There is also a magical amnesia associated with endurance racing. Those moments of self-doubt and resignation are fleeting and almost always pass...years of racing has taught me this well. Sometimes it takes minutes, hours or days to forget how much a race hurts, but by some ironic miracle, the painful memories also seem to be the most short-lived. Long-term memory evokes a day that was glorious, victorious and proud. This is unequivocally BEST thing I have ever done.
All the races that led up to Kona? Forgotten. Long months of sacrifice and training? Forgotten. The previous races in Kona? Also forgotten. Long after the sweat dries, the bike is cleaned and the chafing heals, the mind barely recollects the low moments. What remains is the vivid memory of a hard fought finish and the reinforcement that anything you set your mind to is truly possible.
The magic of Kona
No matter how you feel about the Ironman World Championship in its current form, the Kona race is irrefutably part of Ironman history. Perhaps it is not the most difficult triathlon or toughest endurance challenge in the world (we could debate for hours what might be), and arguably it is a monster of its own making. But, that's not really the point - there IS always a bigger mousetrap. Let the talking heads and the media circus do what they do; the politics, sponsorships, celebrity participants and pundits are all an easily ignored sideshow.
When you step off that plane to the panoramic view of lava, lava and more lava, it gets real. The wind and humidity hit you, and that glorious, wonderful smell of Hawaii envelops you. It is impossible not to feel moved, daunted and excited. It's freaking Kona and I'm here to race!!
|View of the lava field and the Queen K from the plane. No one said it was pretty. They just said it was tough.|
And, as if being beat by all the fast kids isn't enough, the unpredictable conditions make the course an enigma and a worthy adversary in and of itself. Every year is different, but no matter how hard those winds blow or how hot those lava fields get, you know you will absolutely scratch, claw, suffer and crawl your way 140 miles to return to that seriously awesome finish line on Ali'i. While enroute, you will swear yourself into retirement, and less than 60 seconds after finishing you will be plotting your return. Euphoria, amnesia, sheer exhaustion...whatever it is, it is an addictive thing indeed.
Just your regular Hawaiian vacation...
The week I spent in Kona before the race was remarkably calm - very different than both other years I have been there, but utterly enjoyable.
As a late-season qualifier (7 weeks between Ironmans...what?!), my expectations were set achievably low. Enjoy the day. Be a tourist. Don't take any of this too seriously. I may not have fully figured out the devil that is Ironman Hawaii, but I have learned enough to know that accepting my inability to control the uncontrollable is the best way to approach racing there.
So...I enjoyed the scenery, drank lots of Kona coffee, ate my fill of yummy acai bowls, hung out with friends, did some light workouts (well, sort of *light*) and got drunk on Hawaiian sunshine and the smell of plumeria. All in all, a pretty nice *training camp*!
|Oh palm trees...I missed you!|
|My backyard....aquamarine sea as far as you can see, and dolphins too!|
|The lovely plumeria!|
|Sunrise swim anyone? Fun times with two very talented and incredible athletes.|
Sometimes you convince yourself to do things that scare you to the very core, in the hope that facing your fears will make you stronger. And you repeat those things, for good measure, in the hope that they will get easier. I'm not convinced, however, that the swim in Kona ever gets easier...in fact, it continues to intimidate the hell out of me.
So as much as I'd like to say that I was really tough and didn't let it get to me, my 6am conversation with Dan at the pier really went something more like this...
R: I'm scared!
D: I got up at 4am so you are going to go do this.
R: But I'm scared!
D: Go swim!
R: I don't want to!
D: Get in the water!
I procrastinated as long as possible, hemmed and hawed over my starting location (got bashed at the right in 2010, got bashed in the middle in 2012 - may as well try left!) and was one of the last reluctant swimmers that the race officials pushed off the beach at 6:45am. I was facing my fear, albeit not in a very brave way.
|Yeah, I'm in that mess. Just seeing a picture of it makes me cling to dry land.|
The Kona swim has not gone well for me in the past, so I was game to try something new. Aside from starting left, I did two things differently. First - I started with a group of pink caps. Experience has proven that jostling with males who outweigh me by 10-50% does not pay off. While the female swimmers still smack, punch, kick and splash...it is so much less violent. I'll take fingernails over body checking any day. With the former, I actually have a fighting chance at staying afloat!
Second - I didn't look at the splashing mess of humanity around me because it freaks me right out. No sighting forward at all. I put faith that someone in the mess was occasionally ensuring that we were hurtling in the general direction of the buoy line, and just rolled with it. Sure enough, we went the right way.
After three buoys of continuous body contact, I got bored and started a little game which involved counting strokes until I ran into something. This was a fun little distraction to ward off my fear. (For the record, my worst count was two, my best was fifty-two. In retrospect, I might have been a little off course on the latter!)
|A little soggy...but upright, and moving forward.|
This is SO MUCH FUN
As I did last year, I sacrificed a little time in T1 to ensure I was well protected from the sun. Slathered with sunscreen and covered with my awesome new Castelli T1 Stealth jersey, I was well equipped to manage the sun. No amount of time saving is worth a sunburn IMHO!
Have I mentioned how much I love my bike? I love, love, love my bike, and the ride in Kona is like nothing else. Hot, windy, fast...so much fun!!
|Pepper the P5 takes on the lava fields|
My one regret is that I didn't leave more out on the bike course. I don't regret the special needs stop, or the sunscreen stop. However, I opted for my small chain ring for much of the last hour (on purpose). It would definitely have been beneficial to ride with power readings - in retrospect, aimlessly trying to save my legs was probably not the best choice. Still, a PB Ironman bike split for me, at 5:14 and change...and feeling great to boot. I rolled up to T2 with a big grin and ready to run.
What goes up...
Feeling pretty pleased with my swim and bike, I was well aware that all the heavy lifting was after T2. Confidence during an Ironman is best saved for the 40k mark.
A marathon is a long way to run, never mind after a 3.8 k swim and 180 k on the bike, but I knew what I needed to do. Run an even pace, use the aid stations, keep my mind in the game and smile, dammit, smile. I wasn't feeling particularly awesome at that point, but I did not feel too terrible either. Given the distance covered at that point, not-awesome-but-not-terrible is pretty awesome. Makes sense, right?
The crowd on Ali'i really helped boost my spirit, as did the various wacky signs on the road. Knowing I would get to see Dan cheering on the run course also put some zip in my step.
|How can you NOT smile when you see race signs like this?|
|Floating down Ali'i Drive before things turned south.|
The second time I saw Dan on the course, about 14k in, I was barely running. The tears flowed.
R: I'm sick.
D: You can do this.
R: But I'm sick.
D: Go run!
R: I don't want to!
I didn't want to quit, but was incredibly frustrated. Running made my tummy gurgle in distress, and one should never trust a tummy that gurgles. Certainly not the race I was capable of, but all that my belly was allowing. Dan's confidently gentle butt-kicking, as well as kind words from Mark Shorter, didn't settle my stomach but were enough to settle my resolve to finish notwithstanding the less than desired result. No more gel and cola. Salt tabs, water and will power!
But it's my story...and I can choose a fairy tale ending if I want
I stopped feeding my upset stomach and gutted through the run (pun intended) in a rather ugly fashion. Nature stops galore, lots of water. No one said Ironman was pretty.
The run out to the Energy Lab is truly soul-sucking but once I made the turn at the end of that road to nowhere, the twelve kilometers home seemed like no big deal at all. A little hill up, a little hill down, more aid stations, a long painful hill, and the top of Palani hill magically appeared. I ran a little faster. The last two kilometers of this race is beyond description - you cannot help but smile, run, and smile some more.
You feel like you are floating down Ali'i Drive, high-fiving the kids along the finish corral. Noise, smiles, cheers. The woes of the day vanish. It matters not whether you are 1st or 18th or (in my case) 924th. It's freaking Kona!!
|Confession: I really just like this photo because of the abs.|
|Running away from budgie smuggler jumpy finish dude.|
I'm also acutely aware that there is a greater purpose than the journey from start to finish line. Though I count myself three times lucky in being able to experience it in my lifetime, Kona will not always be the aspiration. As to what dreams, adventures, start lines or opportunities I will chase next...I'm not entirely sure, but it will be fun figuring it out.
Off-season, so far, has involved beaches, relaxing, a few happy hour cocktails and precious time with this wonderfully supportive, patient and incredible person. My own little beautiful aloha fairy tale. Pinch me...it's all a dream, right?