American Tyler Stewart was forced to overcome several obstacles after being rushed to the medical tents at Ironman Arizona in November of 2008. With a fourth place finish at the Wildflower long course triathlon, and now a victory at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, Stewart has mounted a comeback that has surprised many.
Written by: Tyler Stewart
The last time I crossed the finish in first place in an Ironman was back in 2006, when I took the amateur title at the World Championships in Kona. That was my last race as an amateur and it’s been a long three years since then. It has been filled with lots of training, travel, illness, laughs and tears, but on Sunday it all came full circle when I found myself back at the front of the pack. I am thrilled to have won my first Ironman as a professional. It still hasn’t sunk in yet! Ironman Coeur d’Alene was not one of those perfect days, where everything goes your way and things feel magical. But, it was an extremely special day for me for many reasons and one that I won’t soon forget.
Let me step back a bit. In October 2008, I toed the line at Kona for the first time as a professional. The short recap: it was a disaster of a day. Physically, I felt terrible and adding insult to injury my bike seat fell off at mile 70 forcing me to ride for an hour without a seat. I was finally able to duct tape it on for the final miles. After spending so long standing out of the saddle, my day concluded with a long jog/walk marathon on fried legs. After the disaster of Hawaii, I decided to do Ironman Arizona. In the six weeks leading up to the race I was constantly sick, always shaking after workouts, having terrible stomach problems and wondering what was wrong with me. I never told anyone how bad I was feeling because I was hoping to be able to use Ironman Arizona to end my season on a positive note.
In reality, my season was over…I just didn’t know it yet. After a decent swim and an uncharacteristically slow and uneven bike during which I was seeing spots and blacking out, I was pulled off the course before the start of the run and ended up spending several hours convulsing in the med tent with no idea of what was wrong with me. The doctors thought I must have done a poor job of nutrition and hydration, but I knew it was something else. It would be several months before I was able to figure out what had really happened. To make a long story short, during the months leading up to Arizona, I had been prescribed a dangerous amount of medication to treat a fairly routine thyroid condition. The overdose of medicine pushed me into an extreme hyperthyroid state. I suffered on the racecourse what my doctors termed a “thyroid storm” that for the vast majority of people results in death. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was one of the lucky ones. In the months following Arizona, I spent about $10,000 looking for answers with multiple visits to doctors and specialists hoping to figure out what had happened to my body. Once properly diagnosed, I spent another two months coming off of all the medication I had been prescribed and went to one of the darkest places I have been to in my life.
I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to get out of bed to exercise, socialize, or do anything. I was gaining weight and I felt terrible. I truly believed that I was not going to race this year, if ever again. I spent the winter doing very little exercise. I swam a lot at very slow paces, and taught my cycling classes at 50-100 watts. By April I had started feeling better but had been told by my endocrinologist that it would take me six to nine months to fully recover from what my body had gone through during the fall. I was still very tired and unmotivated but my coach, Matt Dixon, pushed me forward as he started to see life in my eyes again. He started making me train again in March and I had some of the worst days ever. I wanted to cry every time I worked out, my body was not my own. My bones ached, every stroke in the pool felt like I had 20 lb. weights in each hand, every pedal stroke felt like I had already ridden for hours, and every jog step ended in a walk. But Matt made me take these bad training days and make them a positive. He made me realize that I do need to listen to my body and become more aware of the feelings in my body. I needed to learn not to be so tough! Matt made me do Wildflower in May and I crossed the line in fourth place thinking about how out of shape I was, but also how lucky I was to be doing what I loved again.
I was reinvigorated but Ironman Coeur d’Alene was only six weeks later and I had a lot to do to get ready physically and emotionally. All I could think about was that I had “failed” at my last attempt to do an Ironman in Arizona and I came to CDA with serious reservations and doubt. But on Sunday I was able to silence that doubt and turn the page to a new chapter of my life.
I hate the week before the race. I get so nervous, and I always ask myself why – I mean I’m not curing cancer or developing an AIDS vaccine, so why am I nervous? It’s easy to lose perspective in this world and I certainly do the week before a race. I lined up race morning a little frazzled and really without any thoughts of a potential win. People had told me that they thought I could win, but I also had them tell me that about Arizona, back in November.
The gun went off and into the water we went. I felt like I got beat up in the swim. It was rough out there and the way out was like swimming into a wave pool. Every time I took a breath, I got smacked in the head and drank a mouthful of water. I hate swimming anyway (only because I am so terrible at it 😉 ) and I was pretty sure I was going to get out of the water 15 minutes off the lead. After barely making it around the first lap in the 35 minutes we got before the amateurs started, I was quickly swallowed up by masses of age-groupers. Some may hate this, but I love it! Instead of swimming by myself for 2.4 miles, I at least had company for the last mile. It makes the water move a whole lot faster and I can catch a little draft off every set of feet flying by me.
I was out of the water in what I thought was a terrible time, only to have someone yell at me that I was only six minutes off the lead. I couldn’t believe it! I set out on the bike course with a clear head and my plan in place. I was going to ride smart, take it easy on the hills and use my technical skills to destroy the down hills and all the tight turns. I had just received new Mavic ultimate wheels, and they felt amazing.
Like all of the other pros, I was a little nervous about using discs but I stuck with these wheels and I truly believe they were the right choice. Between those and my trusty Orbea, I was able to break the bike course record by about 11 minutes. I finally caught up to the lead group at about mile 50. I was afraid to pass, not knowing if they would then try to come with me or if maybe I was riding too hard and would blow later. I took the risk and passed them with such a pace that they didn’t even try to stay with me. I knew I still had one girl out front and as I rounded into the second lap, I passed her as well. Riding through the huge crowds at the start of the second loop was amazing. I had taken the lead and everyone was roaring. I went out on the second lap just hoping that no one would catch me. My lead off of the bike was about 10 minutes. But I knew I had some seriously good runners behind me. I had also started to cramp at the end of the bike and my back was killing me. I am not used to being the one who is being chased. It was a completely different mindset, but a great challenge to see how I would handle it.
Off the bike in first place, with 26.2 miles to go. Wow, that’s a long way to try to hold off the caliber of girls who I knew wanted to catch me! I actually had not run for about three weeks leading up to the race because of a calf strain, so I really did not know what was going to happen. I felt terrible off the bike. My bike fit is something I am still trying to work with and I got off with a completely locked back. I threw down some Advil and just hoped it would relieve my pain. I shuffled my way through the first 16 miles but let second place come to within 3:30 of me at about mile 15. At mile 17 my back unlocked and I found my legs. I think the girls behind me knew I was having problems and put on the gas to try to catch me, but when I found my legs I found my pace. I ran about 6:45 pace from mile 17-26 and finished the race with almost a nine-minute gap in front of second place.
The day was far from perfect in terms of my nutrition, my body and my preparation. But it was the perfect day in terms of the outcome. My thyroid storm is over, I am healthy and am only going to get healthier and fitter from this point forward. I am so fortunate that my family, my husband, my training partners, my doctors and my coach all saw the light at the end of this dark tunnel that I most certainly did not see. I did finally see that light as I crossed the finish line on June 21. I have a new sense of confidence in my health and where my body is. I am really proud of myself, as well as of all of my friends, family and sponsors who stood by me when I was in my dark hole. I am fortunate to be surrounded by such an amazing support network including the LUNA Pro Team, purplepatch fitness, Pacific Bicycle, Endurance Performance Training Centers, CycleOps and Endless Pools. I also want to thank my family and friends for their continued support.
I am so excited and so lucky to have found this sport. When I went back to the finish line at 11 pm on Sunday night to watch the last hour of finishers, I realized, as I do each time, I am lucky enough to make it to the final hour of an Ironman, that I am not the real Ironman. It is those people who are out there all day, challenging themselves with every step, with every bit of inspiration that brought them to the start line. They are the winners in my mind and I am so happy to be a part of something, a sport, that is a goal for so many to accomplish in their lifetimes.
Anyone that even attempts an Ironman should be proud of himself or herself. It’s easy in life to sit back and watch the days go by, to not challenge yourself or to be limited by fear. I always tell myself before a race, that all the feelings I am having just means that I am alive. I am living my life, I am challenging myself and hopefully I can inspire one other person to challenge themselves.
To a great sport, great people and the dream of a lifetime, to be an Ironman champion.