4:40 am Sunday. Chris wakes up wild-eyed and wired. He is up before the alarm shouting angrily about being up all night. Today is not a day for sleeplessness and fatigue. Today he needs to be on. Today he needs to want it more than ever, worse than anyone else. Today he needs to follow his plan with perfection. Full speed ahead with nothing – no excuses, no mishaps, no breakdowns, no room for error.
Today is the day.
One shot, one chance to qualify for Kona. For him, for me. If it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen at all. There will be no chase around the world, season to season, race to race. If it’s meant to be, it happens, here, now.
The race starts for me around 8 am. I am standing waist deep in the Choptank River. The sky is overcast, the crowd is quiet, and I am cold from the breeze blowing off the water. The river sways back and forth in choppy waves. The water is warm, dark, salty. The start cue is given and we are off.
The first few hundred yards are a swirling mess of arms and legs. I keep trying to kick someone off of my feet while also trying to avoid the blade like swing of an arm that keeps coming at me from the right. To the left is off course, ahead of me are buoys bouncing up and down. The chop is a little discomfiting and makes sighting a mess. When I look up, I see either an orange cap on a woman’s head or a small wave. The river feels like the ocean and I have to keep telling myself to relax, stay on top of the chop, pull through, reach, roll, keep kicking.
At the halfway point, I make the turn at the boat and finally find some open space. The current is pushing us along and there is a rhythm that has settled into the river and my swim. After what feels like a long time, I swim up the boat ramp to the mat and begin the long run to transition, a long tug at my wetsuit, and a quick run with the bike before setting off onto the road.
The first 10 miles of the bike course are quick. Flat, fast, filled with people to pass. The course snakes along some rural roads, smoothly paved. Smooth roads or not – though - the ride would be hard. All one pace, all one gear. Not a hill in sight. I push hard. My legs start to scream but I won’t listen today. And after 20 minutes, they get into it. They start to push, hard and fast. I tell them to ride. Ride like the rear wheel is on fire. Light the match, light the fire, and let them burn.
Each mile that goes by I get more and more excited. I know I am riding strong. I can feel it in my legs. I am asking a lot out of them and they are ready to respond. I was a little nervous about this bike - this is a new bike, a new position. But training has been going really, really well. Maybe it was all the miles from Ironman training, or the new bike, or just busting my ass in my basement all winter long. Whatever, I have finally come fully connected to the pain and power of my bike. And it has paid.
But around mile 30, I got passed by a pack.
And so for the next 20 miles, I worked so hard on the bike to pass, to attack, to surge, and respond that my legs were literally flying off in pieces all over the road. I didn’t know I had that in me, but then again no one (or two or three or….you get the point) had ever enraged me that much on the bike to that point where I had no choice but to get angry and push back.
I arrived at the run fired up and ready to go. If I can control one thing, it is the run. I can control my pace, I can take myself to the edge of threshold, hold it there, and run. I couldn’t wait to hit the run – I sped out of transition – no socks – and just ran.
Running felt good, running felt right. All over my wheel? Take my heels now. I turned around – no one is there. Exactly. I held the pace I thought I could hold to the turnaround point, stuck to my nutrition, and focused on going forward at full speed.
I have no idea what my position was, or who was ahead of me. I passed a few women early on, but then reached a mass of men to weave through and around. At mile 2, Laura Sopheia came running the other way shouting that there was only one woman ahead of me. Not in my age group but ahead of me.
And I knew it would be next to impossible to catch her. She was a professional runner. But dammit I tried. At turnaround point there was about 2 minutes between us. Keep pushing – she could blow up, she could cramp – who knows, anything is possible. Coming out of the turnaround, I also saw a few other women in my age group about 2 – 3 minutes behind. I knew I had to maintain my own pace – if not pick it up – to try to catch what was ahead and try to hold off what was coming from behind.
Holding onto the pace, I hit the 10 mile mark and wondered – for the first time ever – if I could make it the last 3 miles. I knew I could, but my legs were shouting no. My mind said let’s go. My legs said let’s go slow. My heart said you are running in your slot to Kona, my head said you idiot. My back was achy, my feet were tired. But somehow everything started working together and we made it through the last few miles.
At mile 12, it started to set in. Off in the distance, I could see the finish arch. And that is when I realized I was less than 1 mile away from Kona. For the second time. The smell and feel of the ocean, the whir of the wheels along black lava fields on the bike, the sound of my feet on the Queen K Highway on the run. Kona.
And that is when I thought to myself oh shit I have to go back to Kona. To do it again.
The last mile was a mix of emotions – pain, fear of being caught, pain of what’s ahead, pain, weariness, and more pain. When I finally crossed the line (the longest last mile EVER), I stopped. My feet were pounding, my entire body ached. A very nice man tried to get the chip off my ankle. At that point I started to cry. He asked if I was ok, and I said yes but I felt like shaking him and asking if he had any idea what I was going to go through for the next few months, Ironman training, for Kona.
I walked around in circles for a few minutes, to let it all set in. I had accomplished what I came here to do - to break 4:40, to break 1:30 in the 1/2 marathon, and to win my AG. This was one of the hardest races I have ever done. This race never let up, not for one minute, not for one mile. It took everything I had, every step of the way.
But the real story is not my race. In fact, it’s not even a great story. The great story is that of my husband – Chris, who, in his words, didn’t know he had it in him. The AG win, the 4:08. But I knew it all along. I knew it would be just a matter of the right moment where he would fuse performance with potential, mindset with capability, attitude with aptitude to get the job done.
And so here is where the real story begins.
If two triathletes are lucky enough, they find each other. If they are even luckier, they get along without the destructive clash of their naturally competitive natures. Luckier still, they agree to marry. Luckier yet, the marriage somehow works with the balance of work, training, traveling, and finances. And, if their lucky stars align at precisely the right moment in time – they both qualify for Kona, and they take the slots.
Until October, many miles ahead...