The world championships IRONMAN is the only race I’ve done in recent years where we did both an age group start and a water start. My age group (45-49) was the last wave of athletes to start the race…nearly an hour after the pro women started, so we saw the pro women coming into transition as we were getting into the water to await our start.
We swam out about 100-150m to a group of paddle boarders which created our starting line. Once the air horn sounded, 330-some of us set off on our day. Unfortunately, and for the first time ever, my goggles wouldn’t seal. They were leaking terribly, so I had to swim up to a jet ski to attempt to reseal them and off I went. And again, they immediately started leaking badly, so I found a paddle board and tried it again. I kept breathing calmly and reminded myself this was a minor setback and to just focus on properly sealing the goggles before taking off rashly. This time was a success! And off I went.
With my age group being last, 2,000 triathletes had already freestyled through the ocean leaving it a bit cloudy but still the clearest open water swim I have ever done. My sighting was good and I did a nice job drafting off others, which allowed me to constantly be pulling people in.
The swim out to the first turn was lovely with little traffic and no “bumper cars”. After the second turn – the one that turns you back towards the pier in Kona – things became quite congested and I began dodging people to avoid contact. I was happy with my sighting and drafting on this back stretch too. Finally, the pier appeared! The current there seemed to be holding me back – it seemed like an eternity to get from the end of the pier to the steps out of the water. A quick glance at my watch told me I did the swim in 1 hour 21 minutes. Given the goggle snafu, I was very pleased with the result.
Now for a quick run through freshwater hoses to rinse myself of salt water, grab my bike gear, change and grab Faith from her resting spot on the pier. I felt efficient at the time with my transition but also know there are areas to improve upon, especially given the clock shows 10 minutes in transition 1.
Immediately I felt “off” on the bike. I couldn’t place why though so I pushed forward assuming I’d settle in and relax. My heart rate was higher than I expected, and I focused on my breathing to get it in check. The short ride through Kona before setting off for Hawi was nice and a good warmup for what was to come. Once out on the Queen K highway I settled in for a long ride. I noticed immediately how many women were passing me – there were some extraordinarily great cyclists out there. I know the bike is not my strong suit and just pushed forward as planned – zone 1 and zone 2 heart rate and power output. The plan was to save my legs for the run.
I noticed neck pain almost immediately from my position on the bike but tried to ignore it and ride aero as much as possible. About mile 50, just short of the Hawi hill, a 7 mile climb into the town, I started feeling very queasy and quite burpy. I continued to try and fuel and hydrate according to plan but continued to feel worse. The climb was hot and very windy. The wind here is strange. There was a constant headwind with gusts from either side unpredictably. And 7 miles of that shit. Damn it wore me out. The climb itself wasn’t bad. But add the winds, heat and nausea and I just felt wiped out.
I stopped at personal needs, a place where we can collect our additional hydration, nutrition and other things that help us through the race. I usually make this as quick of a stop as possible but I actually took my time here. My neck was hurting terribly from my bike position and I applied analgesic gel in hopes of taking my mind off it. I also took the time to pee before getting back on Faith to tackle the rest of the bike course. Negativity really started to settle in. Neck pain only intensified and nausea continued to get worse to the point I was heaving periodically. This was going to be a battle. I got very overwhelmed with the thought of finishing another 50 miles on the bike and then having to do a marathon. I focused on what I had directly in front of me and that was 1 mile at a time. I encouraged myself to look at the beautiful scenery around me…the eery lava fields, the gorgeous blue of the Pacific Ocean and the volcanoes. It really was beautiful and I continually reminded myself I GET to ride here.
Finally, I made the right turn onto the Queen K which would take me back into Kona. Only 35 miles to go! LOL. And then the headwinds. I had been warned the last 35 would be a mental game and it sure was. The winds slowed me to the point I didn’t feel I was making any progress. I kept searching for landmarks I saw on my scouting from earlier in the week. And finally, I saw the airport up ahead! A few minutes later…seriously why is it not getting closer?! It seemed to take days to pass by it.
At that point, I saw all the women out on the run course and looking so strong. “Yeah, ok but Shan that is their race. You need to race your race, even if it’s not the one you wanted. You own your race, and you tackle it. Almost to the bike finish. Maybe you’ll feel better when you start running.”
At 7 hours and 27 minutes on the bike, I came up to transition. When I attempted to dismount my bike, both my glutes cramped. Ok. That’s not a good sign of things to come. Time to hydrate and regroup.
In transition 2 I took my time. Brain fog had settled in, and I really needed to focus on what steps I needed to do before moving onto the run which is why my transition time was so long. I actually sat down, got a cold towel around my neck and just breathed for a moment. I checked in with myself to make sure I was making a smart decision about continuing forward. Lack of calories, salt and hydration are not wise in any IRONMAN, let alone one in the heat… and I still had 26.2 miles to go.
After my very long regroup of 12 minutes, I decided to attempt the run. Afterall running is my happy place. My friend Scott suggested I walk a little to get my stomach and heart rate settled and try to run once I started to feel better. That seemed to work, and I was running comfortably for a bit. Then the waves of nausea came back. Dammit!
“Ok. Let’s try something. Run until you want to puke, then walk a bit and repeat”. That was my new plan. I never did so much math in a race as I did that night…I needed to make sure I could make it across the finish line in time. I was not going to miss that.
A much-needed sign, in the form of a monarch crossed my path at one dark moment of the run. Soon after Mike passed, I was bombarded by monarchs. They seemed to be everywhere telling me he was ok. This one little monarch floating by made me smile and refocused me. It was almost like I had been told “It’s ok. You’ll make it. Just keep going.”
But I knew in order to do that I needed to try and consume calories and water. So, I tried a bit of everything in the aid stations …coke, potato chips, gels, oranges and bananas. Nothing had the magic, but each had enough to get me there. Step by step, mile by mile I got closer.
The run itself was lovely. The course was soft rolling hills along the water in many places. I would love to tackle it again when I’m not nauseous.
I continually checked in with myself and at mile 19 I knew I was going to make it. I could walk the rest of it and make it. I still continued with my walk / run approach and with 1 mile to go my eyes started to tear up. “Nope not yet Shan. It’s hard to run when crying. Let’s not make this harder right now.”
One last turn and oh my God, the IRONMAN carpet, the lights, the crowd…I saw Scott, then mom and Barb…now I’m crying and cannot believe it. I heard my name and those words “Shannon, you are a World Champion Ironman”! Holy shit! I did it!
It seems crazy to look back at the race and say it was a good one. But as one of retired pros told us during race week, you race the race you’ve been given, not the race you want. And dammit I did that. I raced the race I was given. I am absolutely stronger for it.
Will I be back? Umm. Give me some time to rest and make a better decision. Immediately after the race said, “I’m retired from IRONMAN”. The next day I was making plans for other IRONMANs next year. And today I know I want retribution, but for now…sleep, food and water…
Until next time…