My IRONMAN Story
by Dr. Sasha Stolz
It’s called the IRONMAN: a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run.
As a Decatur Sports Chiropractor, I see patients that are attempting similar goals. But nothing prepared me for the challenge of doing it myself. My story began when I signed up for my first Olympic distance triathlon (a shorter distance – event) with Team in Training in 2009.
Competitive swimming had been a part of my life since I was eight. But after four years of swimming in undergrad, my body had enough and couldn’t take any more wear and tear. I took the next four years after graduation and literally did not exercise whatsoever. The weight gain and health problems began to catch up with me. When I finally started to exercise, eat right, and lose some weight, I felt better, but I hated exercising just to exercise. I needed to compete. I was approaching 30 and began making over my life, it was time for something new.
I loved everything about Team in Training: the camaraderie, being on a team again, and most of all – competing. It didn’t take long before I had the bug. I knew the challenges and the risks of injury, yet the draw of testing myself in such a physical and mental way was too strong.
By November 2, 2012, I signed up for IRONMAN Florida to be held exactly one year later. I started my “official” training May 1, 2013. The previous 5 years had served as cumulative base training so it was time to start ramping up the miles.
My training, like most folks, wasn’t held in a vacuum. I was finishing an internship, planning a wedding and coaching two teams (Team in Training and a summer league swim team).
Over 80% of IRONMAN athletes suffer an injury while training (remember this). As luck would have it, my first injury occurred BEFORE I had really started my intense training for IRONMAN. I developed hamstring pain. When I ran, sat, walked, it ached – all the time. Luckily, I was finishing my internship with Dr. Sadri and the triathlete doctors at 1st Choice Sports Rehab Center. The doctors generously took their lunch breaks to work on this first issue. Much to my relief, the issue resolved and I was back training again.
But on May 29, a major car accident derailed my training. I thought I was going to have throw in the towel. But the doctors at 1st Choice, as before, stepped up to help me through my back and neck rehab. I took about two weeks totally off from training and then spent two weeks easing back into my training regimen. At this point, the harsh reality set in that I might need to forego any time goals and focus on simply finishing. As a competitor, this was hard to swallow.
But an amazing thing happened. With regular care from my colleagues and a flexible coach, my training surged. Things were falling into place. I had some bad days during training (a given when training for that distance) but with each recovery week I’d bounce back stronger. Thoughts of breaking 13 hours in my first Ironman started to creep back into my head.
Then on September 28, my training partner and I were riding too fast in the rain and in aero-bars…and I wrecked my bike. The bike survived; fortunately my injuries were limited to a case of road rash and some sore muscles.
I took a few days off from training and skipped my planned warm-up race. But I came roaring back from recovery. By October 8th, a Tuesday, I completed my longest run ever — 18 miles — and held my best average I had all season. I felt great! IM Florida was less than a month away. I was in my last week of heavy training, and things were falling into place. It had been a difficult season physically and mentally but I was starting to anticipate success!
It all fell apart on October 13th – my last long run. I did my second 18 miles in less than a week. This was the most mileage I had ever run in my life and I did it in less than a week. As the run progressed I knew it wasn’t going well. Too many aches and pains but with all the other missed days from earlier injuries I ignored my well trained doctor/coach/lifelong athlete instincts to call it a day and decided to gut it out (bad move!).
I finished and hour slower than I had just 5 days earlier. Within two hours after I finished, I couldn’t put weight on my left foot; walking caused agonizing pain. My first thought was a stress fracture. By the next morning, when I arrived at the office, I was essentially dragging my left leg. It was excruciating to walk or just stand.
Again, I was glad I work with five very experienced doctors who all took great interest in having me cross that finish line in Florida. I was 3 weeks from race day. The thought of not doing the race was devastating.
I turned into a typical patient. I immediately went into ”don’t tell me I can’t race. I HAVE TO RACE.” The competitor in me took over. “I will swim my arms off, bike my legs off and walk and/or crawl the whole marathon if I have too. But I WILL race.”
I laid off running and took to deep water aqua jogging for three weeks. Dr. Cho, Dr. Shuman, Dr. Sadri and Dr. DelFavero all pitched in to treat my injury during these three weeks. When the pain resolved after a week and half, I attempted a short test run. As I started to run, the pain returned, and with it all my fears of having to give up this dream came roaring back. Despite the anxiety, I was determined to compete.
When race day rolled around I had no idea what to expect from my body. I still didn’t know if I’d be able to run, but at least I’d be able to walk the marathon portion. Since I am a swimmer by nature, I had a fantastic swim despite the rough water and finished the 2.4 miles in an hour. While most people ran the transition, I choose to walk for fear my foot would act up. Six hours on the bike came and went in what seemed like minutes. It was a beautiful day, the course was fast and everything was going perfectly. I was having a great time and my fears and anxiety had vanished. Transition two rolled around and I realized fatigue was setting in, but off I went.
As I started to run, I realized I had no pain! Maybe it was the adrenaline. By mile 10 that I began to experience some problems related to cramping in my hips and hamstrings. The next 10 miles were brutal, but my foot was good, so, in my mind it was still a good day. At mile 20, I realized if I ignored every ache and pain in my body and pretended I was just going out for a 6.2 mile jog, I could break 13 hours. I was ecstatic. So I set all the pain and fatigue aside and my mind carried across that finish line in 12:56! minutes!
As I write this, I am exactly 30 days from finishing Ironman Florida. I have taken an entire month off from training so my body can fully heal and recover. I needed every day of it and finally feel ready to start training again.
Remember that stat earlier about 80% of Ironman athletes suffer at least one injury during training? I think I fell into a rare category of having four.
My take away from Ironman training: it’s an amazing experience. It can and will wreck your body, no matter how careful you are or how informed you are. You need a good team to get through it – family, teammates and coaches. But an essential part of that team, without whom I couldn’t have finished the race, are my colleagues at 1st Choice Healthcare. When injuries threatened my dream, they put this Humpty Dumpty back together again week after week. And for that I am truly thankful.
Dr. Sasha Stolz has been a competitive swimmer for 25 years, a swimming coach for 10 years, a coach for Team in Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society — and she is an IRONMAN. She is one of the Atlanta Sports Injury Specialists at 1st Choice Sports Rehab Center with offices in Decatur and Johns Creek GA. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Stolz call 404-377-0011.