Kona part three: Braving the elements and coming out of the darkness.

The first thing I did was take a swig of my gel mix/ it had defrosted: result. It was also warm: genius plan fail.

It usually takes me a few miles to begin to settle into the bike but I noticed almost immediately that it felt a bit harder than it should. My previous spins earlier in the week had also felt like this and I put that down to the usual effects of the taper, I expected that over the next 10 miles my legs would wake up and I’d feel good.

My heart was racing and I was determined to stick rigidly to my heart rate limits so that my run wouldn’t suffer. Oh how I laugh now! This meant capping my efforts at 75%.

I approached “hot corner” and a grin spread across my face as I heard the familiar and welcome voice of Paul Kayeman calling out my name. Paul has welcomed me down the magic carpet at each one of my previous IM races and it is his voice that I associate with IM more than anyone else’s ( obviously because of where I have raced in Europe). This was his first year at Kona and hearing him gave me a real lift as I’m sure it did many others.

My heart rate was fluctuating around 74-77% and if it was toward the higher end of this margin, I eased back. I drank regularly – the water in my speedfil now distinctly warm, ate and sipped my gel mix. I was not taking any chances. I can’t recall at what point I began to feel the familiar nausea that I experience on the bike, but it was certainly sooner than I expected. I suspect that it was around 10 miles in when i’d eaten a snickers. I hoped that it would ease and continued to drink water and gels as planned.  It didn’t.  

I was in a quandary – back off the water / gels and risk dehydration and blowing up or continue and feel worse….

I decided to back off the gels and took on cold water from the stations. I got a little routine going- grab a bottle from one of the first  volunteers and tip it down my back, arm coolers and head. Grab a second bottle further along the same station and drink/fill up my water bottle.

Somewhere around mile 30 as I began the spin through the lava fields I began to meet the pros coming back the other way. Motor bikes whizzed past, cars with cameramen, helicopters continued to circle above like birds of prey in the cloudless sky. It was surreal. And hot. Very hot.

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To my left the oncoming athletes flew towards me, their eyes locked onto an invisible point in the distance and their bodies hunched onto their bars, all the while their legs working constantly and seamlessly- muscles contacting and glistening in the heat.

Beyond them stretched miles of black lava. The rough, cracked surface – which reminded me of freshly baked brownies, punctuated with tufts of coarse yellow grass. To my right the same. Nothing but black lava.

It was here that I noticed the cross winds began to start. A few gusts here and there soon became constant blasts, I struggled to work out the direction. First the left, then then the right and in quick succession. I repeated: Relax, it’s only wind. You are fine. Cradle your bars, be gentle, soft shoulders.

I noticed that the men returning to town on the opposite side of the road began to move sideways. Some of them leaning, some actually being blown a few inches toward the central line.

Somewhere between 25 and 35 miles I developed burning pain the balls of my feet. I loosened my shoes and wriggled my toes at every mile. It eased slightly. I have experienced this before when riding in hot conditions and have previously actually stopped intermittently and taken my shoes off to stretch my feet. I wasn’t prepared to that this time- I just wanted to keep going.

Stay with this I told myself, it will pass. The climb to Hawi approached and I noticed that my heart rate was dropping- I was struggling now to get it over 68%.  Could I be dehydrated I wondered? Unlikely as if just peed and was still drinking at every station and in-between. Despite the nausea i had returned to taking the gels and felt no worse. I had a sinking feeling that this was the start of the end, but I pushed it from my mind and reasoned that it was the wind. I’d go by feel.

I was passed by a woman from Brazil in a gold swim suit- barely a swim suit. This struck me as both unnecessary and slightly offensive – for reasons I won’t share (but I’m sure you can imagine).  It amused me and distracted me for a while as I wondered about chaffing and whether she had had a specialist saddle fit.

The winds then became so strong that I couldn’t help but marvel at the comedy value of watching the bikes in front careering all over the road. It was as if we had all had our stabilisers removed for the first time!

I was desperate to get to the turnaround point and start the return to town. 50 miles approached and my left glute was tight. I was getting a shooting pain down my leg- nothing I haven’t had before or can’t ride through, I stood on my peddles and stretched my hip flexors which gave some relief. My feet were horrendously painful. Wriggling my toes was giving mild relief for a minute or so but the pain was building. Be patient I thought. It will pass.

It seemed to take weeks to get to Hawi and the turnaround! And once I’d reached it the descent was glorious for all of 5 miles! The cross winds and descending at speed made a lethal mix for some riders ahead of me and I was careful to hang back away from anyone else.

I was at last on my way back. I felt a surge of joy. Then boom! Like a smack in the face the head wind appeared. When I say head wind I mean a force so strong that it was like riding a turbo. I was going no where fast ( or rather even slower than I had been).

My legs were turning and complaining. A lot. I have never ridden so much of this distance in the inner chain ring and easiest gears before. My soul was slowly being crushed by Mother Nature. I refused to give in.

Ahead of me a volunteer appeared in the middle of the road. He was waving his arms and shouting at us all to slow down – he was kidding right? If I went any slower I would fall off! A bit further ahead I noticed two bikes, mangled and abandoned on the road side. I glanced further ahead and took a sudden sharp breath- 2 women lay with neck braces on by the side of a car. The head wind carried the ominous sounds of sirens long before the ambulance passed me. For the first time I felt a little scared. I also felt a deep well of sadness as I thought about the women I had passed. Be safe, I told myself.

My feet were now so painful that I was fantasising about my husband driving along side me asking if I wanted a lift. Yes, I did. My heart rate was in its boots and I’d stopped looking. I knew that it wasn’t just the wind that was the issue. My body was on strike.  

Riders I had whizzed past on the way to Hawi were now gradually passing me, there were no oncoming riders on the opposite side of the road. The sky was quiet, the mechanical birds having faster and stronger prey to hunt back in town. I began to feel isolated.

I told myself how lucky I was. I believed it. I told myself I would soon be off the bike. I wasn’t so convinced. I told myself i was in a beautiful place. I stared out at the barren lava fields- beauty…..?

At 92 miles I miscalculated that I had 10 miles left before I could throw my bike away forever. At 95 I realised that the reason is only passed GCSE maths with a C grade was because evidently I couldn’t add up! Those last 17 miles went on and on and on, the pain in my feet was excruciating. .

Warm, acid bile snaked up my throat and into my mouth. I sipped warm water.  I was focused only on the bike being over. My legs refused to work. I was suffering. I had drunk 3 litres of water and taken on 16 gels and a snickers- and yet I felt so weak, as if I hadn’t eaten for 2 days.

I reached transition and practically fell off my bike. Someone grabbed it and told me to run to the tent. Cue blank stare followed by disbelief. I replayed the words in my mind trying to make sense of them :” run”  “RUN” as in actually run??? Was she kidding- I could barely stand! I looked at my watch – and the stark reality struck me 7:18. Holy Moly. I was neither disappointed or bothered, I did not have the strength to care. I was off my bike and I was safe.

I hobbled around the never ending green carpet of transition to the change tent where I was met by another volunteer clutching my run (or in my case, my walk) bag.

I collapsed onto the bench and began rubbing my feet. The volunteer quickly knelt down, removed my socks and put clean ones on. She went to find someone to massage my feet. All the while I sat staring at other women, most of who looked like I felt.

I was given a pretzel, which made me gag, a foot rub and a huge dose of encouragement by the volunteers- and I hobbled out toward the run course.

I turned into Ali’i drive and saw my husband and children. “I’m going to have to walk the whole thing – go home” I told him, followed by “I have never felt so awful in a race before”

We stood conversing for a few minutes as I asked whether there was time for me to walk it. I couldn’t get my mind to work (that’d be the maths again!).

I walked away, pain shooting up my legs from my feet and down my leg from my hip. But most of all I felt swaddled in a blanket of fatigue so tight and heavy that I was being pushed down into the road.

I attempted to run- but was soon hobbling again. For 3 miles I drank coke at each aid station, poured ice down my suit and struggled to raise a smile. Then I caught site of someone else who looked like she was suffering just as much as me. I struck up a conversation with Kari and we decided to walk/run together. Its amazing what being with someone else can do for you – I was soon feeling brighter and at around 7 miles I felt as though I could maybe actually run faster. I was cautious though – patience, there were still 19 miles left!! So I continued with the run walk strategy and was glad I had not pushed on as I was soon relying on Kari to motivate me to run 100yds before my body would feel as though it were about to keel over. We pulled each other along, marking the distance we would run and walk by the number of cones we passed.

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I stared at the road and wondered if I just sat down for 10 minutes, would I feel better? But I had to keep pushing these thoughts from my mind. We soldiered on, talking about families and interests. At tmes all I could muster was a yes or a grunt and i’m sure that I seemed rude, but Kari was so gracious and kind that she stayed with me. Her chatter kept me distracted and interested. We made an unspoken pact to stay together, And we did for 23 miles. As we approached the Queen K the sun disappeared and we were presented with a stunning sunset. It made everything better for a short time. But then darkness engulfed us, in more ways then one and vowed to each other that this was a defining moment – we were never doing another ironman. We discussed why people would want to come to Kona – it was brutal.

There are no street lights along the Queen K, no crowds of people to encourage you on, just darkness and the broken spirits of a few hundred athletes whose suffering will stretch on as long as the road beneath them. We were given glow sticks to help make us stand out – this did help us avoid crashing into oncoming athletes who were also carrying them, but it did little to help decrease the risk of a broken bone as we stumbled into the cones or fell off the side of the highway completely, into the lava fields. Fortunately we were able to see the comedy in this and joked about spraining our ankles and having to move even more slowly. It was on this stretch toward the energy lab – which seemed to be moving further away rather then nearer to us, that we really began to suffer. Oh yes, even more! I began to feel very sick, I took on more coke and ate orange segments, I sipped water and even chicken broth ( I wouldn’t recommend it). My stomach hurt when I tried to run and my feet were painful whatever I did. If only I could lie down I thought…..

I was feeling hacked off, but I glanced up at the sky and it took my breath away. For the first time since the swim I was totally blown away by the beauty. Millions of diamonds sparkled down, arranged in constellations that I neither recognised or knew the names of but made me truly appreciate where I was right at that moment. Had I been faster I would not be walking along the Queen K, clutching a glow stick ( how iconic) experiencing this dazzling sky. This was a huge positive for me. I thought of the movie I had watched on the flight over – The Fault in Our Stars, and the Anne Frank quote : Think of the beauty still left around you and be happy. And I was. Mother Nature was repaying her earlier cruelty with this glorious light extravaganza. I felt as though I were the only person on earth right then, that if I stretched my hands upward I would touch the stars. And I remembered the little wooden star given to me by a friend that says : Stars only shine when there is darkness. How true. I was not beaten, I felt a sudden surge of joy as I realised that we were going to finish!

We stumbled on toward the energy lab our pace dropping more and more and we again joked about how we had purposefully timed our run and pace so as to avoid the unremitting heat. I was greeted with the video that my boys had made for me at mile 18 and I focused on getting back to them. Back down the Queen K, more ice, coke, crashing into cones and off the highway. I commented on how by taking so long that we were making sure we got our monies worth. The red Target sign glowed in the distance, we were nearly home. By this time my fatigue had reached heights that I didn’t know were possible and I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other so much that I was finding it hard to breathe. As we approached Ali’i drive for the last time Kari set off running, I joined her but was soon complaining that I needed to walk. ‘go on, go ahead, please” I said. But there was no way she was letting me walk and I am truly grateful to her for that. I lurched and swayed and willed my body to stay upright. Somehow I made it – there was the finish chute, and oh my what a chute it is!

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I could not help but grin widely as I trotted down high fiving people, I was suddenly overcome with a huge wave of relief, the pain was over, I have never been so pleased to finish a race. I crossed the line and immediately fell/sat on the floor, where I would have stayed had two volunteers not come and whisked me away.

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And now

I am not disappointed with my time, I had adjusted my expectations accordingly well before I even got to Kona. I am happy that I finished, thrilled. I did not expect it to hurt like it did considering the lack of intensity that I raced with. I was not expecting to hate it. I was not expecting the very race that motivates so many, that most of us long to experience, to be the very race that left me questioning whether it is worth it. The answer now is of course, yes! 

I am truly grateful for having the chance to experience Kona, the beauty of the island and the people and of making new friends and memories. The positives are many as are the lessons. Mostly I have learnt that I am stronger than I thought, ad that is thanks to Kim Ingleby.

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9 thoughts on “Kona part three: Braving the elements and coming out of the darkness.

  1. That was one hell of a tough day in the office for you. I’m so glad you got to experience Kona even though the day didn’t quite go to plan. Cherish that finishers medal. Well done for being tougher than you thought on the day where it counted.

  2. Wow! An extraordinary account of your experience of Kona. You describe it all so brilliantly – I felt as though I was there……this may be the nearest I ever get LOL. Congratulations on the finish and the fantastic written account.

  3. Claire, you deserve and have my full and complete respect. An awesome journey showing tremendous tenacity and guts, all brought to life through your amazing words. Well done does not seem adequate, be proud, be very proud, it’s done and that can NEVER taken away. Hope we bump into each other again some time. Enjoy a rest. Terry

  4. OMG, that was such a gripping read! Take comfort from your phenomenal mental toughness to persevere even when you felt absolutely pants. You are an amazing, tenacious lady. And what’s with the burning in the balls of your feet, I get that too and it’s friggin horrible!

  5. Oh my life!!!! In awe of this, you are one hardcore lady!! That sounds absolutely horrific. The true meaning of Iron(wo)man, in my opinion.

    How have I not seen this before? I didn’t even know you had a blog. Adding you to my reader right now!

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