Closing the Chapter, But Not the Book

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Mahalo,

Jen

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Ironman World Championship Race Report

There are two types of athletes in Kona: those going for a certain time or age group placement and…everyone else. I’m in the second group. Because I know that I can’t be competitive at the World Championship, I came up with some different goals for the day. I wanted to beat my splits from 2011, which, when I qualified for this event back in August seemed like a given. I also wanted to finish in the daylight, which would have required an 11:06 finish. More than those goals, what I wanted most was to take in the experience and treat it as a once-in-a-lifetime event in case I never found my way back. I wanted to enjoy the views on the bike course, stop and take a picture with my family on the run course, and go back to the finish line for the midnight finish. Some of those goals were accomplished and some weren’t.

While I would like to just talk about the run, since it’s the only part of the day I really excelled at and it contains my happiest memories, triathlon is comprised of three sports, and the run was preceded by a swim and a very long bike.

The Swim 

Once everything was situated, I headed over to the start right near the arch to wait for the age group men to start their race. I saw friend and occasional training partner Michelle Yost a few times that morning and we found ourselves together again waiting to enter to water. We reminded ourselves that even though it was going to be hard, the hard conditions affect everyone, and lots of people would love have the chance to experience what we knew was going to be a hard day in Kona. You know how on tv when they show the athletes before the start and everyone looks very somber? It’s like that in real life. There isn’t much joking around before the Kona swim.

Waiting to enter the water is the worst part for me, but once we entered, I was calm. I swam over the the left side (which is the outside), near the TYR floaty thing and a few rows back. The gun went off and we got moving. Although I had people all around, we seemed to all be swimming around the same pace and I was pretty comfortable right from the beginning. One of the things I usually dislike about open water swimming is that I feel like I have to interrupt my stroke to sight a lot, but in Kona, the water is so clear that it’s much easier to see feet, so I only sighted a few times throughout the swim and that was mostly just to see how far away I was from the turn and the finish.

The water was a little choppy, but it didn’t feel harder than when I raced in 2011, and I actually thought I was having a really strong swim. I was on feet the entire time and even managed to get around people and find new, faster feet on several occassions. After the turn, I started passing some of the slower men who had started 10 minutes before the women. The swim seemed to take forever, but that’s always the case for me. Eventually I reached the stairs and saw the clock at the exit. It was close to 1:30, and I was shocked. In 2011 I had swam 1:26 and I never dreamed I would be slower than that this year since I have so much more experience and am a much better swimmer now.

Obligatory swim exit pic

Obligatory swim exit pic

I got my bag and ran into the change tent where my awesome volunteer assured me the swim was slow this year and “everyone is unhappy with their time.” That made me feel better and I decided to try to let it go, although I spent some mental energy on the bike wondering if the clock at the finish was still set to the pro time and I had actually swam really well. It wasn’t and I didn’t.

Swim Time: 1:28

The Bike

Here’s the part I wish I could tell differently. I wish I could give some explanation for why I it took me close to 7 hours to ride the bike course in Kona, but the truth is, that’s just how long it took. In all of my thoughts prior to this race, it never occurred to me that I might spend almost 7 hours on the bike. The thought never entered my mind. In 2011, I rode 6:25 and I am a much better rider now. Yes, it was very windy on race day and I am particularly terrible in the wind, but the wind affected everyone and it did not take everyone 7 hours to finish the bike. I am half-expecting to get my bike back from Tribike Transport and find the rear brake rubbing the way it was for Boulder 70.3, but it seems more likely that a challenging day like the one we had on race day cracks open my weakness on the bike much more than a calm day. Lots of room for improvement here, obviously.

Back to the race itself…

Things were pretty much clicking along as planned, but then around the time we passed Waikoloa, the wind turned on as if someone had flipped a switch. All of the sudden, we were riding into the wind much, much earlier than I had planned. Near the left turn to Kawaihae, a woman rode up next to me and we exchanged sympathies about the wind. Then she said, “I hope we make the bike cutoff.” I was immediately alarmed. I didn’t even know what the bike cutoff was, and didn’t think we would miss it even with a 7-hour bike split, but her comment got in my head and threw me off for a while.

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Cringe-worthy, but I like the backdrop!

The bike is usually a total blur for me, but one moment that stands out is when I was descending from Hawi (on the bullhorns, of course) and I passed Maria Simone, another one of Vince’s athletes, who was racing her first Kona. I had the pleasure of spending time with Maria and her husband John, who was also racing, at the Slowtwitch party earlier in the week and I felt like we all hit it off. By the time I was headed back from Hawi, the majority of the field was already well on their way to T2 or even out on the run course, so it was a bit desolate. I realized I was primarily riding near the older athletes in the field, which was inspirational to witness, but at the same time made me feel bad that I was so far back. Seeing Maria twice on the bike and exchanging a few words gave me a much-needed lift.

Maria, John and I at the Slowtwitch party

Me, John and Maria at the Slowtwitch party

A final word about Hawi. Even though this part of the course lived up to its legendary reputation for windy conditions on race day, I think it’s the most beautiful part of the bike because of the great ocean views. Even though I was struggling a bit mentally and physically at this point (I had thought about dropping out of the race in Hawi because the bike was so hard for me), I tried to look at the ocean and remember that I was lucky enough to have the chance to race in paradise and, oh yeah, I was supposed to be having fun!

Having fun (sort of)

Having fun (sort of)

Bike Time: 6:57

T2: 

When I finally arrived at T2, I told my bike catcher that it was one of the happiest moments of my life and that is pretty much true. For the first time in 9 Ironmans, I had decided to put a full change of clothes into my T2 bag. While packing my gear, Mark had said “what would you wear if you were running a marathon?” So, rather than face 26.2 miles in my soggy tri kit, I put on a new top, running shorts and I was off and running.

The Run

Although it was not part of the plan to be on the bike for as long as I was, I had planned to bike a little more conservatively in order to set myself up for a fast run. I thought I could run around the same time I had run in Boulder and maybe even a little better. I hit mile 1 in 7:22, but shortly after I settled into a 7:30 pace, which I held all the way up and back on Ali’i.

You have to understand how strange this was for where I was at in the race. No one around me was running this fast and the spectators were cheering me on like crazy. The louder they yelled, the faster I ran, and the more the momentum built. I no longer cared that I had swam almost 1:30 and biked almost 7. I decided I was going to be the first person in the history of Kona to put together a 7-hour bike and a 3:30 run. I have no idea if that is actually true, but it was all I had left to salvage my pride in the race and I was determined to go after it. The miles clicked off and I ran through the aid stations like I was running a stand-alone marathon. The great part about it being late in the day is that it was no longer hot. There was cloud cover and a light rain.

Having actual fun

Having actual fun

I knew my family would be at the 5 mile mark and shortly before the turn, I spotted Mark and Jack on the side of the road. They didn’t know what shape they were going to find me in at that point or what had been going on, so they didn’t say much as they tried to assess how I was doing. Further up the road, I saw my sister with Kendall and I stopped for a moment to say hi and get that picture I had promised myself.

After the race, my sister told me that they debated for a long time what to say when I finally reached the turn around on Ali’i, knowing that I was probably not having my best day. They decided on “You’re doing it!” which became our slogan for the rest of the vacation.

Mile 5 with Kendall

Mile 5 with Kendall

I ran back through town, lifted by the crowds. I charged up Palani and Mark was at the top, having made it just in time to see me again before I headed out on the Queen K. I think he was sort of shocked at how well I was holding it together and, frankly, I was, too. Anything can happen in the Ironman run, but I was feeling good and going for it.

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The Energy Lab, hyped so much on TV as being so hard, is one of my favorite parts of the run course. By the time I got there, the sun was setting and a volunteer handed me a glowstick. There was a helicopter hovering overhead shooting the sunset. One of the aid stations had my favorite Ironman run snack, green grapes, and I grabbed a whole bunch and ran along like that, glowstick in one hand (it was annoying around my neck so I just carried it), grapes in the other, enjoying the view. Just before the exit to the Energy Lab, the Newton run screen played the video Kendall and Mark had made for me at the Expo and I laughed and cried at the same time.

Back out on the Queen K, it started to get dark. I had some company for a few miles as a guy and I matched strides for a while until he pulled ahead, the only athlete to pass me on the run. When I look back on this race, one of the images that will stay with me forever is charging up the Queen K in the dark, with no one to chase or run with, not gunning for a slot, or a time or a podium position, but just running hard because it felt like all I really had on the day.

As I rounded the corner back out onto Palini and down the hill, I chucked my glowstick at the final aid station and started kicking towards the finish. I ran along the right side of the road, high fiving everyone in sight to share and celebrate the moment.

This is actually from midnight finish, but it was the same view for me

This photo is from midnight finish, but it was the same view for me

I turned right on Ali’i and tried to take it in. I heard my family shouting and I peeked behind to make sure no one was right behind me. Then I attempted a finish line jump, which didn’t come out that great, but is still sort of funny.

Run Time: 3:32

Final time: 12:08

Not that it matters, but I feel compelled to mention the time on the clock is from the men's start

As I said on Facebook, I may be back again and I may not, but I have no regrets about the race. O.k. That’s baloney. I actually wish I had biked better, but hindsight is 20/20 and if I had to choose between a 6:30 bike and a 3:30 run, I would take the 3:30 run any day. Although I would like to think I am better than the time on the clock at the finish, that was as good as I was on the day. Sure, I dream of going back and finally getting my daylight finish, but I also realize that there may be other things out there for me, other dreams that need fulfilling.

To the friends back home, the new friends I met in Kona, and the friends who follow online, thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement. Everyone who does this sport is an inspiration to me, whether you are an age group champion or a midnight finisher. Thanks also to my coach, Vince Matteo, for helping me get here to begin with. And last but not least, a huge thanks to my family, for always believing in and supporting me. None of this would be worth it to me if they were not right by my side.

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