Susan Ford at Ironman Florida, November 4, 2006
A recent training ride along Blackburn Fork in Jackson County, Tennessee
Susan Ford is a monster. Stay out of her way and you won't get hurt. That's a hyperbolic way to paint the tender-hearted veterinarian from Cookeville, Tennessee, but, too, a way of saying she is the hardest charging training and racing fanatic I've seen.
At this moment she is in Kona, Haiwaii awaiting Saturday's World Championship Ironman. As is Amy Dodson, another friend, with whom Susan is sharing a hotel room. Yesterday's post was about Amy. This one is about Susan.
I knew Susan when running a 10K put her at risk of overuse injuries. No more. Fourteen Ironman races have changed that, transformed her to a hard body that could cut glass. Her Twitter handle is @Ironmaam. That's a good title for the story too.
Ironma’am: she displays the word on her license plate holder, a variation on “Ironman” she adopted as her nom de plume. It fits. Ironman is her life. She will talk your leg off about it, evincing a spirit of enthusiasm and intensity and a twinkle in her eye, talking fast as if her speech has to rush to catch up with her thoughts. Because she is also smart.
Indefatigable, indomitable, that’s Susan Ford. When the last ding-dong of doom finally claps and fades, the sound Faulkner’s ghost will hear won’t be man’s puny voice still talking. It will be Susan Ford’s.
But she is also my generous and kind friend. She would give you her heart, but if you’re between her and the finish line she might stomp yours. You must forgive her: a race represents a temporary transformation of ordinary life into a new realm. After the finish line, life returns to normal.
So, yes, Ironma’am is the name that fits. She earned the right, the first woman to do so from among every last hill, holler, ridge, knob, cliff, creek bottom and plateau of the entire Upper Cumberland region of this here state—the whole raw spreading put-together. I was her witness.
She trained for months for Ironman Florida, her first Ironman attempt. Time approached for that 2006 race; she didn’t know I was playing a trick on her. I’d made plans to be a spectator there—she knew that much. What she did not know was that I was hoping to write a story about her experiences―if there was a story. So to avoid raising any expectations and putting even more pressure on her, I didn’t tell her my plans. She knew I had other friends in the race that I wanted to see, and so my little secret was easy to keep. I traveled to Panama City Beach separate from her and staked out a fan’s position on the sandy beach that morning.
As I stood waiting with my camera, a brisk north wind was sweeping across the beach, plunging the chill factor into the thirties. Even wearing a coat I was cold. There stood Susan at the Gulf’s edge with some 2,200 others waiting for the 7:00 a.m. start. She stood and shivered among the throng. But I knew the hope was in her. If she could succeed in traveling the combined 140.6-mile distance she’d become the first woman Ironman from our whole region of
In the end, after all the shivering and fury and misery, she was able to do just that, realizing her dream, posting a finishing time of 15:09:55. The first woman Ironman—from our corner of the world, anyway—was forty-one years old.
In normal life, Susan practices veterinary medicine, and loves dogs. She loves her husband Ivan, too, a medical physicist. He was along on the Florida trip to provide moral support for his athletic wife, to help out with the logistics and to baby-sit their ten-week old whippet pup, Archimedes.
The race started with the 2.4-mile swim. Overnight passage of a cold front had churned the sea and breakers were forming 100 yards offshore. Their sight made me shudder. The rough water was likely to hinder visibility and control, favoring a swim more chaotic than normal. I dreaded it for her.
I watched the anxious faces of swimmers as gun time approached and marveled at their courage, and I had the brief stupid thought, completely in sympathy, “Will they actually go in there?” But, of course, they would. I’ve done it myself, and I know there’s no turning back, even if you suspect catastrophe waits.
Susan later told me how it was.
“…scary and exciting all at the same time. I also got a lump in my throat, but I had to choke that back because I can’t swim with a lump in my throat. The sand was cold…. Our feet were numb; we were huddling to keep warm.”
The gun fired, and I watched the stirring mass march into the froth like a doomed migration. Swimmers jostled for position; collisions became ordinary.
Susan: “I was hit in the nose—an elbow!—twice in the lip, kicked in the face. I had people go over the top of me.”
She saw stingrays and jellyfish—one stung her on the foot. She saw lights in the water, bioluminescence, she said it’s called.
Her swim took on an element of survival. “I remember thinking, all the months I spent working on my swim form have nothing to do with the way I’m swimming now.” (Divers recovered an unconscious swimmer. He had a pulse but died three days later. I never learned if an autopsy determined the cause of death.)
Susan finished the swim in a time of 1:18:52, a respectable performance despite conditions. But then the second crunch hit. She raced in wet clothes up the beach to her bike, running into the teeth of a north wind forecast at ten to twenty miles per hour.
I was waiting to get a picture of her exit from the water, but all the swimmers in their wet suits looked so much alike, I missed her.
She describes it. “…it was sooo cold. When I pulled off the wetsuit—everybody was cold! —when it came off, it was just unbelievably cold. I was in shock.” Shock or not, she had to jump on the bike.
The north wind was unlucky. The first part of the 112-mile bike course went generally north into the wind, which further chilled her and killed her speed. And it crushed her spirit. Susan expected to average 16.5 mph, but as the grueling headwind wore on her, she realized she was only achieving 14.5 mph. Finally the course turned away from the wind, giving relief for a while—until she reached a turnaround.
Then the wind again: “They headed us back into the wind and I thought, Oh no, the damned wind again. And there were cracks in the pavement that went thunk, thunk, thunk, and each time it did that my neck…oh my God, my neck hurt!”
I know that feeling. For aerodynamic efficiency, a triathlete leans sharply over the handle bars, a position that puts severe strain on neck muscles as you lift your head to see forward.
Waiting in the crowd back in town, Ivan and I could only guess and wonder. We wandered around and stayed in touch with each other by cell phone. I was trying to find a good spot for a photograph. After missing the swim picture, I hoped to catch her on the bike as she returned to town. In the end, I failed that mission too, she blew by so quickly.
Waiting for her, Ivan and I couldn’t know it, but Susan’s right calf was cramping as she pedaled. “The anterior tibialis,” the veterinarian later called it. She believed she would not be able to run if the muscle cramped hard. So she favored the right leg, adding more pedal load to the left. Of course, that produced the unhappy results of a cramp in the left leg.
So when she finished the bike ride and started the 26.2-mile run, she had no control over her left foot.
“Basically it just flopped, and I ran six miles like that—step, flop, step, flop.” Then it got better.
But the worst was yet to come.
Late the morning after the race I called her up and then went up to her hotel. Her room was a shambles, triathlon gear scatter on every horizontal surface. Ivan and Archimedes shuffled around in the narrow clearings. Susan and I decided to leave Ivan in charge of the dog and retire to an outside table at the pool. There she told me about her run.
Night had fallen while she ran. With night the mercury plunged. Darkness drew in around her. She was cold. The long distance stretched ahead. Each mile yielded grudgingly, bit by bit, to her aching struggle.
She’d trained years for just this moment, the last eighteen months working under
Nashville coach Robert Eslick. She followed
his biweekly instructions for biking and running. Swimming, perhaps her best
sport, she worked on separately, grinding out the laps and miles at the Cookeville
The problem Robert had was preventing her from training too much, from inducing an overuse injury. Susan will tell you she obsesses about Ironman. Ultra endurance requires ultra obsession. Her tendency is to over do it. “I’m always training,” she says.
She’s not kidding. I recall a conversation with Robert. I told him I thought Susan was the most intense, dedicated, enthusiastic… He cut me off.
“She’s crazy!” That response was loaded with grudging admiration.
For Ironman Florida, specifically, Susan trained twenty-four weeks—twelve weeks of base training and twelve weeks of building speed and peak distance. During that training cycle, she incorporated several shorter triathlons as training exercises. During her peak training, on one weekend alone, she rode 105 miles, ran twenty, and swam two.
Now out on the marathon run, descending into night and deeper into misery, she needed all the toughness her training could bring. She was determined to stay positive, “…but the ongoing power of the wind, and cold, and fatigue…” She trails off, trying to tell me that. Her silence expresses the mental anguish she’d faced.
Because a problem loomed—a huge unknown for her: she’d never actually run a marathon before, let alone one preceded by a swim and bike ride. Overuse injuries had prevented it. Now her outraged body was forced to go beyond all the limits it had ever known.
I’d know Susan since just running a 10K was an adventure for her. In those early days running injuries nagged her and hindered her progress. She’d climbed a high mountain in training, but she couldn’t be sure it would be enough.
Someone has described a marathon as twenty miles of hope and 6.2 miles of seeing God. Reaching that last six miles, Susan confronted a crisis. Overcome by fatigue and no longer able to run, her only chance was to walk. If she could. Walking violated her principles and drove her further into despair.
Most of all, she feared failure.
Help came in the form of a gentleman from Virginia who was making his third try at becoming an Ironman. They walked together, leaning on each other, urging each other on. “Just go with me to that next light pole,” he said.
She painfully needed to go to the restroom. Though portable toilets were stationed along the course, she dared not sit. She knew she’d be unable to get up. She couldn’t simply wet her pants as some do; it was too cold to be wet again. She strode on.
“If there were a thousand dollar bill on the ground I don’t think I could bend over to pick it up,” the man said.
“I know I wouldn’t pick it up. It might kill my chance to get the finisher’s medal, and that’s more important to me than a thousand dollars,” Susan answered.
I myself was standing out in the cold and dark during those moments, waiting for her about a mile from the finish line. When she and the man strode out of the dark, she was confident by then she would make it. Finally, I got a picture. Despite all, she was still wearing a smile, as my picture shows.
Finally, slightly past 10:00 p.m., the two approached the finish line. The crowd’s roar, the thumping music, the announcer’s voice filled their ears. Joy filled their hearts.
“Let’s run across the finish line. I’m at least going to cross the finish line running,” the gentleman said.
“Not me. I’m going to walk across, and proud of it!”
Barely able to walk or even stand, she knew now she’d finish. Despair and fear gave way to overwhelming joy. She used her last ounce of energy coming down the stretch, slapping hands with fans, and marched across the finish line in celebration.
Then she collapsed.
Race officials held her upright. Ivan rushed to her side. “You gotta get me to the bathroom,” she pleaded.
Next morning she was too sore and stiff to get out of bed. She called a masseur to her room. It took two hours of massaging before she could stand.
“I’ve always heard that it was going to hurt, but I was unprepared for how much it was going to hurt. There was not a spot on my body that didn’t hurt. It was excruciating.”
“Ironman is the supreme challenge. And it’s part of what I am from now on.”
Sitting there at the patio table that day after the race, while she was still barely able to walk, I had one more question I wanted to ask her, although I knew the answer.
“Was it worth it, all the training, all the pain?” Her answer was pure Susan, more convincing than anything else she could’ve said.
“I signed up this morning for next year’s race,” she said. She leaned forward, eyes flashing. “And you know what? If I don’t finish, I’ll still be an Ironman!”
Yes, she will. I agree. Having once earned the medal, the title lasts forever. So do the memories. For Susan, the Iron Life lasts, too. Since that morning in Florida, she’s finished fourteen Ironman races, and cut three hours off the time of her first one.
My subsequent story about Susan’s first Ironman was written for the local paper, but it eventually appeared in two papers and in two running magazines. Susan framed the paper’s story and hung it on her wall.