This is my story about a day that changed my life forever….
A day that I swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles, and ran 13.1 miles in memory of my cousin, James Paul Buerkle. It was a day that I desired for over 8 years. A day that I trained 8 months for….
On April 13, 2014 ~ I became an IRON MAN.
I woke at 3:30am in a shabby hotel with my husband and daughter to gear up and hit the road to the Athlete’s Village. After placing a temporary tattoo from my Coach on the inside of my right wrist which read, “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever” – we headed out to the starting line at Lake Eva in Haines City, FL.
The Athlete’s Village is full of energy and excitement. Each athlete is there for their own personal reason. They have their own stories as to why they compete in an all-day endurance event. My reason: James Paul Buerkle. My cousin ~ my friend ~ the man who introduced me in high school to my (now) husband. James had the most loving spirit that you can encounter. His talent for tennis and his academic achievements are extremely impressive. But it was his love for others and his gentle soul that always spoke to me. A man of few words, but when he spoke – the world listened. He passed away on November 22, 2013 from Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. A rare cardiac attack among extremely healthy athletes and individuals that can go undiagnosed. He left behind the most beautiful wife (of 5 months) and Baby James Paul Buerkle II (due this June 2014). I am lucky to call Cristina Buerkle my sister-in-law and sister in Christ. She has encouraged and motivated me through every challenging training session to complete this race in memory of her beloved husband. I had the word “JAMES” marked across my upper left shoulder in permanent marker before the race began.
When we arrived at the Athlete’s Village, I began registration where the volunteers marked my number, #837 on my body. I proceeded to the transition area to set up my bike and running gear before heading to the swim start. The energy of an Iron Man can not be explained…you have to feel it. I pulled on my wetsuit, slapped on my swim cap and goggles, and kissed my husband and daughter goodbye for the day.
I managed to see a few teammates and wished them good luck before heading into my age division wave. My coach found me at the last second and gave me the biggest hug ~ one filled with so much love and excitement! She knew how much this race meant to me. As the first wave of athletes hit the water, I began to panic. A lovely woman beside me began to make conversation:
“Um, yeah. This is my first 70.3 and I’m getting scared!”
“Oh honey, I’m in the Army and we have a saying, ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’ Remember that today is for YOU. This is YOUR race, so enjoy it!”
Her words made me feel better and I let go of the fear to embrace the journey that was about to begin. I waved to my husband and swam into the water. The announcer was counting down the last 30 seconds. Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” song was blasting in the air and I began jumping up and down to the tunes.
“Three…Two…One…” The horn went off and I began to swim. You see, in triathlons you have to pretty much avoid being kicked, clawed, and swam over by other athletes. Well, the first 20 minutes I felt great! I was in a groove and maneuvered around the first buoy just fine. Then the wave of men behind me caught up and began to swim over, claw, and knock into me. I’d stop to catch my breathe, elbowed a few to get them off, and kept remembering, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Pretty soon the shore was in sight and I sprinted to get out of the water. Total time: 1 hour, and a speedy transition onto the bike. I managed to see my hubby and daughter before pedaling away. Their encouragement meant the world to me.
56 miles of biking is not an easy task. Well, it would be easy if it was a flat course. But Haines City is a course of hills. The first 30 miles felt great. I kept remembering the pre-race bike practice ride we had done in March and how unbelievably hard it was. But today it felt smooth, my legs carried me faster, and I was at a great MPH to finish quickly – then mile 40 hit me. The behemoth hill wasn’t that hard….it was the never-ending hills from miles 40-56 that killed me! At mile 42 a female athlete appeared and tried to pass me. I wouldn’t let her. So we played a game of back-and-forth passing until a male athlete appeared and yelled back at us, “That was entertaining to watch!” I looked at her and said, “Go ahead. Finish strong!” My legs were jello, my glutes had been numb for the last 10 miles, and I was starting to not feel my toes. So I kept looking at my tattoo and thinking of James. I kept thinking of mantras my Coach had told me during training. I began to pray the Rosary of Hail Mary’s, and for James to give me angel wings on the back of my wheels to keep going.
It is interesting when your mind wants to give up, but your body keeps moving. At mile 48 I wanted to get off the bike and give up. I seriously considered it over and over and over. But 2 things didn’t allow that to happen. First, I kept thinking of seeing my daughter at the next transition station and seeing her smiling as her mommy tried to reach a goal. Second, James interceded and sent me two angels.
They appeared in all pink bike jerseys and had Australian accents. They called out from their bikes:
“Hey mate, what’s your name?”
“Tiffany, you have 50 minutes to complete 6 miles. Let’s move!”
I began to hysterically cry. My body was exhausted, and my mind didn’t want to keep going. They called out:
“Tiffany, don’t cry! You need to breathe and pedal faster. It’s my birthday, and I flew across the country to see you finish today, so follow us and keep going!”
I felt that James was sending me a sign to push harder, so I did. I kept crying, and through my ridiculously shallow breathes told them about James, my daughter, and how I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FINISH. The mate whose birthday it was replied:
“Tiff, I lost my brother a year and a half ago. I get it. I know what you are going through and why you are doing this. Come on, let’s get there and finish this thing!”
So I pedaled my heart out. Passing a few athletes and got into transition just in the nick of time. My two angels appeared right before I ran off:
“Tiff! YOU DID IT! You are almost there. NOW RUN!”
It is interesting when you mentally tell yourself that you are 2/3rds of the way done ~ even though you still have a Half Marathon to complete. The clock was counting down and I only had 3 hours are 15 minutes to finish this thing or else I would be kicked off the course. It was time to dig deep.
The Haines City Iron Man is a fabulous run course that loops 3 times around residential homes. I didn’t enjoy the hills 3 times, but I got over them. The volunteers and energy that the cheering crowds radiate just fills you with joy to keep moving! I met a few more angels along my run:
Kristen – a lovely woman in the Air Force, who ran with me until mile 7. Joey- a young man in the Restaurant industry, who ran with me from mile 7 to the finish. I felt like James was sending more support, and more people to help push me to that line. At mile 4 I saw my Coach, she yelled to keep going, gave a fabulous pat on the butt, and I sprinted off. Then 6 blisters decided to pop up and each step was agony. But the conversation with my new comrades and the cheers of the crowd kept my feet going.
At mile 10 I knew that I would make it in time. Barely at the time cut-off, I walked/jogged the last few miles with Joey and our laughter and comparison about the hills on the course made the end of the race fun! We joked as we would run into a resident’s water hose (thank you to all who hosed the athletes down throughout that half marathon!).
Then we saw the finish line…
This was a day that I wanted for 8 years of my life. After hearing the story of Team Hoyt (Rick & Dick Hoyt) and meeting them at the Boston Marathon in 2011, I always wanted to complete an Iron Man. I saw the finish line, and sprinted strong to the end. My hubby held out a blanket I made of James and our family. I grabbed the blanket with his photos and jumped and danced across the line! Total time: 8 hours & 40 minutes.
It was the best day of my life (after our wedding day and the birth of our daughter of course). It was a day filled with purpose. A day of swimming, biking, running, laughter, crying, praying, pain, and James sending me strength and angels along the way.
Dr. James Paul Buerkle ~ this was for you. To my dear sister, Cristina Buerkle, and Baby James Paul Buerkle II ~ your strength and courage inspire me everyday. Even though I can call myself and IRONMAN, I am honored and privileged to call you my family.
That is my story. Now it is your turn to get out there….it is never too late to pursue a dream and share it with those you love! Remember ~ YOU ARE A WARRIOR!!!