Veteran  FOX Sports Broadcaster Shannon Spake Recalls Ironman Journey Through Personal Essay

As I pore over NASCAR and NFL notes to prepare for my NASCAR RACE HUB hosting duties and my FOX NFL sideline reporting role that kicks off in a couple of weeks, I’m simultaneously preparing for my fifth Ironman 70.3 this weekend.

The Traverse City, Mich., Ironman 70.3 marks my fifth overall and my second in the past month. I competed in the Santa Rosa 70.3 in late July, and I will take everything I learned there to “The Wolverine State.”

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I had some familiarity with the Santa Rosa course because I raced it last year. That previous knowledge was good and bad for me. Why? I knew the first three miles of the bike ride were straight downhill, so I was incredibly anxious over that challenge. It’s so steep and fast, and I’m not confident in my downhill biking abilities. This part of the ride spooked me last year, so I fixated on and dreaded the start of the bike portion since I committed to the Santa Rosa race. As a result, I performed more mental visualization and meditation for this event than any other in which I have competed.

It was too bad I couldn’t visualize a later wakeup call on race day. My alarm went off at 2:55 a.m. local (which I convinced myself was doable because it was technically almost 6 a.m. on the East Coast). Mind over matter, right? I got up and went through my race morning routine. Although that was my fourth Ironman, the sense of pride I felt when I put on my timing chip and pulled on my Ironman Foundation race kit was as strong as the first time.

It was about a 30 or 40-minute bus ride to the swim start. On that 4 a.m. ride, I sat next to fellow Ironman Foundation athlete Mike Ergo, a Marine veteran who was stationed in Iraq and lost several friends in battle. Mike helped start the Ironman “Gold Star Initiative,” which pairs an athlete/military veteran who carries an American Flag during the run in select Ironman races, with a Gold Star family. After the run, the athlete/veteran presents the flag to that family at the finish line. Three veterans ran with the flag at Santa Rosa, and Mike was responsible for carrying one of the flags to the start line. I was honored to share my early-morning journey to the race with Mike.

After I set up my bike and dropped off my gear bags, I gathered a few of the athletes together for a prayer. This is an important and poignant part of my race morning routine – a moment to block out nervous energy and anxieties and be thankful to be part of such a special event.

The Swim:
The air temperature was just below 60 degrees with the water around 75 degrees. I met a few “first timers” while waiting to start. There always is a great deal of nervous energy during this time, and the electricity was palpable. Ironman implemented a new swim procedure, which starts athletes based on their estimated swim time rather than age group. Slower swimmers start later, and this was a major improvement. In the past, men and women in the age groups behind me always caught up and swam over me. The new start prevented that.

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The swim began with me looking directly into the sun, which shook me a bit. It took about 10 minutes to find my groove, and I had to backstroke a few times just to catch my breath and settle my heart rate. Once I calmed down, I felt great and coasted for the remainder of the swim. With a light fog on the water and mountains in the background, I enjoyed breathtaking scenery.

The Bike:
The T1 Transition was very long and required that we ascend a long ramp to the transition area. I chose to walk it because there was no sense in wearing out my legs that early in the event. I jumped on my bike and set out for the dreaded downhill start. Time to face my downhill fear. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but it wasn’t fun either. I dragged the rear brake the entire way down, which freaked me out about a possible tire blowout, and I talked to myself the entire descent: “You’ve got this, Shannon. You are stronger than this. You aren’t even going that fast.” I repeated this over and over until the descent was complete, and I managed to survive. Mind over matter.

The bike course was fairly hilly but scenic. We rode past wineries including Sonoma-Cutrer. This is one of my favorite chardonnays, and truth be told, if an Uber driver (heck, any driver) had appeared with a bike rack, I might have called it a day and headed to the vineyards (I’m kidding of course!).

The ride was so hilly with times when I averaged 22 mph and others when I barely broke 10 mph. I did a respectable job of keeping my heart rate at a moderate level, but I was worn out at the end of the bike. My legs felt decent, but I overall was exhausted and nervous about how that would translate to the 13.1-mile run. Fortunately, once I got off my bike and into my run gear, I came alive.

The Run:
Seeing family and friends during the race is always uplifting, and while my family didn’t travel to Santa Rosa, I was far from alone. Amber Robinson and Katie Cobb-Weaver were there supporting their husbands who were competing. I saw both ladies at the start of the run, and although their spouses were already finished, they waited just outside the run transition to cheer me on. Katie even took a short video for my husband and kids. Thank you, ladies. Your kindness didn’t go unnoticed and was so appreciated.

I always try to mentally break the 13.1-mile run into three-mile segments, using those numbers as milestones/goals to reach. The first three miles were a breeze; I actually had to slow down several times out of fear my quick pace would wear me out too soon. That’s one of the hardest parts of long-distance races. Slowing down and pacing yourself when you feel strong isn’t easy, but if you don’t, you’ll end up having to walk. The finish line is much farther away when you’re walking.

The sun aside, I always look at mile nine as a turning point in the run. In my experience, this is when things start to fall apart. My body starts to question its strength and my mind starts to ask “why?” I wasn’t the only one. I realized many of my fellow athletes were fighting the same mental battle. People stop running and start walking around this time. The energy changes from excitement to doubt, fear and desperation. It’s so difficult to block all that out when it’s just “you” with “you”. The mental battle begins, and it’s real.

There was a long, silent stretch from miles 10 to 12 when I was fairly isolated without too many athletes in my immediate proximity. I started counting down the steps, trying to stay focused and calm, but I could feel the panic building. Could I finish? I slowed several times simply to reset my mind. Then I heard cheers, music and the noise from the finish line. I was almost there. The day was almost over. I made the turn into downtown Santa Rosa and knew I would make it.

The Finish:
While the finish line of every race is special, the end of an Ironman event is somewhat spiritual — the red carpet, fans lined along the fencing, hearing your name called out as you cross the line. As an Ironman Foundation Ambassador, my IMF family is always waiting for me, and they are the ones who place my medal over my head. Despite the fact I was drenched in sweat, I got a big hug from Executive Director of the Foundation, and my friend, Sarah Hartman.

Last year when I crossed the finish line, Sarah whispered in my ear, “Do you know how many lives you are changing?” I ponder that a lot. The 70.3 miles are not just about me; they are about being part of something so much bigger. As I crossed the finish line last month, the race announcer not only said my name but also shared the amount of money I raised for the Ironman Foundation this year. I felt an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment. Thank you to everyone who made that moment possible through donations, radio time and bids on the auction items. Your support helped propel me to that finish line.

As mentioned above, my husband and kids were not with me in Santa Rosa. That was the first race I’ve flown solo, but it gave me an opportunity to do things I’ve never done before, such as the amazing post-race massage and hanging out until the last athlete crossed the finish line. I watched three athletes push through pain and exhaustion to finish just ten seconds before the cutoff time. They were hurting, crying and striving for the finish line, but at least a dozen people were leaning over the side rails cheering them on. I watched one woman accept her medal and then break into tears, crying, “That was so hard!” I was inspired by her strength to fight through the physical pain.

That day in Santa Rosa was magical. The human body is amazing, yet the mind is even more so. Months of training, sacrifice and hope all played out in a nine-hour period for me. For some crazy reason, I can’t wait to do it again this weekend in Michigan. This time, however, I’ll take with me even more inspiration from those who have gone before and with me on this journey.