Ironman World Championships in Kona: A Race Story (Also Subtitled ‘Was It All Worth It?’)

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SHORT STORY:

In case you somehow missed my Twitter and Facebook and Ironman tracking and Instagraming and general spamming of the internet, I ended up 10th in the 30-34 age group at Kona in a time of 10:31:26.

SWIM: 1:01:36
BIKE: 5:43:26 [actually put that shit on Strava]
RUN: 3:40:00 [also this]

It wasn’t really quite as good as I was hoping for. It was about 15-20 minutes slower than I was aiming for actually, which mostly came from not running very fast and also from getting a penalty on the bike.

But I’m not upset about the race either. I did the absolute best I could on the day. I dealt with the vomiting and the problems, and I got through it. And it’s something that historically I wouldn’t have gotten through, on a course I historically would have been terrible at. I’m proud of leaving it all out there, even if my all wasn’t enough on that particular day.

There wasn’t a lot of time to feel proud, though, because I had to haul down the finish chute to edge out four girls who were within a minute behind me. This is the video of me finishing and weaving, which I find kind of hilarious, by the way:

I kept waiting and waiting for the moment when it was all going to feel worth it, all the work and the pain during the race and the crippling after. It hasn’t really come exactly. Of course, those moments are rare anyway. That’s why you chase them. This wasn’t one of those magical races for me. It was just a race.

LONG STORY: 

Everyone kept telling me I was going to be overwhelmed by the whole Kona experience, by how many fast girls there are, and how much of a crazy mess the thing is. Turns out they were right. Apparently, all those times I thought everyone was exaggerating about Kona, they weren’t. The whole organization is ridiculously complex and inefficient. Unnecessarily so. The check-in is ridiculous. The body marking is ridiculous. It’s all insane.

The Swim: In which I was so stressed about drowning in the chaos before we even started, that I threw up a little…

The one thing everyone also said was the swim was going to be intense. And they were right in that lining up at the start was so crowded and stress-inducing I actually threw up a little in the water. But then I forced myself to swallow the rest down, because that could end badly.

Amazingly, when the countdown got under a minute, suddenly a space opened in front of me, girls moved out of the way, and I got clear open water right at the start line as the cannon went off. I swam hard and for 100m I led the whole damn thing. And then I didn’t. Hah.

I went to the far, far right. I think you can see me  in the photo, all the way to the right, on the feet of that second string of girls.

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What was insane was randomly in the middle of the swim, someone would suddenly start punching me in the face or swimming over me. I was on the far right, so there was clear water next to me and feet in front of me. There really was no need to suddenly veer on top of me. I was skipping from feet to feet, speeding up and slowing down, and it felt fine. Then, after the turn, I was on a pair of feet that seemed slow and were on a very different path than the rest of pack. I tried to go past the feet and back to the pack, but realized the slow feet were actually passing us and taking a much better line. I made a decision then: I put in a pretty hard minute, got back over on her feet, and stuck to them all the way to the finish, even when we were 10m to the right of everyone else. I figured this was either going to work out terribly or brilliantly.

This is still amazing to me: the ability to respond to things in the swim, make decisions, speed up and slow down, know I’m well within myself and being strategic. That always used to sound impossible, but apparently I’ve gotten better?

The Bike: ‘Hey, this has to let up eventually, right?’

People yelled at me to run faster through transition, because triathletes are insane, and then we got on our bikes. Here is a photo of what the bike ride looked like (from LAVA):

IRONMAN World Championship
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for Ironman)

For the first 20-minute out-and-back, it was chaos. Apparently, there are no drafting penalties in that portion??

But it didn’t really get better once we hit the Queen K. Everyone had told me there were going to be so many people and groups and I’d have more guys drafting around me than any race I’d ever done, but I had thought everyone was exaggerating. Turns out, they weren’t. It was just a massive cluster of groups the whole time. I’d leave space to the person ahead of me and someone would slot in the gap. I’d move to the left and ride past the group and think, ‘I did it! They’re gone!’ (because I never look behind me), and then I’d get swallowed by the group again, subsumed, people swarming all around me. Despite the chaos, I was enjoying myself. I said hi to friends as I passed. I knew all the girls around me — some just by name, some because I actually knew them — and I was chatting with them. I asked Hailey, since she’s raced here one billion times, if it was ever going to let up, get any less clusterfuck-y, and she said not really.

Then, we were headed up to Hawi, on a climb, with people all around, and a motorcycle pulled up, waved a blue card at me, and said, “Next penalty tent.”

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Honestly, I had heard the motorcycle coming, but it hadn’t even occurred to me I was in any danger of getting a penalty. It was a climb, everyone had squished up even more than they had been. I couldn’t see a legal person anywhere in sight.

Then, 30 seconds later, as I was trying to get my head around this and riding to the left, so it’d be clear I wasn’t trying to draft, another motorcycle pulled up and yelled at me to get back over to the right, and pointed to a spot directly behind a girl — WHICH WASN’T LEGAL EITHER. I almost started to cry. Where was I supposed to go?!?

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But you don’t get time-outs to debate, and you don’t get do-overs. It seemed like the refs had gotten done with the pros and decided they needed to do something about the cluster mess, and started handing out semi-random penalties to set an example. Oh well. By the time I stopped in the penalty tent — which was also a mess, shockingly — I had convinced myself that five minutes didn’t even matter in an Ironman. A friend told me a story once about a guy who forgot his Di2 battery, got to his bike in transition, realized it was gone, went to the hotel to get it, came back, and still got 5th overall. Of course, on Saturday, five minutes ended up being worth 2-3 places, but whatever. Details.

By the time I started riding again, I was fine. And the course was less of a mess on the way back — maybe the random penalty-giving worked in some way. I was mostly able to just ride. Three things were starting to worry me, though:

  1. My head had been pounding for awhile, which seemed heat/dehydration induced.
  2. I looked down at my arms and realized they were already sunburned-fried and thought, “That’s not great.”
  3. I was struggling to keep food down, and threw up a little. Once on myself.

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Still, I was surprisingly optimistic about the whole thing. Hillary had told me everyone feels terrible from Waikoloa back to town, so if I only felt semi-shitty that was a win. I hit Waikoloa and I thought, “I feel fine!” Then I thought that was hilarious, because I was covered in urine, had vomit on my leg, and was worried I was at the early stages of heatstroke. But whatever, that’s a win! I spent the end of the ride trying to get some calories and water down, not override the thing — which, in retrospect, I probably should have ridden harder — and start to remind myself the run was still going to be miserable.

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The Run: Spoiler Alert – It was miserable.

I knew I was going great. Great. At least, pretty good, right where I needed to be, somewhere around 10th in the age group. I just didn’t know if my ‘it all comes down to the run, track people down’ plan was going to work out.

The first 10 miles of the run are out and back on Ali’i Drive. I told myself to just run easy easy easy, whatever pace that was, for those 10 miles. It turned out to be this weird thing that kept happening all month in Hawaii: I felt like I was running so slow I was basically running in place, but I also felt like I might pass out and die. Hard to say.

run-konaI downed 3-4 gels in that first hour, drank my whole bottle of water, and was pouring cups on myself at every aid station. It was a bit of a struggle, but do not think beyond the mile you’re on. That mostly almost worked, except for a couple problems.

  1. I still was struggling with calories and hydration, little burping and throwing up in my mouth. And my head was still pounding.
  2. As I was headed back into town, still running 7:50s, my heart rate started to drop. It dropped all the way down to 80 bpm. I was getting light-headed, pressure, feeling like I was going to black out. Which would not be great.

By the time I hit the Queen K and then the halfway, I was worried, but I was still passing people. Maybe if I had stopped to refill my bottle instead of throwing the bottle away in what seemed like a good decision at the time??, it would have mitigated some of my eventual problems. Maybe if I hadn’t eaten all my gels already (though I swear I must have dropped some), I would have been able to down more of them and stave off the crash. I don’t know. What I do know is that I had slowed to 8:0x and I was forced to drink as much as I could at each aid station — two cups of water, two of Gatorade, dump ice down shirt, two more cups of water. Around mile 15, I went through one of those aid stations, made it another 200m, and then projectile vomited up everything I had just drank. It was an impressive torrent of water and Gatorade and maybe a little vanilla Power Gel too.

I stood there for a second, thinking, “Well, I guess I’m done?” And then this girl running by said, “Keep going,” so I did.

At that point, I stopped really racing. I stopped caring. My new goal was just to finish and I figured that was going to take a long, long time. All I was trying to do was simply continue moving forward. That’s what I told myself: Just keep moving. Turned out as long as I was still moving, I was still passing people. I had a frozen water bottle in my special needs bag (and more gels) at mile 18, so I told myself just to make it there. Of course, by the time I got there, it wasn’t frozen anymore and they couldn’t even find my bag at first and I was pleading, “Please, please, #2126.”

I don’t really know what happened the last 8 miles. In retrospect, looking at the splits, I actually didn’t slow down too much after the vomiting. It was about 5 miles later that I really started to slow down, when it finally hit that I’d only been sipping Gatorade (and sucking on ice cold sponges — which also seemed like a good idea at the time??). But I didn’t know this then. All I knew was I was just trying to move forward, however slow, I just had to get to the finish eventually. Just make it to 20. Just make it to the next aid station. Just make it to that Texaco station. Just make it to the intersection.

Around 23, Steve told me I was in 6th for my age group. He was wrong; I was actually in 8th. Then a half-mile later, Alyssa told me I needed to go now, I had to go, I had to dig deep. And I was like, “This is the only flavor this comes in right now. This is going.” But she was right and with less than 2 miles left, three girls went by me. And then I was running down Palani, a mile left to the finish, and it looked like there was a girl up ahead of me? I didn’t want to pass her. I really didn’t want to have to deal with racing. I just wanted to keep moving to the finish, that’s all.

As we turned down to Ali’i Drive, to the famous finish, I finally made the slowest motion pass of all time at a blistering 8:15 pace, and then I couldn’t look back. The whole time all I kept thinking was how do you pronounce the street we were turning down, Hualalai Road? Hua-la-lai. Hooo-aaah-la-liiiii. I said it over and over in my head.

I didn’t really get to enjoy that long final stretch, with all the cheering. I had to just keep moving. I only high-fived one kid! Thank god, though. I beat that girl by 14 seconds, and then there were three more women (two in my age group) within 40 seconds behind her. Apparently, I was racing the whole time and I just didn’t know it. Maybe if I’d wallowed less, I’d have been a few minutes faster. Maybe. But that’s how Ironman goes. Everyone wallows. And sometimes if you just keep moving forward, then that’s enough to still be racing.

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14 thoughts on “Ironman World Championships in Kona: A Race Story (Also Subtitled ‘Was It All Worth It?’)

  1. What an incredible experience! Your details make it seem like we’re running along with you. I cannot even imagine running like this. Congratulations, Kelly! Aunt Sandy

  2. Congratulations on your race! Like everyone else, I love reading your race reports. You don’t gloss over the hard shit, and I really appreciate that.

    Hope you’ve been enjoying the last week – you’ve definitely earned it.

    1. Thanks! Mostly been doing nothing, which is semi-enjoyable. Btw, I read your report about IM Louisville, and I think sometimes we put too many expectations on these things? Also, if you don’t take your time enjoying the finish, I’m convinced it always feels like you didn’t get the worth out of the whole thing

      1. I’ve been doing nothing too. It’s nice but I’m starting to get antsy. “Semi-enjoyable” is right.

        Also I know you’re right about too many expectations on this one race. The next time I do one I’ll likely be more realistic about it, and less likely to expect it to be ~*~magical*~*

  3. I don’t want this to come out wrong. But whenever races go in really crappy directions for you, that’s when your writing shines. Life never really goes as planned either, but we keep racing anyway. Well done.

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