Monday, October 28, 2013

Kona 2013 Race Report

Oh, yeah, Kona.   Should probably write a little something about that one, eh?

The race happened over two weeks ago and I’m just now sitting down to write about it.  I’m a master procrastinator!  But I got a bit overwhelmed with vacation and then work and wine and…. well, I’ll talk more about it later.  

I’ve been back to work for a bit over a week now, and I’ve been faced several times with the terribly open-ended question: “well, how was it?”   I tried a lot of answers:  Good, but not perfect.  Amazing, such a privilege just be there.  It was hard, but beautiful and inspiring.  Decent.  But what I’ve settled on, and I think is the right answer:  it was an amazing experience.  That’s what it was.  An experience.  Not a perfect one, not a horrible one -- somewhere in the middle.  Just….an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

Here’s the story:


I woke up race morning feeling excited, ready, and nowhere near as nervous as I’ve felt before other Ironmans.  On the night before the race, I wrote here that I’d pretty much thrown out all of my place and time goals, knowing that the conditions in Hawaii make all the difference and that I was racing in an extremely competitive age group.  What I wrote was true.  But, I’d maintained some more process-oriented goals in my mind.  I wanted to handle the day with grace and composure.  I wanted to make good decisions, be smart, and enjoy the day as much as I could.  I wanted to run well, for the whole marathon, something I’ve yet to do.  If conditions cooperated, I would have been thrilled with a personal record for the distance, and given my training, I didn’t think that was too lofty a goal, at all.  But taking the ambitious time and place goals I’d once had off the table truly decreased the pressure I felt.  

I arrived down at transition not long after it opened, a bit before 5 AM, and then hopped into line.  It was quite the ordeal in transition --  I was tattoo’d, weighed, I pumped up my tires, loaded my bike up with nutrition, checked my tires, turned on my bike computer, checked my tires again, adjusted my bike shoes, triple checked my tires, and then got the heck out of there, meeting my parents inside the King K hotel.  There, I sat in a hallway, listening to music and trying to stay calm.  In a great turn of events, I looked up at one point and saw Jennifer Harrison sitting nearby.  Jennifer’s been a great role model and very supportive of me over the past couple years as I’ve tried to figure this triathlon thing out.  Jennifer kindly took me under her wing, allowed me to tag along with her to the swim start, offered up advice and, just through her calm and relaxed demeanor, helping me to stay loose in those last tense minutes before the race.  Having her there made the start of the day so much better.

Pre-Race with Jen
At 6:20 or so, Jennifer and I headed over to the start, entering the water as soon after the professionals start as we could.  I had a general sense that I wanted to start on the left side of the crowd, having heard that this was the spot to be to avoid some of the extreme contact that happens in this race.  We found a spot that wasn’t too packed, and importantly, had fewer aggressive looking men.  As packs of guys filtered in, I kept moving around, trying to find open water.  I wasn’t interested in pre-race jostling for the best start spot--- I wanted space.  That meant starting back a few more rows than I ordinarily would, but it was worth it.
View of the Swim Course from transition
The cannon fired, we took off, and I braced for the worst.  I’ve heard so many people talk over the last several months about how rough the swim is at Kona—how you’re punched and grabbed and dunked the entire time.  I built the swim up in my head to be a big, scary thing, and given my propensity for panic attacks in the water this year, I was really, really nervous.
Well, I declare shenanigans on all those “scary swim” stories.   My swim in Kona was amazingly contact-free.   At the beginning, there was a little bumping and jostling, one guy kinda sorta grabbed my lower leg (it was easy enough to kick him off), my goggles got slightly bumped by an errant hand, but it was minor….and then, nothing.  It was smooth sailing for me for almost the entire swim.  At one point, I even adjusted my line and swam towards people because I was sailing solo and wanted a draft.  Yes, I probably got lucky, and if I’m fortunate enough to make a return trip to Hawaii at some point, I’m sure my next swim will be extra horrible just to make up for this easy-peasy one, but really, of all the races I did this summer, this was the least brutal.
Throughout the whole swim, I felt strong, relaxed, and happy.  All week, I thoroughly enjoyed my swims in the Pacific, and this race was no different.  The salt water made me feel buoyant, the water temperature was perfect.  I just felt so good and the time flew by.  As we approached the shore and I started to be able to hear Mike Reilly’s voice over the loudspeaker and the crowd cheering, I was almost a bit sad to have the swim ending so quickly.   But all good things must end, so on I went.    
I climbed out of the water and was pleasantly surprised to see 1:01 on my watch as I crossed the timing mat.  Based on a practice swim I’d done on Wednesday and general knowledge of swim splits in Kona, I was shooting for somewhere around 1:05, so to come in ahead of schedule gave me a nice confidence bump.
Stoked with the time and loving my new ROKA speedsuit (and wetsuit)
After a long run around the entire transition area and through showers, I grabbed my bag and ran into the changing tent, which was fortunately fairly empty at that point, slathered on the sunscreen (I am such a fan of the Sun Bum brand, which kept this practically-albino girl from suffering any sunburn after a day of riding and running through the lava fields, quite an accomplishment, indeed), pulled on arm coolers (good call) and hustled on out, ready to ride. 
The bike starts with a quick little 10-mile-ish out-and-back on Kuakini Highway.  I’d heard that this stretch is notoriously quick, crowded, and impossible to ride legally.  I decided to take it really easy, using the Langer “treat it like a parade” approach.  It was, as predicted, extremely crowded, with dudes jockeying for position all around me.  I had no problem staying legal -- everyone I encountered was passing me with authority-- so I just pedaled easily along, didn’t look at power, and tried to stay out of the way.  Chris passed early on, seeming a bit surprised to see me (“oh, hey Amanda,”) which was funny since, y’know, he knew I was going to be in the race and all, but from the early timing of the pass, I knew he’d blown his swim time goal out of the water, and that made me happy. 
Non-aero, pulling a train
Once we’d climbed up Palani and started the trip out to Hawi along the Queen K, things started to calm down and I settled in for a long, quiet, easy (effort-wise) ride.  Given my inexperience with the course, the typical Hawaii winds, the hot, humid conditions (summer in Chicago just never really happened) and the fact that I’ve blown up fairly spectacularly in the two Ironmans I’d done before, the goal today was to ride as conservatively as possible, especially in the first half of the race.   After a lot of analysis and weighing of opinions, I had set some power ranges that I figured I’d use largely to reign myself in.  
But, Ironman’s unpredictable, and it turned out that on this day, there was no need for reigning in—my legs just did not have any power.  I had to really strain to hit watts that are always easy in training, and I knew that straining, this early in an Ironman ride, was a really, really bad idea, so I took it down a notch and acknowledged that today, I was going to have to go by feel, no matter how weak the power output.  Mentally, I struggled with this a little, wondering if I was just “off,”  but I figured it did no good worrying about it, and tried to do whatever I could to stay cool, calm, and collected.  
The staying cool part meant grabbing water at every single aid station (they come every 7 miles or so in Hawaii), sometimes two bottles, one to drink and one to spray all over myself.  I never had an “oh my God, I’m so hot” feeling -- it really didn’t feel that bad out there -- but I noticed that my face felt like it was burning and every person who passed me seemed to have salt caked all over them, so I knew I needed to keep managing the conditions even if they didn’t feel bad.  I drank and drank and drank (and, TMI, eventually peed and peed and peed, including once almost all over my friend Maggie, sorrrry), popped salt tabs twice an hour, and just kept on keeping on until we’d made the turn to head up to Hawi. 
The staying calm and collected part was easier.  I don’t recall having a whole lot of emotion or, really, thought, during the ride.  There was a lot of drafting going on around me, I fully anticipated and expected that and did everything I could to stay out of it, without getting emotionally charged up about it.   I didn’t have any epiphanies, I didn’t have any moments of utter joy or thrill.  At times, I’d look out at the ocean, or the lava fields, and think, “this is pretty cool, really,” but that was the extent of my emotion. 
We got really lucky with the wind this year, with a tailwind aiding us all the way out and, compared to what I’ve heard is normally the case, hardly any crosswinds during the climb up to and down from Hawi.  In a way, I was a bit sad that I wasn’t getting to experience the “epic” Kona winds….but I got over that pretty quickly.  The last couple hours of the ride were into a fairly substantial headwind, I knew that was coming, but a summer of riding out-and-backs in the windy cornfields outside Chicago prepared me pretty well for it. 
I don’t have a whole lot more to say about the bike ride.  Without the worst of the winds, I didn’t find the course that difficult.  I had a couple low moments—those are unavoidable in a race this long—but mostly I felt controlled and stronger as the day went on.  I ratcheted the effort down in the last 12 miles to prepare for the run, rolled into town, and hopped off my bike 5 hours and 18 minutes after I’d started—a split that I was very happy with at the time, particularly given the mostly easy effort. 
A volunteer grabbed my bike as I hit the dismount line and I stepped off, as always, a little nervous to find out how those first few steps on land are going to feel.  This time, I got off, started jogging all the way around the transition area (oof), and my legs felt quite good.  That’s never been the case in an Ironman for me, so I was optimistic about the little marathon thing that was still ahead.
I sat down on a chair in the transition tent and was tended to by about three volunteers (such service!), one spraying me with sunscreen, one helping me get my Garmin turned on and onto my wrist, one clipping my race number belt around my waist as I wrestled my feet into my running shoes.  I managed a quick, “thank you,” as they hustled me on out of there, and it was back outside for a quick little 26.2 mile jaunt.
As I was heading out, I glanced at the watch I’d started at the beginning of the swim, which showed my overall time for the day.  I realized that even with an epic blowup during the run, I’d still be looking at a pretty substantial PR.  That was both a good feeling and a very dangerous thought to be having at the beginning of your run.  When you’re not even a quarter mile into a race and assessing just how bad it can be to still be happy with your overall time, you may be looking at things a tad pessimistically, and (spoiler alert), I think it became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for me.   

As they had in transition, my legs felt fantastic in the first stretch of the run, and once my Garmin had latched on to satellites, I realized quickly that, easy perceived effort aside,  I was clipping along a little too quickly, so I ratcheted down the effort.  The first ten miles, an out-and-back along Ali’i, are beautiful, packed with spectators, and easy to overdo.  I really, really tried to keep it easy and I soaked in the experience, waving at my family and friends when I saw them, smiling a lot, high-fiving little kids.
This made me laugh at Mile 2.5

My new strategy for this race was to take a 10 to 20 second walk break at every aid station, starting with the first.  I’d done research into this strategy, talked to others who had used it, and tested it in training, finding that the short breaks did not hurt my overall speed and made taking down the substantial amount of water I needed a lot easier (I sweat like a freakin’ pig).  This worked great that first ten miles—I was being a great gatherer at those aid stations, getting water, more water, ice, more ice.  I wasn’t feeling hot, but knew it would hit me eventually, so I just kept trying to keep the core cool.
Still feeling great on Ali'i
Those first 10 miles or so really flew by and I was on a high, feeling the magic of Kona and getting more and more happy that I was having a good day.  Then came Mount Palani (not officially a mountain, but it might as well be).  The hill is steep and long enough that lots of people walk up it, not out of necessity but instead in the interest of not getting the heart rate up too high.  Making the turn to start up the climb, I still wasn’t sure what tactic I was going to take. But then I saw Liz cheering on the side of the road, and the last thing I was going to do was have my coach see me walking up the damn hill, so the decision was made and I trudged on up, smiling a little even though that hill is nothing to smile about.

Running up a mountain notwithstanding, I still was feeling quite good for the first few miles out on the Queen K Highway, dealing with just two small issues—really sore feet (I wore new-ish shoes, rookie move, that ended up being a size too small, and had some pretty nasty blood blisters forming underneath my big toenails on both feet), and (long story that involves a big blonde moment) no salt. 

Looking back, it’s a bit hard to pinpoint when, exactly, things went sour.  It’s all a bit blurry and hard to remember (and it’s not my procrastination making it so, an hour after the race I could not really describe what happened in the last 1.5 hours).  I know I hit halfway on pace for a marathon in the low to mid 3:30s, which was a very reasonable pace given my training and other races this year, and I felt fantastic.  The second half of the run was almost 20 minutes slower.  Ooof.  Somewhere, something went very wrong.  What, I’m not sure.   I know my pace started slipping at mile 14, when I turned my Garmin off because I didn’t like what it was showing me.  I know I struggled on the way down into the Energy Lab, walked a bit, and observed that my stomach was sloshy.  I remember taking a lengthy break at Special Needs at Mile 18, downing a 5-hour Energy, Maalox, a Gas-X -- basically everything I packed – but I was not able to find extra salt in my bag.  I know I packed it, but I just couldn’t find it.  I know I was moaning a lot at that point, so much that the volunteers offered to call the medic (I declined). 
Energy Lab OUCH
I know I had good stretches, still -- I remember feeling quite good climbing out of the Energy Lab and feeling like I’d “saved” my day, a sentiment that didn’t last.  I remember being extremely, extremely hungry, fantasizing about pizza.  But mostly, I remember getting slower and slower and slower, walking more and more and more, and not caring even a lick.  It’s an apathy that is very strange for me—I’ve melted down in races and in workouts plenty of times, but my physical meltdowns have always been dwarfed by the mental beating I was giving myself for not being able to hold it together.  During other meltdowns, I’ve been dramatic….I’ve yelled at myself, I’ve cried, I’ve stepped over to the side of the road and stopped.   Kona was different.  Physically, I just couldn’t go anymore.  I’m not sure why.  I have my theories No matter the reason, it was the biggest race of my life to date, and I was just watching it slip away and not reacting, not sad, not pissed, not fighting….just nothing.  It sounds melodramatic to call it an out-of-body experience, but it almost was.  And not in a good way. 

I struggled my way through those last several miles.  I wish I could say once I hit that last mile I was able to pull it together and run it in, that my heart took over, but that’d be a lie.  I still walked a good chunk of that last mile.  I remember one lady spectating, a complete stranger, standing by herself on the side of road.  She looked at me walking in that last half mile, and said, sounding truly disappointed, “Walking? Here?  In the homestretch?”  I looked at her, shrugged, said, “I know, right?” and kept on walking.  That’s the one spectator comment I really remember because her apparent disappointment in me echoed my own.  I wanted to be a fighter but I just had nothing left. 

Once I hit Ali’i, I did run it in….no way was I walking on Ali’i.  I want to say the crowd pushed me in, that I got the chills from the greatest finish line in all of triathlon, all that stuff, but to be honest, I just wanted to be done and I hardly noticed any cheering or noise.  It was “eyes on the finish line,” all the way in, I’m not sure I even smiled as I crossed the line, and then I just tried not to let my legs collapse under me as my “catcher” supported my weight and chatted with me for the next several minutes until he was sufficiently convinced that I was OK on my own.
Please, please, make it end

I crossed at 10 hours and 16 minutes…a personal record by almost a half-hour and faster than my best-case scenario for the day.  Yes, it was a really fast day for a lot of people, but when I finished, I was content.  How can you not be happy with a big personal record like that?  I hung out in the finishers’ area for a while, finding my friend Todd and commiserating about how both of us had great days until the run, gorging (seriously, gorging!) on pizza and ice cream, assessing the damage (substantial) to my feet, and then hobbled on out towards the King K hotel to find my family and friends.  There were a lot of smiles, a lot of hugs, much celebration that night….it was a good day.  I acknowledged that I’d melted down a bit in that last 10 miles, but at the time, I kept saying, “it was all physical.  I can’t be mad at myself.  I just have to figure out what, nutrition or what, went wrong.  I’ll fix it.”   
So thrilled to have my family there
But as I let the race marinate, as sometimes happens, I have to admit that I became less and less positive about the outcome.  That’s why I didn’t write this report for a while—I struggled with how my disappointment would come across.   Realistically, I know I was so lucky to be at Kona this year, that it was a privilege, that I’ve come a LONG way in a short time as a triathlete.  And, how can I be upset by a half-hour PR in Hawaii, which is not typically a “fast” course?  Place-wise—top 20 in a very competitive age group: that’s great!

But on the flip-side, I’ve been a little disappointed because I know I could have done better and I’ve been at a bit of a loss trying to figure out what went wrong.  I’m now 0-for-3 when it comes to Ironman runs, and for whatever reason -- maybe it’s because running is my first love--  when the run doesn’t go well, I take it a little harder.  I wish I could have fought harder—the apathy I experienced in the last 10 miles, while I’m starting to see through reading and advice I’ve received, might have been just as much a true, physical symptom of something that wasn’t quite right, felt a little like just giving up or not caring….and that’s never been my style and it’s not OK.

Since getting back home, I’ve given myself some downtime.  I consumed several bottles glasses of wine, I got away from triathlon for a bit, I reacquainted myself with friends and a life outside of swim-bike-run.  With time, the silver lining is becoming more and more apparent.  Racing in Hawaii was so hard, and so emotional, and for my first time there, there was so much good to take away from it.  I had my family there, I had some of my best friends there supporting me through a day when I got to do all the things I loved.  I learned some lessons—about cooling, about pacing, about hydration and nutrition and handling of emotions—that I’ll take forward for the next time.  There WILL be a next time.  Finishing on a good but not perfect note leaves me motivated for more, ready to tackle my weaknesses head-on and be a stronger and more well-rounded athlete for next year.  And like I said before the race, it’s been a hell of a journey, and I cannot discount that. 

There are so many people to thank here.  Thanks to my family, for being there every step of the way and including on race day….that meant so much.  The friends—in Naperville, Chicago, in California and Washington and other states and even abroad, some of whom were there with me in Hawaii—you’ve been so patient and supportive every step of the way.  My law firm – for, first of all, taking me back in after I left to travel the world; second, affording me great flexibility and giving me a day off a week to go ride my bike through the cornfields; third, for so many supportive words before and after this event.  Thanks to Gina Pongetti, part physical therapist, part regular therapist, who has kept me moving and injury-free and happy all summer…I drive all the way out to flippin’ Burr Ridge to see this girl and she’s so worth it. To Heather Fink, for the nutrition counseling.  And thanks to, the bestest triathlon store in all the biz—so proud to be able to represent!
Last but not least, thanks to Liz for everything—I’m so glad you were there in Kona to share the experience.  I’ve yammered on a lot on this blog about how great Liz is and how she has been absolutely key in helping me make huge leaps forward as an athlete and person, so I won’t repeat myself too much.  But just in case there was any doubt as to how special she is, I present this video (turn up your volume):

Yes, my coach donned a banana costume, re-created the “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” song in the middle of a Target, and sent me the video in an attempt to keep me calm during my pre-Kona taper.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Mahalo, and thanks for reading!


  1. Great post, Amanda. The mental/physical battle is always interesting, and the longer the race, the more complicated it seems to get. I kind of have the opposite mentality at this point when it comes to tri running- I almost expect to blow up, and when things do go well I'm over the moon- but I couldn't quite call running my first love :) Enjoy your recovery, and hopefully I will meet you at a race next year!

  2. I completely get your emotions about the race (except the swim - I got the sh*t beat out of me and wanted to just quit the race after the turn buoy). I walked almost the entire marathon after mile 6 and during the race and immediately after I told myself it was okay because I was injured but I've always tortured myself and felt like I really wasn't "that" injured. But you, on the other hand, absolutely rocked it. They say Kona takes a few attempts to figure out and you PR'd your first time. It's pretty remarkable. So cut yourself some slack and drink lots of wine!

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