Ok folks....here we go. My first attempt at a racing blog where friends, family, or anyone bored out of their mind can come and read about my crazy quest to race in the Ironman World Championships. For those who don't know where this all started - a little background (ok...a lot of background):
It was 2002 and after a few years of working in the medical sales industry and realizing it wasn't for me, I found myself practically broke, depressed and out of shape. I came back to San Diego from a short stint in Portland, Oregon and figured I'd go back to what I loved the most, working at the beach as a lifeguard. One big problem, though....the whole out of shape thing. I had gained a bunch of weight and felt like a walking jelly roll. There was only one thing to do, I started running....a lot. I had never enjoyed running, I was known for phrases like "I only run when I'm being chased" and "only crazy people would run a marathon". People who did triathlons were complete weirdos...swimming, biking and running - that just couldn't be good for you, right? But there I was, running on my break every day. At first I didn't even have proper running shoes, just bare feet, a pair of shorts and my iPod. I'd run one or two miles on the beach and be totally spent. After a while, though, the runs got longer, my lungs weren't screaming for me to stop, and I actually began to ENJOY this whole running thing. Before long I was in a running store, shopping for my first pair of real running shoes so I could enter a local 5k.
After a few months of running more and more, a coworker said the line that really got everything started...."you know, with as much as you run and with your swimming background, you should get a bike and do a triathlon". That was it, I bought a bike for $250 and the rest, as they say, is history. This is where things started to get crazy. Within 6 months I had sold that bike to someone else and was in the bike shop, throwing down $1500 on a brand spanking new, carbon fiber bike that I still have now and will probably keep until it turns to dust (we have history, me and that bike....but more on that later). First came the sprint races (usually 750meter swim, 12-15mile bike, and 5k run), then olympic distance (1500m, 25mile, 10k) and then in March of 2007 my first half ironman (1.2mile, 56mile, 13.1 mile), which I finished in just over 5 hours. Crossing the finish line at that race instantly changed me, it was the most difficult thing I had ever done (and I had just run my first marathon 2 months prior - 3:28 for those who were wondering) and at the same time, the best feeling in the world. I was hooked, I wanted more. I felt like I was unstoppable, I was in the best shape of my life, I had conquered events that I never thought possible, even finishing 4th in my age group at a very competitive local race in one of the toughest age groups. I was on a roll and nothing could stop me. Then came August 23, 2007 - I was still riding high from my 4th place the weekend before and hadn't done much to work out since. I was feeling a bit lazy and decided to go for a nice little bike ride to stretch my legs, I never saw it coming. Less than 10 minutes out my door, while going about 25 mph down a hill, the unthinkable happened, a car coming up the hill turned left in front of me and in my attempt to avoid being hit by the car, I hit the ground.....HARD. As soon as I came to rest I sat up, and instantly knew that something was horribly wrong. It felt as if someone put a hinge in the middle of my back and my entire upper body was like a teeter-totter balancing on that pivot. Then came the pain...the most horrible, excruciating pain I could possibly imagine. Being an EMT for years, I knew this was bad, REALLY bad. I could feel a tingling down my legs that meant only one thing - my back was broken. I've never had such an instantaneous realization that my entire life had just changed. Was I going to be paralyzed? Would I ever ride my bike again? Would I ever WALK again? All I could do was lay there, face down in the dirt, and wait for help to come.....A bystander got my phone out for me and called my dad. I'll never forget that conversation. I cried harder than I ever have, not only out of pain, but because I was scared, I was scared shitless and there was nothing he could say to make me feel better. When we got to the hospital I got the diagnosis, I had a fractured my T12 vertebrae. But, true to my style....I don't do things halfway, if I'm gonna do it...I REALLY do it. The force of the accident literally ripped the bone in half and at the same time crushed it down to about 30% of its original size on the front portion (great....as if I wasn't short enough, right?). I also had what is known as a chance fracture. Picture an ice cube with a crack running all the way through, that's what happened to my back. The entire bone surrounding the spinal cord was shattered and was held in place by pure luck (or chance.....hence the name). It had shifted enough that it was pressing on the spinal cord slightly. Another millimeter or two and I'd be in a wheelchair right now, and that is something I think about EVERY DAY.
There it is...my broken back...you can tell its me, check out the telltale Umlor ass-bone.
So there I was, broken and beaten down, but not defeated. I had come so far, I had worked so hard, was this really it? Was all the training and all the hard work just going to crumble like the mangled bone in my back? Was I done doing the things I had grown to love over the last few years? My answer was no....and to me, that was the only opinion that mattered. I had done what I thought was impossible before, I was going to do it again.
With the help of an awesome doctor and wonderful physical therapy staff at Core Orthopedics (Huge hugs and thanks to Dr. Westerlund and Pam Cloud, my physical therapist) I was determined to get back to where I was. After months of PT twice a week I was slowly, but surely getting back to my old self.......then came the phone call. My good friend and training partner Scott (2x IM World Championship competitor) called me up to tell me about Ironman Arizona being moved to November starting in 2008 and asked if I wanted to sign up. What? Was he crazy? Didn't he know what I was going through? I hadn't even sat on a bike since my accident and walking on a treadmill wore me out in 15 minutes. But still, something in my mind said "why not?". What better way to get better than to set a goal that would truly put my body, my mind and my soul to the test. I talked it over with my parents at great length and (despite my dad's insistence that it was too much too soon) I did it....I jumped in with both feet and signed up for my first Ironman while I was still wrapped from waist to neck in a plastic shell. Not only that, but I also signed up for the Wildflower half Ironman as a "comeback race"....for those who know, Wildflower is one of the most difficult races out there. But hey, why do things halfway, right? Go big or go home, as a good friend of mine likes to say.
So that was it...I was in, for better or for worse, I was going to go for it. I was going to pour everything I had into that one race and either finish it or be carried off the course, there was no other option.
Fast forward to May of 2008, Lake San Antonio California, site of the Wildflower triathlon. As the name implies, its a beautiful place. Pristine lakes and rolling hills covered with green grass and flowers of every color are the setting for one of the hardest races I've done. If you're a triathlete and haven't done Wildflower, don't wait. Sign up and do it, you won't regret it! The night before that race Scott called me and gave me some of the best advice I have gotten so far when it comes to racing. He told me not to forget how far I had come and all the things that I had gone through to get where I was. He said "at some point in the race, you need to stop and soak it all in and be thankful that you can be out there racing". And I did. Just a few miles into the bike ride I pulled my bike over, got off and did a full 360 degree turn, soaking in every bit of the scenery that I could, giving a moment of thanks to all the family, friends, doctors, therapists and anyone who encouraged me to do the impossible. That being said....the only way I'm stopping my bike in another race is if something breaks or goes flat. After that, I climbed back on and got to work making my way through what was the toughest race for me....until November.
My dad took this picture of me running down the chute to finish in 5hours and 25minutes....not too shabby for someone who was laying in a hospital bed 8 months earlier, wondering if I could even ride a bike again. My parents have traveled pretty far to see me race and I love them for it. I don't know if they will ever understand how much it means to me to have them there supporting me and cheering me on, they are my biggest fans. I LOVE YOU MOM AND DAD!! If you look close you can see I'm covered in goosebumps....think I was a little emotional? You're right. This was my first hurdle leading up to Ironman Arizona, and I jumped right over that bad boy.....bring on the ironman!!!!
Ok, for those who have been patient (or bored) enough to read this far - this is what it all led up to. November 23, 2008. Tempe, Arizona and my date with the biggest challenge of my life.
This is me and Scott the day before IM AZ, my favorite riding partner and bar by which I measure myself as a triathlete. He has beaten me into submission on the bike more times than I care to remember, and I will always thank him for that :) He never doubted that I could do the Ironman and he was always the one to restore my confidence in moments of weakness. I'd have to say he's right behind mom and dad on the fan list and I will always be grateful for his constant support and encouragement. THANK YOU SCOTTY, YOU ARE THE MAN!!
It must also be mentioned that Scott went 9:21 in Arizona, finishing 3rd in his age group and qualifying for Kona, amazing considering he works full time as a teacher and is a married father of 3 adorable kids - Wyatt, Ava and Aubrey.
It was a beautiful day in Arizona. The swim went by in no time. I came out of the water in 1 hour on the nose, but it felt like about 15 minutes, I wasn't even the least bit tired!! It was a little chilly, so I geared up with some warm clothes and set out for a nice little 112 mile bike ride through the desert. The longest ride I had done to that point was just over 100 miles and I had stopped several times to stretch out my back...I had no idea how this ride was going to go, but it didn't matter, I was going to get through it one way or another, and I did....in 5hours and 37 minutes I covered 112 miles without stopping. Only one thing left to do.....run a marathon.
The marathon portion of the Ironman is where you usually see people start to really fall apart. In all the old ironman videos it's on the run course where you see the spectacular collapses and painful-to-watch physical and mental breakdown of so many people. I ran out of the transition area to start my marathon with one thought in my mind...."ok, when are the wheels going to start falling off the wagon?". As the miles ticked by I was amazed at how good I felt. Sure, I got tired and had to walk here and there, but my mind was strong, and I knew that was what I was going to need when my body decided it didn't want to go any further. What I didn't know, however, is that my mind and body must have worked it out beforehand, and that they were determined to work together to get me through this. One urgent stop in a porta-potty aside, the marathon went by without a hitch.
Another great photo by my dad....the light was bad, but I think this shot really captures the way I felt. The run course in Arizona is three laps, and at the end of the third you make a turn to the finish chute. You go from the bright lights and loudness of screaming supporters and clanging bells to a 200 yard "alley" with no lights and no spectators. It was in that alley that it hit me. The entire day I had forced myself to keep my emotions in check and focus on the moment and the task at hand. Any emotion you let out on the course is energy that you might need later and that just couldn't be risked, there were so many unknowns for me. But in the final few hundred yards, when all doubt had been removed as to whether or not I would finish, out came the emotions. There was no holding back any more, I had used up every last bit of energy, power and passion on the course and the only thing left was emotion. I had never felt such a sense of physical and mental exhaustion in my life and I could never have understood what that feels like until I was there. Yet despite the pain and fatigue, I was smiling. After months of training and making sacrifices; countless hours in the pool, on the road and in the gym, I had done it...just over a year before I was lying on the ground, crying in pain, wondering if I would even be able to walk again, and now I was about to cross the finish line to become an Ironman, and no would ever be able to take that away from me. Being an Ironman would be something that could NEVER BE BROKEN. As I made the turn out of the alley into the final chute I was shaking with emotion...all I could do was take what little energy was left, ball my shaking hands into fists and raise them above my head in victory. At that moment I could only think one thing....anything is possible.
After I crossed the line and heard those famous words "Jonathan Umlor YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!" I looked up and who was there waiting for me?? Mom, Dad and Scott, who had finished over an hour before me, yet stuck around to wait for me. There were no words to say, nothing left to do but walk over, hug my mom and cry like a baby...like I said, I was reduced to pure emotion at that point, I had left everything on the course.
So there it is, the story of my love affair with Ironman racing, one that is still burning strong. If you are still reading this, thank you for taking the time. I don't know why I waited so long to put it in writing, but it feels really good to do it. Doing my first Ironman proved to me that anything is possible if you believe in yourself and never give up. My journey began for purely selfish reasons, to prove to myself that I am not broken, that only I can define what my limits are, not images on an xray or other peoples' ideas of what is possible. But it has become so much more than that. I've had people tell me that I've inspired them to be more active and to be thankful for the health that they have, and that has not been lost on me. I've been given a great gift and I intend to make the most of it. I'm going to burn this candle to the end, until I've taken myself as far as I can and achieved all the things I never thought I could. I feel a obligation to those who aren't as fortunate as me to keep doing this for them, to show people that with hard work and belief in yourself, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. I find inspiration every day in people who overcome challenges and don't listen to those who tell them they should quit. People like Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a 21 year old double leg amputee who completed IM Arizona this last November, and people like Sara Reinertsen, Scott Rigsby, and Ricky James motivate me to continue being the best person I can in all things I do. So I invite you to come back and visit and see what crazy things I'm up to. I hope this blog will help to inspire other people to achieve beyond what they believe, and have some fun while doing it. Thanks for reading, until next time....My name is Jon, and I'm a triathaholic :)