Disaster Story 2: Kona - A Rite of Passage

Originally written for the Cleveland West Road Runners Club newsletter in November 2002

A few months ago, I wrote of my triumph over adversity at Ironman Utah. The Utah race qualified me to compete in the Ironman World Championship--that legendary race on the Kona coast of the big island of Hawaii, a place where a fire goddess named Pele rules and the landscape is dominated by lava fields, wind gusts up to 60 mph, and very little shade. Ironman Hawaii is the Mecca, a triathlete's dream race--the ultimate test of athletic endurance. I was hoping tell another story of success: a triumph, a worthy bookend to my breakthrough year in the triathlon, the race in which all my doubts were finally laid to rest, and the culmination of a year of smart training, hard work, and sacrifice.

Thus, few will experience the perfect race in Hawaii. Many of us will remember the famous women's finish of 1982 when Kathleen McCartney stole the victory from Julie Moss as Moss dragged herself along the ground for the last 50 yards of the race, her second-place assured when her extended hand broke the plane of the finish line. Everyone who watched that race remembers Moss... not for a win, but for merely painting a picture of this race for the rest of us mortals--the suffering, the agony, and the sheer will power to cross the finish line. It has been called the defining moment in triathlon history. If we saw it, we remember.

In this year's race, the 20th anniversary of Moss's noble effort, it was my turn to be initiated, to learn that everything worth doing was worth the struggle to get there. I would swim my way through 2.4 miles of unforgiving ocean, pedal through 112 miles of the worst stretch of land imaginable, and then finish the trek on foot for 26.2 miles in tropical heat just after midday. At the end would be the famous finish on Alii Drive, the road named after the Hawaiian word for royalty, in front of an amazing throng of spectators who wait it out until the last runner comes down the finish chute at midnight.

I knew it wouldn't be easy. I was prepared for the fight of my life. I went to Kona to stake my claim, to become an Ironman. And, while I will not contend that my pain and suffering in Hawaii was comparable to that of Julie Moss, I can say this: I would eventually come face to face with my own personal demons, and to finish this race, I would have to summon up the courage to conquer them in a most unforgiving environment.

We were told that October 19, 2002 would go down in history as the worst starting weather Kona had seen on Ironman day. We woke up to rain...not a sprinkle, but a downpour. Body marking was moved inside the King Kamehameha Beach Hotel and the lines to get marked were backed up. It would be 45 minutes before I got my number, significantly reducing the time I needed to prep my bike. The overcast sky never saw the sun that morning, and the wet pavement made things even more difficult in the bike transition zone: pumping up tires, depositing food, setting out helmet and sunglasses. My first taste of Ironman volunteerism would take place here at the bike racks. My sunglasses broke, and I asked for help. Three women rushed to the rescue, searching on hands and knees, in puddles, for the nose guard of my glasses, but it was gone forever. Frantic, I rushed through bike prep and ran to my support crew, my friend Julie and my husband Jim, and begged them to RUN to the car and get my spare sunglasses. The sunglass mishap nullified my chances of getting to a portajohn before the race, and I would have to take care of that at some other point in time.

With about 15 minutes to go, we said our goodbyes and I nervously donned my swim cap, and got in line to enter the water. This was it, the start I'd waited for all summer. I was never more prepared for a race in my entire life. Treading water was effortless. I had spent the week in Hawaii, getting used to the time change and the weather, every workout felt good. I was rested. I was ready.

15 minutes disappeared in a heartbeat, and by the time I jockeyed for a position at the starting line, the red flag was waving, signifying 5 minutes to the start, and then I heard the starting cannon. Wait! I started my watch. In a microsecond, 1600 people, 6400 arms and legs, simultaneously made a chaotic dash to reach a boat with a rainbow sail as quickly as possible - converging on a single point 1.2 miles away. Visibility was low, I was whacked in the face, I was grabbed, swam over, and beat up, and my goggles filled with salt water. The boat came into view quicker than I thought, and on the way back I was able to breathe when swimmers started to thin out. I found myself laughing at the sheer horror of the Ironman swim. How is it that everyone makes it out of the water in this mass hysteria? When I was about 500 yards from the pier, my timing chip was yanked off my leg from behind. Although it cost me a minute, I was able to retrieve it, and I covered the 2.4 miles in an hour. My goal had been 56 minutes. I found out later that everyone swam slower than expected because the water was rough that morning.

Volunteers pulled me out of the water, and I ran up the ramp, through the showers, all the time screaming my number "FIVE FORTY-ONE!!" to the transition bag volunteers. They found my bag, and I was shuttled into the change tent, stripped off my outer bathing suit, pulled on my bike shorts and ran to find my bike. That was it? The Hawaii swim was over in an instant. The real test was about to begin.
The bike leg of Ironman Hawaii is known for its lack of scenery and its ferocious wind. Most of the ride is on the Queen Ka'ahumanu highway (the Queen K). Apparently, the Big Island did not have enough black rock from lava flows so the humans decided to build a blacktop highway as well. The Queen K rolls (I mean, ROLLS - 4000 yards of climbing all totaled) through a wasteland of black lava fields spotted with light brown shrubbery. In my head I kept hearing the words of Star Wars android C-3PO upon seeing the desert planet of Tatooine: "What a desolate place this is!" The only signs of life and greenery would start to appear during the ascent to the turn around in a little town called Hawi.

This year, the bike leg went out and back through Kailua-Kona before turning north onto the Queen K to Hawi. In the first 20 to 30 miles of the bike leg, we rode through constant rain, and the roads were slippery enough for the race director to issue a stern warning on one of the descents into town: aggressive riders would be disqualified. On my ride, I encountered one little problem: my bike computer was not registering--the result of rushing through bike prep that morning. After 15 minutes, I stopped to adjust the sensor to avoid the insanity of not knowing my speed. This could have been my first mistake, and I was about to find out that riding by "feel" might have been smarter.
The ride to Hawi saw a break in the clouds, allowing the tropical sun to begin its wrath. I decided to drink as much water as I could and follow a nutritional plan that had worked in every 100-mile training ride: liquid carbohydrates every 15 minutes. I was feeling very comfortable on the way out, despite the rolling terrain, and I was holding about 19-20 mph, just where I wanted to be.

Just north of the bike turn-around at Hawi is the famous statue of Kamehameha I, the ruler who united the islands of Hawaii into one kingdom. Looking at it, one can visualize the strength of this man, a dominant figure who still seems to wield an awesome supernatural power over the Big Island. His presence can be felt along the entire Kona coast, as this was his place of residence. The figure stands with one hand in the air, almost as if to say "I still decide who rises and falls," similar to the hand of Christ in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" as he casts the sinners into hell. I would soon be cast into my own personal hell.

But, at the turn-around point, I was feeling very good indeed, and the reward for making it to Hawi is the most fantastic downhill stretch one can possibly hope for in a112-mile race. I smiled, I cheered silently to myself, and I decided to utilize the downhill and ride hard.
Beware the heat of the tropical sun. On the way back from Hawi, the day grew much hotter, and the famous winds began to blow. Thankfully, they were not as strong as years past, but it was still a bit of a struggle for me to keep the bike straight. I decided to push a little harder now, trying to take advantage of the wind and my aero wheels, which will act like a sail at high speeds. Why not? After all, a phenomenal bike leg has been the crowning achievement of three-time winner Natascha Badmann, who would eventually go on to win this race as well. As for me, this point in the race was significant in that something in my body no longer felt right. A growing nausea prompted me to cut back on food consumption. I started drinking only water and Gatorade (for electrolytes) and stopped the high-carbo drink, but, unfortunately, my stomach continued to get worse.

The result of not eating would be lower energy during the last 30 miles of the bike ride. Unable to hold the earlier pace, I backed off thinking I could make up time on the run. I continued through the last 30 miles of sun, black lava fields, and rolling highway. I did see Jim and Julie along this stretch, and I smiled and waved, giving them no indication of my stomach distress and my growing concern for my race. This was the last time I would smile that day. I was sweating profusely from the heat. The bike computer problem at the start came back to bite me. I had no knowledge of how far I had yet to go, and it was much further than expected, and I was growing impatient as women began passing me. I took solace in the fact that most of them were not in my age group. Besides, the bike is my slowest leg and, apparently, my swim had put me far ahead. Impulsive, I rode harder than what felt comfortable, and then, finally, I saw the transition up ahead.

I should have known immediately that there was a problem when volunteers at the bike-run transition asked "are you ok?" I had no adequate reply. Was I ok? No. What exactly was wrong? I had no idea. I felt "wrong." With a numbness of mind, I thought "shoes," then "socks," then "hat", and I was up and on my way. I had no time to think, no time to make choices. I had to start running. Surely, things would get better.

That was my second mistake. Things actually could, and would, get worse. My best leg of the race, the one I pride myself on, was about to fall into the hands of God, or was it "the gods." The nausea and depletion of my resources on the bike would eventually take its toll. I started the run so sick to my stomach that I could only drink water on my way out of the change tent. Lacking fuel, I was reduced to a walk before the second mile-marker. This would begin my descent into hell, to endure a grueling 26-mile ordeal. I resolved not to cry. I would pray for my body to recover. I would move forward.

At the first aid station, I tried to drink some water, then settled into a run-walk. The heat and humidity had become oppressive and I had trouble breathing. At the next station I grabbed two cups and poured them over myself, unable to cycle it through my body via normal channels. Two volunteers followed my lead, and, suddenly, I was under a deluge of freezing cold water. That felt good. I thanked them and kept moving.

The first out-and-back part of the run goes south on Alii Drive, the same road that holds the elusive finish line. The morning rain created a steamy atmosphere, but I somehow managed to hold an 8- to 10-minute mile pace depending on how long I stopped to get ice and water at the aid stations. I tried to drink cola hoping the sugar would energize me. Gel or bars were out of the question, as my stomach continued to feel worse. I saw Jim around 5 or 6 miles. I told him I was extremely sick to my stomach. He said: "You have to EAT something!" I couldn't.

After the run through town, the course goes north on the Queen K. The first 12 miles went by quicker than I thought, but I was steadily slowing down each mile because of severe nausea. At that point, I decided to jog until my stomach took matters into its own hands, which didn't take long. One more mile found me bent over on the side of the road, vomiting. Apparently, everything I drank was still in my stomach,.. well, not anymore. With about13 miles left, and my stomach recovered, all I had to do was run like a normal person. When I stood up, a little girl handed me a whole bottle of freezing cold water and said: "for the dehydration." That gesture brought tears to my eyes, another illustration of the volunteerism in this race. I thanked her again and again--she had been sitting under a tent along the stretch known as the "Energy Lab." According to a previous Ironman champion, Peter Reid, the Energy Lab either saps your energy or gives you energy. In my case, with no energy left, this stretch took everything else I had.

I used the rest of that bottle to take in some electrolyte capsules, but within 2 minutes, my stomach rejected those as well and all the water used to take them. A word of advice: salt tablets taste much worse on the way back up. That was disgusting! I was now in trouble. My calves were knots. My stomach was refusing everything. Could I make it 11 more miles without any fluid? Upon seeing me bent over on the side of the road, runners yelled "hang in there, you have until midnight to finish!" Others took up my cause, trying to nurse me through a shuffle step, advising that I was trying to run "too fast." I stopped. I vomited again. Was it ever going to stop???

Then, my heart stopped--I looked up and saw an ambulance, lights flashing, coming toward me. "Pull yourself together, Jeanne!" I told myself, trying to "look good." Had someone told the medical staff I was in trouble? Wait! Maybe I'm done? Maybe, just maybe, I tried and failed. Maybe it was time to throw in the towel. I watched as the ambulance drove right by.... For the next few miles, I seriously considered pulling out for medical reasons. I kept thinking: "Should I get a medical evaluation?" "Should I give someone else the ability to end my race?" It was terribly tempting to remove from my own shoulders the burden of responsibility for dropping out.

I had to shake it off: "NO! I'm finishing! I'll crawl if I have to! Who cares about my time?" Time doesn't matter--the finish line matters. The disappointment of not finishing would be a nightmare. I would expend every last bit of energy, and, when that was gone, I would do it on willpower. I would finish, or collapse. There would be no regrets. At that moment, I recalled telling Roger Wilder in jest that I would crawl across the finish line just to get on television for him. Would I still have that choice? Either way, my decision was made. If I collapse, someone will pick me up and take me back. If I keep going, I get the medal. Simple.

Not so simple. Yech--sick again at 21 miles. Disorientation set in. My race was no longer a conscious thing. Night began to fall, and with it, my hope of finishing while the sun was still out. Someone handed me a lightstick. I wanted to cry. I stopped taking mile splits--not a conscious choice. How far could I stumble before I fell? If I were to fall, would I have the energy to crawl on my hands and knees? What had gone wrong? When would I see Jim and Julie? Will THEY pull me off the course? How bad did I look?

I stumbled on: walking, jogging, walking, jogging. Everyone passed me - old women,... old men,... large women,... large men.... How many more would there be? I slowly made my way up the hill toward Palani Road, the final descent into Kailua-Kona, to Alii Drive. I vomited again after trying to get some chicken soup and water into my system. I kept trying in hope that something would work. Where was the 25-mile marker?? I was dizzy, confused, and exhausted.

It was then that I saw Jim. He said: "Jeanne, you're going to finish!" If I hadn't been so tired, I might have broke down in tears at that moment. He was right. I would finish. He walked along the grass while I walked on the road. Then I started running on the down slope of Palani Road. I hit the 25-mile marker! More pain, more nausea, more disorientation. I headed through town in what would be the longest mile of my life. I finally saw Alii Drive and took the turn onto the homestretch. My stomach churned and I thought: "God help me, not again!" This time, barely anything came up, but the convulsions kept going. A woman ran up to me in the street and said forcefully: "The finish line is LITERALLY only 50 YARDS AWAY! Just walk it in!"... I stood up when my stomach muscles were done. Everything was blurry. I said definitively to myself "I am NOT walking in." I turned toward the pier lights and started running. The whole crowd began screaming and cheering after having witnessed my last "episode."

Then, there it was, the Ironman Hawaii Finish Line, a sight I had almost given up on. I tried to smile as I stumbled across it. DONE. I collapsed into the arms of two volunteers, who also had to hold me up while I got sick one more time. I said "Take me to medical, I'm having trouble focusing and I haven't had any fluids." There was a doctor in the medical tent asking me if I knew where I was. I said yes.It took two IVs of "cold" fluids before I could sit up, before I could focus my eyes again. I was shivering. It was baffling to me that I could be freezing in 80-90 degree heat. After about an hour, I was allowed to leave as other finishers came to claim the empty cots. From there, I went directly to obtain my finisher's medal and t-shirt. Although the medal was silver, it felt like pure gold. I would worry about my time some other day. Not today.

I did it. I didn't care that my performance wasn't even close to what I'm capable of. I didn't care that I wouldn't be able to eat until the next morning. I didn't care that Jim locked the keys in the car. I didn't care that I would throw up yet again that night. I finished. I am an Ironman.
I will be back, Kona, just you wait and see.

Next time will be different.