The Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, was truly one of the most memorable of my triathlon adventures, and one that I’m still thinking about months later. It’s hard to believe that it’s already January, and nearing a completely new season, new goals, and some much needed rest. But first, here is a recap of the incredible experience that was KONA!
After Ironman Coeur D’Alene, I took a week off before starting another training build and taper, and seven weeks later I landed on the Big Island, as ready as I would be. On our first day in Hawaii we drove down Ali’i to get our bearings and check out the scene. Waves broke to the left, bungalows and leafy palms glided by on the right. The town was busy with pop-up vendor tents — and athletes everywhere! People were running and cycling up and down the road in the heat of the day. All of them looked fit and tough. These people are serious. All Ironman races are serious, but this! Wow …deep breaths.
My first heat-acclimatizing workout was a ride to Hawi with Rocky, Paul, Lisa and Ben. The Queen K is surrounded by dark lava, yellow grass and blue ocean; the humidity felt oppressive and the crosswinds blew us around. Pros were out on the highway being paced by mopeds and photographed with telephoto lenses. It all felt surreal! We ran a few miles afterward near Kawaihae, and my heart rate, due to the warmth, was through the roof. I had four days to acclimate to this crazy heat! Ocean training swims were so enjoyable. Clear, cool water, fish and turtles, and a view ninety feet down.
There was much for me to do in the days leading up to the race: workouts, check-in, sponsor breakfast, Underpants Run, banquet, and coach meeting. Brian and the girls had fun swimming and snorkeling while I ran around. I said to the girls last summer: I’ll try to get you a trip to Hawaii! So, although mom was busy, the race-cation still had its benefits. And drawbacks. On a snorkeling outing with the family, no sooner had I stepped into the water than a sharp pain shot through my foot. I’d done what I’d been warned about: I’d stepped on a sea urchin, and now the needle-like spines were embedded in my toes.
At Kona Urgent Care, the physician told me there was absolutely nothing I could do. My toes would swell with the spines in there, but they couldn’t be removed. I’d just have to go with it and hope for the best.
Friday, during our bike check-in, I really began to feel like a Kona athlete, walking my bike down the red carpet into the transition area. One of the many new things I learned about this experience is that the athletes’ gear is inventoried at this time, so industry buyers can use this data for the following year. Once my bike was in, Liz was there to escort me to my rack where I set up my bike and dropped off my run and bike gear bags. There is never any turning back at this point, but dropping off my gear always makes me feel like the momentum has truly begun.
On race morning, Brian and the girls woke up early with me and dropped me off on Palani Drive where I walked down to transition, got numbered and weighed and found my bike in the crowded area. Athletes were a little bit chatty, but everyone was serious. Everyone seemed thoughtful and had a plan of what they were supposed to be doing, and was careful with their and everyone else’s stuff in the tight transition area.
I was running behind schedule by the time I dropped my morning-clothes bag. I decided to do a warmup swim even though I was pushing the time and feeling nervous. After I got out of the small lagoon, I had a moment of true anxiety when I realized that the women were already lining up to get in the bay and I was way in the back of the line in the crowded area. When it was time get in and swim to the start line, I worked my way to the front, and began to get the sensation of the largeness of the water, the number of people and what I was about to do. I wasn’t nervous, exactly, but I was focused.
I needed to get near the front of the start line but kept finding myself getting pushed behind people as we all bobbed around in the water. The nervous athletes vied for space and didn’t talk to each other. Stressed about my start position, I decided to move to a clearer area slightly behind a large buoy. It would work for me if everyone held their spots. The SUP volunteers paddled back and forth in front of the group to prevent us from drifting forward. A Hawaiian drum beat played over the crowd. Five minutes to go. A helicopter buzzed above. I looked back at the sea wall, packed with spectators. Mom and Dad, Brian and the girls were there somewhere. Camera crews lined up on the pier. I took it all in for the last few minutes before the day started with a cannon.
When the cannon sounded, I simply began to swim. I never bumped into anyone else, but I did notice that I had a drafter, whose fingernails occasionally scraped the sea urchin injury on my foot. I swam, looking down deep into the water. Blue lights of some kind of sea creature flashed on an off below me. A shadowy scuba diver floated below the turn buoy. I caught up to the first age group men after 20 minutes, and then more of them by the turn. I saw that I was under 30 minutes when I rounded the final turn buoy, and then had a clear shot back to the pier. This was happening! There were still a lot of pink caps in front of me but I expected that. I swam to the steps, climbed them, and took a quick left into transition.
Swim time: 1:02:04
Division place: 10
It was too quick and crowded to see anyone from my family. I put on shoes, grabbed my bike nutrition, sipped water and I ran out of the tent to get my bike.
The course goes through town first with a climb on Kuakini. I saw my family and waved at them, feeling fantastic to be off on my ride. It’s a quick loop through town so before I knew it I was on the Queen K, where I’d be for the next few hours. The first part of the ride felt hot and mostly windless, and I felt fairly strong. Once we approached Hawi, the famous crosswinds began. I was ready for it, and it was fun, almost, predicting the buffeting from each side. People passed me like crazy, but I tried to not let it affect my focus, and attemped to keep my heart rate to the rate indicated in my race plan. About 30 miles in I saw the first pro flying back toward me, descending from Hawi. When it was my turn to descend, I let loose and flew down, the previous training ride having prepared me for it.
After the descent, the headwinds began. And then they never ended. My neck started getting tired, and mentally I began to lose the edge. The hours ahead of me started to seem insurmountable. My energy tanked. I felt zero joy. The wind kept blowing. People passed me. My HR was too low. My foot started to ache unbearably. I started to wonder about whether I can even finish this. Around sixty or seventy miles in, I suddenly felt feverish, and thought, what if I’m getting sick? What if I can’t finish this race? I prayed; I remembered why I’m supposed to be here. I pushed on.
I’m moving right now, I told myself, so I just need to keep moving. Keep working, keep trusting my preparation and training. I got it together enough to focus on what I could control, which was attempting to stay on top of hydration and nutrition, something I may not have been doing too well. The rest of it, the mood, pain and fatigue would have to just be.
I knew that another thing I could do was take a moment to look around me. The lava fields were black, with yellow grass here and there. The ocean was bright blue beyond the lava. It was a view like I’d never seen before in any triathlon. As I approached the end of the bike, I saw pro runners heading toward the Energy Lab, an unexpected promise and reminder that this, too, will be over with soon and I’ll be onto the run myself.
Finally the end arrived and I wanted nothing more than to get off the bike. I never wanted to get off the bike so badly at my other two Ironmans, but this time I wanted it gone. I was so ready to run!
Bike time: 6:09:45
Bike pace: 18.17
Division place: 49
A volunteer took my bike and I headed into the changing tent. It was packed, and and I could tell half or more or the field had already been in and out of there before me, reminding me that this is indeed the big leagues. I feared I’d had a very slow ride. A cold towel was draped over my shoulders while I gulped some water and changed to my shoes quickly.
I walked out of transition to slow my HR and cool off, but once I hit the exit chute I began to run. Ali’i drive was packed! I felt good and fairly steady, and my heart rate was in the low end of my range, thankfully, as I’d been concerned it could be too high in the heat. I saw family and teammates through the crowds as I ran along. I worked on keeping my pace and staying cool, and welcomed the help. People poured water on me, I ran through sprinklers, and I grabbed ice at every aid station. I felt awesome and thrilled to be on the third leg of this amazing race! My pace was steady and perceived effort high, but my HR remained in check.
I walked the Palani climb, following my race plan. People encouraged runners up the hill with various words and cheers. “I love you!” Shouted someone in my ear. When I turned onto the Queen K again, on foot this time, there was music playing. I high-fived people at the BASE tent and ran on. As quickly as that, the highway fell silent, lonely and hot. There was a breeze, and the air was drier than Ali’i. It’s only eight miles up and eight miles back, I thought to myself. Easy. Steady. I felt like the entire pack was ahead of me, although I knew that wasn’t true. When I got to the Energy Lab, three miles of baking hot, windless road, Jim and Judy were there, volunteering. It was awesome to see them during this difficult stretch of road, and I stopped for a quick pic before heading on.
At the turnaround, tall, blow-up Clif mascots waved back and forth at the spent runners. Suddenly I couldn’t look at them! They were taunting me that I still have 8 miles of this! But the Clif people themselves were amazing, handing me more nutrition and cheering. I made it through the turnaround and did my best to get out of the Energy Lab, and started running hard back to town. At this point “running hard” meant a 9+ pace. After some mentally challenging math in my head, I realized that if I could keep it to just over 9s I would get a sub-four-hour marathon and somehow that bit of knowledge sparked something. I could do this. I hammered my legs and sped up just a little. As I got closer to town I knew I’d get this done.
When I turn on to Ali’I drive the sun has set and I have a grin from ear to ear. There’s no way I’m going to be able to see my family through the dense, cheering crowds, but I realize that I am going to finally cross the finish line at this Ironman World Championship. I sprint it out and cross the line – I’m done!
Run time: 3:56:39
Run pace: 9:01
Finish time: 11:19:15
Division place: 45 (104)
I ran through the finish and was whisked off to the athlete area where I grabbed a water and lay down on the grass. Athletes were lying or sitting all around me in the dark, waiting to get the energy to go out and greet their family and friends. I got my finisher picture taken and went to find my family, who were all waiting right by the exit. Just like that, the season was done! It would take awhile to let it all sink in.
It’s been a long year, with challenges from a DNF, to a lot of travel, packed schedule, training, racing and recovery while trying to maintain a balance at home. Even through difficulty, I’m leaning into running the race set before us and trusting the process that brings us to the finish line. I’m looking forward to what’s next for 2017! Representing BASE Performance, running a standalone marathon for the first time in years, the IM 70.3 World Champs in Tennessee, and another IM late in the year are all on my list. Can’t wait to bring it all on and continue the connections with the amazing triathlon community.
Thank you Brian for encouraging me at every step. Thank you Ben, for coaching me to this ultimate of all triathlons.
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Nutrition and weather preparation details:
- Four 45-minute sauna sessions starting one week before departure, plus indoor heated trainer sessions
- Four days acclimatization workouts in Hawaii
- Hydration/elecrolytes on bike: 24-36 oz per hour of plain water, plus BASE salt every five miles
- Nutrition on bike: front-loading calories per hour (Gu), approximately: 300/300/250/250/200/100
- Hydration/nutrition on run: Two cups water every aid station, plus 150-200 calories every 30 mins. Added 4 oz Red Bull occasionally during second half of the run. BASE salt every 30 mins.
- Maintain wet clothing throughout