Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ironman Kona 2015

Last year in Kona, two days after the World Championship that I’d started but not finished, I went for an easy swim at the Kona Aquatic Center.  While taking a break between intervals, I had a long chat with Karlyn Pipes, a Kona resident and pretty famous and fast masters’ swimmer (although I didn’t know it at the time) 
At Kona Aquatic Center- this year

Karlyn was friendly , and eventually I spilled my whole story --how I’d started the race fit and ready but eventually collapsed 15 miles short of the finish line.  I just don’t know what happened, I told her.  I honestly don’t know what went wrong, I don’t know what I could have done differently, I don’t know how to fix it.

She shook her head, having heard it a million times.  This island, this race….. it’s like no other and it can take the best down with no warning. She shared some stories, she gave me some tips, she helped me with my “butterfly”, and as I was getting out of the pool she said,  “the most important thing to know if you want to beat this race …. you’ve got to respect Madame Pele, and you’ve got to find a way to make peace with her."

Madame Pele, if you don’t know, is the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes.  She’s said to be ill-tempered and “wickedly playful.”  Madame Pele is the one that kicks your ass with headwinds, crosswinds, pelting rain, oppressive heat, mechanical bad luck…you name it, she’ll serve it up.  She’s fickle and terrifying, and she’ll curse you if you don’t respect her, or the Island.  So they say.

I’m not usually one to get superstitious or overly spiritual, but Karlyn’s words resonated with me.  The day after I’d collapsed last year, I was adamant:  “I’m not coming back to do this race again.  It’s stupid, it doesn’t suit me, it’s not worth it, and I’m done.” One day later, I was silently committed.  I need to come back, I need to treat this race and this Island with the respect it deserves, I need to make peace with Madame Pele, and I need to finish what I started.  

I am not lying or playing small when I say my primary goal in Kona this year was simply to finish the race.   I think I was too afraid of Madame Pele to hope for much more.  I wasn’t thinking about umeke bowls, I wasn’t thinking about times, I was driven solely by the desire to actually cross the finish line on Ali’I Drive this time around.

There might have been a time, earlier this year, when I wanted more, but things hadn’t necessarily gone smoothly in 2015.  I made a lot of mistakes – it’s really not worth dwelling on them at this point – but long story short, I’d already been struggling pretty mightily for a couple of months before I injured my knee/ hamstring insertion point in late June/ early July.  The injury  lingered, worsened and re-invented itself, keeping me from running in July and August before finally starting to improve enough around Labor Day that I was able to get through a much abbreviated Ironman build.    

I spent a lot of time and energy this summer stressing and crying about my injury and the related struggles that had preceded it.  For a while early on, I stayed in denial, insisting that I still wanted to do “something special” in Kona, but as the days went on and I just didn’t heal, that “something special” outcome seemed more and more unrealistic.   I think it was in mid-August, during a snotty, sweaty meltdown on my kitchen floor following a discouraging bike workout (honesty), that I finally came to terms with my situation.  After shedding probably 2 pounds in tears, I took a long breath, and remembered why I initially signed up for this race—to make peace with Madame Pele and to finish what I started.  I recommitted -- to simply finishing the damn thing.  No matter what.

At the time, I couldn’t even jog a step, and there was a fairly high probability that finishing meant a long, 26 mile walk over the lava fields. I was completely at peace with the possibility of that outcome.  I am prepared to walk the marathon, I told anyone and everyone who would listen. I absolutely meant it.   

And then, I started to heal.  

Those last six weeks before the race, my short little Kona build, they went about as well as I could have hoped given where I started.  But, I was extremely cautious in acknowledging any hints of optimism that I felt, because on the whole, I just knew I was going into the race short on training.   And, I knew Battle #1 was with Madame Pele – dealing with her winds, her fickleness, her heat (by far my biggest worry).  So I clung to my initial goal—simply finishing on my own two feet – and never really allowed myself to envision or believe that I could do any more.  

Pre- Race

We arrived in Kona the Saturday before the race, which to me, was perfect amount of time to both acclimate and unwind from the stress of regular life.   My entire immediate family came this year, which pleased me to no end. We stayed in mansion up in the mountain off of Hina Lani Road, about a 15 minute drive to the swim start but enough removed from the craziness of town that I could actually relax a bit.  It had a hammock, an outdoor shower, a pool, a hot tub, and a Vitamix, and really, that’s just about all I needed.

Our backyard
We paid our respects to Madame Pele, all week long.  There was even a small ceremony on a beach--  the return of a piece of lava that had been accidentally taken from the Island last year.  We took our shoes off inside, always, we tried to pronounce all the street names right, I made a point every day to eat or drink something uniquely Hawaiian (mostly POG juice).  I obsessed about the weather forecasts, the wind predictions, of course I did, but I also accepted them.   It could be windy, it could be hot, it could choppy, but this time I’m ready for whatever Madame Pele brings.

Race Day

With all the fear and the anxiety I had leading into this race, it amazed me how calm, at least in comparison to years past, I felt race morning.   Race number tattoo application, bike tire pumping, bento box stuffing—I breezed through it all without really feeling the butterflies.  I found my family and Liz and Chris in the King K hotel, we posed for pictures, I gave my good-bye hugs, and we headed out for battle.  As I was leaving, my mother reminded me…..”no matter what, be safe, be smart, and just keep moving forward.”   The mantras of my day.

Brother was more scared than me!

The Swim
Liz and I hung around behind the King K for a while, trying to stay calm, but when we heard the cannon go off for the men’s start, 15 minutes ahead, we pushed our way through the crowd to get into the water and get to the line.  After a short 100 meter swim or so, we reached the start (front and left)  treaded water for 10 minutes or so, trying to save energy, trying to stay calm.  We said very little to each other, there wasn’t much left to be said.  But having my coach, my good friend right next to me in the moments before the race was tremendously comforting.  I/ we were ready.  
Team Multisport Mastery

The cannon fired with no warning and I took off, at a near sprint for at least the first two minutes.  I had a clean and fast start—a couple quick glances to my left confirmed that there was no one there, and the women to my right were fairly spread out and swimming in a civilized manner.  I gradually angled myself towards the buoy line, and just….swam.   For the next hour.  If I thought about anything, I thought about not swallowing salt water, which I suspected had started my problems last year.   

The sea was angry, my friends-- All good pics on here courtesy of Liz Wendorff- thanks!
I got out of the water around 1:04 – my second slowest Ironman swim ever– but I was determined not to let a slow swim ruin my day the way it had last year.   When I got to the change tent, I recognized a couple faces, very fast swimmers, so I was relieved.  Turns out, the swim was slow for everyone, and based on many reports, about 400 meters long.  I got out the water 2nd in my age group which, honestly, for a World Championship, kind of blows my mind.  

Botched.  Forgot race number (tattooed on my arm) and couldn’t find my gear bag.  Couldn’t get Castelli Jersey on over my wet body (great call to wear it overall but a pain to wiggle into).    Pretty much par for the course, for me.  My lack of thinking ability post-swim was almost comforting in its familiarity.

I got going on the bike, ignored the hard-charging riders around me (it’s a long day, guys), and settled into my own, very conservative pace, drinking a lot, and trying to bring my heart rate down.  The first 10 miles or so are an out-and-back on Kuakini—it’s crowded, it’s frantic, and it’s dangerous in a lot of respects.   Goal for the section was to just get through—I did—and before I knew it I was spinning easily up Palani, and onto the Queen K.

I felt slow in those early miles.  I don’t mean me personally … my body felt good, my power output was on point, I’d gotten the heart rate down to where I wanted it … but I just felt like my bike wasn’t rolling fast.  On silky smooth roads, I was feeling every small bump and undulation in the road.  I started to worry that I had a flat tire.  I bounced a little on my rear wheel, but it felt fine, so I carried on, trying not to be too concerned.   Just keep moving forward.

And then, mile 28, on a fortunately flat stretch of road with no one around me, my front tire exploded.   Good one, Madame Pele.  

Immediately, I pulled over, flipped my bike over, got out the tools and started the fix, repeating over and over, “stay calm, you’ve got this, stay calm.”   I thought I stayed pretty calm; my heart rate file suggests otherwise and it’s kind of funny to see.  Really, I was worried because I had no idea what had just happened that caused the blowout.

Maybe Madame Pele was just having some fun with the day, I don’t know, but within 30 seconds, the most unlucky part of my day became the luckiest when the neutral tech support van pulled up and two bike mechanics walked over and took over the repair.  I wanted to kiss them.  They were amazed by the condition of the inner tube, which was completely shredded but fixed everything up quickly.  They inspected my tire (all good!) and reassured me that I’d be fine going forward --  “you probably had a slow leak all day, and then it just blew.”  I don’t understand the physics of it all, but that made me feel OK.  

To cheap to buy official pictures, so here's my bike
All told, I stood on the side of the road for 5 minutes—it likely would have been much longer without tech support.  Looking at my power file, I’m estimating I lost an additional 1:30 to 2 minutes in the first 28 miles with the slow leak.  Madame Pele 1, Amanda 0.

Getting back going, I had no idea how many women had passed me but I was pretty sure the answer was: a lot.  Results show that I was riding in 3rd in my age group, close to 2nd, when I flatted, and then fell back to 9th or 10th while on the side of the road.   Oddly enough, I wasn’t concerned, upset, or even all that shaken.  My day wasn’t over, I was moving forward again, and that’s really all that mattered in the moment.  I just set out to continue my ride, hoping for the best.

Aside from that, the bike was uneventful.  Extremely aware that the success of my day was going to be based on keeping myself cool and hydrated, I slowed for every single aid station (about every 7 miles) and got two water bottles—one for drinking, and one for spraying all over myself.   I ate, I drank, I looked around a little, I rode incredibly conservatively, all day long.   We got pelted with rain on the way up to Hawi (bring it, Madame Pele), but it felt good, really cooling me down, and just as quickly as it had started, it stopped as we started to descend.   

I did not have one low moment all day.   I wasn’t affected by the winds, and only really felt hot in the last 10 miles or so.  It felt like a training day, and to be honest, it felt a lot easier than any of my big training days.   Most comfortable 112 miles of my life.  

I felt like T2 took forever because I had so many tasks to take care of.  A wardrobe change—off with the Castelli top, on with the TriSports jersey.  Sunscreen application.  Arm coolers on, cooling towel soaked in peppermint oil around the neck, snacks shoved in pockets, hand held bottle, downing lots and lots and lots of ice water.  It felt good to sit in the shade but I hustled on out, taking one last look into the tent as I left and seeing Jana, a super talented racer who I knew was gunning for the win in our age group, about to head out too.  

It was hot this year.  It’s always hot in Kona, and to me, there’s not a huge difference between hot and really hot, I struggle either way, but this year was really hot.  As I was heading out in that first mile, the race announcer was giving a bit of commentary of the Pro race going on miles up the road.  Jan Frodeno, the eventual winner, was apparently stopping at the aid stations to dunk his head in buckets of dirty ice water.  It was that hot.  

The extreme hot probably should have totally psyched me out, especially after my melt down last under much more favorable conditions, but somehow, this twist from Madame Pele almost empowered me.  Thanks, Madame Pele….You’re not going to make it easy for me to get through this race, but maybe that’s the fun of this whole thing.

I was happy out there because I was on my own two feet and I knew I could finish that way, no matter what.  For the first 9 miles, I tried to do two things—stay cool, and smile.   Spectators on that first out-and-back of Ali’I were armed with hoses and I ran under every single one gratefully.  I shuffled through each aid station like a greedy hungry ice hippo, using both hands to grab as many cups of water (3 to 4 per mile) and ice  (as much as possible, dumped down my top, shorts, under my hat, in my hands).  Each aid station was an oasis.  

I saw my family multiple times out there on Ali’i, and in every one of those instances I did my best to smile, give a thumbs up, do whatever it took to let them know that I was OK and I was doing this thing.  They needed that, especially my mother, who’d witnessed pieces of the downward spiral last year.    And I needed it too….I’ve always found that nothing can pull me out of a moment of misery in a race quicker than a genuine smile.  
I was getting place updates -  third in my age group off the bike, and I knew I’d passed into second a couple miles into the race – but my reaction to that news was never much more than “Cool, thanks!” and then forget about it.  It’s a long race, anything can change, and I honestly wasn’t thinking at all about umeke bowls or places or anything like that as much as I was just trying to stay cool, do everything right, and click off the miles successfully.
Hi family!  I'm OK!
I shuffled up Palani although everyone around me was walking, made the turn onto the hot, exposed, desolate stretch of the Queen K, and trudged on, still not fast, but still not caring about anything except forward progress.  

Passing mile 11, where I went down last year, it was like a massive weight lifted off my shoulders.    From then on, every mile felt like a bonus.  Every time my watch buzzed (every half-mile), I had a little internal party -- “I’m doing this thing!”  It hurt, it was hot, my quads started threatening to cramp at mile 10 (thanks Base Salt for being out there!), it was lonely (no spectators allowed between miles 13 – 23), so many racers were giving in and walking, but I was doing it!   But then I’d get back to work, over and over and over, doing that internal checklist -  eat, drink, check heart rate, relax arms, run tall, turn it over, etc. etc. etc.  
Head down, just get it done
But what about the race?  You know, the reason I was there?  Umeke bowls, all that jazz?  Honestly, I can’t say I thought about it much.    I knew I was in second place in my AG for the vast majority of the run, and I’d certainly scoped out the competition at the turn around in the Energy Lab, but it didn’t change anything and it didn’t feel real—I think I was so focused on the goal of simply finishing that I never really thought to think of anything else.  

Until those last few miles.  It got really hard.  My legs were absolutely feeling my lack of run training.  I had to make a couple emergency port-o-pot stops as things stopped settling as well.  It became one foot in front of the other, let things go dark, focus on the stretch of road 4 feet ahead, just soldiering on, pounding coke and Red Bull at the aid stations, anything to keep going.  Every muscle in my body was screaming to walk--- and that’s when I finally dug into the “race” reserve.   Keep running.  YOU CAN GET A BOWL if you just keep running.

So I did.  Those last two miles or so, they’re mostly downhill, including a steep descent down Palani.  I’d probably have paid money for those to be uphill instead, as my quads screamed and cramped with every downhill stride.  I wanted to turn it up and go faster, but my legs couldn’t do it.  We turned onto Kuakini, SO CLOSE, and I was in a bit of panic mode.  I’m not moving!  I’m so close!  This is taking so long!  But I kept running because—bowl. Finally, it inspired me.  

It’s within the last third of a mile or so that you turn onto Hualailai Road, and again, go downhill.  Quads:  no, no, no.  Mind:  go, go, go.  I kept trying, feeling like I was running in slow motion, but then, right before we turned onto Ali’I Drive, Jana, who’d been within a minute or two of me all day, flew by, taking over second place in our age group.  I had no response – she was absolutely hauling and eventually finished 30 seconds ahead of me-- a ton of time to accumulate in a quarter mile, so hats off to her! 

Almost there
Yes, It’s hard to deal with a pass like that, so close to the end after 140.3 miles and 10+ hours of racing, but the disappointment lasted probably less than five seconds before the elation of Ali’I Drive took over.  The emotions hit -  as much as they could when your whole body is cramping.   I soaked it all in – the best finish line in all of the sport.   
So happy, so tired, so everything.
My time-  not my best.  Not even my best in Kona.  But on this day, it was enough.  It was more than enough.  Yeah, there have been what if's-- what if I hadn't stood on the side of the road for 5 minutes with a flat?  What if the two bathroom stops I took had been one, or zero?  But I've yet to have an Ironman go flawlessly, and when I do, maybe that's when it's time to hang it up.   I spent next to no time dwelling, because at bottom, I was so, so happy, so, so relieved, and in so, so much pain.  

I really, truly needed my "catchers."  Nothing left.
The After
Once I could kind of move, the celebration started.  For days, I alternated between thrilled, and shocked (this race, after this season?  Me?).  With my family, I relived every moment, every detail, every up and down.   I giggled through the award ceremony, as I tend to do, celebrated my birthday by hiking through a volcano,  and just felt so incredibly happy, all the way until my plane touched down in Illinois, when I felt still happy, but maybe a little deflated  when greeted with the start of winter.   Whomp, whomp.  

And then…. it was on to the next adventure!  Yes, I’m way behind on blogging!  It’s coming soon☺     

Of course, I have so many people to thank.  First and foremost, my family, for being there, all of you.  Your cheers on the day, reassurances in the days before, celebration afterwards-- it was so incredibly special to me.  Thanks to Liz Waterstraat of Multisport Mastery for getting me physically ready for this race despite less than ideal circumstances, and always believing, even when I didn't, that a good result was possible.  Thanks to my training buddies and friends, especially Kristy and Jason, who offered their spare bedroom for several training weekends in Madison, and several others  who not only pulled and/or pushed me through tough training days, but also talked me off the figurative ledge many a time when things weren't looking good.  Thanks to TriSports for taking a chance on me several years ago and for your continued support.  To the various medical professionals who got me through injury, including Achieve Ortho and Dr. Steven Mayer-  I'm so appreciative. Thanks to Gloria Petruzelli for helping me get my head in the right place, and Heather Fink for the nutrition help.  It takes a team-- and I'm so happy with mine.     

And of course, thanks to Madame Pele--- for helping me to search for, and find, something great within.

Final Results
Swim: 1:04:18
Bike: 5:29:49
Run: 3:39:54
Total 10:21:32/ 3rd in 35-39 Age Group


  1. This is fantastic. Watching you go through this year and coming out with a podium at Kona...well hell....it was incredible. I hope you're enjoying some downtime now. I can't wait for next year!

  2. Congrats!!! Great write up!
    -Nic from listoftriathlonblogs.com

  3. Awesome. And I love the Homestar Runner sign your brother had.