On Saturday October 11, I found myself bobbing in the ocean in Hawaii’s early morning light. Surrounded by the pink swim caps of nearly 1,000 other women, the Hawaiian drums began to pound as we waited for the cannon to start the race. As the sound filled the air, I turned around and looked at the thousands of people lining the shore.
Then I looked around for Lisa.
I had met Lisa 20 minutes before descending the slippery stairs to the water. We were both sitting near the swim start – she told me she lived in Seattle and was terrified of the swim. She got teary-eyed talking about it, so I tried to think of some encouraging words. I am not a particularly strong swimmer myself, and was none too thrilled about swimming 2.4 miles in rough ocean waters, but I am pretty good at spouting BS on the spot, so I tried to leverage this to my best ability.
Clear water, I exclaimed. Just think of the fish! And all the coral! And fun!
I asked her when she started triathlon, and that’s when she told me: Her husband had been killed in Afghanistan. Barely 30 at the time of his death, Lisa was left with two small children. Her husband John never met the youngest. She said she had taken up triathlon as therapy to deal with the grief and a way to honor his memory. This was her third ironman. Before we got in the water, we hugged. At the time, the conversation rocked me, but I didn’t know how important it would be in the hours to come.
The Swim: 1:20
When the cannon went off, a mass of bodies set off towards the boat about a mile in the distance. We were to swim out to a boat, take a right, and then swim back into the pier where our bikes were waiting. Unlike my last ironman in Whistler in July, this swim was relatively non-violent. I quickly found a group I could draft off of, and settled in at a very relaxed pace. As I had promised Lisa, the water was indeed clear and from time to time we could see fish swimming below us. I waved to the underwater safety divers, who peered up at us like aliens in their dive gear.
My last several weeks of swim training had been lackluster at best – the Salida pool had been closed for renovations so I was driving an hour each way to Gunnison twice a week to get in workouts. My swimming has improved a lot this year, but I don’t have much experience in the ocean (without a beer in my hand, at least), and the swells and current were a bit confusing. Despite that, perhaps my words to Lisa were a prophecy, because I quite enjoyed the swim. After what seemed like a long, long time we funneled towards the pier for the finish.
The swim exit was a mess – the crowded stairs onto the pier were full of dizzy, disoriented bodies stumbling onto other athletes and bedraggled volunteers who were doing everything possible to hoist people out of the water. I was a bit disappointed when I saw the clock. At Whistler, I swam ten minutes faster, and while I knew this swim was much more challenging, still – a girl can dare to dream, can’t she? On the other hand, I knew I hadn’t tired myself out at all for the rest of the day. I had told myself to treat the swim like a warmup to the start line, and that’s what I had done.
I ran into a full transition tent yelling, “Did I win?” No one laughed. Oh well.
The Bike – 6:02
I was excited to set out on the bike, my favorite part of the ironman. Over the last eight months, the combination of good guidance by my coach Kelly Williamson and living and riding in Colorado has really made me a stronger bike rider. I had watched myself progressively improve in nearly every race I had done this year – New Orleans half ironman, Wildflower half ironman, and Ironman Canada. Just a month earlier, my bike at the Mt. Tremblant Half Ironman World Championships had brought a real breakthrough in confidence.
Today, I deduced pretty early in the ride, was not going to follow that upward performance trajectory. My legs didn’t feel terrible, but they weren’t giving me what I was hoping for. The numbers on my power meter were quite low, so after about ten miles I stopped looking, put my head down and just rode.
The bike conditions in Kona are notoriously tough. With temperatures near 90 degrees, the course travels the rolling hills of the Queen K highway through black lava fields to a turnaround point on the island’s northern peninsula in a small town called Hawi. As the day wears on, the lava fields and the pavement radiate heat. The winds are the wild card, and can be legendary. This year, they picked up early on in the race, and didn’t let up.
Despite my lackluster riding, I was excited to greet the winds and heat. As the headwinds pummeled us starting about mile 20, I said to a guy riding next to me, “Yes! Let’s make this hard!” Returning from Hawi, the crosswinds made things scary, as several times side wind gusts picked up my bike and moved it across the road. Someone had told me to watch the bike in front of me. When it moved, then I should know to get small and hang on for dear life. So that’s what I did.
The last 30 miles of the bike I felt strong and steady. I was drinking and taking in calories like a champ. I had a plan and I was sticking to it, much like a mature adult might do (progress!). My legs were not overworked and I knew I had made up some ground on the bike, despite not feeling very spunky. In most every other ironman I have completed, the thought of running a marathon while I am still on the bike strikes fear into my heart.
But today, somehow, I didn’t really mind the idea.
I got off my bike, and my legs immediately buckled. Whoops. I righted myself, and waved to my friend Karen among the other bike volunteers as my shaky pins steadied. Then I immediately ran the wrong way towards the changing tent. Typical. A volunteer quickly got me pointed in the right direction.
The Run – 4:41
Heading out into the run felt like heading into a foreign land. I didn’t know what to expect. The first ten miles is an out and back on Kona’s Ali’i Drive. It is relatively flat and lined with screaming spectators peddling a wide variety of offerings – love, nudity, beer. Mercifully, that afternoon we even had cloud cover. Needless to say, it was a good ten miles.
In the first mile I saw Jimmy. I raised the roof and stopped to give him a hug. A couple miles later, I saw my girl-crew: Sandy, Sheree, Angela, Jill.
All the way down to the turnaround and back I felt fantastic. I was consciously slowing things down to my goal pace of about 8:30-8:45/mile. I was doing all the housekeeping things I knew were important: stuffing cold sponges in my bra, pouring water over my head, taking in calories, putting ice down my pants (housekeeping is important). I made the right turn onto Palani Drive to run up the one steep hill. Then it was out onto the Queen K Highway for several hot, lonely miles.
I was ready. I had been warned.
The first two highway miles were just fine. I watched pros – including my coach Kelly Williamson, who was running hard, crazy focused – and the fast age groupers coming back the other way to finish their day. I laughed when I heard one of them say to his running partner, “This sucks balls,” and I figured yep, I’ll probably be saying that in about 11 miles too, but good thing I’m not saying it now.
Then suddenly I was. Out of seeming nowhere, a vice grip grabbed my intestines and squeezed. I slowed down. It squeezed again. I walked. Then again.
I assessed my options. I was between aid stations, few of which had porta potties. The highway was filled with black lava rocks and scrub brush. That would have to do, I decided. I scrambled up the rocks, hid myself from sight as much as possible, and left a gift for the island gods.
I’ll spare you any more gory details, but suffice it to say this wasn’t the last offering of the day. I had to duck off about three more times during that next mile. I was walking now, but dizzy and nauseous. The dizziness worried me. We all know the accounts of super-tough athletes stumbling down the road, their legs giving out, their speech incoherent, just grasping for the promise of the finish line at all costs. The day before, we had watched Julie Moss’ finish line video on YouTube of her famous second place in Kona in 1982, falling and barely crawling across the finish line.
But if I am honest, I am no Julie Moss. I am indeed a committed athlete, but I also have self preservation in my genes. In my life, triathlon is a hobby (if a highly consuming one at times), and a fantastically fun pastime – but not one I want to hasten my trip to the grave. So some costs are too high for me to pay, and I began to wonder whether this was going to be my first triathlon DNF (“Did Not Finish”).
After about 4 more pit stops, I came across a volunteer tent at mile 14. They volunteers gave me a seat I asked for medical assistance. Within a few minutes, two medics appeared. They asked me questions, took my vitals, and told me I had great blood pressure (thanks!). At this point, I had pretty much decided to quit. I had called Jimmy and told him the situation and that I might come back in a car, not on foot. I had thought things through and come to the conclusion that a) no one would be upset with me b) that I didn’t have anything to prove c) that I absolutely was committed to not ruining my vacation with my friends who had spent a lot of time and money to be there with me, and that d) walking 12 more miles was going to take a long, long time. I was okay with letting it go.
I stood up to get in the medical van. And then, something happened. I thanked the volunteers, and turned and started walking down the road towards mile 15. I made another pit stop in the lava fields. Then I kept walking.
I have no idea why I kept going.
Since the race, I have spent a long time reflecting on why my mind changed. I don’t think it was anything as simple or noble as sheer determination or uber-toughness that wouldn’t let me pull the plug. I had already allowed myself to quit in my mind, and – whether or not this shows a weakness of character, I don’t know – I think I was truly okay with it.
My best guess is that I started walking again down that road because I wanted to see what was on the other side. Some curiosity, perhaps, or a tiny whisper of adventure got the best of me. Also, I thought about Lisa. I thought about how what she had been through – losing her husband, suddenly being left with two children – was hard, truly hard.
I realized that doing an ironman triathlon isn’t hard. It hurts sometimes, but in the scheme of life’s true challenges, it is not difficult. I know some will disagree with me on this point, but the truth is that what we do out there is a screaming, joyful, painful, roller-coaster privilege. And a grand adventure. It’s not suffering on a grand scale.
In the end, it took me one hour and 11 minutes to complete miles 13-16. At mile 16, I ate a banana, which seemed to stop the GI cramping, and I actually started to run. My legs were fine, and I watched the big red ball of sun setting as I entered the 4-mile stretch in the Natural Energy Lab. On the way out of the Energy Lab, my timing chip tripped a wire that brought up a 5-second video my girlfriends had made for me a couple of days before on a huge screen on the side of the road. Out there in the Hawaii dusk, their faces and cheers were so bright and loud that I got tears in my eyes.
I ran the last 10k of that ironman marathon with more gusto and joy than I ever have before. Strangely but wonderfully, I had the energy to reflect on all that I had to be thankful for: Jimmy, my family, my friends, my coach – all of them teachers and allies for me. My life itself. It was dark by now, and as I ran by people who were struggling I tried to get them to run with me a couple of them did, including Tina from Australia who kept me company for a mile or so. I stopped to check on people who were kneeling on the ground, weaving wildly across the course, laying on the side of the road.
We all have our reasons, I thought. I still wasn’t sure exactly what mine were, but I knew that I had been offered an adventure on the other side of defeat.
I also knew I was going to cross that finish line.
I saw Jimmy when I turned right to run back down Palani. I called, “I rallied!” and stopped and gave him a kiss. On the short dark downhill towards the final stretch on Ali’i Drive, two lone spectators cheered and told me as I ran past, “The next right hand turn is going to change your life!”
Sure enough, as I made the turn, I saw the bouncing bodies of those beautiful girls before I even heard their screams – Jill, Sandy, Sheree, Karen, Angela. I hugged them all and then continued into the finish chute.
The finish line of the Kona Ironman was indeed just as they said – magic. The music was loud, the lights were blaring. Hundreds of people were cheering, their hands outstretched for high-fives. There were furry costumed characters jumping and people waving overflowing beers. The famed Mike Reilly called my name and mispronounced Salida but I didn’t even care. I slapped as many palms as I could, I did a measly jump of hurrah, I raised my arms over my head, and my friend Chris appeared out of nowhere just as I crossed the line.
From the look on my face at the finish line, you could be forgiven for thinking it was my moment of glory alone, that I might have won the whole damn race. In reality, it was my slowest ironman since my first 14 years ago, and my lowest placing in any ironman I have ever completed.
But I think that might not just be a winner’s smile. It might also be the smile of an adventurer, a student who has learned an important lesson, someone who has been defeated and made peace with failure. And then gotten up, thanked her helpers, and decided to have a look to see what might be hiding there on the other side.