It’s dark. It is so dark on the Queen K that I am worried about running into people head on as they run towards me, but there aren’t many of them out there now. There is no moon and I am not yet to the hill with the street lamps – the famous “Dave and Mark hill” where they had the Iron War. Spectators are riding their bikes in the opposite direction, looking for friends whose days maybe have not turned out as planned. I am expecting Mark to pop out of the darkness to yell at me. He has been watching the tracker and knows I have been run-walking for miles. I remember 2011 when he appeared along this stretch to try to get me to break 4:00 for the run and salvage some of my pride. I’m slower than that today. Mark isn’t there. I am both relieved and sad.
I am wearing a glowstick, but I refuse to wear it around my neck, instead, clipping it to my race belt so I am less aware of it bouncing around as I run. I once dreamed of finishing this race in the daylight (which requires around an 11-hour finish), but I never have. I will chuck the glowstick in dramatic fashion a mile from the finish and the people who see me do it will cheer.
I get to the final aid station on the Queen K. I have been walking the aid stations for the entire marathon and I’m sure I walked this one, too, although I don’t remember. The volunteers are still offering to spray us with water, but it is dark and not that hot anymore, and I politely decline. A volunteer says to me, “there are a lot of people waiting for you just down the road,” and I almost start crying thinking about Mark, my kids and my sister waiting for me. The thought of keeping them waiting is the thing that has kept me running, at times, for the last hour. I feel badly that I am making them wait. I crest the hill and turn right on Palani, which was filled with people a few hours ago, but is deserted now. Everyone has made their way to the finish.
I turn left on Kuakini and almost make the wrong right turn before Hualalai, but luckily someone tells me before I head the wrong way. I am pretty much on my own and people are walking all over the place and I have forgotten this part of the course.
I turn right on Ali’i. I am running fast now, with solid form. The way I wish I had for the prior 25 miles. I run fast enough to feel like me, but not so fast that I don’t try to take it all in. The things that had hurt enough to make me walk much of the past 6, 13, 24 miles don’t hurt anymore – a strange finish chute phenomenon. I move toward the right side of the road and high five everyone for at least a block. I smile.
We are in the water, the other pink caps and I, and I am holding onto a buoy to save energy, reminding myself that this is the last time I will be cold today. I am nervous about the swim and I hate that. This is my 11th Ironman and I wish I was used to it by now, but I’m not. Mike Reilly is standing on the pier, counting down on the loudspeaker, and I can still hear the drums from the pier and the helicopter overhead. The sunrise was beautiful and it is going to be a clear, hot day.
I start on the buoy line but in the back, and that seemed like a great idea until about 200 meters into the swim when all of the people who had started wide merged over and I become completely boxed in. I am nervous because it feels so crowded now and for a few moments, I think I might panic and have to DNF. I try to gain control of my breathing and heart and I pretend I am in our neighborhood pool, swimming masters. The panicky feeling passes and people swim up ahead and I am o.k. for the rest of the swim.
I exit the water and the clock says 1:20, which is a Kona swim PR for me and the same time I swam in the practice race the week before. I feel good.
The bike is a blur of wind, heat, pineapple Skratch, sunburnt legs, and trying not to get too down about the wind, heat and the fact I am in the back of the race. There are no draft packs in my part of the field – it’s too sparse – and I know the big obstacle on the bike won’t really be the wind, but it will be me, and whether I get discouraged and give up before making it back to town.
Amy passes me near Kawaihae and I wish I can stay with her for the company, but she is riding a completely different pace and she disappears up the road. It is not as windy as last time and I ride to and from Hawi in an uneventful way, not feeling too terrible, but it’s the Kona bike, so I am also not feeling great. A couple of aid stations on the Queen K are out of water (this was true for the bike and the run), and this makes me way more unhappy than it should have. The soles of my feet feel like they are on fire – they are inexplicably burning – and I think a lot about pulling to the side to loosen my shoes but I never do.
I decided before the race that I would try to ride my best bike split (if conditions allowed) and I roll into T2 at 6:30, which is nearly 30 minutes better than my disastrous split in 2014, but not quite my best, although I don’t know that at the time. I rode my best bike split in 2011 when I was brand new and not much of a cyclist. It is one of my unsolved Kona mysteries why I have not been able to beat my time from that year despite more experience and training.
I take my time in T2 because there doesn’t seem to be an urgent reason to rush. So far, I have swam and rode pretty much what I expected and now all I have to do is run sub-4:00 and I will have a Kona PR. I’ve joked all week that all I want on this day is to make it to T2. Then it is easy. Or at least that’s how it usually goes. I have done ten Ironmans and only run over 4 hours once, in St. George, and I don’t count that one since I didn’t really train for the race. I have trained for this run. I don’t think it will be a 3:30 day, but 3:45 doesn’t seem out of reach. 4:00 should be a breeze.
I am running up Ali’i. Friends are heading the other direction, spectators soak me with water, and I try to figure out how to solve the problem that my head doesn’t quite feel like it is fully attached. I drink Coke and eat oranges and walk all of the long aid stations and try to find my run legs, but they never come. A stranger gets me running around mile 4 by telling me he will wait right there for me until I turn around and come back. This sounds reassuring so I pick up the pace again. When I am running, I am running well (8s), but I can’t do it for very long. Not even a whole mile. Every time I start running, I get abdominal cramps, and while it is not the worst pain in the world, it is enough to slow me to a walk. My family comes into view around mile 4 and I feel bad that they have to see me struggle.
The guy is still there when I run back by at mile 6-ish and he yells and I smile and it helps for a bit. Someone else yells, “We’ve got a runner in the house!” and that helps me pick up the pace and hold it for a while. Yes, I’m a runner. This is the part I can do. Lots of times, it feels like the only part I can do. My running is the reason I’m here.
I reach Palani and don’t even try to run it. Jack walks next to me, trying to get me to run. I start running at the top and he is there with me, keeping pace in his flip flops. I tell him it might take me a while to reach the finish and he says, “I know.”
Out on the Queen K there is a breeze and even though there are no spectators, I am happy to be out there and away from the swamp of Ali’i Drive. Somehow I make it to the Energy Lab and, once again, the sun is setting. I see Amy at the turn and she says I am going to catch her but I never do. I make a few friends out there as I pass people running and then they catch me when I walk and we walk together. I tell my new friends that it doesn’t matter that we are walking because “we get to enjoy the course longer.” Some laugh and some don’t. Everyone is consumed with their own struggle and by now, we all are struggling.
We fly home the next day and I know it will be a while before I come back, if ever. In the past, I always felt like I wanted another chance to be “good,” but I have a way of setting the bar so high that I can never reach it and I am not sure why I can’t just be satisfied to have been there, part of the show, and this makes me feel guilty, but it’s just how I am.
It is 48 hours after the race and I am back at my desk, trying to determine if I have dropped any balls over the past few weeks trying to get ready for the race. I wanted to see if I could work full time, be a mom, and race Kona. I was able to do all of that, but some things had to give this year and the choices I made revealed themselves out on the race course. It was too much, but also not enough, and I certainly didn’t train hard enough for the day, but I also don’t regret the other ways I spent my time.
We have so many wonderful family memories from our trips here, especially this one. We swam with mantas (well, some of us did), rode in a helicopter over the volcano, saw the waterfalls near Hilo, hiked the Pololu Valley, saw a reef shark, drove up to the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, enjoyed sunrises over Hualalai and sunsets into the Pacific.
If it weren’t for the lure of this place, and this race, I wouldn’t have been to so many other cool places and met so many great people. Thanks to my real family, my triathlon family, my Coeur family, and everyone who has been there throughout this journey.