I finished. In 7 hours and 37 minutes, I completed my first Half Ironman 70.3 (IM70.3) triathlon. The experience pushed me to achieve beyond what I ever imagined possible.
When my dad was 40, he leased a bright red two-door Ford Probe. It was totally out of character for an Orthodox father of six from Boro Park. When I was 40, I decided to complete a triathlon. Not simple for someone who couldn’t run more than half a block nor swim one length of the pool. As I trained these past three years for the Atlantic City IM70.3 (a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and then half marathon), I kept a list of aha moments, of lessons learned.
Here is the list for my friends who stuck by me, for my community who cheered me on, and especially for my amazing family, without whose support this never would have been possible.
10. Enjoy the journey
Early on, my brother “Magic Mike” called me from his work at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem and told me, “It’s not about the destination but the journey.” And what a journey it has been! Incredible people along the way have included lifeguards at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, RTA Triathlon Club, Rockland Road Runners, LIV Ladies group ride out of Westwood Cycle Shop, the Palisades Running Group, TriFriends with moonlit swims at the Wayne lake and the world champion Croton on Hudson IronMen crew.
9. Break things into achievable pieces
The JCC pool is 64 lengths for 1 mile and the 24-Hour Fitness pool (where I also practiced) is 72 lengths. I remember the first day I went to the 24 Hour pool and said to myself, “72 lengths. How am I going to do this?” I swam one length. Then I swam two. Then three. I got up to seven and I said, “I did 1/10th.” Got up to nine lengths and said, “I did 1/8th.” All of a sudden, by breaking down the process, it became more manageable.
8. Trust the process
I had seven different coaches over the course of three years. To get me to the finish line, I had to trust the direction I was given. After all, they had the years, experience, and know-how to achieve the impossible. I thank each of them for being patient with me as they showed me the way forward.
7. Don’t look back
During the JerseyMan sprint this May, I made the mistake of looking back during the lake swim to see where I was compared to others. There was no one behind me. I panicked, knowing I was going to be last. My heart raced. I flipped to my back, calmed down, and said to myself that I’ve got to keep looking forward.
6. Play a bar like a stadium and a stadium like a bar
There are four triathlon distances — sprint, Olympic, half (70.3 miles), and full (140.6). Each competition is twice as long as the level below it; the full triathlon is 140.6 miles.
Three weeks before the 70.3 race — a half — I went to see Lady Gaga, whose music kept me going during the long hours of indoor rides on my bike trainer. Lady Gaga talked about her days playing to near empty bars and imagining that she was at a stadium. I heard her singing in the pouring rain in CitiField as if it was a bar. I took the message personally. The large competition would be manageable if I pretended it was a walk in the park.
5. Scars are really tiger stripes
Despite being a biker, boxer, and scuba diver, I really wasn’t athletic. The intense training these last months was physiologically brutal on me. I developed allergic reactions to the bathing caps and goggles, to salt water pools, and finally to the sun. (Yes, ironically, my real name is Sunni.) My arms oozed. I showed my newly formed scars to an experienced runner. She said, “Those aren’t scars. You earned those stripes.”
4. Stay within the box
A month before the IM race, while I was running on the Teaneck High School track, I heard and felt a crack under my ankle. At that point I was training 17 to 20 hours a week, and my body could not take it anymore. I stopped training for a full week to heal. I had outpatient rehab at the Jewish Home, where I had to relearn how to walk. I received electric stimulation to my leg three days a week, and I wondered if I would end up walking the run or even stopping after the bike. An Ironman told me about the Galloway method — you jog for two minutes and then walk for 30 seconds. He told me to stay in my box and stick to this plan. I methodically followed the 2:00/:30 approach the entire 13.2 miles.
3. Stop to pray
Right before the IM race started and I was going to jump off the pier into the Atlantic City bay, I slowly walked the perimeter of the participants. I concentrated on my breathing and calming my heart rate. I then cut straight through the middle of the crowd, and there was Camelia, a dear friend. This also was her first 70.3 race. We looked at each other, walked to the side, sat on the grass, and held hands as I said Sh’ma out loud. At that moment, there was no other noise. I felt totally calm. And Cami answered, “Shana Tova.”
2. Kill it with a smile
Celeste, a registered nurse, was my angel of a Sherpa during the Ironman. She called my family during the transitions to report back on how I was doing. She told me before I started that no matter what happened during the race, no matter how much pain I was in, I should keep smiling. And I smiled. I cheered for the police along the bike route and danced with the volunteers on the boardwalk to Beyoncé. This was my first Ironman race; it was going to be my personal best time, so I was enjoying it to the fullest.
1. Family first
The night before the IM70.3, my son Jakie cried hysterically. He said that he was afraid I would die during the race. Jakie was scared that I would drown in the swim or be hit by another bike on the course. I bent next to him, put out my pinky, and said, “I swear I will live. I will run down the chute to the finish line, and you will run on the other side of the fence, and we will finish together.” The day of the race also was his birthday, so I asked him, “What do you want for your birthday?” He said that what he wanted was for me to live. I asked what else he wanted, and he said $20.
When I approached the carpet for the final stretch of the race, I eyed Jakie on the other side of the fence. He looked at me, ran through an opening, grabbed my hand, and sprinted across the finish line with me. I knelt beside him and said, “Jakie, I love you… I’m alive.” I took out a bill from the back pocket of my shorts and I said, “Happy birthday! Here’s $20.” I know it is against Ironman rules to have someone with you in the chute but I would never change that aha moment, my realization that my son really does come first.
So what’s next? Jakie, my daughters Yael and Chani, and I have been picking different fun races to do together — superhero runs, color runs, hot chocolate runs. Our plan is to spend more time together training and racing. During this journey, passing the torch to the next generation, becoming aware of the gift of aha moments all around us — that just may be my greatest lesson learned.
Sunni S. Herman of Teaneck is the executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.