Kona Race Report
IRONMUMS Lee raced the Ironman World Championships in Kona here is her race recap...….
On November 10, 2013, a terrified but determined 36-year-old version of me stood at the start line of my very first triathlon. It was a sprint distance and I was wearing my brand-new tri-suit for the first time. It was bitterly cold and the sea was huge – I had swum in the ocean before but never in any kind of race environment, and in the first 50 metres of that swim I came the closest I’d ever been to drowning. I battled on and crossed my first ever finish line with a new respect for my body and my mind. She had no idea of it at the time, but that 36 year old had just taken her first steps on her journey towards the Ironman World Championships. And this is her story...
After a quite stressful start to my trip, where, after arriving with hours to spare ahead of my Melbourne—Sydney—Honolulu—Kona flight, I was told that the luggage belt had malfunctioned and, as a result, QANTAS was “unfortunately unable to guarantee” that my bike would make it to Kona on my flight, or even at all, in time for the race in four days’ time. The best they could hope for was that the belt would be fixed before my flight left; however, the staff stressed that I wouldn’t know whether the bike had made it onto the plane until I arrived in Honolulu some 15 hours later. There was nothing I could do but hope desperately for the best outcome. In the meantime, my plans for a peaceful, stress-free flight were definitely dampened and I spent the entire flight not completely confident I’d even have a bike to race on! Luckily for me, the baggage belt was repaired in time and my bike arrived safely in Honolulu, and later, in Kona. I’d dodged my first potential disaster on my way to the start line. Phew!
I finally arrived at my hotel in Kona at 3pm on Wednesday afternoon where a quick check of the race schedule revealed I was already too late for athlete check-in on that day, so I’d have to wait until the next day. I’d also missed the final bus into town to meet up with my Eltham Tri Club-mates Luke and Tarryn, who were also racing and who had kindly offered to cook me dinner on my first night there. A very expensive taxi ride into town later and I was finally at their resort, where they gave me the gift of a “normal” meal in the comforting presence of their kids and Luke’s parents. Luke drove me back to my hotel afterwards and even reassembled my bike for me, turning a potentially 2-hour job into a simple 10-minute one – the people of triathlon are indeed a good bunch.
The next morning, I set off on my bike commute to the athlete village – on the “wrong” side of the road and in stifling heat even at 6:30am. I rode into Tarryn and Luke’s resort again and tested my legs with a 5km run off the bike. I really felt the sting of the sun and a little flutter of panic bubbled up inside as I wondered how I would possibly run 8 times that distance in the full sun in two days’ time...
I was really trying to stay on top of my nerves, but there were just too many things about being in Kona that threatened to overwhelm me – the sleek, impressive bikes with their equally sleek, impressive riders whizzing around town with ease while I was still learning how to stay upright on the wrong side of the road, and the bronzed and athletic bodies with their super-confident strut to match made me feel more than ever that I didn’t belong at this show at all. That morning was also the famous Kona event, “The Undies Run”. I was staggered at the sheer quantity of bronzed, beautiful, athletic bodies making their way up and down Ali’i Drive, sporting designer underwear that only highlighted every rippling quadricep and defined abdominal muscle these magnificent human specimens possessed. If I’d felt a little intimidated by the bikes I’d seen, I was completely overwhelmed by the “real” athletes strutting their stuff around me wherever I looked. I felt exactly as I’d feared I would – fat, fraudulent and completely out of place. Luckily for me, Luke and Tarryn had both been ringside at this circus before and assured me that owning the greatest of bodies certainly didn’t guarantee the greatest of races. Rippling abdominals would mean nothing when it came to the 30km mark of the marathon on Saturday...
I made my way to athlete check-in later that morning and was soon sporting the sparkly red “IM Athlete” wristband, which clearly identified me as a world-class athlete who’d earned her place as Bib Number #1614 in this race (if only I could’ve felt as worthy of my entry as that wristband did!).
On Thursday night, I attended the Welcome Banquet dinner with Tarryn and Luke. I was slightly concerned when they served fish and chicken to the 1500+ athletes in attendance, but figured that if one of us went down with food poisoning, we were all going down, and I forced myself not to worry too much about it.
After the dinner, it seemed as if race day was now rushing towards me like a freight train. There was nothing I could do to slow down the remaining hours until I’d be lining up with 2400 other athletes to test myself against the challenges of this race.
As race day bore down, I began to get more concerned about what was going to happen. Was I going to pull off a spectacular PB? Or would it instead be a spectacular disaster? Was I going to surprise everyone with my incredibly fast result, or come away embarrassed with a slow time, and thereby proving my critical self correct that I did not in fact belong here at the World Championships, and that my entry to this race had been a complete fluke? And, even worse than a terrible race result, what if I didn’t finish at all? I mean, I knew I’d done everything I could with my training, but so much is out of your control on race day: the conditions, the effects of unfamiliar food on your body, and the mechanics of your bike all have the potential to bring your race to a sudden and inglorious end.
I knew that having come out of a Victorian winter, I was nowhere near prepared enough for the heat I was going to face. I’d heard horrific things about the tradewinds on the bike course... and of course there was still that little matter of never having changed a flat tyre on my bike. Like, EVER! Could my entire race-day experience potentially be derailed by the fact that I was a pathetic triathlete who didn’t even know the basics of bike mechanics? Was I about to be exposed for the triathlon fraud I really am? I watched YouTube videos and made meticulous notes, which I crammed into my canister that contained all the “bits” I would apparently need if my worst nightmare came true. (In the end, my entire canister bounced straight out of my bottle cage before I’d even ridden 10km so all of my preparation turned out to be for naught... but more on that later...)
On Friday morning, the day before race day, I finally got my first chance to experience part of the swim course with Tarryn, Luke and Grant. The water was absolutely beautiful and teeming with, er, athletes. The swim is my favourite leg and out there in the sea that morning I finally felt the first ripples of real excitement at the prospect of racing the next day. Little old me was actually in Kona, and I was about to race in the Ironman World Championships! I floated on my back and looked at the stunning blue sky above me, basking in the realisation that I’d made it here – safe, nervous and overwhelmed, but stronger than I’d ever been. I knew in that moment I was going to be okay.
My positive mood was also boosted by the arrival later that morning of my friend Megan from Melbourne, who’d travelled to Kona to cheer for me at the race and be part of the official volunteer army out on course. I’d met Megan when we’d sat next to each other by chance on the shuttle bus from Cairns to the start line of Ironman Cairns 70.3 in 2015 – we’d become instant friends and now, 3 years later, she was here to support me for the race and was even officially volunteering at an aid station. (Triathlon once again proving that it is a sport full of the nicest people!)
After I’d met Megan in town, we made our way back to the hotel and spent the next couple of hours organising my bike and run gear bags. My head was a mess and I felt so fortunate to have Megan’s calming and good-humoured presence there, checking and double-checking everything that went into my bags. You only get one chance to stock your bags with everything you’ll need for the next day, and until those bags were safely lodged in transition, I was constantly second-guessing everything I’d packed inside them!
All packed and (mostly!) satisfied that everything was where it should be, we caught the bus back into town to check my bike, helmet and gear bags into transition. It was a wonderfully organised experience, with a volunteer taking each athlete into their care and showing us all through the transition area and explaining exactly what would happen as we finished each leg of the race. They went out of their way to make me feel like an absolute rock star and I left the check-in area feeling more confident about the race.
My parents, husband Richard and my kids arrived in Kona at about 6pm and called me to see what our plans were for dinner. As desperate as I was to see them all again, they were staying in a hotel about 40 minutes from town, and I knew that by the time we’d all met up and had dinner after their long day of travelling and navigating all the road closures, everyone’s tempers would be frayed and I just couldn’t face the extra stress so close to the race. We reluctantly agreed to spend the night separately, which meant that the first time I was going to see my family in four days was going to be when I was actually out racing.
Megan and I ended up stranded in town that night for longer than expected due to the complicated bus timetable. Eating takeaway Chinese food on the bus back to the hotel wasn’t exactly part of my perfect pre-race nutrition plan, but it would have to do. Back at the hotel, I organised my food, gels and bottles of electrolyte for the bike and then it was goodnight to Megan and into bed for a relatively early night before the huge day ahead.
I woke at 3:20 so I could shower, do some quick yoga and then catch the first shuttle bus to transition with Megan. We arrived at the swim start while it was still dark and before the crowds really started to flow in. Whilst I hadn’t intended to arrive quite so early, I’m really glad we did. It was an easy process at that time of day to attend body marking and transition where I stocked my bike box with the array of sweet, sugary bars and gels that would get me through the ride. I looked at the photo of my kids that I carry on my bike, and sent a little prayer that my bike would once again look after me, especially today – on the one day I needed everything to go well!
I met up with Megan again and we faced the long wait for the race start. Fortunately, Megan had been put on duty at the swim aid station – where athletes could get water and electrolyte after they exited the swim – so she had a volunteer pass that meant she could wait right with me at the swim start.
Despite my promise to myself to just keep cool and calm on race morning, it really was impossible to do so at a race of this magnitude. The excitement and nervous energy of so many athletes gathered together in one place for the biggest event on the triathlon calendar was just too much to take in, and it was all I could do to stop myself from bursting into tears at the sheer enormity of what I was about to be a part of. There were media helicopters flying overhead, people rushing around desperately trying to find answers to their (very poorly timed!) bike malfunctions and even people grimacing as they received last-minute massages on bodies that were already rebelling against the thought of what was to come. Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, was reviving up the crowd from very early on, and I tried not to think about the fact that the next time I’d hear his voice was when I was crossing the finish line, whenever and however that would be...
It felt like we were waiting for the start of the race for an eternity, and yet time was flying as the swim start area got busier and busier. The pro men were due to start at 6:30, the women at 6:45, the age group men at 7:05 and then us age group women at 7:20. The pro men were called forward and I had to pinch myself to believe I was actually seeing in real life the men who I’d only seen before in triathlon magazines!
The race is a deep-water start (everyone swims out to the starting line about 50m from shore). The American national anthem was sung, there was the sound of beating drums and suddenly the deep BOOM of a cannon being fired. A roar went up from the crowd and the men were off. I tried not to focus on the fact that when I started my own race 50 minutes from then, most of those pro men would already be out of the water and heading out on their bikes...
A short time later, the pro women were called into the water and again, the roar of the crowd as they started their race. The age group men were next and with 1800 of them heading into the water, it was quite an amazing thing to witness. Again, the cannon, the roar and the grim reality that it would be my turn next.
As I waded into the water with the 637 other women, I tried to absorb all the sights and sounds around me, knowing that by the end of the day, this race would have changed me in ways I couldn’t yet imagine. I felt a little self-conscious heading into the swim as I was wearing only my tri shorts and a sports bra – everyone else seemed to be wearing a speed suit (similar to a wetsuit but without the buoyancy since wetsuits weren’t permitted). As soon as I got into the water though, my heart lifted and I suddenly felt strong and confident.
Despite never having lived near the beach or swum regularly in the sea growing up, the last few years doing triathlons has done wonders for my confidence in open water swimming. I feel absolutely at home in the sea; I understand it, I feel safe in it and I was sure this swim was going to be one of the best parts of my day. As we bobbed in the water waiting for the race to start, I chatted with some of the other women and found myself a good spot in the middle of the pack where I could also see that I’d have a clear gap to swim through once we started. And, suddenly, there it was – the long-awaited firing of the cannon... and my race began!
I quickly gathered my thoughts, put my head down and struck out towards the first buoy. And oh, wow, that swim was just as amazing as I’d imagined it to be. Sparkly, clear-blue water, crystalline bubbles all around me created by the other swimmers, and an overriding sense of wonder at having the opportunity to swim 3.8k in such a breathtaking environment. I swam at a comfortable pace – strong but not too fast. I wasn’t worried by all the other swimmers pushing and pulling at me as they tried to find their own rhythm (after all, I’d played netball at Broadmeadows years earlier – I reminded myself how much scarier those games had been!). I used my elbows as a protective barrier around my own space, firmly guiding knees and other elbows out of the zone of my face.
As we rounded the boat marking the turning point of the swim, we began to catch up to the slower male age group swimmers. The problem with this was that the slower the swimmer, the worse their technique tended to be so the swim suddenly turned a little more dangerous as I had to dodge and weave through their flailing arms and legs, and the occasional and unexpected breaststroke kick, or, even worse, people stopping dead in front of me. I did suffer a kick in the face at one point, which dislodged my goggles, so I had to swim over to the safety boats to adjust them, get my head back in the game and get going again. Looking back, it probably cost me a minute or so of my swim time.
I set off again and remember feeling at some point that I must be getting fairly close to finishing, but a quick sighting check with my next breath proved that “Nope, I’m still in the middle of the fecking ocean!” There was nothing for it but to just keep on going and I tried to focus on just appreciating the coolness of the water since I knew I was going to wish I was back in it as soon as I got out on my bike.
As we drew slowly closer to the swim finish, I was just blown away by the number of people standing on the pier cheering madly for us as we got out of the water. I ran up the ramp towards T1 and checked my watch. I’d told myself that anything under 1:10 would be good in these conditions with no wetsuit so I was more than happy with my time.
Swim result: 108:07
I ran into the chaos of the T1 tent, wriggled into my tri top, slathered on some sunscreen and took a quick drink of water. I grabbed my bike shoes, knowing I had a couple of hundred metres to run to my bike and thinking it would be easier in bare feet. Unfortunately, on my way to my bike, I sidestepped around another competitor and felt my foot fall into some kind of metal hole left from when they must have pulled a signpost out of the grass for the race. The pain took my breath away and I knew I’d lost a bit of skin off the edge of my toe – I just hoped it wasn’t too bad and wouldn’t cause me any grief in my bike shoes for the next six hours or so...
The bike course had us doing a fast and furious loop around the roads surrounding the athlete village before heading out on a single out-and-back course for the remaining 170km. I was lucky enough to spot Richard cheering for me in the first few minutes, and I could do nothing but grin madly and wave at him as I went flying past. It was a huge boost seeing him, but less than a minute later my confidence took a dive when I lost my first drink bottle out of my rear bottle cage, and since it was an expensive one (and pretty pink Ironman branded!), I decided to stop and grab it off the road instead of leaving it behind. Looking back, this decision probably cost me at least five minutes since it was so awkward to pull over, get off my bike and rescue my bottle (which was rolling merrily downhill away from me) from among the masses of bikes hammering along the road. It was also a complete waste of time, since less than 10 minutes later, it bounced out once more; this time I decided not to even bother trying to get it back.
Another 10 minutes later and I heard the unmistakable thud of another container falling off the rear of my bike – this time it was the canister holding all of my spare tyre equipment. By then I’d figured out that the fancy new carbon-fibre bottle cage Richard had so thoughtfully purchased especially for this race had been a complete waste of money. The cages holding the bottles were nowhere near tight enough to hold anything securely and I knew even if I went back to pick the bottles up, there was no way they were going to make it to the end of the bike leg still intact. I swore out loud as I realised I now had no hope of changing my tyre if anything did happen and sent a prayer to whoever might be listening just to get me safely through the next 170km with no flat tyres, please!
At about the 70km mark, I heard the metallic tinkle of something hitting the road behind me, and for a moment I panicked that something had gone wrong with my bike. Then I realised it was my CO2 canister, which I’d so carefully screwed into the convenient screw holes on the same useless bottle cage holder, coming loose and rolling away down the road. Another few minutes later, my second and final CO2 canister also came loose and also met its fate by the side of the Queen K. I had a wry giggle as I realised I’d probably littered this road with about $100 worth of bike equipment in the past 30 minutes... I wondered whether anyone had ever thought to wander along the Queen K after the bike course closed and net themselves a few hundred dollars’ worth of brand new gear!
The bike course in general is a very straightforward one – undulating hills one after the other, nothing too steep or scary and the road surface is wonderfully smooth. Whilst I had no real time goal in mind, I really didn’t want to go any slower than in my first Ironman in 2016, where I’d had a bike time of 6:36. I rode conservatively for the first half of the ride (partly thanks to my ever-helpful internal voice that reminded me often, “just remember, girlfriend, this is the bit you suck at”) and probably, in hindsight, too conservatively. I chatted to a few people, and answered lots of questions about my Ironmums tri kit, which, as usual, drew many compliments from men and women alike. I drank in the stunning landscape that surrounded me: the stark blackness of the lava fields, lush greenery heading further towards the sea, and the breathtaking blue ocean in the distance. I was determined not to let this experience pass without me being conscious of just how amazing the opportunity to be here was.
Nutrition-wise, I was really happy with how well I stuck to my plan and how good I felt for most of the ride. I followed my usual routine of two sips of electrolyte every 20 minutes, one gel every hour and an energy bar whenever I felt the first pangs of hunger (in total I had five energy bars over the course of the bike leg). A friend had given me a pre-race tip to grab one water bottle at each aid station for my bike and one to tip over my head to cool me down. I did this religiously at each aid station and it worked a treat – I was my own personal air conditioner! Unfortunately, it also made me realise how much too big for me my tri top was – it billowed around me as the water dried off in the wind and I knew I was giving up a lot of speed by not having one that fit tightly enough.
After I’d made the turnaround at Hawi, I did a quick calculation as to how long I thought it would take to get back to T2. I was horrified to work out that at the speed I was riding, I was going to be coming in at well over 6 hours. I gave my best effort to increase my speed but, as the course wore on, my body grew more tired, my feet began to throb unbearably inside my shoes and I realised with horror that I’d completely missed the top of my legs when I’d splashed some sunscreen on in T1. A quick look down at my right leg showed that with hours of sunshine still ahead of me, I was literally roasting out there on the bike.
I was relieved that the winds were nowhere near as savage as what I’d feared they’d be (I later found out it was the best bike conditions they’d had in years, and bike course records were smashed by professionals and age groupers alike... clearly not by me though!). Nevertheless, I began to suffer my usual “Iron-rage” with myself that after all the work I’d put into improving my bike performance, I was still a hopelessly slow cyclist and was once again being overtaken hour upon hour as if I were standing still. I soothed my angry soul slightly with the thought that if it’d taken these people, especially the men, more than 5 hours to catch up to me, they must have had one hell of a terrible swim earlier in the day!
At around the 150km mark, the clouds that’d been sitting atop the close mountain ranges suddenly moved over us and we were treated to a rain shower that lasted about 10 minutes. The rain brought the temperature down slightly and my spirits lifted – I suddenly felt so strong and reinvigorated and, in 10 minutes, I’d overtaken about 8 people who’d previously shot past me. I hoped desperately for the rain to continue but sadly the clouds retreated again and the sun came out even hotter than before. Within half an hour, the same 8 people had caught me again and I didn’t see them for the rest of the bike leg. Watching them overtake me for the second time was pretty much the final straw for my positive mindset and I limped the final 20km back into T2.
Bike result: 6:35:27
In T2, I changed my socks and got my first look at my feet since I’d finished the swim. Ewww – with all the water I’d been pouring over myself while on the bike, my feet were soaked and my skin was raw. I could see that I had a deep cut on the side of my little toe where I’d fallen in the hole after the swim, but at least it wasn’t bleeding and hadn’t really hurt much while I was on the bike. I just needed my poor feet to hold out for their final and greatest test of the day: the marathon.
I can’t lie – getting off the bike with my mind in such a dark place was hard. I knew I needed to lift myself out of my funk if I was to have any chance of getting through the marathon in the most brutal conditions I’d ever run in. It suddenly dawned on me that I could perhaps salvage my race, and my pride, by committing to running the entire marathon – no matter how much it hurt, how lonely I got or how much I wanted to stop, I was going to finish this thing RUNNING!
The run course is again a simple out-and-back course after you first complete the easiest 10km stretch of the day, around Ali’i Drive. The residents and holidaymakers were out in force with their hoses, lots of Aussie flags and cheers, and SHADE! I had only run about 500m when suddenly Richard called out to me and I could see all of my family at the side of the road, waving to me. Emotion completely overtook me and I stopped and gave them all a hug and tried not to cry at the sheer relief of seeing them after four days without them. My 11 year old ran onto the course and gave me a huge hug and ran with me for about 50m. My 7 year old looked up momentarily from the grass where he was playing and called out a quick, “Hi, Mum!” before he went straight back to what he was doing – well, I guess I was lucky to get that, really!
My pace through town was between 5:35 and 5:45 – way slower than any other race I’ve done. And I knew I was only going to get slower when I headed out onto the out-and-back course to the Energy Lab along the unforgiving Queen K. I sighed and braced myself for the long hot run that awaited me. I found my silver lining by telling myself I only had to run for two hours before the sun set and, surely, after that it would feel a little easier. I mean, surely...???
I actually felt good for most of the next 20km to the turnaround at the Energy Lab. My nutrition plan (worked out just the day before with some last-minute guidance from Tarryn – I’m not a huge believer in “nothing new on race day”!) was to take Coke and water at each aid station, alternating with GU blocks and CLIF gels. It worked really well, and I had no tummy issues at all.
The blazing sun provided the extreme conditions I’d been expecting and I used every tip I’d been given in the lead up to the race to keep cool: ice cubes in my cap, iced-water sponges from each aid station shoved into the back pockets of my tri suit, and cold water poured down my front at every opportunity. There was definitely no shortage of aid stations and each one was manned by the most encouraging and vocal volunteers I’d ever come across. Their support for each competitor didn’t wane for the entire day, which was more than I can say for my own enthusiasm as I finally, finally made the climb back out of the Energy Lab and headed onto the now-familiar Queen K to complete my final 12km run into town.
The sun had now set and I felt a little cheated as I didn’t feel any better running in the darkness than I had in the burning sun. My mood was still high, and I felt relatively strong even though I knew my pace was edging ever closer to the shuffle-zone. As I made the turn onto the Queen K at the 31km mark, I saw a woman step forward in the darkness and hold her arms open to me calling, “Lee, I’m so glad I got to see you!” It was my friend Jo, a true triathlon buff who I’d gotten to know through social media. She’s raced Kona several times and I knew she was coming to spectate somewhere at this event, but to see her so unexpectedly (and so perfectly positioned in pretty much the middle of nowhere!) was one of the true highlights of my day. We shared a rueful laugh about how hard this race was and she sent me off with a cheer and a wave and an instruction to “enjoy that finish line!” My joy at seeing her boosted me for the following 3km and I began to believe that the hardest part of the race was behind me – all I had now was less than 10km ahead of me (less than 2 Parkruns!) and surely that wouldn’t be too hard after everything I’d been through up till now, right? WRONG!!! SO WRONG!!!
At 34km I began struggling badly. I had survived 135 of my 140.6 miles and I began to wonder how I’d possibly make it through the final 5. My body was wrecked – I was aware that I was severely sunburned on my right leg, the cut on my toe from the swim exit was rubbing painfully against my shoe and, for the first time in my race history, I was suffering with blisters (I guess spending ten hours in wet socks wasn’t exactly ideal). The road surface was still so hot I could feel it burning up through the bottom of my shoes. My feet were screaming with every step I took and I knew I still had THOUSANDS of steps ahead of me before I would get relief.
But even in my increasing physical distress, I had every faith in my mental strength that I would get to the finish line – there was simply no other option. I concentrated only on the sheer wonder of being out on this road, in the dead silence and the deep darkness – the very road trodden by almost 100,000 athletes in the 40 years before me. I’d watched them on the Ironman YouTube clips while I’d been slaving away on my windtrainer in my lounge room, and I knew with certainty that every single one of them had felt my exact pain, doubt and overriding determination to get this thing done.
Finally, I could see the lights of Kona becoming clearer and brighter ahead of me. I’d given up looking at my watch to gauge how far I had to go – I’d given up caring about what it told me; all I knew was that I was just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I hit that magical finish line.
There is one long final climb along the Queen K, which in the dark didn’t seem as difficult as I thought it’d be when I’d seen the runners ahead of me struggling to climb it earlier in the day. And at its summit was the exquisite joy of knowing I was finally, FINALLY almost at the end of my journey. I ran the short downhill on Palani Drive, past the Australian “voice of Ironman” Pete Murray, who called out my name as I went past. Being back among the crowds lining the streets was another sign that I was tantalisingly close to the end.
I turned left onto Kuakini Highway where I saw Megan. She was in thongs but she still ran with me for the next few hundred metres, which may as well have been another marathon! Kuakini Highway is parallel with Ali’i Drive and you actually run away from the glorious sounds of the music and cheering of the finish line. As it got further and further behind me, Megan kept telling me that I’d be turning right at the next block, then the next one. I began to panic irrationally that I was never going to get back there. I could actually feel my mind closing and my vision narrowing as I concentrated only on putting one foot after the other. I had nothing left in me to even respond to Megan’s encouragement and questions about how I was feeling. Finally, I could see the road markers indicating the final turn onto Hualalai Road, which would take me down to Ali’i Drive for the red carpet to the finish line.
My final run along Ali’i Drive is etched into my memory forever. It was as if I was watching a movie in slow motion (and to be fair, at the speed I was running, I actually was in slow motion). A few people cheering on the sides of the road became a few dozen and then a few hundred – and it seemed they were all cheering for me! It was overwhelming and completely humbling at the same time. When it hit me that the one moment I’d dreamed about for the last five months was about to become a reality, the emotion completely took over and I sobbed my way towards the red carpet.
I scanned the faces of the people lining the road but I couldn’t see my family – Richard later told me he’d been screaming my name right next to me but I think at that point everything was just a blur and I couldn’t see or hear him. I tried to stop myself bawling like a baby – after all, the finish line photos are the most important thing about this day, and I wanted mine to be smiling, happy photos! But I never stood a chance. I could think of nothing but every early morning alarm, every sub-zero-degree training session, every 6:15am gym class squeezed between a 4:30am hill sprint session and 8am school drop off; they’d all been paving the way to this exact moment. I was crying with relief, with pride and with absolute joy that I had succeeded in finishing the greatest triathlon in the world. It was over, and yep, I had finished this thing RUNNING!
Run result: 4:29:44
Final result: 12:26:07
An Ironman is a bit like living an entire lifetime of emotions in one day – it’s messy and gritty and, at times, downright disgusting. There are moments of uncertainty, fear, excitement, hilarity, desperation and hope. You face episodes of true despair, convinced there’s no way out of the suffering, but then you find a tiny ember of hope inside yourself and you discover the strength to somehow keep scrambling forwards. I was absolutely beyond proud of myself that I’d conquered some really tough moments out on course, especially on the bike, and as I collected my super-sized finisher medal (even by American standards!) I was on a high that I never wanted to see the end of.
Of course, having four exhausted kids, two retired parents and a long-suffering husband who’d put up with all of them for an entire day meant that any hopes of a quiet moment of reflection and traditional celebration were out of the question. There was hugging, kissing and laughter, followed immediately by whinging, moaning and fighting (and that was just my dad...!). I won’t bore anyone with the logistics of how we managed to convey 9 people and a bike in a 7-seater hire car to our hotel over 50km away with most of the major roads closed for the race, but suffice to say that after getting up at 3:20am, I didn’t get to collapse into my deliciously clean, white hotel sheets until after 2am. On the upside, I did get to indulge in the BEST chicken burger I’ve ever had while Megan and I waited for Richard to come back to get us after dropping the others off. And it did give me time to read some of the 100+ Facebook messages I had from my wonderful friends and family who’d been tracking me all day. I felt a bit like a celebrity!
In the days that followed, I’ll admit that I went through quite the rollercoaster of emotions when I looked back at my race. Whilst this race for me had always been about the finish line, not the finish time, I did feel a slight pang of disappointment at the final black and white result. Yes, I had finished, but was coming 86th out of 99 finishers in my age group, and 1825th out of 2307 finishers overall, really something to be proud of? Was it possible that behind the messages of congratulations, everyone who’d been following me was feeling slightly let down by my performance on the day when I’d been so much faster at my qualifying race at Port Macquarie in May?
It was three days later, whilst we were cooking our BBQ dinner at the pool of our resort, that I found myself speaking to an American man whose wife had just competed at the World Championships for the sixteenth time (yes, you read that right – SIXTEEN! It turns out she used to be a professional). As we talked about the race, he told me she’d had to pull out of the race this year and had therefore ended up with a DNF. She’d smashed out the bike leg in an amazing time but collapsed just before the halfway mark on the run. It dawned on me that here was one example of an obviously extremely talented athlete, with lots of experience at this very race and who had benefited from training in a country that’d just finished summer, not winter, but who was right at this very moment facing the pain of leaving the Big Island without a single finish line photo to speak of. I suspected she would have given anything to have my 12:26 finisher time if it meant she could hold that finisher medal in her hands without having to face friends and family to explain what went wrong. It was enough to jolt me back to reality.
I reminded myself that I compete in triathlon to relieve my everyday stresses and bring joy to my life, not to bring extra criticism into it. I knew the greatest tragedy of all would be to finish any Ironman (but particularly this one) with anything other than a sense of wonder at what the human mind and body is capable of achieving. And what my own mind and body were capable of achieving! My body carried six babies and gave birth to four. It held me up through my drunken, junk-food-fuelled university days. It took me over the finish line of my very first sprint triathlon back in 2013, and now, five years later, it had just carried me all the way to the finish line of the World Championships. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and my way-off-the-podium result and started enjoying the amazing holiday we had planned with my chaotic and hilarious family.
It’s been two weeks since the World Championships. My gigantic sunburn blister from race day is almost completely healed and I’m back in the country and back at work, feeling almost as if I’d never left. I’ve managed to dabble in a bit of swim, bike and run, and it turns out I haven’t completely forgotten how to do it even though I’m quite a bit slower than I was a few weeks ago (which might have a little to do with me also being quite a bit rounder after indulging in a few too many mint slice bikkies!). After finishing this race, I said out loud the words I’d never before said at the end of a triathlon: “Never again!”
But, dammit, Ironman is a way of life more than just a race... and once you’ve been drawn into its folds, it’s almost impossible to pull away. Already I can hear its quiet whisper, calling me back to its long training rides, double-run days and endless laps following that black line on the bottom of the pool – carrying with it the promise that I will once again feel that rush of fear, excitement and ultimate triumph when I cross that finish line to those magical words, “You Are An Ironman!”