After 20 hours of travelling we arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii late on September 30th, giving us a week to organize and acclimatize before the race. Jason, one of the other wheelchair athletes, recommended the Keauhou Surf and Racquet Club, it’s around 15 minutes South of Kona just past the turn around on the run course. I think we found the last two bedroom with a view of the ocean that was close to Kona and wheelchair accessible enough.
During our first week we did a ‘swim with dolphins and snorkel’ charter and I dropped the girls off at Hapuna Beach one afternoon while I drove the bike course up to Hawi, but mostly we took it easy. Sabrina discovered a couple of different beaches with the girls while I assembled and tested my equipment and tried hard to rest and build my energy. On Wednesday I did a short practice swim at the pier, testing what it felt like in the salt water with my wetsuit jacket on, and with it off. It felt faster and cooler without it on, so I decided that’s how I would race. The condo doesn’t have air conditioning, just lots of fans. So with the average daily temperatures in the 30’s and feeling like the 40’s, we all embraced the heat as part of the experience.
Up at 3:10 we were all out the door by 4:20. Sabrina dropped the girls and me off near transition and went to park the car up Palani Road, away from those roads and intersections that would soon be closed. This way she and the girls could go back to the condo for a nap while I was out on the bike course. I dropped off my special needs bags and kissed Chloe and Zara goodbye at the entrance to body-marking. This opens at 4:45 and I was one of the first to be there. At the World Championships, everyone gets a temporary tattoo of their number. As I put my forearms out in front of me for the woman to apply the tats, I saw her Garmin watch and my heart sank. FUCK! I forgot my watch! For those who don’t know, my watch doesn’t just tell the time, it also tells me how much power I’m putting into the handcycle, my current speed, the average power every 5km lap, the average speed, heart rate, etc. etc. I need my watch to ensure I have the best race possible. I asked the volunteer if I could please use her phone to call Sabrina. She was more than happy to do whatever she could. She even offered me her watch for the race. So while she applied my numbers I feverishly called Sabrina’s cell and my cell (Chloe had it). No one answered! It was so early in the morning, the phones were in their do not disturb modes. NOOOO! I tried texting and that didn’t work. UGH. Okay, take a deep breath and get to your bike.
Once at my bike I started to get things ready. I was the first handcyclist there, so I put my equipment on the other side of the curtain to give myself a little more room. A guy I met a couple of nights ago at a Luau saw me and said hello. I asked to borrow his phone and started calling Sabrina again. I finally got through and told her what was up. Her race was now on. Chloe, Zara and Sabrina high-tailed it back to the truck on top of the hill and back to the condo to get my watch before the race started. Over the next 50 minutes I finished all the prep on my equipment, tried to focus on what was just about to happen, got my watch from Sabrina and wished fellow Canadian Lionel Sanders good luck. It was about to happen.
Boom went the cannon to start the race and the pro men were off. A few minutes later the pro women started. At 6:55 the age-group men began their day and the rest of us (PC – Physically Challenged, Handcyclists and age-group women) got in the water. At 7:10, my race was on. Following the advice of many, I found a spot towards the left of the start line where I hoped that I could have a clean and uneventful swim (i.e. not being swam over, kicked or punched). The age-group women were great to swim with. Enough of them swam a similar pace to me, they swam straight, and I was able to follow their draft quite easily in the clear water. This was the first time I’d ever swam 3.8km in the ocean and the experience was pretty good. The water was crystal clear so you could see everyone around you, including coral and the tropical fish. The water wasn’t as calm as I was hoping it would be, so you had to sight on top of the waves, but not so bad that you had trouble breathing. My coach Mark had me ready to expect this, so I was prepared.
I looked at my watch at the first turn and it read 41:41. I was happy with that and hoped that I’d be a little faster coming back. After the second turn and on the way back everyone around me seemed to be slowing a little and it was harder to sight the buoys and see the exit. I tried to pass a few people that I was swimming around, but they eventually caught me again, so I figured I’d tuck in behind them and save energy. This resulted in a swim slightly slower than I hoped, but I was still feeling pretty fresh when they pulled me out of the water, and I was very jazzed that I had just completed the toughest swim of my life.
My handlers were great. Bob and Jimmie had helped PC athletes over the last 13 years, including Alex Zanardi and Jason (who was racing today for his 5th Kona IM). They took me through the showers so I could wash the salt off my body and my tri-kit, and brought me to my day chair. I took my time to towel off, re-apply sunscreen and body glide, get all my stuff on and sorted, and I was off.
I expected to start the bike in third or fourth position, so I wasn’t disappointed to see that this was where I currently ranked. My goal for the bike was to maintain 80 to 90 watts throughout the entire 180kms. As one pro said to a group of Canadian athletes earlier in the week: “Race the first half of the race with your head, and the second half with your heart”. Even though I could go much harder in the beginning, especially with all of the spectators cheering like crazy, I held back and did my thing. Around 8kms into the bike on the first out and back section, in town, I saw that Jason, Scot and Minda were all ahead of me by around 20 to 10 minutes. I was feeling great and just kept things in check and enjoyed the experience. My goal for the race was to do my best. I wasn’t in a ‘win-it or bin-it’ frame of mind – I had to finish with nothing left in the tank and I would be happy, regardless of how I placed.
Going up Palani Road at 12 kms, Robert from Australia passed me on the bike. I let him go and by 25 kms into the bike on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway he was behind me again. Soon after, I passed Minda and just kept executing the pace and nutrition plans. As we hit the lava fields the winds picked up and the heat they absorbed off the lava fields was incredible. It felt like I just opened the oven door after baking a cake and got 350 degree heat in my face, but it was never ending. I thought to myself “so this is what everyone was warning me about”. The heat, the wind and the hills were relentless. I slowed and at times had to stop on an uphill for each aid station to get a bottle of water. I’d drink half of it and pour the rest of it over my body. This helped a little, but didn’t last long. Overall I felt great, I just wondered where all my ‘racing speed’ went. Unlike training, I had on my race wheels, no flags, shaved arms and legs, tri kit and aero helmet, but holding my target power I was still only around 22.3 km/hour, and I still had to climb up to Hawi.
I hoped to get to Hawi and the turnaround within 4 hours, but the cross-winds were really brutal and around every corner there was another climb. I didn’t stress it, but kept my power consistent and stayed focused, I felt pretty good that I’d get a lot of my time back on the way down. 35 min away from Hawi one of the handcyclists flew down the mountain. RESPECT. I waited to see the other guy (Scot or Jason), but I never did. It turns out that Scot crashed in town and his day ended early. That really sucks because he would have given Jason an epic fight for the win.
Turning around in Hawi I got my 3 litre Camelbak from special needs and started back to town. Coming down the mountain was fast (over 50km/h on most of the downhills), but also scary. The gusts of wind could push you across the road in an instant. I was actually surprised a couple of times, and reminded myself not to end my day in a crumpled up ball of flesh and carbon fiber. At the bottom of the Hawi descent, around 128 kms in, there was another really long climb. This time, however, the land formed a protected bowl and there was no wind until close to the top of the ascent to cool me down or dry off my sweat. Pretty soon the salt and sunscreen started dripping into my eyes behind my sunglasses, causing them to burn like crazy. A lot like those times when you accidentally rub your eyes after chopping hot peppers. You can’t escape the burn, and you as sure as hell don’t want to rub them again to try and make them feel better. So, rather than let it disrupt me too much, I tried to embrace the stinging and started doing the math on my bike split to see if I could salvage a sub 8 hour bike split, all the while, climbing and climbing.
At 6:30 into the bike with 40 kms to go, I thought I could do it. I was doing a good job on the rolling hills and felt fine. What I forgot, however, was all of those hills I had come down on the way out I now had to climb to get home, and as I was warned by a previous handcycling champ, “the last 40km back into Kona are a real bitch”. The cross winds turn into headwinds, and while they are slightly cooling, speed suffers and time ticks by. At this point, I had to work harder to keep my power from dropping below 80 watts. The hardest part of the bike was on, but I reminded myself that this is what I trained for. I was a little disappointed that my bike was not in the 7 hour range, but I was happy that I didn’t need to worry about the bike cut off, I felt good, and I was racing in the World Championship Ironman. What an experience!
As I came down Palani, through the “hot corner” to the screams of my girls and the crowd, and into the bike chute, I took a second to enjoy the accomplishment and to remind myself that I’m in that special place that you see on TV while watching the Ironman, where athletes throw their bikes at volunteers and try to summon their running legs, while others are told they didn’t make the bike cut off and that their day is over. Fortunately, unlike Minda, Robert and Scot (the other 3 handcyclists), I’d get the chance to do the run today.
Training Peaks: http://tpks.ws/rYfwq
I told my handlers not to worry about rushing. I parked the bike and rested for a few seconds (trying to keep the tears away with all the emotions welling up inside me). A wipe with an icy cold towel helped to freshen me up. Bob and Jimmie put me into my racing chair and I was off.
Sabrina, Chloe and Zara were right at the run exit with their sign and cow bell as I started on the first shorter incline of Palani. At the light I turned right and started my first out and back section that runs along Ali’i Drive. The crowds were amazing cheering me on, especially the Aussie girl who walked up the first hill beside me, yelling my name, telling me that I could crush this fucking hill, and that after the race we would go for beers together. :) I didn’t have the energy to pick my head up and look at her, but am convinced that she was the hottest Aussie woman ever and with that accent alone could get a man to do anything.
After the turn around I saw the sun dropping down towards the horizon. I went around 70% effort to climb each hill and coasted down the other side, sitting up in my chair and cooling down a little. The racing part was now over, the last 33kms was all about soaking up the experience.
Unlike the bike course, which was very much like a training ride for me because I was alone for most of the 8 hours, the run course was full of athletes, and I was passing all of them. Mark, my coach, estimated that I passed over 350 athletes on the run. Sweet!
Back in town I turned right to climb the steepest and longest part of the run – Palani Road. My girls walked beside me the entire hill cheering me on, it was incredible! Everyone was yelling at me: “Get up that hill! You’ve got this! You own this!” I told the guy that I also own a car. That would’ve made a lot more sense. Cresting the hill I turned left back onto the Queen K Highway. It was pitch black now, interrupted only by the glow sticks that runners were wearing around their necks, the lights of the aid stations in the distance, and the reflection of my headlight off of the pylons.
Approaching the Energy Lab, I stayed close to the edge of the shoulder and tuffs of grass growing out of the lava rock. I had little strength to lift my head, so I steered by looking down at the road beside me and making sure I kept around 12 inches between my wheel and the edge of the pavement. I’d occasionally look up to make sure there were no runners in my path. Around the 20km mark, I hit something out of the dark and was tipped over onto the left rear wheel. WHOA! It turns out that some volunteers had stacked around 8 folding tables at the side of the road, sticking onto the pavement just a foot or so. When I hit them with my right rear wheel they fanned out like a deck of cards and turned into a miniature ramp for my racing chair. Somehow I caught my balance and saved it. DAMN! That was a surprise. Okay, new change of plans… stay in the middle of the road.
I held the brake down the hill to the bottom of the Energy Lab, stopped for some Red Bull and pushed my way out of it for the last stretch. I felt like I was coming home and while exhausted, was so happy. Turning down Palani for the last time I kept the speed down and soaked up the crowds and the sounds of Mike Reilly announcing the athletes as they crossed the line. Coming into the finish chute the crowds went insane and I high-fived everyone I could without coming to a stop. Climbing the platform I heard my name, stopped to pump the sky a few times (after all this I wanted a good finish picture), was told that “I WAS AN IRONMAN”, and rolled down into the finish area. I did it. Holy shit. After many years, thousands of miles, gallons of sweat and a little blood and tears, I qualified for and completed the Ironman World Championships in 13 hours, 30 minutes and 26 seconds. Boom. Mic Drop.
Training Peaks: http://tpks.ws/1Evaa
Following the race I was feeling a little dehydrated, so Ironman officials escorted me to the medical tent for an IV. In anticipation of the IV I didn’t start drinking the copious amounts of after-race fluids that I normally would. After 40 minutes, the medic in charge decided I didn’t warrant an IV, but instead he wanted me to hang around and drink Gatorade. I wanted to see my family so I told him I was fine (I mostly was), and was released. I finally got to hug my girls and thank them, take a few pics, get my medal and pack up my stuff from transition. As we waited for Sabrina to get the truck, I started feeling like I was going to faint. I bent over in my chair so I’d have less distance to fall and then the sweat started pouring out of me. My incredible handler, Dr. Bob, who was still helping me long after the race, rushed me back to the medical tent where I now not only qualified for two bags of IV, but they were going to send me to the hospital for the night. FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC.
The ambulance and hospital staff were amazing! And as a bonus they had AC in the hospital :). After one night of more IV, lots of tests, threats of being flown to another island if my heart numbers weren’t good enough and being introduced to the condition of “Rhabdo”, I was out the next day after lunch and feeling like an Ironman should – properly sore, exhausted, but on top of the world.
On Sunday I was happy to be able to make it on stage and accept my 2nd place trophy-bowl alongside of Jason, the champ. As we were waiting to go onstage, we chatted with the top women finishers in the 55-59 category. A couple of them had raced Kona 9 years in a row, and commented that the bike course on Saturday was the toughest they can remember. Because of the wind, running similar power numbers to previous years, they took longer to complete the bike. That’s both a consolation for me, and makes me wonder what I could do on a second lap of the island ;). Hmmm.
It’s been a long road to get here and I’m in no rush to wrap up what this all means to me, I’ll let it marinate for a little while. One thing I am sure of, though, is that I’m incredibly grateful for the ability and opportunity to train and race triathlon -- the wonderful people in the sport and my incredible family and friends that support me. I’m a lucky guy.
Best Pit Crew Ever! Thank you girls for making this day epic.