It’s my 2 year old’s new favorite word. And I have decided that it will be the name of our next dog. Kupa’a – the theme of this year’s Ironman World Championships in Kona. Kupa’a is a Hawaiian term meaning steadfast, firm, and committed. This word is imprinted on my souvenir sweatshirt, on my race poster, and on my hefty finisher’s medal. It will forever remind me of the day, the journey and the commitment I made to take all of this on. I undertook this journey for two primary reasons: to commemorate my 40th birthday and to prove to myself that I could accomplish this feat.
Kona is the king of all the ironman races — the pinnacle where the world’s best endurance triathletes all gather to compete. As I trained for this race, I often wondered how I would stack up to the competition. Could I compete with the world’s best? Would I compete? These questions frequently meandered through my mind in my preparation leading up to the race. My thoughts shifted when I crashed on my bike two weeks before race day. At that point questions of how would I stack up were replaced with questions of whether or not I would physically be able to get through this race. My performance expectations were thrown out the window as I focused on being healthy enough to get to the starting line believing I could physically make it to the finish line. Oddly enough, it was almost a relief for me. All expectations were lifted off my shoulders. Now all I could try to do was finish the race.
We arrived in Kona Monday of race week and the town was beaming with triathletes – the compression socks and the shaved legs on the men were clear indicators of who was here to race. My husband described the scene as “Disneyland for triathletes.” It was true. I felt like I was in the Magic Kingdom. People swimming, biking and running all through town, going to breakfast in tri shorts and sports bras. At home I would be an outcast for ordering my breakfast of a papaya filled with yogurt and granola in a tri-kit. Here this behavior was commonplace. One guy even stood in line at Lava Java in his underwear. Other than my dad discretely snapping his photo, no one seemed to bat an eye at him. We were in Kona after all — Disneyland for triathletes.
My tailbone was still bothering me from my bike accident. I hobbled through the airport, having my husband carry my backpack as the extra weight proved to be uncomfortable. My chiropractor had reassured me that the injury might be nagging and bothersome during the race, but ultimately it shouldn’t impact my performance. It was all mind over matter at this point. My body could make it through. But could my mind deal with the discomfort? I knew I was mentally tough. But how tough would I have to be? On Tuesday of race week, I went for a 3 mile run to see how I felt. I didn’t feel awesome, but I didn’t feel terrible and the pain didn’t seem to worsen as my run progressed. This gave me confidence. If I could run 3 miles, I could run 26.2. Right? Yes, I told myself. I would be fine. For the remainder of race week, I continued these short runs. I was trying to train my mind that I might be uncomfortable, but I would be okay and that I could do this. I needed to believe that I was fine and that this injury wouldn’t impact my run. It might nag me, but it wouldn’t debilitate me. I continued my regular treatment of ice and applications of arnica. Mind over matter. Game on.
After 4 days of anticipation, I was ready to get this race underway. Just like any race, I was drawn toward looking around and sizing up my fellow competitors. I was alongside the best of the best here, and of course I immediately noticed how I stood out. A mismatched wheel set, a non-aero bento box, and no personal sherpa to carry my bags around. I wasn’t entirely bothered by these observations. Ever since my accident, I had changed my outlook for this race. I was here to experience this race rather than really push myself to compete. I was here for the finisher’s medal this time around. Not one of those wooden bowls they hand out to the podium winners. Those will go to the athletes with the matching wheel sets. I was okay with that.
Fast forward to the race morning – all the logistics were taken care of and I was ready to start the day. I took some time to enjoy the beautiful sunrise over Kailua Bay and headed down to the water to get this thing under way.
Before I knew it, the race had started. I settled nicely into the swim. I was told to enjoy it so I kept my eyes alert and on the lookout for colorful fish or sea turtles down below. I was in Hawaii after all. I reached the turn around the boat feeling very strong. 1.2 miles back to the giant inflatable Gatorade bottle and I’m out of the water. I started to fade a bit toward the end of the swim. My mind started turning toward the fact that I had missed some key swim workouts in the past two weeks due to my bike crash. Maybe these missed workouts affected me after all. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming…. And then it hit me. All through the week in my training swims, my tailbone had bothered me when swimming. But today I felt just fine. People had suggested that so much would be going on in my head and body on race day, I might not even be bothered by this nagging injury. Maybe they were right. This gave me confidence for the rest of my day. I was approaching the swim exit and felt that sense of relief. Celebrate each event in itself, as a 2.4-mile swim is a major accomplishment. My swim target was to get in under 1:10. I came out in 1:06. Secretly I was hoping for 1:05, but I would settle for 1:06.
I entered the transition tent and it was PACKED! This was my first taste of the fact that I was just one fish in a sea of awesome female triathletes. In Lake Placid I was one of 2-3 athletes in the changing tent. In Kona I was one of 30-40. It was mayhem. After looking around in awe of the scene, I finally found a seat and started to get my gear on. I had heard horror stories of sunburns on the bike, so I decided to stop to get lathered up. Protecting my skin was more important than saving a minute in transition. I was just one of the crowd anyway. Since my expectations had been lifted for this race, I didn’t feel the need to hurry through transition in an effort to save time. So I took care of business alongside the other competitors and was on my way out of transition on my bike.
I breezed through town soaking in the scene. I felt like I was in a bike race – with the streets closed to traffic and spectators lining the streets. I didn’t want to start too hard, as I knew it would be a long day fighting with the winds and the heat. I waved to my family as I passed by them, just taking it all in. When I finally reached the legendary Queen K, leaving the crowds behind, I settled in and focused on hitting my target wattage. I was feeling nice and relaxed and in a good place mentally and physically. At mile 20, Madame Pele reared her face in the form of a STIFF headwind. The elements on the bike course in Kona are so hard to train for and often unpredictable. This is what makes the course so challenging. Well, if I had to ride into this wind so does everyone else. I put my head down and just tried to stick to my target watts. Don’t try to beat the wind. Just stick to my race plan.
The last 20 miles toward Hawi are mostly uphill. I found it fascinating that many of the women were passing me on the climbs, but then when we crested the hill and went down the other side, I would re-pass them. I found it odd that I’ve been trained to ride at a constant power output, meaning ride easy up the hills and push the descents. Why weren’t they riding the same way? Aren’t they the best in the world, so shouldn’t they know how to ride an ironman bike course? Or do they know something that I don’t know? Well, mentally I returned back to the place of being a participant in this race. I wasn’t in it to win it. I was in it to experience Kona — to race alongside all of these amazing athletes. It was like we were all in this together. I’ll stick to my plan for the day and ride the way I’ve been trained to ride.
Usually the last 20 or so miles of an ironman bike leg are pretty brutal. Kona was no different. That same headwind that we faced on the way out of town remarkably reversed direction and smacked us right back in the face as we rode into town. How does that happen? It was a grind to get back into town, but I just put my head down and rode, lifting it up to look for signs of life amidst the barren, desolate lava fields. All in all, I actually was feeling very good about my bike. I never went to a deep, dark place where I questioned why I was out there suffering and putting my body through this sort of experience. My target for the bike was to get in under 6 hours. I wasn’t too sure of my time, but I later realized it was 5:54. I thought I would be faster as I rode at the same power I rode in Lake Placid, so I was perplexed as to why I wasn’t faster. Oh well, something to analyze post-race. Onto the run.
I took my time getting through transition to try to cool off and regroup a bit. My parents later asked me why my transitions were so slow. I really wasn’t in a hurry out there and after riding my bike 112 miles, I wanted a bit of a break! Is there anything wrong with that? Again, I wasn’t in ultra competitive mode in this race. It was more for the experience. I was going to take my time to get what I needed in transition before starting my run. I knew it would be a tough one.
The start of an ironman run never feels good. Who really wants to run after riding their bike 112 miles? The first couple of miles, my body felt stiff and achy, and my heart rate was
high. I needed to settle in, relax, and find my groove. I saw my parents and husband up ahead near where we were staying in Sea Village. I was excited to see them to soak in some words of encouragement. But instead of cheering and encouraging me when they saw me, they each pulled out their camera to snap a photo! I mean did they really ALL need to be taking my picture? Couldn’t someone cheer me on? I told them that next time I could use some words of encouragement out there. When I passed them the next time, they had greatly improved their cheering skills. I was thankful for that.
I settled into my groove on the run, as I hoped I would. The run is my strength, so I started passing people, which made me feel good. Keep it strong, keep it steady. In Lake Placid, I ran a 8 min/mile pace which landed me at a 3:30 marathon. I thought I would target that same pace and see what happened out there, expecting to slow down over time due to the heat. But really I had no idea what pace I was running. I tried to keep a steady heart rate and let my pace land where it landed. I was pleasantly surprised that it was landing right around that target pace for the first 9 miles. Then I had to climb up Palani Drive and head out on the Queen K. The climb up Palani was brutal. Most were walking or jogging very slowly. If I can just keep running, I’m doing better than most. I put my head down and powered up the hill. I turned the corner and shortly thereafter hit mile 10. I had made it to double digits. A good part of the run is behind me and I’m still running strong.
The ironman run is all about milestones. It’s a grind out there and you have to constantly think of ways to keep your thoughts positive and keep yourself going. Your body is starting to fatigue, but your mind can’t acknowledge that fact. It’s all mind over matter. If you think about fatigue, you will slow down. You need to convince yourself you are feeling strong and then you will run strong. The next milestone was mile 13. I was halfway there. Then it was 16. Only 10 miles to go. Then it was mile 18 down in the energy lab. This was a tough spot for me. I was starting to feel drained and depleted but didn’t want to back down. It was literally either keep running strong, or stop all together. I knew I wouldn’t stop, so I kept running strong. Mile 20 – out of the energy lab – it’s all downhill from here back to town. 6 miles is nothing. I started just counting to mile 25, as I knew when I got to 25, the energy would carry me through to the finish. So really it was only five more miles to push through.
I did start to notice numbers on the women that I passed to see if they might be in my age group. I knew I had the will and mental toughness to push through and past many of these women. I would pass as many as I could and then just see where I ended up. But rather than running to pass my competition, I used this competition to fuel my own running – to prove to myself that I had the mental fortitude to push through fatigue and maintain steadfast. Kupa’a. The last few miles, I had to go to my mental toolbox to keep my mind occupied. I alternated between counting to 20 and then repeating “light and quick, light and quick, light and quick” over and over in my head. It’s not how you feel it’s how you want to feel. It kept me going. Once I hit mile 25 and turned the corner down that brutal hill I ran up, I knew I was in the home stretch. I ran that last 1.2 miles with a huge smile on my face. I had done it. I had completed the ironman world championship and finished with a solid run. I had no idea what my time was, but I knew I had held fairly strong. My goal for the run was to come in under 4 hours. I was shocked when I learned I ran a 3:33. My overall target was to come in under 11 hours and I finished at 10:43.
I later learned that I had finished 10th in my age group. I was ecstatic. As I said, I didn’t approach this race with an intention to compete within my age group. I wanted to enjoy the experience, savor the moment, and do the best I could do on this given day. My good friend and advisor, Sue, told me that the ironman is not a swim or a bike race. It’s a marathon race after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112. I didn’t enter that competition mode until the marathon of this race and even then it was all about holding strong and steady to prove to myself that I had the mental capacity to reach my physical limits. I wasn’t really concerned with my competitors one bit — if I passed women in my age group along the way, it was simply a bonus.
So now it’s a wrap. Kona 2016 is in the books. It was an awesome experience to be a part of. Of course I’m left to wonder if I’ll be back here someday. I’ve promised my husband that I will NOT do an ironman next year. It’s such a huge commitment in so many ways that I can’t have it dominating our lives year after year. Part of me thinks maybe I’ll shoot for Kona again when I age up into the next age group – 5 years from now. We will see. I like to take things one year at a time, but do always need to have a goal and big target race to shoot for to keep me inspired and motivated. This year Kona was my carrot. Now that my big race is over, it’s time to relax, reflect, and recover. Can someone teach me how to relax? It’s not a strength of mine!
Best welcome home ever!