I woke up a few minutes before the alarm was set to go off. My first thought was, wow, I actually slept through the night. My second thought was COFFEE. Need coffee. After my usual breakfast of eggs over avocado and toast, and some quiet time getting ready, it was time to make my way down Ali’I Drive to the biggest “start” of my life. Justin and Mike drove me down a couple miles where I jumped out of the car and met up with my friends Mary and Wes to walk the remaining distance. I’ll never forget that feeling of saying goodbye to my husband. I was scared yet calm knowing that he would be out there cheering me on.
After some confusion and figuring out which way to go for body marking, Mary and I finally merged with the herd of triathletes. The first thing they did was weigh each athlete (for medical reasons) before putting on our race numbers and allowing access to our bikes. It all went very fast. Mary and I made our way to a grassy area where we sat, stood, and waited for the race to start. Because we were there fairly early, and our group was the last to start, there was A LOT of waiting. And I don’t do well with waiting as it allows too much time to think, get nervous, overanalyze, etc. After the national anthem played, the gun went off and pro men were in the water. Next went the pro women, followed by the age group men. Finally, it was our turn. As I made my way into the water with the sea of pink caps, my stomach was turning with excitement. This is what I’ve watched on television all those years – and now I’m here doing it. Crazy. We bobbed in the water for a good 10 minutes, swaying with the swells, before the gun went off and arms and legs began to fly.
Oh, the swim. I wanted to love the swim. Heck, I would have settled for “like” the swim. But no. The swim was brutal. It started out okay. I had groups of women all around me and was in a good position in line with the buoys. I soon became immune to the taste of salt and the swells were manageable – at least until we made our way into deeper water. The bottom soon disappeared and turned to a navy-blue darkness and the swells grew in size. That feeling of swaying would haunt me the rest of the day.
People had talked of fish and turtles and dolphins, but I never saw a single creature. Probably because they were all spooked away by the previous 1,800 athletes. The water was stirred up and seemed mucky – lots of little particles floating around. I guess that’s what happens when you get a seat in the back. Fumes. I remember seeing the boat that marked the turnaround and feeling as though we were so far out and far away from the finish. At that point, I was getting tired and feeling the brutal effects of the swells. As I made my way back there were fewer and fewer people around me and it started messing with my head. I felt lonely and discouraged. And then the cramping started. First in my feet, and then up through my calves and into my hamstrings. I stopped a number of times, grabbing surf board after surf board to relax and stretch my legs. I was defeated and still had a long way to go. After what felt like hours, I finally made my way up the swim exit ramp mumbling “thank goodness that sh*t is over.” I quickly made my way through the transition tent and to my bike. It stood alone. I wanted to cry, but instead ran my bike out of T1 and settled in to what would be the ride of my life.
Swim Time: 1:35:43 (ugh, I can’t even)
T1 Time: 4:31
I may have started too hard on the bike, but I didn’t care after the embarrassment I felt exiting the water. Full of adrenaline, I pedaled my way through town catching a glimpse of my husband and coach cheering me on as I headed up Palani Road and onto the Queen K Highway. This is where the fun began as I only got stronger as the ride went on.
Head down and focused, I passed rider after rider, group after group. A one-woman march to make up for time lost in the water. The bike course was incredible – by far my favorite hours of the day. Aside from the small climb to Hawi, the course is fairly flat with a number of small rollers. The wind was noticeable, but didn’t seem to affect me all too much. I tried to stay in the aero position as much as possible, even over rollers, which helped maintain my speed. The key to that course is staying aero!
Once I reached the turnaround point in Hawi, I held on tight for the long descent back to Kawaihae. This section is where the wind really picks up speed and attacks hard from the right side. Managing the unpredictable crosswinds meant that I had to hold on tight and pay extra attention to the riders up the road. They were the only way I could “see” the wind, as I knew if they moved I was going to be hit by a gust moments later.
Turning back onto the Queen K was a bit of a relief. Thirty miles left – home stretch. I also knew I would be riding by my mom and Axel one more time, so I kept a smile on my face and pushed on. One of my favorite things about the Kona bike course? Ice cold COKE in a bottle. I’m not sure how much ice was produced to keep all of the water, Gatorade, and Coke cold throughout the day, but they somehow managed to do it. I appreciated the cold beverages more than anything. Another bonus? The aid stations were every 10 miles, which felt like a small treat every 30 minutes. I stuck to my nutrition pretty well and was constantly drinking water and Coke (though I didn’t start Coke until around mile 70).
When I saw my mom and Axel at mile 85 I yelled “I love you” and flew by waving, while also finding new life in my legs. I fought through a pretty nasty headwind with little doubt or discouragement and found myself yet again passing group after group without any hesitation. The last 20 miles on the bike were some of my strongest and I made my way back to Kona town with the fastest bike split I had ever produced in an Ironman race.
When I got off the bike, I felt good, relatively speaking. I made my way out of transition in fairly decent time, given I made a quick stop to cover myself in sunscreen. I didn’t want to pick a battle with the sun I know I can’t win, so the extra 10 seconds were worth it. While the first mile out of transition felt strong, my body was acting differently than it did in Canada. I couldn’t find that 8:30-8:45 min/mile sweet spot. Running felt downright hard. And while I so badly wanted to have a run similar to Canada, it just wasn’t my best day. I immediately noticed the heat, sun, and lack of wind. And maybe all that effort on the bike, too. With no cloud cover on the course, the sun was demoralizing athletes mile after mile. Even some of the race favorites, like Jan Frodeno, were walking in the first miles of the run.
The first eight miles were fairly enjoyable, as the course takes athletes down Ali’i drive out and back. This is where the crowd support is massive and there is chalk writing under every footstep. At mile 4, I saw Justin and Mike pointing toward me, jumping up and down in excitement as though they had spotted a unicorn. Their energy made me smile and push on, even though I was fading with each step. It was at the turnaround that my body started feeling not so good and my tummy was mildly upset. Mentally this concerned me because I was only five miles into the run, so naturally I began to question whether I could finish. I saw Justin and Mike one more time around mile 7. Justin ran beside me for a quick 30-seconds, giving me a mental boost and a much needed pep talk.
Soon I made my way to Palani Road where I endured the hardest climb on the run course. No one ever really talks about that hill, but geez, it was TOUGH and a majority of the athletes around me were walking. I saw my friend Erin cheering and yelling words of encouragement my way. All I could do is give her a look of disbelief. “Is this hill for real? Is this race for real?” She reassured me that I was still going strong, and so I continued on and made my way out onto the Queen K highway heading toward the Energy Lab.
Have you ever been on a long hike or run where you crest one hill only to see another in the distance? That’s what running on the Queen K was like, which definitely surprised me. The hills were very long and gradual, but you couldn’t see what was ahead until you reached the top. I kept searching for the turn into the Energy Lab, but my patience grew thin as the Queen K dragged on and on and on. One hill onto the next. The miles between Palani Road and the Energy Lab were the hardest for me. It felt endless, boring, and there was not a crack of shade to be felt. Although I was able to maintain a 9:45ish pace, it seemed sluggish and slow, and I found myself questioning how I was ever going to survive the energy lab and trek all the way back into Kona.
Just as soon as I began to lose hope, I reached the top of yet another hill where I could see athletes turning left into the Energy Lab. Yes! A change of scenery! This was actually another highlight of my run and I thoroughly enjoyed the 3-mile out and back through the energy lab. At one of the aid stations sponsored by Cliff, they were blasting music and handing out pillow-size sponges that were soaked in ice water. Those sponges were a slice of heaven and probably saved my race – mentally. It was in the Energy Lab that the sun started to slowly set, which created a beautiful orange and pink ambiance and tone. Pretty incredible.
This was the first Ironman race I have done where I would be running and finishing in the dark. As I trudged ahead, one foot in front of the other, I started to make small talk with other athletes around me. And of course, the topic always has something to do with Ironman. Which race did you qualify at? How many have you done? Is this your first time at Kona? Because, there’s nothing like talking about Ironmans while doing an Ironman. At least it momentarily distracted from the distance and pain.
As I approached the aid station at mile 23, I was in a daze. Robotically, like I had done at every other aid station, I reached out for a cup of water from a volunteer. But to my surprise, it was Craig Alexander handing me a beverage with a big smile of support on his face. I perked up, got a little extra pep in my step, and said “oh my gosh, it’s you.” You know, because maybe at that point I was hallucinating. He laughed and said, “keep going, you’re almost there.” My heart fluttered and my legs carried on as I thanked him for being out there supporting athletes. Heck, if my husband couldn’t hand me a drink at mile 23, I can’t think of a better alternative. Ha!
From that point on I felt more alive and was starting to fantasize about the finish. Only a 5k left. I run a 5k nearly every day! Slowly but surely the turn toward the finish approached with only a mile to go and I flew down Palani Road on thrashed legs. To my surprise, both Justin and Mike were waiting for me at the bottom of the hill and ran next to me for a moment with looks of pure joy plastered on their faces. They spouted some encouraging words before breaking away so they could cut through to the finish area.
Wow. That finish. Once you make it back onto Ali’I Drive, it becomes a sea of people on both sides of the course as you approach the blinding bright lights and largest red carpet in the world. The music. The cheers. The adrenaline. I could literally feel my blood flowing and heart beating unlike anytime ever before. I ran down the carpet, tears of joy in my eyes, and celebrated what was a very long, hard fought journey to live out one of my greatest dreams. It was one of my proudest moments and one that I will never forget, as I raised my hands in the air and listened to Mike Reilly call out my name as I crossed the finish.
From that point on, things became a bit of a blur. I was greeted by a volunteer, handed a necklace, medal, and t-shirt, and was then passed on to a familiar face. It was Erin. She immediately embraced me with a hug and congratulated me. At first I was confused as to why she was there (ah-hem, deliriousness) but quickly learned that she was volunteering as a finish line catcher and was there to help walk me to the recovery area. I couldn’t have been happier to see a familiar face at the finish. We exchanged a few words before she gave me another big hug and passed me off to Justin and Mike, who were waiting for me in the recovery area.
For a moment I felt fine and wanted to eat a giant piece of pizza (tastes SO good after a race), but then things went south quickly and I became super cold and lightheaded. All I wanted to do was sit and not move. My body started cramping up and I was in a lot of pain. Mike thought it would be best if I paid a visit to the medical tent, so they put me in a wheelchair and rolled me over to get checked in. The first thing they did was weigh me. I had lost seven pounds since the start of the race, despite all of the food and fluids I had taken over the course of the day. Given my condition, the doctor decided to give me an IV and put some fluids back in me pronto. My veins must have been pretty collapsed from dehydration, but after being poked multiple times by three different people I finally received a successful IV and spent an hour lying on a lounge chair while sipping on chicken broth. I might be deathly afraid of needles, but that was worth it. Once the IV was finished and I was three pounds heavier, my energy quickly returned and I was good to go. The doctor put me through a couple tests before I was able to reunite with Justin and Mike.
We slowly made our way back to the car, exchanging “congrats” with other finishers, thanking spectators (there were so many out there) and volunteers (this event wouldn’t exist without them), while yells of “You…Are…An Ironman!” faded in the distance as we got further away from the finish line where athletes were still streaming in. Back at the condo and with the clock now approaching midnight, I took much-needed shower, put on my most comfortable clothes, and finally got to enjoy that post-race slice of pizza.
All those hours of training, commitment, and sacrifice, and the race itself had come and gone in a relative blink of an eye. Just like that, the day was over. Not just any day, but a day that for so many years I had hoped to someday experience. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to experience it again.