Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Just when I thought it was safe to go back to Kona: Ironman World Championship Race Report

It's been a while since I had a "real" disaster to report on, so I guess this is highly overdue. On Saturday, October 8, I went back to Kailua-Kona for the first time since 2002 to restake my claim on the Ironman World Championship. I had three goals:
  • To do my fastest Ironman ever.
  • To finish before the sun went down.
  • To smile at and remember the finish line.
I cannot say that I accomplished all three goals. I CAN say that in order to accomplish just one of them, I had to once again beat my demons into submission along with some very real and convincing arguments made by some very real and convincing people.

The hardest thing for me to write about, though, may very well be the great race I had going until the demons reared their heads. They were the very same demons that sat on my shoulders for most of my first attempt at Ironman Hawaii.

My husband the rocket scientist talks wind tunnels

with Cervelo co-founder
My journey to the Ironman finish line started out in rare form. The J-Team - my husband Jim, my great friend Julie, and I - had three days of relaxation in Kona. We ate like kings, devouring fresh pineapple, mango, and macadamia nuts. We journeyed to the other side of the island. We met some generous folks at the Ironman Expo and beyond - of note, Cervelo reps including co-founder Phil White, the Muscle Milk reps, and the Profile Design reps. We never asked for anything and yet they heaped on us all sorts of goodies: water bottles, t-shirts, socks, etc.

But the biggest surprise of all was that I manages to relax enough to get more than four hours of sleep the night before the race. I can only attribute this to a bizarrely unfamiliar level of confidence gained from a season of smart racing. Or maybe it was just mental oblivion to what would happen the next day.

Race morning started at 3:30 a.m. with my usual breakfast of coffee, orange juice, soy protein, HammerGel and a banana. Jim dropped Julie and me off at the start where I got body marked, prepped my bike and bags with nutrition and then sat around to wait. I had a few moments of panic about the race and the swim start but I managed to calm down by listening to my favorite nerve-calming music - Turin Brakes' Ether Song.

Saying goodbye to Julie for now
The pro race cannon went off at 6:30 and it was finally time to head to the start. I said my tearful goodbyes to Jim and Julie and made my way to the water.

Unlike the last time we were here (in 2002), there is now a floating Ford truck on the starting line, and swimmers line up on one side or the other. From lessons learned in several other races, I line up way off to the left for the counter-clockwise long-rectangle 2.4 mile swim. The extra distance was a small sacrifice to make to avoid the clobbering pack I remember from 2002. Listening to other athletes endorse the region, I knew I made the right choice. I was a little taken aback when one male athlete spoke to me with a very condescending tone: "young lady, what time are you expecting to swim today?" to which I replied "about an hour." Thus he replied "I'm swimming 56 minutes" and positioned himself in front of me. The generous space in our way-left area didn't warrant that behavior, so I just swam to a position further left of him. I didn't realize "one hour" was a second-tier start.

We treaded water for what seemed like hours and then it was announced that we had five minutes to the cannon. There was no countdown - the cannon exploded and we were off.

Let me first say that my 2011 Kona start did not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble the one from 2002. In what seemed like only a few minutes, I was alone and free of usual melee of ironman swims. I think I wound up in the space in front of the floating truck - so swam smooth but fast and braces for the eventual convergence of the two separate packs of swimmers at the turn. The turn buoy in Kona is actually a large sailboat so it is easy to spot. I made a point to look at it this time - even to check out the people hanging out on it, which looked like fun. I never needed the big orange buoys, and the water was weirdly calm on the way out. All week the surf had been rough and athletes were acting very uneasy during swim practices. On the return, the surf did get rough and I ended up in a pack on the inside. I didn't have too much trouble until we were barely within earshot of the finish, and then all hell broke loose. People started grabbing my feet and swimming right on top of me. What had been an awesome swim began to come undone and I stopped several times to let more aggressive swimmers plow right over me. I was never so happy to get out of the water! I looked at my watch to see 1:02 and in light of the last 15 minutes, I was thankful it wasn't much worse.

Starting the bike, still having fun
I ran through the showers, was handed my bag, and prepped for the bike. The transition included a very LONG run around the outside of the pier. I accidentally overshot my bike, but recovered quickly, donned my helmet and was on my way. And I was feeling petty darn relaxed and excited at the bike start. And all was good.

The first two hours of my Kona 112-mile bike leg was fast and relaxed. I fueled exactly as planned, 24 oz of fluids per hour with First Endurance EFS drink and liquid shot (+water). I had no stomach discomfort and kept my heart rate in (what felt exactly like) Zone 2. I had no desire to chase women who passed me and I thought I had a great pace at well over 21 mph average. The only unnerving thing happened around the two-hour mark when I got out of the saddle for a moment and felt a twinge of severe fatigue in my legs. All I could think was that I MUST have imagined it hurt more than it actually did. There was NO way my legs were in that state this early and with so little exertion.

During the ascent to the turnaround at Hawi, the wind kicked up and there were a few moments when I thought I might lose control of the bike. The gusts on the downhill were even more frightening, but I hung onto the handlebars and persevered. The heat didn't feel oppressive, but it was extremely hot (we were told temps reached 135 degrees F on the Queen K that day) and everyone knows there is no shade on the black lava fields.

I doused myself regularly with cold water and continued to drink, but by the four hour mark, I was starting to feel very thirsty and increased my water consumption (and started adding additional electrolytes in the form of Thermolytes at about 4 per hour.) Despite this, at 90 miles, mild nausea hit and I grabbed coke at the next aid station to hopefully settle my stomach.

I started to remember why this bike course was so hard - the rolling hills are not noticeable until it's too late and the damage is done. Catching more wind on the return to Kona, my average pace slowed to under 20 mph, and I started to get discouraged.  I was also feeling tired (sort of like sleepy). And it was NOT a good sign that my increasing leg fatigue made me start to worry about the run - something I had not done in a long time (WORRY about the run, that is).

When I pulled into transition, my time was 5:39 - much slower than I had anticipated or hoped. Although my legs were fatigued, the long run through transition stretched everything out and I was feeling much better by the time I had my running shoes on. In 2002, this transition was accompanied by confusion and a foggy brain from dehydration. This year, I went through the normal motions of getting my gear on and pocketing gel and Thermolytes and I was up and in my way.

My legs felt more fatigued than in other Ironman races, and I had already begun to dismiss a fast marathon time. But I always give myself 20 minutes on the run before making final judgments. And sure enough, trudging through 20 minutes was what it took to begin to feel like a runner. My fueling was Gu Roctane every 30 minutes, water and Perform every aid station and four Thermolytes per hour. I was walking the water stops  in order to dump water on myself and try to settle my stomach, which was already starting to feel bloated and uncomfortable.

Seriously struggling at mile 9
The 26.2 mile run begins as a nine-mile out-and-back on Alii Drive in Kona and then runs up Palani Drive to the Queen K, where it continues to the famed Energy Lab turnaround at about mile 17, and then back to Kona. In 2002, I was unable to hold down food or water on the run course and I pretty much just walked and jogged between vomiting episodes.

This time, however, vomiting wasn't the first problem I literally "ran" into. It was vomiting's evil twin, diarrhea. I saw Jim at the bottom of Palani Road and told him I might have to walk the hill unless I could find a portajohn. He pointed out the aid station halfway up the hill. I became religious: "Please, God, let there be a toilet. And please let it be empty." Both my prayers were answered. And I exited the plastic paradise with only slightly renewed hope.

The next few miles would see the end of my dream of a good race in Kona. I stopped taking splits sometime around Palani Road - anyone who knows me knows that this is the sign - that I was throwing in the towel - surviving to the finish line became my main goal. I'm still not sure exactly what was wrong but I had no desire to eat or drink and every time I tried to consume anything, my gag reflex kicked in. Despite this, I drank water and coke, took Thermolytes, and kept moving - mostly running past people then walking and watching them pass me.

I took another bathroom break and then around mile 15, severe nausea hit me. I stopped at an aid station and a concerned volunteer asked me what I needed. I was feeling like I had reached the end of my rope. I asked for a medical consult.

A few minutes later, I was having my blood pressure taken and then vomiting - although very little actually came up. My blood pressure was deemed "OK" - but my body had started shaking violently and I felt like I was freezing. For crying out loud, it must have been close to 90 degrees out and I was SHIVERING so bad I couldn't hold a cup of water in my hand. The paramedic started talking: "You might have hyponatremia.. You need to seriously think about ending your race."

NO! This can NOT be happening! Not AGAIN!

I asked them if I could call my husband - the woman who had taken my blood pressure dialed the number and walked away to have a conversation with Jim. What I didn't know was that she was telling him to encourage me to pull the plug on my race. She handed me the phone. I was scared. I didn't know what to do but believe me when I say I DESPERATELY wanted to finish. I think I told Jim that. He stood by me and said it was my decision.

I told the paramedic that I wanted to finish. He decided to give me a lecture about how there was no shame in pulling out. How if I collapsed further down, no one might be there to help me. How great athletes know when their race is over and how sometimes it's how we cope with adversity and make smart decisions that really defines us. It was a great speech. I believed him.

But I wanted to finish. I wanted that medal. I had spent so much time, so much hard work, so much money.

I argued with him.

He wasn't buying it.

I begged him for different advice. Tell me how to recover! I was shaking uncontrollably. I stood up and almost fell over. The woman grabbed me and said "That's it, you're done. You need to lie down and let us take you to the finish."

NO! Please! She coaxed me onto the stretcher to take another blood pressure reading. I was terrified that they were going to trick me and close the van door and cart me to the finish. I must have been acting completely delirious because then she started asking me where I was, what day it was, and (shocker!) who was the President. I must have answered all the questions right because even though my blood pressure had gone under 100 (this is the "danger" zone), they didn't lock me in and drive me away.

I focused all my remaining mental energy on trying to stop my body from shaking so at least I looked better and they might be ok with letting me go. I had one more conversation with the doctor.

"I want to try to finish" - it was definitive.

He told me to sit down and try to get some food and fluids in me and see what happens. And then the thing I didn't want to hear but we all know is coming: "you have until midnight." I remember those words spoken by another great athlete I know in Ironman Lake Placid - my friend and teammate Christian Kurilko had stomach shutdown and was walking to the finish line. I felt helpless then because I so wanted to help him. But now it was my turn. If he could swallow his pride and do it, then so could I.

But I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. Midnight. It would be DARK then. No more goals left. Nothing to fight for. People would feel sorry for me as I walked it in. People would pass me. Just like last time. It would be a disappointing and embarrassing end to my golden season. No smiling finish. Nothing to be proud of. Just a huge mistake. Again. Did I even belong here?!? My answer to myself was a resounding "NO."

So I ate oranges and downed coke, Perform, and (yikes!) chicken soup. I had eleven miles to go and the sun was no longer yellow. It was going down - a big orange ball of fire. I got up and started walking. And I prayed once again: "Please, God, give me strength - and no glowsticks!"

I would reach that finish line while there was still light in the sky or die trying.

And so I ran.

I felt like death warmed over - until I took the left on the way to the Energy Lab. I looked up to see the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen in my life. It would, surprisingly, energize me. After the turnaround, I grabbed my bottle of EFS drink from my special foods bag and ran with it, pouring it on ice from the aid station at the exit of the Energy Lab - around 19 miles.

I now believed I would finish. I felt like crap and continued to walk the water stops, use the portajohns, and watch people pass me. But Jim and Julie were waiting and I didn't want them to be there until midnight. Somewhere around mile 24, at an aid station, I heard someone call my name.

It was Julie! She had walked out to find me! She told me Jim was also looking for me further out. She called him and walked with me for a bit - then I started running, and she said, "see you at the finish!"

I ran like I had a purpose. All I could hear in my head was Elton John singing "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me" - and I wanted to scream (because, seriously, HOW CORNY IS THAT?!?! And I don't even LIKE that song. But there it was - stuck in my head.)

And I kept running.

And I pleaded before each aid stations: "please, no glowstick!" (None were offered.)

I thought I'd never see it.
Before long, I took the turn onto Alii Drive, and shortly thereafter, there it was in front of me. The finish line. I high-fived every hand I saw. And I crossed it.

And it was still light out (barely).

And I smiled.

And I looked skyward and I said thank you. For giving me two out of three.

I cannot overstate the roles that Jim and Julie played in helping me get to that finish line. Julie was there to cry with me when I exited the finish area. The hug she gave me was one that I will never forget. And when I told Jim on the course that I might have to walk to the finish, the look he gave me was the very definition of unconditional love. And even though on the phone he encouraged me to finish if I could, I knew he would have been ok with pulling the plug. He might just have been the singular motivation I needed to work so hard to recover and finish.

The thing that hurt the most after the race was how disappointed Jim was in not getting to see me enjoy the finish line. He cried about that.

But I promised to make it up to him. When we go back to Kona.

This is the look of relief,
not joy.

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