Want to know what it’s like to take on an IRONMAN race? How about running the last leg in 50 pounds of firefighting gear? Our friend—AKA Fireman Rob—is going for a world record number of races in a single year. Read more about Rob’s mission in Part 1. Get a look at the grueling mental and physical challenges that lay ahead of Rob, a man racing in honor of the men and women of service, and people everywhere looking to realize their passions.
Before the sun has risen over the horizon and there is still an evening chill in the air, I push my bike with a large black gear bag on the handle bars to the transition area. My mind wanders to past events and the struggles faced just to get here. Yet as I pass the other competitors, I sense the nervous excitement in the air and it becomes contagious. For me, this is the most anxiety-filled period of the race. My mind moves from unknown to unknown. Is the water cold? Did I pack the right nutrition? Am I seriously doing this again?
As I rack my bike and put my gear bag onto the dewy grass, I start thinking about why I am doing this and the butterflies start to fly in formation. My trick for dealing with this is to occupy myself by talking to family and fellow participants about anything but the race that lies ahead of us.
On the walk to the starting line, I feel the cold sand between my toes, and my muscles starting to wake up with each step toward the crowd of self-motivated, crazed, fellow triathletes. While my body is calm with anticipation, my mind races with thoughts of everything except the beauty of the sunrise over the calm blue water.
The cannon blast slaps the cool morning air with such force, as if releasing all the anxiety carried by each athlete. My heart pounds like a snare drum, my muscles feel their first twinge of force and I dive into the water. As the water vacuums the wetsuit to my body, the cold water hits my face the fires of pre-race mental challenges are extinguished. It’s now just me, the course, and my trust in what I call the 3 Degrees of ABLE—physical, mental, and passion—which will help me run, walk or crawl over the finish line.
To conserve for the fun ahead, I utilize my upper body mainly for the swim, cutting through the water like a crew team would in a much larger boat. As I glimpse the swim’s exit, I flutter kick and propel myself faster to the transition. I feel the muscle fibers in my quads protesting with a dull roar, as if they know they’re on deck to drive me through the next leg on my bike.
Transitioning from the swim to the bike is quick, yet I always take a second to refresh my mind by picking my head up and taking in what I have accomplished already. I remind myself of the great people alongside me, others putting their passion to action just like me.
I jump onto the bike with a clear mind and a focus on the task ahead, fully engaged in the moment. The miles click by, my legs moving like pistons, my upper body relaxed until the dreaded moment: The Wall. You go from a relaxed, efficient, almost machine-like feeling to what can only be described as full-bodied pain. You feel twinges and soreness in your hamstrings, calves, and lower back. Your mind goes from viewing the end and the excitement of crossing the finish to bailing water out of a sinking boat and hoping the pain doesn’t sink you before the finish line.
Focus. The only way I’ve found to fight through the agony of the Wall is to point my attention to the ten feet in front of my bike wheel. I focus on clearing my mind and focus on the pavement moving under my tires. My legs find their purpose, and I feel the sensation of improved movement.
In most cases doing a half marathon is a challenging task all on its own. But after pushing my body through 1.2 miles of swimming and 56 miles of biking, I am now onto the run … in 50 pounds of firefighter gear! I get into transition, carrying my 50-lb bag filled with firefighter gear that’s been slowly baking in the sun for the past five hours. It’s the first grim reminder of what the next 13.1 miles has in store for me.
As I prepare my gear, I reflect on previous races. Recalling past connections and conversations is like an energy shot for my motivation and passion. I hear one participant say, “You’re Fireman Rob? I’ve seen what you do … crazy!”
I put on my tights to prevent the Nomex gear from chafing my legs, and I struggle to pull on a long-sleeve tech shirt over my sweating torso. As each layer goes on I heat up more and more. Next, my black bunker pants that feel like they were just pulled out of a towel warmer. I pull them on, maneuvering my shoulder into the suspenders. My coat is next. At this point I switch my mind to the task at hand, ignoring the layers and increasing heat from them. Zipping up my coat, putting on my shoes, slinging my air pack over my left shoulder, my lower back feels everything. Imagine putting on your winter gear then having an eight-year-old child jump on your back. Oh yeah, don’t forget the eight-pound helmet on your head.
The first step is always a struggle, then the adrenaline seems to flood through my muscles and mind taking me through the first few miles with a bullish resilience. The struggle of mind versus body ensues about mid run. My muscles start to ache, my upper back is feeling like a rubber band ball from the helmet weight, my shoulders throb from the straps on the air pack, and my mind is challenging me whether it’s all worth it. My internal conversation ranges from how beautiful the run course is to willing my body continue to the next aid station to watching the ground in order to avoid falling. Pain transitions to numbness, the mind and body now are at the mercy of my passion. One heavy step at a time. I think of every person I’ve inspired. I’m one more race closer.
With my head raised after being down for miles and legs marching with a resolve of a soldier on the parade ground, I find the way to the finish line. Arms raised in elation, passion on my face for everyone to see, I truly feel that this is not the finish line but a milestone on an inspirational journey to show others the strength of an engaged, action-based life, fed by passion.