It started with a song.
An entire collection of songs that Bree sent me from Hawaii. 15 months ago, in our first days home from the hospital, as I tried to figure out what to do and how to do it with a newborn, Max and I listened to the songs. I thought about Hawaii. I thought about Kona – specifically treading water waiting for the start cannon. That moment seemed a million years away as I sat there sore and heavy while caring for an infant. Listening to those songs made the impossible seem possible. They gave me hope that I could be what I once was.
Now after a season of competing, I’ve since learned that I cannot go back and be that athlete.
I can be better.
Arrive at Kona. October 2011. Long story (actually 10+ hour story) short, I executed my race plan. I did what I set out to do. There were no low moments, no epiphanies, no life changing realizations. Rather it was a culmination of knowing what I could do, going out there and doing it.
The long version. Warning: it’s long but then again – so is Ironman.
This is my third time racing on the Big Island. This year, Kurt got me ready to put together my best Ironman. His training was simple, consistent and effective. I did not swim/bike/run one more mile than I needed to. I did 2 x 20+ mile runs, 3 x 100+ mile rides and oodles of 4000+ yard swims. The focus of training was repeatability – to work at race pace, recover and then a few days later – do it again. I stayed ridiculously healthy – not sick once since Max was born. How? Appropriate training, attention to recovery (nutrition, sleep, maintaining low stress) and keeping it all in perspective. I don’t sweat the small stuff and I don’t do the big stuff. No monster epic weekends/hard core intervals/big miles – no time, no desire. I’ve also learned it’s not necessary. I believe if you can achieve optimal performance on less training – by all means, do it. You’ll have better health, better recovery and longevity.
As such, I arrived at race week feeling fit, fresh, tapered and ready. I reached race weight. I survived 9+ hours of air travel with 3 children and 8 adults. If you’re wondering how, let me just say that I packed 25 pounds of snacks and toys, of which only Mr. Potato Head kept Max entertained for a few minutes before he realized that throwing his pacifier over the seat and pulling the hair of the woman in front of us was way more fun.
Race week was like being in the eye of a storm. A storm of 14 members of my support crew including 10 of my in-laws, my husband, my kid, my mom, Dr. Nuts (yes, he is real and is really a doctor) and Sherpa Thomas (to clarify: not a real Sherpa, but a real person indeed) – all staying in the same house. With no air conditioning.
The days leading up to the race went by quickly. Each day, I did my workouts then spent very little time in town mingling or at the expo. The “scene” of Kona is an energy drain. Plus, you risk illness when you spend time around 1000+ athletes on edge. I washed my hands a lot but also mentally prepared for the craziness of Kona, the chaos of my family, the “stress” of doing a world championship. To help, Chris graciously took over 99 percent of the Max responsibilities. I slept in my own room. I also didn’t put much emphasis on the label of Kona as a world championship. Like Kurt told me, it’s an Ironman that you’re doing in Hawaii. Enough said.
Two days before the race, I eliminated all fiber. My biggest fear in Ironman was what happened on my last trip there – poop. Lots of it throughout the marathon. No one knows specifically what causes this but risk of poop can increase due to overheating (the skin being the largest organ requires a lot of blood for cooling; more blood to the skin, less blood to digestion, possible hypoxia in the large intestine which then leads to poop), jostling of items in the intestines, dehydration or too much fiber in diet leading up to the race. Dr. Nuts said that 48 hours of reduced fiber was sufficient.
The day before the race, I ate a large breakfast then tapered calories throughout the day. I ate one of the smallest pre-race dinners ever. Afterwards, Dr. Nuts painted my feet in Dermabond – a skin seal used after surgery. I don’t wear socks when racing (ever) so wanted to be sure I limited the risk of blisters (and yes, it worked). Once it dried, I was in bed by 7:30 pm.
Race day started at 3:30 am. Sherpa Thomas dropped me off in the darkness of early morning at the King K. I dropped off my special needs bags before getting my numbers painted on at body marking. Next, I got weighed. Before I stepped on the scale, I made an emphatic plea: DO NOT TELL ME HOW MUCH I WEIGH. I knew I arrived at race weight and didn’t need to hear the consequence of heat-induced edema (hello cankles!) and carbo-loading for 3 days. When transition opened at 4:45, I was one of the first in there. It was an amazing feeling, even the empty transition area was buzzing with energy. And so was I – today I get to do an Ironman!
After getting my bike ready, I tucked myself away behind the King K, hiding behind headphones. Music pumped through my ears while I did some stretching. A lyric pops out: take control of your now. A perfect mantra for the day.
Before I knew it, it was time to get into the water. My plan was to start far left by the Ford inflatable. Treading deep water for 20 minutes was tiring so I hung off the inflatable until foam chunks started coming off and the paddlers told us to back up. At a certain point, we stopped listening. Kurt warned me that within 1 minute of the start, the “creep” would begin – the point at which everyone starts swimming before the cannon goes off. Sure enough, within 1 minute, everyone starts creeping. By the time the cannon sounded, athletes were already swimming.
The swim start in Kona is one of the most aggressive, frenzied starts out there. Throw world championship in front of a race name and you get nearly two thousand top notch athletes swinging punches without holding back. Everyone is good at Kona. Everyone has nearly won something to get there. If you don’t go with your big girl panties on, you’ll get eaten alive and find yourself with a mouthful of DNF. Grace under pressure is critical. Within seconds, I was getting pulled at, swatted, swum over and hit. A few times, I actually had to stop to “gather” myself. I looked behind me to see a giant swarm of angry blue and pink caps with arms like chopping blades. Keep swimming!
Every minute of that swim was fierce full contact. Some people call this poor sportsmanship but really it’s just fear. Most athletes in Kona are blatantly nervous and afraid. You can read it between their lines, see it in their face. Everyone is swimming, biking and running scared – of the pressure, the risk of failure, the reality of just being “good” amongst a field that is “great”. If you go to Kona, you must go accepting that everyone is fitter, leaner and faster than you. Get over it then focus on yourself and manage your own race.
Finally, the swim exit. Climbing the stairs, I see 1:06 on my watch. A two-minute PR but initially I was disappointed. Then I looked around me under the freshwater hoses: Rachel Ross and Lisbeth Kenyon, both women who have won their age group before in Kona. I turned my disappointment into excitement.
My plan for transition was to be assertive and quick. A volunteer appears and the first thing I said (shouted) was: SUNSCREEN. She smeared me with a white mess and I shouted MORE. She did it again and I shouted MORE! Dr. Nuts told me that sunscreen would be imperative for my day. As soon as your skin starts “feeling” hot, you risk overheating and then gastric shutdown. I came out of that tent looking like Casper.
The run out of transition is long. Once on my bike, I was surrounded by a thick clump of men that didn’t shake apart until the return trip on Kuakini. The pace was fast and we had tailwind.
Once on to the Queen K, I settled in and focused on holding my power range. The first aid station was about 15 miles into the ride where I grabbed water – something I would do at each aid station every 7 miles from there. The day was warm but then again when you’re riding on black pavement that extends what looks like forever and surrounded by fields of black lava – you’ve got to expect it’s going to be a little toasty.
I sailed through the first hour in 22.7 mph. Tailwind is a glorious thing. Up to Waikoloa, the miles clicked off quickly. The ride simply became all about executing my plan. I controlled the controllables: my hydration, salt tabs, nutrition, my pacing, my mindset. Mostly, I found my mind empty - not negative, not positive, just still. Not once did I hit a mental low or wish I was somewhere else. How would you feel if you got to do everything you loved for a day? You would embrace every moment, you would enjoy it. I took the time to look at the lava and ocean. With all of this beauty and opportunity, how could this not be my day? Soon enough, I found myself at the turn off to Kawaihae.
The entire course is a series of long, gradual climbs with a mixed bag of winds but once you turn at Kawaihae, the climbs are more prominent and the wind seems to always be in your face. I got the sense that it was windy at Hawi based on how the pros were riding back down from it – Kurt told me to be aware of this. The climb to Hawi is about 7 miles long and today the winds were gusting around 30-40 mph. I held on firm to my bike. Everyone was sitting up. A lot of bigger girls were passing me. At one point, I think it took 6 minutes to cover a mile.
At mile 60, we hit the turnaround and started to sail effortlessly. I made a quick stop at special needs then cruised down from Hawi. According to my power file, I coasted easily for 38 minutes. Thank you, tailwind. Tailwind turned into a pretty calm wind once back on the Queen K. Towards Waikoloa there were a few who opened the oven door moments of heat but other than that, the ride felt fairly easy. From Waikoloa to the airport, there was significant crosswind and the crowds had thinned out. Yet in the last 20 miles, I was on top of my power range and my legs felt amazing.
Coming into transition, one of my athletes yelled my name and caught my bike (thanks, Kris!). I shouted YEAH! I knew from training that I could ride 5:30-5:36 and did 5:36 exactly. But more importantly: my big goal was to break 10:30 for the day. I dismounted the bike at 6:46 and at that moment got a little giddy: for sure I would break 10:30 today.
In transition I assertively shouted SUNSCREEN and dumped my bag. In doing so, my salt tab container opened up. And there went 16 salt tabs all over the ground. I shouted at the volunteer, PICK THEM UP! I was loud but Kurt told me not to be afraid to gently “boss” them around – that’s why they are there (and of course I said THANK YOU!). I ran out of transition with a face full of sunscreen and zippy legs.
Never look at the whole of the marathon – it’s too long! Instead, I ran aid station to aid station. I was told to keep the first 5 to 10 miles very easy and when I hit the first mile in 7:06 I had to remind myself that easy meant nose breathing. It’s hard to go slow along Alii Drive – it’s lined with spectators and along the ocean. I yanked myself back and told myself sustainable. Hold a pace that you could sustain all day no matter how hot it is out there.
And it was hot. I took advantage of any shade I could get. At each aid station, I grabbed a sponge, dumped two cups of ice in my bra, grabbed two cups of water and then (as needed) grabbed gel. This year, I decided to rely on the course for gels and almost regret it – every gel was my least favorite flavor and caffeinated!
At mile 10, you make a right turn up Palani which always feels 10 times longer than it actually is. I wanted to keep my effort low so slowly chugged up it before making the left on the Queen K. Shortly thereafter, I hit the half way point at 1:43 – and knew I was on track to have a strong run. Just another 13.1 miles to hold it. Mentally, I broke up the Queen K with landmarks. I clicked off a few faster miles, passing some women in my age group before getting to the Energy Lab. Chris was all over the course telling me where I was in my age group, how long to 5th place. I got off the bike in 13th place and made my way to 7th by the Energy Lab.
The Energy Lab goes by quickly. I was passed by one woman but kept moving at a consistent pace. Out of the lab, I had 10K to go. I was given specific directions to pick up the pace at this point but I couldn’t make it happen. Maybe because I missed about 5 months of running in late pregnancy and even before that had about 6 months where I wasn’t running long miles. To excel at this distance, you need an extensive base of miles and strength.
Not only that but I think I settled. When I qualified for Kona, I told Kurt I wanted to break 10:30. Yet in training, I got the sense that based on fitness/data, I could break 10:20. For whatever reason, I didn't commit to it. I settled for sub 10:30. Next time, I will dream bigger - no, BIGGER - and then commit to it. So much of long course racing is how bad you want it. At a certain point, fatigue is a choice. You choose your outcome out there.
The last few miles were a series of thoughts running through my head about just wanting to be done but at the same time being sad that I only had a few miles left. I heard Chris shouting but wasn’t listening – I was quietly retreating into that place in my head where I go to hide from pain. Nothing else mattered but seeing the next mile marker. The next aid station. I couldn’t drink enough water or get enough ice. I got passed by another girl in my age group bumping me down to 9th place. Each street passed slowly – Henry, Kalani, Hualalai and finally: Alii Drive.
Any regret about the last 10K fades as I approach the finish. There is nothing like running the final ½ mile down Alii Drive. The crowd is lined thick and makes a tunnel towards the finish line. They are all shouting my name, clapping, the cheers are deafening. I cross the line in 10:22:02 and 9th in my age group. Arms up and a giant smile spreads across my face. It was the only thing I could think to do and was 100 percent genuine. It was a year’s worth of work, sacrifice and making it happen day after day – no matter how many times I was woken up during the night, how many people told me I was crazy, how many pounds I still had left to lose. I did it.
After the race, I am greeted by two catchers. I was thirsty, hot and wanted to sit down. A woman pours cold water over my head. Finally the catchers pass me over to Sherpa Thomas. He takes me to the back to sit down. I can’t do it – he has to assist me. Dr. Nuts appears soon after to take me to the bathroom. I considered it a huge victory that I did not poop all day. But after the race – that’s a different story.
My feet are throbbing and I cannot walk by myself. Dr. Nuts piggy backs me to my family. I tell my mom that I never want to do another Ironman. She reminds me of a photo I took 4 years ago saying the same thing. Using the stroller as my walker, I make my way back to the car. The short walk feels like forever.
That evening, Dr. Nuts pumps me full of two IVs and a bag of dextrose. He tells me not to drink water or else it will cause my intestines to spasm. I eat 2 pieces of pizza which pretty much have the same effect. I spend a lot of time in the bathroom hating Ironman. Chris spent a lot of time holding my IV bag while I was in the bathroom. Pretty sure he was also hating Ironman.
The next day, I woke up feeling ok. I was slightly tired but the IVs seemed to help with recovery. Dr. Nuts said that could be psychosomatic. I tell him to shut his overeducated medical yapper. My feet, however, were killing me. My big toe bunions were badly chafed. I had no appetite. And I got a nasty case of edema that lasted the next 5 days (Nuts said it’s from the trauma of Ironman – the only “cure” was time and wearing compression socks).
I spent the next few days on the island – visiting beaches, shopping. I ate Haupia ice cream (coconut pudding – delicious). I did not eat vegetables. I drank porter at the Kona Brewing Company. While overlooking the ocean, I had a few Mai Tais. I laughed with my friends and family. I did absolutely nothing. It's called recovery.
When I started training again after having Max, I set big goals. Make the impossible possible. Take control of your now – don’t wait! I took it one day at a time and never doubted myself. So many people tried to pass their doubts on to me: you’ll never have time, you won’t want to leave your child, you’ll never run the same again. In the end, I achieved what I set out to do – I broke 10:30 at Kona, I set a 10 minute PR, I finished top 10 in my age group at a world championship. Now I have the confidence of knowing I have what it takes and because of that, a door has opened. A door of possibility. Where it goes? Well, that’s for me to decide as I plan out what to do next….
It goes without saying that a lot of people contributed to this accomplishment: my husband, my child, my family, my coach, my babysitter, my friends, my lanemates, my athletes, my sponsors. You know who you are and know what you did for me. Thank you!