"Whatever your 100% looks like, give it."
[Livestrong shirt seen at Louisville's Kona roll-down]
Smooth Criminal – If racing Louisville, my first Ironman, with ten days notice was passing a random car dealership and deciding to take my first ever test-drive, then qualifying for and racing Kona, my second, six weeks minus one day later was leaving my credit card and license with the dealer and making a break for the border.
I made it almost there before the po-po caught me.
It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Goshdarn Humidity – I arrived in Kona on Tuesday night to acclimate to climate and time, neither of which worked very well. To maintain the tolerance I‘d built up over DC’s notoriously disgusting summers even as fall descended I had been conducting highly scientific experiments involving my trainer, no A/C, and more clothes than might have been prudent. But replicating that Potomac (or Pacific Ocean)-hanging-in-the-air feeling is nearly impossible and in Kona you sweat standing still. The time zones continued to baffle my systems and I never got 8 hours of sleep or slept past 5 am the nights before the race. The award for worst night goes to being wide awake at midnight after taking an Ambian only four hours earlier.
Please Don’t Approach the Glass – Kona the week before the race is a zoo. Yes because of the hordes of people and palpable tension, but more so because of what is on display. 1,800 of the fittest people on the planet. More spandex than a swinger party. A pedicurist’s nightmare. A walking skin cancer and hair removal convention. All sprinkled with a few world champions and living legends. Bikes worth small cars lean untended against every available surface and palm tree while their owners shop, eat, and swim. Where else would a speedo, aero helmet, compression socks, and crocs be an outfit, without irony? The mental psych begins long before the start line so for my own safety I did my best to stay away from the glass.
Get His Horns Into It – On race morning, after saying goodbye to my parents and Chas, I joined the masses waiting to painstakingly descend the narrow stairs into the water. DigMe Beach, some of the most hallowed ground in all triathlon, is a postage stamp of land at low tide, barely visible at high tide, and liable to sink if it had to support 1,800 people at one time. I plopped down on some carpet and #985 said hello. A white Zimbabwean now living in Dubai, Roy was a lottery entrant and a bit wide-eyed. I lost him in the following clamor, but spotted his bobbing head at the start line. He said in Zimbabwe they have a saying: when the antelope is being chased by the lion, sometimes he has to turn around and just…
Swimming with the Salmon, aka The Human Washing Machine - An Ironman mass start stacks 1,800 people vertically like match sticks, then demands they immediately get horizontal and swim flat out. Beneath the churning surface hands and legs are flailed and flung by people who know they want to go forward, but can't see where that is; who through the bubbles can't even see the person next to them. It isn't pretty, unless you get the view I had. I swam the first 100m or so "heads up" to gauge my spacing from those around me and avoid getting divested of my cap and goggles. The scene was straight out of a nature video of salmon spawning season, where the rocks are obscured by crashing waterfalls and the fish heave themselves forward and upward again and again to gain the next upstream pool. The only differences were that the boulders and fish were neon pink and light blue and at the end I didn't molt my scales, just some skin from the side of my neck.
In the clear waters of Hawai'i, the Kona swim is easily described - swim until you can't see the bottom, then turn around and swim back. The crowd didn't thin to the point of not constantly getting caught and tugged until the turn around (1.2 miles), during which time I just tried to not swallow the entire ocean, and for 1,800 thrashing bodies, I didn't see the bottom until about the two mile mark, on the return trip.
I knew the secret to improving on my Louisville time was drafting. No way was I putting my nose into the wind while part of one of the most capable groups of open water swimmers anywhere so I ruthlessly auditioned feet. My application was equal opportunity and at one point I swam behind a pair of kneeless, feetless thighs. A little too slow (Rudy swam a 1:05), but definitely the only pair that didn’t try to give me a black eye.
All in all I survived the Rocky Balboa treatment, found a series of good feet (the strategy worked: I went three minutes faster than Louisville with an average heart rate 10 beats per minute less), and left some water behind for those who want to swim the rest of the year, although it may be a little shallow.
Racing in Your Own Head Space - The Queen K is a déjà-vu bacon strip of treeless lava and mercurial winds. Not steep, the hills are gradual and never-ending. I suspect the Queen K's asphalt is so smooth because with her winds, Madame Pele has literally scoured off all imperfections. Ironman Hawai'i participants are just 1,800 more imperfections to be systematically removed. On the bike leg you are not racing your competitors so much as Madame Pele herself and it is here that she most often gets her revenge.
This year the revenge came not as a headwind on the climb to Hawi or side winds north and south of Kawaihae that wrest away control of your handlebars and deposit you and your bike on the other side of the road, but as a merciless headwind from miles 80 to 100.
Until then it was a matter of constantly bathing to keep from roasting atop my carbon steed: for every 20 oz. of liquid that went in me, 100 went on me. At Hawi, it was the palm fronds that were blowing horizontal, not the trunks themselves, and my bike leaned to stay upright during only a handful of sections.
Lowpoint: During the long rollers at the end of descent out of Hawi, a guy, a girl, and I were riding as a spaced threesome. I was third in line. We were all going to the bathroom at the same time. I will never speak of this again. Except to say that the same girl was in front of me again later on in the bike.
And just when I thought things couldn't get any lower, then came Mile 80 and more proof it is good that I don't ride with a bike computer. Grinding downhill at one point, I stopped pedaling as a test and slowed to a nearly-tipping-over crawl. Wind was overcoming gravity.
It was during this not-so-daily grind that I experienced the quintessential Kona bike montage moment: flat road stretching to the horizon, flanked by nothing but lava; a single line of cyclists, each in their own mental world, reaching almost as far, eventually becoming disrupted by the tell-tale shimmer of extreme heat on black road. It came at mile 82; any earlier and motivation would have been hard to come by.
Now more than ever I was racing within myself. Don't overextend, don't set goals based on other people or numbers, and don't ever think this hill is the last one before the airport. It’s like cooking a Thanksgiving turkey without the benefit of a meat thermometer, compounded by an oven (the heat) and an over-active exhaust fan (the wind) in a home you’ve only occupied for three days. Not enough and the turkey poisons the entire meal; too much and a hockey puck’ll be attempting to run a marathon (fittingly I’m the turkey in this analogy). When the headwinds let up at mile 100 I was flying, feeling strong and in control of my effort like I had during the previous century, but the damage to my time had been done.
I am consoled by the fact that focusing inward brought outward consistency. My average pace across the entire bike leg was almost exactly the same as each segment's average pace; I stayed hydrated and cool, if constantly wet; and I never had to resort to the world-class spectating available from the shoulder of the Queen K.
Dance With The Legs That Brought You – For me, this meant a pair that had run a decently fast marathon off of a 112 mile bike not six weeks earlier. They had brought me this far, aside from a distressing problem with my right arch, so why not another 26.2 miles? Coming off the bike the turkey was cooked more or less just how I like it – hydrated and fed – except some skin was deep-fried and the bottoms of my feet were raw. These were to be my dancing legs.
The Kona marathon is not difficult per se, and except for one substantial climb, is gradually rolling and almost completely shadeless. I was determined not to go out too fast, like I did slightly at Louisville, and write checks my body couldn’t cash in the heat. I picked an effort level I thought I could hold and the pace that translated to was how fast I went and mile-by-mile I plodded along, taking a bath and a trip to the buffet as I walked through each aid station. My stomach did not exactly appreciate all the options I was throwing its way, but aside from a quick trip to the Big Blue Box of Wonder and a few instances of feeling like a human Diet Coke-Mentos experiment thanks to Coke that was not flatted, nutritionally the plan seemed to work.
For those who are curious how I powered my dancing legs: My body does not tolerate salt so I don’t take any beyond what is in Gatorade on the run. I unfortunately got a large amount of salt on the swim (normally I would avoid it like the plague on race morning), took no salt or Gatorade on the bike (I bring all my own salt-free nutrition and just add water), and did a gel/Gatorade combo on the run, switching to the Red Ambulance when the salt intake started to overwhelm my systems. I had a Tums at mile 19 just to see what how my taste buds would respond to mint in the 11-hour citrus maelstrom of raspberry, orange, and lemon-lime. On a hot and humid day unlike anything I have experienced in a while, I didn’t cramp once or have any white on my black tri suit.
The marathon didn’t quite fly by like in Louisville. Then again I wasn’t quite flying like in Louisville, but there is a lot of keeping on keeping on and time simply passes. I kept filling my hat and tri-suit top with ice; listened to the music blaring from spectators’ (obviously drunk Europeans) tents; and was entertained by my personal cheerleading squad of Mom, Dad, Chas, and their side-walk chalk. When I see “Kelzie” written on the highway, I have to assume it means me. Eventually mile 25 rolls around and you kind of wonder how you got there, everything that came before seems like a dream that was over in an instant.
I’ve said that in Ironman, it’s the marathon that gets you, but in Kona, it’s specifically the Queen K section of the marathon. It seems so disproportionately long and depressingly unadulterated that people – including the best athletes, who find their usually easy-to-hit paces and splits suddenly out of reach – walk simply under the enormity of it all. The sun does not help as it races you to the horizon, leaving you all alone with your thoughts. If they’re not in order, it’s a frightening place to be.
My thoughts were in order enough to keep me upbeat and going, but in retrospect, not enough to make me competitive. Like the bike, I never felt bad – significantly uncomfortable, yes; bad, no – but a week later I can’t escape the feeling that I shied away from speed to enjoy more pain-less consistency. The bottoms of my feet beg to differ, and did during the race, so perhaps I just wasn’t prepared to literally and figuratively hold them to the fire.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge [K. P. Kavafis] – After the lightening of Louisville my goal coming to Kona was to go sub-11. The conditions and my mind ended up being more my competitors than those with whom I shared the course. 11:09. Like I said, I made it almost to the border before the po-po caught me. But I was let off with a warning, got my credit card back with only a few unauthorized charges, and still have a license to drive. The road is longer still and there is more adventure and knowledge to be had.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Perry and Marcy, my cheerleading squad’s Phone-A-Family-Member lifeline on race day. P&M hosted me in Louisville (twice!) and have supported me every day since. The trip was the better for them, but will be even better with them, whenever that becomes possible.
What a comeback from a previous year's injury, a back to back IM.
You should write another travel book, Let's Go Kona.
*GREAT* RR. Congratulations.
"The conditions and my mind ended up being more my competitors than those with whom I shared the course."
So, what happens when the antelope turns around?