Monday, October 28, 2013

Three times lucky

Anytime I truly test my limits in a race, I know with confidence that it will hurt.  It is guaranteed that I will question my will, doubt my ability to continue and convince myself that this is unequivocally the WORST thing I have ever done.  For the uninitiated, racing an Ironman might seem to be primarily physical, but to the experienced is very much a mental exercise.   My biggest adversary is not the heat, the humidity, the wind or the other competitors, but my own mind.

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.
Kona is, to me, a legendary race against the fastest Ironman athletes in the world, on a pretty bad-ass race course steeped with history.  Age group women going 9:15?  Incredible, and awesome.  There are few triathlons that attract the same depth of age-groupers, sufficient to outclass all local-race-rockstar-wanna be-fast-kids.  You either race as a tourist, or show up with a serious A game.  In either case, you better be prepared to be up against the best in Kona.

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.
Aquatic WWF
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 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.
I joke all the time about what a bad swimmer I am, but I do really work hard for being as absolutely slow as I am.  And, as much as I have worked really, really hard at becoming a more comfortable (albeit not very speedy) swimmer, the non-wetsuit swim and predominately male field do not play in my favor.

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 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.
After what felt like a lifetime of swimming and about twice as far as any sane person should ever swim, I reached the bottom of the stairs and saw 1:12:xx on the clock.  A pretty solid swim, for me.  Cue a little water-logged happy dance.  There were still bikes in transition!!      

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, much fun!!
Pepper the P5 takes on the lava fields
Compared to both previous years as well as training rides in the preceding week, the weather conditions on race day were quite favorable.  The wind was there, but totally manageable.  I rode hard on the way out, then optimistically conservative on the return, waiting for headwinds that failed to materialize in any significant form.

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.
As in Whistler, taking nutrition on the run absolutely disagreed with my stomach.  At the turnaround on Ali'i Drive, about 5 miles into the marathon and within 10 minutes of taking my first gel on the run, the very same, evil tummy issues came on with a vengeance.  I was running well...when I was able to run, that is.  I am not the first runner to experience tummy troubles, and will not be the last...but it is really, really frustrating.  (Any more discussion in this regard is just too much information)

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!  
D:  Run!

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.  
Though not particularly pleased with my run, I finished in the same time as I did in Whistler.  Not-awesome-but-not-terrible seems to be a theme.  A decent feat given the mere seven weeks of separation between races.  In Whistler, a 10:30 yielded 12th female and 3rd in my Kona, the same time yields 121st female and 28th in my age group.  Humbling, but still a triumph to's all perspective.           

Running away from budgie smuggler jumpy finish dude.
The journey to the finish line, whether you measure race day only or the race as a tiny piece of a longer journey through your life, changes you a little.  Racing has shaped my life and my outlook, and in such a positive way.  I feel blessed to have the opportunity to race here, grateful to live this crazy dream and thankful for everyone in my life who makes it possible for me.

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's all a dream, right?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! 

On Friday night, I get to trade this...

For this...

But also this...

2167 of the fastest long distance triathletes in the world.
570 kick-ass female athletes.
141 Canadians.
5,000+ volunteers.
140 miles of heat, humidity and lava.

Great big (scary) goals

140 miles (well, 140.6 to be exact) is a long, long way to travel...even in a car.  Anyone who has done multiple Ironman-distance races can attest that it never gets easier.  As I pack for my sixth Ironman and third visit to the Big Island, I am remain equally terrified and intrigued by the magic that is Ironman Kona.  It's the most daunting Hawaiian (non) vacation you could ever dream up.

Someone commented to me earlier this week that my participation in Kona is getting "old" - from someone unfamiliar with the rigors of training, I understand where the view comes from.  It must very much seem that way...but in reality it is far from the slam dunk. My perspective, having lived every ounce of the big scary goal that was qualifying for Kona this year, is quite different.  

Twelve months ago, on the back of heartbreak that came in several forms, I put before myself the big, scary goal of getting back to the Big Island.  As 2013 arrived, the likelihood of getting to that start line had faded considerably as I struggled to run even short distances.  But the very best goals should feel so very unattainable, they should make you reach past the point of comfort and they absolutely should make you dig deep, recalibrate and focus.  

The long-term focus became a day-to-day one that enabled me to redefine what health, happiness and power over my life looks like.  Defining myself was a beautiful side-effect that, whether I succeeded in reaching my goal or not, transcended any start or finish line. I get to, every day, empower myself to live my life with purpose.  It's a pretty great thing.      

In 2013, I learned to listen to my body, to accept that some days less is more, and to trust the plan.  Bodies and hearts heal...but only with patience, time and TLC.


Today, I have #1612 assigned to me, and the beautiful, beautiful gift of another start line.     

Today, I feel grateful for the love and support around me.  My ohana.

Today, I feel blessed for my health...and not just the physical kind. 

It is truly an aloha life.