff. But my friends Steve and Bill gave me some excellent pointers, and my stroke improved almost overnight. The water was frigid (mid-50s) and elbows flew in the washing-machine-like environment, but I felt great in that lake. Early on, I smiled while thinking, "I'm competing in an Ironman."
My second 1.2-mile lap was slower than my first, but I was elated when I finally exited the water — alive and 41 minutes before the two hour and 20 minute cutoff. As I headed to the transition tent to change into my cycling gear, I had a feeling I was in for a special day.
Utah isn't exactly a flat spot, so I've done my share of riding up and down hills, including up to the top of Emigration Canyon a couple of times. I even knew the Coeur d'Alene course had 5,000 feet of elevation over 112 miles, but the hills were surprisingly relentless and fairly steep.
We had to do the 56-mile loop twice, and I felt great on the first lap. I haul around about 230 pounds, so it's not easy getting me uphill but I survived without too much leg pain in Round 1. Coming back into town, though, I joked with another participant that I'd like to take the Half-Ironman option and be done with the bike. Wishful thinking.
Seeing my son, Ethan, gave me a boost (and humorously led to me running over an orange cone). Even after that, hard hills the second time around became killer climbs. It wasn't just my legs that hurt. (And I'm not talking about my undercarriage, either.) Almost expectantly, I had to battle something even tougher than the inclines: my doubting mind.
Honestly, at Mile 70 I didn't know if I could — or would make it. I'd been warned about soul-searching struggles and had experienced it in most of my long training rides, but I've dealt with self-doubt — along with some outside doubt — my entire journey.
Thankfully, somebody had written "BELIEVE" in big letters just at this point on the road. I needed that mental lift and did what I had been advised to do by so many people: Keep moving forward. That's precisely what I did for almost eight fairly grueling hours on that small seat.
I could barely walk coming off of the bike. My feet especially hurt, so I was glad to get my running shoes on. I was even happier to see my wife, Heather, and my kids, Ethan, Sydney and Aidan, again. The crowd support was tremendous — and I smiled and playfully interacted with people along the route all day to keep myself positive. But nothing compared to seeing my family — the ones who didn't see much of me this past year — cheering me on.
I gave hugs and kisses on my way to the marathon course, and that's when I really wondered if I could make it. Despite my bike struggles, I still finished more than 30 minutes before the cutoff time. That was a relief. I'd never done more than a 16-mile run (with some walk breaks), and figured I needed all the time I could get to plod along for 26.2 miles.
And plod is exactly what I did. I had a horrible blister on my right foot, so every step hurt. To even things out, my left foot blistered up later on. I did the math in my head and knew that worst-case scenario I could briskly walk the entire marathon and still make it. Problem was, I expected my pace to naturally slow down the longer I was out there.
I chatted with fellow Ironman wannabes out there as we tried to help encourage each other along, and the town provided indescribable amounts of support with signs, aid stations, music, front-yard parties and motivating cowbells.
Though discouraged by the distance remaining, and feeling overwhelmed by the big hills on this course, I eventually made myself mix in some short spurts of jogging with the walking. And strange enough, my legs started feeling better and were capable of more and more jogging.
It was a bittersweet moment for me at the halfway point when I saw my friend, Cindi. Her Ironman finish video sparked my desire to sign up for this, and she struggled with hypothermia on the swim and had to be pulled out of the water. But she greeted with me with a hug and a smile, "You're going to do this, Jody! You're going to be an Ironman!"
I still had four hours to go 13.1 miles, but I continued to be scared that my feet would just hurt too badly to walk on because of the blisters and worried that my legs would wear out. But I kept moving forward and moving forward, making sure to keep up on my hydration and nutrition (two big weaknesses of mine coming in).
Another friend encouraged me to keep up with her — to walk up the hills and jog down them. But her pace was too quick for me at that point, so I told her to go ahead.
Only a few minutes later, something magical happened for me. I jogged and felt great. Mile after mile passed and I was able to jog more and walk quicker. I was so close to accomplishing this goal, and I wasn't about to let this opportunity of a lifetime slip away. Not after devoting my life to training since December despite heavy writing and travel demands at work.
On the bike course, somebody made a sign in French (which I speak) that encouraged their Ironman participant, "Souviens tous qui pensent a toi" ("Remember those who are thinking of you").
I've been so grateful for all of the support I've received along this yearlong journey, and this was even more prevalent while I was out there. I knew friends and family members, even thoughtful strangers, anxiously awaited for updates of my every move all day long. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint them.
I also wanted to overcome the cynicism of my doubters — including myself and those who said things like "Seriously, you have no business in this race" — and add another example to Ironman's "Anything is possible" motto.
I wanted to finish strong for Cindi and my other friends from the triathlon world (my club and online). I wanted to validate the faith my incredible buddy and mentor, Steve, has had in me this entire process with near-daily tips and encouragement.
I wanted to run to that finish line and hug and kiss my family, hopefully imprinting a lasting impression on my kids about health and that their dad can overcome odds and accomplish a worthwhile goal while battling obesity. Right before my hilarious hero of a dad passed away at age 57, having struggled with weight and diabetes, he told me, "Don't let this happen to you." I wanted to do this and tell my kids, "Do let this happen to you." My dad gave me a sense of humor; I want to give my children a sense of health.
And, honestly, I just wanted to be done.
It was a long day.
I was so excited to put an exclamation mark on this journey that my final leg was almost my fastest. That final run down Sherman Avenue was so magical it made the misery and months of sacrifice, sweat and tears worth it. I almost cried halfway down the road, but I couldn't stop smiling as hundreds of people cheered me on.
As I finally crossed the finish line, and announcer Mike Reilly tells me I'm an Ironman, I raised my hands triumphantly, pumped my fists and shouted like I'd just won the Super Bowl, NBA Finals and Game 7 of the World Series at the same time.
Heck, for me this was even bigger than all of those combined.
It took longer, too.
Looking back, this Ironman wouldn't have it any other way.
July 21, 2010: I made "The Decision" today and signed up for Ironman Coeur d'Alene! It's crazy, but it's a crazy I'm willing to put myself through. I'm excitedly terrified! It's going to be a hard, uphill battle, but I'm willing to "pay the price," as my wife's uncle Chris says.
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