If You Need a Good Reason to ‘Never Give Up,’ This Story of Conquering the Odds Could Just Be It
I thought I was going to die pursuing my dream. I ended up an Ironman World Champ who fully appreciates the power of mind over matter.
A few weeks ago, I competed in the Ironman World Championships, in St. George, Utah, which is hands down the most difficult thing I have ever done in my entire life!
The 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride then a full 26.2-mile marathon would be challenging alone, but I was doing it all in 32-degree Celsius/90-degree Farenheit heat – riding up steep mountain tracks, with 20-mile inclines, then running a hilly exposed marathon exhausted.
This is my story.
At 3am on May 7, 2022, I was wide awake having slept surprisingly well considering the day ahead. In hindsight, my obliviousness to what lay in store was a blessing. That day was going to be one of the hardest of my life.
Breakfast, shower, coffee, and with my final race day bits compiled, I was getting a ride to the Ironman village for our shuttles out to the Sand Hollow Reservoir in the desert for the swim.
Rows and rows of American yellow school buses met me smoking in the early morning darkness, and I jumped on a full bus to be ferried to the start, filled with excitement and anxiety. The sweetness and bitterness contrasting every Ironman morning.
At Sand Hollow, I checked my bike and pumped my tyres then went out to watch the lake as dawn broke. It was so beautiful, the orange sky lighting up the mountains and the waters that would test me to the very core. There were boats and canoes ready to help swimmers all around the 2.4-mile swim marked out with giant buoys. Drones and helicopters were buzzing in the sky ready to capture the pinnacle event of the Ironman season.
The professional athletes began first as the Ironman cannon blasted, echoing around the desert, and I watched them gliding through the water counting cadence, seeing if I could glean any final tips to help me through race day. The atmosphere was electric.
Then it was my time to join the queue to swim. Wetsuit on. My mind was racing. I was panicking about doing the marathon in the heat. But I decided whatever happened, just getting to the start line of the Ironman World Championship was in and of itself a lifetime achievement. I would give it a go and see how far I could get.
The music blasted out and Michael Reilly, the voice of Ironman, shouted out words of encouragement. Then I joined the lines of swimmers. Ten at a time released on 10-second intervals. I was at the front, then it was my turn. I ran into the chilly water, and I was off, starting the race of my life.
Swimming into the sun was tough. I couldn’t see where I was going, and I didn’t want to get swum over so I kept to the left-hand side of the buoys, swimming a little bit further but with less stress than battling for position. After a bit of a wobbly start, I got to the first turning buoy, then it was the long straight down the lake. Here I found my rhythm. One, two, three, breath, one, two, sight, repeat. My mind cleared. It was a mindful experience. I likened it to yoga meditation. The calm before the event. The time passed quickly and calmly until the different age groupers began catching me and overtaking. But it was enjoyable and soon I could see the exit. I was running up the ramp. Section 1, complete.
The U.S. Ironman competitions have four times more volunteers than European Ironman events, so I was treated like royalty! Wetsuit peelers are completely new to me, but I lay on the swim exit carpet and duly had my wetsuit peeled off by two exuberate American volunteers. Then into transition, onto the bike and I was off.
The start of the bike was fun. I had a power goal and I hit it squarely. I seemed to be picking off racers all the way with no one overtaking me, riding up and down hills in the red sand desert. Sand Hollow Reservoir looked beautiful, glistening in the sun.
Then I hit a massive wall. We started in an urban area, the natural beauty less prevalent to take my attention. The heat started ramping. There was no breeze. I was overheating and really struggling. I started seriously considering quitting. It was too hilly. Too hot. I had no preparation in this environment. My pace slowed. I told myself completion was the goal.
Then at forty miles, my nemesis took hold. Foot pain. My feet had swelled in my shoes, and my toes pushed agonisingly against the front of my shoe. I’ve been here before and had brought bigger shoes to ward this off, but I was unable to recreate race day conditions in training, so this was unwanted and unexpected.
I took a pain reliever, which had a moderate impact. Then I practiced my breathing – remembering having babies. And I could just about tolerate the pain for a while. Then it became too much. I pulled over and took my sock off, and had some relief, for a while. The relief gave me a second wind and I began powering on. At 60 miles I knew we had a 20-mile incline, so I agreed with myself to get to this point, then my race began.
At the bottom of Snow Canyon, I began to really enjoy myself. We were out in an Indian Reserve and the landscape was epic. Red sand and weathered red rock mountains. I watched the mountains imagining faces in the eroded contours. I felt them watching me in the race of my life.
Then foot pain resurfaced in both feet. I stopped again and took my other sock off. Then my right foot swelled further, and it became intense. I undid my shoes and shifted my weight to find ways to cycle that I could bear. Then the inclines got tough and despite my feet, I managed to ride up in my lightest gear – still at high power. I ran over a dead rattlesnake. Then I was at the top.
The ride down Snow Canyon was phenomenal. Topping speeds of 44 mph. Big gusts making me wobble but zooming past people at an insane pace. I was grinning from ear to ear. This was amazing!! Almost 10 miles of flat out was pure joy. But the time at speed meant I was unable to drink. As I entered the second loop, unknown to me, I was getting dangerously dehydrated.
Back in the Reserve, I was feeling extreme foot pain again. I tried to think my way out of it. I thought of my bike buddies and felt them riding with me in spirit. I thought of my family. Then I thought of Leo, my baby who died at five weeks.
I put Leo on my aero bars in my mind, and he rode with me for a bit. I sobbed for him. I thought the reason I do all of this is because I lost Leo. This endurance sport helped me endure the grief. I will never fully get over it, but I have come so far because of it.
The heat, the lack of fluid, the lack of salt gave my thoughts intensity. The faces I’d imagined in the mountains became much more vivid. The brightness of the sky. The road winding ahead seemed to meet an aeroplane trail and continue into the sky. The bright redness of the sand. The landscape so familiar from cowboy movies.
The second climb up Snow Canyon is much steeper. And I was dehydrated. My legs started twinging. I was flickering in and out of a cramp, with only a half-bottle of Gatorade to stand between me and a full-blown cramp that could easily finish my day. I had a half bottle of water too. I asked the marshals how long to the next water station. They said two miles. I inched up the incline, spinning to avoid a cramp. A girl was hyperventilating so I asked a marshal to send help.
I saw the water station, but it was a mirage – just a van. It was so hot. I doused myself in water and sipped Gatorade until I was all out.
Then I was at the top and zooming back down Snow Canyon. The water station was way further than two miles, but I charged down, back having fun. At the station I grabbed more Gatorade, forcing myself to guzzle it. I shoved Ice down my tri suit. I drunk and doused myself in water. Then I was back on the road, flying down into St. George for the run. I hit the transition. Phase 2 done.
I took my time in the transition. I was fully aware the next piece was going to be very, very hard. A marathon, after a gruelling bike ride, and a long swim, at 90-degrees Celsius.
I trotted out, remarkably in nowhere near as much foot pain as I’d become used to. The start of the marathon is a 2.5-mile climb, which I attacked positively. Then I felt the twinge of a cramp. Then it was a full cramp. In the back of my leg, the front. If I lent to move it, it was in my abdomen. I could only move forward stiff legged at less than a walking pace.
I’d done less than a mile.
I hobbled into the first feed station and downed Gatorade. I started again, this time managing a little trot. Then the cramp was back with a vengeance. An Irish guy saw my predicament and asked me if I needed salt. I said yes and he gave me a small tube. I thanked him. My guardian angel!
Then I ambled forward, licking salt, downing Gatorade. The sun beating down on me with a slight desert breeze as I tackled the St. George streets. The race is basically four hills. The first sapping my exhausted body of energy.
I was seriously sun burned on my back where I’d misapplied lotion in my race frenzy which was impacting my temperature control.
Then I don’t know what happened. Whether it was the heat, the burning, salt overdose, lack of sugar, exhaustion or a combination of all of those things. I’ll never know, but suddenly I was seriously ill. I felt sick. My head was spinning. I had done barely any of the marathon.
I pretty much walked the first half of the Ironman World Championships marathon, battling with panic attacks and the absolute urge to give up. My breathing was out of synch and the dizziness made me terrified I was going to collapse and die. All a self-replicating circle of awfulness. I half closed my eyes and tried to be mindful to calm myself down. I watched my heart rate on my watch to ensure it wasn’t stopping. I ate everything I could to boost my sugar levels.
I have been here before, and it is a horrible, horrible, dark place filled with uncertainty and anxiety. I don’t know why I get like this, or exactly what it is or how dangerous it is, which adds to the downward cycle.
I thought if I give up, then what? This feeling will still be here. Getting me to a hospital would take time and who knows if they could fix it. I thought of my kids. I thought of Leo and how he had died, so this was nothing. I thought of Julie Moss who I met earlier in the week – iconic for finishing an Ironman crawling over the line. I remembered the words from Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman at the Ironman dinner. “Whatever happens out there just let it fall off your shoulders and lie on the path behind you. Just keep moving forward.” A metaphor for my life.
I keep moving. I keep panicking. My head keeps spinning. But surely, I can walk a marathon?
At each food station, I eat and drink what I can. Then after what feels an eternity, I am back at the start and finish. I can give up now if I want. All my stuff is here.
But for the first time in three hours, my spirits lift. It’s cooling off. My body chemistry seems to have rebalanced. Joanne Murphy – the Irish voice of Ironman – shouts me some encouragement at the turning point. I decide to keep going.
Then I actually get a second (or is it third now) wind. For the first time in forever I feel a trot won’t give me a heart attack or make me collapse. I decide to trot for 100 counts. I do it! Then I think I’ll do it again. Then I think I’ll get to the food station. I’m doing it. I’m back in this.
Then as I turn the corner my legs literally give way beneath me. And I’m on the floor.
A guy helps me to my feet. I’m covered in blood. My knee and my finger dripping.
But it doesn’t hurt. I’m beyond pain. The guy is concerned, but I laugh it off.
I get to the station and pour water over my wounds and decline a band aid as its too small for my ample grazing.
Then I’m off again.
I’ve agreed with myself to run downhill and walk up.
Its dark and atmospheric. As I near a pond, there is a chorus of frogs croaking my support.
On the walks, I chat to people. It is like a zombie apocalypse now. People trudging, limping, wounded but determined to finish. I grit my teeth. One foot after the other. Keep moving.
Four miles to go. Three miles. Two point nine. Then I’m trotting. Counting to 100 over and over. Then we’re near the finish. I can hear the crowds. I’ve got this. I could still collapse. NO. I’ve got this. For Leo.
Then finally utterly exhausted I hit the red carpet. My emotions are intense. I’m overjoyed. I’m crying.
Then I’m over the line to those incredible words – “Lorna Hopkin, you are an Ironman.”
The biggest medal I’ve ever had is placed round my neck. The weight of the journey pulling on my burned, wetsuit torn neck.
I’ve done it.
I am a World Championship Ironman.
The toughest of journeys to get here. And the final drive, the toughest experience of my life.
Never give up.
Want to know more about Lorna’s story? We recommend you start here:
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