I had met an Australian guy during the week who had made me feel more relaxed when he informed me that he had won his place through the lottery and that his biggest training session had been a 70K bike ride.
I had chuckled when I heard him tell his girlfriend that everyone looked so fit and she had replied “ thats because they are and they actually train!”
And so Friday passed with a spin along Ali’i drive – I was suddenly overcome with excitement and couldn’t stop grinning- I was in Kona and about to take part in the Ironman World Championships!!! Me!!
I went to rack my bike and felt my heart almost stop, this was racking like never before! I toed to take it all in – this is where I had watched Chrissie Wellington exit the swim and run around to the change tent, this is where I had watched Rinny grab her bike and go! But it all looked a lot smaller than it did when you watch as an outsider.
I had my own volunteer take me to the bike rack, advise me to deflate my tyres, walk me around transition and hang my bags up. As I talked it through with him he told me cheerfully “ you know you actually don’t need to remember any of this? You cant go wrong in here, there are so many of us wanting to help you”. I was yet to appreciate exactly what he told me.
I went to bed around 9 pm that night and as usual didn’t sleep at all. I listened to my husbands laboured breathing, heavy with sleep and marvelled at his ability to always switch off like a light. The alarm went off at around 03:10 am, sleep would have been pointless anyway, right? I had a sore throat and felt at best ok. I shook my kids from their slumber and raced around preparing rice pudding, going to the loo, getting dressed, going to the loo, making coffee, going to the loo, almost forgetting my nutrition – so carefully planned with fitnaturally, going to the loo – you get the picture….i was a bit nervous.
We drove into town and parked behind Ali’i Drive, making our way silently with hundreds of others towards the King Kam car park where we were to be body marked. All of us silently tunnelling forward in the darkness like moths toward a light. I was suddenly overcome with terror and sobbed on my husbands shoulder, something I have never done before. I was truly scared of what the day would bring – terrified I might not finish.
Once in the body marking tents I was relieved to see that there were no branding irons, only body decals. The process, whilst appearing slick later seemed inefficient as we visited one table to confirm our race numbers or in my case to wave my wrist band in front of someones face,( I couldn’t speak as I was again bubbling like a 2 yr old who has lost a dummy!) and then another to have the decals applied. We obviously couldn’t be trusted to apply them ourselves, and in my case rightly so as in between sobs I had managed to give the wrong race number to the first stopping point and ended up with someone else’s numbers! Which is why I realised that there was a second person checking and applying. Damn it, my attempt to swap my number with a a faster athlete and get a better time had been foyled!
I moved out of the tent into the breaking light and along with 2000 started the pre race routine known as faffing. My faffing has been highly tweaked over past races and consists of being unable to get air into my tyres and then realising the valve is closed, wondering if the track pump is broken and whether the reading is correct – thus a squeeze test follows and a gaze at my neighbours tyres, followed by putting nutrition on my bike. This time I had a cunning plan, I would freeze my gel mix overnight and hope that by the time I got in my bike it would still be cold rather than be a boiling point as result of the ferocious sun. I removed the bottle cap and attempted to insert the spedfil top and straw. Perplexed I wondered why the hell the straw wasn’t going in. Oh yes, my cunning plan to freeze the contents. I attacked the centre of the frozen but already defrosting gels with whatever was to hand ( a bike tool) and slowly forced the straw in. Excellent. My plan had worked, sort of. I took a quick swig to clear the straw and wondered once more why I wasn’t getting anything. Oh yes my cunning plan to freeze the liquid.
I went to the loo and then left transition to find my husband and give him the track pump back – I wasn’t shoving that down my swim skin! He was across the road at the coffee shop and so I joined him in a somewhat sombre cappuccino. The last coffee before the gun.
I wandered back to transition and another toilet stop and watched the pros faffing – I wished Rachel Joyce luck and made my way, you guessed it , to the toilet. The silence was eerie and the nerves palpable, 2000 people waiting to see what the day would or wouldn’t bring, all half smiling, nodding and looking anxious. As the final darkness gave way to light the male pros began to ready themselves for the start of their race. The national anthem played, two red bull parachutes floated silently but expertly down from the sky, helicopters circled and filled the air with the familiar noise of blades chopping through the sky – an instant reminder that this was not just any Ironman, this was KONA!
The male pros were off, the female making their way to the start and suddenly the area up to the swim entrance was swamped with the blue caps of male age groupers. All shuffling silently as if toward death, none speaking, perhaps because no one wanted their words left hanging in almost stagnant air – a result of hundreds of focused minds all keen to get started.
And suddenly it is my time. The toilet has seen my last visit until much later in the day. My swim skin is zipped up, ear plugs in and goggles on, my hearing is reduced to muted mumbles but I am now in my own bubble. I take several deep breathes and repeat my pre race mantra. I know I will be fine, I say my usual quick prayer to ask God to give me the strength and patience to cope with whatever the day bring and I say thank you for giving me everything I need to be happy.
We shuffle forwards without urgency but with a solemn acceptance of the fate that awaits us. Whatever that turns out to be. Anything is possible – a hidden caveat of ironman- that despite the promises (or lack of ) that our training hints at – there are no guarantees – other than pain- physical, mental,often both
And then I am in the water and moving to the start line.
I self seed myself right toward the back, I am in no rush. There is nothing to prove and nothing to win, only a lot to lose. 140.6 miles, it takes patience and and it takes my breath away when I think about it too much, so I don’t. I just swim. I get punched and hit and I am amazed at the brawl, I am at the back! It doesn’t bother me, I smile and feel happy, I have come along way and someone giving me a black eye is not going to spoil my party!
I note that the swim is a little choppier then earlier in the week, but hey, I swam in Bournemouth – this is nothing! And I am grateful that I did swim in England and that is was rough, because this is enjoyable. There are less fish, something to do with 2000 nutters thrashing the sea surface, and I don’t interact with or see a shark. Massive bonus. Although they probably know its futile, the fat content of 2000 Kona athletes would put a Weight Watchers yoghurt to shame. I reach the first buoy, then the second, by the third I am over taking people and faffing my space. I am enjoying this. I recall that some paddle borders and the Body Glide boat have spare goggles in case we need them , Only in Kona I think to myself – the special place. As I reach the body glide boat I resist the temptation to look at my watch, instead I take long glances at the boat, over flowing with people all looking down and shouting. I have random thoughts about the anchor and sunglasses falling off onto my head as I make my turn back toward shore.
This is when I notice that the chop is quite significant and I have to really lift my head to sight, I pass some blue caps and am momentarily confused as I expect all the men to be out of the water. This gives me a slight boost and I struggle on, still enjoying the water
As I approach the exit the noise of the crowd, previously absent, begins to grow and the air is punctuated with shouts and screams of encouragement and applause
As I exist I look at my watch, I feel as though I have swum fairly well, I have enjoyed it, i hope for a time that reflects this. The display says 1:30- my first thought is- oh well, but I double check the timing clock of the swim arch anyway, hopeful that my watch is wrong. Its not. A very slow IM swim despite me feeling I have swum well.
Maybe I should be disappointed, but I am not- I have achieved my goal – a calm and enjoyable swim. The time is of no significance and I don’t give it another moments thought, other than a quick ponder as to why I am 8 mins slower than a week ago, I have swum the IM world champion swim course. I make my way to transition and hear someone saying “oh you’ve taken your hat off?? What number are you?!”
Hmmm what number am I? I remember and reply and 1396 is hollered to someone else standing at the bike bags. Well this is new I think to myself.
The volunteer pushes me forwards “go, go, get your bag” and I stumble towards the change tent with a second volunteer clutching my bag.
The first thing I notice once in the tent is that it’s not very busy. Obviously. The second thing is that there is a very helpful lady fussing around me. Digging in my bag she asks me what she can help with. Cue blank stare from me. I momentarily wonder what is going on, who is she and why does she want to help me? I am in T1 trying to be fast (ha!), then I remember – oh yes lots of help for the athletes. I mumble that water would be lovely and thank her.
There then proceeds a comedy struggle with arm coolers and she manages to accidentally turn my Garmin off, then on and then onto bike mode. I smile and am relaxed. Who needs a watch to confirm that they’re one of the last? At least the coolers are on.
The volunteer tells me to leave everything on the floor- she will put it all in my bag. I stuff the swim skin into my bag and she tells me again ” leave it leave it!” So I do. But later I learn that I don’t get my goggles or ear plugs back- probably a result of a misplaced cap which held the key to the right race bag- my number.
As I run to my bike I notice that there are not many left. No change here – I don’t worry, I am confident that I can make a few places up once I settle in and that I will make a few more up on the run. My usual Ironman routine.
So off I went, I had no cause to be worried. Yet.