October 16, 2004
Ironman World Championship
After a three attempts of trying for Kona I committed myself to race at the trifecta of a swim, bike, & run race, the Ironman World Championship. The race in Kona is elite, a classic, and contested in an exotic location. I went island hopping to earn my spot. First to Phuket, on to the Island Continent, next Tokyo on the Japanese Island of Hokkaido Honshu, to Oahu, and finally landed on the Big Island at the Ironman World Championship, the ultimate destination race. Think of the island hopping in terms of setting parallel goals of both short-term and long-term objectives. I set a short-term goal in August to train for a race at the end of November on Phuket Island. I had to win my age group to qualify for Ironman Australia. In December I set another short-term goal to finish well in Forster to qualify for Kona. The overreaching long-term goal was to reach Hawaii after the Coeur d’ Alene in June 2003. I just didn’t know how to execute on the plan at that point. The answer revealed itself later in the summer, halfway around the world.
The girls did a similar planning approach in schools with their Individual Development Plan. The IDP’s were kid specific plans for their journey of educational and society assimilation short-term and long-term goals. Reaching the goals helped them get closer to main stream in reaching their maximum potential in life. Both of them used IDP’s in the States and in Bangkok. They adjusted to the environment. Much like triathletes do for races. Their journeys included destinations, milestones, and overall targets for fulfillment.
Destination race memories will last forever. Forget about buying the newest race equipment you’ll abandon the following season. Don’t buy the New Year’s trendy triathlon clothes that wear out and later get tossed out. Instead, spend more money on doing races. Travel to them. To talk with others about your latest bike or newest components is cool but these will never be as memorial as the excitement of racing a destination location you chose to race. Take your family. Travel with friends. Go head-to-head with competition you only read about. Turn travel memories into your greatest race memories as your career expands. View your race travels as your window to the world instead of thinking about it by reading some website description or race brochure. Computers helped me get there in the car, on a train, or by plane but traveling to places with Chris and the kids made the trips special. Experience different courses, cultures, climates, and competitors. No one will sit around with you in 10, 20, or more years from now to talk about your ultralight, carbon fiber bike with the custom paint job, or a pair of ultra-light, ultra-hyped running shoes. Instead, hold an audience captive with fascinating memories about race trips from years before.
For Kona, you’ll remember racing with over 2,000 lean and taut triathletes on lava fields in the middle of an ocean. You’ll remember the multiple colors of race day. From waking up to the blackest sky and the whitest stars to the multi-colors of international flags, race kits, and Tropical Island furnishings at the finish line. At race start you’ll see the grey clouds above the Mauna Hualālai volcano and the sparkling azure waters of the Pacific Ocean. Your bike ride will be dominated by blue skies, white clouds, and the orange fiery sun during the day. You’ll experience more of the same on the run as the colors will deepen into yellow/orange/red tones of a setting sun when darkness returns during post-race recovery and celebration.
You’ll remember the salty taste from swimming early in the morning and the crusty salty feeling late in the afternoon on the run. You’ll recall feeling an early morning chill when queuing up during body markings and how later hot and strong headwinds tried to crush you into submission on the bike when returning to town along the Queen K Highway.
You’ll remember the wet from the water. The dryness across the lava fields. The heat on your sun baked skin through the Energy Lab. And you will never forget the burn in your muscles from pushing your body up and down hills during the all-day race.
You’ll remember the hush tones everyone talks in when being body marked with race numbers before the race. How the voices raise as daybreak occurs. The sound of waves breaking as you walk down to enter the water. The Hawaiian drums pounding in a steady pattern to keep your adrenalin in check as you tread water waiting for the cannon boom to signal the start of the race. And throughout the day you will recall being cheered on by family, friends, and fans strung along much of the race course.
You’ll remember the ultimate finish experience hearing the cheers, the feel and buzz thrill from rushing adrenalin when giving and getting high fives down the entire length of the carpeted path to the finish line. You will remember Mike Reilly over the loudspeaker saying “(fill your name in here”), you are an Ironman!” Think of it this way, you will forever remember the experience of finishing the greatest triathlon race on this planet.
You will remember more in the days after your race. Your body will relax at the memory of smelling locally grown coffee beans. Your lips will become moist from the memories of a luau where you ate beyond all reasonableness during your stay. And the friendliness of the people on the island where you blended in feeling almost as one with them. You’ll recall you thought about calling home to put your house on the market and having your people send you the contents of your home to cram in your new beach house on almost any tranquil sandy beach. Oh yeah, you’ll remember riding a lightweight bike with some current season tri gear but you’ll remember and re-live THAT vacation experience during a destination race over and over as it gets better and better in your mind. Ah, now those WERE the days.
Training in Bangkok for Kona consisted of the same plans for Ironman Australia. The heat and humidity of the tropics mimicked the weather conditions of Kona. The Bangkok terrain fell flat in replicating the climbs on both the bike and run awaited all Ironman Hawaii competitors.
I started increasing mileage in mid-July the weekend after Chris and girls returned to the US for the summer. Mentality and physically the body eased in to the workout activity needed to build a base, followed by endurance, and finally transitioning into speed by early October. Triathletes accept fulfillment and achievements present themselves months into the future. Training and racing don’t exist in combo to produce immediate gratification. Start-up training created an emotional barrier to overcome to get beyond the initial muscle and joint pain. However my mind registered the pain as part of the process to later deliver on the pleasure of welcomed race outcome. Sort of like barrowing from potential future pleasure to offset today’s pain in the ass training workouts.
The most difficult aspect of the Ironman Hawaii was training for another Ironman tri in the six months after qualifying. I built up my mental, physical, and emotional strength and endurance from December into April, then spent the investments in a ten hour time block. Think of it this way, you make a keg of homemade brew on your own. You buy, mix, and brew the ingredients and wait for payout day. You tap the aged brewski and drink the whole keg in a day. That day started out fun. You splashed around in the suds. You probably spun a bit midday midway through the keg. Late in the evening the last drinks came hard and you probably shuffled or worse staggered about a bit. You probably high-fived others during your awesome drinkfest celebration and probably visited a potty between re-filling at your private aid station during the day. When the keg contents were gone, you felt fulfilled, and probably tired. You slept, then the next day came with a nasty hangover. Your thoughts rambled. You swore you’ll never drink again but since you qualified for the World Beer Brewing contest you can’t resist signing up but it took so much effort and drinking to get there the first time the act of showing up is great but the act of competing the contest the second time in six months was so difficult because qualifying took all your effort and you damaged your liver and confidence in the process. Your zeal for drinking drops and the daily requirement of building up a new tolerance is difficult. That’s what a second Ironman feels like. At least I think so, never qualified for the Beer Worlds.
My tri hangover started lifting in August. Training mileage increased. My loneliness of missing family started to subside with a travel date set to rejoin them in the States in late August. I bought a used bike off eBay to train on while there. I also jumped in an Olympic distance triathlon race in Prairie View, Wisconsin to simply train in race conditions. I put in my longest bike rides in the country side of central Indiana. These were my John Mellencamp inspired Hurts So Good workouts.
In some ways I was another triathlete headed to Hawaii for vacation. Another triathlete among 1,800 racers with similar goals; do the best I could, accomplish something never done before, and join the Kona alumni club. For most of the triathletes, the trip was a family vacation. For us, an extended family vacation. The kids’ grandparents flew in early from Chicago visiting Honolulu for three days. My sister and brother-in-law arrived two days later and stayed three days longer.
In other ways we were a different family than most competitors. On the way to the Bangkok airport to depart for a three legged trip to Kona, my youngest daughter Caroline asked, “Can boats fly?” For a ten year old intelligently disabled child there was more thinking going on in her mind as she related boats and airplanes to traveling to places located in the middle of oceans.
We were also different from most Americans who flew in from the States. We flew in from Asia. After living there for 13 months we earned enough frequent flyer points to be bumped up to Business Class from Coach. We boarded the plane and turned left towards our seats when normally we turn right. Caroline balked at the change of routine. She stood her ground and pointed to the Coach seating area. Her OCD kicked in. She stood there 10 minutes refusing to budge and move to her seat in Business Class beside us. She edged towards an unrestrained meltdown. Only last minute assistance from a flight attendant averted a scene no one wanted to experience or observe. Luckily the other two legs of the trip went smoothly. According to the clock, we arrived in Kona 10 hours before we left Tokyo, thanks to phenomenon of crossing the International Date Line. Really though we sat on three planes up to 19 hours over a 24 hour period.
We rented a four bedroom house above Alii Drive five miles from the race’s start-finish area which provided a beautiful setting overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Kona, and the island as it rose up to the coffee plantations and beyond. We enjoyed most of meals outside on the lanai to bask in the fresh air and experience the great Pacific paradise.
Upon landing Chris, the girls, and the Tweeds headed to the rental house. I headed for the pre-race required meeting. I’m tired, exhausted, and coming down with a cold. Almost fell asleep during the rules meeting
I changed from travel mode to race preparation mode. No need to remind me of why I was there to:
Prove I can swim, bike, and run all in a given day, all day.
Compete with the best triathletes in the world, in a world of self-induced pain.
Race in a place where:
Normal people go to relax and enjoy the serenity of ocean waves
Observe snow-capped volcano peaks from tropical sandy beaches
Watch lava from live volcanos flow into the ocean
Complete against people more dedicated to physical activity every morning before work starts while displaying more energy and positive attitude throughout the day than most people do in an entire month.
Respect those with more talent and more motivation who were killed while training, stricken with illness, or hurt beyond recovery to participate in the race.
Pursue my a triathlon passion.
Beat some competitors who beat me before in less prestigious races.
Do this race I believed I could do but needed to prove it to myself and myself only because no one else but me would care once the day was over.
Earn a medal worth more than a 1,000 words of a single picture.
Wear a finisher’s t-shirt while moving slowly, in pain, with a small swagger and a big smile on the streets of Kona the day after the race.
Reinforce more important aspects of life exist than work e-mails and racing in triathlons; to be with family – immediate and extended -- on a great vacation, in an exotic location halfway between where we lived in Thailand and family who joined us from the great Midwest of the United States.
Put my bike together on Thursday while catching up about life with my adopted father-in-law, Tom. The rest of the family headed off to the beach for the morning. Tom asked how far the distances were in the race. After answering he stared at me then said seriously, “You’re joking right?”
Shook my head no. No response from him. To this day, not sure if I earned his respect or if he thought I was absolutely insane. Maybe both.
Thursday night took the wrong over the counter drugs before going to bed. That kept me awake when wanting and needing sleep. On Friday after an early morning run the cold worsened. After lunch Tom joined me to the transition area for check-in. The sun was hot and bright. Pretended it baked away my cold symptoms. The line moved slowly as one-by-one a racer was escorted by a volunteer to check transition bags and rack bikes. The volunteers helped us all. The guy who walked me around engaged in casual conversation to help ease my anxiety of tomorrow’s unknowns in how the race would play out. He told me not to over inflate my tires and pump them up in the morning. Not sure if a symbolic comment for me to breathe deep and also let some of my own air out to relax and enjoy the race experience. Both seemed to work. My tires didn’t explode though heard three intertube explosions during my hour check-in experience. At least three races started their day frustrated. They just didn’t know it yet.
On Saturday morning in the transition area a collection of the fastest tri bikes in the world sat idle staged for race start all bathed in flood lights with nothing but dark and starry skies above. Water bottles with oversized drinking straws sticking up wedged in between the aero bars created a perception that the bike provided more than just transportation but nutrition too. The straws curled back towards where the competitors’ faces would be during the bike leg for hands free and aero efficiency in providing calorie ladened and nutrition infused liquids for the triathletes. The scene looked like a sea of inverse IV bags waiting to be hooked up to patients.
While trying to get beyond the awe of the pre-race experience the bikes in the transition reminded me of 33 race cars staged for race start on the homestretch at my first Indianapolis 500 in 1975. What a cool and awe inspiring sight for as a teenager and now almost 30 years later I thought how cool for me to ride a top a different vehicle, a bike, staged at the greatest spectacle in triathlon racing.
Most competitors moved down the stairs across a small sandy beach into the Pacific Ocean to position themselves for the race start. Others jumped in from the end of the pier. No one wore wetsuits. Most competitors treaded water waiting for the start. A few racers held on to the spare tires attached to the pier that served as bumpers for protection to the boats and pier on non-race days. A Kona resident gave me a tip waiting for the start on a tire was a favorite tactic of locals to conserve calories that would be in much demand as the race progressed. The remaining competitors stood up in swallow waters waiting for the pending torrid start to settle out so not to get flustered early on in race.
For the first time professionals started 15 minutes ahead of the age-groupers to space out the field of competitors. Ironman races are known generally for their mass starts, not the standard wave starts in other races. I headed towards the start line five minutes after the pros began their race. Hundreds of age groupers were already in the water. On the walk from the pier to the in-water start of Kailua Pier my heart pounds against the chest. I focused on staying relaxed, then the body injects adrenalin much against my mental will. Winds blew strong and steady from the start of day. Before the start of the swim leg the whirling blades from the helicopters above created more wind and spray that juiced up the excitement, adrenalin, and anxiety levels of everyone ready to race or watch the racers. The egg beater thumping noise from the helicopters overwhelmed the internal thumping of my heartbeat, the high pitched last second cheers from the spectators, and the boom of the starting cannon. Only the Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, stood out as it channeled through the mounting noise with a well-paced countdown to the race start. Mentally I coped by trying to keep the pre-race anxieties in check. Only 10 more minutes before I start racing. The body pulses like a speaker with too much bass going on. I step in line with the shuffling of triathletes down the steps onto a small patch of sand, and into the salty Pacific Ocean.
I paddled a 100 meters to be five deep in the start line. There was not much talking amongst the competitors. Though not the fastest in the 45-49 age group, knew I belonged and earned a starting spot in Kona. And respected everyone else there because they belonged too. Their choice whether they felt the same way. My mind slipped away from race thoughts for a few seconds to look at the beach and see the most spectators at a race I ever participated in. Beyond the crowd the iconic Mokuaikaua Church Steeple pointed skyward as a spiritual guiding rod. Sunrays angled over and stretched above the Hualālai Volcano that peaks out just under 8,300 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Fog drifted on the mountainside between us and the sunrays. And I zoned out mentally from the race site and simply saw the water of the Pacific Ocean to the whole tip of the Hualālai Volcano. Like looking at the beach in binoculars and zooming back to see the whole island break the waterline and reach to touch the sky. All the noises increased more. The combination of the drummers, cheers from the crowd, and inner voices trying to override my emotions were pushed out by a couple of helicopters to film the race start.
We treaded water in a horizontal fishbowl with spectators to our left in restaurants, to our right on the Kailua Pier, and mostly behind us on Alii Drive. Taking in the race, the setting, the signage, the announcer, the hard bodies of pros and elite age groupers in every direction, I experienced stimulus overload. Now Hawaiian drummers ratcheted up the excitement of spectators and participants alike with their pounding of in sync drum sticks. The drums getting louder with each hit and coming along faster than the last one. Our nervousness, anxiety, and adrenalin with our raw desire to turn in performances of a lifetime whipped the entire field into a frenzy.
The actual event seemed more of dream than my dreams of what the race would be like. Being a part of the race start was surreal. No comparison exists of Hawaiian Ironman to any other triathlon or all other triathlons combined. As much as I think about the past, when I race, especially Ironmans, part of my motivational process was to recognize that day’s race was the absolute focus of the day. I chose to be a competitor, not a spectator on Kona race day. This race IS what I’m doing today. All day. The cannon sounded and the swim pack started its initial stretch towards the turnaround point.
As planned, I placed myself in the middle of the pack at the start and stayed there for the entire swim. I settled quickly into a steady rhythm of stroke, glide, and repeat. The sound of the helicopters was replaced with a splash of arms entering and exiting the water along with the synchronized blowing of bubbles to let out the carbon dioxide and breath in oxygen. I was an equal classmate in a school of fish. Swimmers in front of me held a steady pace. Swimmers on either side of me stayed in a relative holding pattern and we progressed in unison towards a common turnaround point some 2,000 yards down range. Today, with my eyes a couple of inches above the water line of the Pacific Ocean trying to see a catamaran trimmed out with three large and bright orange sails a mile and quarter away over the heads of 800 competitors, the turnaround point seemed like at least twice that distance. No one swam below me, at least for now. I sighted every ten strokes to ensure a straight line to the turnaround point which looked damn far out there. The expected V-shaped formation of swimmers developed as the faster swimmers pulled out and the followers glided in behind the legs ahead to gain some 5-10% percentage efficiency in moving forward through the water. Looking at pictures after the race the ubiquitous Ironman swimming arrowhead was the tightest I had raced in which again only confirmed the caliber of the competitors in this Championship race.
As we swam away from the shoreline the sea floor slowly fell deeper. The water stayed clear. Even at its deepest spot the sandy bottom could still be seen. My biggest surprise of the day came early on in the swim as a couple of divers connected to air hoses walked on the bottom of the ocean filming the race in progress. They looked tiny some 50 feet below. Both cameramen resembled those miniature divers in the office fish tank, complete with bubbles coming out of their dive gear and floating up to the surface. Though I already knew, seeing these divers confirmed once again Kona wasn’t an ordinary triathlon. And it wasn’t, Kona was the frickin “Worlds”.
The Ironman officials sold tickets to spectators who wanted to ride on the turnaround boat to watch the swim leg. They served up Kona coffee, sunshine, and a front rail spot to all on-bound. In return the passengers cheered every swimmer like they were the most important competitor of the race.
After the turnaround we continued our swim towards the Pier. All of us were always swimming beside someone, with someone’s feet right at my fingers in front and someone else’s fingers at my feet in back. It felt like a fast paced traffic jam that kept moving forward but your swim engine was on a governor. The Ocean bottom slowly came closer as we approached the Pier and the subsequent climb up a set steps into T1. I also saw more fish when swimming in shallow water. Tropical fish and small stingrays. The race was like a two for one special, touring a real life aquarium while competing in an Ironman. We hit the water exit and ran across the pier. Scientist claim intelligent life came out of the water but why would any intelligent person go to Hawaii and do this race when they could go surfing, hang out at the beach, watch the sunset, drink tropical drinks, and much more. I grabbed my transition bag and headed towards my bike.
I reached for my bike handle bars and read my racing safe words: “Eat”, “Drink”, “Breathe”, “Relax”, “Laugh”, and “Palm Trees Ahead”. Each on a separate white label with the letters in bold black. The bike leg started with a short climb from the transition and then on a four-sided square course of three miles paraded us around family and spectators. Then we did a steady three-four mile incline up the Kuakini Highway. The climb on the narrow road was a tease of what came ahead in the way long miles of climbing with few people along the roadside outside of town. But for this early portion of riding I knew Hayes and Caroline would be up there with Tom and Rita to give me a cheer. I needed encouragement early on. With the climb on the short but steep Pay and Save hill on Palani Road to leave Kona, I already exceeded the grand total of my bike training climbs I experienced back on the flat topography of the greater Bangkok area. Bikers were flying by me on the climb. Many racers were encouraged to hammer early on in the race because of screaming and cowbell ringing spectators. We did a 180 degree turn at the top and came back down the hill. Bikers continued to fly by me. This was going to be a damn long day.
Strong winds blew from the start of the bike at 8am and continued all day. After the initial spur from the transition, we rode out of Kona on the Queen K highway towards the turnaround point of Hawi at the north tip of the Big Island. The Queen K served up continual rollers, never too steep, never flat enough as we biked through the famed lava fields. We held an aero tucked position on the bike and strained on the pedals.
On the Queen K Highway realized left transition without putting on sunblock. Passing the first aid station yelled to the volunteers if anyone could share some sunscreen. Within seconds a volunteered told me to pullover and she would get some for me. She run to her purse and sprinted back with a tube. Pulled off my gloves, squeezed the tube, and quickly lathered the protection on. Fluids, calories, and protection, truly an aid station with a quick first responder volunteer. The best people to appreciate on race day at least until seeing the family again.
Before the race hung out on the pier conserving energy. Met a school teacher from the Phoenix area who qualified for Kona at Ironman Brazil. We threw out some triathlete names and landed on a husband and wife team we both knew, Geoff and Julie Cleveland. We swam masters together in the morning at Arizona State University. The woman told me both were in the race. As expected never saw Geoff on the course. He swam quickly, biked quickly, and held on with a decent run. Julie out swam me as expected too. Though a couple of miles beyond the unscheduled sun screen break rode up on her side. We exchanged greetings, wished each other good luck and kept biking. Interesting to realize how small the world was in the racing community.
At times the mind wandered to take in the terrain. Memorials called “Island Graffiti” stood out in stark contrast to the black lava rock and sparse vegetation along the Queen K Highway. The memorials were written messages created with broken up white coral. Never saw roadside messages in the Midwest, southwest desert, or the tropics other than Christian cross tributes for a loved one lost in a traffic accident. On the Big Island most messages focused on loved ones: passed, present, and even wishful ones such as marriage proposals. Occasionally there would be a racer specific message to go faster. I checked back in the race after reading that one.
The winds continued to pick up in force. We faced either head-winds or cross-winds: steady, strong, and stressful for almost fifty miles. One break came 8 miles out from the turnaround as we turned left for a fast downhill and the wind to our back. This lasted four minutes as we covered a quick two mile stretch of the course. Then we turned right into the winds for a steady and straining six mile climb gaining 650 feet into Hawi. Rode steady and past riders going up towards the turnaround. With the heat, the wind, the hills, physically I wanted to stop and recoup. Then we rolled into town with thousands of residents, volunteers, and competitor support crews who welcomed us with cheers, whistles, and more cowbells. Now mentally re-charged to keep going, grabbed my personal needs bag, thanked the volunteer and swapped out sticky Gu packets for new flavors to stuff in the back shirt pockets.
Moving through the exchange zone the cheers subsided and up from my front fork came a continuous sound like escaping air. “Oh shit, a flat.” I slowed down and looked for a spot to change the front inner tube. Funny thing though, the tire did not go flat or lose any air. The tire picked up a sticky snack bar rapper when biking by the aid station. The wrapper with foil like packaging stuck to the fork and continually rubbed on the tire sounding like a tire hissing out air to go flat. Carefully picked it off with my fingers, tucked it in the bike jersey, and pedaled back up to race speed.
Thought of my dad at this point. Often thought of Dad during multi-hour bike rides. He met me at a race in Shelbyville, Indiana a couple of years before he passed away. Had continual problems with a faulty rim strip that caused flats there and went through three inner tubes before the race when pumping air back into the tire. Each time the tube got pinched between the rim strip and the spoke hole. Each pinch punctured the tube which resulted in a flat tire. With my lack of bike maintenance knowledge, I didn’t understand the cause, only the effect. Now out of spare tubes, I put away my biking equipment and running gear and decided to do the swim leg, then call it a day. When coming out of the lake Dad yelled at me to get my bike. He paid someone to fix the tire. Ran to the car, pulled out my helmet and shoes, and ran to the bike and took off. Here was my dad still helping out his youngest son, age 38, because that what dads do. Just one example of many valuable lessons learned from him. If I was superstitious, maybe he fixed my “flat” in Hawaii. Being practical, I knew mentally he was rooting for me to race well.
As expected we increased our speed as we rolled out of Hawi since the wind was now at our backs. And we rode downhill fast. All of the competitors received a double boost of speed. Then wham, a blast of headwind. Then bam, blasted by a crosswind. The wind continued to be gusty, first in your face, then shifting and hitting us broadside. Riders were getting pushed over half a lane when the winds found their way through openings between trees and rocks. The wind pushed me left, a meter off a straight travel line when going downhill over 30 miles per hour. I leaned right to move the bike over to get out of a blocking position. Then pushed back left again by the wind only to repeat leaning back right. The push and lean continued for miles. The wind scared me as a fought with my bike trying to stay upright not knowing when the wind would push me hard to the left. Didn’t want to be close to any other rider, whether being past or passing someone else. Everyone fought the wind with no long stretch of being relaxed and fast.
After the big descent from Hawi I was being steadily passed on the bike by other competitors though this too trailed off after getting closer to Kona. Racers were strewed for miles, from front to back as the distance gap increased until the winner crossed the finished line. Then the distance gap closed but the time increase continued for almost the next nine hours to midnight.
Kona Ironman triathletes are not your typical triathlete, athlete or person. Age-group competitor Christian Sadowski, showed his leadership skill of resiliency when faced with extreme adversity. Saw him less than 10 miles from the transition area. Didn’t know what he was during the race but sure wanted to know more about his story afterwards. He already survived the heat, the hills, and wind but now he was walking. He carried his bike in stocking feet and full race kit on the Queen K Highway as others rode by him on their bikes. His bike’s top tube rested on his shoulder like an 18 pound race bag. A race official’s motorcycle took out his back wheel a few minutes earlier. He went down. His bike went down. His back wheel bent beyond use. The frame dropouts trashed beyond use. While he was still operable, his bike was not. He chose to stay in the race to finish.
A similar scene played out almost 12 years later in the Tour de France bike race, when Chris Fromme, the defending champion, had his bike run over by a race official on a motorcycle during Stage 12 of the premier cycling race in the world. Fromme picked up his bike and took off running towards the finish line. Serious world class age-group triathletes, like Christian Sadowski, think like serious professional champions.
He set his disappointments to the side, slung his bike over his shoulder and started walking to T2, less than 10 miles away on the Pier. Faced with the adversity of losing a working bicycle, he picked up its pieces and changed from rolling to walking never missing a step to complete his mission of the day: to be a Hawaii Ironman finisher.
Christian stated in a discussion afterwards with Robert Vigorito, “Sometimes you just have to wipe the blood off, swallow your anger and just continue. This was just another one of those obstacles to overcome.” He beat the bike cut-off time into T2.
Crossing beyond the 100 mile marker, where Christian walked, the airport came into sight. With no clouds all day, the sun blasted us with heat and the lava fields dried us out. The winds blew stronger still. I tired more but kept riding. The guy walking wasn’t going to beat me. While the winds were relentless and everyone’s time was impaired, we competitors grew more tenacious in wanting to finish. After the race we learned the winds blew up to 35 mph. The wind, the hills, and the sun punished me all day.
The other racers punished me all day too. Fast swimmers. Fast bikers. Fast in the transitions. An average Kona qualified (KQ) competitor was a front of the pack triathlete in whatever qualifying race he or she did to get eligible for the Ironman World Championship. They raced fast and with endurance. Everyone in the race went fast and kept going faster and longer distance compared to any other race I competed in.
What energy the wind did not suck out of me on the bike, the heat did on the run. By mid-day the temperature went above 90°F. Fortunately, the will to continue forward remained. Physically my body repelled against me early on during the run. My left hamstring cramped, then my right. My electrolytes were whacked and couldn’t drink enough Gatorade to regain the proper balance. I stretched to loosen the hamstrings, then stretched to loosen the overworked and dehydrated quad muscles. The hamstrings contracted tighter generating pains that probably approached birthing contractions. Both showed heavy bruising the following morning. The run course starts with an out and back of 10 miles on Ali'i Drive. Shuffled for the five miles out of Kona. I drank what I could. Walked when I needed too. Kept moving closer to finishing the race. The crowd support on the run was awesome. Streets were covered with personal messages written in chalk. My family gave me encouragement when coming through the beach area of Kona. Chris and Greta chalked out a personal road messages for me just in front of where Joe joined them to give a shout out. As the run wore on I substituted my own name in place of other competitors’ to generate encouragement to keep running through the heat and wind. In addition to the street message, many handwritten signs were held up by supporters. Kids, spouses, coaches, and many residencies motivated us by their messages. Many statements were funny. Some message were serious. All of them were welcomed.
Some support groups wore like colored uniforms for “Team Jones” “Team Smith”, or “Team Whatever”. Nancy, my sister-in-law, surprised us the night before the race and decked us out in our support team clothing with a “World Tour” themed shirt of previous Ironman races competed in. Felt like a 45 B-side record rock star with groupies.
We turned right and headed back up the steep Pay and Save hill. This time running, some seven hours later than when we pedaled up the road at after 8am. Crowds lined either side of the road. We heard cowbells, cheers, and claps. Past the climb we turned left on to the Queen K Highway and the crowds faded away and the negatives piled on. My leg pain persisted. The heat and wind persisted. I persevered moving forward. Mostly running. Sometimes shuffling. Sometimes walking.
Naïvely, started the race day with the conflict of man vs. man. Overly optimistic I could compete as a front of the pack age-grouper in Kona, at least in my age group. On the ride out on the Queen K highway my conflict became man vs. nature trying to survive the wind, heat, and desert dryness of the Hawaiian Big Island weather. During the run the conflict became 100% internal, man vs. himself. Me vs. me. I was losing on two fronts, physically and mentally. In the end almost 175 triathletes lost, 10% of the starters, as they dropped out or did not cross the finish line by midnight. I tried to keep my situation in proper perspective, the only thing worse racing when injured or feeling bad is not racing at all. My battle continued within for the next fourteen miles.
During the run on Queen K and our loop through the Natural Energy Lab the vibe around the race changed. As I continued to run on the out leg the pro racers and elite age-groupers ran in towards the finish line. I recognized professional and age-group talent more familiar to me in print magazines and on race page web sites than in-person. The leaders whizzed by me with 3+ hours of separation. The race leaders showed intense focus in their faces. They maintained a steady gait. They never talked.
Amongst the racers in my close proximity we looked different. We showed pain in our faces. The pain was part of the race. Each of us grew a little more pain resistant by experiencing the difficulties of the day’s challenges. We fully expected the pain, just not sure when or how intense it would hit us. Nor exactly how we would respond. In my nearby group we coped as we changed from running to shuffling to walking and back to running when we could. We talked to each other. Sportsmanship and leadership are common traits amongst triathletes. In my immediate surroundings of racers during the run we long ago missed the bike train at the front. We were mostly disappointed at this point in how the race situation played out. Yet through the ranks we played to our personal strengths. We gave each other subtle comments of encouragement. None of us wanted to be this far back. None of us thought we would be this far back. All of us wanted to finish. All of us wanted to be a Hawaiian Ironman. We shared what little energy we had left between us to keep each other going. The volunteers at the aid stations throughout the day provided a catalyst for our success too.
On the climb out of the mostly barren landscape of the Energy Lab a woman ran by me as I walked. I walked at this point mostly because I felt sorry for myself. In a straight forward manner she simply said, “You didn’t come all the way here to walk.”
I accepted her comments at face value and thought to myself, “You know, I didn’t come here to walk.” Walking was not on my “Why List” of doing the race in Kona.
I took the next first step of running. Thanked her and wished her luck as I passed going up the hill before exiting the Energy Lab. She motivated me and I didn’t stop running until going under the finish banner over 10 kilometers away. The final adrenalin surge came when turning right and running downhill on Palani Road. It all but sealed the ability to finish strong. All the pain, all the stiffness, all the self-doubting, and all the other negatives faded away as the spectators came back into play and cheered us on for the final mile and charge to finish up the marathon run leg.
The course gives the competitors a little tease of the finish. When we dropped down the hill on Palani Road we saw the finish chute all lite up, lined with spectators and 600 meters in front of us on the Pier. But instead of a straight run in, the course took us to the left for a squared off loop back on to Alii Drive then to the finish line. On the way I ran over my personal road messages from family again. Another adrenalin surge. I kept running towards the finish. The music got louder. The cheers became louder. Hundreds of strangers extended their arms for a high five acknowledging our race’s success. I crossed the finished line. And as I hoped for back in June of 2003 at Ironman Coeur d’ Alene, Mike Reilly became my favorite person in the world again for three seconds as he said, “Doug Morris, YOU are an IRONMAN!”
At that moment I realized this was the Hokey Pokey of triathloning. This IS what it’s all about. I accepted my finisher’s medal and walked slowly and stiffly to the postrace refreshment tent. I grabbed something to drink and eat, then sat down and leaned against a tent pole. My skin spotted with a white crust of salt deposited by long ago evaporated sweat. My eyes sunken caused from dehydration. My arms were sunburned. My running cap threw a shadow across my face blocked out some of the tent lighting. My entire family walked in to congratulate me (this was allowed back then). Hayes looked at me and broke into tears thinking I was near death. In reality, when they walked in and I fully realized what we accomplished in Hawaii, I never felt so alive after a sporting event. Some triathletes may have had a slow time at the race but in Kona you never have a bad race. The Ironman World Championship race was that great of a race, arguable the pinnacle of any triathlete’s specific race in a career.
We returned to our rented house a mile up the hill from Ali'i Drive. My body rushed with adrenalin for much of the day decided now was time to flush my system. My body ceased to function as a healthy human being. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally wiped out. First came the heaves followed a few minutes later by dry heaves. My race day party ended like an over indulged freshman at his first dorm kegger. I already dreaded tomorrow’s hangover.
The anticipation of a future event created more emotional activity than the actual event according to some psychological research. The Chicago Bud Lite Triathlon and Ironman Utah were great examples of this experience as was Ironman CDA. But sometimes an event’s axis changes, like Kona where the whole duration of the event was emotional. The race intimidated the competitors as we raced against the best triathletes in the world that chose to earn a spot and make the trip to the starting line. We raced against professionals to some extent. And we experienced the emotion of getting overwhelmed somewhere during the race thinking about where we raced. Everyone there raced on scared grounds. For the swim portion it was in the Pacific Ocean, at the doorsteps of the Mokuaikaua Church Steeple, the feet of Hualālai Volcano, and along the famous Kailua Pier. On the bike we honored Queen Kaahumanu on her namesake highway and rode on Pac &Save Hill to a hot welcome at the Hawi turnaround. On the run we covered the famed Ali'i Drive with its million dollar coastline beach views, the horribly hot and stark Natural Energy Lab, and the emotional gauntlet of high fives of the final 200 meters of the most surreal triathlon celebrations displayed by triathletes. Kona was arguably the most mentally, physically, and emotional draining single day event on the planet. For a pro maybe the race presented just another important workday in the year with a better payday or higher bonus from personal sponsorship. But for the amateurs, the triathlon was a hard earned endeavor to pay for a physical dream date. These individual amateur opportunities alongside the pros just don’t exist in other sporting events like the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, World Cup Soccer, the NBA Playoffs or Stanley Cup. Runners may argue marathons allow pros and amateurs to mix but the top 5-6 marathons don’t include another layer up to qualify for a marathon world championship payoff race like Kona for IM World’s.
Summing up the Kona experience was a two-step process. Think of it this way, some Ironman triathlon races were like an elusive but desired partner. You had to woe ‘em and do ‘em to get qualified for Kona. I would be obsessed to do the Ironman training just to convince myself of being worthy to enter a race to get qualified. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in pursuit of Kona by having the qualifying race shun my advances through a bad race performance and essentially getting a kiss (or finisher’s medal) by the end of the date instead of qualifying and getting engaged for Kona.
Race day in Kona is your day to savor. The Kona Ironman is the triathlete’s wedding day! The race is an all-day affair. You decide what you wear. You put on flowers as the real ceremony starts. You get introduced to the crowd when your race ends. It’s catered. Music is played. Everyone parties after the ceremony. Some people crash the after race party. Pictures are taken. You can dance. There’s lots of drinking. A few people over do it and get sick (it being racing or partying). Doesn’t matter you are sharing your wedding day with 1,800 others too. That’s part of the attraction. And during the days after you enjoy a honeymoon of doing everything you can while on the Big Island, like you may not be there again.
In living in the past and thinking I wished I knew then what I knew now consider this approach. Arrive in plenty of time at the airport before the race to not be stressed. Experience the “Underpants Run”. Take a cup of coffee during the training swim from the boat on the course during practice. Buy anything and everything with Ironman Worlds on it. Get inked with a tattoo. Go snorkeling. Do a luau. Ride in a helicopter and explore the whole Island. Go surfing. Learn how to hula dance. Celebrate life with family, friends, training partners, and people from all over the world.
Image how the Kona course, with its terrain, weather, and caliber of athletes presents any triathlete there with a multi-faceted challenge. The event is different than any other Ironman or triathlon on many different levels for different reasons. The Kona race is also much more enjoyable, fun, and rewarding than any other Ironman. The Kona athlete experiences no pressure to qualify for any additional event. They can focus on relaxing and doing their best in the race. In theory, triathletes are given an opportunity to compete in just about any race. As a triathlete, think of to the race this way. Kona qualifiers accomplished two big goals. One to qualify for the greatest, grandest, and coolest event for any athlete to compete in. The second to prove to themselves they could achieve a difficult and challenging goal. Both are significant achievements. The best approach for triathletes is to enjoy their workout build to get there, enjoy their time while competing, and the times of talking about it for the rest of your life.
At the airport when flying out my sister-in-law stated the Ironman Hawaii event surpassed her expectations. She added to experience Kona firsthand was more powerful than watching the excitement on television. She was amazed at how great the race, the people, and the island were at the greatest triathlon event in the world for professionals, age groupers, and fans. After twice ignoring my buddy’s comment about never turning down a Kona slot, I chose to make a commitment to the most significant Ironman race. My commitment to race at the Ironman World Championships in Kona was worth everything to get there with my family. I’m already telling stories of the journey. I can’t recall what equipment I used at the race but do remember the best triathlon experience in my life with an extended family in an exotic location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Results: 684th Overall. 41st in age group.