It has been 2 weeks since I took part in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I thought I would put fingers to keyboard and write down some of my thoughts about my experience.
I am not going to write a detailed race report detailing how I felt on the swim, how many times I peed on the bike etc. I am happy to bore you with those details but it will have to be in person over Skype, a beer or during a training session. I have a few thoughts that I taken away from the lead up to and the race itself that will live with me that I would like to share
It really is windy and hot….
When I landed at Kona airport, a full week ahead of the race, and started to walk down the steps from the plane two things immediately struck me…its windy and its hot! I know that when you read the reviews and tips about the race they all talk in detail about this but until you actually feel it it does not fully register
As I walked towards the airport terminal I thought to myself ‘what is wrong with you…you have done 14 Ironman races…you have had hot days in Texas, Chattanooga and others…you will be fine!’ But I think the history of the race, the location, the fact that it is the World Championships all added up to make me feel like this could be different. I had a nagging feeling of worry…
OK now I am frightened…
So as is usual when I am worried about something I work the problem. I will go run, bike and swim parts of the course and figure it out. I have done it before, I can do it again. Simon Marshall my coach’s husband and sports psychologist has taught me that the best approach to a worry is to confront it head on. What exactly is worrying you…go and figure this out and a solution in detail and your worry will be reduced…not gone, but you can rationalize it.
So after a relaxing Saturday I decided to take part in a local 10K run for a charity called PATH. After studying the Ironman course and athlete handbook I figured that the hottest part of the run for me would be just after coming off the bike on the out and back along the sea front on Alii Drive. The PATH 10K is on this road.
So I go do this run. I said to myself take it easy but I didn’t. After a busy time at work without exercise in the run up to my trip I needed a workout and so I worked it quite hard. I finished the run in 8 minute miles which is not just an easy jog for me. Furthermore, even though it was in the early morning it was hot, really hot! I felt that run…
So the run will be hot…but I will be ok there was only a couple of water stations during the PATH run out of 6 miles…during the Ironman there will water and ice every mile. I will be fine!
The next day I decided to drive the bike route and to ride what is documented as the hardest part of the course, the 20 mile out and 20 mile back from Kawaihae to Hawi. I figured if I can cycle this confidently then I will feel much better about it on race day. I parked up just outside Kawaihae and started my ride. It was seriously hot but I figured 2 bottles of water will still be more than enough to cover me for the whole route. That part of the course does not look hard on paper in the athletes guide but I can tell you that it is tough! The constant upward route to Hawi and the wind make it hard. By mile 25 I had finished my bottles. I rode the last 15 with nothing and I really felt the heat by the time I got back to the car.
So the bike will be hot and windy but I will be ok…there will be aid stations every 5 miles and I won’t have an issue with getting water and nutrition. I will be fine!
Later that day I decided I will do a gentle run to, hopefully, make me feel better. The run from the Queen K highway to the Energy Lab and back. This is a famous part of the Kona course where, apparently, many a competitors dreams of victory or of a great time have been shattered. How could this be? Its only a 4 mile stretch of flat road!
I parked my car at the start of the route and starting running with a bottle. Normally, a 4 mile run for me would not require any liquid but I thought I would learn from my PATH run. My goodness, it is seriously hot down at the Energy Lab..I finished my bottle after 2 miles! I returned to my car worried and frightened…can I actually finish this race? Self doubt was engulfing me.
What is wrong with you!
The next day was the turn of swimming. It was with some significant trepidation that I stepped on the small postage stamp beach in Kona along with a lot of extremely fit looking athletes to have a practice swim.
I was not saying good things to myself at this time..I did not qualify for Kona by being the best in my age group. I qualified because I have done more than 12 Ironman races and I was invited because I have been loyal (ie spent a large amount $) to the Ironman brand. Furthermore, I was frightened… I did not start the swim with a great mental attitude.
It is such a beautiful swim, the water is so clear and unlike the lakes that I have swum races in the past there are lots and lots of pretty fish to look at. The water is cool but warm and the salty water provides a lot of buoyancy. That being said, the waves are strong and on the way out they are trying to push you back to shore.
So after 20 minutes of so of swimming I took a little break. I looked round at the view of Kona and the surrounding hills. It is really quite breathtaking in its beauty, I was so grateful to be there. Right next to me was another athlete also taking in the view. I introduced myself and he did to me I dont remember his name, he was from Brazil. ‘How did you find the swim’ I asked, ‘Not too bad’ he replied. He paused for a moment and then said ‘Well I have no legs so it takes quite a while to even get here. But I am so happy to be here I will just do my best on race day and will see what happens!’ The penny then dropped with me…get over yourself.. I have all my limbs and I am truly lucky to be here and able to take part. What happens is completely irrelevant! My attitude changed completely in that moment.
Just to nail the point
Later that day I attended an evening reception with all my fellow legacy athletes very near to the pier used for transition. Mike Reilly introduced Ironman CEO Andrew Messick, Paula Newby-Fraser, Mark Allen and other luminaries of the Ironman world. They spoke words of wisdom and gave great advice for the big day ahead. It was a memorable event and it was interesting to meet other athletes who have done so many races and share war stories about difficult days.
I had a chat with a guy who had his arm in a sling. His name was Reinhard from Vienna. I asked him what had happened to his arm. He told me that he went on a training ride the day before, like me, but unlike me, had fallen off and fractured his hand. His hand needed surgery but he did not want to leave before he had a chance to beg the Ironman organization to give him a starting slot for 2019. I felt so sorry for him. He had trained and raced for 10 years like myself to get to Kona to do the race and it was taken away from him days before.
While I drove back to my hotel that evening I felt bad for being sorry for myself and frightened I was just grateful for being in Hawaii and still able to take on the challenge of the race.
Family and Friends
The next day Ana, my wife, arrived from New York along with my very own support crew Andy, Edyta, Dave, Niamh, Gerry, Laura, Nigel, and Jo. It was just amazing to have them with me, especially for race day. Each one of them played an important part in me be able to do the race. Nigel and Jo supported me in 2008 for my first race; Laura supported and fed me ice cream after my first marathon in London; Andy and I trained in Chicago when we lived there sharing many hours together etc etc. everyone helped me in so many ways. There were many more who helped and supported me but could not come to Kona so I was so grateful to have them with me, even in spirit.
Special mention, however, has to go to Lesley Patterson my coach and her husband Simon Marshall at Braveheart Coaching for kicking me when I needed it and being sympathetic when I didn’t; and also to Debbie Ragals who has been my New York training partner for being so supportive (especially coming out those cold winter days) and encouraging.
Then there is Ana, she has been on the course and at the finish line for every one of my 15 races. More importantly she has supported me every day as part of my training. She has put up with my odd dietary requirements, getting to bed early etc etc for year after year. I could not have asked any more - I am incredibly lucky. Jamie and Gemma, my kids also have supported me in so many races. I was disappointed they could not come to Kona to share the day with me but, having turned 18 this year, they had their own commitments to keep.
Thank you so much I love you all!
Race day was just a wonderful day I will never forget. After the experiences of the preceding week that I have told you about I was actually very calm the night before and on the day. I was determined to finish but I was also just so happy.
Other than crossing the finishing line, my best memory of the day was at the start line five minutes before the gun went off to start. I looked around at the beautiful view, my fellow competitors, the huge crowds, the waves crashing against the sea walls, the helicopters above me, the TV cameras, and the sun starting to rise. This was the culmination of a journey that began in 1997 when I could not walk without pain, was 300 pounds, and was very unhealthy. I had a chance to change and I took it but I was incredibly lucky even to get the chance….many dont. The day was simply a celebration of my good fortune….what a great celebration!
So what’s next?
What of the great experiences of being in Kona is that I met and was around simply amazing athletes. The level of commitment and athletic ability of the pros and most of the age group qualifiers was astounding to me - very humbling. I found being in their company very inspiring - so much so that I really want to somehow continue my athletic journey. Not sure exactly how yet but I would like to help others start or continue on their journey like mine.