Friday, October 16, 2009

Kona race report

Well I guess it's time to finally do a race report, seeing that I am now at the end of my 10th season of triathlon and I have yet to do one. Last Saturday, October 10th 2009, I competed in the 31st edition of the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The race lived up to all of its hype and mystique in my mind, and looking back on the experience, I am so happy to have had the opportunity to race there. I will try to keep this report reasonably short, but be forewarned that just writing about the experience may get the better of me and I may get carried away with my description out of sheer, runaway nostalgic excitement.

Race morning began much earlier than I would have hoped when I woke up at 2:45 AM (2 hours early) to go to the bathroom. That was it for me, the brain and nerves started going, and there was no more sleep to be had. I just laid there in bed, and began to visualize my race. I finally got up at 4:45 like I had planned and started the pre-race ritual. I drank 3 meal replacement shakes and ate 2 bananas and one Clif Bar before my nerves/stomach got the better of me and I could ingest no more. I put on some sunscreen, my heart rate monitor, gathered up the rest of my gear, and walked out the door at 5:15 with my bottles of Gatorade in tow. I decided against asking for a ride from any of my family members but rather to take the shuttles that were supposedly running down Ali'i Dr instead. After waiting for about 20-25 minutes and beginning to worry that maybe I had made a huge mistake, the shuttle finally came. I got down to the Kona Pier and "Dig Me Beach" with about an hour to go till the race began. I went through body marking, the pre-race weight check, gear drop off, got everything situated in transition, and was ready to wait in line for the porta-johns for the all important last stop. As I was waiting, I was treated to an aerial show of 4 or 5 Navy SEALS exiting from what I believe was a C-130 transport plane above the pier, and then parachuting down into the bay while performing aerial maneuvers. This was incredible to see and got me fired up to race and get into the bay myself. When the pros went off at 6:45, I was in line and ready to file my way into the bay for my turn.

Once I got into the water, I made my way up to the front of the water treading pack, and picked my spot to begin the wait. As the start approached, a number of native musicians began beating on wooden drums all around the bay, building the excitement in the water to a fevered pitch. Suddenly the cannon sounded and we were off. I thought that I had picked a good position in the middle of the pack (from left to right) to avoid the worst of the start's chaos. I was wrong apparently, or I may have just inadvertently angled over towards the buoy line too quickly, because soon I found myself swimming through a sea of bodies and not the Pacific. That is the most frustrating time of an Ironman to me, when you are swimming over people and vice versa, elbows and feet everywhere, and you can't find clear water anywhere you look. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself in that position because you didn't get out ahead, you're just stuck until it thins out on its own. Luckily the chaos didn't last quite as long here as it did for me in Lake Placid, and soon I was cruising along and feeling pretty good. At about a kilometer out, I found someone that seemed to be pretty strong and I latched onto his feet for a ride. I was doing pretty well and stuck with him for maybe a 500 or so when I let a little gap of about 4 feet form and boom, someone snuck in from my hip and took my draft! I had never witnessed a move like this before in an open water swim, but I guess at the World Championships if you snooze, you lose. I continued on, going from person to person when possible, but often just swimming by myself.
At the turn around, I happened to swim right up alongside someone that was immediately recognizable to me in the water, Rudy Garcia-Tolson. Rudy is the first ever double above knee amputee to attempt the Hawaii Ironman. I had first read about Rudy years and years ago in Triathlete when he first started competing in tris in California and made a name for himself. I had heard that Rudy was a really strong swimmer, but now I got to see it firsthand and swim alongside him for a little. Very cool. I continued on back towards shore, just trying to keep it steady and keep everything balanced and loose. I came up on shore and ran up the stairs onto the pier in 1:05:56. Not my best Ironman swim, but considering the chaotic moments, this was something I could work with.

I was in and out of transition in 4:19 to start the bike. I started riding and immediately got into a good tempo as I was cruising through town when I went over a rough patch of road at an intersection, where two of my water bottles with my liquid nutrition were promptly ejected from my stupid, behind the seat bottle cages. I briefly considered stopping to pick them up, until I saw that they had also opened, spilling my Accelerade onto the pavement. I pushed on, fairly energized by my anger over this incident. The first 40 miles flew by, and it barely seemed as if I was expending any energy at all, averaging over 24 mph over a gradual uphill trend.
I was pretty sure there was not a tailwind for this section, as I was repeatedly pushed to my side by the wind, and also felt it in my face. I did also begin to notice the heat now, after riding by lava rock for more than an hour with reported temps in town in excess of 95 degrees, but I took the opportunity at every aid station to dump ice cold water over my head and back. Luckily along this stretch of the Queen Ka' ahumanu Hwy, the aid stations seemed to come by almost every 3 or 4 miles so I was at no loss for calories or cold water, despite losing most of my energy drink earlier - I was making good use of the Gatorade Endurance and Power Gels that were available at the numerous aid stations. But just as I was getting used to these plentiful aid stations, when I made the turn at Kawaihae and then started the long gradual climb to Hawi, the aid stations began to get much more sporadic. Unfortunately this also coincided with the arrival of some serious, noticeable winds. For the most part, I was keeping a steady pace up towards Hawi, but the final 4-5 miles to the turnaround on the steepest grades were made that much more challenging by the howling head/crosswinds. At the turnaround I successfully grabbed my first ever special needs bag with 3 additional bottles of Accelerade and was on my way down the hill. This short but roaring descent made the recent climb up into the winds completely worthwhile. The road leveled off for a little while and the course seemed fairly benign for another 15 miles or so, but once I turned back onto the Queen K/A Mamalahoa a little bit before mile 80, things started getting ugly. The course itself through this section wasn't particularly difficult topographically, but the winds stepped up and did the job perfectly. I was still hovering around 22 mph for my average up until around mile 80, but then it took a serious nosedive. The next 20-25 miles were a real struggle. The gradual uphills on the way out of town that I was hitting at 23 mph, now I was struggling to hold 16 mph on the downhill inverses. I asked myself a couple times if I thought I had had it, if maybe I had cracked, but I don't think that was it. I wondered if maybe I had gone out too aggressively, or maybe I was bonking mildly from a calorie deficit, but I don't think that was it either. The legendary Queen K winds had simply smacked me in the face. The final miles into Kona were very difficult and frustrating, but I had to remind myself that the race was not over and that I still had a chance to run a fast marathon. Every time I got frustrated and down on myself, I merely had to look at the beautiful surroundings and remind myself where I was and what I was a part of. I pushed into town as quickly as possible and tried to really lift my cadence to a high rate to prepare the running legs. I hit the end of the bike leg with a 5:33:46 split which worked out to be a 20.13 mph average.

After a surprisingly quick transition of 3:31 (considering we ran to the end of the pier and around every last bike before getting to the changing tents) I was off running on the shadeless and stiflingly hot streets of Kailua-Kona. My first two miles were quick and I was right where I wanted to be at sub 7:30 miles, but then the novel energy of the transition faded and my pace started to slide. I tried to keep it fast and my feet light, but my legs were beginning to slow dramatically. As I headed out on Ali'i Dr, I knew I would see my family and that would give me a boost of energy, however this turned out to be short lived and I found myself quickly withering under the heat.

I was still dumping ice water on my head, but now I was also pouring ice down my uniform and holding cubes against my chest until they melted away. In addition to the slowing legs, my stomach was also beginning to give me problems and the Gatorade I was drinking was not sitting well. Water wasn't much better and it took almost 3 miles before I remembered Jocelyn saying that she had the same problem at Lake Placid until she started drinking cola at every aid station. I don't know why this didn't occur to me earlier, and maybe the heat was affecting my ability to reason, but once I started downing the cola my stomach settled very quickly. Thankfully, this problem had now been solved, now I just had the problem of running about 20 more miles in brutal heat with unresponsive legs.
Once getting up onto the Queen K highway again, but this time for the run, I realized how close this run was going to take me to my limits. I had never had to resort to this method before, but I adopted the "one step at a time" mantra as I was running down the lonely highway, trying to be completely present in the moment. There were many times out on the Queen K, and then especially at the Energy Lab, where I wanted to stop and walk, but I constantly reminded myself of how hard I had worked to get here, that I couldn't let Jocelyn, my family, my friends and training partners down, and that it really wasn't that bad. I couldn't give up that easily, I couldn't resign to such mental weakness. I finally reminded myself of the charity that I was racing for, Ballou Skies, and that the young men and boys that it benefits eventually get to a point where they don't have a choice whether they can walk or run if they so desire - it is taken from them by disease. I committed to not walk another step, to finish the race running, and to run the closing miles as fast as I could.
I couldn't muster much more than about 8:20-8:30 miles coming back into town, but once I felt the energy of the crowd again and the finish line luring me in, I was somehow able to run my final mile in 6:45. Now mind you I was also seeing spots as I made the final turn for home, but it felt great to be able to run down the finishing chute of the Ironman World Championship with such focus and determination. I completed the marathon in 3:40:47 (8:25 pace) and the race for a total time of 10:28:19. Crossing the line was a dream come true in so many ways and I feel tremendous relief and satisfaction that I accomplished this goal, but it also has me more motivated than ever to work even harder to return to the big island next year and race with even more strength and conviction.

I would like to thank my new wife Jocelyn, my family, extended family, friends, training partners, coworkers, and sponsors for believing in me and my dream to race in Kona. I couldn't have made it to the the starting line let alone the finish without you, and I am forever grateful for your support, love, and friendship. You have all helped me become an Ironman in Kona!


Beth said...

What an awesome report!! Just about every race report I've read on Kona has detailed how hot, hard and torturous the run was - so huge congrats for staying on task and fighting hard when the going got tough. Very inspiration Jeremy! Congrats again!

Kim said...

Great Race Report Jeremy! I would say the first one was a success! Way to really put your head down and challenge yourself. The Queen K has a way of taking you to places you've never quite tapped into just wait.. after a little time you'll forget all the painful parts and only remember the amazing parts! Really exceptional race and Congrats on your new life as a couple! I'm so happy for you both!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Jeremy on your fantastic race! Way to go with making Pittsburgh and Penn State proud. Keep up the amazing work!

James Thornton said...


Excellent piece of writing--it gave those of us who have struggled in our infrequent attempts to complete the Iron Infant a sense of what the immortals in the sport go through with a real Iron Man.

The part about holding ice cubes to your chest till they melted convinced me that it must have been Hades-like in Paradise, temperature-wise.

Quick note: For those of you who have never seen Jeremy in what is arguably his best sport of all, steam bath endurance, he is a legend in the world of never kowtowing to heat. That the Hawaii lava fields would force him to concede it was a little warm suggests to me that such temperatures would have fried the egss of lesser men.