It’s a long one!
13 months ago I qualified at Ironman Wales for the World Champs. Placing 2nd in my age group was a huge achievement in itself for me, as this had been my second full Ironman race having placed 5th at Lanzarote earlier in the year.
There had been two qualifying slots advertised in my 45-49 age group but as a handful of women dropped out last minute they moved one of the slots to the second largest age group. So I wasn‘t anticipating to qualify as I was expecting the number one placed woman to have taken the slot! So to hear a silence, after her name was announced at the Kona slot allocation, the day after my race at Wales, was a dream come true. I really didn’t expect it to happen so soon after I’d started long distance triathlon.
A year felt like a very long time to wait. After some much needed recovery time over the winter months of 2018/19, I started the year in good health with some good training blocks in Lanzarote where I was also visiting my friend Pieter at the time. The two other races I’d planned for 2019 were the ITU long distance championship in Pontevedra, Spain where I’d qualified for the previous year having placed 2nd GB in Denmark and I’d also signed up for the Outlaw.
Pontevedra in May I was well prepared for physically but emotionally I wasn’t in a good place for a number of reasons. When I’d left the UK to travel to this race I visited one of my close friend’s Alex at the Hospice in the Weald where she was for the final days of her life, having been battling cancer. Alex passed away on the afternoon of the race, I received a message shortly after I’d finished.
Post Pontevedra I was unwell for a month. Virus after virus hit, including the flu, I realised after much support from various lovely friends and my Mum that it was being emotionally depressed that affected my health. I took things easy and gave my soul time to recoup.
Once my health returned Tony built my training back progressively. I decided to pull out of racing the Outlaw as it was too close to my not having been well and I put my full focus into the build for Kona! The few weeks before I travelled I was feeling fit and strong and very excited to travel to the big island.
Sophie, my lovely new friend from Portsmouth & I supporting each other heading into bike racking (late afternoon day before the race)
Transition on race morning!
I managed to get about six and a half hours of solid sleep, was restless as I usually am the night before a race. Seven to eight hours would have been ideal.
Alarm went off at 4am, I was catching the 4.45 shuttle down to transition. Breakfast consisted simply of two pieces of toast with jam, a large banana and black coffee.
There had been a lot of rain the previous night. I used my post race shorts to dry my bike as it seemed I’d forgotten to pack my small towel. Di2 seemed to be fine (apparently can be a concern if it gets very wet). Transition had an electric atmosphere. Lots of excitement mixed with nerves. The woman’s tyre opposite me had burst so she was very on edge but was getting it fixed by a bike mechanic.
The incredible volunteers kept us all organised like clock work. We were all individually body marked, there were plenty of volunteers to help us pump our tyres, it was then the usual queue for the loos before we all made our way down to the ‘swim staging‘ area.
This year for the first time they had changed the swim format to waves by age groups to hopefully make the bike less congested at the start. It worked! As my age group was getting into the water, the 40+ age group women were the final age group wave going off at 7.20am before the Kukimi wave (those granted a special place to race but not for age group status) the first male pros were getting out at the same time! Our start was delayed by 5mins but that didn’t matter as we got to see Josh Amberger, Jan Frodeno and Ali Brownlee exit the water first.
I started out well and felt like I was keeping a very good pace up to the turnaround boat half way. It looked like there was only one faster group ahead. Got on to some feet and drafted between some other ladies. But after the turnaround point my swim didn’t go so well. I did smile to myself at the boat with the big shark teeth though.
The swell and chop became especially bad. Just couldn‘t get any pace. I’m sure that because we were the second to last age group to go out it was worse for us but who knows. I also took a bad line on the return, normally my sighting is very good but I soon realised I was swimming too far left of the main group of swimmers and it was a fight to get back. I did catch up with some swimmers from the two age groups in front including the last men’s age group, one man who kicked me twice as I swam past as his feet were spread eagled. This made me angry and I also accidentally drank some sea water. But it gave me an incentive to push towards finishing. I was happy to see my friend Jenny at the swim exit.
Did I enjoy this swim? Not especially to be honest! And I love swimming. But I did smile for the camera at the exit.
A long circular loop into the tents passing through the showers first to wash off the salt water (for probably too long!).
Swimskin I‘d unzipped half way, goggles, hat and ear plugs I handed to my volunteer who took out my sunglasses, bike shoes and socks and handed them to me. That was all I had in my bike bag. Helmet was waiting on my bike. She slapped on so much sun screen I looked like a ghost so I asked for a towel and rubbed it in with this as I didn’t want to have greasy hands for the bike. I ran to my bike, helmet on and mounted my bike and was off. All was fine.
Now the bike I was really looking forward to. I felt positive about the predicted strong winds at Hawi. Having trained and ridden in windy Lanzarote I felt confident about my handling skills. It is unsettling though and despite my experience I knew I’d have to be on extra guard today. Gusts of 40mph were forecast. Nutrition and drinking would have to be timed well as I have returned to using normal bottles on the bike as can’t stand getting splashed with sticky liquids on the bike which my aero bottle is good at doing!
The first section on the bike is a loop in town. Some riders were being careless and had already dropped bottles on the road. I took things extra steady here until I reached the short hill of Palani which I enjoyed riding up (I do love a hill). I shouted out “oh yes, here we go” as I got on to the Queen K. I was looking forward to getting aero and getting into my steady Ironman pace. Quite a few women went past me on the first 95km up to Hawi. I‘d decided to take it a bit easier on the first half so that I could then work harder on the return. In retrospect I should have pushed harder the first half.
I enjoyed the first half and there didn‘t seem to be any strong winds until I went past the Hapuna beach turn off, a place I was familiar with having started several rides from the previous week.
I spotted a rider lying on the side of the road with his bike lying down and he was clutching one of his legs. It looked like he’d possibly come off his bike so I stopped to check whether he needed help but he sent me on my way saying he had terrible cramp and it would go.
On the way up to Hawi I spotted the helicopter following the pros and all the support vehicles on the other side of the road. It was exciting to see Frodo and Brownlee followed by all the other pros a bit further back and then Lucy Charles in her striking race suit.
The climb up to Hawi was very windy as forecast. Several times I felt like my bike was being partially lifted off the road but I felt okay about it. This course is not as flat as it looks from photos however there are very few opportunities to come out one‘s saddle. After just a couple of hours of riding I developed a sore crutch! It got progressively worse during the bike. At Hawi at special needs where I was picking up more bottles and more bars I needed to wee but at this stage I started to feel unwell. A little dizzy and a bit nauseous. I was well hydrated as I‘d needed a wee at the half way mark so couldn’t have been dehydration.
When I picked up my nutrition at Hawi I had to run back to use the porter loo whilst a volunteer held my bike. At the porter loo another volunteer asked if I was okay, I commented that I could have done with some chamois cream. She came back with a tube! This gave me some relief but it felt more like it was pressure rather than my skin. I wasted much time at this stage.
Back on my bike it was a fast descent out of Hawi until the headwinds appeared. I saw they were coming as I was carefully watching the riders ahead and their reactions. It was head down and time to tick tock back to Kalilua-Kona. It was soooooo nice to hand my bike to a bike catcher volunteer at the dismount line.
For the bike leg I’d drunk 5x 650ml bottles and eaten 5 of my 6 small handmade bars. I’d also grabbed crinkly water bottles at each aid station to pour water over myself to cool down and had also taken sips when I felt thirsty for water rather than my electrolyte/carb drink. My race suit was soaking wet as were my feet!
My goal was to complete the bike in six hours which seemed realistic from my previous results on hillier courses, however due to two stops, one being crazily long and having to repeatedly lift my bum of the saddle on the return I lost much time. I think I also should have worked harder on the first 90km. However what happened on the day happened. Each race also brings unexpected events, the uncontrollable things.
Time 13.57 😫
I’m normally eager to get my trainers on and start the final part of a triathlon but today as I sat down in the transition tent I didn’t think I’d ever get out the tent. My body felt physically wiped out, much more than it has ever at this stage. My tummy was sore and I felt nauseous.
I decided to not rush the process in T2 because of how I was feeling so I let the volunteer put an icy cold towel around my neck and shoulders whilst I dried my feet which were wet and wrinkly and used some talcum powder that was on a big table in transition to dry my feet out a bit. A volunteer slapped more suntan cream on me. I noticed my quads were covered in heat rash but my body wasn’t burnt at all. After a long stint in a porter loo in T2, I repeatedly said to myself that even if I had to walk I was going to finish this race regardless of how hideous I already felt.
Time 4.50 flipping heck!
With my small squeezy Salomon bottle in hand which I’d put half of my gels in (the other half was at special needs) I set off down Ali’i drive.
This first loop took us on an out and back section along the coast into town where this was the only part of the run course that was supported by spectators. Once we were running (or walking) up Palani hill we were then on to the Queen K highway where no spectators were allowed.
Having shouts of encouragement along Ali’i drive was motivating. I had to run past my condos which was hard, already feeling like curling into a ball at my door! This wasn’t an encouraging feeling so early on.
Even at this stage I was stopping at most of the aid station porter loos. I realised then that this was going to be a long day but I was not going to succumb to my stomach defeating me.
Just before I reached Palani hill (which I walked up) I was greeted by Helene who ran alongside for a minute or so giving me much encouragement. It was so nice to see her and a bit further along Tanja and her husband Peter, he told me “don’t be shit“ 😂
The Queen K highway was hot, humid and relentless tarmac. Who in their right mind runs along a highway in 30 degree heat 🤔 Carried on walking through the aid stations to take on a small sip of my gel bottle followed by a cup of water, ice down the suit, wet sponges tucked into the shoulders, my energy was low. It was mentally tough watching all the age groupers on their return back into town, they only had about 8km to finish. Being one of the last waves to start that morning I knew I would be a later finisher and as I carried on running along the Queen K towards the renowned “Energy lab” I knew then that I would be finishing in the dark. Having started the race at 7.25am and the sun setting around 6.15pm I would have had to have gone under 11 hours to finish before sunset.
Along the Queen K I came past a runner who was walking but also wobbling from side to side. I came alongside him and supported him for a while by chatting and checking he could string a sentence together. He promised to check in at the next aid station as he wasn’t able to keep any nutrition down. He was from Toulouse and as his family were waiting for him at the finish line he was determined to finish.
The impression I got from most people who have raced here in Kona is that the ”Energy lab” (named because of the row of solar panels) is the hardest part of the run course because of 1/ the intense heat 2/ it’s a long drag out of this section before you get back onto the Queen K. By the time I got here the sun was beginning to set, the sky was a stunning orange colour just as I‘d imagined from photos. It was here that I mentally ‘picked up’. It was also here that I used my last porter loo stop. I had just started to drink cola, earlier than I’d planned to, but I was desperate to have anything rather than the gels in my bottle which I wasn‘t processing well at all. I didn’t even pick up the second squeezy bottle at special needs in the Energy lab. I took my bag off a kind volunteer but looked at it and thought yuck! I had however thrown into this bag a couple of other flavoured Spring gels, I took these instead.
Smiles for the camera!
Had to roll the suit down. Its wetness was beginning to annoy me.
With some small sips of a banana Spring gel and some sips of Coke I started to pick up pace. It was dark by the time I was running out of the Energy lab, the only sounds were of the remaining runners shoes and the sounds of insects. We were all given glow bands to wear so we could be seen by any passing support vehicles or motor bikes. I felt a lot more motivated now and as my tummy had finally settled I was now able to run at my IM pace after about 30km. Bizarre!
On my return back along the Highway I enjoyed running in the dark and had the moon to guide me along and the sounds ahead of the next aid stations where I carried on stopping to drink coke and icy water. I had started to run past other runners now and had some positive words of encouragement from other competitors. One lady and I ran alongside each other for about fifteen minutes, we silently motivated each other towards the finish.
Then there was Dexter! A Californian man who had moved to the island ten years ago, he was riding his moped with an old fashioned music box attached playing dance tunes. We struck up a conversation whilst I carried on running, he asked if he was annoying me, but in fact I said no he was encouraging me to the finish. With just 4/5 km to go he wasn’t able to stay with me but I had buzzing aid stations playing loud music and now supporters at the end of the Queen K to encourage me back down onto the small loop that takes one away from the finish but then back along Ali’i drive towards the red carpet of the finishing chute.
I have never ever been more happy in a race than at that moment. It had been a gruelling day in many ways. That overwhelming feeling of finishing a race having overcome challenges, both physical and mental, that have come one’s way during a long distance event is very powerful. I didn’t even look up at my time as this had become irrelevant to me over the course of the day. Of course I’d like to have performed at my best but it turned out that much of my race would be controlled by my stomach, which I accepted as time went by. Part of the thrill of racing is the uncertainty and the relish of overcoming any one incident. It is the battles in life, whatever they are, that build us.