Susan Little crossed a major finish line – one that took her 16 hours, 28 minutes, 40 seconds and 140.6 miles to reach – just before midnight on Saturday, Sept. 20.
It was the stopping point of the Ironman Maryland triathlon. The Wendell resident raised her arms to the pitch-black night sky in triumph, elated to have survived, to have earned a finisher’s medal, and to have beaten the clock one final time.
“That day was the single most stressful day in my life,” Little said. “I literally was beating/fighting the clock every minute ... I had to dig deep continuously for the entire race.”
Little, 49, entered the full-length Ironman race, her first, with plenty of knowledge of what to expect but with little first-hand experience.
She signed up on a whim having never covered more than 16 miles in a single run prior to the event. Her husband and two-time Ironman finisher, Bill Little, came home one day last spring to be completely surprised by Susan’s announcement.
Participation in a half-Ironman in Raleigh in March and a summer of training (10-to-15 hours per week) on Wendell’s “beautiful roads for running and bike training” helped her prepare, as did a 350-meter swim course set up within a pond on her property.
Nothing in Wendell, however, could fully prepare her for the intensity she witnessed during the countdown at the start of the race.
“You can feel the excitement and tension in the air at the start,” described Bill Little. “Then the gun sounds and the spectacle of 1,800 athletes entering the Choptank river is beautiful.”
The 2.4-mile swim to begin the event, composed of two laps around a 1.2-mile loop, proved to be the most challenging of the three disciplines for Susan Little.
“It sure was difficult to start that second loop when people were already finishing,” she said. She exceeded her goal time by 20 minutes but beat the cut-off for the swim – at which point participants are pulled out and sent to the next stage – by eight minutes.
A 112-mile cycling course followed, weaving through the scenic Blackwater Wildlife Refuge of Cambridge, Md. Enjoying the pleasant late-summer conditions of a sunny, 83-degree day, Susan cruised through the second stage right on her preferred schedule.
She approached her husband at the transition point at 5 p.m. with just one more stage left in front of her.
“I saw her beautiful smile riding up to the end of the bike course,” Bill recalled. “We hugged, she went and changed and started the run.”
Only when the realities of time struck her at the start of the final stage did urgency completely set in. Susan had 6 hours and 50 minutes until midnight, and 4 hours and 20 minutes until the 18-mile marker cut-off.
“I kept thinking that the entire day has been trying to beat the clock so I wouldn’t be pulled off course,” she said. “I realized ... I had to hoof it.”
It was then that the pieces began to fall into place.
Susan discovered that power walking could preserve her remaining energy and keep her competitive with other runners, and did so by pacing herself in her regular encounters with Bill after each out-and-back.
She beat the 18-mile cut-off by more than 15 minutes. Entering the final stretch, she pushed for one last sprint.
“I mustered up reserves and ran the chute,” she said. “I was moaning loudly with every exhalation but all of the runners and walkers I was passing were giving me such great words of encouragement. Crossing the finish line was incredible.”
For Bill, who had gained special access to the finishing area and was waiting for Susan with medal in hand, realization of the accomplishment finally sank in.
Susan finished 73rd out of 83 participants in the group for women ages 45-49. Place mattered next to nothing in comparison to the feeling of accomplishing her No. 1 goal: finishing.
A woman with “indomitable spirit,” according to her husband, Susan has already shifted her attention to next year’s event. She hopes to build off the recent confidence boost to improve her times in all three stages come 2015.
But that doesn’t mean her first Ironman will be forgotten.
“It was probably one of the most exciting and joyful days of my life,” she said. “I said after the race that it was better than my wedding day ... and I had a really, really nice wedding.”