Keep Moving Forward

Original Article ran on Ironman Website: Finish Line Road: Shannon Spake

My interest in triathlons began the summer of 2012. I was covering NASCAR for ESPN, and learned that a few of the drivers were training for a triathlon. Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and others were going to jump on a plane after the July race at Daytona, fly to Charleston, S.C., and compete in a sprint triathlon. I was very familiar with the full-distance triathlons that IRONMAN put on, but I had no idea there were shorter distance races. I was interested but wasn’t exactly ready to commit.

That commitment finally came two years later, when I finally signed up, trained and competed in my first Sprint triathlon. Since then, I have slowly increased the distance, and last Sunday officially became part of the Ironman family finishing the Raleigh 70.3 event in 06:43:37 — slower than I hoped, but I did it!

My race started at exactly 7:56 a.m. on Sunday morning when my feet left the sandy bottom of Jordan Lake, my arms began to move in a circular motion and I made my way toward the orange turn buoy in the distance, mentally reviewing my race plan for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.

Pre-race. Prepping my bike with 2,500 other athletes.
Pre-race. Prepping my bike with 2,500 other athletes.

The 1.2-mile swim was to be my warm up for the day; “ease into it” my coach had instructed. So, I focused on my breathing and pace while navigating the choppy water that at times had me feeling like the Cornelia Marie rocking back and forth over the waves of the Bering Sea. The words “Keep your head down, sight, breathe, move forward,” were on a mental loop in my brain for the entire 48 minutes of my swim. In fact, the only time I stopped swimming was when a guy, who was struggling with the waves even more than I was, kicked me in the stomach. I assessed the damage, realized it startled me more than it hurt, and I moved on. Other than the kick, and some poorly timed breaths resulting in a mouthful of water, the swim was a success.

Exiting Jordan Lake. Hey, at least I'm smiling.
Exiting Jordan Lake. Hey, at least I’m smiling.

Up next: 56 miles on the bike. By the way, if you have a race checklist with all of the items you need for race day, make sure your bike is on the list. My family and I were an hour and a half into our drive from Charlotte to Raleigh when we realized we forgot my bike at home. Yes, I forgot my bike! Thankfully, I’m now able to laugh at the situation because at the time I was so mad thought my head might pop off.

The bike ride went pretty smoothly. “Take it slow, respect the ride, save it for the run”… was just some of the advice that circled in my head as I closely monitored my heart rate and nutrition throughout the ride. One energy gel every 30 minutes, salt every 15 minutes, one bottle of fluid every hour, and try to keep your heart rate between zones two and three.
For three and a half hours. I stuck to the plan, and as the Raleigh skyline came into view, I felt good. I was also thankful that I escaped the long ride without joining the steady stream of cyclists standing or sitting on the side of the road with mechanical or physical issues. I was one of the lucky ones.

Riding.
Riding.

As I made my way towards T2, I saw my family for the first time that day. My kids jumped up and down and screamed: “Go, Mommy, go!” While my husband’s proud smile peaked out from underneath the camera he was using to capture every moment. He was still taking pictures as I began the run segment of the race. I waved and flashed a huge smile. What I didn’t realize at the time was it would be the last time I smiled until I crossed the finish line.

“It’s cool, you got this,” I told myself as I looked down at my watch and tried to hit a nine minute pace, but before my legs could acclimate to the concrete below them, my stomach cramped, and I felt the intensity of the sun beating down on my shoulders. I quickly realized the next 13.1 miles were not going to happen as quickly as I hoped.

My biggest fans!
My biggest fans!

The next 2 hours, 19 minutes and 12 seconds went something like this. Run, walk, pour water on my head, drink. Repeat a dozen times. By the way, kudos to the race director for setting up food and water stations every mile, and thank you to the upbeat and supportive volunteers along the way. You gave me the strength to take it: One. Mile. At. A. Time!

As I approached the last mile of the race, my stomach felt better, I had settled into a pace around 10:18, and the sound of my sneakers sloshing with water had become comical. Then, I heard a new sound. Cheers. Celebration. It was the finish line. I was almost there. I made it.

With the inflatable IRONMAN finish line arch in sight, I glanced down and noticed the woman in front of me was in my age group. If I crossed the finish line in front of her, I would move up one more spot in the finishing order. So, of course, I found another gear and crossed the line first. I will be reminded of that moment whenever I look at my official finisher’s photo, which reveals a look of intensity rather than a smile of joy.

My Intense finish line photo!
My Intense finish line photo!

By now, I have had a little over a week to reflect on the challenges and sacrifices it took to get me across that finish line, and the question I have asked myself many times is “Would I do it again?” The answer is “Yes!” However, I can assure you that wasn’t the answer after the race as I proudly looked down at the “finishers” medal around my neck. In fact, last week I swore there was no way I would do another one, but as I have reflected on the day I have remembered why I decided to sign up for that first race two years ago, how much I love competing in the events and all of the amazing people I have met along the way. When I think about those things, three words cross my mind: sign me up!

Additionally, I am thankful I got to choose my race bib number, #1021. This number is special to me because it’s my 91-year-old grandfather’s birthday. My Papa, a World War II veteran and Silver Star recipient, was part of the Army’s first organized airborne unit. In 1944, he fought in the Battle of Leyte, where 3,500 Americans lost their lives. He has always been the kindest and most generous man, and it was really cool to be able to honor him with those four little numbers.

With my Papa on his 90th birthday.
With my Papa on his 90th birthday.