The first time I watched the Ironman World Championship on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I was awestruck and knew there was no way I could do an event that covered 140.6 miles self propelled. Thirty years later, I found out I was wrong and after three years of consistent work, I have achieved my dream.
My day started at 3am with a shower and my standard race breakfast. At 4am I picked up the athlete shuttle in Keahou plaza to near the race start. I walked along Ali’i to the King Kam (where the race is staged) and stood in line for the number marking that started at 4:30am. At this race instead of just having a marker to write your race number, the volunteers stamp you with professional looking numbers on both arms (nothing on your legs).
After the stamping, I went into transition and used one of the many available pumps to blow up my tires and set up my bike with my computer and nutrition. I turned on my Garmin 310XT and deposited it into my run bag. It is an odd experience to be standing next to a world champion (Crowie) while he is doing the same thing you are doing to prep for the race.
After the wait was over, I heard Mike Reilly announcing the pros into the water. Before you knew it they were off and swimming at 6:30am. Women went off at 6:35am. The thing I remember most was the Hawaiian drums beating. It was the perfect background vibe to the start of our day.
After the women started, we moved to get into the water. If you have seen the TV broadcast of the race, the stairs in and out of the water are not very big. You end up with quite a small funnel trying to get everyone into the water. Once down the stairs, you can wait on the beach or swim the 100 meters or so to the deep water start. I elected to start deep (easy to tread water in the ocean) and to the right.
I ended up picking the perfect line as the folks to the left had to fight the swells head on and according to the spectators were pretty challenged. I self seeded behind the fast folks and waited for the cannon to boom. The race ended up starting with a whimper after the cannon failed. The only thing we heard was Mike Reilly yelling, “Go, go, go…”
There was contact in the race but not the contact of someone inexperienced (I find inexperienced triathletes often try to stay alive by attempting to kill you in the swim). I would say it was polite contact. The volunteers (paddleboards) keep you funneled on the course which means you pretty much have contact the whole race and quite a few bottlenecked areas.
The hardest part of the swim is that I have been sick with a terrible cough that is aggravated by salt water. It isn’t whooping cough, but it sounds like it. I focused the whole swim on not having a coughing attack (whew). I paced myself steady into the swells and current. The swells and current were challenging and made for a slower course.
At the end of the swim course you swim around two boats (bottlenecks again) and head back to the pier. I lifted the effort after the second boat and swam back into shore. After getting out of the water, I used the hanging hoses to rinse off the salt water, had the volunteers slap quite a bit of sunscreen on me, and headed off on my bike.
My heart rate was elevated (I attribute this to not feeling well) and I backed off significantly until I could get it under control. I had a couple of coughing attacks but nothing that derailed me.
My best way to describe the bike ride: hot, hilly, headwind. The day ended up being much hotter (88 degrees not including the humidity) and windier (30+ gusts on Hawi) than any of us expected. The hills are rollers with the exception of the climb to Hawi (big gear on all of them).
My two thoughts on the climb to Hawi were; this is insane and how is this legal? I have never experienced a cross wind like that in my life. It was blowing, swirling, gusting and unpredictable. At one point I was cycling with my bike leaning with a minimum of a 10 degree angle. I swear if someone in front of me was blown off their bike, I might have called it a day.
On top of it, we started to get hit with driving rain and I actually was cold at one point. When I finally reached the turn around, I decided to change my nutrition plan. Out of fear. I could not get calories in on the ascent and I was scared to death of the descent. At the aid station I shoved down a bonk breaker bar (I never eat solid food) and a gel.
Fortunately, the descent had a tail wind the whole time. I was so happy to be alive that I felt great and was excited to finish the ride. Until I hit another head wind about thirty miles from the end. It felt like I ground to a halt. At mile eighty, I pushed my effort and focused on finishing strong (my power file shows the last two hours to be my best effort).
How did I feel about my ride? Disappointed. It took way too long. I was pleased with my nutrition (200 calories per hour) and hydration (Torhans between the bars was key for windy sections) but not my effort overall.
I took a few minutes longer at T2 because the volunteers offer you an ice cold towel for your head. At that point, you are so cooked from the sun that you want to crawl into the towel and take a nap. Unfortunately, you are a marathon away from a nap! I was coated again in sunscreen and off I went.
I had tweaked my achilles the week of the race and was nervous it (or my calf) would blow during the marathon. As I started the run, it hurt but nothing I couldn’t run through. I had one coughing attack that stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t breathe and I started to gag. The spectators I stopped near were very concerned. I had to waive them off and as soon as I cleared my airway I was off.
The run in Kailua-Kona is hilly, hot and relentless. How hot? I put ice in both my hat and bra but felt no cooling (I am not even sure how that is possible). I saw competitors I knew walking the slow march of death. I was more scared of walking 26.2 miles than I was of running 26.2 miles.
Every aid station I threw water over myself, added ice and took in Perform. At some point, my stomach started to not feel right. I wasn’t the only one after witnessing quite a few “evacuations.” Things got worse when I hit the Queen K. I remember passing a Port-a-Potty and suddenly turning around to go back to it. I spent a couple of minutes in it and felt so much better (and lighter) afterwards!
I knew I was not out of the woods yet. Something still didn’t feel right (I felt a bit light headed) and I started to do my damage control check list. I realized that with the longer bike ride I had consumed mostly gels after the first three hours. I decided that I was probably low on electrolytes. I knew I was hydrated after peeing twice on the bike and run. At mile thirteen I switched to a combination of chicken broth (sodium) and coke (energy). This made a huge difference relatively quickly.
The other thing I noticed was people’s foot prints. I soon appreciated how having running shoes that drain quickly (K-Swiss Blade Lights) make such a big difference for your feet. I am proud of my run for the level of damage control I was able to do from controlling my cough, to my stomach, to my electrolytes to the pain in my feet and ankles. My time was slow but I never walked beyond the aid stations.
At mile 24, I realized I was going to make it. I think I had a huge grin on my face for the last two miles of the run. Running down Ali’i through the throngs of spectators was amazing. The energy and support carried you across the finish. A friend (multiple finisher of this race) remarked that “we had a legit day.” If I could have chosen the conditions, I would have changed nothing about my race day. It was an incredible honor to race with the best in the world.
I feel beyond grateful for the race, the volunteers and the experience. We capped the day with a visit to the finish line around midnight. It was everything people recommended and more. The inspiration of our shared experience, the celebration of the champions and the crowd driven mania provided by Mike Reilly was a perfect cap to an amazing event. Hard to believe a professional sports or TV network hasn’t tried to steal him!
This is a race that I would need multiple starts to crack the code. There is a significant element of damage control and strategy required to do this well. I hope to have the opportunity to give it another go soon.
Thank you to my coach Marilyn McDonald (@chychota) for preparing me, my incredible family, friends and team mates for their support. We are Ohana.
- Put on sunscreen on your face and back before going to transition. Apply frequently.
- You can add stuff to your run and bike bags in the morning.
- You don’t need a pump.
- Get to transition early.
- You need to find a way for your family to get downtown because the roads close and the parking is limited. We used bikes.
- Have a way to take in water on the bike when it is windy that does not require your hands.
- Be prepared to walk a bit post race to get all of medal, morning clothes bag, refuel etc.
- Give a family member your bike ticket to pick up your bike for you.
- I don’t recommend the banquets (unless you podium). Food is poor and the banquets are long! Unless Jordan Rapp wins. Love his podium speeches.
- Have a condo with air conditioning!
- If you want finisher gear, be in line by 6am at the store outside the King Kam.
- Go to the midnight finish! Stay for the part where you hold hands and sing the Hawaii song.
- Remember for some of us, this could be a once in a lifetime experience. Enjoy the show.