“When do you plan to finish?” A woman a few age groups ahead of me asked while we both tread in the water just off the pier, waiting for the cannon to blow.
“Between 1:10 – 1:15hrs.” I replied cheerfully, to see her quickly nod and swim slightly ahead of me.
BOOM! The cannon blew, we were off, and the race was on!!
I have raced fourteen Ironman triathlons. My feet are still feeling the fourteenth, the World Championship that I just raced last Saturday in Kona, HI, but my mind and heart still have not fully registered the magnitude of that accomplishment. It is currently 3:33A Hawaiian time, I can’t push off the emotions this race has stirred up in me more anymore, it’s time to settle in, feel all the feels, and share my Kona Race Story.
Honestly, I was not nervous about the race all week. I was simply happy; blissfully, goopily so, just to be here, in gorgeous Hawaii, chatting with my role models, teammates, friends, and close family members in the flesh every day, thrilled that I was living a life that made the thought of swimming, biking, and running all day with the best athletes in the world fun, rather than frightening.
I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Then Friday showed up.
I slept well and plenty on Thursday night, but Friday night was jagged and restless. My sister Sarah and I had a ridiculous argument that degraded us both back to our pre-teen maturity levels, going to sleep with it unsettled, an odd sensation for us, especially since I enjoy conflict as much as a tub of licorice, not at all. It was clear that the stress of the race had finally clouded my conscience, and I just wanted to go to sleep, wake up, and start swimming.
One of the unpleasant realities of triathlon is not that we start the day drenched in water swimming our guts out; it is that we usually start in cold water. Not for this race. After I finally rose from my restless slumber and apologized to Sarah for being a jerk the night before, I felt relief wash over me because the swim was going to be tough, yes, and without the security blanket of a wetsuit, yes, BUT, it would be in the warm, salty, and glorious Pacific ocean, an amazing way to kick off the biggest day of my life.
“It will be cool to watch this in a couple of months with a voice-over and soundtrack.” I said to my friend and teammate, Margie, as we shuffled down the steps of the pier toward the swim start. Helicopters buzzed overhead capturing footage for the famed NBC broadcast that brings many of us to tears every year we watch it from our couches back home. It was an incredible feeling to know I would be part of the story this year.
I have been swimming A LOT this year. I don’t keep count of the yards, but it may be in the millions… seriously. Still, I have made minimal gains in the last few months, which has been both annoying and disheartening. Until a few weeks ago when I finally had a breakthrough in one of my workouts. I always inwardly chuckle when I hear that saying from Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Because that is exactly what triathlon training is, doing the same workouts over and over again, until one day you push through a barrier and achieve a different result. So, according to Einstein, I’m nuts, and I am okay with that, because as I walked down the steps toward the swim start I knew I was in the best swim shape of my life, and could handle whatever the ocean laid out ahead of me.
I swam better, faster, and stronger than I expected, fighting and maintaining my position among my competition the entire 2.4 miles, and climbed up the steps in 1:10hrs., minutes faster than my projected time. Yes.
I scurried through transition as fast as I could, but the change tent was packed, and chaotic, but I made sure to kick off my fueling, the priority of the day, in earnest shoving down a Picky Bar and running off toward Simone. She was soaked from a night of rain, but ready to go.
I love that bike.
As I pedaled out of transition I heard cheers from every side of the fence, but the only voice that registered was my coach’s, “You smashed that swim, T!” Awesome. The day was already a success.
My legs felt great, I had plenty of energy to hit the bike hard early and pushed my watts the first 7-8 miles we winded through town before we crested the top of Palani and turned north onto Queen Kaahumanu highway, AKA, the Queen K, for the next 100+ miles.
Since the course runs along one road the entire time, it makes sense that groups of athletes clump together along the way, so I spent much of the ride on the way to the turn-a-round point in the town of Hawi playing it safe and conservative. I did not want to relive the experience I had in Santa Rosa and receive another penalty. Still, I stayed within my prescribed watts and cruised for miles at a decent clip. I alternated taking in water and Gatorade at every aid station that were splayed evenly along the course, and aimed to take in between 250 – 300 calories per hour between Picky Bars and GU gels. My energy never waned, in fact, I received a huge jolt as we passed the resort town of Waikoloa, because due to a “Happy accident” in travel planning, my mom and step-dad were staying out here, (it is about 26 miles north of Kona), but it was a magnificent place for them to see me on the bike, and more importantly, for me to see them.
There is no more fantastic feeling than seeing and hearing your mom jump up and down and scream her heart out for you as you roll by her hanging in tough with the best triathletes in the world.
The remaining miles north toward Hawi were eerily still. We did not experience the infamous Kona crosswinds that can turn this course from challenging to treacherous in an instant. The air was warm and heavy with humidity, but the conditions were practically ideal, so when I turned around in Hawi, I flipped the switch, and powered back home as fast as I could. I was still mindful of the referees on the course, but I was aggressive rather than conservative, and made my presence known as I leapfrogged with a handful of super-strong cyclists over the final rainy miles along the Queen K.
My energy and spirits were up the whole ride, a fantastic by-product of accruing many, many miles of bike training the last few months. My bike fitness was leaps ahead of where it was when I raced Ironman Boulder, which made the 112 miles fly by in 5:25hrs. Speaking of flying, I caught sight of the men’s winner, Patrick Lange, running along the Queen K as I was nearing transition, and he was flyin.’
The second transition was long. Too long. I had to run a wide lap around the pier to eventually arrive at the change tent, where I put on my run gear and opted to go to the bathroom, a smart, yet time-sucking decision. Soon enough I was on my feet and running.
Finally, my favorite part of any day had arrived. I was running.
There is no other way to say it, this marathon broke my heart.
I completed the first 10K running the pace I had practiced for months, and felt great. Being able to see my family and Hillary and Alyssa along Ali’i drive was everything I dreamed of and more, but as I crept up the steep incline of Palani Rd. to once again make the sharp left turn north onto the Queen K, the reality of the course sunk in my stomach, I was not going to run as fast as I wanted to.
This was my 51st marathon. I thought I knew how each step would feel, how to manage them, and how to push beyond any pain and discomfort to achieve the result I was after, a 3:30ish marathon. I knew going under 3:30 was slightly unrealistic, but I truly believed I could stay under 3:40. I was in the best running shape of my life, I had endured so much physically and mentally in training the months leading up to this race, and here I was with a chance to lay it all out there, but I came up short.
I do appreciate that I fared better than most, and I attribute that to my experience, but the course was tougher than I thought it would be. The endless stretch of asphalt out on the Queen K from miles 8 – 14 was a soul-sucking experience. The road had a slight uphill grade, and by the time I reached the turn to go down to the bottom of the notorious Natural Energy lab, my feet were drenched and blistered, my body was teetering on dehydration, and the reality of another hour and half of running, many of those minutes uphill, smacked my psyche upside down. Then, at the top of the Queen K, just like water in the desert they miraculously appeared, my saviors, Hillary and Alyssa had pedaled on their Huffy’s out to find us at the most vital spot on the course. “It will cool off from here, so milk it for all it’s worth, T.” Hillary told me as I jogged by her with an exhausted expression on my face, but renewed fire in my heart, and I took off blazing down the Queen K to finish the remaining 6-7 miles as fast as I possibly could.
I picked up my pace in varied stretches, but still slowed down at every aid station to take in fuel, water, ice, ice-water, Gatorade, orange slices, and at this point of the race, Coke. The invigorating powers of a sugar-bomb shot of Coke during mile 22 of an Ironman marathon cannot be overstated. It is a miracle elixir. I felt okay from miles 23 - 25, but my pace was hovering at 8:25 – 8:30 during my greatest effort, I had hoped to drop it down to 7:40ish at that point of the race. Nope. I was out of juice.
When I reached mile 25 at the top of Palani Rd., and made the divine right turn down the hill toward the finish line, I glanced at my overall time on my watch for the first time during the marathon, and saw that it read 3:35. Not too shabby. I pushed as hard as I could over the next half mile, but my legs felt wobbly, so I took another gel along Kuakini Rd. in an attempt to hold it together in front of the crowds for the final stretch on the course along Ali’I drive.
Or, it was seeing my friend Erika at the corner of Ali’i drive, or hearing my friends from my old triathlon club yell to my left, and my family cheer from my right, or seeing the sun still above the horizon, not quite setting on my day, or the neon sign blaring high above the finish line, or it was the numerous international flags that lined the shoot, a sign of the magnitude of this event, or it was stepping onto the most important red carpet in all of triathlon, or it was all of it, because I picked up my pace and ran with reverence to this amazing sport that I have devoted the last decade to, and relished in my lifelong pursuit of being a top athlete.
I cried as I crossed the line. Of course I did. I was spent in every way imaginable. The race and my entire experience in Kona were beyond amazing. Even though the marathon did not go as I had hoped, I gave it all I could, and still finished in a respectable 3:46hrs., with an overall finish time of 10:34:01. I placed 25th in the world in my age group, and the 5th American, an accomplishment I do not take lightly, but only fires me up to improve upon in the future.
Next up for me is sleep. I hope. Then I head to New York to run the marathon in less than three weeks.
I will have more to share about Kona next week, a lot of it still needs to sink in. In fact, if you have any questions please send them my way, and I will aim to answer them in my next post.
In the meantime, please take in the classic rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow from Hawaii’s beloved native son, Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole.