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They say you can hear it for miles. It is a distant reverberation, a barely perceptible clamor that slowly separates itself from the softer sounds along Alli Drive. You hear it before you realize what it is, but as your weary legs carry you ever closer, you know. It swells in the darkness. It thrusts reality before you. It jars you into a consciousness you have methodically buried and denied over the course of 140.6 miles.
It is the finish.
The finish line at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, rivals Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Ask anyone hovering within the neon glow of the lights and flapping banners and pulsating dance music and giant screen broadcasting the triumphant celebration as each of the eighteen hundred participants crosses the finish line—ask the athletes, the spectators, the volunteers, anyone. The energy intrinsic to an event designed to challenge the elite of the world’s elite athletes to the ultimate test of physical endurance is overwhelming in and of itself. Add to that the unique trials suffered and victories celebrated by each athlete—both in the race and throughout training—and you have a finish line scripted for a blockbuster film.
Fourteen hours and fifty minutes after wading into Kailua Bay, a lean, tan woman with a giant smile and a blonde bob makes her way across the final hundred yards of the course. She takes her time, slapping high fives and sharing hugs with the hundreds of spectators lining the finish chute. She has suffered, and she has endured. She smiles. She laughs. She shouts in triumph. She soaks in every second of her glorious, bold, defiant act. But she doesn’t hurry. Today—tonight—there is no need.
Yes, this race was slower than her other races. She has had a tough go of it over the past couple of years. Chemo has taken its toll on her body. So has the radiation. Multiple surgeries and subsequent infections have compromised her body’s ability to recover. Her stamina isn’t what it used to be. She has struggled to keep up her weight. Neuropathy has settled in her hands and feet. She knows this may be her last Ironman. But none of that matters. Teri’s mission has nothing to do with time, nothing to do with pace, nothing to do with a PR. Teri’s mission is simply to complete the task at hand…
Teri’s Army, a motley crew of soldiers three dozen strong, drafted by her diagnosis, their oaths of loyalty cemented by blood, business, and friendship, wait at the finish. They know she is coming. They watch the clock, eagerly, anxiously, every moment expecting to see her athletic frame on the giant screen just beyond the finish line. The crowd continues its cheers as Mike Reilly, the patriarch of the Ironman finish line, anoints finishers with his hallowed benediction.
Finally, they see her.
“From St. Louis, Missouri… here she comes!” Mike cries above the din of music and ovation. “Currently being treated for stage IV colon cancer, raising two children, undergoing chemo… Teri Griege!”
Smiling, laughing, waving, she crosses the finish line. She covers her face with her hands, tears flowing—easily, unreservedly. They are tears of joy, of relief, of knowing what lies ahead, and of not knowing.
“Let’s do it again together, okay?” Mike prompts the rapturous crowd. “Together! Teri! You are… an Ironman!”
The cry is loud and impassioned. It is a collective blessing, the strength of thousands. Family. Friends. Strangers. They surround the finish area, their voices fused and synchronized in a single purpose. They are an army. They are one.
Finally, it is time to move on from the glitz and chaos of the finish line. Past the photographers. Past the giant glowing screen. Away from the music and the noise. Teri is led to the athlete’s tent. She needs fluids and food. She needs to get warm. She disappears behind the giant scaffolding.
It is over.
For all of the trials encountered during an Ironman, they say the hard part isn’t crossing the finish line. It’s getting to the start.
For Teri, it was an odyssey that covered many years and many struggles, with challenges extending far beyond the miles. There was alcoholism. There was recovery. There was faith. And then there was cancer. But each trial served its purpose, and on that steamy October night, beneath the brilliant lights mounted on the giant scaffolding looming over the cheering crowds and reflecting atop the waters of Kailua Bay, as she crossed one of the most coveted finish lines in sports, she proved the exceptional. It was more than a race. It was a swashbuckling declaration of hope, a fourteen-hour victory lap across a scarred and volcanic landscape born of hidden turmoil, one that vividly represented her own baptism by fire, and it was written long before she toed the start line of her first triathlon, long before she was diagnosed with cancer, long before she ever dreamed of competing on the sacred soil of the Big Island.