At the finish line, recovered from Parkinson’s.

My first Ironman 70.3: the conscious challenge

It was like this from the first minute, I was not looking for performance, nor a comparison with myself, it would not have been possible to improve something that I had never achieved before. My goal was to complete it, I was aware that I had done everything in my power.

Only an unforeseen event beyond my responsibility could have stopped me. So I was calm, ready to give my best and accept any defeat. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the article My First Ironman 70.3 here. At the finish line between mistakes and fears

Turning bad luck into a challenge

Today I play sports because it makes me feel good , at this stage of my life it is no longer a question of winning a tournament or a regatta. The challenge is against Parkinson’s , I just want to take a step in front of him. Every time I finish a training or a race, I’m winning that challenge, every time it’s like getting on the top step of the podium.

The happiness and satisfaction that I felt, despite having been walking for a few kilometers, can all be read in the playfulness and dancing lightness of my arrival on the red carpet of the Ironman circuit, the most exciting finish straight for triathletes from all over the world.

Wet sand and gray sea

And here we are in the starting grids, even if the light rain and the cloudy sky that is reflected by coloring the sea gray do not encourage you to enter the water, we are ready, loaded to a thousand. The heat will not be a problem, the sea is practically flat, only a slight long wave, not very annoying to face against the current but a friend when it comes to swimming on it.

I had thought of lining up at the bottom of the last grid, estimated travel time of 1900 m. 35/45 minutes, to leave quietly without traffic and swim without haste. Then pushed by the advice of my athletic trainer, the 4-time Ironman Alberto Schivardi, I choose to get in the queue of the penultimate grid, it may be useful for me to follow some trails.

I see Annalaura and Annamaria who, as we said, are in the last grid, they see me and we talk to each other, Annamaria supports Alberto’s idea. So we position ourselves in the penultimate grid. The choice to leave last was still conditioned by some weakening beliefs that I dragged along from previous experiences, having overturned it by overcoming fears was useful to overcome them once and for all. Sometimes a right word is enough, from the right person, at the right time and everything changes, thanks coach.

Thoughts and fears

It happened in the first sprint triathlon 5 years ago in Ledro, 750 m. swimming, 20 km. by bike and 5 km. quickly. Parkinson’s was still latent, in swimming up to that moment I had always been calm and fast enough. We still started in heats of over 150 athletes and the first 100 meters were really a battle, now with the “rolling start” we start in 6 at a time every 5 seconds and the traffic is quite another thing.

Starting strong, thinking of making room for myself to be able to swim in less crowded waters was the wrong strategy. At a distance like this the pace of the whole leg is higher, so when I started swimming at my normal pace, I found myself breathing hard and everyone was immediately on top.

I was breathing hard, in the midst of a “herd of sharks” that passed me everywhere, suddenly I began to think that I could go to the bottom and that no one would notice. For a few tens of seconds I didn’t think, I was in a panic and breathing became short and difficult. I had to regain control of my thoughts, shifting them to certainties, and so I did. First, the wetsuit I was wearing would keep me afloat even without swimming, I hadn’t been drinking and I wasn’t drowning, I just needed to regain more regular breathing.

Once my thoughts were rearranged, I moved on to action, I slowed down by swimming breaststroke to breathe more easily and, moving towards the outer edge of the group, I approached a rescue vehicle, I leaned for 20/30 seconds and did some I breathe deeper, letting go of the pack.

Change of focus

I looked around to change the focus of my thoughts by focusing on the beauty of the moment, the lake, the sun, the athletes with their arms winning the challenge on the elements, water and wind, the fans waiting for us on the shore, the plants dancing to the rhythm of the wind. While from the canoe I was asked if everything was ok and if I needed help, I was ready to leave again, I felt again in control of my thoughts and my choices, safe in the right place at the right time.

I started swimming again, after asking the boy in the canoe who had given me help, to keep an eye on me for a few strokes, alternating freestyle and breaststroke until I got out of the water. It seems incredible but it is so, often the experiences lived in the past remain anchored to our memories, ready to re-emerge when we find ourselves in a similar situation, conditioning the choices in the present.

Off the mask, off we go!

Five sounds mark the time between one departure and another, via the mask that the covid rules oblige us to keep until the moment of departure, beep beep beep beep beep, parties . I run towards the water, climbing over some waves for a stretch of at least 150 meters and I walk until, with the water above my hips, I understand that it is better to swim. I feel good, I breathe and I extend my stroke, when I am on the wave I raise my head and look for the buoy to keep the direction, when I am in the hollow I stay down and breathe every 3/5 strokes.

As I approach the first mark, I understand that swimming close to someone is not creating the uncomfortable feeling I have felt since that experience. I go around leaving the first mark on the right, I’m happy, this gives me strength, now the wave is lateral, I have to take it into account when choosing the route, my experience as a sailor now comes in handy. I see Annamaria close to me who had left a few rows ahead of me, we have converging routes and as we pass by we touch each other without consequences, I reach out, one, two, at the third buoy we turn right again, we return to the beach.

Last strokes

I look for the black arch of the exit area, then I take a reference on the ground that is more visible, a building or a bell tower, something higher that I can see even without pulling my whole head out of the water.

Ok found, 2/300 meters and I am on the beach, the last 50 are in shallow water, I stand up and once I have verified that I have no discomfort with my balance and not even the nausea I had felt in the last few outings, I tell myself a nice : “Big Stefano, let’s go!”

I raise my goggles and begin to scramble towards the carpet that comes out of the water towards the transition area. Here is the Daddo, as I get out of the water he greets me and encourages me. I open my wetsuit, lower it while walking down the driveway from the beach in the middle of two wings of fans who give us the 5 and clap their hands, I quickly rinse myself by passing under the shower to remove the salt from my eyes and face, and I enter the transition area with a nice smile on my lips. Looking at the clock I understand that I did really well, 36 min. and 50 sec. it will be the official time, my estimates were 40/45 minutes. As I run towards the bike I make a summary putting in order the actions to be performed.

From water to asphalt.

2520 is my number, beyond the railing that delimits the transition area there is Angelo, he asks me if everything is okay: “great” I answer. I find my honey and peanut butter sandwich, open it and bite into it. Calmly I take off my wetsuit, sit down, dry my feet, put on socks and bike shoes, another bite, put on the bib, helmet and goggles, put everything left in my mouth and head towards the exit looking for the chemical toilets. It is absolutely forbidden to stop and pee on the route, I do it while I finish chewing, I take the bike and I start running around the 3 hours of pedaling that await me.

It will be a ride between countryside and hills, rice fields and pink flamingos, roundabouts and ring roads closed to traffic, interspersed with pre-arranged appointments, every 15 minutes to drink, and every 45 to eat, which will be reminded me by an alarm on the Garmin. +

Heaven is on our side

The sky is cloudy, the temperature is perfect, the wind, only annoying in some moments on the way out, but on the way back it pushes me. I pedal well, and even if I don’t have the bike with the chrono configuration, I keep the position low on the handlebars most of the time, this allows me to travel at least 1/2 km. faster than tall, but 1/2 km. less than who is collected forward on the extensions.

Overtaking several competitors, paying attention to respect the “NO DRAFT” rule, it means that it is not allowed to travel in the wake of the competitor in front of us. In turn, I am overtaken from time to time by someone who travels fast in a chronoman position. Halfway through the route, the climb to Bertinoro awaits me, about 4 km with an average gradient of 6% and peaks of 13%, I tackle it well and the dry road also allows me to enjoy the descent at full speed.

I eat and drink even beyond the established program, I push a little more than expected, I feel good and I understand that I am on the limit to stay under 3 hours, the goals I set myself every 10 km. are an opportunity to motivate myself to continue to keep the speed above 30 km. timetables.

Mental anticipation

Even in this phase the mind plays an important role, I am charged, I do not perceive the fatigue and I travel well up to km. 80. When we approach the town of Cervia I begin to think about running. This image that lights up in the brain automatically generates what is called mental anticipation, I feel in advance the feeling of tiredness, which I will have to win in the race.

To overcome this brain trap, I use curves and roundabouts from the last few kilometers to change my mental focus, relaunch the bike, keep the pace high and still feel ready and responsive. It is done, 2 hours 57 minutes and broken, my estimate was around 3 hours and 15/30. In addition to the sandwich, I ate 3 gels, 3 bars and drank 2 bottles of water, one of 800 ml. with with carbohydrates, amino acids and mineral salts, and a 500 ml. with maltodextrin.

So far, so good

I am happy and energized, I get off the bike and walk the transition area calmly, I run a bit and I walk a bit, but always with a smile on my lips and in my heart. I can do it, I go repeating myself. Here is my station, I put my bike away, I take off my helmet, I sit down, I look for the levodopa tablet that will take me all the way, water bottle and throw it down. I change my shoes, put on the visor and I’m ready to go, a new stop in the chemical bath and finally I get out of the very long transition area.

Three laps of 7 km each are waiting for me, on Friday I took advantage of my friendship with the Coach, Marika Gavarini, 2 times finisher in the ultramarathon of the Passatore, to do a travel coaching session to help me prepare the running strategy . We first broke the effort into 3 parts, actually 7km. they are a distance that I know and can face with serenity.

Running and mental strategies

The first lap I will go away in a hurry, the second I will give myself some nice walks and in the third I will decide in relation to time and legs. Whatever happens, in the supplies I have already established that I will always walk to drink water, salts, and throw down the latest gels, no fruit, sodas, or other things that I have not already tried in training, I do not want stomach problems.

Another very useful strategy that I have already used during marathons is to share the final 12 kilometers with my best friends, while mentally I hear the music, I guess I have them close while we dance and have fun in the disco, and the last ones, the most hard I dedicate them, feeling that they are giving me strength, to those who are no longer there.

The first round actually goes away well, then from the intestinal area I begin to receive some signs of disorder. In the second round I decide to do what I had joked about the night before, I said I had chosen the hotel right on the route because if I needed the bathroom, as had already happened to me in 2019 always in Cervia in 51.50, here the story of that race, it would have been useful to me. Unknowingly I was drawing the future, in fact, in the second lap, I go to the bathroom, but it is a false alarm, it is still useful for taking a breath and rinsing the areas that are giving me itch.

Better accompanied than alone

In the second lap, Annamaria joins me, we cross each other for the third time. The first time, in the water, I had crossed her, then she had made a much faster transition by getting on her bike before me, I had taken her back on the path greeting her, now she was the one who joined me.

We do a piece together in which I give my soul to keep up with him, his presence motivates me to give my best, he tells me a perfect sentence to motivate us: “think that when we are at this point on the next lap we will only be missing 3 km. ” Thank you. Then on the next refuel I walk while she drives straight, not before asking me if everything is okay.

I am on the third lap, I am already over an hour and a half of racing, I have no doubt now, I will reach the finish line within the time limit of 8 hours. I had guessed it after the brilliant swimming and cycling stages, but now I was certain, even if I had walked the full 7km. remaining I would have taken a maximum of 3 hours for the ride. The intestinal situation does not improve the movements continue, as I approach the hotel they become dangerous, I go up and this time I thank for the choice.

I stop at the bar and restaurant

After 2 km. I make another stop, this time in a bar, and the thing is repeated also towards km. 18 in a restaurant, thanks to them too. Between the two, I find myself stopping to share the route with a nice Austrian triathlete, I spend all his remaining energy to run with her making small talk until the penultimate supply, where I come running, thanks to her that the ncitandomi helps me.

After drinking she leaves again, but I don’t have any more, I have decided and I’m calm, I will walk the last 2 kilometers that I still miss. I haven’t met Annalaura yet, maybe she could join me, I’d like to get together.

I don’t dance alone

By now the streets are almost deserted, it is 6.30 pm, Cervia has been invaded by this wave of triathletes and their families for four days, but now there is an air of the end of the party. Few fans still applaud us and cheer us on: “come on, you have arrived”, “strength that is just missing” “two more curves and you are on arrival”.

Then there are someone’s personal supporters, who still sing choruses and play trumpets. At the last refueling, there is 1 km to go. I give myself the pleasure of a glass of Coca Cola, a full of sugars that gives me an exciting glycemic peak as if it were a “Cuba Libre”.

There are 2 curves missing, then I’ll be on the beach, I begin to smile, while inside I sing, outside I begin to dance, some spectators join in applauding. Now that I am at the entrance to the beach, someone looks at me a little dazed thinking where I still find the desire to jump, while others smile and are with me applauding in time to the music that comes from the finish area.

Mr. P is not with me this time

Here is the last curve to the right, I am already on the beach, inside the barriers that separate me from the audience left waiting for friends and family at the bottom of the red carpet. The volume of the music increases as I approach, I am happy, and I want to share this feeling with those around me. I do this by dancing, smiling, giving hi-five to anyone who leans in with their hand. The body is a perfect tool to communicate what we are feeling, dancing is one of my always favorite ways to express my emotions. But Mr. P. where is he?

During the 6 hours or more of the race, I was able to rethink everything I did to get here. Right and wrong choices, fatigue and sweat, days on and off days, training and competitions shared with friends, in a season of sport, which the improvement of the Covid emergency has allowed us to experience.

I am grateful for all this, every morning I put my feet out of bed with the desire to live that day, to make it special, despite Parkinson’s. He is with me, always, I feel him in every moment, even my choices have made this happen, I have never hidden the disease, indeed I talk about it to the world all the time. My mission is this, you can be happy even with Parkinson’s, thanks to movement and sport my life today would not be what it is without Mr.P.

Moments of healing

Up to now I have managed not to hate him by seizing the opportunities, for the future I am organizing myself at best, I am looking for examples and experiences of friends, and there are many, who face it with dignity and joy of life, even when they are in difficulty, trembling, bent and suffering.

But there, in those 300 dancing meters of happiness he wasn’t there, not even for a moment. My brain thanks to those emotions was producing enough dopamine to heal me for a few hours.

Moments of healing that I was able to enjoy, in the company of friends, this time eating and drinking what I wanted.

As always, there is only one cry: “YOU WILL NOT STOP US!”