My Half Ironman Story

The crowd of strangers surround you and scream your name. An incessant roar that grows with each painful step you take.

Although this isn’t the Coliseum in Rome, I imagine that it is close as I will ever come to experiencing what that may have been like. You are in the spotlight and in this moment, your moment, everyone is pulling for you.

Amid the noise, you hear your name projected over the speakers along with the name of your home city. A tribute to, not only who you are, but where you’re from. A reminder that you’re racing for something bigger than yourself.

Despite the seventy miles you’ve already traveled, these last few steps seem to last forever. As you look over the finishing arch you see the stopwatch—you’ve been constantly moving for more than five and a half hours. In a few more feet, it’s over.

5 hours 43 minutes 36 seconds

As you cross the line, your body finally comes to rest. You’re drenched with sweat that has caked into salt deposits on your clothes. Your chest contracts as you begin to catch your breath. Emotions rush over you in a wave of mixed feelings.

Gratitude from the accomplishment. Humility in the pain. Confidence in the achievement.

You search the crowd looking for someone to celebrate with. Across the sea of faces, you see one of familiarity. Then another. Then another. Your family.

You slowly walk toward them and collapse as your kids climb all over your exhausted body. They shower you with praise. And, although they look at you funny and don’t fully understand the reason for all of the commotion, your kids are happy. And you are too.

You’ve finished the race.

The finish line is where we take photos and celebrate, the finish line is the longing of our heart. But, I’m learning that true purpose and meaning is found within the race.

The same is true with life.

Every journey has a beginning.

Thanks to Finisherpix for these!

Thanks to Finisherpix for these!

Anxiety and Restlessness

I couldn’t sleep. My mind was already racing.

I was thinking through the upcoming challenges and the nearly six hours I would spend in constant activity.

By 3:45am I gave up any last hope of going back to sleep, it was time to get ready.

In distance triathlon the logistics involved can be mind-numbing. Organizing clothing, food, and gear for a three-event race is nothing short of methodical. When you throw in multiple locations which include bus rides and travel planning, it can become overwhelming.

My traditional race-morning routine includes a peanut butter and banana sandwich along with a sports drink to get my body fueled and working. This morning it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t eat. I was under attack.

It had been over two years since I had raced this significant distance and I felt ill-prepared.

Mentally, I was being bombarded.

Why are you doing this? Why don’t you pull out now? Is it really worth it?

As I drove to the transportation site to begin preparing my station, my head began throbbing. Hoping that it would all go away, I continued getting ready. Much to my chagrin, it only became worse.

The bus, which would take me to the remote race start, was leaving in thirty minutes. I was nowhere near ready. My phone flashes—a text message from Mom.

– U up?

– Downtown. Just dropped my run stuff off. 5:30am bus.

– Thought I’d catch u before u left. Woke up and couldn’t go back.

– I didn’t sleep well either. Say a prayer. Really anxious and headache.

– Don’t push it. Just finish and enjoy the adventure. Might be someone out there that you encounter today.

I would find out that Mom’s words were divine.

Resting in the Shadow

As I put my phone away, I felt this urge to be with God. I closed my eyes and began focusing on Him, trying to focus in spite of the throbbing in my head. When I quieted my mind, in the stillness, I felt something encourage me from within. A certain, yet unspoken, voice said, Psalm 91.

It wasn’t a particularly familiar passage to me at the time. Not knowing what it said, I opened my Bible to read these words:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Those words were meant for me that day and I share them with you because I believe that they have purpose for you as well.

As I boarded the bus, I found a comfortable seat near the back, set my things down, and closed my eyes again. I began breathing deeply through my nose and out of my mouth, concentrating on each breath. My head was still throbbing. As the darkness still surrounded me outside, I was resting in the shadow of the Almighty. He is my God, in whom I trust.

I sat there and began repeating those words in my mind. Over and over and over.

I awaken, startled that I had dozed off on the thirty minute bus ride. We were arriving at Lake Jordan, the location for the swim portion of the race. Within seconds, I came to my senses and I saw it.

The sunrise.

I’ve always been overwhelmed by God’s amazing beauty within the picturesque setting of a sunrise. This morning was no different.

As it radiated His glory, it occurred to me that my headache was gone and my anxiety had lifted. It was time. This portion of my journey was about to begin and I had already had my first encounter.

The shelter of the Most High

The shelter of the Most High

The Swim

The water temperature was seventy-five degrees which allowed for the use of a wetsuit. As competitors suited up, the commotion of the race start was abuzz. All 2,500 participants were engaging in their pre-race rituals as the speakers blasted Van Halen’s Right Now. As Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo cut the surprisingly crisp June air, it brought the energy to a peak. The various waves of athletes lined up for their race to begin.

I sat in that moment and began basking in the experience. It was a perfect day.

As my wave was called, I waded into the water, excitement flooding my veins as water flooded my wetsuit. My competitor’s faces showed their own battle with their anxiety within.

The announcer began the ten second countdown as we took our marks, the 1.2-mile swim course ahead.

When the gun sounded, a frenzy of bodies dove in, each person trying to get ahead of the pack. It’s like being in a washing machine. A thrashing of arms and legs, engulfed by water. You’re all over each other, fighting to gain position.

I kept repeating to myself, find your groove and settle in. Remembering that swimming is about breathing and rhythm, I found my stroke and my race was on. I’ve come to learn that despite my lack of swimming experience, that portion of the event has become a strong suit for me. The hours I’ve spent diligently learning the sport and practicing have paid off. I would have never thought to say this before, but I am a swimmer. What for many is the most hated leg of the triathlon is what I embrace. It sets the mood for my day and helps me ease into the race.

Thirty-one minutes later, I climb out of the water. My heart rate and breathing are surprisingly calm. I begin running as my feet hit the earth and I enter the transition area where my bicycle is waiting for me.

Fans line the swim exit cheering their competitors, but I don’t recognize the faces.

Maybe the kids didn’t wake up in time. That’s ok, I’ll see them during the run. Then, I hear a familiar voice over my right shoulder, “Yay, Daddy!” It was Liz and she was holding my oldest son, MJ.

I quickly reversed course and ran over to the sideline.

“Hey buddy, I’m so glad you came!”

“Watch out for cars, Daddy!”

“I will buddy, I love you.”

I leaned in to give them both a kiss on this few seconds reprieve before heading to my bike.

The transition was smooth and I was quickly on my way to the 56-mile bike course. I smiled as I glanced down at my arm.

My constant reminder of why I race

My constant reminder of why I race

The Bike

Cycling is exhilarating.

I am the engine and the course is my competitor. Like most triathletes, my bike is configured in the aero position. This allows me to rest on my elbows and keep my head down out of the wind. It’s a precarious position to be in for over two hours, but you become used to it.

Because of the wave start, I find myself weaving through and past other cyclists on the course. On this day, I made it a point to try to encourage those that I passed as well as those who passed me.

“Keep it up! Great job!”

I’m not sure if it annoyed them or helped them. Some of them ignored the words, while others used it as a chance to exchange a reply. There was the lady at mile forty who screamed, “This is why we race, what a beautiful day!”

She was right. Conditions were perfect and the course was amazing. The rolling hills in Central North Carolina provide a great backdrop and beautiful countryside. I found myself taking in the scenery along the way.

Remote farmhouses became suburban neighborhoods as we began approaching the city of Raleigh. The neighborhood families lined the road, their lawn chairs and blankets spread out much like a tailgate. It occurred to me that they were there for us. The only thing I knew to do to show my appreciation was to give them a passing thumbs up as I zipped by at speeds of over twenty miles per hour. They rang cowbells and shouted in reply as we passed.

The only low light of the bike course was a one-mile stretch where cow farms lined both sides of the road. The cows were lovely, they just smelled like…cows. There’s nothing like trying to scarf down an energy bar while you’re furiously spinning the pedals and the smell of cow manure fills the air.

My 56-mile companion

My 56-mile companion

The Run

As I dismounted my bike, I knew I had put in a great effort. My computer, mounted on my handlebars, read 2:43:42. As I did the math in my head, I knew that I was surprisingly ahead of where I would have anticipated.

There was never really a goal in mind, but I had hoped to complete the race in under six hours. At this juncture, it was just the 13.1-mile half marathon that stood in my way.

As much as I’d like to forget, triathlons do include running. It is by far my weakest event, my Achilles’ Heel.

I repeated, just keep going.

I remember playing baseball in high school and my coach joking, “Ham, you run like a pregnant lady carrying a piano.” About three miles into the run, I felt like a pregnant lady carrying a piano.

I had one comforting reminder. Earlier that morning, before the start, I had placed a small metal cross in the leg of my suit. I reached my hand down and pressed it against the outside of my leg. Beneath the material, I could feel the outline of the cross.

I remembered my verse from earlier in the day. I will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I continued.

A few miles later, I was met by the greatest fans anyone could ask for. I used this chance to stop and kiss my family, high-five my boys, and console Greyson who had just tripped on the pavement and skinned his knee.

Hugging my boys at mile five

Hugging my boys at mile five

We Live By Faith

As I left them, I had eight tough miles ahead and I knew it.

By the time I reached mile nine, my legs were beginning to cramp and fatigue was rapidly setting in.

I had to stop and walk. I needed to catch my breath and get my thoughts in order.

I looked up to see hundreds of other competitors still running their race. It moved me.

There were moms and dads, first-timers and veterans. There were all ages, races, and personalities. There was a man carrying a United States Flag. There were husbands and wives stopping to kiss each other. There was the NC State bell tower and Hillsborough Street, fond reminders of my Alma Mater.

As I saw these things with my own eyes, I witnessed something that stirred my soul.

A blind man.

He wasn’t a spectator, he was running the race.

However, he wasn’t alone, he was being guided by a companion. The only connection between them was a small baton they both held on to.

As I thought about this blind man, it occurred to me, he can’t see any of this. But he can feel all of it.

I reached down for my cross again and was reminded of my mom’s text.

Might be someone you encounter out there today

That someone was God.

You see, proverbially, we’re all blind in a way. We run through our lives, longing for glimpses of hope, longing for the finish lines in life. Our hearts are set on the spotlight, in the triumph of victory. Deep down, I believe that speaks of our longing for eternity, our longing for life.

However, something’s missing. The struggles of life and the pains of each step blind us to our journey.

The image of this blind man running moved me in a deep part of my soul.

It was a perfect picture of our walk with God. It was the undeniable image of resting in the shadow of the Almighty, of trusting in our Savior. I immediately thought about my one word this year, trust. Then, the verse from the Apostle Paul took on new meaning.

“For we live by faith, not by sight.” 1 Corinthians 5:7

I cherished these thoughts as I began running again.

My consolation for the remaining three miles was that blind man. I saw my own condition. I was weak, fatigued, and blinded by my struggles. In a way, I pictured myself as this blind man, and my companion became the Lord.

I began talking with God, recalling Bible verses, and used every opportunity to encourage my fellow travelers.

“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” Hebrews 12:1

I must say, as good as it felt to finish, I was sad to see it end.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t tear up as I finished. Not because the race was over, but because that race was about so much more than accomplishing a goal. It was about so much more than finishing a Half Ironman.

It was a reminder about the journey of my life. It was an appreciation for my blessings: my health, my family, my faith. It was about my love for our God, who, despite His holiness, comes down to join us on our race, extending His baton, inviting us to grasp it and join Him.

A refreshing encouragement to reach out and grab hold—to trust.

And lest you be fooled, none of this means that it didn’t hurt. It did.

But that calls for a post race celebration.


After the finish line...

After the finish line…

Question: What areas of your life may be clouded in blindness? What parts of the journey are you missing?


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30 Responses to My Half Ironman Story

  1. Lily Kreitinger June 4, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    I love the story and the insight you bring into all experiences in your life, Matt. Congratulations on this great accomplishment, and most of all congratulations on being an awesome leader for your family and your community. You are going places, friend! Honored to have met you and to be part of this journey.

    • Matt Ham June 4, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      Lily, such kind words. Thank YOU!

  2. Jon Stolpe June 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    Such a beautiful story, Matt. I’ve never competed in a triathlon, but I’ve run three full marathons. The emotional experience at the finish can only really be explained to a fellow competitor.

    • Matt Ham June 4, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      Hey Jon! Three full marathons? That’s awesome – any coming up soon?

      And you’re right – it’s kind of like explaining the birth of a child to someone or a wedding, etc.

      • Jon Stolpe June 4, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

        My wife has banned me from anymore full marathons, but I may have some more half marathons in me. Marathon training can be pretty brutal on my body. After reading your story, the idea of a triathlon is definitely a consideration.

        • Matt Ham June 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

          Ha – I haven’t been banned from tri’s…yet

          If you do race, keep me posted – I’d love to hear!

  3. Misty Scott June 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    You ran an Ironman with God…I love it! Reminds me of a saying “Stop asking God to help you get out of a situation and ask him to help you get through it”. We often forget that He is always there “with” us. If only we realized that during the times we’re struggling, the struggle wouldn’t seem so tough.
    So proud of you, Matt!

    • Matt Ham June 4, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks Misty – couldn’t have done it without your help!

  4. Robby Robbins June 4, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    Again great job! Your words will bless many. This post reminded me of an old blog post I wrote years ago. Have a blessed day and week.

    • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 6:31 am #

      Robby what an awesome post! I really loved that. Honestly, that mindset needs to be taken into training racing more often!

      Have a blessed one brother!

  5. Isabel Hundt June 4, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Reading your post it makes me feel like I just ran it with you….boy, am I exhausted 🙂 Awesome accomplishment! Congratulations.

    • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 6:27 am #

      Thanks Isabel! You can live vicariously through me on this one 🙂

  6. Joel Fortner June 4, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Love this! God is everywhere and with everyone, waiting on us to reach out to him. Reading this reminded me of running the only marathon I’ve run. I’ve logged many halfs but the feeling after 26.2 is totally different.

    • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 6:26 am #

      So true brother! I love the imagery this created about blindness in my own mind. The question isn’t, “Where’s God?” It’s “What’s blinding me from seeing Him?” He’s always there!

      I don’t remember hearing about your full. Would love the details sometime. You let me know if you put that Half on your schedule!

  7. Anne Peterson June 5, 2014 at 7:22 am #

    Great post. Congratulations on your accomplishment. And wonderful illustrations. You had me there at the race, cheering you on. Yay!

    • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 8:48 am #

      Thanks Anne! That was what I was shooting for 🙂

  8. Gabi T June 5, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    Matt, I loved your post. Beautifully written. I actually did my full race recap today and started a link up: You should add your post. I’m trying to collect as many as possible, so I can read them all and keep reliving the amazing day!

    • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 8:48 am #

      Thanks Gabi and congrats to you on a great race!! I’ll link up on the site for sure. Thanks for the invite. When do you race again?

      • Gabi T June 5, 2014 at 9:57 am #

        I’m headed to IM Louisville in August! How about you?

        • Matt Ham June 5, 2014 at 10:03 am #

          AWESOME! I’m in awe of folks that go FULL! Best of luck to you with your training this summer.

          I may race a sprint and/or an Intl – there’s a Half/Full event here called Beach to Battleship that runs in October…pondering 🙂

          • Gabi T June 5, 2014 at 10:32 am #

            Oh I’ve heard of B2B. Wanted to do it, but I think it’s the same weekend as the Marine Corps Marathon.

  9. Laura Robb June 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    I just answered my own question by continuing to read. 🙂 Congrats on finishing! And another awesome post!

    • Matt Ham June 8, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

      Hey Laura! I’m glad you found it – thanks so much for reading 🙂

      I hope you’re been doing well – still writing?

      • Laura Robb June 10, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

        Thanks! I am writing. 🙂 Just in a slow season. Energy isn’t always there, but I’m planning to do some refocusing this summer!

  10. Chad Biggerstaff June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    Awesome man!!! Powerful stuff! Maybe I’ll join you one of these days…


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