I debated whether I should even post about the Ironman World Championship race after letting so much time pass. Although I wrote about the race while laying on a beach somewhere on the Big Island, for some reason it never made its way to my blog. And every time I was ready to finally share my experience with the world, I would read my own words and feel the need to change something, add something new, or delete a memory that was no longer relevant. Honestly, I still don’t know how to feel about the race at the end of the day. Grateful? Disappointed? Elated? Proud? Humbled? Ready to go back!? It’s a broad spectrum of emotions, that’s for sure.
What I learned about Kona is that it is so much more than just a race. Anyone who has ever raced there can probably attest that the race is about a much bigger journey – it becomes a manifestation and the culmination of all the work, hours, sacrifices, and grit it takes to get there. And perhaps that is the true reason it is deemed one of the toughest endurance events in the world. People come into the race with the baggage and scars of an entire season – and sometimes much more than that – and it’s a test to see just how much you have left.
So here I am, months later, finally sharing what it was like to live out one of dreams. My goal has been to race in Kona since I was brought to tears watching the Ironman World Championship in 2013 – and this was before I had ever even considered the crazy notion of combining swimming, biking, and running into a single event. At that time, it was just a statement. One of the many goals, ideas, and wishes you add to the ol’ bucket list and say “eh, maybe someday.”
As soon as I started training for my first Ironman in 2016, that goal quickly made its way to the top of the list and became something worth striving toward. After missing a shot at Kona by one spot and 4 minutes at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, that goal became my obsession and I made it my mission in 2017 to find those 4 minutes and qualify for Kona at Ironman Canada. Everything I did leading up to Canada was with the intention and focus to fight my way to the top of my age group and secure my own destiny. With a hard earned (and somewhat surprising) age group win in Canada, I finally did what set out to do and punched my ticket along with 2,200 athletes – every one of us eager to battle it out against the best in the world.
The time between Canada and Kona was unknown territory for me. I had 10 weeks to recover, rebuild, peak, and taper before putting my body through an epic test of endurance on one of the hardest platforms in the world. While my mind was all in, full of excitement, and ready to go to war, my body started showing signs of the impact of a long season. I struggled with neck/shoulder pain that prevented me from swimming for a few weeks, combined with an IT band issue that kept me from running during what needed to be the peak of my training. I worked with my physical therapist, Chris Vergona, twice a week for several weeks leading up to the race, and through a combination of deep tissue massage, graston, cupping, and ice, was able to get my body healthy enough to compete. It was incredibly discouraging at times to feel weakened and plagued by injury, but I also maintained the mindset of “just do what your body will allow you to do.” If it weren’t for PT, I probably would not have been physically able to do Kona.
Justin and I were also prepping for a new and somewhat spontaneous adventure. With little planning or foresight, we sold our house and purchased a new one a month before heading to Hawaii, with plans to close both transactions and move into the new home immediately upon our return to Bend. This meant between work, training, and parenthood, our entire house had to be boxed up and ready to move before we left town. It was a lot to take on at once, and a little overwhelming at times, but no Kona journey story would be complete without a little “life” sprinkled in.
Needless to say, with so much going on in our lives, race week came quickly. Before I knew it I was on an airplane with Justin, Axel, my mother in law Mary, and my coach, Mike. My mom flew in a few days later to support and help take care of Axel. Racing these day-long events with a 2-year-old is an additional challenge (especially as a spectator/supporter), so I was beyond grateful that Nana and Tutu were there to take care of Axel while Justin, Mike, and I focused on the race.
We decided to stay in a big house out at Mauna Lani (about a 30 minutes drive into Kona) during the week of the race, while also renting a small basecamp condo in Kona where Mike, Justin, and I would stay the night before and night of the race. I thought we would venture into Kona more during the week, but with all the road construction and traffic it made traveling into Kona a very daunting task. We ended up spending a majority of the time out in Mauna Lani where the scene was calm and relaxing. Part of me wished I could have been in Kona to be around all the action, but I was also glad I could just relax and be separated from the race scene and chaos. At least, my nerves appreciated it.
Everything surrounding the Ironman World Championship is truly magnified and a spectacle. From the expo, to packet pickup, to the bike drop off, and the race itself, it was like any other Ironman event on steroids. Don’t get me wrong, Ironman does a great job with every event, but this is the Super Bowl of the sport so naturally it’s taken to a whole new level. Even the athletes looked as though they were another breed of human. I was constantly impressed and wowed with every moment, and had to pinch myself a number of times that I was among the talent on the island.
I would say that the overall vibe during the week of the race was much more laid back than what is characteristic of me. Typical Kristen gets pretty nervous and on edge before a big race, so I was surprised to find myself fairly calm and collected a majority of the time. Perhaps because I felt like there was no pressure – I already did the hard work to get me there. And although I always show up ready to compete, I knew my body was nowhere near 100% and that I was quite fatigued going into the race. For me, it was all about the experience.
I truly enjoyed the small bouts of training leading up to the race. A few short runs here and there to shake out the legs, along with a couple swims and some miles on the bike. Our small group rode up to Hawi to check out the “big climb” and a section of the course that is notorious for crazy wind, which was not as bad as I expected. I rode on the Queen K for the first time and it was just as hot and windy as it looks when peering out the window of the car.
And guess what? I did an open water swim in the ocean for the very first time ever! Yep. First timer right here. I had no idea what to expect, but it was surprisingly calm and peaceful. At least that was the case out in Mauna Launi – I would soon discover that swimming in Kona is an entirely different world. I felt as though I was swimming in a giant aquarium full of moving colors and abstract structures. Thankfully, all of the rumors are true and there really is a lot of buoyancy provided by the salt water, and floating was a little easier than I had pictured in my head.
Another great experience I had during race week was doing a small photoshoot with SOAS Racing and modeling a few items from their new clothing line. It has been an honor for me to race and represent SOAS for the past three years, and I was grateful for the opportunity to represent them for their marketing photos. It was during this photoshoot that I decided that I would rock the new Kona Pineapple Kit for the race, mostly because it just made me smile. And, well, pineapples.
Before I knew it Justin, Mike, and I were headed into Kona, the day before the race, to get in one last swim at Kailua Bay (my first swim there), check into our little condo on Ali’i, and make final preparations with gear bags and equipment. I would not have access to my gear bags on race morning, so everything had to be ready to rock and roll – nutrition, gum, chapstick, more chapstick – all the essentials.
My bike drop off time was 2-6pm, so I got there near the front end of that timeslot to take care of business and allow the stress to melt away. Fun fact – each athlete gets his or her own personal volunteer escort to guide them through the process of racking their bike, dropping off their gear bags, and navigating through transition. It was so nice to have someone there to answer all of my questions and help me with the little details.
Once the bike was out of my possession it was a quick stroll through the Ironman store before heading back to the condo for the evening. I kicked up my feet to relax and consumed a home cooked meal of pasta and meat sauce while watching the sunset with a glass of wine in hand. Does anyone else notice how quickly the time passes the day before a race? I swear, it’s a day most of us do almost nothing, and yet in the blink of an eye the day is over.