Saturday morning, 4 am. It is time to wake up for Ironman.
Chris prepares his flavor rainbow bottles in the kitchen while I also get ready for the day. Shortly after, Thomas drops us off by the banyan tree. Dark outside, the tree is blazing with lights. Behind the hotel we walk to drop off our special needs bags before getting our bodies marked. Today I am #1609. The volunteers paint the numbers on, numbers that will be sunburned into my skin by the end of the day. Afterwards, we walk to transition to set up our bikes for a very long ride.
The time passes quickly and soon it is time to walk towards the swim start. It is 6:30 am, Chris wonders if it is too early to enter the water. But moving 1800 athletes down a small set of stairs into the bay is no quick task. We wait in the water in the small piece of beach that remains. The water rolls in and it is chilly today.
Anticipation builds along with noise from the crowd. The announcer signals for the pros to form a long line. The cannon sounds for the pro field and they swim off towards the blue of the ocean. To watch Ironman begin is like watching a sunrise. It is the start of what will surely be a spectacular and long day in which athletes will burn and some will shine.
We decide to position ourselves to the far left and make our way up to the Ford inflatable sign and tread water. 7 minutes to go, the water is starting to churn with nervous legs. What seemed like our isolated parcel of ocean quickly becomes filled. At times it seems like athletes are swarming towards us and treading into us. I keep moving us left signaling for Chris to join me. It becomes nervewracking and people start to close in around us. I move again, and again trying to maintain a small piece of open water. Five minutes, please get away from me, two minutes, I NEED MY SPACE, one minute, get away from me NOW, 30 seconds...it is time to go.
The cannon goes off. No matter how long we were waiting, the cannon seems unexpected. A rush of arms and legs flail and power through the water. I stay on Chris’ feet for a split second and then he is gone. Surprisingly I find my own space to swim clear and smooth aside the pack. Ocean swimming is all about finding the rhythm of the water in sync with your body. I have found the rhythm of the ocean and move with its tempo through the time. For the first time ever, I find fast feet to sit on and they pull me effortlessly through the crowd.
I hit the turnaround boat at 30:44 which elates me right away. Last year, I hit this boat at 35:39. Turning back towards the shore I know it is more important to find my rhythm again. Most people fall apart when they hit the boat – they are tired, they begin to lose their form, and flailing arms are all around. I reverse the rhythm and let my body reach and roll. I fight with some man for awhile then tell myself to just take his feet and enjoy the ride.
With each stroke I get closer to the swim finish but the last few minutes are the longest and hardest. Everyone funnels from the wide ocean to the narrow bay – all aiming for the same small set of stairs. I emerge from the water and realize the clock says 1:08:34, over 6 minutes faster than last year.
A quick rinse under the hoses then a short run to grab my bag. This year I have to locate my own bag and run to the changing tent. Once inside, no one is there to help. I dump my bag and get ready to ride – gloves, shoes, go. I look for sunscreen but instead find only two women with small squirt bottles. But where are the giant vats? I know I will be in sun trouble but don’t take the time to get thoroughly squirted down. It’s time to go, I need to start my ride.
The run out to transition is long – I finally hit the mat and hop on my bike. The ride down Kuakini is always a fast blur. Everyone is pumped and ready to ride. Since Kona is such a men-heavy event, the machismo is rolling down the road along with thousands of dollars in wheels. I take it easy and just settle into my ride. 112 miles is a long way to ride when you’ve blown yourself on the first 12.
Out on to the Queen K. This is where the ride begins. The sky is cloudless and the sun is already hot. But my mind was ready for the ride. My plan was simple – take it by 10 miles. Ride 10 miles, then reassess. The first 10 miles have gone by. The next 10, 20, even 30 fly by with tailwind at my back. Today I take in the scenery and enjoy it mile after mile. The bike is all about perspective. If you don’t like how it looks or how things are going, change your perspective and mix it up. I mix it up many, many times.
What mostly helps the pass the time is your nutrition and hydration plan. You have your routine – every 40 minutes I do this, every 60 minutes I do this, every 30 minutes I do this. It’s a cycle you keep rotating through over and over again. It helps to pass the time and you are always doing the math. Sports drink, water, gels, bars, salt tab. Every time I eat a half of a bar I say outloud “I like bars.” Not really, but there are many miles and bars to go so I try to talk myself into it. Throughout the bike, the food, drink, all of it goes down well. My stomach feels solid, my legs feel strong.
Down the Queen K riders roll by in large packs. I settle into my own space and even pass a few men. I hear myself shouting on your left and laugh. I’m in Kona and shouting on your left. Something about that doesn’t seem right. The officials are on motorcycles all around us. Many athletes are getting flashed yellow cards for blocking, red cards for drafting. I keep my legal distance and just watch the ride go by.
The packs thin out by Kawaihae. We make the left turn on to the most difficult part of the course. The hills begin. The wind picks up. The sun is on fire. Crosswinds begin about 10 miles out from Hawi. I knew this would be the hardest part of the ride. I sat up, pushing slowly up the hill. I wasn’t going fast but I wasn’t getting passed either. The crosswinds blew so hard it was difficult to take my hands off the bars.
Finally I hit the turnaround in Hawi in 2:53. I stop to call out my for my special needs bag and the volunteer helps with my bottles. In less than a minute I am on my way again. The ride down is powered by cross tailwind which sends me sailing down the hill over 30 mph. My knees hug the frame to prevent it from squirreling all over the road and I have completely abandoned my aero bars for fear of losing control or getting blown. I tell myself to relax, to melt into the bike.
At mile 70, the winds relax. The course flattens. It is time to begin the steady grind. The pressure on my pedals is steady. I am in a big gear. I eat, drink, eat, drink, repeat. I tell myself I love bars, I love gels, I love Ironman.
Mile 85 and the winds have changed. This time – headwind. Not a lot but enough to keep the pace slowed down. My legs feel fine but sitting in the saddle has become a painful chore. The sun is roasting the skin on my right side. And my shoes – I broke up with them around mile 100 and we haven’t spoken since.
Before I know it, I am passing the airport, the boats, and make the right turn on to Makala back to Alii Drive. The ride down to the drive is filled with invigorating crowds. They shout as loud for first place as they do for everyone else. This is a magical race and the spectators make it magical for everyone. The bike ride took me 5:43:58. 10 minutes faster than last year. I cross the line, hand my bike off to a volunteer, then find my feet on the ground. The lower back has come out of a 112 mile hibernation and not quite ready to run but I pull my butt under, pick my feet up, and run towards my bag.
Into the changing tent, I have a small crisis to sort out. My watch has broken and I desperately need it to keep track of my time. Not for pace necessarily but for salt tabs and gels. Two volunteers assist me with my bag and I notice one has a Timex watch just like mine. I frantically ask if she’ll let me borrow her watch, telling her I promise to give it back, just leave your name in my bag, you will get the watch back by Tuesday. I am busy smearing my feet and shoes with Vaseline as Petra – my volunteer - takes off her watch and resets the Chrono function. She didn’t even think twice – she just offered her watch and I am ready to run.
I hit the mat out of transition at 6:59:11. I think to myself all it will take is a three and a half hour run to break 10:30 overall. I know I can do this. It’s not even a doubt. But it will be hot, hard work. I know my skin is in trouble as I can already feel the burn of nearly 6 hours in the sun with limited sunscreen. But this is Ironman. You push on, you keep going, you pay for it later and forget about it now.
Alii Drive is the most beautiful place to start your run – lined with crowds, trees for shade, views of the ocean. You cannot help but run fast. My legs feel fine. I knew they would, this is the best part of being a runner in a triathlon. I tell myself this run is a matter of just getting it done. Completion – and I am on my way. I focus on fast feet and relaxed arms. I am picking off people as I run and telling them to keep going, way to go, good job. Most don’t speak English but understand a raised thumb, a smile. The crowd rewards me for my positive attitude and tells me I have a great smile. The more I boost people up, the better I feel. I know I have to do this while I can because when I get out on the Queen K things will definitely change.
Other than smiling, my task was simple along Alii Drive – keep the body cool. I hold large chunks of ice as they melt in my hand, wiping them across my face and putting them into my mouth. I pour water on my head. I dump large cups of ice in my top.
Around mile 4, I see Chris coming the other way. I haven’t seen him much today but there here is nearly jumping out in front of me while shouting “stomach cramps!” Salt, I tell him, take more salt as I run away. I pass a few women in my age group and also get passed. I’m typically a tough runner, one of the top but this is Kona and you’re never the best.
Mile 5, I have grabbed my least favorite gel. Actually, I forget to grab a gel, run a few steps back and grab the only gel they have. Double Latte. Stomach barks back. I hope the double caffeine will settle soon in my stomach but somehow I know that’s wishful thinking after this many miles.
A right turn up Hualalei towards Kuakini and up Palani. The hill at Palani is longer than I remember but the crowd is going wild. Many spectators have made the most of the race booklet that contains our numbers and names. Large groups of strangers shout “Go Elizabeth!” as I make my way up the hill.
As I reach the top, I make a left on to the Queen K. The real run begins. It will be about 5 miles. The hardest 5 miles of the race. Lonesome, black pavement, stark heat along the highway. I need to focus, get ready and just run these 5 miles. Less than 40 minutes, I can do this, I can hold this pace. I was holding about a 7:45 pace and knew I could keep it up. Mile to mile, aid station to aid station, cup of ice to cup of ice.
The heat begins to radiate from the ground. The black pavement of the Queen K soaks it up and sends it up through our feet and into our legs. The runners are quiet. The crowd has disappeared. It is each runner for themselves on the unrelenting Queen K. All you can hear is the rhythm of your own feet, your own breath as you slowly make your way along. There is something about this part of the race that you never forget. You never forget the hue of the sun, the black of the pavement, and the sounds of your feet on pavement. It is burned in your mind.
At the next aid station, it is not time to grab gels but I grab my two favorite flavors because they are there and as I’ve learned – I might not see them again. This makes me hopeful that any stomach distress will not recur. Soon though my stomach begins to talk. And I know it is time. I see a small shrub on the shoulder, run off the highway, and duck behind. It takes about a minute and I feel much better. I hope that is the last time.
Still with my stop, I hit the halfway mark around 1:45. I knew I would have to keep it steady to run 3:30 or better which was my goal. Last year I ran 3:30 and knew I could do it again. I keep the pace moving along – knowing that was more important now that I had taken a stop. Running the other way I see Bree Wee. Her face looks tired and she is grabbing for water at the stop. A short while later, I see Rachel Ross who says “Go Fedofsky!” Other than that, it is a very quiet, lonely stretch of miles.
The miles click off and I am focused on the Kona Mountain Coffee shop which would signal 10 more minutes to run to the Energy Lab. Ahead I see the solar panels of the lab and tell the man next to me we are almost there. 10 minutes quickly go by and I am turning into the lab. I am hot, uncomfortable, stomach upset but I am eager to get into the lab. Actually I am thrilled. Mentally, getting to this lab signified the beginning of the end of the race. It was just a matter of 9 more miles.
1 mile into the lab and I believe I’m having some potty trouble in my pants. It’s Hawaii, it’s about 88 degrees, I’ve been racing for over 8 hours, and I’ve eaten nothing but bars and gels. Shit happens in Ironman. It happens at all the wrong times. But you learn to deal with it and then move on. I stop in my tracks to check, long ago leaving vanity and pride. At that moment I realize Seton, the owner of Trisports.com is right behind me and I apologize – he says no problem, at least I did it in front of him. I realize there is more coming and duck behind a smaller shrub in the Energy Lab.
I run some more and then I see Chris. His face is bright red, his eyes are narrowed, and his arms are raised up like he is ready to either hug me or throw himself at me. He shouts “wife…..” and looks like he is running through a desert and I am his mirage. I shout at him to keep going, keeping pushing, just finish it up. He looks completely spent and utterly trashed. He is seeing the Kona wizard for sure. I do not worry much about him because I know he will finish. Slowly, but surely he will make his way.
I keep pushing the pace and hit the turnaround. I notice I am making up time on a few women in my age group and set out to pass them by. In this time, I am also passed by a younger woman. She is running on fire. Speaking of fire – the heat has started to abate. The Queen K was the worst of it, burning into my skin and igniting my body on fire. I did what I could to keep the heat down – ice, water, but at some point you realize hot is hot and there’s no hiding.
I start the run out of the Energy Lab – again like last year passing on my special needs bag. I focus on the green road sign at the top of the hill out of the lab. That is my target which I push on towards. I cross the mat at the motivational mile and someone has typed in “E. Fedofsky Have a Blast!” It makes me laugh. Seriously, a blast – I’ve had several thank you at all the wrong times.
Running out of the lab I know it’s a little more than a 10K. It is long but it is so short compared to where I have already been. I see a woman in my age group ahead of me and focus on passing her next. It takes me at least a mile but finally I do it. Now, a new goal. The next mile marker sign. My legs are tired and a blister has burst. I want to be done. I am so hot and salty and tired. And then my stomach drops again. This time I simply stop on the side of the road. I find a small tuft of grass and just go. I realize another girl is doing the same, except she has not even taken shelter behind a tuft of grass. I pull my pants up again and think I am so close to being done. I can do this. I don’t care if I have to stop another 10 times, yes I can, yes I can, yes I can.
I run to the next mile. Ruben, a Chicagoland friend, who is running the other way, stops and points ahead, “Do I sense drama in the household? Chris is right up there!” I cannot see him but think I will set him as my next target. But then I realize it is more tangible just to run to the next mile. At each mile marker I tell myself “you can do this.” Just to remind myself that I have made it this far. My mind has completely emptied of thoughts, my body is completely full of pain. In those last few miles I realize I have been completely stripped down. And in these moments of hard work, shame, and pain, my character spoke to me and said “you can do this” over and over again. You learn to listen to yourself in Ironman. You have no other choice. You realize you are your own best friend, your only friend. It is you and your head along the Queen K. No one else will get you to that line except the thoughts running through your mind. You learn to listen. And you make your way.
The last few miles and people are finally opening up again – the silence is broken as there is talk and buzz about the finish line. A guy runs past me and I tell him he is running strong. He tells me the same. He runs with me for awhile. He says of all the Ironmans he has done, none have ever been this hard and he has never had such potty troubles. He is crapping mile to mile. A lot of us are. Welcome to Ironman. The nearest stranger has just become your new best friend, a kindred spirit in stomach distress out on the Queen K. You’ve never met but you look to your right and there they are right next to you, bare assed and baking in the sun.
Another mile, and then another stop. I run across the Queen K to a small shrub. I pass a spectator and apologize – she says, no worries girl, it’s your race. True, and right now it’s a race to that shrub. Bottom end relieved I tell myself it’s time to get this done. 3 miles to go. I just want to see that mile 24 sign. There are the boats. There is the green roofing of the stores on Palani Road. Mile 24. Mile 25. Down the hill, on to Kuakini, the crowd is cheering, shouting, turn on to Hualalei, and finally on Alii Drive.
I am smiling, it is a wide smile. I have been waiting for this moment for the past 10 hours. The run down Alii Drive. The finish chute is long and lined with crowds. The noise is deafening. The finish line gets closer. I focus in on what I am feeling and how it all looks when I finally cross the line. I hear my name called and for the second time in my life I am announced an Ironman. I finish in 10:32:10. I put up my arms. I start to cry. My handlers are holding me. We walk from the finish line. I cry. My body is throbbing. The heat is still coming off my skin. I am red, I am cooked, I am an Ironman.
In crossing the line the second time I wasn’t sure what I would find. When I crossed the finish line, I cried. I cried because it hurt, because I worked hard, because I did it faster on a much harder day. I cried because I was hot, and tired, and because I kept pushing and pushing to the end. Because in hot, dark moments along the Queen K when my stomach rumbled, my feet ached, and my skin burned my mind could think of nothing else to say but you can do this. That was the only thing that came into my mind. For that, I cried.
And so that is what I found. The first time I finished I just wanted to get to that finish line. The second time I wanted to listen and see what I found. I found I can persevere. I can push. I can keep going. That is my character. That is what I said to myself. In Ironman you find out who you really are, you learn what your character is made of, what you say to yourself to get through. I spoke to myself only in terms of you can do this all the way until the finish line.
When you listen, you learn and what I learned is yes I can. This is what Ironman taught me about myself. I can do this, yes I can.