Every time I’ve sat down with the intention of writing a piece about my Kona Ironman race experience, I’ve been put off by having to re-live the experience! This time however, I’ve finally pushed beyond just writing the title. It’s not that the race was a ridiculously traumatic experience and I’m wishing to suppress it (well, actually, elements of the swim certainly were), it’s just that it was a particularly brutal day of punishment that’s left me with an overwhelming feeling of frustration.
Of cause I was exceptionally happy at having actually crossed the finish line of my second Ironman in the space of three months. However, I was not particularly happy with the process it took to get there! After the UK Ironman I was ecstatic to have crossed the line, in what was a great time for me personally, and executed all three disciplines as well as I could have hoped. If I’d have left it there I would have finished happy to round off my career on what I felt was a high. I hadn’t thought it possible that I’d ever be able to string the three Ironman disciplines together; but I did. I had a great swim, made no mistakes and even enjoyed it a little bit! I had a good bike, sensibly reigning in the tempo and exertion to ensure a well-paced race. I even had a great run, just going under four hours in an Ironman marathon and doing so at an even pace without stopping the whole way. That to me was perfection – as much as I could have hoped it to be! Yet I now report that Kona was not the same and I’ve since been left with the frustration of not having executed my personal perfection – just the feeling that I hate to have! In Kona it was the complete reverse. I didn’t handle the swim well and I finished off a pathetic wreck, whimpering, walking and stopping throughout the run – not how I wanted to do things!
The day before the race and the morning itself I felt really good. It was a nice feeling to finally feel like a more established triathlete who knew what they were doing. I’m now used to the procedures leading up to and during the race itself, so I didn’t have any of the panic of not knowing what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going. More importantly, it felt so great to be there on the Big Island of Hawaii, in Kona itself, amongst the greatest Ironman athletes in the world.
During the week preceding the race the small town of Kona had transferred into this athletic hub sporting excellence. Beautifully tanned, super skinny people sped about in every direction, their bodies sculpted to perfection, embodying the complete, ultimate, long distance multi sport machine. I watched in awe as these people slipped through the ocean waves, powered their bicycles across the land with ease and skimmed effortlessly along the road whilst running. They exemplified gladiatorial proportions of combined power, endurance, speed, skill, technique and psychological strength. I knew they would eat up an Ironman event in a day’s training if they wanted. On race day what we would be seeing from them was a demonstration of their superhuman ability to execute three disciplines one after each other, with each discipline in isolation being at close to top elite level – just awesome.
The Pro’s were indeed incredible and I was in awe. But my concern came from knowing that most of the other age group competitors were not far behind that standard. This was the World Championships after all! I was facing a gulf in finishing time between myself and most others in the majority of age groups which could amount to several hours. Now that was a daunting feeling. I certainly felt intimidated and more than aware that I was well out of my depth at this event! However, I reminded myself that I had actually achieved something good having reached a standard to be here in the first place. I also reminded myself that despite being one of the stragglers in this race, there was nobody else there who had an Olympic Gold and Silver medal! Now I don’t regularly puff my feathers up with confidence fuelled by that kind of pompous, self-importance, but there are times when you have to draw upon whatever you can to fight the fear! It was a thought that helped me wipe away the insecurities and think actually, just how unbelievably exciting it was to be there and how privileged I was to be partaking in the thick of it.
My race morning started well and I woke up enthusiastic to get the day going. Down at the course hundreds of athletes funnelled in tightly through the check in area. We showed our wrist bands, got weighed in, had our race numbers printed on our arms, did last minute organisation bits to our bikes and bags, then dropped off our finish line bags until there was nothing left to do but pull on our swim caps and goggles and wait patiently as one by one everyone filed down the steps onto the beach and into the sea. I was on my own. There were three friends of mine racing too but I had lost sight of them. I was desperately trying to spot one of them but it was impossible to distinguish individuals. At this point I really needed to see a friendly face, to get some re-assurance from and to share the moment in wishing each other good luck. I was trying to forget about how badly my swim sessions had been going out here. Before leaving the UK I’d been going great in the pool. I’d been doing some work with a swim coach and I’d been making good progress, completing some really challenging swim sets and session lengths. However, since being in Kona, it just wasn’t clicking. I’m not sure why? I suppose it most likely had to do with not having a wetsuit and being in the open sea conditions, exposing technical weaknesses, lack of specific swim strength and all round inexperience of swimming. This year in particular, as it turns out, the sea was being super rough. To top it off I really don’t like the sea and no matter how much I tried to blank out where I was when I was in the water, it was pretty much impossible to distract myself and stop feeling freaked out.
It was my turn down the steps and I jumped down to reach the sand. It was there that I saw three friendly faces smiling and waving back! I was so happy that they had waited for me. I felt the relief flood over me and I smiled and waved back as I walked over to them. We had a group hug and wished each other well for a great race, then began to make our way into the water and towards the vast pack of swimmers that had now accumulated out by the start line. I heard a shout of “mind the rocks” just as I smashed my shin hard against those said rocks. I gasped as the pain shot deep into my leg. That really wasn’t the time or place to be going and smashing my leg to pieces, I had to ignore the pain and keep going. We found a suitable area to tread water for the last few minutes and there the anticipation built. “We’re actually here in Kona!” we screamed excitedly “oh my god, this is it”. “Sixty seconds till the cannon goes off”. I could feel the back of my neck tingle and with a last few deep breaths I rehearsed my drill off the start; nice and easy, no effort, breathe deeply and relax. “BOOOOOM” the cannon fired, the echo reverberating through the skies and the water and the frenzied attack began. Never, until you actually experience it can you prepare for the onslaught that was the mass swim start at Kona. Arms, legs, fists, heads, feet, splashing, pounding, white water were everywhere around me. Pushing, pulling, punching, grabbing, choking, coughing spluttering, drowning…..”oh my god I can’t breathe, oh my god I’m drowning”. Now I can give as good a fight as the next person amongst the melee of it all, but what was happening all over again was my worst fear; I began hyperventilating.
I had to stop. It was no place to be stopping though. There was plenty more of the same right behind me that came piling over the top of me. I looked at the frenzy going on for as far as I could see to my left, to my right, in front and behind. I had to regain my composure quickly. As soon as I could I tried to swim again. I had no idea where I was heading, I couldn’t sight for the waves and the arms and the splashing. All I could feel was the pounding in the water hitting my body hard. I didn’t know if I would take in air or water when I turned my head to breathe. It was no good, after a few more minutes it kicked in again and I was forced to stop. Convinced my only fate was drowning and that I hadn’t a hope in hell of being rescued amongst this commotion (quite frankly everyone looked like they were drowning), I decided to make a beeline for the right hand side of the pack where the lifeguards were strung out on their surf–boards. Having originally strategically placed myself as far away from the edge to avoid being dinner for any hungry shark that happened to be passing (yes my fear of the ocean extends to the sea life within – big AND small), I now found myself choosing to take my chances of possibly facing my biggest phobia, rather than stick to fighting it out in the mess of it all. Now that was saying something!
Eventually I managed to settle into it and somehow crawled my way out to the halfway turn buoys. By this point my shoulders were really starting to burn as I was deliberately pulling myself right up out of the water to ensure I took air not water into my lungs and to make sure I could sight and keep myself orientated. The stretch back seemed to take forever and not only was I having to contend with busted shoulders I was also now unable to use my legs as I was constantly cramping in my calves, feet and even the front of my shins. Now this was an experience I hadn’t had before so by the time I eventually reached the finish I was pretty mad that not much had been going right. As I got upright onto the sand and ran back up the steps I saw blood running down my leg where I’d hit the rock before the start. It was a stark reminder back to 1hr20 previously and I laughed to myself as I yelled in my head “yes…I survived!”
However, this personal triumph and positivity was knocked back as soon as I changed and ran into the bike transition area. I was so slow on the swim that transition was practically empty! On a positive note, I didn’t have a problem locating my bike though! Out of transition I jumped on my bike, settled into my more familiar form of locomotion and ate up the first 15-mile loop around town fairly comfortably. As soon as we hit the Queen K Highway that was when I committed and put my foot down. My frustration at the swim fuelled had an urgency to try and make up for lost time. The bike was brilliant fun though and I revelled in the course which followed the highway straight out for 50 miles and back again. To most people that kind of long, boring, continuous, rolling course plays havoc with their minds, particularly when there are sections where you can see about 3 miles into the distance. But that’s my favourite type of course and the kind of mind battle I prefer. It was made even more interesting as the winds were blowing angry that day too and were the toughest winds I’ve ever ridden in. They were particularly harsh crosswinds, so we had not only the challenge of fighting the winds in order to keep moving forward, but also to prevent getting blown off sideways!
I was confident on my Specialized Shiv bike with Enve wheels and rode technically well in the conditions, committing hard and taking every risk and advantage on the fast downhill and crosswind sections as I could. The sun and the heat were pounding down and I was so thankful for the last minute decision I made two days earlier to put an upright aero bottle on my aero bars. I’d been using a regular bottle and cage mount between my aero bars that had worked fine. But the re-fillable aero bottle that you don’t have to remove, but can instead drink from a straw that comes up from the bars, was my saviour. I would have struggled in the windy conditions to take my hands off the bars to drink a decent amount through the five plus hours. I’m sure it would have been disastrous had that been the case. With the aero bottle I was able to take frequent sips (and frequent long gulps!) at any point on the bike course, even in the rough cross winds or downhill at 60kmph. I’ve never taken on so much fluid during exercising before so this was definitely a physiological boundary I’d not been functioning in before.
On the bike I pace myself using perceived exertion, watt output, heart rate and to a certain extent average speed. During the whole ride I felt great and I rode controlled within the power and heart rate limits that I’d established for myself and been producing for previous training and racing. I was really positive coming in off the bike that my combined feel and data feedback suggested I’d ridden sensibly and was in good condition to transition to the run.
My only annoyance with on the bike section however, came from being a stronger rider but due to my weak swim, starting so far down at the beginning. I had to spend the whole time overtaking other riders and because of the strict and hard to adhere to drafting rules, I couldn’t ride my an even steady pace. I’d either be stuck at the legal distance riding too easy and too slowly, or having to constantly accelerate to pass others. There were lines of riders strung out for miles and sometimes it would take several accelerations or a push of several minutes until I could find a gap to ride steady. Throw into the mix rolling inclines and descents which people ride at different paces, riders who were going too hard in the first half of the bike, guys who didn’t want to be overtaken by a girl, paranoia that you’d be an inch too close or take a second too long to pass another rider and get a time penalty etc. and it became a constant to-ing and fro-ing, trying not to annoy somebody, get annoyed by them or worse, get a penalty. This kind of fragmented tempo riding can be physically quite damaging. Although I didn’t really have a choice in the matter it probably left me fatigued in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and may have contributed to my reduced run ability in the early stages of the marathon.
Although I’ve never run big distances in training I’ve never transitioned from the bike and felt daunted by the prospect of facing a marathon. For the most part I’m just ecstatic to have got through two thirds of the Ironman and happy to relieve myself from the excruciating pain of being doubled over on the bike for so long! Also, the run is the more enjoyable and social part of the whole race. It is here that you get to see the faces of other competitors, give each other a quick “hey”, maybe exchange a short conversation or even give an encouraging boost to one another when it’s needed. It is also on the run where the crowds come out and cheer and provide street side entertainment and distraction. Out there on the first part of the run course on Alli Drive the crowds were out and it was an incredible atmosphere. I started strong and felt fine. I was running a good tempo, nothing brilliant, just a steady base to tick off the first few miles and create a nice rhythm. I aimed to play it exactly as I did for the UK Ironman – can go harder, could go harder but won’t. That’s about the feeling that it needs to be to ensure a constant pace that’s sustainable through to the end.
However, thoughts of “I can do this” rapidly disappeared as my legs began to disengage. Between mile 3 and 5 it was like the power drained out of my legs and somebody gave me a 20kg pack to carry on my back. On the bike I’d been doing the overtaking, yet on the run everybody was overtaking me! Now that’s a demoralising feeling! One by one they’d go by and I’d watch as their feet pitter-pattered in double time and they flew past me as if they were being carried along a travellator in the airport. I was totally disconnected from my legs and feet, there was no spring, no acceleration in my stride, just flat-footed, lolloping, minimal movement that was just about taking me in the right direction but at a rapidly decreasing speed. It was not good. I made it to mile 6 and my whole body became limp and my face was gormless. The crowds were shouting all the great stuff that I wanted to feel inspired by but instead I wanted to scream back “no it’s not a ‘great job’ and I’m not ‘looking good’, I’m looking rubbish, I’m going rubbish and this is what should be happening to me at mile 26 not mile 6.” I was in trouble already and no amount of positivity would drag me from this slump. How was I ever going to get through the next 20 miles?
I can’t describe how hot it was because it was so hot and I was so wrecked I was beyond the capacity to feel and describe. There were aid stations every mile and there started the incremental battle. My stomach was sloshing uncomfortable with fluid but I had an unquenchable thirst. Each aid station went on forever with a variable fluid feast of water, energy drink, coke, cups of ice, ice cold sponges, more coke, more energy drink, more water. I’d grab the first cup stop and down it. It wasn’t enough. Grab another, stop and down it. Walk a bit more, throw a cup of ice down my vest, throw a cup of water over my head, squeeze an ice cold drenched sponge over me then proceed with running through. This was a procedure that took well over a minute and increased at every station. By mile 12 out on the incessant Queen K Highway again, I was walking into, through and out of the station. Every stop it got harder and harder to start up again. I was in agony. My hips, knees, ankles were killing and my fatigued bad running form was exacerbating the problem. My head was dropped and I’d shake it slowly and grimace as I ran past spectators I knew. This was the only form of communicating my discomfort and suffering that I could muster.
I was reaching into my vest top and pulling out ice cubes to melt on my neck or even to suck on and crunch up so I could brush it round my gums to try and cool down. I even stopped at the roadside one time loudly cursing the pain in my knees and melting ice on them to try and numb it. It felt like it was a never-ending road. A couple of moments distraction came when on the other side of the road a mass of motorbikes and cars came hurtling past with the lead Pro men and women athletes. Wow, they were so fast. I felt a moment of awe and inspiration and was reminded of how privileged I was to be there doing Kona. This didn’t last long as the commotion died down and it was back to the stark contrasting shuffle of mine that could barely be called running. I eventually reached the turn into the energy lab, but before I descended onto the iconic stretch of road that is known so famously as the real suffering area, I stopped in a porta-loo for the third time. Everything bad was being thrown my way in this run including an upset stomach. Imagine an unflushable porta-loo as used by several hundred time-pushed athletes. That’s bad enough. But imagine that porta-loo being baked in the scorching sunshine all day and you might come close to understanding why venturing anywhere close to these porta-loo’s was a horrendous on every occasion! Heading past the energy lab, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I developed the worst and most painfully dose of hiccups I’ve ever had. Every hiccup, with a vice like grip, twisted and turned my insides and threatened to throw up the contents of my stomach. There was nothing lady like about it and each hick-up would render me bent over yelling “argh”. It was embarrassing to say the least and lasted the majority of the energy lab stretch.
With the energy lab section done and turning back out onto the Queen K Highway I faced the last 6 miles. Although it was slow I was nevertheless, bit-by-bit, crawling it in. By this point I’d really had enough and in a fatigued but defiant furry I stuck my head down and fought the whole way back. I didn’t need anymore fluid or energy, I just needed to stay well away from the feed stations, keep going and not stop. I’d suck up the pain, I’d dismiss the fatigue, I’d just keep moving forwards because that meant getting closer to the finish line and closer to ending the misery. Besides my innate stubbornness to commit to getting across the finish line, my motivation during that grim moment came from knowing that there were 60, 70 even 80 plus year old men and women out there and they would manage to cross the finish line. So if that’s not motivation for a 32 year old to quit their whimpering, get their butt into gear and start shifting along, then I don’t know what would be!
That last 1hr of running back into Kona town was the best feeling in the race. I wasn’t running pretty and I wasn’t running fast, but I was doing it, I was accomplishing the epic Kona Ironman battle. The road had become quieter and lonelier and the blazing heat gradually subsided as the sun started to go down. I had a view across the sea and watched the last rays of sunlight disappear over the horizon and a blackness envelope the skies. This quietening down of the race and closing down of the day gave me solace that I was reaching the end and it would be ok. Turning the corner off the Queen K and knowing I was entering the last mile was the best natural painkiller ever! Assisted by the descent down the sharp hill leading into town (which hours previously I’d dragged myself up as if climbing a mountain), a new lease of life flowed into my legs. The contrast from the quiet, dark Queen K to the crowded streets, lights and thumping music in Kona woke me up and lifted my spirits. It was fantastic to finally be on the final section, the iconic Alli Drive where for 30 years so many Ironman athletes have become legends. What sport do you have that opportunity to share that experience? This time on Alli Drive I was smiling and those shouts of “great job” weren’t agitating me. I was agreeing with them! It may not have been the best, but it was my best, and the best I could do on that day. I’d had bad bits, I’d had good bits, I’d creamed part’s of it, I’d struggled in others, I’d suffered, I’d been rubbish but I hadn’t been beaten. I’d accomplished it. After starting out in Ironman training only 10 months previously, I was able to run across the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 11hrs 39mins, arms in the air and become a 2 x Ironman finisher!
Now reaching the end of my writing I’ve also found I’ve reached the end of a journey. I started this piece frustrated that I didn’t live up to my expectations of a perfect performance. But I’ve reminded myself how I’ve learnt so much and done so much along the way. Those are the important bits. I’ve also reminded myself of the most important thing about taking part in sport and being an athlete. Yes, it’s about aspiring to produce the best performance within us and it’s about searching for perfection in order to achieve it. But doing something well is sometimes just simply about doing it. What drives us on to repeat training and racing again and again is actually the thrill of the unknown. That is what defines sport. We are writing a new story every time we walk through the door to embrace a new goal, challenge or race. We open ourselves up to a new opportunity to experience and to learn and in return it offers us a unique dose of emotions, scenarios and personal exploration from which we can grow. That is real the beauty of sport. Not perfection.