... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Papaya Trees Are Out to Get You: The Truth About My Broken Foot

So, it's been a week and a half since I crossed the finish line at Lavaman Keauhou. This means that I have officially passed the one week mark at which I broke my foot after my first triathlon, which was a relief. Silly as it was, I spent much of Saturday consciously avoiding anything that could trip me, fall on me, break under me, hit me, et cetera, because the feeling of being immobile directly after accomplishing a physical goal was really, really frustrating and I don't care to repeat it.  In addition, it was pointed out to me a couple of days ago that I never really explained (or, more appropriately, admitted) how I got injured. Normally this wouldn't be important, but since this is a training blog (and the person who pointed it out was asking because they were wondering if it was a stress fracture) I think it's relevant to note that it was not an over-stress injury but rather an acute one when I attempted to climb a papaya tree, the branch under my foot broke, and I fell directly on my foot without time to adjust my body so that my derriere could take the brunt of the fall.

That's right, I fell out of a papaya tree.

Two bones broken and a sprained ankle. For the record, I got the papaya I was going for, but it definitely turned out to be the most expensive papaya I've ever had, and I couldn't even eat it because I was so angry. Turns out that papaya branches have soft centers, so it is common knowledge (except to haole dumbasses like me) that you're not supposed to put any weight on them. The first thing out of every local person's mouth when I admitted my stupidity was "oh no, papaya branches are too soft to climb!" Yeah, thanks, duly noted.

To be totally honest, I was just to pissed off and angry at the time to even think about writing about it, but now that I have some distance I can shake my head and laugh about how ridiculous it is that I conquered a triathlon only to be taken down by a tropical fruit tree. So officially, for the record, I wasn't injured because of overtraining; just watch out for those papayas.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tri-ing Lavaman Keauhou: My First Olympic-Length

Eleven months ago, I sat down and wrote the following:

"No more excuses, no more convincing myself that I could do it if I really wanted to but just don't have the time, and no more fear of the unknown. That bronzed fitness goddess is in there somewhere and it's way past time that I find her. And so, my goal is as follows:

1. I will complete a sprint length triathlon no later than the beginning of June, 2013, consisting of a half mile swim, a twelve mile bike ride, and a three mile run.
2. I will complete an olympic length triathlon by the end of 2013- .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike ride, and 6.2 mile run."

I hadn't taken a swim lesson or attempted to do a crawl stroke since I was in kindergarten. I'd never worn a swim cap. I didn't own a bike helmet, I'd never ridden a road bike, and I didn't know that tri bikes or aero bars existed. I hated running with a fiery passion and could barely run a mile. Still, something in me (perhaps a blissful ignorance of how difficult this sport really is) told me that I should do a triathlon. 

"There are so many what-ifs floating around in the back of my mind ... What if after all of this time, I try to do this and fail? What if I can't figure out the logistics of a multi-sport race? What if I struggle through this whole thing only to find that no matter what I do, I will never be like the bronzed badasses on the pages of the sports magazines? The biggest what-if, however, is what keeps urging me forward. What if I think about this year after year and never make it happen? How pathetic am I then?"

After the last week of training, I was so excited for the race that I could hardly think of anything else. At work, at home, at ballet, all I wanted was for it to be 7:09AM on Sunday November 24th so that I could be in the water, waiting for the gun to go off and my goal to be in progress. I gathered my gear, obsessively checking and re-checking each bag before we took off for Keauhou. We checked in at the Sheraton, picked up our packets and race numbers, attended the pre-race meeting, and then relaxed in our hotel room. We even hit the hot tub for about 7 minutes. (Bad, I know, before a race, but I had made the mistake of going to ballet the day before and damn the hot water felt good on my tight, sore legs!) After trying on our swim gear (stylish new swim caps courtesy of Lavaman) we ate smoothies made of milk, protein powder, banana, and granola, and we went to bed at the grandma-like hour of about 8:30pm.
Race morning, like every race morning I remember, was exciting with a side of hectic. No matter how many times I checked my transition bag I was certain that I was missing something, which ended up being true when we closed the hotel room door and realized that we had neglected to fill the bike water bottles and put them on the bikes. Close call. The transition area, in its near-dawn light, was like every transition area I've seen so far: full of anticipation, nerves, and incredibly beautiful bikes. This time, however, my bike fit right in! I discovered that the perk to registering early was that my transition area was perfectly positioned just steps from the bike exit/entrance. Unlike my first triathlon, I wouldn't have to run through the entire transition area with my bike, dodging gear and trying not to trip. In addition, it made my decision to put my bike shoes on in the transition area and run in them to the mount line much easier. I arranged my gear underneath my bike, in order of when I would need it: bottle of warm water to rinse my feet, socks, bike shoes, shirt, helmet, sunglasses, Clif Shot Bloks and Bonk Breaker Bites, running shoes, running race number, plus some hairspray just in case things got really out of hand. (There are very few things more annoying than having a stray strand of hair poking you in the eye or tickling your nose while you're trying to run!) Then we went to pick up our timing chips, which, unlike the last race I did, were attached to a flimsy plastic anklet and clipped on with an even flimsier plastic snap. The Velcro straps used at my first triathlon seemed like a wiser choice ... I had the sinking feeling that there was no way this clasp was going to last through the race.

Bikes, bikes everywhere!
Just like that, it was time to go down to the water. No matter how early I get to the transition area, it always seems to come as a surprise when we're told it's time to head down to the water although I have to say, it was nice to have Sean there with me this time so that we could share the walk, (or hobble, since we were walking on gravel-y pavement with bare feet), the excitement, and last words of encouragement. Since this race had start waves, Sean in the Male 14-44 wave and me in the Female 14-44 wave, we started 10 minutes apart. We wished each other good luck and I watched him wade out into the water. I put in my earplugs and stretched my light blue color-coded swim cap over my head. Once again it was just me and my thoughts.

I focused on controlling my breathing. I eased into the water, dipped my head under, and got my arms moving a little. I floated and relaxed and reminded myself how far I've come. Then, as a group, the light blue caps -- aka the Female 14-44's -- began their slow swim out to the start line.

Courtesy of HawaiiPhotoMan
As far as start experiences go, this one was truly great for me. The water was clear enough to see the dozens of bright yellow tang beneath us and there was a lot of camaraderie among the competitors, with many laughs and a feeling of support as we gathered near the paddler who would lead us out. We were lucky to have the paddler, too, because this race had no start gun and the announcer was far away with a pathetically insufficient microphone. We got a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown from the paddler and I was on my way.

I went out fast. Foolishly fast, to be honest, because I was arrogant and my fast swim times at Hapuna set me up to think that I should be right toward the front of my group in the swim. Well, either the swim was longer than 1500 meters or Hapuna is shorter than a half mile, because the swim was much longer than what we'd been doing in training. In addition, my swim group included Leahi Camacho, who just swim from Molokai to Oahu (26 miles in open ocean) and other elite-but-non-pro swimmers, so I quickly realized it would be wise to settle for upper-middle of the pack. On the upside, my swim felt strong and starting myself nearer to the front was a much wiser decision than how I had placed myself for my first race at Lanikai, during which I spent a lot of time trying to awkwardly maneuver my way past slower swimmers in churned up, poor-visibility water. I got passed a couple of times (but not many) and I passed people a couple of times (but not many), which makes me feel like my placement for the start was good. For the majority of the swim I ended up in a lovely little solo spot between the two packs -- behind the really fast group but ahead of the slower mass. The water was clear and blue, with yellow reef and brightly colored fish darting underneath me.

The turnaround point was a boat anchored about a half-mile out, and as we made the turn back toward shore the bottom dropped out from under us. The bright blue and reefs gave way to a deep, deep cerulean with depths of over 100 feet. It is the first time I've had the privilege of swimming and such deep water and oh my, was it beautiful. My stroke, like last time, alternated between really good and smooth and a little short and choppy. As always, ignoring my kick and focusing on my arms seemed to kick me into high gear so as long as I remembered that I was in good shape. Luckily for me I feel comfortable with the swim, so even though it was longer than I had anticipated I still felt strong when I reached the boat ramp that served as our exit. The run from the swim exit to the transition area felt a little rough, just like last time. Something about coming out of the water and having to run just makes me get breathless. Something to work on...

The bike transition went smoothly (running awkwardly in my bike shoes, mounting without tipping over...) but the breathlessness post-swim lingered well into the first portion of the ride. Immediately out of the transition area was a hill -- a short hill, but a very steep one, which slowed me to a crawl and definitely didn't give me any assistance in catching my breath. The next six miles or so were on mercifully flat ground along Ali'i Drive, which was lined with spectators out to cheer us along. It was needed at that point, because my legs felt like cement and I was still unable to really control my breathing. I've read that you aren't supposed to eat at the transition area because it is better to let your body adjust to the new activity before making it worry about digesting anything, so I tried to wait until I felt more settled on the bike, so at about the six mile point I choked down my Shot Bloks (gummy fuel squares that are usually delicious but were not going down well post-swim), knowing I I'd need them for the upcoming hills.

Some time between the Shot Bloks and the first hill, my legs loosened up. The middle gears felt like middle gears and my cadence came up to normal rate. I was infinitely thankful, because up until that point I was actually concerned whether or not I'd be able to make it without having to get off and walk. The first big hill was a moderately steep 2-miler and I quickly realized that I was better prepared for hills than I thought. I overtook person after person in slow-motion passes that for some reason struck me as funny in the same way that a slow-speed police chase is. I was feeling really good when I down-shifted, felt a loss of pressure, and suddenly found myself pedaling as fast as possible against no resistance, going nowhere. I'd lost a chain. I started to tip and, thank god, managed to clip out and catch myself before going over. I stepped out of the lane, re-threaded the chain, and hopped back on, annoyed but glad it was a chain and not a tire.

The micro-break actually seemed to work wonders, because as soon as I got back on I re-passed all the people I'd passed the first time and even overtook a couple more by the top of the hill. Then came the glorious down. Down, down, down, flying at around 40MPH and faster, beautiful wind in my face. I can deal with climbs, but oh my goodness I love high speeds! According to the elevation chart they showed us at the pre-race meeting, there were two big hills. With one down and one to go, I was feeling good. I was pumped! The course came almost back to the transition area, then headed out the other direction, where I knew the hill (the worst hill, from what everyone told us) lay in wait, and sure enough a couple of miles down the road it reared up in front of me into a nasty, long incline.

Initially I attempted to keep my cadence up, pedaling furiously, down shifting and down shifting again until oh-no-what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now I ran out of gears to down shift into. Then, I put my head down, came off my aero bars, and just focused on keeping my legs moving fast enough to keep the bike from coming to a standstill and tipping over. For what seemed like forever, I thought of nothing but "pedal, move forward, pedal, move forward." I passed a couple of people. Someone on the side of the road yelled "the turnaround is just up and over the hill!" and I allowed joy to enter my heart as I crested the hill. I saw no turnaround, just curvy road, but I kept pedaling, looking hopefully around each corner. When I came around a curve to see another hill (albeit a slightly smaller hill), I took it in stride and eased back into my "just keep moving forward" mentality. It wasn't too bad.

"This must've been the hill that that stupid lying slightly confused woman was talking about," I thought to myself. "The turnaround must be just over this hill."

I was busy imagining this when I looked up to see the Mother Of All Hills. Hideously long and terrifyingly steep, it dwarfed the others and sunk my heart to my feet. All sorts of ridiculous things went through my head. In some kind of bizarre attempt at mental bargaining, I told myself it couldn't possibly be part of the course because it wasn't on the elevation chart, despite the fact that there were no cross streets to be seen and cyclists were crawling up its face single file like a line of ants. Then I tried to think of ways that I could avoid it. As I started the climb I had to give up and resign myself to my fate. Again, and more urgently than ever, I focused every cell in my body and mind on moving forward and not coming to a stand still. Athletes who had made the turnaround at the top whizzed by me on the right so fast I could hear them cutting through the air. I envied them, I hated them, wildly jealous of their good luck. I willed myself to be them. For what seemed like an eternity, I pushed and pulled the pedals around in pained circles, but I didn't give up. Even my "you're a motherfucking warrior, you can do this" mantra seemed insufficient. "Keep going, keep going, keep going" went in rhythm with my pedaling and strained breathing, so that's what I told myself. I was still telling myself this when I reached the top of the hill and made the hairpin turn to head back down the hill and toward the transition area where -- dear God help me -- I still had to run.

Now it was me whizzing down the hill, first gloating then being overcome with a deep sense of pity for those still on the uphill. I've never gone so fast, and it has never felt so good. I had the new and not-so-pleasant sensation of getting a cramp in my butt and outer thigh muscle, but luckily since I was on the downhill I could coast as I massaged, coerced, and finally punched my muscle back to normal. I focused as I came into the transition area and managed to smoothly slow down and clip out as I watched the man in front of me fail to do so and go crashing to the ground, feet still attached to his bike. Click-click-click-click went my bike shoes as I ran to my station, racked my bike, and tried to get my head straight for the run. As I took off my bike shoes something landed in my hand. Sure enough, the flimsy snap closure on my timing chip was as lame as I'd thought -- it had broken in half. I tried to reattach it, but no dice. I grabbed it, wadded it up in my hand, and headed out of the transition area. I was already out when someone yelled "Bright Yellow, where's you number?" and I realized that shit shit shit shit I was so distracted with the stupid timing chip that I'd forgotten to grab my race belt with the number attached. A quick jog back to my transition spot, a wasted minute or two, and I was out on the run.

The same hill that opened the bike course was our greeting for the run. No one close enough to see was running it, so I followed suit and walked to the top.

"Are you doing the whole thing?" Asked a woman walking beside me.
"Yes," I repled.
"I'm just doing the relay," she told me. "Bless your heart."
I followed her for a couple of miles before my fatigue caught up and she made it out of sight.

The run was, in short, mindblowingly difficult. I ran the first two miles feeling good, legs light as air. Then something terrible happened and my feather-light legs turned to coiled, heavy springs that wouldn't release to save my life. Part of this was that at least two-thirds of the run course was on grass, which felt somewhat akin to trying to run through quicksand. The sun was already beating down, and my image of flat, comfortable cart paths over the golf course was decimated by hill after hill. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make it to the three mile mark without walking. I soon realized that no one was making it through without walking, and so I alternated walking and running while still trying to maintain a pace necessary to make the 3.5-hour mark I was aiming for. The course was truly beautiful, with a view of the ocean and the mountains at all times, and the sense of camaraderie amongst competitors swelled in direct proportion to the difficulty of the course. I lived for the aid stations, which offered a tantalizing buffet of water, electrolyte drink, and ice as well as very supportive and enthusiastic volunteers. I tried to eat my Bonk Breaker bar, but my mouth was so dry that it simply glued my mouth shut.

About two-thirds of the way through the run I realized that I was not going to make the 3.5 hour time, and suddenly I could stop worrying and just enjoy the rest of the course. I ran as much as I could, stopped for a few seconds to stretch out the angry knots shaped like my legs, and really looked at the beautiful scenery. I missed the 5-mile marker, so when I hit the 6-mile marker I was overcome with elation. I ran. I passed several of the people who had overtaken me earlier in the run, including a woman who had to have been at least 65 years old ... triathlon gives you a great sense of accomplishment and a great sense of humility.

With the finish line in sight, I put every last bit I had into my run and came across the finish line at 3:35. Not bad, all things considered. My legs were solid and inflexible blocks and my stomach was churned, but Sean was there to meet me at the finish line and my goal, set nearly a year ago, was officially accomplished! I laid down on the grass to stretch and rest and bask in completion. SUCCESS!

So how do I feel, now that it's over? Well, it's a strange combination of accomplishment and a feeling of not knowing what to do now. It's time to rest, recuperate, and pick our next race (and not fall out of any papaya trees...). Triathlon is like a drug -- once you do it once, you're always looking for your next fix.

Accomplishment: post race!
Getting to this point has meant so much to me. I started something I was afraid of, something I knew nothing about, faced it down and conquered it. It's impossible to really impart how much the mentality of triathlon seeps into your everyday life, but there's a strength you gain by forcing yourself through physical pain that is incomparable. The knowledge that you have the mental strength to accept pain, uncertainty, and keep moving forward empowers you and I have a confidence in myself, both physically and mentally, that I never knew before.

So did I become that bronzed, toned, badass athlete in the pages of the sports magazine? I am 9 pounds lighter, more muscled, more toned, and more tan than I was at this time last year, but more importantly I feel like that person. I know now that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, that I am brave and strong enough to feel my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. I have found my inner triathlete.

Thank you so much to Danielle Mueller, Kate Arvin, and Zara Nguyen for your ongoing words of encouragement throughout this year. Thank you to my mom for sharing her triathlon experiences (and those of my dad) with me and always being enthusiastically ready to listen to me talk about how it's going, to my dad for always being there in spirit when I needed him most, to Cheryle Hirst for many training books and Bonk Breaker bars that kept us going, to Dr. Marko Reumann for my beautiful, gorgeous bike and brand new awesome yellow shirt, to Hawaii Sport Magazine, Salty Coconuts, and DeSoto Sports for supplying my race and training gear, and to Sean for being by my side for most of my training. Most of all, thank you to all of you who are reading for supporting me and participating in my journey.

So let it be seen, for everyone to read ... the next goal is here: 

Before the end of 2015, I will complete a half, then a full Ironman! It's official now, so bring it on!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


I have made it to this point again. At this time tomorrow, I will have completed my second triathlon, my first Olympic length, and the goal that I set for myself just about a year ago. It is easy to wax contemplative, but I'll save most of my deep thoughts for my post after the race. :)

I finished up strong, running three times per week for the last two weeks, swimming four times this past week to make sure that I feel comfortable in the water, and tapering on the bike (where I felt most comfortable) so that my legs are fresh. All the way up to the last workout, I was learning. After training in Waimea for most of my runs, Sean and I did 6 miles on the Queen K last weekend. It is easy to forget what a huge difference temperature can make, and I was quickly reminded that the cool air of Waimea does little to prepare me for the brutality of beating sun and wind. My body temperature got so high that I actually started shivering, a sure sign that my body was failing in a big way at keeping the heat under control. I actually had to sit down and allow myself to cool before continuing. Luckily, the way back had more wind, and while it was more difficult to run against, it kept me from overheating again. We also didn't take any water during the 6 miles, which probably wasn't the wisest decision.

My Waimea runs, on the other hand, were so mind-blowingly beautiful that I hardly have words to describe them. In the early morning I got to listen to the chorus of birds welcoming the sun back to the sky and watch the colors change from purple to pink to yellow to blue. In the evening after work I ran as a mysterious mist rose from the fields, eventually covering any space that had grass with a five-foot layer of white while the sun set in beautiful colors. I tried to take photos but they don't even begin to do it justice.

Making weird faces because of the rain haha
Based off of a combination of my Waimea runs and the most recent Queen K experience, I am estimating my 10k triathlon run time somewhere around an hour and ten minutes. I have to go slowly, it's just fact. At best, I'll keep an 11-minute-mile pace while running but chances are I'll have to walk for at least a few minutes. I am happy and at peace with my slow run pace. After breaking my foot and being confined to the couch for so long I am just happy that I am able to do this triathlon and complete my goal.

Our last long-ish bike ride (tapered to 16 miles) was from Hawi to Pololu Valley and back. The hills were brutal but the colors and smell of the jungley landscape were a lovely change. This ride was one of the first ones I took when I moved to this island, and so it was a nice close to my training for this race to finish there. We rode past cows and friendly goats and when we reached the hill that beat me into submission when I did the ride before, forcing me to actually dismount my bike and walk the rest of the way up, I buckled down, summoned all of my inner warrior strength, and powered to the top in victory.  It was a perfect way to see how far I've come.

Moon still in the sky
The swims were also learning experiences. I rediscovered that if I keep my arm stroke pace up, even pushing almost to my limit, my stroke is much better and smoother. I had figured this out a long time ago back on Oahu at Ala Moana, but somehow I had gotten complacent in my pace. When I sped it up, I was amazed at how much more smoothly everything went. In addition, my mile time was fast. Really fast. (For me -- no promises on how I compare to real triathletes!)

The last early morning swim before the race we arrived just as the sun rose, with the moon still in the sky. There were fish swimming in the perfectly clear water beneath us, the ocean calm and glassy just inviting us in. I pushed for the first half of the swim, then slowed down a little to enjoy the colors, the water, and the feeling of it rushing over my body.

Perhaps most impressive, amazing, (and a little sad), I swam for the first time without my EarBandit. When I started swimming 11 months ago this little piece of genius engineering was the only thing making it possible, and now I feel like I have graduated. I am practically a real swimmer, with just my ear plugs, goggles, and swim cap. Given how I looked when I started this adventure, this is a pretty big step. In addition, after all of my goggle switching and swapping, I decided to go with my old, original goggles for the race. Sometimes classics are classics for a reason.

And so, I am ready for this race.  It won't be perfect, but it will be accomplished. I have learned so much from the whole process, but especially, in the training for this particular race, to be patient with myself, to be more flexible and to fit triathlon into my normal life, and to be determined despite distractions, other obligations, and the urge to give up. My run form has done a 180 since I began, I can swim at a pace that puts me in the upper half of my age group, and I feel comfortable on the bike in a way I didn't know I could. More importantly, it has changed who I am.

I know now that I have a strength inside me that I wasn't familiar with before. I know how to dig deep, to face things that scare me, to feel and accept pain without giving in, and to use the strength of my mind to conquer weakness in my body.

Think of me at 7:10AM tomorrow (November 24th) as I start the race with a swim. And, maybe more importantly, think of my at 10AM Hawaii time tomorrow as I'm struggling through the last part of the run. Next time I write, I'll be a two-time triathlete and my goal will be accomplished! Thank you all for reading and for being part of this wonderful adventure.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

1.5 Weeks Pre-Race: The Finishing Touches

This is the second-to-last week before the race, and I'm getting really excited.

I'm feeling confident on the bike. We've done eight 30+ mile rides including five 35-milers and one at 43-miles. I think that the 25 miles for the race should be very doable. The only part that I think will be a major issue is the 1.5-mile very large hill about three-quarters of the way through the course, but there's nothing you can do about that except trust your legs and power through. There is a 2.5-mile somewhat steep hill along the route we've been riding frequently, so I'm hoping we will be adequately prepared.

Testing a DeSoto tri suit for Hawaii Sport Mag -- stylish!
We have fine-tuned our on-bike fueling routine, so I now know that two hydration bottles, one with water and one with HEED carb/electrolyte drink seems to be the best combination, especially when taken in alternating fashion. Much to my chagrin, my grape Gatorade seems to upset my stomach a little when I take it during the bike. I guess I'll have to save it until post-race. I've also discovered that much as I want to be the cool athlete popping gels out of my fuel belt, I am not an simply not a gel person. I found a couple of flavors that I like and even managed to stopped gagging at the texture, but they feel like they sit in my stomach in a clump no matter how much water I drink with them, making me feel slightly ill.

This leaves me with Bonk Breaker bites, small nutrition bars high in carbs, potassium, and sodium and full of delicious flavor, and Clif Shot Blox, gummy energy chews with similar nutrition boosts, a couple mg's of caffeine, and super yumminess. I just do better with solid food, for whatever reason, and these options make me happy and have proven most effective in providing energy. I definitely see now why they recommend that you get your food/drink routine down ahead of time. Between almost passing out on the bike due to lack of nutrition and spending half of my ride feeling like I'm going to barf due to too many calories, it is clear to me that waiting until race day to pick out a random fuel source would be very, very stupid.

The run is where I was feeling the least confident, because although I have done a decent job of training, I had a long way to come back from the broken foot, especially give that running was never exactly my strong point. After all, this blog is called Ballerinas Don't Run for a reason ... In the last two weeks, however, I decided to make it my focus, going back to three runs per week. I know that whatever happens on the run course will happen, but I think that if I  can boost my confidence and mental comfort it will make a bigger difference than anything physical at this point. I started going running before work a couple of times per week, driving down to the town where I work, (also home to my favorite running route, one of the most beautiful roads in the world), running for 45 minutes to an hour before heading to work.

That's right, I go to work a couple of days a week after running, without a shower. Gross, I know, but you do what you gotta do when it's three weeks before a race. Plus, running before work leaves me energized and melting into an endorphin-induced puddle of euphoria. I swear I bring deodorant, and I change clothes before heading to the office.

And, I have to say it's working! I've been taking the runs further and further, stretching my mileage a little beyond what I'd been used to, and I'm back up to almost 5 miles running without walking or stopping at all. I even finish feeling strong, like I could keep running. I took it slow at first, taking my pace back to the 11:30/mile range. With each run the times have improved significantly, and for my most recent run I did 4 miles at a 10:15 pace, with both my fastest mile time and 5k time yet! It feels great to see progress and get back to where I was before the injury.

I keep focusing on form, checking and re-checking my form as I get tired. I have learned so much about run form just watching high level triathletes and attempting to apply what I see. My checklist goes as follows:
- How is my cadence? Especially up hills, keep the cadence up
- Are my strides too long and heavy? Short and light, short and light

How can you hate running with a view like this?
- Look at something at eye level off to one side. Am I bouncing up and down too much? Try to keep your head level as you run and only use your legs to run (I picture my upper body moving forward in a straight line with no movement whatsoever with my legs moving beneath me like a cartoon. Works like a charm)
- Are my shoulders and upper back pulled up too tight? Relax your upper back and shoulders. For me it almost feels like a slouch in order to get me in the right position
- Are my legs too close together? I tend to be almost knock-kneed. Make sure there is space between your legs and that your needs are in line with your feet.
- Am I tilting back or forward? Keep your hips in line with your feet
- Am I allowing my core to collapse? When I get tired I find that I tend to let my abs go slack and I sink into my hips. I have to pull up from my hips and engage my abs and my butt

I'm a pro at goggle fashion shots by now
With all of these things in mind, I have plenty to think about. I have found, however, that when I start to feel fatigue, one of the things on this list is to blame and if I run through it in my head I can usually fix the problem and remedy my tiredness. Valuable discoveries.

I have also been trying new goggles. My latest attempt are the Aqua Sphere "Kayenne," worked like a charm for the first swim and leaked like a motherfucker on the second swim. The third was kind of a draw, leaking a little but not really enough to be a deal breaker. Once I put it out of my mind and focused on my stroke, it was doable, handle-able... okay.

These goggles have more rubber lining around the lens than the ones I have been using, which I thought would help the seal but I'm not so sure anymore. They're definitely more comfortable from the standpoint of suction on my eyes, aka they don't make me feel like my eyeballs are going to pop out (always nice). I'll be keeping them while I continue the search for the perfect pair.

Other than goggles, I am feeling tentatively confident in the area of the swim. I haven't been able to do as many workouts as I'd like now that it is too dark in the mornings, but I know that my actual swim skills are strong enough to do well and that (somewhat like the running) mental game and confidence are the biggest issues. For this reason I've planned four swims in the next week just to increase my confidence and comfort level in the water, even if the distances are not super long.

Still on my to-do list is figuring out how on earth to attach my shoes to the bike, jump on, pedal with my feet on top of the shoes, then pull them on and adjust them while riding. I attempted to adjust the strap on one of my shoes while riding the other day and almost crashed into the lava fields, so I'm not sure how I'm going to accomplish this in the next week. I may end up just having to run carrying my shoes, put them on right before the bike mount line, and hop on from there. Slower than successfully putting them on once I'm on the bike, but still significantly faster than crashing. Choices choices...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Darkness Falls: A Comedy of Errors

I have been bad. Very bad. it's been over a week and a half since I wrote, which is completely unacceptable. The good news is, much of this was because I didn't have time before or after work because I was doing workouts. I had started this post (minus this lovely little prelude) last week so I'm going to finish it and then write a new one for this week. So here goes.

My lovely running route
This past weekend we were having our house fumigated (termites be damned) and Saturday was almost completely taken up by getting all of our food and anything else we felt paranoid about packed up and out of the house. We wanted to go snorkeling afterward, but some strange weather left the ocean choppy and full of strange currents that did not look particularly inviting. This left Sunday, and we had big plans.

We drove down to Keauhou, where the triathlon is going to be held (IN UNDER THREE WEEKS!) ready to do the whole course, albeit in a slow and somewhat relaxed way. When I say relaxed, I am conveniently omitting the part about having to move our seats forward as much as possible to accommodate the two bikes in the back of my hatch back.

(Every time we go anywhere with the bikes, you see, we have a dilemma. Do we take Sean's truck, where we can put the bikes in the pickup bed and have plenty of room but if we have to do anything other than bike they are sitting out with no security? Or, do we take my Scion TC, which has plenty of room for one bike when the back seats are folded down, but fits two ony with dubious crowding, tangling gears, and both driver and passenger seat pushed as far forward as they can go?)

We chose my Scion, and thus made the entire drive to Kona with our knees by our chests and our faces practically pressed against the windshield. Comfy.

The problems began as soon as I checked the course information on the race website to see where we needed to go. The first portion (the swim), goes straight out to sea from the start point, reaching water that is 125 feet deep. In a large group of people like during the race, 125 feet depth sounds exciting but with just two people all by ourselves in the endless ocean, it sounds like the scariest thing ever. Oh well, we thought, we'll do the bike portion and the run and swim elsewhere.

Next, I looked up the run course. Clear as day, on the race website is the following sentence: "Please do not train on the golf course! We have permission to run on the course race day only! Well damn it all. Run course was out too.

I swear if these fit I would wear them for the race
Since the bike was our last option, we headed in the direction of the transition area. As we got closer, we realized that option three was not going to go our way either. At least a third of the course is shoulder-less, no space to ride off the very curvy road with cars whizzing by at 50mph--no conditions to be riding with just two people. Wow.

So, our plan to do the entire course turned into going to Sports Authority to try on goggles for me (since the mask-style ones were such a huge leaky failure), Bike Works Kona, getting my bike tweaked (yet again), getting some recommendations on tri shorts for Sean and saddles (see how I use the cool cyclist terminology?) for both of us, then getting our favorite Thai food and watching a movie. then going to Bike Works Waikoloa and getting Sean new pedals, cleats, and shoes so that he too can be "clipless" aka clipped in.  It was actually an enjoyable day, just not exactly what we had planned on.

Happy Halloween from Ballerinas Don't Run!
The other problem I ran into this week was that the seasons have finally caught up to my early morning swims. In order to be to work on time, I have to leave the house by 5:35AM, get to the beach by 6:05, be in the water by 6:15, back at my car by 6:55, and on my way to work by 7:10. Up until this point, it hasn't been a problem. After not being able to swim for a couple of weeks due to my stupid wisdom teeth, however, the days have reached that "winter" point where it doesn't get light until after 6:30AM, and no matter how brave I am I am not going in the ocean in the dark. Sean and I made it out of bed, got down to the beach, and realized that it wasn't even close to light yet, despite being 6:15. After sitting and waiting for fifteen minutes, we finally went in, but I could only do a half-mile swim before I had to go get ready for work. Even then, I was late.

The dark morning problem is one I haven't quite solved yet ... the good news is that I'm not too worried about the swim portion. Provided that my goggles don't un-seal and I don't get knocked out in the water by other flailing swimmers, I'm feeling pretty confident. If I can get three or four good swim workouts in the next week before the triathlon just to get comfortable again, I'll be fine, and since the running and cycling are tapering fairly dramatically this week, I should have plenty of time to swim.

The seasons change, and I guess my training has to change with it. It was a productive week if not quite in the way I was expecting, and the triathlon is getting close enough now that I'm starting to get excited!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

43 Mile Peak

Well, we set out yesterday after work to take a ride, and ended up hitting our training peak right on schedule. After what ended up being a much more drawn-out healing process than I had expected for the wisdom tooth extraction, I have to admit I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to meet the training goals I had set for myself, which included a peak distance ride of 40 miles this week.

My comeback ride on Sunday was 31 miles, a distance I was very happy with given that I had been mostly inactive for over a week. My legs felt great and I had energy to burn. We even did a mini-brick workout, hopping off the bikes and running two miles on tired legs. It was fairly brutal because there was no wind whatsoever and the temperatures were in the 90's with no cloud cover, but we made it happen. It felt great to get moving again.

The Queen K
For yesterday's ride I made sure to give my body plenty of fuel (in fact, a little too much fuel a little too late ... I ate a turkey sandwich about an hour before starting the ride and it was definitely not quite digested for the first ten miles or so) and once the food settled I could feel a huge difference in my legs.

I can't overemphasize how lucky I am to have a place like the Queen Kaahumanu (Queen K) Highway to ride. Huge shoulders, perfect roads, very few bumps and no potholes, with a good assortment of straight stretches for speed and hills to work your legs. With mountains on one side, the ocean on the other, and lava fields all around it is both barren and beautiful at the same time.

Anyway, we set out without a clear distance goal. I was telling myself another 30 miles but I knew in the back of my mind that what I really wanted to do was go from our start point at the Mauna Lani shopping center to the airport. When we hit the 15-mile point (where we would turn around if we wanted to do 30 miles total) we checked in, confirmed that we both felt good, discussed what to do, and ultimately decided to go for it. We estimated the remaining distance to the airport at about 5 miles. It was more like 6.5, and it's a difficult 6.5 because the airport drive comes into view about 2.5 miles out and looks deceptively close. You then spend 8-9 minutes chasing something which seems to not get any closer no matter how hard you pedal.

We dismounted and sat in the grass in the shade for about 12 minutes, sipping our drinks and stretching before hitting the return. Restarting is always difficult for me, and yesterday was no exception. My legs seem to take about 5 miles to warm up; before hitting that point, they feel rubbery, heavy, and slow. If I allow myself to get discouraged during this period I can ruin an entire ride for myself, so I have learned to expect this phenomenon and just wait patiently for the blood to get flowing. Once it does, it feels like my legs are habituated to hills. The burning dulls a little and I don't feel like I'm fighting at 100% effort to make it up each hill. Climbing a hill begins to feel okay, like something I could do for a while without too much issue.

The problem is that this same thing happens after taking a break, so when we restarted to cover the 21.5 miles back, I felt like my legs were loaded up with bricks. The feeling persisted for the first 6 miles back, then finally dissipated. Once my legs were back, I really enjoyed the feeling of flying down the hills, air on my face, and the beauty around me. When you spend a lot of time swimming and running, there is something magical about the speed of the bike. It feels very freeing.

I'm saying 43 miles because Sean's GPS said 44 miles...
We finished strong and were extremely surprised to see that we had maintained a 3:35 mile pace, with an average speed of 16.66 mph. I was not expecting this because I had been focusing purely on distance, not worrying about my speed. At some points I felt downright slow, so the decent pacing was a pleasant surprise.

There are several things I've done differently on the past two rides that I think have made a positive difference in performance. First, I am focusing on doing a proper warm up and cool down, which I had always slacked on. For the first two miles or so, I take a very easy pace with low gears to warm up my legs, and when I hit that spot on the way back I do the same to finish the ride--slowly decreasing pace and using easier gears to allow my legs to cool down gradually. It feels good and I think it helps with tightness in my legs and overall fatigue.

Second, I have really put the microscope on my pre-and during-ride nutrition. Almost passing out scared me, so it has been a focus. I make sure to eat a good, healthy meal with carbs and protein a couple of hours before the ride, and I pack a Bonk Breaker Bite bar and an energy gel to take with me. For the 30-mile ride I ate the bar at around 16 miles and took the gel at 25 miles (although I think it was unnecessary), and for the ride yesterday I did the first half on my turkey sandwich, taking a gel at the turnaround point. I ate the Bonk bar after the ride to encourage glycogen storage in my muscles.

We also invested in bigger water bottles, because obsessively rationing your hydration is stressful and our previous bottles just were not giving us enough. We've been using one bottle of water and one bottle of HEED carb/electrolyte drink and it seems to work like a charm. I drink half the bottle of water, then switch to the HEED for the middle of the ride, then return to water toward the end.

These changes have definitely improved my performance and nearly erased the pervasive fatigue I had been feeling. You live and you learn. And you ride 40 MILES!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feed Your Workout (Or Feel the Consequences)

One of the biggest challenges of training seriously for a new, challenging sport is learning how to change your eating habits to fit the increasing demands on your body. Even if you have always been a healthy eater, there are some very specific needs that will have to be addressed. Some of these may seem counterintuitive, especially if you're used to the modern idea that carbohydrates, especially starchy ones, are the spawn of Satan.

I have never been a proponent of the "carbs are evil" mentality, instead favoring an "everything in moderation" state of mind. Carbs, my organic chemistry experience reminds me, are not evil. They are simply a chemical structure, and one that is actually quite necessary to our survival. What is not necessary to our survival, however, are the plethora of disgusting, highly processed pseudo-foods that we have created (e.g. Twinkies, cookies that can be left out in the open air for years without going bad, etc.). Even with this mindset, however, I have had some challenges figuring out how to eat to accommodate my new training schedule. Add to this the challenge of finding things that I can bring to work (even when I leave the house at 5:20AM) and it's basically recipe for a giant nutritional disaster.

What I have been focusing on is eating simply and well. Minimal processed foods, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. This is a great approach except that fruits and vegetables don't have very many calories. Not such a problem if I'm just sitting at my desk all day, but when I upped my workout intensity in the last week before my surgery I completely forgot to adjust my diet accordingly. I pulled through okay until Wednesday before it all came crashing down.

I started my day Wednesday with a swim, as mentioned in a previous post. I did my usual one mile distance and felt fantastic. When I got to work, I ate a banana (all that I had easily available at home), and on my way to meet Sean for a bike ride after work, I ate a tomato. (I am weird. I eat tomatoes plain, like an apple...) What exactly I was thinking, I don't know; perhaps I wasn't thinking.

An apple has about 95 calories. A tomato has about 16. Swimming vigorously in the ocean for half an hour burns approximately 175 calories and cycling for 36 miles nets 1250 calories burned. How I thought that a caloric intake of 111 was going to allow me to make it through a burn of 1425 I have no idea. It didn't even cross my mind. I am an idiot.

The first signs of trouble started quickly, around mile 10. Sean dropped me and I could not for the life of me speed up. My legs felt dead. I was immensely frustrated, but didn't think to attribute it to anything other than just being weak and lame. By the time we stopped at the turnaround point (mile 18) I was feeling a little woozy and sick to my stomach. Again, I blew it off, assuming I was just tired.

The real signals that something was seriously wrong kicked in on the way back. I started losing my breath, gasping for air in a way I never have before on the bike, even on flat stretches. No matter what I did I couldn't seem to breathe normally. Then the dizziness started. I fought to stay straight and steady for a while, the shortness of breath causing me to feel disoriented and even to cry for no apparent reason. I finally lost control of the bike, wobbling and zig-zagging, almost going off the edge of the road (a 7-inch drop off into sharp lava fields), my leg muscles started shaking when I attempted to engage them, and I knew I was in trouble. I immediately pulled over, got off the bike, and laid down on the side of the highway.

I have never felt like I did lying on gravel on the edge of the Queen K. I was dizzy and nauseated and mentally fuzzy, and although I knew why it was happening, I was scared. It took five minutes for me to feel steady enough to get back on the bike, an idea which seemed unwise but with eight more miles to go to get back to anything resembling civilization, there was little other choice.

I pedaled slowly, solely focused on staying upright and steady with steady breathing, without a thought for speed or technique. I stayed in the lowest gears and tried to ignore the hills making life difficult. My legs ached in a deep, dull way I've never felt before and every cell in my body screamed at me to lay down and go to sleep, but I kept moving. I have never been so relieved to reach Waikoloa.

As soon as we got back to the parking lot I laid down in the grass. I knew I needed to eat, but I was so nauseated and shaky that the thought of food sounded horrible. After lying there staring at the sky for ten minutes, I walked slowly into the market. Anything too crunchy or difficult to chew sounded impossible to deal with. Anything sweet sounded like it would make me vomit immediately. I bought a sushi roll and a bowl of chicken noodle soup, both of which sounded manageable, and joined Sean outside.

I tackled the soup first, taking small bites and waiting several minutes between each one to let my stomach settle. Salt tasted amazing. It took 10-15 minutes after eating for me to start feeling better, but eventually I felt less shaky and nauseated and more steady. The mental fuzziness lasted for over an hour. The sushi, with its refined carbohydrates and protein and salty soy sauce, tasted fantastic and acted like medicine.

So what did I learn from my little wayward nutrition adventure?

Fuel fuel fuel fuel.
If you plan on doing a long workout, EAT. It doesn't matter if you don't feel that hungry or you are short on time. EAT. If you truly don't have time to eat, then cut your workout down. It is dangerous to push through. If I had crashed, there's a good chance I would have been out of commission for weeks or even months. It isn't worth the risk, and it's not good for your body to run on empty like that.

It also made me realize that I need to truly reexamine my nutrition plan and food intake, because as I keep upping my mileage I need to be looking more carefully at what I'm eating to fuel the distances. It has become much more clear to me why such tiny differences in food and drink choices can have such dramatic effects on Ironman performance, and when I'm being totally honest with myself I know that I am very ignorant about this aspect of the sport.

Basically, don't be an idiot like me and think you can do ambitious things without any fuel for your brain and the muscles that will carry you through.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Cadence Question

Akoni Pule Highway as dawn arrives
I would like to preface this entry by saying that I have been unable to train for four days because on Thursday the 17th I had three wisdom teeth taken out. While frustrating, it has allowed me some time to reflect upon the previous week of training, in which I pretty much kicked ass, if I do say so myself. Not so much in distances, but definitely in dedication. Knowing that I would be out of commission for several days, I planned ahead to make every workout count. I got up before 5AM every day to squeeze two workouts into the days, and I pushed myself. It was an interesting week in all three of the triathlon disciplines.

Pastels galore.
I tackled most of the swims in the mornings, arriving just as enough light crept into the sky to make things visible. These mornings, although hideously early, became like a meditation for me, a beautiful ritual bathed in soft colors that soothed and calmed me. Perfectly quiet, perfectly clean, with calm ocean and nothing in my mind but peace and solitude ... I sat quietly on the cool, damp sand, listened to the rhythm of the waves, then went through the many steps of getting ready to go in: earplugs, swim cap, goggles, headband. These steps, which were so tedious when I first started training, are now comforting and familiar.

Ready to go, ritual intact.
Because the air still has a little chill so early in the morning, the water felt thick and velvety warm when I stepped into it. The first few times, my stroke felt a little choppy and awkward but as I relaxed and rediscovered the ever elusive "trough," things smoothed out. Post-Ironman, I have been attempting to speed up my semi-leisurely stroke pace. Not focusing on traveling faster, just on moving my arms faster and increasing my stroke cadence. Faster and lighter seems to create less fatigue.

On the last swim before my stupid and annoying surgery, I looked up from the water and saw something moving on the surface of the water twenty yards from me. It didn't look like a dorsal, but it also didn't look like a turtle, so just to be safe I swam to shallow water where I could touch the sand. I stared and stared, trying to categorize what I was looking at. It was huge, first of all--at least five or six feet long--and it covered a lot of surface area. Sometimes it looked like there was a fin sticking up, but sometimes it seemed to just blanket the surface. I knew I couldn't go back into deeper water until I knew what it was.

Ahhh yes, peace.
A runner on the beach behind me had stopped and was also studying this mystery creature. Then, it made one fluid motion and its triangular edge became clear.
"It's a manta ray!" He called from the beach, and immediately I knew he was right.
I also knew that I wanted to swim with it. I waved to him and put my goggles back on, but by the time I reached the spot where it had disappeared, it was gone.

The rest of my swim I half-expected to touch a gentle giant creature each time I reach my hand out in front of me, but he never reappeared. It made me smile, however, being reminded that I do not swim alone.

My running experiences this week were an exercise in new techniques. Since mastering (okay, not master ... I will never completely master any of these things) the forefoot strike running style, I haven't made any huge changes to my form. After watching Ironman, however, I was inspired to play around with some observations I had made during the race. There were several key differences I noted that I wanted to experiment with:
1. Cadence!
The most consistent thing that I noticed amongst the Ironman athletes that is definitely not present in my run was their quick, light leg movements. Rather than longer, powerful strides, they ran with very fast strides that were shorter and lighter.
2. Lack of arm movement
Contrary to what I had read instructing runners to use a fair amount of arm movement in a forward-back direction (avoiding side to side movement) I saw that a lot of the athletes kept their arms relatively still, moving very little from their shoulders to elbows. Arms were held very close to their bodies with little to no swinging motion.
3. Slight forward lean
When I first started running, I had a fairly pronounced tendency to lean forward, especially as I fatigued. I broke this habit and now run fairly straight up and down. What I noticed at Ironman, however, was a very slight tip forward at the hips. Not a whole body position, just a subtle forward hint.

With these things in mind, I set out ready to experiment. Since my natural tendency is to keep my arms fairly still at my sides, this was the easiest to accomplish. I just like how it feels better and it seems to save energy. I tried to keep my upper body, in general, very still. (Not stiff! Very important difference). The forward lean was a little more challenging, because once I tip a tiny bit my natural urge to list forward kicks in and it's difficult for me to control. Focusing on relaxing my upper back a little and moving my chest lower rather than forward seemed to do the trick. As an added bonus, I noticed decidedly less muscle soreness in my back the next day.

The cadence question is a totally new one for me. I have never really paid attention to how fast my strides are unless I am trying to speed up or slow down. Looking at cadence, however, almost ignores these factors. In fact, what seemed most effective was to attempt to speed up my stride cadence without running faster overall, thus forcing me to focus on using light, short strides. What I quickly discovered was that this new way of moving uses completely different muscles than I am used to, and causes much less overall fatigue. While these new muscles felt weak and unsteady, the difference in breath was astounding--I felt like I could run much further this way without getting winded, especially when going uphill. In addition, using this technique allows my legs to feel more independent from my upper body, as if from the waist up I am floating on a steady line while my legs, like in a cartoon, move in speedy circles beneath me.

Astoundingly, using this theory over the course of 3.5 miles cut my average mile time down by over a minute and a half. Dramatic improvement for such a tiny change!

The same idea--cadence--was what I was working on during bike workouts this week. I have been reading about how successful cyclists keep their revolutions up rather than simply powering their way through hills on pure brawn in high gears. My philosophy up until this point has been "hold your high gear until you can't move your legs, then shift," which I am beginning to believe may not be the best approach ...

I've been trying to spin more, to stay in lower gears and to avoid fatigue in my legs. Much like upping my cadence while running, I have discovered that it uses a very different set of muscles and that although they fatigue in a different way, they definitely do fatigue. It feels more like a burn and less like  exhaustion, so between getting stronger and adjusting to this new burning feeling I think that I'll soon be convinced that it's a better way to go. I'm also fairly sure that it will help my run coming off of T2.

Between swimming, running, and biking cadence I have my work cut out for me. New timing, new feeling, new muscles ... this is what training is all about!

Give me another day or two and I'll be back out there (minus a few wisdom teeth but full of new wisdom)!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kona Ironman Championships Weekend

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to experience something that will keep you motivated for years and years to come. For me, this was Ironman Kona.

We left Hawi the night before, knowing that getting to the start line with all the road closures before 6:30am Saturday morning would be nearly impossible if we weren't already nearby. Since all of the hotels in and around Kona have been booked for this event since about last year, and having the healthy sense of adventure that we do, we took Sean's truck, threw a tent in the back, and parked in the location we deemed least likely for us to get cited and arrested for trespassing for the night. The first couple of hours were blindingly hot, so much so that the only way to stay sane was to lie perfectly still and focus every ounce of mental fortitude present on the tiny hint of air movement coming through the tent's "window." Sleeping was out of the question. Luckily for us, it only took a couple of hours for the evening to cool and it ended up being quite pleasant sleeping in the night air looking up at the stars through the tent's netting.

We were up at 4:15am, ready for some Ironman action. After washing our faces and brushing our teeth int he pool deck bathrooms at the Sheraton Keauhou (awkward!) we set out for Kona. As had been the case for several days, it was unusually still with very little trade wind. We parked above down and walked down to Alii Drive where sponsors, athletes, and supporters gathered.

Let me tell you: if you want to get a good view of the swim start, you need to be there at about 5am. By the time we arrived at 6:10, the entire water line was lined three people deep. To get a spot where I could see, I ended up wading through thigh deep water and climbing up onto the underside of the concrete sea wall, where despite having to dodge incoming waves I had a decent view.

There were a lot of things I didn't know about this race,  right off the bat and although I had no idea what to expect, everything was beyond what I thought it would be. There were tons of volunteers (5000 in all!), the finish line was set up with a huge archway, the palms were beautiful against the sunrise, there was music playing, and everyone was excited. It was the kind of excitement that you could feel in the air, the kind that was almost tangible.

The swim start was a surprise as well. I didn't know that the athletes actually started from the pier, not from the beach by the pier, so rather than running into the water at the start the competitors slowly file into the ocean and slowly swim out to the start point, gathering as a huge bobbing mass in the water. The male pros were the first to start, their white swim caps quickly disappearing into the distance. Their arms moved faster than I knew was possible. The female pros took off next. There was a lull between the pros and the age groupers, and while they got into the water and started warming up, the atmosphere got even more electric.

Ironman baby!
Age groupers often work for years in order to compete at Kona. The qualification process is long, arduous, and exceptionally confusing. The short version is that for each official full length Ironman race (and a few of the 70.3 distance races) throughout the year there are a set number of Kona qualification slots, divided equally among the various age groups. For example, if a race has 50 Kona slots with male and female age groups 18-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, 80-84, the 50 slots are divided according to how many people are are in each age group. If there are 75 participants who are males between ages 30 and 34, they may get 3 Kona slots--thus the top three finishers in that age group will qualify for Kona. In contrast, the female 70-74 age group may only have one participant. This age group is still guaranteed a slot, so that one competitor automatically qualifies for Kona. The general idea is to allow the same percentage of people from each age group to qualify, but as you can see it's a little easier said than done. Like I said, it's a brain twister. This website offers a good explanation as well, if you care.

Crazy spray as the age groupers take off
The point of this is that it's really, really difficult to qualify and that people often spend years and years trying. Those who are in the water swimming out to the age groupers start line are about to conquer a goal decades in the making, thus the excitement level is through the roof. It was an honor just to be around so many badass, determined people.

I think that somewhere in all of my reading I had learned that aside from the 17-hour overall race cutoff, there are also cut offs for each individual discipline, but I had forgotten. For the swim, you must be out of the water in 2:20. The bike leg's cut off time is 8:10, and the marathon must be done in 6:30 or less. This year there was only one who didn't make the swim cut off, and it was heartbreaking. I quickly realized that this day was going to be more emotional than I had expected. I also realized (after hearing about a 78-year-old competitor who was racing after making it to the finish last year just 12 seconds before the 17-hour cutoff) that although we had planned on only staying until 4pm or so, that was going to have to change: we needed to stay until midnight.

Look mom, no shoes!
The first people off T1 were streamlined and incredibly fast. The bikes ... oh the bikes. They were beautiful. All different shapes, sizes, brands, and colors, but all undeniably gorgeous and aggressive. I took particular interest in watching how they jumped on the bike barefoot, shoes already attached to the pedals, and pulled them on as they went. I had heard of this seemingly impossible show of coordination, but this was the first time I got to see it in practice.

I'm going to have to spend a significant amount of time figuring out how to do this, because much as I love imitating a tap dancer clicking around in my shoes and cleats, running from T1 to the point where I can get on the bike in them is just straight up impractical. Something tells me this will include falling over a lot.

For the next few hours, we wandered around Alii Drive enjoying the sponsor tents, the jumbotron coverage of the bike race, and, perhaps most of all, the people watching. A funny thing happens when Ironman comes to town: all of the douchey athletic wannabes come crawling (trotting, biking, etc.) out of the woodwork to strut their super lame stuff around the finish line. Never mind that all the real Ironman athletes were out on the course, thus the chances of impressing anyone were zero to none ... that didn't stop tons of morons from decking themselves (and often their very out of shape bodies) out in dri-fit, spandex, and strutting around as if they were someone important. I wanted to explain to the guy in corduroy shorts complete with belt that wearing compression socks isn't just a style choice, and it won't magically make him able to run longer than four minutes, or tell the people wearing full one-piece cycling suits for no reason whatsoever that they weren't fooling anyone ... but I held my tongue. Anyway suffice it to say, people are really douchey. And entertaining.

Next up was T2. The cyclists came in hot, jumping off their bikes and practically throwing them to the volunteers before jogging in to put on their running shoes. Miraculously only one bike (probably four times more expensive than my car) got dropped. As they came out the chute to the run we enjoyed seeing the varying run styles. Longer, fluid strides for some, short, quick strides for others, but all powerful and fast. We could also start to see cracks in some. The woman in 4th place out of T2 came out throwing up. Not stopping, mind you, just throwing up with each stride. Hours later when we realized she never came across the finish line, we found out that she collapsed halfway through the run due to hyponatremia, too much water and a lack of electrolytes.

It is worth mentioning that Mirinda Carfrae had an epic run. Despite coming out of T2 behind, her beautiful, smooth run overtook leader Rachel Joyce and won her both the championship and a course record. It was one of those things you feel lucky to get to watch.

Winner Frederik Van Lierde
We claimed our spot at the finish line over an hour before the first athlete came in. Determined to be able too see, we were lucky to be just about 50 yards from the finish. And oh, the things we saw. The pros came in triumphant and still mindblowingly fast, waving the flags of their countries and celebrating. But much to my surprise, this was not the most amazing part. As the hours wore on, and more and more people came in, emotions ran high.

It is easy to focus on the pure speed of the pros, their shiny equipment and perfectly tuned bodies until you reach the finish. The finish is where you see the true heart of the sport, what makes it unique--the thing that called to me and, for six years before I did my first race, whispered in my ear that I should do a triathon. You see ordinary people push through an unimaginable challenge and accomplish something that has been a dream for years. You see every grimace, every look of pure determination, and the smile, relief, and joy that takes over when the finish line is in sight. These people are all ages, come from all walks of life, but they share that one thing: the desire to find out how far they can push their bodies and minds.

An emotional Mirinda Carfrae takes the win
The mental strength we witnessed was the thing that stuck out the most. Several athletes came down the final stretch at a walk, barely putting one foot in front of the other, weaving back and forth in disorientation but absolutely determined to make it to the finish line. How a person can be strong enough to keep their ultimate goal in mind even while so broken down that they can't consciously remember where they're going and their body is gone I don't know. One girl was so done that she had forgotten how to walk. She clung to the fencing, trying to stand, laughing nonsensically and talking to no one about things that weren't there. She attempted to take a step, but couldn't figure out how to make her foot meet the floor. She started going the wrong direction, and despite the crowd yelling for her and directing her, she couldn't get straightened out. When the medical staff attempted to help her she held onto the fence and wouldn't let them because that would nullify her race. In the end they had to pick her up just ten feet from the finish. When I checked her race number in the online results, however, they had given her a finishing time.

First age grouper to cross the finish

I had assumed (yet another triathlon rookie mistake) that the largest crowd would be gathered for the pros’ finish, and indeed, people lined the finish line five people deep. As I expected, the mob thinned somewhat for the next four hours, but then something strange happened. People began to gather again. As the time went by, it began to rain but the crowd only got bigger. Athletes finished the race, bandaged themselves up, and joined those gathered on the sidelines to cheer on those still on the course. Music pumped, people danced, and each finisher was welcomed home with a roar of applause. The energy was unbelievable. Winner Mirinda Carfrae joined race sponsors in handing out samples and prizes and personally greeted each of the incoming athletes, many of whom had stories poignant and inspirational enough to bring anyone with a soul to tears.

Gordon Haller, who won the very first Ironman race in 1978, finished in 15:37:47. Luis Alvarez crossed the finish line in 15:54:50 to complete his 100th Ironman race. Some staggered, some did cartwheels, and many broke down into tears. As the clock neared the 17-hour mark the crowd grew thunderous, and with just over three minutes to spare the oldest contestant, Harriet Anderson, the oldest competitor at age 78, came around the corner to a frenzy of screaming spectators. She crossed the line in 16:56:51, over two minutes faster than her finish last year.

78-year old Harriet Andersen, kicking ass
One contestant remained on the course. After losing a foot in an accident while cycling several years ago, Karen Aydelott has been on a mission to finish at Kona. She made it to the run in 2012 before having to drop out, and this year was ushered into the home stretch by thousands of supporters screaming and chanting her name. She missed the cut off by just forty-eight seconds, completing the course in 17:00:48. Despite the near miss, she was all smiles as she stood at the finish line. I imagine that we will see her again in 2014.

These stories are why I love the sport of triathlon. There is no feeling like overcoming whatever holds you back, and the Kona Ironman Championships are the culmination of this fight. To see the determination on each face as they neared the end and the pure exhilaration of competing such a monumental challenge was a wonderful reminder of how strong we can be, regardless of age or setbacks. The crowd, only growing in size and energy as the hours wore on, welcoming those who struggled to the finish line with even more vigor than those who won, is a prime example of the welcoming and communal spirit of this sport. My first Kona experience, though only as a spectator, was one that will never be forgotten. As I progress in my training and face each new race I am reminded that I am surrounded by a community of incredible strength and that everything I need, I have inside.