Kona – it’s not just an Ironman race. It’s so difficult to understand beauty of the island, the race, and the Hawaiian people that it’s no wonder people describe it with equal parts myth, legend and awe.
So until you step foot off that plane into the heat and humidity you can’t really understand what you are about to face. Race week is nuts and also a lot of fun – a town completely overrun by the fittest triathletes in the world all hitting taper time together; expo gear galore; and evenings spent in cafes admiring the Hawaiian sunset. The athlete welcome dinner is a huge open air event, and this was the moment I fully grasped how big this race really was. Hearing the history of the event and about the incredible competitors over the years made me realise just how special it was to be a part of this. I had earnt my spot on the start line on the Big island and I was about to go out and make my own history.
“Be like a Ninja Mum”
These were the parting words from my 7 year old son as I left for Hawaii, and wow didn’t they serve me well. As we were herded down the steps into the water on race morning (there is no beach to speak of) there is no option other than to head out to the start line and tread water. Swimmers kept coming from behind and pushing us forward, and the paddle boarders were pushing us back. Needless to say it was a very rough start, and until the halfway mark we were shoulder to shoulder which made it hard to get a good rhythm going. Around the boat and heading for shore there was some clear water but we then started catching the slower men and had to swim through them. Quickly out of the water, through transition and onto the bike and you could not wipe the smile off my face. I was headed for the Queen K Highway baby!
However the smile was very quickly wiped off my face when a cyclist crashed at an intersection right in front of me – my whole raced flashed in front of me as I deployed every ninja/bike handling skill I had to nearly miss her shoulder and stay upright. Luckily she was OK too and continued her race as we headed for the climb to Hawi.
The bike leg is essentially one long out and back, with a fair bit of headwind out, and mostly a headwind back. It’s pretty simple really. There is a climb into Hawi which is the turning point, and you can see all the other competitors ahead of you as they make their way back to town. This is the first time you get a real feel for where you are sitting in the field, and by now I was further back than I had thought. As it turned out, this was a good thing mentally for me, as I let a few girls go that I knew, and realised I wasn’t out to race today – I was here to finish this and in good shape too. But the ride down from Hawi can only be done FAST… there are crazy crosswinds and the only way to tackle them is to keep pedalling hard. My front wheel skipped across the road a couple of times, but I kept thinking of my middle son’s words, ride it fast Mum!!
It was on the long slog back into town where I thought about what it meant to achieve this dream and to race in Kona. Basically, I needed to finish this race. I was always going to finish it. So however hard it felt I didn’t mind, because I knew that if I was to inspire anyone to achieve their dreams I was going to cross that finish line. My eldest son told me to go over there to inspire others, so finish it I did.
My coach said this to me over and over again in training and so I dreamt of racing on the biggest stage in the triathlon world. Why not? I was prepared to work for it, and every day I would do what it took to get me there. But in the race I used this too. I kept reminding myself to dream big (can I run well off the bike? can I finish strong?) and mostly I dreamt about crossing that finish line.
The marathon is the true test of endurance in Hawaii. As I came out of transition I settled into my normal pace off the bike, the legs felt good, and within a few minutes I felt… HOT. My feet were hot and swollen from the bike and the first aid station felt like it took forever to come. Oh dear. I filled my neck towel and suit with with ice, and walked through the aid station to get plenty of cold water. Very quickly I realised that this wasn’t going to be the marathon I had trained for, and had been capable of back in Australia to qualify. A few days before the race I listened to the very inspiring Chrissie Wellington talk about her experiences in winning Kona four times, and she said
‘You can endure this. You have endured it in training so many times before’
So endure I did, I walked through the aid stations but otherwise ran the whole marathon as my feet and toenails blistered in the sweltering heat.
The far point of the marathon is down a section of the course called the ‘energy lab’ which is renowned for being a hot and tough part of the run. But as I entered this 6km section, the sun started to set and it was the most magical, beautiful time I will always remember. The aid stations were all manned by locals here, and a tiny little Hawaiian girl held up a cup of cola hopefully to me with her two hands. I stopped to take it from her and looked down at her delighted face, and it was then I truly understood the magic and allure of Hawaii.
‘You deserve this’. ‘You are meant to be here’. ‘You will finish this’. As I left the energy lab it was getting dark, and with 11km to go I had no battery left on my Garmin and so no idea of distance or pace. All I had was my breath, my positive thoughts, the rhythm of my feet and a line of glow sticks of athletes coming towards me who were going to have a much longer day than me. My husband had told me to believe in myself, and so I just headed for the lights of town and that finish line where my coach was cheering (and maybe crying a bit too). At last I was running down Ali’i drive and I was almost laughing I was so happy – I enjoyed every bit of that finishing chute and everything it meant to become a finisher at the Ironman World Championships.
As the The Foo Fighters said… “It’s times like these you learn to live again” right as I crossed that line.
Kona is not just an Ironman race, it is filled with the spirit of Aloha – something tangible that can be felt and now something I will always carry with me after that beautiful yet brutal race. It is a true test of endurance and I am so proud to have achieved that in my life. Thank you to all the people who supported, encouraged and endured with me throughout my training- this was your race too.