When it comes to training or racing, I have one simple rule for myself: find joy in what you do. This is not to say it will be rainbows and sunshine all the time, but if you dread getting up to go for a swim, or you absolutely hate running, why do it?
See, I love to train. It has become my therapy. Lacing up and hitting the road gives me time to solve all the world’s problems–and sometimes some of my own problems. I am more pleasant to be around when I exercise regularly. I thrive off the endorphins that physical activity gives me. When I get my heart rate up, I can be better mom, partner, coach, human.
2020 gave me (and most of us) a year without racing. But, even with that loss, I found joy in my sport. Gyms were closed, so I adapted. I started teaching fitness classes remotely. I took my son hiking in the beautiful areas of Michigan that we may never have explored had a pandemic not forced us to get creative. I found my love for trail running and ultra-distances. This planted a seed for me.
What is a double anvil?
In mid-2020, I decided I would train for and race the 2021 Florida Double Anvil, a race I felt confident could happen safely, given the small participation rate.
For those of you unfamiliar with this race, it is an ultra-distance triathlon consisting of a 4.8 mile swim, 224 mile bike ride, and 52.4 mile run. If you just found yourself having to pick your jaw off the floor asking, “who the fuck would do that?” Don’t worry, you are not alone. Here is the kicker, there are still races significantly longer than this! The human body, and what is capable of, is amazing.
I began training for this race in October of 2020. I did all my swimming and cycling sessions indoors, as Michigan winters are not exactly conducive to this type of training outside. Many of my run sessions were outside. I do not mind bundling up and running in the cold, dark winters. As the days, weeks, and months ticked away, my training volume increased. I was able to build up to a 3 hour swim, 11 hour trainer session, and runs upwards of 5+ hours in duration. I did my best to do some heat acclimation by hitting an infrared sauna, as well as training with layers and no fan while on the bike and treadmill. Since most of my training was in sub-zero temperatures, I knew the Florida heat could pose some difficulties for me. As much as I cursed at my coach, Maria Simone (who has won 2 Double Anvils), for having me train with layers on; I believe this truly helped me in the Florida heat.
Crew is life
As race day approached, I finally allowed myself to think through the logistics of traveling 1200 miles down south to race. For an ultra-distance triathlon, having a crew can come in clutch. Technically you could do this without one, but I would not suggest it.
I arrived early in Florida, which gave me plenty of alone time to try to get my head right before my crew arrived in Clermont. I wish I could say I was fully confident in myself, but this would be a lie. This distance was new to me. I was filled with concerns about the heat, the duration, the sleep deprivation, and my body’s ability to endure.
I put in the training, but I had to fight to shift my focus to the things I could control: my attitude and my effort. I could not control the weather or predict my physical response to sleep deprivation. Adjust, adapt, and overcome.
I kept my focus on my goal for this race, which was pretty simple: race with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.
Given the fact that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, I felt badly asking anyone to risk traveling. I reached out to a friend, and fellow coach, Karl Trout. I asked him to be my crew chief. He jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. He has crewed for others in the past (including Coach Maria and her Husband, another Double Anvil champion), so he had the necessary experience.
My crew rounded out with three of my friends, Renee, Ami and Tonya, who took time off to support my dreams. I can never clearly articulate how thankful I am for these four individuals. I couldn’t have achieved this race without them.
Karl arrived late Wednesday and on Thursday morning, we headed down to Lake Louisa to meet a couple athletes for a practice swim. Maria had warned me the lake was the darkest body of water she had ever swam in. Even with her warning, I was not prepared for the darkness that laid ahead.
As we entered the beach there was a sign that read: Caution: alligators have been known to attack humans. Gulp.
This Michigan girl is not used to swimming in locations where I could be eaten. Perch and Bass are not particularly aggressive towards humans.
We slowly got into the water. It took me a moment to get up the courage to put my face in. I am not typically fearful of the water, but gators were on my mind. As I slid my face in the water and started to take the first couple strokes, I saw what Maria was talking about. The water was so dark, I couldn’t see my hand a couple inches in front of my face. We were only in the water for about 10 minutes when I called it good.
Remove The Mask
I already had a call scheduled with Maria later in the morning, so I toweled off and headed back to the cabin. As a coach myself, I am used to having these types of calls with my athletes. Reminding them to trust in their training and not to compare themselves to others. While healthy comparison can be beneficial, the kind that makes you doubt yourself can be destructive to you mental well-being and confidence.
As an athlete, I fall prey to some insecurities before a big event. Did I train enough? Will my mental fortitude prevail when paired with sleep deprivation? Do I belong here? Maria wouldn’t let me get away with this negative self-talk, much as I would not let one of my athletes. She calmed me with her eloquent ability to flip the script to turn these concerns into a curiosity that was laced with optimism.
After race check in and a couple other items on my to-do list, Karl and I headed to the pre-race dinner. At this point I was masking my fears with my usual smart-ass sense of humor and self-deprecating comments.
There was another athlete at our table, and he was extremely quiet. He said he was feeling nervous and couldn’t believe how relaxed and easy going I was. Perhaps I was overplaying my “fake it til you make it” mentality. I pride myself on being honest and authentic. I thought about this as the dinner chatter continued.
When the race directors started their pre-race briefing, they asked athletes to stand up and introduce themselves. One by one, each athlete stood up and said their name and what race they were competing in. No one seemed to offer up much more.
When it was my turn, I stood up and said, “My name is Alexa Boyce from Mason, Michigan. I am racing the double and I am scared shitless.”
Man, that felt good to unload. I had no clue this statement would help lower the tension in the room a bit. There were a couple giggles as I sat back down, but I could see the sense of unease leave some of the athlete’s faces. At the end of the dinner and throughout the course of the race, I had 6 different athletes come up to me to thank me for saying I was scared. They confided in me that they felt the same. Some of the veterans to the race came up to offer encouragement and support over the coming days.
Removing the mask I was hiding behind felt liberating.
Race Day: The Double Anvil Begins
I woke up around 4:45 a.m. I made my pre-race breakfast and put on headphones to drown out the sounds of my thoughts. Focus.
Tears. Oh, shit. Already?
I am an emotional racer. I can’t explain the emotion as it is neither fear, nor self-doubt, just a build up that must be released. This wouldn’t be the last time I would cry.
My crew and I packed up some gear and headed down to the Anvillage (this is the term given to the transition area). I kept the headphones on as I slipped into my wetsuit. I was one of the first athletes down to the beach. As I looked out on the calm water, more tears fell from my face.
Teri, one of the race directors saw me crying, and she walked over to me. She said, “I am not usually a hugger, but would you like one?” I didn’t turn down the offer. She gave me warm embrace and offered a word of encouragement. This gesture was greatly appreciated.
It’s go time! As all athletes stood ankle deep in the water, Fellow No Limits team member LoriLyn Hicks sang the National Anthem from the shore, then we were off.
I started in the back and let others go before me. Since the water was so black, I couldn’t see feet in the water ahead of me. I didn’t want to fight for space. This was going to be a long swim, so I wanted to stay calm and relaxed. We had 12 laps to get in.
The first couple hundred yards were a bit jarring. I needed to come up with a calming thought when the darkness below reminded me there could be gators lurking. Locals did not seem bothered by this fear, but I didn’t want it to take up too much of my head space.
As my thoughts drifted into a tailspin of darkness and gators, I thought of something that comforted me. My favorite running partner, Dash, is a black Siberian husky. I let my thoughts drift into thinking of his soft, black fur. Although not an official service dog, Dash is incredibly intuitive and has always managed to calm me. He did that again, even though he was safely at home in Michigan.
The next trick I pulled out was to think, “Smooth, steady, strong.” These 3 words were playing on repeat in my head. Thinking them repeatedly to the rhythm of my stroke helped to pass the time.
At 5 laps in, my most successful mental trick took over. Swimmer’s math (have no fear, this same trick later became cycling math, as well as running math – same concept, new sport). I played number games in my head. 4.8, 224, and 52.4 all seemed daunting. I would feel defeated by the mileage left to cover, so not once did I think of the full distance. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
When you complete a lap, you have to call out your bib number to the volunteers tracking laps. There is also a flotation device at the turnaround filled with athlete’s bottles or food. Karl was chilling in the water near the floatie. At 5 laps in, I told Karl that I was one lap away from 6. 6 laps is half of 12. 6 = 3 x 2. So, essentially I was almost done.
Did I lose you there? That’s ok, we will go over this again when I talk about the obscene amount of bike and run loops to come…
Like magic, I completed all 12 laps and was ready to exit the water.
Considering the duration of the race, I did not feel the need to run to the transition area. I walked on the boardwalk and even stopped to pet Kayla, a sweet yellow Labrador retriever, on the way. Don’t judge. Life is better with a dog. No regrets.
I swam in my tri shorts and sports bra, so I just needed to rinse my feet off, put on socks and shoes, then grab my bike jersey, helmet, spray sunblock and hit the road.
Right off the bat I missed the timing mat for the first, shortened loop. I realized my mistake as I made the turnaround, then made sure to let the volunteers at the timing table know. I brushed this off and headed out for my first full loop.
The bike course was 37 laps of a 6-mile course. Comfort in the loops, as I told myself. When I passed through the Anvillage, I told my crew I didn’t have my heart rate monitor and I asked them to have that available when I came by the next time. No worries. I would see them again soon.
At this point the temperatures were rising. The hot, Florida sun was beating down on my skin. I am not sure when my crew flagged me down, but they insisted I change out of my bike jersey to put on a long sleeve, white shirt. Brilliant. At first, I was worried the long sleeves would cause me to overheat, but the white shirt reflected the sun, so it was a smart move.
If you ever plan to compete in a long, hot race, I urge you to invest in a white shirt. This was one of the best decisions I made. Full disclosure: my friend, Joey Lichter brought the shirt for me. He has done this race countless times and swears by it. Nobody tell him, but he was right. 😊
I set an easy pace for the bike course. This was a long race. I knew if it felt easy, I was probably pacing it correctly. The course was filled with rolling hills. Nothing incredibly steep, but it was not as flat as I had imagined. My Garmin showed about 6,700 feet of elevation gain. This is similar gain to Ironman Mont Tremblant and Ironman Lake Placid, but those races are half the distance.
At 10 laps into the bike, it was time to call on my math games. Now before I explain this, please know that I am actually pretty good at math, but I knew I needed to trick my brain. Although I still had 27 laps to go, I decided to tell myself I was already 1/3 of the way done – lies. I wanted to get to 20 laps so I could say I was more than halfway done. 10 laps to go til 20. Mind you 10 x 6 miles is 60. That is still a distance that must be respected, yet too big to think about at once. 10 = 5 x 2. I didn’t want to think of 10 x 1 because 10 seemed too big also. 2 laps seemed manageable, so 5 x 2 would fly by! Every step of the way I would continue to break the remaining laps into manageable segments.
Tricking my brain was easy. What does this say about me? No time to be introspective. That could be a slippery slope.
At this point I had already tossed my original fuel and hydration plan out the window. The heat was causing my fueling to become warm and that was nauseating to say the least. My crew was doing a fantastic job ensuring I was still hitting my target calories per hour, as well as reminding me to drink.
I was taking signals from my heartrate, power, and RPE to signal deficits I needed to address. When my HR started rising, but RPE and power stayed consistent, I knew I needed hydration. When HR started to drop or I couldn’t maintain power or pace, I knew I needed calories. As mental fatigue set in, I had to rely on my crew to help me triage these symptoms.
Around 6pm, the sun was starting to set. It was time to put lights on my bike. There are zero overhead lights in the state park, and the lumens from the moon was minimal. When the sun set completely, it was pitch black out there. Things were about to get interesting. I am not a night person. I am in bed by 9 or 10 pm every night. I have not been up past midnight in years. Truth. I don’t even stay up until midnight on New Year’s. If you ask my family, they will tell you I am often like a child. I have tendency to be whiny (aka bitchy) when I am tired or hungry.
What will the night bring…
As the hours ticked away, I could feel my eyes become heavier. There are so few athletes out there you spend a lot of time alone in your thoughts. In the darkness. I could tell fatigue was creeping in. To battle the war against sleep, I started singing The Lego Movie song, “Everything is awesome! Everything is cool!” I did this for 2 full loops; we are talking over 45 minutes of those two lines.
I am frantic. I feel slap happy at this point. I needed to pull into the Anvillage for supplies, so I came in HOT! My crew was talking to the people in the tent next to ours. I interrupted their conversation to bring attention to the emergency I was facing. “Guys, this is an emergency!” I am only slightly dramatic.
They all looked panicked. Perhaps they thought I was injured or had a mechanical issue with the bike. Nope. “Guys, I have to tell you, I saw 3 turtles, and 6 dogs. I pet half of them. Dogs, not turtles.” Blank stares.
“And I can’t stop singing the Legoland song, but I can only remember two lines. Please look up the lyrics. Surely there is more to the song than. ‘Everything is awesome.’”
Silence. Uh oh. I let them see behind the curtains of my crazy. Nah, still makes me laugh. Tonya quickly looked up the song and played it for me. Ah, all is right in the world. And I am off.
“Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!”
That burst of energy was short-lived. My headlamp died about 1 mile from the Anvillage on a subsequent lap. The darkness was terrifying. I made it back safely to swap it out, then the next headlamp seemed to have an even shorter lifespan. I learned from the first time and had a flashlight in my back pocket.
As I was heading back to the Village my eyes closed for a bit too long. I swerved abruptly and it woke me up. When I got back to my crew, I told them I was concerned my fatigue was becoming a safety issue. Although I did not plan to sleep, unless needed, this scare convinced my crew and me that a cat nap was in order. Karl told me I could have 15 minutes. I sat in a chair and must’ve dozed off instantly. What seemed like moments later, Karl startled me and said it was time to go. I took a couple sips of coffee, used some drops for my contacts, and hit the road again.
I knew I was getting close to the final lap, and was anxiously awaiting the telephone ring the timing mat would let out to signal you were starting your final lap. As I crossed the mat, there was no ring. I pulled over to ask the volunteers how many laps I had left.
Two, not one.
I wish I could say I handled this with grace. I did not.
I was convinced there had been an error. Did they fix my laps when I screwed up the first short lap? They assured me all had been accounted for. I cursed out loud. Those of you that know me should be aware that “fuck” is my favorite word. It can be used as a noun, an adjective, verb, or adverb. My sentences are sprinkled with f-bombs for dramatic effect.
As I hit the road for 2 not 1 more lap, I was ashamed of my response to these individuals. While I did not swear at them directly, my frustration and fatigue caused me to have a small temper tantrum. I warned you earlier: when I am tired and/or hungry I have been known to be whiny (ahem, bitchy). When I finished that lap and finally heard that magical telephone ring signaling my final lap, I slowed down to apologize for cursing earlier. It was sincere. I felt awful. I finished that lap, then as I circled the timing table I stopped this time. I had to offer one more apology. Although I can be short-tempered, I also am very apologetic when I overreact.
I had skipped fuel and hydration on those final two laps because, remember, temper tantrum. Karl was not happy I had ignored his calls to slow down to grab fuel and water. My crew had some ramen waiting for me. I had a couple bites, but was eager to start running.
By now the temps were in the low 50’s. This is my ideal running temperature, but after almost 20 hours of training, this felt particularly chilly. Tonya, Ami, and Renee made a barrier around me with their sleeping bags so I could strip down and put on fresh clothes. Armed with my hydration vest, light layers, and a headlamp, I was off.
Lap 1 felt great! I was standing up straight and holding an easy pace. I had planned a run/walk approach for most of the run, but I ran the entire first mile.
For the second lap, I had my Gymboss timer set to beep at intervals of 4 minutes and 1 minutes. I planned to run 4, walk 1. This went well for the next 4 miles or so. Then the wheels came off.
Fatigue was back with a vengeance. When I came into the Anvillage I told Karl it was hard to keep my eyes open. He told me to take another short break. The state I was in, I knew this was a good idea, but I was concerned I would be letting Maria down. We had gone in with a plan to rest, only if needed. In my head that meant don’t rest. Karl reassured me this was a smart move.
I sat in the chair with my feet up and this was the first time I had physical symptoms beyond fatigue. Nausea, stomach cramps. Oh, no! I knew I had screwed up and gotten behind on my nutrition. I know better. I tried to close my eyes, but the discomfort was bad. I rushed to the porta potty.
When I emerged, I started shaking uncontrollably. My body temperature was dropping. I tried to lay down again, but the cold and my stomach cramps were getting worse. This is where my crew took over. Ami and Tonya showed up with my fleece lined pants and insisted I put them on. I tried to grab them and Mama Bear (aka Ami) forcefully told me to sit down and actually put my pants on for me. I didn’t see this coming. At 39 years old, my friends are dressing me.
Sigh. Is this the circle of life people refer to? Jokes aside, it is go time. I was given the cue to get my ass moving.
I told my crew I would walk a lap or two, then run when I felt ready. I knew the sun would be rising soon, and I kept telling myself it would be magical. Tonya and Renee made a trip to McDonalds for food. Glorious. I kept moving knowing a plain egg McMuffin was on the way. Hell, I even started to run again.
When I made it back, they had it sliced in half for me in a sandwich baggie. Legit fast food. I nibbled parts of it, hoping the plain sandwich would sit well in my stomach. Off in the horizon, the sun started to come up. Praise the Lord. It was a magical as I had hoped. I could feel the rays giving my body life.
A few laps later, the realization set in that the temps were rising. I foresaw the future. Another 8-10 hours in the blazing sun. This was a low moment. I had to walk two laps to get my head right. I didn’t want to suffer. This was the first time I felt truly low. Not even the tummy issues or cold made me feel as shitty as the thought of countless hours in the heat. Remember I am from the north. Early spring still includes snow in Michigan. 85 degrees was a huge climate change.
Although I had smiled most of the race, this moment I didn’t have it in me. I walked by the timing mat and one of the volunteers, Sandy, called out to me, “Where is your smile?” She was so perky and vibrant. I looked at her and said, “Just give me one lap.” She responded, “Ok, but you better be dancing on the next lap.”
Smirk. Ok. Let me be honest, this was exactly the shift in energy I needed. My smirk turned into a smile. As I rounded the corner, I found my run at the same time I found my smile. I shifted my mindset.
I will NOT suffer. I chose gratitude and joy. I plastered that smile on my face and started spreading it. I smiled at every racer I saw. Since the run course was 52 one mile laps, you are always either passing someone going the same way, or you see them coming towards you as you are heading out. Plenty of opportunity to chatter or offer words of encouragement.
Time to play some mental math games. 20 laps down, 32 to go. Too big. Ok, let’s aim for 10. 5 x 2. I am back at it.
As the sun got hotter, my crew pulled out all the stops. They had my long, white sleeve shirt out. They had dipped it in ice water. After I put it on, they had bags of ice for me to put down my sports bra (don’t knock it til you try it – boob ice is where it’s at!). They also had towels chilling in a bucket of ice that they would give to me each loop. Hell yeah! We got the rhythm.
At this point I started to taste the finish line. It may still be hours away, but nothing would stop me from getting there. I knew I could walk the rest and still make it by the cutoff. I still ran as much as I could. Each lap my crew gave me a little dixie cup filled with about one ounce of coke. This was the elixir of life. I was getting calories, sugar, and caffeine. Once I started coke, I knew I had to keep up on it so my energy didn’t crash. It did the trick. 2 laps to go!
One the final lap, my crew could run with me. Karl opted to stay behind so he could do a Facebook live for my friends and family to see. Tonya, Ami, and Renee joined me on the last lap. What a boost in energy that was. I was so grateful for them to share this moment with me.
As we got about 50 yards from the finish line someone handed me the American flag to carry to the finish line. They played the National Anthem as I ran the final steps. Tears filled my eyes again. What an awesome moment. The race directors Steve and Teri were waiting for me. Teri gave me an elbow tap and Steve gave me a fist bump (Covid, y’all).
They presented me with an engraved hammer to hit the anvil. Two hard taps on that hunk of metal to signal the completion of the longest race I have ever completed: the Double Anvil. Tears are flowing now as I relive that moment in my mind. I now know what people meant when they said this community was a family. I feel like I was welcomed with open arms.