December 2, 2015

Ironman World Championship: Living My Dreams

Having an alarm go off in the 3am hour is generally unwelcome, except for race day. I miraculously slept pretty well, albeit not long enough. My race morning procedure is a simple science: start the coffee, jump in the shower, drink an Ensure, drink a coffee and eat an English muffin with almond butter. I got into my tri kit, woke up my parents and prepared to make my way to the start.

As we walked in the dark toward the pier, it felt surreal just to be there. I was nervous, but in a quiet sort of way, not the overwhelming urge to throw up or cry that I often feel on race morning. I still had a touch of fear about my hip and the unknown, but was ready to get started and enjoy the day.

Body marking at Kona is quite the process. As you enter the secure athlete area a volunteer sprays your arms with alcohol and wipes them down so the fancy body marking tattoos will stick. Like everything else at Kona, it's one volunteer to one athlete and they make you feel like you're the only one there. It's the best. Next you get to step on a scale and see how much carb loading you've done. Then it's off to the pier to make sure your tires didn't blow overnight and to get the bike ready. 

As I approached my row in transition, I saw my best friend Laura and her husband right at the end. They volunteered in transition to have a good view of the start and waited for me at my bike. A hug from a loved one was just what I needed to keep the nerves at bay.

I pumped my tires, loaded up my nutrition and prepared to kill a lot of time until the start. I ran into Jana so we braved the porta potty line together, then it was time to get into my swim skin and apply an entire stick of body glide. The pros started and I still had a long wait ahead. I listed to Titanium, my ritual pre-race song, before checking my bag and doing a short warm up swim. I finally couldn't avoid it any longer so I walked to the pier and got into the water. The nerves intensified and I knew in about 15 minutes I'd start the swim and not stop moving until later that night.

The start at Kona is unlike any other. The pier and seawall is lined with people, there are cameramen under the water and on the beach, and there is a news helicopter hovering above. I've never felt adrenaline like I did that morning. I'm not a great swimmer so I usually put myself about 1/3 of the way back from the front, but here I opted to wait on the beach until the last minute. I was literally the only age group woman not in the water and I enjoyed those final moments where I had the famous start all to myself. I saw no reason to tread water without a wetsuit for 10 minutes and was happy to save the energy. I decided to start all the way at the back since my goals were so conservative. In the final moments of treading and waiting I saw Carolyn right in front of me. We hugged, wished each other luck and the cannon went off. My Kona experience officially began.

The Swim

Starting at the back may not have been the best idea. I'm not a very fast swimmer, but I still found myself struggling to navigate around a lot of women, something I'm not very good at. This would go on throughout the entire swim. I didn't experience the hard contact others complained of, but definitely never had clear water either. The only important thing is that I felt comfortable and strong. I glanced at my watch at the turn buoy and my average was 1:37/100 yards - really great for me. But I also knew we had the current in our favor and I'd slow after the turn.

I didn't feel the current right away, but as we got closer to the pier it was really strong. I stayed on feet as much as I could and had a couple women I paced with the whole way. After the turn we also swam into the slower men so the course got really crowded. I glanced up and saw the big Gatorade blow up at the end of the pier and knew I was close to the finish. The time on my watch was 1:13. For a moment I thought I was going to have a pretty good swim time, but that last stretch seemed to take forever. At times it was like an endless pool so I just kept chugging along. I had no idea how much time had passed, but a glance at the watch as I exited the water showed 1:24 and change. Not good, not bad. Did I care? Absolutely not! A huge smile spread across my face and as I ran up the stairs to the pier I screamed out, "I'm doing Kona!" I was so overjoyed.

Transition was a slow crawl simply because I wasn't in a hurry. As I ran out to the bike, I realized my sunglasses had gotten caught in my sunscreen spray. A volunteer let me wipe them on her shirt and saved the day. The volunteers at Kona were angels. They were selfless, their energy was limitless and they were there to pick us up when we most needed it. It's not possible to thank them enough.

Time: 1:25:07
T1: 7:17

The Bike

Kona is all about the bike. You never know what Madame Pele will have in store for you: Headwind? Crosswind? Rain? Hail? Heat? The only thing for certain is that it will be uncertain. The first several miles are in town and my race plan called for these to be really easy. I saw my family as I headed out onto Kuakini Highway and I stuck to my plan, particularly the nutrition. Coach Jorge warned me I'd come out of the swim dehydrated since Kona is so hot and the water is so warm. I finished a full bottle of Skratch in the first 30 minutes and my second bottle in the next 30. Once out on the Queen K I relied on the aid stations for all of my liquids.

The first 30 miles were a breeze, quite literally. There was a great tailwind and not long into my ride, I had the thrill of seeing the top pros finishing their rides. It is hard to imagine they are THAT much faster, but they are. Jan Frodeno would be crossing the finish line before I even made it to T2!

I reached the end of the Queen K and made the left turn toward Hawi. So far, so good. I was so on top of my nutrition, averaging about 1.5 bottles of Gatorade and a bottle of water per. The heat was getting intense so I also soaked myself at every aid station to keep my body temperature down. I was riding well within my power guidelines, maybe even a little under due to the tailwind. At 40 or so miles in I was on track to make my predicted 6 hour split.

But that changed as I started the climb to Hawi. The climb itself isn't much of a climb, it's more a long steady grind. But the headwind picked up and out of nowhere, we had a huge downpour. This brought some relief from the heat, but made it so hard to see through soaking wet, fogged glasses. The climb felt like it took forever and parts of this section were a bit of a drag. The stunning ocean views to the left helped and knowing I was nearly halfway helped even more. By the time I reached the turnaround, I had fallen off my 6 hour pace and was on track for 6:15 or so. I thought the descent might help me catch up.

The descent was awesome. The infamous crosswinds that I was truly afraid of just weren't blowing that day, or at least at the time I was descending. I tucked into aero and enjoyed the free ride. As I neared the Queen K, I was feeling pretty good and thinking we had dodged a lot of bullets conditions-wise. It was really hot, but the wind really wasn't that bad. I'd soon find out I was wrong.

As I turned back onto the Queen K it was like hitting a brick wall. It was early afternoon and the vicious headwind had settled in. I had nearly 35 miles to go and knew every bit of it would be a fight. My legs were also hurting, something I don't usually experience on the bike, so I was a little worried that my injury and lack of training were starting to catch up with me. This final stretch sucked. There's no other way to put it. If my mind wandered to a negative place, I forced myself to get back to the moment and remember where I was: I was racing Kona. I was lucky. I had NOTHING to feel bad about, nothing to complain about. So I kept drinking the orange Gatorade I despised by that point, put my head down and pedaled through it.

The last stretch was also lonely at times. In general I'm not slow, but at Kona, I'm slow. I was out there alone a lot and the people I passed looked far more miserable than I. Little groups of people out cheering by the resorts offered a nice boost and then I finally saw the airport and knew I was getting close. Shortly after I passed the Energy Lab where lots of people were already well into the marathon. My spirits lifted tremendously, I was just miles from T2 and definitely ready to get off the bike.

Time: 6:38:49
T2: 8:21... could have had a nap and massage with that time!

The Run

The run is usually my strength in an Ironman. I did 3:49 and 3:52 at my last two races and was aiming to do 3:45 or faster this season before my hip fracture. Until just weeks before Kona, we weren't sure I'd be running at all so I was mentally prepared to walk the entire course if I had to. But my recovery and limited training progressed nicely in the final weeks so Jorge had a very conservative plan for me to jog easy and walk all aid stations and big hills. As I ran out of T2 and headed up Palani I saw my mom and dad and stopped for the sweatiest hugs I've ever given at an Ironman. It meant the world to me to have them there sharing the day with me. Just past them were Chris and Laura so more sweaty hugs were had, some photos and videos were captured and I started the run.

The first several miles are in town and mostly on Ali'i Drive. Of course I felt great in the beginning so I was running a bit faster than planned and ran up the first couple hills. I had to remind myself I not only had a really long road ahead of me, but that I still didn't know how my body would respond in the later miles given I didn't do any long training runs. So I walked the next few hills and enjoyed the spectators that line this part of the course.

It's difficult to put how I was feeling into words. I was truly filled with joy and was so grateful to be racing. I didn't care if it took me all night to make it to the finish, I just wanted to make it. Having that positive mindset carried me through the miles and pain, and not once during the run did I wish for it to be over, even when it got really difficult. And it was definitely going to get difficult.

Those first 10 miles literally flew by and before I knew it I was walking up the really steep hill on Palani headed for the Queen K. That hill felt like it went on forever and I was more than happy to be walking! At the top I saw Jorge for the first time all day and just seconds later saw Jana coming in for the finish with a mile to go. I cheered for her, then had a quick chat with Jorge to let him know how I was. I still had 16 miles to go, but I felt great. I was hopeful. And I don't think I stopped smiling much at all the entire time.

Tons of fast people were nearing the end of their marathon, but many of them were really hurting. I saw several people vomit and more people walking than usual. The heat was taking a toll and I think a lot of people were struggling with nutrition. I had fueled and hydrated really well on the bike and was feeling the benefit. I did the entire marathon on Gatorade, water, Coke, Red Bull and one gel in the earlier miles. The heat was brutal, but I kept drinking and kept dumping water on myself and putting ice down my top and pants whenever I could.

Around mile 14 I saw a friend of a friend and he snapped this photo of me. I hadn't covered 14 miles in training and was still feeling good. 

The sun was just starting to set and it was beautiful. I knew it was going to get really dark really fast and it would make the rest of the run that much harder, but I was running, I wasn't in terrible pain and every step was getting me closer to the finish line.

Once darkness fell I was desperate to get to the Energy Lab. Even though this section is notorious for being brutal, I was so sensory deprived in the dark and needed a little boost. The aid station at the entrance to the Energy Lab was awesome. They were blasting music, had a stage set up and were dancing. My legs felt like they had been run over repeatedly like a truck - remember, this was my FIRST long run since spring - but I couldn't help but dance my way through the aid station. It was just what I needed. I strapped a glow stick around my neck and headed back into the darkness.

All in all, the Energy Lab wasn't as bad as I expected. It's a difficult point in the race as it's roughly miles 16-20 where a lot can go wrong both mentally and physically. Endurance athletes not only need a hefty pain tolerance, but also the ability to keep your head in the right place when things get tough. All Ironmans hurt. Sometimes it hurts so much you wonder how you're able to keep going, but somehow you do. This Ironman hurt a little more so the pain was pretty intense by this point, but it was mostly because my legs lacked resilience since I couldn't do long runs in training. My injured hip was fine, it was ironically the only thing that didn't hurt! But tolerating pain is one of my biggest strengths so I pushed on. I had stopped taking walk breaks and slowed to an 11-12 minute pace jog instead because I realized it didn't hurt any less to walk.

When you leave the Energy Lab, there's a false sense that you're in the home stretch, yet there are still six miles ahead. For some reason I felt like I was always running up a slight hill at Kona. I was anticipating the return to town to be easier than it was, but it was a struggle. It was pitch black, most of the time there was no one else around, and time was passing so slowly. I used this time to reflect on the day and think about what was waiting for me just a little more than an hour away. I could do anything for an hour, I'd already come so far.

There were still people out cheering here and there and the aid stations were still full of energy. It wasn't that late, maybe 7 or 7:30pm, but at Kona, it's late enough that most athletes had finished, had a meal and were celebrating with family and friends. As I turned the corner on Palani, my celebration was just moments away and I felt overcome with emotion. There was still roughly a mile left but it was literally downhill and I could hear the famous finish line just a few blocks away. My mind was racing and I forced myself to be 100% in the moment. I didn't want to fly through the finish and not remember it so I made a deliberate effort to look around, listen, celebrate with the spectators and love every single moment of my final trip down Alii Drive. There I was, the most unlikely athlete to even be doing Ironman, finishing the most spectacular race in the world. It really was like a dream. I heard my parents screaming for me, but didn't actually see them. As I got close to the end I turned around and ran a few steps backward so I could see the entire finish chute. I will never, ever forget it. As happy as I was to be crossing that line, a part of me never wanted it to end. 

I crossed the finish line nearly two hours slower than my best race, but nearly two hours better than I was anticipating. My run was exactly one hour slower than usual, but for the first time in a long time, time meant nothing. I had a dream day at Kona and enjoyed every challenging minute. I wouldn't change anything about the experience. I can only hope to earn my way back and have another shot at this magical course. There is truly nothing like it in the world.

Time: 4:50:29

Finish Time: 13:10:03

This video says it all: the joy, emotion, accomplishment and gratitude.

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