Let me begin by stating that I know this blog is long overdue. This weekend marked 5 weeks since I crossed the finish line at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona. The delay in writing has nothing to do with my trip or the experience that I had. In all honesty the delay was due to just being tired and wanting a short break from training and racing. However, as the days take me further away from the amazing island of Hawaii, that plays host to the most iconic endurance race on the planet, I am beginning to feel the pull back. What you’ll find below is a rambling reflection on my mental and physical state before, during, and after the race.
Wednesday October 11th was my first full day on the Big Island. And I was excited, maybe even a little confident, but very nervous. I was leaning on my past experience here and felt confident that I knew what had to be done. Check in as early as possible. Go to the IRONMAN Store and spend all your money. Go for a swim to shake out your travel legs and get re-acquainted with the water. Pick up your bike and make sure it’s all in one piece. Hit the Queen K for a ride to finally get back on your tri-bike after 3 long weeks apart. Grocery shop. Eat. Relax. Enjoy.
My last memories of swimming off the pier were that of being tossed around by chop and swallowing salt water on every other breath.
Notice what I did there? The most important part of my trip was being put last. Enjoy yourself. Take it all in and not stress over what has to be done. Instead I made my list. I knew that as a coach I had to get X, Y, & Z in before the day got away from me. As an athlete the need to fine tune my engine after a few days of travel felt like a necessity. I spent much of that day reminding myself to relax and enjoy the moment, not looking beyond it preparing for the next item on the list. The morning felt rushed and I didn’t mentally prepare myself to hit the water for my first swim off the Kailua Pier like I should have. My last memories of swimming off the pier were that of being tossed around by chop and swallowing salt water on every other breath. Those were the memories I took with me as I entered the water and I encountered a very similar scenario. I’m a good swimmer, but it’s not my strength. Truthfully the ocean scares me. When the chop began to toss me around and I started taking water in I panicked. Not to the point that I was ever in fear of not staying afloat, but a million things ran through my head. I had to stop. I had to stop swimming. I had to stop the voices in my head. I had to stop the check check check of my list.
The small moment of panic I experienced was real. My anxiety for the race and my physical readiness to successfully take it on came to the surface. Maybe 5 weeks of processing the race has helped me put the pieces of that day and that swim together. I was very nervous. Past experience told me this was going to be brutal. I was 8 weeks out from racing Mont Tremblant. I had a leg thing (and by “thing” I mean injury) that I left Tremblant with. My body was sitting in this weird limbo of recovering but still needing to train. The physical, mental, and emotional toll of training, racing, juggling life’s responsibilities had begun to wear me down. To salvage my swim, and in bigger terms my race, I had to go back to what got me there. Trust the training, be in the moment not the miles ahead, and moving with authority.
The days leading up to the race were still a struggle to stay in the moment but at least I was able to recognize my mental shift and found a way to pull myself back to focusing on the present. My bike and I finally reunited and it felt good to get out on the Queen K spinning the wheels. My parents and close friends who traveled with me were great at keeping me calm and enjoying what Kona had to offer. It felt as if the wind, finally, was at my back and I was ready to roll.
It rained the night before the race bringing the temperature down (a little) but the humidity up. Much to my surprise the wind was calm. The palm leaves were barely rustling. The water was as smooth as the ocean could get. The nerves were still with me but were hanging around just long enough to keep me on my toes and ready to race. When I entered the water with it was hard not to stop and stare at the sea wall covered with spectators, the volcanic mountain and iconic church spire in the background. The conch shell has been blown the drums are beating as fast as your heart and here I am again getting ready to start the most iconic endurance race in the world, for a second time. The panic I felt 3 days before was gone. It was time to put the game face on. Be in each moment and MOVE with authority.
Swim - 2.4 miles
For me the swim really broke down into three parts. The first half mile. The turn. The long stretch back. The first half mile is a like giant washing machine. You and 1000 of your closes friends are fighting for the same space and same line. If there was an opening I went for it. There is a good amount of surging and fighting for space. I got kicked and I inadvertently (or purposefully) kicked others. As the mass of women began to thin out it was easier to settle in and find a pace. I was still fighting for the same line from buoy to buoy, but with the water calm it made it easier to navigate to the Body Glove boat at the turn around. A few buoys out from the turn brings the slower age group men. Once again I was fighting for space. The surges came into play and all I could think of was I was so glad I had incorporated faster pace work late in my swim sessions this summer. Safely navigating the turn the long stretch back was waiting. The current and chop can make this last mile miserable but the calm water made the final mile back oddly enjoyable. I found a pair of feet to draft off of and counted of the buoys all the way back to the pier.
Bike - 112 miles
And out of the corner of my eye I see my parents and friends ringing their cowbells like my ride depended on it.
The bike course begins with a few out and backs through downtown Kona before you settle onto the Queen K for the ride out to Hawi and the turn around point. The lava fields are so iconically shown that I forget the early miles but I am thankful for them now. The first major turn I made I’m cruising out of town and what do I see but a banner with 18 Maple. I hear cowbells. And out of the corner of my eye I see my parents and friends ringing their cowbells like my ride depended on it. As I negotiate a few more turns and began to settle into the ride I recalled what I saw on the banner. “Trust Your Training!” A mantra I had been leaning heavily on for the last week and for would it over and over again throughout the day.
The tradewinds classically blow in your face and across you all at the same time on the Queen K. As I was cruising along keeping my numbers in check I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. The wind was on my back! The early miles of the race were spent managing my effort, heart rate, and nutrition. The wind while so welcomed in the beginning of the race can come back to bite you in the later miles. On regular intervals I was eating small bites of food, drinking water & electrolytes often, and popping 1-2 salt tablets every 45 minutes to an hour. The ride to Hawi was long but manageable. The fear of crosswind and unrelenting heat was no longer a fear but a friendly reminder of what the island can bring at any moment. The bike was going smoothly until I managed to throw away my electrolyte tabs away. A stupid stupid mistake that I told myself not to do but the turnaround is a crazy place. It was there that I spent too much time looking ahead and not being in the moment. There was nothing I could do. They were gone and I had 45-50 miles left to go in 85-90* heat. There was no time to freak out. The special needs stop was just ahead of me and I could not afford to screw up this stop to bring on more fuel and cold liquids.
After the turn around the there are a handful of fast downhill miles. Even faster with the wind blowing in your favor, as it was for me that day. It was somewhere within these miles I realized my sweat was collecting on my shorts. Sweat = Salt. I didn’t have any salt. Score! I’ll just wipe the sweat off my legs and lick it. It was NOT the best solution but it was a solution to replenish what I could. Uncharacteristically, I took on a few bites of bananas at the aid stations and a few sips of coke for extra sugar, sodium, and something different to change my palate. The rest of the way back to Kona was uneventful. There were some tough moments on the bike when I just didn’t want to sit down any more or I was bored with the landscape that didn’t change. In all honesty the bike while hot and asked a lot out of me physically, my body was able to respond. The run on the other hand...not so much.
Run - 26.2 miles
The run started as soon as I handed off me bike. The run around the pier to the T2 changing tent seemed like a marathon itself. In T2, while being tended to by 2 amazing volunteers I took advantage of the “just in case” tube of Base Salt I had picked up in the athlete village. A few licks of the salty electrolyte blend off my thumb, shoes tied, visor on, and race belt clipped I took off out of the tent with a spring in my step and ready to take on the last 26.2 miles.
The weeks and days before the race I managing a tight calf/hamstring. To be honest it was more than just tight, it brought some low level of pain with each step I took when I ran. This is where the athlete in me won out over the coach and I continued to train. I managed my training sessions to limit the pain and any further damage as much as possible but I didn’t stop entirely. I was hopeful that I would be able to get to Kona and make my way through the run with minimal pain.
Had the calf injury been my only obstacle my day may have been very different. The spring in my step held just to the “Hot Corner” of Palani and Kuakini, all of a half mile, before the heat and my lack of lack of salt became glaringly obvious. I wasn’t just hot, I felt like I was cooking. By the first mile I knew I was going to have to walk. My quads were on the verge of cramping. My heart rate was alarmingly high. Slowing from an 8:45 mile to a 9:00 to a 10:00 didn’t help. The only thing left to do was walk. It was here on the out and back stretch along Ali’i Drive that the 8 week turn around from Mont Tremblant became physically evident. My body wasn’t responding as it did weeks ago. I began an internal battle of allowing myself to embrace the race for what it was, at that moment, and not comparing to 3 years or 8 weeks ago.
I recently listened to a podcast re-capping the race. The host spoke to the energy of the race, the unrelenting heat that day, and the races of the professionals. They spoke to Rachel Joyce the female overall winner at Tremblant. She had a great race through the swim and majority of the bike until the 8 week turn around started to become evident in the final miles of the bike and clearly on the run. Let’s just be clear, I am in NO WAY comparing my results or my bodies ability to recover to her’s but it is hard to deny the bodies physical capacity to bounce back from major physical, mental, and emotional event to do it all over again at the same intensity.
The 10 miles back to the the “Hot Corner” were very difficult. My body was cooking. There wasn’t enough ice in the aid stations to keep me cool. I didn’t want to walk but I had to. My body hadn’t hit a wall but it just couldn’t go any faster. Seeing my family and friends at the base of the climb up Palani was just what I needed before finding my way to the Queen K. As I walked by I made sure to smile and tell them to settle in because I was going to be a long night.
Everything was hurting. My heart wanted to run but my body just wanted to stop.
It was a long night. I slowly walked my way through each aid station. I talked myself through the dark moments of how much physical pain I was in. Everything was hurting. My heart wanted to run but my body just wanted to stop. As someone who is constantly moving and doing so with a stated authority it was a strange feel of just needing to walk. Add in the quiet I encountered on the Queen K and it was downright miserable. Everyone was in a similar position, willing yourself to keep moving. There was no wasted energy having a conversation with person next to you. The internal monologue was loud but out on the road between aid stations the only sound you heard was the squishing of water in the running sneakers of each athlete. Every time I crossed a timing mat the screech pulled me back to reality and I couldn’t help but think that everyone must be wondering what was going on and if I was okay. I was okay. I was on the Queen K a couple handful of miles away from the finish line of the IRONMAN World Championships buuut I was just moving as fast as my body would let me go.
Coming out of the Energy Lab I met several women running a similar pace and instinctively knew we would need one another to get to the finish line. With 8 miles left to go the chances of us staying together were slim but the shared suffering was welcomed. Occasionally we’d offer up a few words of encouragement sacrificing energy that we didn’t have to give. The final climb up the Queen K to the top of Palani was brutal. Lined with cones I played a game of walking 2 running 10, because that was just how empty my tank was. I had to resort to tricking myself. I saw my Dad at the bottom of the hill, in the same exact place I left him hours before. I had a feeling he’d be there and as I scanned the crowds hoping I was right. When I saw him it was as if the pain slowly started to subside. I took the time to give him a big hug and willed my legs to keep moving. Less than a mile to go. My Mom and friends were waiting for me right before the carpet to the finishing ramp. More sweaty hugs and magically the pain goes away. Yards to the finish line now. The chute to the finish line makes you feel like you are on top of the world. I was crossing the finish line of a goal that I set out to accomplish over a year ago. I was doing it in kit representing a brand, my brand, that means so lot to me personally and professionally. This time I made sure I took in the little moments that I didn’t last time. Hugs with the family. Slapping hands of kids along the finishing chute. The finish line and hearing that moment when Mike Reilly said one again, “Sarah Kelly You Are An IRONMAN!”
5 Weeks Later
It is still hard to believe what I accomplished in such a short window of time. It was a lot. To say I’m a little spent in an understatement. I’m enjoying a life with a little less structure and need to train. My body is still recovering. I’m reminded daily just how much I prioritized 10 months of my life to get me to Kona. Moving side to side or moving heavy weights are comical. One specialty look priority over another and now it is time to start building back strength and movement outside of the straight line ahead I focused on for so long.
Kona wasn’t my best race but it was the best I could do. My body was pretty empty and I’m thankful that I had such amazing support system with me and at home. They...and if you’ve ready this far....YOU helped get me to the finish line. And, if I’m being honest, when I finally took a glance at my watch and noticed this year’s time was only 6 minutes off of my first IRONMAN World Championships I can’t help but wonder what would a third attempt would look like knowing what I know now. Time will tell.