I’d first heard of Kelly’s then-upcoming Ironman race on Facebook. I saw my friend’s post about the run/bike/swim competition and thought, “Wow, how cool is that? I’d like to hear more of her story.” She completed the competition on September 11, 2011.

I had no idea that I would sit, weeping, while reading her responses to my questions. I knew she was competing, but I had no idea that she was completing that race to honor her father, whom she lost to cancer, to burn off her grief, to stand up for the strength and beauty of women everywhere, to teach her children to live from their souls, and to prove to herself that she is vibrantly alive and that her dreams can come true.

Her story is awesome. She is awesome. She is an inspiration to all of us to find joy now, dust those dreams off, and drink every drop from this life.

What is an “Ironman” race?
An Ironman refers to an Iron-distance triathlon race which is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run (marathon), back-to-back, in that order, and without a break. The idea began when a bunch of Navy officers (in Hawaii) were debating over who was the better athlete–runners, bikers, or swimmers. They decided to compete in this “Ironman” Triathlon in 1978. Sports Illustrated covered it and it gained popularity. Eventually, “Ironman” became a trademarked company hosting these events all over the world. Until recently, they have really been the only “company” hosting multiple Ironman triathlons. The triathlon “company” I raced for, Revolution 3, or Rev3, is a grass-roots Iron-distance company that is attempting to compete with the original “Ironman” by doing the same thing–hosting Iron-distance races all over the country. Besides the love of triathlons, Iron-distance racing is big business. Triathletes competing in Ironman events have an average income of $160,000, an average age of 39, 86% have a bachelor’s degree, 43% have a post-graduate degree or have completed post-graduate work, and 73% own a home. And those competing spend an average of $4,100 a year on equipment. I should also mention that if people are familiar with Ironmans at all, they usually have seen/heard about the Hawaiian Ironman. This is the Ironman World Championship–the mother of all Irons. You must qualify at a previous Ironman to compete in this.

What inspired you to do this?
What inspired me to do this????? Ahhh—this may be as long as #1! I’ll just start at the start, so to speak. I had always swam competitively growing up. Then college came…. and let’s just say I sowed my wild oats and was no longer into fitness. I got married, started working, blah blah blah. I was by no means overweight, but just not very physically fit–in fact I couldn’t even run a mile. Then I had my first child, Zach. I gained about 60-70 lbs with him which I lost relatively quickly after I had him. But I just wasn’t pleased with my body–it was “soft.” Also, the baby was very fussy, to say the least. I needed some kind of outlet.

I really wanted to do something with swimming but my options were limited as an adult other than just swimming laps on my own. I joined a gym and, for a couple of weeks I did great–but then the shininess wore off and I just was not motivated to bundle a baby up, pack a bag, and traipse through the snow.

I spoke with my dad, who had participated in triathlons at this point for several years. He talked me into signing up for my first sprint distance triathlon. Despite the fact that my folks lived in a different state as me, it was nice to chat about our training sessions over the phone. Those talks and the fact that I had to be ready to race by a certain date were great motivators. I should also mention that I told everyone that would listen that I was going to participate in a triathlon for the sheer purpose of knowing that I would rather literally die than swallow my pride 50 million times when asked, “how’d you do in that triathlon?” and I’d have to say, “I couldn’t finish.”

My dad and I competed in that triathlon. He took second in his age group and I took third. I was bitten by the “tri bug” and that would be the first of several triathlons he and I would compete in together.

“Regular” life continued on and I continued to compete for competitive fun, as a motivator to stay in shape, and as an outlet for stress. My thinking shifted, though, after I had my daughter and began to watch her grow. On those swim, bike, and run workouts with nothing but my own thoughts, I began to think about all the stereotypes and labels that are slapped on women in general but definitely on women athletes. For example: women pictured in most ads, and even those for athletic clothes/equipment, are anything but athletic. Most are waify models that could never run, lift, bike, etc. They use slogans like Reebok’s “I run to fit into my skinny jeans.” Also, at the time, most of the athletes in triathlons were men. So at the point for me when triathlons became more of a passion, I wanted both of my children (but especially my daughter) to see what a real strong athletic woman looked like, and that I could compete with the “boys” and even beat many of them. My dad and I discussed this passion often and, since he raised two girls, he’d also shared it.

When I was visiting my parents one weekend, my dad and I were on a run together, as we often did when I went “home.” During that run, we decided to just do it–train and compete in a full Ironman (at this point he’d done a half Iron). We agreed we’d wait and begin training when my daughter Grace started kindergarten. That way, I (we) could do the bulk of the 9-month training when the kids were in school all day. We began to discuss more regularly issues with racing at that distance such as which training plans we were going to use, nutrition, heart rate monitoring, hydrating, equipment, etc. Unfortunately, in 2009, just two years short of that dream, he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and died just 6 weeks later.

My universe shattered. I did not know how to express the grief I was feeling so I did the only thing I knew that cleared my mind–I trained. That same summer I completed my first marathon. That following winter was rough. Winter is traditionally the “off”-season for runners and triathletes. I had nothing on the calendar to motivate me but, more importantly, the grief I’d delayed in feeling for so long came rushing in. Then in the spring I was invited by some friends to run the half marathon in July for a friend who was raising money/awareness for a disease that had struck her–Aplastic Anemia. I began training and regularly running with a group of girls. I felt like my old self again. Just before the race, I fell and broke my foot so I was not able to race (I worked the water station instead) but I began to see that my running ability had definitely improved and I began to think about that old dream of mine and my dad’s: The Ironman.

Can you comment on the training? How did it feel? How long did it take overall and what were the training sessions like? How did you manage the logistics of being away from your family?
My training plan, which was designed by Don Fink in the book “Becoming Iron Fit,” is officially 30 weeks long (almost as long as pregnancy). But I definitely had to do some pre-training to even get myself fit enough to begin the program. The race was Sept. 11, 2011, and I basically began training in the middle of the January before. There were days that it felt overwhelming and there were days that it felt easy–but eventually it just became something that I did everyday.

The training plan basically consists of three phases–the base phase, the build phase, and the peak phase. The base phase is the start of the foundation. You are basically training to get to a fitness level where you can begin to build endurance. The Build phase is where you begin to build endurance. The peak phase is where you continue to build endurance while incorporating speed. The plan consisted of training 6 days a week, 10-20 hours/week. On a weekly basis, there was 1 rest day, 4 days of 2.5 hr workouts, 1 long run day, and 1 long bike day. In peak weeks, my longest run day was 3.5 hours and my longest bike day was 7.5 hours.

It was definitely hard finding time to work out that long while raising a family and doing all the other millions of things moms do. But I just scheduled the workouts as I would anything else. However, sometimes, especially on long run days, I was up at 4 a.m. to work out or spinning at p.m. There is no getting around it–the training is tough. And, as with every great accomplishment, there is no cheating, no easy road. You have to do the training–every damn day of it–but it makes it that much sweeter.

What kind of support did you get from your husband, kids, friends, and family?
I got a lot of support from a great many people. First and foremost was my husband, who truly understood not only how important this race was to me but also what it meant to continue and complete a dream with my dad–if only in spirit. He was as flexible as he could be with his schedule and we often got sitters if it was impossible to work it out. His belief in me that I would do this race and do it well never faltered. Not even once. He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

As for my kids, I tried to schedule my workouts so my training affected them as little as possible. They knew I was doing a race, but I’m always “doing a race.” They just knew this one meant a little more to me. As far as the rest of my family and friends, I was overwhelmed by the amount of support and well wishes I received from most people. Many of my close friends sent cards, made up baskets, took my kids for play dates, or did anything else they could do to cheer me on and support me. I think, though, I was equally as shocked at the people I thought would definitely be there or support me that didn’t. It was and continues to be very hurtful. It’s like the old Eskimo proverb: “You never know who your true friends are until the ice breaks.”

Describe race day.
The day before the race consists of athlete meetings, check-ins, weigh-ins, packet pick-ups, and equipment drop-off. I was at an athlete meeting and was literally almost paralyzed with fear when I looked at all the athletes around me who seemed to so calm, self-assured, and more fit than any group of people I’d ever seen. I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing here? This is a joke, how do I think I can possibly complete this race?’

Then there was an interview with Kate Major, one of the pros competing. This was her 51st Ironman! The interviewer asked her if, after all those Ironmans, she still gets nervous. She said “Absolutely! No matter how many times you’ve done this race, it’s a grueling distance and you have to respect it. But I try to remember that I’ve trained for this–my body knows exactly what to do.” That really spoke to my heart. From that point on, although I was still a bit nervous, I tried to just have fun.

On race day, my swim rocked! I was completely comfortable in the water despite the mass start at 7:12 am. Other than the pros, who started before us, I was the 4th woman out of the water with a time of 1:06 exiting. My T1 time (transition 1 swim to bike) time could’ve been a bit faster but I wanted to make sure I put on thicker padded biking shorts (something I don’t do in shorter races) and really lube up my feet with Aquafor to avoid blisters.

The bike was pretty good. I average 17.5 mph for 112 miles, a little slower than I’m capable of but I tried to be VERY conservative and maintain a healthy respect for the marathon ahead. Also, there was a last-minute course change because a bridge that was under construction and supposed to be completed was not. Hence, we had to ride 15-20 miles of the course on tar and chip roads. A few people wiped out because they hit it going too fast and there were LOTS of flat tires. By the end of the bike, however, my right knee was bothering me and I became a little concerned. After all, a mildly bothersome knee on the bike can feel like someone is stabbing you in with a butcher knife by mile 20 in the run. It seemed to loosen up though as I moved through T2 (transition 2 bike to run), which I did steadily.

As I ran, I passed a few people that had passed me in the bike and began to regain some confidence. I had promised myself that I’d run at least the first loop of the marathon–13.1 miles. I did so easily and then attempted to run to mile 15, then to mile 17, etc. I continued this strategy–running by breaking the marathon into 2-3 mile chunks. As I approached mile 20, many people were walking and I my legs still felt strong. Like Forest Gump (who I thought of several times), I just kept running. I do have to admit however, that though my legs and mind felt strong, my stomach was not cooperating quite as well. I came close to vomiting at least 3 times because this distance is such a strain on your body that your digestive system begins to basically shut down. The struggle then is to make yourself continue to at least take Gatorade at every aid station so you don’t become dehydrated.

A quote in my training book read, “The Ironman marathon is 20 miles of hope and 6 miles of reality.” That quote definitely rang true with me. The race became not only a test of my endurance but also of my mental strength. Most people were walking by this time. A few were throwing up, and one guy was even lying on the ground with medical starting an IV. I just kept forcing myself to run and to think about anything other than the race.

I thought about all those mornings I was up at 4 a.m. to squeeze a run in before my kids got up and my husband had to go to work; friends’ summer parties where I often left early because I had a killer workout in the morning; the Sundays when I ventured out on my bike instead of spending it with my family; the victims of 9/11 and the pain that they’ve endured and how the pain I was feeling was self-induced. I thought of all my family and friends’ well wishes, and of those who were hoping I’d fail. I thought of my dad running next to me–whispering “You can do it!” But mostly, I thought of the sweet faces of my children and husband waiting for me at the finish line.

When I got to mile 24, I thought ‘Holy crap–I think I’m going to do this! After all, I can crawl two miles right?’ About then a guy that I had been keeping pace with me said, “I don’t know… I don’t know if I have two more miles in me.” Looking straight ahead, I said to him, “Of course you do. Do you know why? Because in two short miles, you’ll be an Ironman!” He continued to run with me and just before mile 26 he said, “Thank you.”

I picked up the pace, rounded the corner, and saw my family. Craig lifted the kids over the fence. We grabbed a huge flag, ran down the finishing chute and crossed the finishing line. I heard, “Kelly Goodelle from Erie, Pennsylvania, a strong finish!” This wasn’t quite as good as the legend “Kelly Goodelle, you are an Ironman!” but I’ll take it. I burst into tears and began to really feel the weight of everything I’d dreamed of for the last 9 months. My husband held me up and cried with me as I said, “Craig, I did it, Oh my God, I really did it!” And… I had! –12 hours, 21 minutes, 14 seconds–a full 1 and half hours before my goal time and more importantly, before sunset.

When you got to the end, how did you feel, physically and emotionally?
Emotionally, I was elated. I had completed the Ironman, and completed it much faster than I had guessed. And I had finished 3rd in my age group. I was happy that I had to go back the next day to collect my award and perhaps more importantly, all the free stuff that comes along with a win. Physically, I was exhausted and some of my knee and hip pain began to sink in. But even so, one of my first thoughts was, “I can totally kill that time the next time.” I collected my bike and all my transition/special needs bags and made my husband go to McDonalds for a hamburger, large fry, and coke.

Why was the Ironman an item on your personal bucket list?
I guess the Ironman is/was on my Bucket List because to me it’s one of the greatest athletic-minded feats a regular person can accomplish. But to be totally honest, I have a long Bucket List. After watching my dad, a man who basically dedicated his entire life to taking care of his family, suffer and then die at such a young age, it made me realize that you cannot put off your dreams. And that EVERYONE should have dreams. That being a great mom, perhaps my most important dream, is only one dream. I have dreams for myself that are just my own. And putting off the ones that are attainable right now not only robs my own soul, but also robs my children of a mother that is a totally whole person.

Were there moments you changed your mind about doing it?
I think I’ve probably already answered this but I wavered so much BEFORE I signed up. As I’ve said, my husband always believed in me–but really my friend Susan, who had done most of my long rides with me, was really the one who continually told me “You can totally do it” and “If you don’t do it now, you will regret it the rest of your life.” When I finally signed up, the entry fee was $535 and the hotel stay was $200. With food, kids’ entertainment, etc., I knew the whole weekend would cost us about $1000–not a cheap date, for us, anyway. So once I signed up the only thing that would’ve stopped me was a serious injury.

Can you describe the day’s energy?
It was a very somber day. Being the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there was a dedication with 2997 flags on the beach at the swim start for the 2997 lives lost that day. Bib #911 was reserved in dedication to all the fallen soldiers that have fought and continue to fight for our freedom. Besides this, I think just the monumental distance of the race ahead was enough to quiet anyone. The energy was somber, nervous, and exciting.

How have you changed as a person as a result of this experience?
How have I changed???? Hmm….the whole experience seems a bit surreal now. But the biggest way I think I’ve changed is that I have such a deep appreciation of my self–both my body and mind. I’ve always known that I’ve been strong-minded–maybe to a fault. But I can really appreciate my mind’s ability to focus on the goal and continuously move to it despite my body’s pleas to stop. And despite how I detest ads and commercials that force women into a box, I still had days that I wished my hips were smaller or that I couldn’t pinch an inch here.

Now I just am amazed at my body. Sure I still have things that aren’t considered perfect by society’s standards but I don’t care. My body has done so much for me despite my continual abuse and putting it down. It has carried me through every athletic event I’ve subjected it too–even 140.6 miles. My legs will never be as toned as I want but they’ve carried me to every destination I’ve dreamed: Ironman, runs with my friends, down the aisle to my husband, or those millions of miles walking the “circle” of my home, chasing after my kids. My arms and shoulders will never be as ripped out as I want, but they’ve held babies, hugged friends and family, and “shouldered” the weight of the world. And my abs will never be “perfect” compared to the pros that I’m standing next to, but my abs have cradled and successfully brought two children into this world. My body has never failed me and for that I am blessed and finally grateful.

Anything else you want to add?
There are people out there who will understand why I did this and people who will think I was/am insane. Truthfully, I’ve felt both these ways at different times. But now, after all this, I can honestly say that I don’t care. I’ve found the only person’s life I have ultimate control over is my own and the only one I can make truly happy is myself. And that is freeing.