Making Peace with the Queen

If you’re new to this site, then what you are about to read is my experience during the 2011 Ironman World Championships. I should mention though, that this isn’t the first time I’ve finished Kona. But, it’s the first time I’ve experienced the finish of Kona. Confused? You might want to read this first.
I’m not a guy that believes in a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo. While Mark Allen was my idol growing up, even at a young age I wasn’t buying the visions of the island gods while he ran in ’89. I will say though, there is something different about this race that just has a different feel than your typical weekend outing. It might be all the hype. It might be the fact that I have read about and watched this race since 1986, so to walk the streets that I’ve seen on tv all these years might give it a surreal feeling. Not really sure. In any case though, deep down I had some unfinished business here. Not in terms of winning, or even in terms of a particular time. It was more in the sense of not withering on this day. If I think of the top 5 toughest or most painful days in my life, this place takes the top two spots. So deep down I needed to make my way back here and redeem myself, not in a Mark Allen or Chris McCormack way in that a win was alluding me, but in more of a making peace sort of way.
The lead up wasn’t especially promising, as I was nursing a knee problem since Ironman Texas and riding the fence between a knee “issue” and a full blown injury. Thanks to a good doctor friend and some great ART, I was able to make my way to Kona able-bodied and ready to go. I also had the luxury this time to have friends out on the course. Two them, Rip Reynolds and Steven Rogers, came out specifically to be my support crew and see this spectacle that is our sport’s grandest day. The lead up was great fun. There were roughly 4 expos in and around Kona, along with companies taking over restaurants and even just showing up anywhere they could find a spot. It was tri-toy heaven. The crowds were fun too. Everyone is out on Alii or in the bay working out, both spectators and competitors. Just a constant stream all day long. We stayed close to the race site, so everything we wanted to do was just a couple minute walk. The weather was very favorable before race day and the training was good to. In fact, I remember thinking a couple of times how comfortable I felt out there, unlike prior years.
In terms of the race itself,  I equate my trip here to that of a Serbian swimmer or a Cuban marathon runner in the Olympics. It’s awesome to be on the world’s greatest stage, but I have absolutely no hope of really competing for a podium, so this is more of a participation day of sorts. This is a race full of studs, so when you swim once a week and bike once or twice a week, it’s not realistic to think you’re going to show up and kick butt.  Anyway, onto race day…
T1
got up at 4:30 am after being awake since 2am, choked down two hard boiled eggs and packed up my special needs bags. Rip, Steve and I walked down to body marking, etc. I noticed that it was the first time since we had been there that we could see the top of the mountain.  Cool to see, but not a good sign. I thought right then that the cool, cloud covered days we’ve had were not happening today. Kona was gonna deliver some conditions it’s famous for.
I laid low and stretched while the pros got in and started. Once the pros took off they let us in the water and I got in rather quickly. entering the swimI I wanted to get a good warm up and a good position. I looked it up the day before and saw that the tide was to be coming out during the start, so I lined up further away from the pier than I have in previous years. As the start came closer and closer the crowds grew and the fighting for position became more intense. My experience has been that Kona is the worst for this kind of stuff. With no first timers, you get all the aggressive types in one body of water. With a few minutes to go I’m stiff arming one person while my back is pressed firmly up against another and my leg is kicking/bumping a third to keep from getting squeezed out. This year I even had people yelling at each other  (One especially pleasant fellow told me that I was “really fu*king annoying” ). Unpleasant is an understatement. Violent would be more appropriate. I know that most of these people aren’t going to be my problem when the gun goes off, but it’s hard to convince them of that. It can be a high stress situation. The gun finally goes off and I hit the gas. I took about 6 strokes to get clear of the fighting, and then another 50 yards or so to have some open space.

15 seconds after the canon

Then I wind it down a notch about every 5 strokes until I’m in my pace. My burst got me the lead. As we swam, on my right, or from me to the pier-side of the course, there were some fast swimmers about a body-length back. on my left side, there were 2 guys that had come around and passed me. I hit the gas again to get on their feet. The pace was really brisk for a while. After a number of minutes I saw the group that had formed from their move and decided to settle into a more comfortable pace on some feet next to me. In a matter of a few more minutes, the pace of the group slowed considerably. I guessed the guys on the front had either gotten away or settled down. From this point, it was a steady, mostly comfortable swim with the exception of the waves. Seemed a bit rough. Additionally, there were a bunch of boats out in the area, and when a boat would decide to move to another location, they would hit the gas and create some huge waves for us. Throws you off balance because you get into a rhythm with the ocean and then get clobbered by a bunch of rogue boat waves. I sat towards the back of our group and noticed that we had a nice gap on the next group. Coming into the pier I looked ahead and could see that our group stayed together and didn’t spread out. So I would be within 30 seconds or so of the lead of the race  (give or take ).  (In looking in the results later I believe 1 person gapped a few seconds on us and got out solo ). Got to the stairs and felt great. 12th out of the water  (the results that show 48th include the pros and the dnf’s) with a time that confirmed to me that it was a little tougher than normal.

Climbed the stairs, heard my name over the loudspeakers, ran through the showers, grabbed my bag and hit the tent. Helmets and shoes could stay with the bike, so T1 was easy. Fill the pockets, put on the number (and my little gps for my wife!) and shades. Then the looong run to the end of the pier and back to the bike. Felt good.
The ride from the pier up to the hot corner is fantastic. Just enormous crowds. Then there’s the little 5 mile circuit through Kona that is mostly uphill.first miles on the bike It’s sort of unsettling because it makes it hard to get into a pace and lower your heart rate. At the turnaround at the top of the climb just south of town you can see all the way down to the ocean and the swim course. I could see people rounding the turn out there  (man, that swim looks realllllly long from up there ). Got out onto the Queen K in 22nd place overall and headed north with a very slight tailwind. It was here that I could settle in on a pace. This is also the part of my day that starts to wear on my mind if I let it. See, as a good swimmer and a mediocre biker  (that’s what you get when you ride 1 or 2 times a week ) in Kona, I get it absolutely handed to me out here. It’s a constant stream of bikes blowing by. By local Texas standards I’m pretty good at riding, but today there were 200 age groupers under 5 hours on the bike. So here in Kona, I feel like the fat kid riding slow. As the ride progresses the packs begin to come by. It’s pretty easy to pick out those who are trying to ride clean and those that don’t give a damn. The race marshals were doing the best they could nabbing people, but some of the packs are huge. the Queen K has almost no flat spots, but the hills are all of the big ring variety, so there’s nothing overly challenging to climb. I took the left off of the Queen to 270, and after a very brisk downhill, you begin the climb to Hawi. I had been feeling ok up until this point but not great. Once the climb started though, I really started feeling my cycling legs. I was still getting passed, but not nearly as much, and actually started passing some of the bigger cyclists who started suffering on the climb and those who went out too hard. While the entire course would be considered windy, this section is where the legendary winds show up.  (A few days earlier I was registering next to an athlete who was racing here for the first time. She told me how she drove out to this section to ride and the wind almost blew her off the road. She immediately got off the bike and told her family she wasn’t racing. They convinced her to try it again, and it wasn’t until she relaxed a bit in this wind that she thought she could even do the bike. )I felt great during the climb. got to the turn and passed on my special needs. I still had plenty of calories on me so it wasn’t worth the stop. This is where the descent begins, and with the crosswinds the way they were, there were some hairy sections. Once I got over 40 mph I really focused of the athletes in front of me. I could see when and athlete got blown sideways and had to stabilize so as not to crash, and that would tell me where the crosswind gusts where hitting. With the exception of a few sketchy moments, the descent was uneventful. Well almost. Towards the bottom of the descent I got passed by a rider like I had a few hundred times before. We were going just over 30 mph into a turn/bank to the left that immediately becomes a nasty little climb to get back onto the Queen K. Those who’ve raced here know exactly where I’m talking about as it’s probably the second steepest hill next to Palani. Anyway, this guy passes me right as we turn left and he then sits up and coasts. I was trying to get a drink and didn’t pay real close attention to him, but then realized I am closing in on this guy and am not yet clear of the draft zone, so I sit up and coast. Wasn’t doing any good though as we slow to about 9mph, and I heard a motorcyle pull up behind me. The only way I could get clear in enough time was to hit brakes and come to a stop, so I just figured the marshall would see the situation and understand the circumstances. I was wrong. So the marshall pulls up next to me and and nabs me for drafting at 9mph. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!! At first I was furious, then I calmed down a bit and accepted my fate. I know they are there for good reason, and, by the letter of the law it did take me too long to get clear. Whatever. Not going to let it ruin my day, and I know that I race clean. So I got to the penalty tent a few miles down the road and served my time. I remember seeing Paula Newby-Fraser and other pros serve time in the penalty tent and mentioning that it was a plus because it gave you a little time to focus on hydration and fueling. So the second I got there, I got off the bike, started stretching, eating and drinking. I had really hoped that I would feel like a new man after that, but it ended up not helping at all.
Back on the bike, paranoia set in as I thought that it was 2 strikes and you’re out in terms of rule violations. So if I get boxed in again I’m out of the race!  (turns out it’s 3 strikes and you’re out ) When a rider would pass I would tap the brakes, because there was no way my day was going to end on some stupid technicality. There was a long stretch with some nice headwinds, where 15 mph was tough to hold and then they moved to a crosswind as we got past the airport and closer to Kona. I could also really start to feel the heat here from both the sun and the black lava rock. Ironman.com had reported the surface temperature out here to be 137. Ovenlike.  It was through this section I saw a couple people in white race outfits that had…well…some bathroom issues already. Yikes. I think those white outfits are so cool looking, but if you run into some digestive issues, oh man, you’re an instant internet sensation on one of those “fail” websites. Rolled into town feeling pretty good and ready to get off the bike.
This was the slowest transition I have ever done. ever. And it was sort of on purpose. In Ironman Texas I was dehydrated and had to stop at mile 1 to rehydrate. So I sat down and took my time preparing. Took down a bunch of fluids. Even stretched my legs. It was almost 3 times slower than normal, but I was fine with it. I was here to have a good day, not to have a best time.
Came out of T2 and started running up Palani. After a few hundred yards and you turn right off Palani, I could feel the running legs showing up. I was able to settle into my pace pretty quick with the help of my heart rate monitor. Ran past my hotel and all my friends just before mile 1 and got a huge burst of energy. mile 1Boy Oh boy does support help. As I ran down Alii I could see the women’s race unfold. Was surprised that Chrissie was not leading. At the top of the hill around mile 1 I saw Dibens laying on the road looking like death warmed over. Seeing the ambulance screaming her way told me my assessment was right. Clicked the first mile off at 7:34 and felt pretty comfortable, though the heat was wearing on me in a hurry. I began my own little heat management process immediately. Ice in the crotch, ice down the shirt, hold ice in both hands and swallow as much ice as I could muster. Everything stayed steady through Alii and mile 10 when I saw my friends again, and then headed out to the famous lava fields. heading towards Queen K At Palani hill, I knew I was going to walk, because that thing is flat out steep. It cost me an extra 4 minutes, but I didn’t care. That hill is a dream killer.
Out on the Queen K I again felt pretty good. And this literally  put a smile on my face because this is where the wheels have come off before. Was I actually going to have a good day here? Nahhh. Something is bound to go wrong. This section is typically where the head can be the worst, but I’m telling you right now that I think God was looking out for me, because some clouds moved in for the next 6 miles to the energy lab. This is also a great section to be a fan, because you can see the pro’s race playing out. Chrissie ran by with Rinny not far behind at all. Also got to see some of the pro men who didn’t have a banner day like Lieto. Took the left into the energy lab and still felt surprising solid. Was even passing chunks of people. In previous trips, the energy lab has been a spot where problems have cropped up, but this time not so much. The only issue I was starting to have was a little light-headedness if my heart rate climbed too high. This meant that I had to walk-run the hill out of the energy lab so as not to lose it. This persisted all the way back to town. Plenty of energy in the legs, well hydrated, yet light-headed on the uphill. Something I need to figure out and work on. Saw my good friend Kim Hager around mile 24  (she was on her way out ) and then saw an old high school friend  (Tiffany Hirtle Lindsey )shortly after. Mile 24Seeing Tiffany was a big energy boost as I realized that this race was in the books and I was still having a good day. Made the turn down Palani Hill and then the left onto Kuakini.Last Mile5 Five years ago it was this spot where I stopped and essentially dropped down to my knees, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to make another step. I stared at that spot as I ran by. Boy, what a difference this year was from year’s past. Made the turn towards Alii and saw my friends Rip and Steven again. finishFinally, FINALLY I was going to get to see what everyone talks about with this finish. It struck me as odd at first with so many people (sounds crazy I know), then it got a bit emotional. I soaked up the finish like it was my last Kona finish ever. You never know, it might just be…
Got a volunteer to walk with me to the food and massage.I was very dizzy. Had some chicken broth and some pizza. tired Got a massage, photos and picked up my gear. Went home, cleaned up and went out to eat a big fat burger and a beer at the Kona Canoe Club that sits on the water over looking the bay and the finish line. Then went back to see the last finishers at midnight. It was a great day that I’ll not soon forget. And finally, a good day to visit the Queen.                                                                                                                                                                                            
 (She’s still a bitch though. Just don’t tell her I said that)
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One comment

  • You are and inspiration TJ. Great post, absolutely loved reading it. Congrats on a strong finish!

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