Flight 1263 is high above the Pacific Ocean taking me home from the Big island of Hawaii to Massachusetts. It has been 5 days since I became an Ironman and realized a dream that I never thought I would ever have the courage to fulfill. It has taken me the last 5 days to wrap my head around what I did. To sum it all up in a post seems impossible. I am not an elegant writer that can craft sentences expressing the array of emotions I went through over the course of 11 hours and 23 minutes. What you will read over the course of the next few pages (sorry, not sorry!) will be directly from the heart as I have done since I starting blogging 20+ weeks ago.
Grab a coffee, a comfy seat, and maybe some tissues if you're the emotional type because this will might take a while. :)
On May 4th, 2014 I learned I had qualified for the Ironman World Championship in a flurry of tears, hugs, and cheers. After accepting the slot to Kona I knew my life was about to change. I was excited, motivated, and sick to my stomach. I was going to the Ironman World Championships...freaking KONA...and I had YET to do an Ironman!
The training, the nutrition, the early hours, the lack of fun for the last 20 weeks was done all for one reason, to hear these 6 words, "SARAH KELLY, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!" I have accomplished a lot in my athletic career. I've played a collegiate sport for 4 years. Played in an NCAA Final Four. I tried out for the US Field Hockey National Team. I've run road races. I've completed countless triathlons from sprints, international, and Half Iron distances. I've done Tough Mudders, and GORUCKs, but until 5 days ago I had never done an Ironman.
Why you might ask?
The truth is this, I don't do anything that I can't give everything that I have to make sure I finish...and finish strong. As much as I wrote about crossing the finish line any way possible, I was not going to settle for anything other than as hard and as strong as I could. There is just no other way. You can reference past mentions of the Game Face I put on or how I equate myself to a tank to gain further insight into why I am the way I am. Bottom line is this when I commit, I commit. There can be no halfway. Halfway is bullshit. So after countless training sessions I'd made it to Kona ready to take on everything that the Ironman World Championships had to throw at me.
Race morning I woke at 3:30am after a fitful night of sleep. I ate my peanut butter covered toast in silence standing in the kitchen. I was nervous but not to the point where I couldn't eat. Weird. The biggest race of my life and I'm not having a problem getting anything down. I decided to take it as a good sign. After the family stumbled half asleep out the door we were off on the seemingly endless drive from the Waikoloa Beach Resorts to the King K Hotel and pre-race funtivities. The volunteers were amazingly chipper at 445am inside the body marking tent. As I was tattooed with 1707 on both upper arms I learned the volunteer marking me had traveled from Colorado just to GIVE BACK to a race he has participated in several times over. He asked if I was nervous. I stopped to think about it because I wasn't chomping on gum like I do out of nervous habit, nor was my stomach a twisted mess. Out of habit though I said yes. He assured me that today was about enjoying the day, ups and downs, and the magic of what was happening around me. I'd received this same message from many Nauts who had done this race before me. Maybe the magic of the Big Island was sinking in because my nerves were as calm has they had ever been and I wanted nothing more than to just GO!
Lucky for me, and my family, they were able to finagle VIP passes allowing them access to the pier and behind the fences corralling the racers before the start. I was able to laugh and chat with them before heading into the water. More importantly I was able to give them all one last hug before I set out on the race course. I found Elena in the sea of pink swim caps of the women age group racers. She looked relaxed and ready, calming me with words of encouragement all the way to the stairs leading to the water. We parted ways as we headed out to start bouy to await the boom of the cannon.
This was the moment I'd been dreading the most. The swim. Admittedly it's the weakest part of my race. I'm strong enough to hold my own and give a little nudge if needed but the though of swimming 2.4 miles was more daunting to me than running a marathon. As I bobbed up and down I remembered my good friend Steve Roulier telling me to take a moment and look around. Look at the pier and the sea wall with all of the people 3 to 4 deep. Watch the sun rise over the iconic church along Ali'i Drive as the surf boarders paddle back and forth holding you back. It was an incredible feeling knowing I had made it. I was ready. My plan was in place. All I had to do now was to execute and finish strong.
BOOM! Time to get the show on the road! The first 1/4 mile was rough. I spent most of that time jockeying for open water and the line I wanted to take. The pack thinned out and I made sure I lined myself up so I could see or touch every paddle board marking out the route, there was no way I was going to swim extra mileage. My plan for the swim was to play it very conservatively. I swam with ease and reached the Body Glove boat to start the turn around before I knew it. The water going out was choppy but not terrible. I had anticipated worse. Heading back in the current pushed me slightly off line but with a few extra sights I was on course again and swimming bouy to bouy as planned. The last quarter mile seemed like an eternity. You can see the pier, hear the crowd, but you just can't seem to close the gap fast enough. My stomach was starting to feel a little queazy from the salt water I'd swallowed along the way and my head was pounding from the cap and goggles suctioned cupped to my face. I was never so glad to get out of the water and start my 112 mile ride to Hawi and back.
I can't say enough how great the volunteers were. They slathered me up with sunscreen, helped me with my gear bag, and guided me out of the tent to my bike. Two things struck me in T1. The first, thank god my bike was all the way at the end of the pier and end of the rack so I could easily remember where it was. The second, damn we're my lips salty. My brothers asked me how I was doing as I donned my helmet. The only thing I could come up with was its salty out there. They got a laugh and I was off!
With the swim behind me I was now on my bike with many miles of the wind blown Queen K ahead of me. My stomach was still upset but I stuck to my plan of fueling every 15 minutes with a small piece of Garukabar or Honey Stinger Waffle. I drank when I needed to and even when I didn't. I finished my torpedo and another bottle within the first 30 miles. I didn't want to drink the Perform if I didn't have to but I had finished all of my Skratch and knew I'd need to keep the electrolytes coming because it was HOT! At some point within the first 30 miles a familiar voice came up behind me. "Fancy meeting you here!" It was Elena! She was riding strong as I watched her pull away from me. I'm thankful she caught me. She pulled me out of a conservative trance I had fallen into. I was unsure of how hard would be too hard and had fallen into a rhythm that matched past training rides. I knew if I could keep her insight I'd be okay. Then, the wind came. I'm not talking a breezy New England wind that comes every fall. I'm talking about a blow you off your bike cross wind that changes direction whenever it pleases. From Waikoloa to Hawi at the turn around I was scared to take my hands off of the bike. There were times I had to grit my teeth and pray as I leaned sideways into the wind. The headwind up 207 to the turn around made life suck. I watched the pros and age group leaders whiz by as if there was little to no wind. All I could think about was how great the trip back would be. Oh how foolish of me to think that any part of the bike course would be easy. Madame Pele kept the wind blowing every which way but from behind you. Riders would pull up beside me and ask if last year was this windy. I would reply with, "Hell if I know, but this kinda sucks!"
The once amazing lava fields had turned into a blast furnace. I was hot and the wind just wouldn't quit. My stomach was still upset and my desire to eat anything was gone. I stopped eating solid food around mile 60. I forced a mushy banana down once or twice and kept the fluids and Endurolytes coming. I was worried I wouldn't have enough for the run but I just couldn't eat anymore. As gross as it sounds I was peeing...A LOT...and wasn't overly worried about my hydration. But, my head was still pounding. It had to be from the lack of caffeine, there could be no other explanation. I avoid coffee on race morning for reasons coffee drinkers can relate to ;). All I wanted was the Excedrin I packed, but it was in my RUN BAG. DAMN IT. As promised the last 30 miles of the Queen K was hell. I already hated driving it in the car but the bike was so much worse. The wind was strong enough to bounce the rental car around the road and road side straw bushes lay flat. I managed to close the gap on Elena after I lost sight of her at the turn around. As I pulled up along aside her she said she wasn't feeling well. I reminded her to just keep on truckin and smile. Lida would want us to smile. As T2 approached I'd never been so ecstatic to get off of my bike.
Elena and I hit transition together, rounded the pier to my brothers routing us on and giving us high fives. Again, the volunteers were amazing. One lady did almost everything but put my shoes on for me. After a quick pee break (remember, a pee break in T2 makes you run faster...at least it does for me) I was off. Only 26.2 more miles to go. The thought of what that distance represents to most people, myself included before race day, didn't even enter my mind. The first few miles were effortless. My legs knew exactly what to do all I had to do was keep them under control and hold the 8:15/8:30 pace I had planned. At the turn around at Ali'i Drive I had caught up to Elena. I slowed a bit to see how she was and if there was anything could offer her. She graciously said no and to go ahead and have a great run. Steadily I plucked away each mile. On the hill up Pulani Dr I saw the woman I bumped into 3rd place in St. Croix and effectively stole her slot to Kona. She was cheering me on from the road side. I gave her the biggest grin I could muster and kept on pushing to the top and the left hand turn for the long out and back along the Queen K.
At this point I knew I had it. I knew I was going to finish, but how well was the question. My left hip and IT band were tight with every uphill step and I swear the entire run out to the Energy Lab was uphill. Rather than focus on the grade of the road or the pain in my leg I set my gaze on the tents of each aid station. All I had to do was make it one more mile. My mind would wander between each aid station. I'd replay all of the long training runs I'd done by myself. The track workouts I hammered out in the midday heat this summer with Danielle on my heels. I'd think about all of my friends and family at home tracking me and routing for me at home.
When I reached the Energy Lab I felt a wash of relief. I had made it. I was over halfway and still feeling great, but this was the point were I'd heard everything can start to fall apart. The turn around is so much further down than expected but the "energy" the volunteers put out at the turn around and special needs station got me to the base of the climb and to the mile 18 aid station before taking the turn on to the Queen K for the final push home to the finish line. At this point my legs are starting to slow down. They weren't seizing. I wasn't hitting a wall. They just weren't turning over like they were earlier in the run. I made the decision to walk through each aid station from there to the end. Take in as much as I could.
Water. Perform. Ice. Orange slice. More Ice. More Water. Sponge off. Run.
My steps were forced. My pace had slowed to 9 min miles and I was chasing the sunset to the finish line which I so desperately wanted to beat. As I passed Elena on her way out to the Energy Lab I knew my chances were slim of beating the sun as it dropped below the horizon. I made the last long climb up the Queen K to cheers from the partiers at the top who had been going strong since the first few pros hit the run course. I allowed my legs to go as fast as they could down Pulani until I saw Jen El-Seriff. I slowed for a quick hello and wish of luck before finishing the excruciating descent. The last 1.2 miles seemed much longer though my pace was speeding up. I was going to take Ali'i Drive in true SK fashion. Full Steam Ahead! I made sure to keep my eyes up and slap hands as I neared the finish line. The crowd was wild and wanting nothing more than to cheer everybody on. I could hear the famous voice of a Mike Reilly calling out names and saying you are an ironman.
There's a moment that I am sure everyone has the first time they do an ironman when all of the training and the struggle along the way floods you with emotion. I entered the chute replaying everything that had happened to me good and bad since the start of the year. My response was to pick up the pace even more and choke back the inevitable tears. When I hit the ramp to cross through the finish podium I made sure to slow down put my fists up in the air for a celebratory double pump with an added yell for emphasis. Mike Reilly made the call I'd been waiting for "Sarah Kelly, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!"
I had crossed the line in 11 hours and 23 minutes. No, it was not as fast as I wanted to go. No, I did not beat the sunset. The wind wasn't in my favor. However, I finished strong. I was upright and walking with ease. I ate the glorious little donuts they had for post race food, along with Coke, pizza, pulled pork, and more coke. Sorry Krystal.
The VIP passes had never been more valuable than when I saw my family minutes after I finished. Kieran got to me first and picked me up in the biggest bear hug. I cried. I had never been more happy. Then I hugged my parents, and cried a little more. Brendan came up behind them a few a few seconds later, with another bear hug. He squeezed me so tight I'm pretty sure he bruised a few ribs. They are still sore. Worth it!
If you have continued to this point I can assure you I'm wrapping it...
Flight 1263 has landed and in 4 hours I've written about almost everything. Flight 1522 from San Fran to O'Hare is taxiing to the runway bring me closer to home and the people who have supported me every step of the way. I cannot say thank you enough to everyone who trained with me, coached me, motivated and inspired me. Without you none of this would have been possible. I'm sure I would have finished but the joy of racing for someone other than myself wouldn't have been there. When I started writing I wanted to journal as much as I could to look back on if and when I do another Ironman. More importantly, I wanted to share my journey with everyone and provide even a small amount of inspiration to take on your our Kona. There were days I thought I would be too scared to get into the water and start racing, but after weeks of dedicated training and racing it was the complete opposite. When you decide to do something, making a personal and financial commitment, there can be no halfway. You owe it to yourself, and those that support you, to give everything you have in that moment. It don't care whether it's a training day, your nutrition, or race day. Give everything you have. Trust me, it will all be worth it. Some of you have witnessed my journey first hand, while others have read about it. Either way it is my hope that you can take little piece of what I've done and put it into your own life.