By Mark Rucker
Exclusive to KyForward
I could tell from the lack of an immediate response that there was some puzzlement on the other end of the cell phone call.
“Uhhhh….hey….you okay?” I could hear the fear and concern in her voice.
“Yeah…I’m ok. I just don’t think that I can go on.”
And with those words my dream of becoming an Ironman was over. I was devastated. At the time it seemed like the hardest conversation I’d ever had. And it felt like my world was falling apart.
Last week I wrote about how excited I was about the Ironman competition and how I couldn’t wait to hear my name called out to the crowd with that famous tag line affixed thereto: “You are an Ironman.” But as I sat there in the grass off the side of Old Ballard School Road all I could think about was the overwhelming feeling of disappointment. All of the time and effort that I invested in the training. All of the money that I spent for the race, the equipment, the supplies. All of the people who had come to cheer me on. The rush of emotion was more than I could bear. And for a few moments on the side of that road, I broke down.
I started to recount my day up to that moment. It started off great. I stayed in Lexington the night before so I could get a good night’s sleep in my own bed. I had a breakfast of oatmeal with berries and bananas with a nonfat latte as I always do. I packed up the few items that I hadn’t already placed in transition the night before and I headed out with my wife for Louisville. I checked my bike and put my water and Gatorade bottles in the cages. I pumped up my tires. Then I went to body marking and got in line for the swim start.
My swim went as planned. I’m a slow swimmer and I anticipated about 2 hours in the water. I came out at about 2:14 but I had no cramping as I’d had a month earlier at Ironman Muncie. I felt AWESOME! I was out of the Ohio River (with no shark attack—yes for a few moments I really began to wonder about Bull Sharks in the Ohio River—hey I’ve seen River Monsters on TV) and was ready for my favorite part of Ironman: the bike.
I made it through transition in really good time and was out on the bike ready to knock out this course. I had ridden the course four separate times during practice sessions and I knew that I could handle all the hills. But as I made my way down River Road something was wrong. My anticipated 18-19 mph pace was down to 13-14 mph. I attributed it to the swim. I thought that I was just having trouble finding my legs after the swim but convinced myself that I’d come around. So I kept pedaling.
But when I made it to the first big hill my average pace dropped to around 6 mph. I knew something wasn’t right but I kept pushing. I felt my heart rate elevate. I started feeling light headed. I got a severe headache. I eventually threw up a few times. But I kept going.
Finally, at Mile 21 I got off the bike. I decided to check it to see if there was a problem. Upon closer inspection I realized that when I put my athlete number sticker on my bike frame, I had wrapped my rear brake cable up with it. I had actually been riding the whole time, 21 miles, with my rear brake on. When I realized what I had done I was angry. Angry at myself for not checking the bike before riding off. But I was also thrilled to figure out that it was a mistake that I could easily fix. And I did.
The bike moved like I thought it should. But as I looked at my time and average pace I realized that I had to push hard to make up the lost time. As I pushed myself harder I started to feel sick again. It was a continual back and forth of resting briefly to recover and then pushing hard to the point of sickness.
At about Mile 48 I realized that I would not make the time cut-off and that pushing myself harder to make up the lost time was only going to put me at risk for something bad to happen. So I made the decision to pull off the road.
As I sat in the grass, reflecting on the day, and having my meltdown, a bike tech on a motorcycle stopped to check on me. She loaned me her phone so I could call my wife. She also called the SAG (support and gear) truck and told them to come and pick me up. And she sat there with me for a few minutes. She didn’t have to. She truly seemed like she wanted to. And as much as I wasn’t in the mood for company at that moment, I’m so glad she did.
She talked to me about all of the other Ironman events she had worked. She also told me that pushing myself beyond the limits wasn’t going to prove anything. She had worked several Ironman events in the past and she told me that at all, but one, at least one competitor had died. That really hit home with me. This is a race. This is only a race. I had the chance to share my story with her as we sat there. She went on and on about how incredible my journey was and how proud my family and friends must be. And then she told me something that made me laugh. She said, “it’s not the destination that matters, it’s all about the journey.”
And she was right.
So I made it back to transition on the shuttle bus with 14 of the 350 other athletes who didn’t finish that day. My wife and friends were there hugging on me and telling me how awesome I did. And you know what, I felt amazing. I had attempted something that few people will ever attempt in life. And although I didn’t make it I still gave it my best effort. And isn’t that really all we can do in this life? Set our goals and do our best to achieve them.
And I will be back. This chapter of my story remains unfinished. But I know that I will have the chance to go back in 2013 and re-write the ending because even though dreams don’t come true when we want them to it doesn’t mean that they’ll never come true.
So keep on dreaming. I certainly am.
Mark D. Rucker is an attorney from Lexington who spent the majority of his adult life struggling with weight issues. As a result of his unhealthy lifestyle and weight, he suffered from high blood pressure, sleep apnea and was borderline diabetic. In February of 2011, at the age of 42, Rucker weighed over 365 pounds. It was then that he decided it was time to change his life. He now hopes to use his experience to help inspire and encourage others to begin their own journey to health and fitness. By focusing on his “small steps” philosophy, Rucker believes that anyone, at any age and in any physical condition, can change his or her life.