Erin Freel

13 Oct, 2016

Here’s my 15 hr recap of the Ironman race for anyone who really wants to read the details. I thought during this process I’d learn how tough I was but what I really learned was how loved I was. You take for granted your support team until something like this. I only wish every soul knew they had people cheering for them in their life that they might not know about.

Ok, let’s get to it. There are four distance in a triathlon, sprint, olympic, half and full. The Ironman is the full distance of 140.6 miles. Up until Octerinimlou 9, I had only done sprints – (400 yard swim, 15 mile bike, 5K run, as opposed to 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run). A few people seemed to be concerned by this, I understand. My logic was this… A half is hard. A full is hard. I knew they would both be hard, go for the hardest. The other reason was I couldn’t swim. Ok, I could swim but I wasn’t a swimmer. I use nose plugs, I get panicked in open water and I basically faked my way through the sprints. You can’t fake a 2.4 mile swim with the backstroke or doggie paddle. This journey would force me to learn to swim. And I wanted that.

The day before the race a cold front moved in. Our practice swim was cold, choppy, windy and miserable. I was scared and didn’t want to do it. But we did. And it made a huge difference on race morning.

My team on race day was my supportive and very worried husband Rob who lead our videographer, Gus around who captured amazing footage. Documentary to follow. Along with my selfless friend Christine who has proven time and time again to be the loyalist of friends. And of course fellow athlete #2353, the one and only Nicolas Blaser who got me into this mess. We couldn’t have had a better little tribe.

So race morning we got up at 3:45 am. We headed to transition to check bike tires and last minute things and then jetted to the swim start. We waited in line for an hour and half on the cold sidewalk but wanted to be sure we were in line early. I needed all the time I could get back that day. It was cold, but the wind from the day before had settled. The Ohio River was relatively calm and more importantly, I was calm. It was a glorious morning for a race. I was actually excited to get in the water and do this. At the moment we were walking down to the dock, I felt an amazing sense of peace and I knew people were counting on me. But more than that, I knew people were praying for me to have a good day, a good race.

One of the best gifts during this entire journey was the friendship of Nick. He was the best training partner anyone could have. He was dedicated and pushed me, but not too hard, and he made it his mission to get me to finish line. The biggest hurdle would be the swim. At some point during our training he told me he would swim beside me. The sense of relief was overwhelming. The sacrifice to give up time in his race to do that was extremely generous. And Nick is a good swimmer who has become a great swimmer during our training. He could have killed that swim. As it turned out, he still PR’d the course and cut over 30 minutes off his Ironman race, finishing in 12 hrs 56 mins. Remarkable.

The swim was great. Because it was cold outside, it was warm jumping in the water and it was wetsuit legal. I had only prayed for that particular item every day since I registered. I got knocked around a little, once pretty hard in the neck and shoulder and I had a couple of terrible leg cramps towards the end of the swim that worried me going into the bike. But, I remember vividly thinking, “I’m doing this. I’m in the water with 2700 other real Ironman athletes doing an Ironman swim.” If I didn’t finish the day, but finished the swim, I would have had something to be proud of. Thank you coach Emily. Forever grateful.

We got out of the water and Nick was like “Peace out homey.” He was out of there like a jet ready to ride. So was I. This is the part of the triathlon that I love so much – transition. The excitement of running from discipline to discipline. Feeling like a kid. Feeling full of life. How lucky and blessed am I that I’m healthy enough to do this. Wow, what an exhilarating feeling. So many people advised me to enjoy the day and it was such an intentional focus of mine. I grabbed my transition bag, headed to the ladies changing tent and bam – naked bodies everywhere. Rubbing down, lubing up. Sensory overload. I changed into my bike kit, crammed my face with a pumpkin bread, cinnamon peanut butter sandwich, checked my 11 point laminated check list that Nick made fun of, and within less than 15 minutes (this is slow if you don’t know), I headed out to grab my bike.

I saw Rob and Christine cheering me on and my spirits lifted even more and off I went. Did I mention it was a beautiful day. The high that day was 71 but at this point it was probably 60 about 9:30 ish. Off to ride the hills of Kentucky.

They say Louisville is ranked as one of the top 5 hardest Ironman courses, I think that was because the race use to be in August, but even so, the bike course is no joke with 5,000 feet of elevation. Nick and I knew this so we spent many weekend in Clermont and on that blasted Sugarloaf mountain, and another one he nicknamed meltdown mountain, I’m sure you can guess why. The ride was essentially perfect for me. No tire or gear issues, no hills seemed to big, the spectators and volunteers were fantastic and I saw Rob and Christine in the quaint town of LaGrange cheering me on. The logistics they had to go through to see us on the route took so
me effort. It was a very long day for them as well.

A couple of reasons the bike ride was great. The weather was perfect, I was trained up thanks to Nick, and, as luck would have it, we rode the toughest segment of the bike course two days prior. I had read about a section that was bumpy and would launch your bottles and anything else not tied down. Well, when we rode it, some food I had on my bike launched out. I thought to myself, “this is that section”. And it lead into a steep climb that you had to really be geared in right for. That road was part of the loop that we had to do twice. On the second loop people were getting tired and both Nick and I saw people walking that section.

I saw a guy with a stuffed gator on his bike and I talked to him a second. He was a principal in North Carolina and yes, was a graduate of the University of Florida. I asked if it was his first Ironman and he said “first I hope to complete.” He had raced the Chattanooga Ironman a few weeks prior and they had one of the highest DNF rates in history because of the heat. Like racing on the surface of the sun hot. I hope he made it.

Then I pulled up on a guy who had no aero bars, like me. If you don’t know what aero bars are, they are extension out of the front of your bike that triathletes use to lean on and shift gears and stay in a more aerodynamic position. My bike was already new, my saddle was new, I was learning new things during this relatively short journey at lightening speed (swimming being most important) and quite frankly, I just didn’t want the stress of that learning curve. I knew I’d be a slight disadvantage but I’d ridden three century rides with no aero bars, so I knew I could do it. Plus my uncle Sean changed my life about 8 weeks prior to the race by suggesting the Infinity saddle and from the day I put it on my bike, I was never sore again. That alone made long rides bearable.

Back to Mr. No Aero Bars…..the thing I noticed most is that he also didn’t have clip-in shoes, just cages. He was a true throw back and I gave him kudos. He said, “if you look it up, someone once did and Ironman in only denim shorts.” Good to know. Good luck my friend. And I rode on.

At mile 56 they had our “Bike Special Needs Bag”. This is like your cheat bag. Whatever you think you might make your day – PUT IT IN THIS BAG. I put aleve, excedrin, another peanut butter sandwich, Flexall. You can put extra tire tubes, etc. It was packed with so much stuff I never used, but it was there “just in case.”

This was the 10th year that Louisville hosted the Ironman and they are known for their volunteer support. 1.3 volunteers for every athlete. A nice gentlemen helped me find my special needs bag and I got up to get water and he said “no stay put, I’ll grab the water.” I was prepared for these special souls. I had (10) $5 Dunkin Donuts gift cards on me and I’d pull them out and gave them to various volunteers along the way. It was a lot of fun just to make people smile. They certainly h
elped me. That particular gentleman looked me up the following day and messaged me. He said, he thought it was a cool idea and he was going to start doing that at his races. I had someone tell me the other day, “If you do something nice, that’s good. But if you get a multiplier on it, that’s great.” I’m telling you it was a GREAT day!

There were aid stations along the way. I was in bright neon yellow, one announcer yelled my name and brought me back to life. Rather than rolling through the stations and grabbing the bottles from the volunteers (while moving) I stopped if I needed anything. Except the last aid station. I told myself, “try it Erin, see if you can grab a bottle and go”. I did it. Very small victory but it made me happy.

At mile 90 I was fading. I forced myself to eat the rest of the nutrition on my bike. I came back to life and rolled into town. Just like clockwork, Christine and Rob were stationed where I could see them. I asked them how Nick was doing and where he was on the course, thinking, hoping, I might pass him on the out and back two loop run course.

Back to the changing tent with my run bag and my “pretty” outfit I was excited to run in. Almost exactly 15 minutes again. I high-fived Christine and Rob and took off like a bolt. I was on a high. The only thing I had to do now was run (ok, so I had to run a marathon) but I love to run. I can do this. I can see the finish line. It was still daylight. People were now cheering my name because your name is on your bib. Life is good.

And it was good, until mile 10. I thought Rob and Christine would be there, they weren’t. They decided to stay at mile 13. I was fading. My stomach was upset. I was nauseous. I had a headache and neck ache setting in from the ride and the guy that elbowed me in the swim. It wasn’t all falling apart but I was finally having to dig a little deeper.

The cruelest thing about this race is that you come right to the finish line at 13.1 and have to turn around and go back out and do it all over again. I fell into Rob’s arms and had a small pitty party and then headed back out. At that point I hated everything. I hated the tipsy spectators that were having a grand old time. I hated the smells of BBQ and then 50 ft up, the city sewer smells. I hated the 10,000th person that told me “You Got This.” I hated the crowds, the music, the noise and then when it got dark and lonely I hated that too.

I saw Nick on the run three times. He must have thought I was crazy. The first two times I was on a high. The last time, I was basically a puddle of an athlete. He just looked at me and said “DO NOT STOP.”

So my pace slowed and those last few miles were terribly brutal but I never thought about quitting or not finishing. Even though I was not feeling great, there was feeling of happiness that was bubbling that I knew would come back soon.

I made the corner to 4th street live and had the biggest surprise. My brother with my niece Emma yelled my name and started running up the street with me. He’s a six-time Ironman and he drove up from Orlando to spend the weekend, but they got deathly sick and he text me that morning he wouldn’t be able to make it. Afterwards he told me he tracked me all day, jetted into the city, parked, saw me, then they got out of town as quickly as they arrived. So very like my brother and such an Ironman. I remember when he did his first Ironman in 2001. I was standing on the beach in Panama City, his very proud and very overweight older sister. I thought to myself, “I could never do this.” And in that same instance a seed was planted that “someday I will do this.”

I rounded the corner, hit the finish line chute and finished as an Ironman. I went straight to medical, per Rob and Nick and got an IV and some nausea medicine. Within an hour the four of us were back at the hotel eating pizza and rehashing the day.

Takeaways. It wasn’t as hard as I thought and it was harder than I thought. What I mean is that I never thought the body should do something like this, it’s dangerous, blah, blah, blah, – but when you are trained and prepared, it’s really just another training day and you focus on the step in front of you, not the 140.6 miles in front of you. I heard an Ironman coach once say, race day is about execution not fitness. You will see a lot of fit people become casualties. Yes you need to be trained and fit, but equally you need to execute your race plan. I wasn’t fast but I did not veer from my plan and I was able to come in under my goal time and feel relatively human. And in terms of it being harder than I thought, well I was disappointed that my run (the discipline that saved my life) was the least enjoyable. It’s really hard to practice a marathon after 10 hours of physical exertion. That’s where the Ironman strength comes in.

There are lots of people that say they will never do an Ironman and that’s understandable, but I hope you find that one thing that challenges you and makes you feel as alive as I have the last eight months. I’m so thankful for the prayers and messages. I know how blessed I am.

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  • Joe Thomas October 27, 2016


    You have been a true inspiration throughout this several year journey you’ve been on. Congratulations on all your success and especially for completing a “freaking IRONMAN”. You rock!


  • Nick Blaser November 14, 2016

    I’m your biggest fan. From losing 100 lbs in 2 years to doing an Ironman after only doing Sprints! You’re an amazing person…..not from just these accomplishments but from how you treat others on a day to day basis. God certainly has a calling for you.


  • Nikki Reynolds July 19, 2018

    Oh Erin. This story is so amazing! I love reading it! ❤️


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