Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Part of the reason 2003 was such a great year for me was the absence of work.  Just as substantial was earning my first entry to the big dance, the Ironman world championships in Kona.  I had already hosted Mika and Tomppa from Finland and experienced the race vicariously through them, but I wanted a taste of the pain through my own eyes, I wanted to feel the sweat, the heat, the misery, and the joy of Ali'i drive for myself.

I won't say that 2003 was my best race because I placed higher in 2004 and I was faster in 2005.  I will say that of my 10 Ironman races, 2003 was extremely memorable.  I felt that somehow the 5 year journey made sense, I felt like I had earned my place on the start line that year and I was honored to have the opportunity to race alongside some truly gifted athletes.

Ironman Triathlon World Championships 2003

The last time I had made a trip to Kailua-Kona was at least 15 years ago, during my pre-teen tennis years.  The only thing I remembered from that trip was seeing white coral graffiti along the highway.  At the time I was confused as to why anyone would go to so much trouble just to spell a name out in the middle of nowhere.  Over the years, as I grew more familiar and intrigued with triathlon, particularly Ironman distance triathlon, I began to understand and even appreciate the level of obsession and dedication that is required simply to make it to the starting line on the most incredible Saturday in Kona.  My own journey to that same start line ended up spanning 5 years, 58 races, and 5 other Ironman distance triathlons.  I had reached a level where I was no longer completely intimidated by the sheer distances involved.  Over those five years I had gained enough experience that I was confident I could fix just about any problem that might crop up during the day.  And since I grew up on Oahu and had recently spent all of July inHonolulu, I knew as well as any rookie what kinds of conditions I might expect in Kona.  Still, I have to admit a bit of unanticipated intimidation cropped up when I got my first glimpse of the general mayhem along the Queen K and Alii Drive when I arrived in town the Monday before the race.  I am used to seeing fit people doing all sorts of pre-race training, but usually most of them speak English, ride bikes with decals that I can actually pronounce, and show at least some element of fear or disorientation.  The bodies I saw that week were, almost without exception, ideal examples of endurance athletes.  The women in particular were so far removed from traditional concepts of beauty that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish them from the men.  I was simultaneously amazed and embarrassed, the athlete in me was thrilled by the display, but the local boy in me was disgusted at the overdose of Narcissistic behavior.

I considered myself pretty lucky to have snuck into the holy grail of long course triathlon for the first time in my life, after 5 years of not-quite-good-enough attempts.  But I was also doubly-lucky to have qualified for the 25th anniversary of the race, and I was triple-lucky to have been offered to share condo space with Mika Luoto and Pauli Kiuru of Finland.  I met Mika in 2002 when he stayed with me in San Diego on his way to an 8th place finish in Kona, and I knew Pauli from watching several videotapes of Ironmanfrom the 1980’s and 1990’s.  I was excited to see two of the greatest athletes in the sport, Mika preparing for what he hoped would be the best race of his life and Pauli enjoying and reliving the experience as a media consultant.  Ironman is so special to so many people from around the world, and I could see the flicker of joy in both of their eyes throughout the entire week.  As I watched the two converse, I could see that they shared a unique bond.  They both have a humble yet confident approach to their abilities, you can see the intensity when it is time to let the animal out, but the rest of the day you wouldn’t be able to differentiate either Pauli or Mika from the other haole tourists that keep the Hawaiian economy alive.  Mika trained as much as one would expect during the last week, no more, no less, and it although he treated his last workouts seriously, they didn’t affect his attitude at all.  Indeed, one of the most ironic parts of Ironman is how relaxing the days surrounding the race are, at least in a physical sense.

To start off my own race-week workouts, I decided to try to make it to the swim start on Tuesday morning.  I went primarily to check out all those amazing female bodies in swimsuits, but also because I was mildly curious about the course and water conditions.  I saw plenty of friends and fellow competitors as I waded into the water, and ended up tailing Chris Hauth who was leading some of his athletes along a tour of the buoys.  I felt great at the turn buoy, I suppose something about the course layout or the day’s conditions made the swimming better the further we got from the beach.  I was a little tired when I got out of the water, but happy enough to know for certain that the swim course was exactly what I expected it would be.  I had heard a few stories of currents and swells, but I didn’t know how to weigh those stories against my own bank of experience from growing up in the same ocean.  I was actually somewhat surprised to see all the fish, even with all the hyper triathletes chopping up the water it still seemed much more like Hanauma Bay than Ala Moana.  That ended up being one of the recurring themes that week, as I noticed how the small town of Kailua Kona shone through even in the midst of an international championship event that at times almost suffocated the town.  I have to admit I didn’t really plan to swim the whole course when I got in, but on the flip side, I had filled my bucket of swim stoke for the week and I could happily retreat to the condo and slack off the rest of the day.

The parade of nations had been scheduled for Tuesday afternoon and although I wasn’t too terribly excited about sitting, standing, and walking in the afternoon heat, I was looking forward to meeting some of the other Degree athletes.  I figured that any friend who I might be able to recognize during my dark moments would be a valuable friend indeed.  As we waited for things to start I got to meet Mike Baldinger who had already completed two Ironman races this year, the second of which was only 4 weeks prior.  Sometimes it’s nice to not be the guy in the group who deserves the “el loco” title.  Joe Guenther and I had qualified a distant 9 weeks before, and by comparison we had to feel almost soft with that much time to recover and prepare.  The parade itself was pretty lame, but the expo was chock full of celebrities and friends, so it was well past dark before dinner and well past my bedtime before I got home.  Oh well, I wasn’t really here to race anyway, I was here to soak it all up and enjoy the experience.

On Wednesday I figured I needed to get out and test ride my bike, burn in my brand new tires with some volcanic dirt, and do some reconnaissance of the nearest 1/3 of the bike course.  It was a little chaotic getting out of town, and for the first time I felt like a contributor to the traffic problem.  Clearly nobody was thinking Ironman when they designed Alii drive.  Out on the Queen K I instantly noticed that intangible and indescribable element of difficulty that pervades the bike and run courses.  In one respect it’s no different than any other road, even if the scenery is extremely unique with black lava and crystal blue ocean views.  Sure it was hot, but it wasn’t 110 like the Mojave.  I felt the wind, but not to the point where I could really isolate it as being the source of my difficulties.  It was just tough because each roller took more effort than I expected, and the wind seemed to sap just enough off the top end to really slow me down to a pathetic crawl.  I struggled out of town for an hour, sucking down water and gazing at a seemingly unreachable Kawaihae Bay.  I made it past the airport, but I still didn’t have any idea where the Waikaloa intersection was.  Distances on Oahu are deceptively short, 20 miles can take you from one side to the other.  But on the big island, distances are deceptively long and it takes a lot more work just to get to the next visual reference point.  I was a little disappointed realizing that there was at least 2/3 of the course that I still hadn’t seen, and that the last 1/3 was probably going to be the most difficult section during the race.  But I knew that trying to ride any further 3 days before the race would be total suicide, so I forced myself to turn around and head back to town.  Once I made the turn, it still wasn’t particularly easy going, even though the descents got easier with the tailwind. It seemed to take a considerable amount of effort to survive the climbs, although there was nothing even remotely steep about them.  I returned to the condo somewhat defeated but resigned to the realization that I never ride all that fast anyway, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if I didn’t do so well on the bike on Saturday.  I suppose the source of my disappointment was not that the course was tough, as I fully expected that to be the case.  I think, instead, I was mildly bummed out that I hadn’t magically transformed into a powerful cyclist so I could have the race of my life.  It’s so easy to want more in this sport, and to get more takes so much work that those substantial breakthroughs are constantly elusive.  I didn’t put much more thought into the bike course than that, I simply resigned myself to the fact that I would probably lose quite a bit of time and would probably be passed by many of my fellow athletes, possibly up to 500 depending on how my swim went.

On Thursday three of my friends had decided to run the roads through the Natural Energy Lab.  I figured that would be a great way to experience what I suspected to be the most difficult part of the run course so I tagged along.  We targeted 3:00 which would be pretty close to the time I would be running through.  Ironically, the weather didn’t cooperate and some heavy clouds shifted in during the early afternoon leaving conditions relatively mild.  I came away from the experience sweaty and hot, but it wasn’t as much of a knockout punch as I knew it could have been and I still feared what might be lurking for me on Saturday.  At the same time, as scared as I was of the heat and the cumulative fatigue of 141 miles, running has always been my strength and a certain sick side of my personality was really hoping for a few surprise challenges once I got off the bike.  As if anyone wants unexpected misery in an Ironman, hah!  Still, my major concern was getting through the bike course, from there it would just be a matter of pride.

Friday was as mellow as I could make it, aside from having to check in my bike and hang out with my dad.  Pauli’s tradition is to watch Dirty Harry the night before the race, so the three of us gathered in the condo to relax a bit and watch Clint Eastwood put some holes in a few bad guys.  I wasn’t particularly nervous up until that point but once the movie ended I slipped into the role of stressed-out-athlete.  I could see things getting a bit more serious for Mika as well, neither of us slept perfectly that night and I was up before the 3:30 alarm.  The best part of race morning in Kona is the fact that it’s not cold.  That’s my favorite part of Hawaii, you don’t have to fear the dark or the rain because neither is cold and it really doesn’t matter what you are wearing, you won’t be cold.  We arrived and Mika skipped through the pro line while I wandered into Frank and Kimber from the Degree team who were tailed by a camera crew.  I introduced myself, enjoyed some small talk, then found my way through the lines somehow, despite being forced to display my swim cap and timing chip before being permitted to enter the body marking lines.  I know this is Kona, but goodness, body marking just doesn’t have to be so difficult.  After being stamped with 1588, the highest bib number I’ve ever seen in a triathlon, I wandered over to my bike.  As I messed with bottles, Pauli showed up with the pump, assisted me while I topped off my tires, and wished me good luck.  There’s something really cool about special attention from a legend of the sport on race morning, it helped calm me down and get me in the right groove.  I wandered to the front of the King Kam to take a bit of a mental break on the grass and watch for the sunrise as I dabbed my meager remnants of bodyglide on my neck and armpits.  Perhaps 25 minutes before the start I dropped off my pre-swim bag, stood in a long chute to get in the water, and snuck onto the beach just behind Jurgen Zack, Heather Fuhr, and the soon-to-be champion Lori Bowden.  I figured seeing those three on race day was a sure sign of good luck, even though just about everyone in this race is a celebrity of some sorts and you have to be blind to not see them.

Once on the beach I began to make my way over to the far left in an effort to avoid people.  People just bug me before a race, and there’s no escaping the bodies in a 1500+ mass start.  I bumped into Mike Nichol sitting on a rock below the seawall and for a moment considered trying to swim with him.  He gave some convenient excuse like he was sick or something, then slipped off to the start line at warp speed, leaving me behind to fend for myself.  I floated up to the start line perhaps 10 minutes early and it was then that all the nervous tension really started to hit.  It’s just such a bottleneck getting into the water that you want to get in early, but then you’re stuck treading water, stressing about how your race is going to go.  There was a woman next to me who was stretching her back out by bending into a ball underwater, for some reason I couldn’t help but watch her go through such antics.  Those final 10 minutes really test your patience, everyone is frantic, doing their own little stupid pre-race routines and basically everyone is annoying and annoyed at the same time because nobody has as much personal space as they’d like to have.  Water starts in particular are a bit more traumatic, on a beach I can hide and then bust a move at the start, but in the water you just get bumped around and where you end up starting is not completely within your control if you don’t choose to completely abandon your manners.  I ended up on the far left side, which is often where I start, but I wasn’t sure this time if it was such a good choice since there were so many people clustered near me.  I didn’t have time to move before a swimmer took off, then another, followed quickly by the canon which signaled the official start of the race.  Wow, what a start it was.  Usually I can find clear water early in the swim, even in an Ironman swim, and then try to settle into my stroke before venturing into the draft.  This time, there was nowhere to go, people were everywhere and they were all swimming about my speed.  Ironic how I had worked hard on my swim to get away from the masses in other races but as a result I was now stuck in the midst of the Kona frenzy.  I realized pretty quickly that it was futile to try to get around or past the clumps of arms, heads, and ankles, so I settled into the middle and bobbed around.  There were times when I didn’t have to do much work at all, other times when small gaps opened up and I could squeeze through and try to make up ground, and also times when the two groups on both sides of me merged in front and I had to slow down to avoid a thrashing.  The trip to the turn boat didn’t take long at all, despite the single loop course, but I had my first problem brewing already.  By the turn I could really feel it, a pretty bad rash from my swimsuit near my left armpit.  I tend to reach more with my left arm than my right since I breathe on the right side exclusively, so the stretching along with a pretty tight suit with some thick seams was eating up my skin.  Combined with salt water and my limited ration of bodyglide it didn’t feel good and I knew that it was way too early to start dealing with problems.  So, I put it out of my mind since there wasn’t much I could do other than stopping to remove my suit entirely which seemed silly.  In retrospect, I either need a whole lot more bodyglide or I need to swim with a bare torso and do the singlet struggle in T1 (something I feared more than swim rash, hence the choice of the dorky, knee-length body suit.)

I bobbed the final few meters and up the grate on the boat ramp, and watched as the clock ticked past 1:01.  Oh well, not the best swim ever but I thought I hadn’t really put too much effort in so that was probably a good way to start the day.  I would probably have done better with a smaller pack swimming slightly faster, there were plenty of times when I swam slower than I wanted to, but it did drive home the substantial benefit a good draft can deliver.  I made a mental note to try to draft more in all my other swims, took 5 seconds under a hose, and ran to the parking lot.  I grabbed my glasses out of my bag, stuffed my suit, cap, and goggles in, and ran to my bike.  I had some trouble getting my shoes on once I started pedaling and ended up climbing the first small hill with my left foot on top of my left shoe and my right foot, heel-out, holding onto my right shoe which had popped off of the pedal.  I got over my self consciousness at looking like such an idiot (mental note to get my feet in fast if I ever make it back) and managed to get the feet issues squared away on the quick out and back along Kuakini highway.  I was a little surprised that the leaders were nowhere to be seen, the clock had said they were 14 minutes ahead so I was hoping to get a glimpse of them, but they must have made it up to the Queen K before I got out of transition, yikes!  That first little stretch was pretty fun, although not particularly speedy as there was no shortage of commotion.  Basically it was a parade for the spectators.  I didn’t dare eat anything on that stretch, just tried to hold a decent line and get it over with.  By mile 10 we were out on the Queen K and the bike race was into full swing.  I decided around mile 10 that it was time to start eating and grabbed one of my two food bottles, the one which was a bit more concentrated, and which I intended to consume first.  As soon as I grabbed it, it jumped out of my hand, dropped to the road, and the top broke off.  I turned my head to watch the contents spill onto the pavement as the bottle rolled into the shoulder.  I was stunned, unable to believe I had made such a huge mistake and had done so with my full concentration bent on not doing something so stupid.  I wanted to take that moment back, put the bottle back in the cage and not eat until mile 15.  Maybe by then I’d be capable of handling a bottle.  But it was too late, there was no undo, and I was down to one bottle of food, roughly half what I knew I should have.  I started drinking from that second bottle, managed not to drop it, and also picked off a couple of bananas as I headed out to Kawaihae, trying not to think too much about the stupidity and severity of my mistake.  I also tried not to spend too much time wishing that I had been a bit more paranoid and had left a third food bottle in my special needs.  I have done that in the past, but in my moment of laziness I had only brought two bottle’s worth of powder.  So I was just plain stuck and had no choice but to suck it up and deal.

To my great surprise, I managed to hold position reasonably well on the bike.  Not to understate my ineptitude, or come off as remotely competent at what is clearly my weakness, but for some strange reason I didn’t see 500+ people pass me that I thought I would. My bike rank was an almost-decent 618 compared to my swim rank of 385, and it’s fairly safe to say that many of those 618 faster bike splits were already ahead of me after the swim.  In other words, I don’t think 500 people passed me, and probably not even 400. Maybe 200-250 or so would be my guess, which was a surprise compared to my expectations.  I was riding fairly well on that first stretch out to Waikaloa, trying to find any gap I could so I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the marshals who were policing the course with a vengeance.  I feared a DQ more than anything because I just had to have the silly finisher’s medal and trophy.  How could I come to Kona after 5 years of hard work and end up with a DQ?  It was unthinkable.  So, I kept as much distance as I could from all the other bikes, I didn’t care one bit how little draft I got or if I was farther back than the rules required.  Many of the other competitors were content with taking a full 10 seconds on someone’s wheel before pulling off to the left to pass them in the remaining 5.  It was an interesting lesson, so many people all at a pretty similar level of ability and despite a ton of great officials, there was just bound to be quite a bit of drafting, blocking, and general chaos.  Add in the new stagger rules for the pros which left the women riding on the left near the centerline and it was downright comical at times.  One guy passed me on the right.  That hasn’t happened to me in years, and this was Kona, did he not know the rules, or did he just not care?  Finally we hit the turn to Kawaihae, a quick trip through a less bleak landscape, and then the dreaded stretch to Hawi.  I was riding in fear of this moment, a deep fear of the unknown.  I felt a little bit like a knight showing up to slay a dragon with a pen knife, only I had no armor, just some lycra and spandex.  But at the same time I was oddly confident that I’d be able to get through it, no matter how bad it was, so the fear was more of how much it would hurt than of what might happen to me.  I was also worried about how much time I was going to lose in the process of my flailing.  Somewhere along this section to Hawi, Michelle Gwozdo passed me on her blue Softride.  I recognized the bike and yelled to her, wishing that the last names were on the bib numbers like they had been in Canada so I could have said something before she gapped me.  It’s just so much more fun to know who is kicking your butt, particularly which women are doing so.  Sometimes not knowing can lead to too much self doubt in mentally weak competitors such as myself.  Anyway, Michelle didn’t stick around to chat, so I continued my struggle up to Hawi, realizing that the two athletes I knew from my pool were now well ahead of me and increasing the gap with every minute.   Soon, I heard the helicopter, then a few official vehicles, and finally the lead vehicle and the lead rider.  In retrospect, I assume it was Faris Al-Sultan, but I’ll have to watch the tape to be sure.  Next came the lead pack, with all the usual contenders all sitting in pretty tight and seemingly effortlessly.  I was pretty amazed at how much it resembled a draft legal race.  Next came a pretty substantial gap and then the second pack, where Mika was riding.  I yelled at him, hoping he’d bridge the 2-3 minutes up to the main pack on the way back.  Next I saw all the strong age groupers and the female pros.  I saw Natascha ahead of Lori, but it was such a small gap and that I got all fired up and decided to yell for Lori, hoping that she’d rise to the top and beat Natascha on the run.  I guess I have a predisposition to want the strong runners to beat the strong cyclists, and it always pisses me off when the race is over by T2 because that’s how it always is for me.  After a pleasant diversion as an on-road spectator, itwas back to the work at hand, keep the pedals turning, and wondering where the stupid turnaround was.  It always seems so far to get to the turn and so quick to get back.

The final bit of the climb to Hawi really wasn’t as bad as I know it should have been.  It wasn’t all that steep and for some crazy reason the wind wasn’t fierce or even substantial.  The pain and suffering  was there, but it was muted.  I was tired from the climb, but I wasn’t destroyed yet.  I reached the turn and got a charge from the meager crowd, suddenly I remembered how quiet the rest of the course had been.  I slapped the chain onto my 53x11 and cranked past a few other cyclists on the descent, using my extra weight as a momentary advantage.  I checked my position as I saw Michael Baldinger following way too close for comfort.  Even though you know you have twice as much time from the turn, just about any lead still seems way too small.  I decided to make it my goal to hold Mike off until the Waikaloa if possible, then try to follow him to T2.  I also saw Joe, and he was close enough to catch me if he busted a move, but I was hoping that he had spent a bit more time partying and a bit less time training than I had in the weeks sinceCanada.  Then the majority of the other riders went past and the sightings  shifted toward the late-night celebrities like Bill Bell and Dick and Ricky Hoyt.  Everyone I saw looked good, the most likely reason was that the winds were coming from the south, and the stretch from Kona to Hawi had seen a pretty friendly tailwind.  The descent from Hawi was fast, but the climb out of Kawaihae ended up pretty tough with the midday sun beating down and only a pair of spectators to cheer us on.  I was starting to crack, but I had heard someone else say that the toughest part of the course is that climb out of Kawaihae, so I trudged on, hoping it would be smooth sailing from the turn onto the Queen K.  Unfortunately, that turn put us right into the wind and though it wasn’t strong by any standards, and certainly not strong by West Hawaii standards, it became pretty tough work to make progress, particularly on the climbs.  I struggled on to Waikaloa, hoping it would be all downhill from there even though I knew that wasn’t the case.  Then I struggled even more to the Airport, by that time I was completely cooked.  I was just about done with my food bottle and while I knew I was low on calories I was not about to take another banana or try to deal with a gu while pedaling.  I should have grabbed a bottle of coke at that point, but I was scared that too much coke too early would come back and burn me later on.  So I got sucked further and further into my own personal pit of despair.  My right foot was blowing up on me, the outside edge of my arch felt like it was fractured even though I knew it wasn’t.  It hurt to stand, it hurt to sit, it hurt to use the aerobars, and it just hurt to keep riding.  I bummed myself out even more trying to calculate how much more time I had to ride, going by a 20mph guess and realizing I wasn’t anywhere near that pace to begin with.  This was the dungeon and I was a captive.  Math was the only way to escape from feeling 100% of the torture, and even adding and subtracting become tremendously difficult during an endurance event, to say nothing of division.  It appeared that there were others who weren’t doing so well either, at least there weren’t too many flying past me on that last stretch.  I recognized the same jerseys for most of that way, although a few new faces did catch up to us but in general nobody was making a huge move at that point and all the big dogs were well down the road, probably running by now.  One small bit of satisfaction was all I clung to, Neither Joe or Mike had caught me yet so while I knew I was suffering, I was also minimizing the damage reasonably well.  These are the threads we cling to in our moments of doubt and weakness, and for some crazy reason, they seem to hold up.

I had all but stopped using my aerobars.  I had finished my only bottle of food and I wasn’t grabbing anything from the aid stations except for water.  I spent the last hour of the ride feeling miserable, trying to hold on to the few cyclists I recognized, and hoping that the storms of other riders would not start flying past me.  In the state I was in, I could mount no resistance anyway.  Finally we made the turn off the Queen K and I instantly felt better, although still exhausted.  I saw Peter Reid running out on the Queen K with a solid lead and heard from the announcer that Tim DeBoom was behind in 2nd.  I wondered how the women’s race was shaping up.  It was nice and smooth into T2, and a happy dismount, leaving the bike always feels great.  Into the change tent where I droped my helmet, put on socks and shoes, grabed my gels and hat and followed the parade out.  Only, coming out of the men’s tent I went left instead of right, oops, had to backtrack and follow the athletes instead of that volunteer who was trying to get out of the way.  I ran over the mat and out onto the run course, forgetting that I had intended to make a pee stop.  I was amazed at how much pee was flying around during the bike leg, it seemed like everyone in front of me was alternately spraying pee and then water.  That was part of the reason why I tried to keep as much distance as possible between the rider in front of me.  I felt reasonably hydrated, not fresh like I had felt in the morning but not in a dangerous state.  I wanted to pee, so that was good, but I also wanted to run and I didn’t want to stop because I had already reached the point of disaster mitigation.  I clicked off the first mile, but I knew I was forcing it too much and I wasn’t running too spunky.  I clicked off the second mile, threw my salt tabs to Kerri realizing it wasn’t going to be all that hot and hoping that I wouldn’t need them on the run.  I headed off down Alii drive to the first run turnaround.  I saw the women’s leaders and it looked like Lori was going to run down Nina and Natascha, so that got me fired up.  But I started wishing I were up there with them, closer to the fight, more in the guts of the race than off the back and useless.  By mile 3 my elation at getting off the bike was completely gone and I was back into my pit of despair.  I started with coke, trying to get at least one cup of coke and one of water at every aid station which is a lot of fluid for me as I prefer to hold pace while drinking.  Sometimes  I’ll even skip an entire aid station if I’m running well, particularly in a half, but I was toast this time and I needed sugar and fluids.  I saw Steve C from the pool coming back toward me, already walking.  That was not good, because I knew felt like he did and I was scared I would soon be walking too.  I feared walking as much as I feared the pain I felt from running.  My right foot felt broken, each step was too much of an impact on a painful arch.  And that turnaround just seemed to disappear down the road.  I thought it would be before mile 4, but it ended up being just before mile 5.  I was toast at that point, and I no longer tried to hold my position against the stream of runners. People started passing me and I tried desperately to keep my feet moving, tried as hard as I could to not walk.  Effort was high but pace was slow, and I was scared to death of falling apart, particularly on the leg that should have been my strength.  I was very thankful at this point that I hadn’t worn my HRM because knowing my pace at that point would have depressed me even more.  I struggled up the hills and trotted down them, scared to death of the remaining 20 miles and the heat that was baking all of us.  The enormity of it all was beating me to a pulp and I slipped into the role of victim.  I kept going with the gels, coke, and water though, as my stomach felt OK since it hadn’t been too busy during the bike leg.  Finally something clicked, probably my blood sugar from the coke, and I started running a decent pace for the first time.  Not that I was walking before, but there is a difference between what I know I can run and what I had been running.  I picked it up a bit more, saw Kerri again and was much happier to skip by on the way back into town.  I made the turn and started up the hill still feeling good.  I saw Pete at the top of the hill and got fired up some more that he had pulled off the win, so I cranked out some solid miles out on the queen K.  I went a bit too hard down some of the hills, particularly one where I passed a walking Heather Golnick, and at some point I realized I had to back it off if I wanted to keep it all together.

And then my second low point (or was it really my third?) started to develop, the initial elation of finally being able to run had worn off and I was still 14 or 15 miles away from the finish.  And I was pretty tired too.  I slowed my pace a bit, it seemed like a lot of work to keep running because the road seemed completely uphill and it is so long and straight.  I took a pee stop and felt better, but was sad to let some of the people I was running with get away.  I had recognized them from very early in the run, then they had passed me before the first turn, but I had worked so hard to catch them that I didn’t want to let them get away again.  I saw Norman Stadler and then Jurgen Zack running back into town and I was excited that they had both had really good races.  I had watched them train during the weeks prior to Kona and I remembered in particular the 33 minute 10K they ran immediately after an 80 mile ride.  I really wanted to see Mika right up there with them because I knew he could run them down, particularly at the end.  Mika did come along soon after, in 11th place and with 3 or 4 guys only 2 minutes ahead.  That has to be an extremely difficult place to be, because he must have known that he needed to dig really deep right at the point where he must have been the most exhausted and before the finish seems close enough to go for it.  I yelled for him, excited that he had done well and hoping he could maybe pick off another one or two guys.  It’s hard to comprehend the challenges and the effort the top athletes go through, and it felt cheap to wish him speed when I had already faltered so substantially.  The first female running toward me ended up being Lori and I was so excited for her to have beaten Natascha that I lost it and yelled at her like an idiot.  Then Nina Kraft who was ahead of Natascha at that point, but they were both close, it looked like a fantastic battle.  Somehow watching all of this action unfold had helped keep me from dwelling on my self pity too much and I felt rejuvenated.  I ran as hard as I could for the next mile or two up to the Energy Lab, and happily turned on the jets for the descent into hell.  Downhill is just my thing, it always makes me feel better no matter how tired I am.

As I ran down the hill into the Natural Energy Lab, I started to notice that the clouds had moved in and that things had really cooled off.  That was a pretty big surprise, but it was a welcome one at that state in the game.  I started to gather my resolve to keep pushing all the way through the finish line.  Rounding the corner before the turn I saw Michelle again, and she didn’t seem too terribly far ahead bit again there is the doubling factor that I wasn’t taking into account too coherently.  I also saw two other friends that looked like they might be within range as well.  I hit the turn, grabbed my special needs bag, stuffed some extra gels in my pocket and started running hard.  On the way out I saw Michael Baldinger again, he looked very close.  I saw another couple of Degree team athletes on their way in, probably Sock Guy Andrew Block and Willie Stewart.  I dropped my hat at the Degree tent, where I mentioned that it would probably be about 5 minutes before Michael caught me because I was hurting.  I struggled up to the entrance to the EnergyLab, climbs not being my thing, then turned the corner and decided it was time to fight again.  I caught Steve Chavez from SF and he encouraged me to stick with him.  I pushed the pace for a while with him right on my shoulder, then I got tired again and slowed so he could take a pull.  I tried to silently shrink away while he was in front but he would have none of it and goaded me into holding pace.  It didn’t hurt that much more than slacking, so I decided to try even though we still had a 10k left to run and even though I had no concrete goals other than avoiding capture by those behind me.  Once we got settled in, Deborah Leyh caught us en route to her 3:18 marathon (yikes!).  I noticed her age on her leg and told her that I thought Michelle wasn’t too far ahead and that there was a good chance Michelle was leading her age group.  As I talked up the chase to her, I got excited myself and soon the three of us took off to chase down Michelle.  As if winning the womens 30-34 age group were the most important goal of my life, we blasted through aid stations, feeding off the slowing pace of the runners in front of us and the cooling temperatures as the clouds shifted in even more.  We caught some of those friends I had seen in the Energy lab and I continued to push hard while Deborah didn’t seem to have any trouble hanging with me.  Each time I thought I saw Michelle I gave a surge, but no matter how hard I ran I couldn’t find her.  I was running my fastest miles of the day at this point, partly because it had cooled off so much, partly because I had a goal that seemed possible, and partly because I was excited to be near the end of a long and challenging day.  I blew past my dad on the way back into town, handing him my sunglasses because they weren’t needed anymore.  It’s a rare day that I give up my sunglasses inHawaii.  Deborah and I continued to chase Michelle’s shadow all the way into town, I think Steve dropped off a bit when we started getting too into the chase.  At the turn off the Queen K I surged again.  While I might be a good downhill cyclist I know I’m an excellent downhill runner and I turned on the jets with a little less than 2 miles to go.  I must have looked like an absoulte moron running full speed at the end of a 3:34 marathon for 407th place, but I didn’t even remotely care at the time.  I dropped Deborah inadvertently, oops, but I was trying to work for her by hunting Michelle and I thought if one of us could catch her it might be some kind of victory.  I ended up putting just under 2 minutes into her on those final 2 miles which is remarkable because she was steady and strong the entire time she was running with me.  I have never run the last 10k of an Ironman this hard but I was finally psyched up about the race and I wanted to dump the tank in celebration.  I turned onto Kuakini, ran to Palani, started to fade a bit, then down the hill where I picked up some speed again and rounded the corner to Alii drive.

Everyone who has raced in Kona says Alii drive is the best part of Ironman.  Watching the tapes it appears that way.  But to be honest, it’s such a tiny part of a huge race.  I doubt I spent more than 2 minutes on Alii drive, I was funning full speed the whole way and even though the finish line was magical, it came and went very quickly.  I wanted to go back and absorb it all, to watch my other friends finish and congratulate them, and to share the energy of the crowd but I was suddenly extremely tired.  Once the adrenaline wore off I had to sit down and struggle to drink water while I contemplated a shower.  I congratulated Michelle who had beaten me by a solid 4 minutes even though she ended up with a fractured ankle from slipping on some ice.  I struggled through a shower, grabbed my medal, trophy, gear bags and bike, and headed back to the condo as a shell of the athlete I had been that morning.  I managed a real shower, then about 50oz of very cold Gatorade at which point I got the shivers and wrapped myself in a sheet and passed out on the floor.  Mika was very tired and sore but pretty happy with his race all at the same time.  We both wanted to go back to the finish line but as time went on I grew roots and I knew it wasn’t a possibility for me.

The next few days left plenty of time for reflection.  As a Kona rookie, the course had been both challenging and manageable, depending on the conditions and my mental state.  I had watched the champions conquer, the masses suffer, and I had done a bit of both along the way.  I realized that the road to Kona is a lot more interesting than the race itself, even though race day itself certainly wasn’t boring.  And I gained a lot of respect for the races that brought me there, certainly there is no lack of excellence outside of Konaand there are even some aspects of the World Championships aren’t all that fine tuned.  As I boarded the plane I couldn’t help but want to come back and try to race a bit faster.  The course is one that lulls you into thinking you could do better if only things would have been a little different.  It is such a tremendous challenge to toe the line with so many incredible athletes.  Indeed, it was a privilege to race alongside the giants of the sport, the age group champions, the celebrities, and all of the veterans.  I ended up feeling very satisfied with my race, particularly my effort if not my time.  I had dug deep the whole way, particularly when I was hurting, and I managed to turn things around after a lousy end to the ride and a very poor start on the run.  At its core, that’s what Ironman is all about, those struggles within the race, and those moments of doubt that we all end up conquering somehow.  Throughout the day, you are challenged and then you respond, either positively or negatively, all of which adds up and affects your future challenges and mental state.  Those who conquer the race bubble up to the front while those who have difficulties shift towards the back.  I ended up a little bit ahead of where I expected to be but not quite where I had hoped I might end up on a perfect day.  Some of my friends, particularly Michelle, had the kinds of races I was dreaming about for myself.  Other friends had to struggle along the way even more than I did.  One thing is for certain though, we were all extremely excited to be there and we’d all go back next year if given the chance.  That’s just the way Kona is, you can’t help but want to be there.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is an amazing and interesting account. I remember you - not by name but via your energy, Energy which inspired me. Not to be the best, but to do my best. Funny to read this a decade later. Hope you are still are inspiring others. Best, Deborah Leyh