... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

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.

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