Humbled by the Hawaii Ironman

Credit: Donald Miralle/Allsport
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (CP) Every October, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, about 1,500 of the world's fittest people tackle one of the toughest endurance events the Hawaii Ironman triathlon.

Surviving the hot, windy and desolate lava fields in Hawaii's Kona region is as much an extreme mental test as a physical one. This year I wanted to find out if I had what it takes. The Ironman is a daylong event. It starts with a four-kilometer (2.4-mile) swim, followed by a 180-kilometer (112-mile) bike race, topped off with a marathon run 42 kilometers (26.2 miles).

Although anyone can enter most Ironman races, competitors at Hawaii the world championship have qualified at another event or won a lottery slot.

There's really no such thing as a weekend warrior when it comes to preparing for this race. I work full-time and try to train anywhere between 10 and 22 hours a week. I'm awake at 5 a.m. every morning to train before work, and rarely eat dinner before 9 p.m. after still more training. I think the last movie I saw at a theatre was Titanic.

Luckily, my husband, whom I met when I first started triathlons, trains as much as I do and would compete in Hawaii as well.

Still, nothing could have prepared me for the full wrath of Pele, the goddess of fire who commands the Hawaiian winds which seem to blow with no logic.

It was my third Ironman in two years. I qualified by placing second in my age group (30 - 34) at an event just 2 1/2 months earlier, and I thought I was ready. But I had much to learn, thanks to this goddess who made this race one of the windiest ever.

On race day we were up before sunrise, munching on bagels smeared with peanut butter and banana. That was at 4 a.m.

We walked to the beach where volunteers wrote our race numbers with a thick black marker on our arms and legs so we could be visibly tracked throughout the race.

At 7 a.m. the starting cannon sounded.

As I took my first few strokes, all the planning and anxiety faded away and I just focused on the present. I felt as if I was in an aquarium with 1,500 people. Oddly enough, no flailing arms struck me as I swam through the waves two kilometers out to a boat and then back to the beach.

At the end of the swim, I ran through a shower stall and changed into bike clothes. No sooner did I start cycling than the good feeling from my swim vanished.

My stomach was a volcano. Nearly every energy bar and drink I took in would not stay down.

And the wind! Gusts were so bad that people were blown from one side of the road to the other. Some flew off their bikes into the sharp and crusty lava fields.

I tried to keep pace with a woman in a tight yellow two-piece swimsuit. A cover girl for a fitness magazine? She seemed to be sculpted out of brown plastic. She was deeply tanned and instead of sporting six-pack abs, she had a 12-pack.

Ms. Yellow Bikini and I kept passing one another. But the competition was short-lived. A thorn pierced my tire, causing a flat. Ms. Yellow Bikini flew by me quicker than I could say "Kona coffee."

After that, my goal of finishing before sunset 11 hours fizzled. My stomach eventually got better but I felt demoralized.

I wanted to curl up on the side of the road and sleep. I wanted to be cheering on the sidelines. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

I berated myself. Why couldn't I change my flat faster? Why couldn't I go faster? To get through, I played mind games.

When I started the run portion I craved a caffeine boost, but I told myself I wouldn't "be allowed" to have a sip of the cola offered until 20 kilometers to the finish. I'd have to deserve it first. This meant no walking no matter what.

That was the only goal I had left.

When I finally made it across the finish line placing 33rd out of 64 in my age group and directly into my husband's arms in just under 12 hours, I had no power left to hold back tears of joy. We both were humbled by the course.

After a shower and a bite of pizza, we went to cheer on competitors trying to finish before the midnight, 17-hour cut-off time.

Was my sacrifice to Pele worth it? Was she pleased? Was I pleased?

As I cheered the last finishers one a 70-year-old man I realized that training and fitness are lifelong pursuits, blind to age and speed.

I also understood I'd have another chance to meet Pele.

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