If you Google “Road to Kona”, you’ll get thousands upon thousands of links to athlete blogs, telling their story of how they struggled and (hopefully) persevered to earn their spot and race the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Kona is the Mecca for any long-distance triathlete, and for me, it’s the goal that I’ve been seriously working towards for the last two years. I know that I can do the full Ironman distance (226 kms of swim, bike and run), but the idea of racing with the world’s best motivates (and at times frustrates) me to the extreme.
Earning a spot to Kona is an obsession for many triathletes. Doing so is tough, as it should be. For athletes with a disability who use a handcycle for the bike segment, and a racing wheelchair for the run (classified by Ironman as “handcyclists”), the road to Kona is more like a disabled parking spot that is already taken. The first title I had for this blog was “Road Blocks to Kona.” Theories abound as to why the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC - the business that owns and runs Ironman) makes it so difficult for us handcyclists, and I’ve written to the CEO of the corporation, Andrew Messick, asking him to make the process more equitable (link here). His initial response was that they’d “look into it.”
For 2016, there continues to be only 4 handcycle qualifying spots available for male handcyclists at 3 Ironman events. One spot in Australia, two in Luxembourg, and one in Texas. These are Half Ironman races in which the first handcyclist to cross the finish line (or a second place in Luxembourg will work, too) will earn the opportunity to race in Kona. All three races happen over three consecutive weekends in June. So realistically, handcyclists like me have one chance, once a year, to qualify.
While it’s tempting to go on a rant about how it’s unfair and unnecessarily difficult to earn a Kona spot, I’m going to refrain. I do hope that things will be more fair in the future and will work hard to help WTC make improvements, but at the end of the day I’m going to own the fact that it’s my decision and desire to pursue this goal, so I need to deal with the things I don’t like, and win according to their rules. Instead of letting the difficulty of the logistics defeat me (it’s so tempting to become a casual athlete), I’m going to use my frustration with WTC to train harder to become the fastest paratriathlete I can be.
Last June I raced in Luxembourg, trying my luck at winning the one Kona spot. I put myself up against six of the world’s best and came in fourth. My time was very respectable (5:27:59) for the Half Iron distance, but I was simply out-matched by three better athletes and a few minutes on the clock. While the trip to Europe with Sabrina was wonderful, getting a 4th place finish was not what I had worked so hard for, and it took me more than 3 months to get over my disappointment and refocus my sights on what the next goal should be.
When the girls went back to school in the Fall, I made the decision to continue my goal of getting to Kona. I started working with a new coach whom I met earlier in 2015 at a Florida Training Camp run by Loaring Personal Coaching. Coach Mark is awesome, and the 7 to 11 hours a week of swim, bike and run that he has me doing is producing results. In addition to all of the time training, trying to sort out my neurological pain, family, speaking, and some pretty big miscellaneous endeavours, my plate is probably a little too full, but really, I think that’s all part of the Kona challenge.
Looking at my Training Peaks account, I can see that I’ve logged over 100 hours in the last 90 days. And that’s just the time calculated when I push start and stop on my watch. The ‘actual time’ that it takes to do this training, is much, much greater. Before my injury, to go for a run I’d put on my shorts and shoes and go. Now, there’s around a half hour of ‘stuff’ I need to take care of before I can start my run. Swimming is even more brutal. Driving to the pool, changing, getting into my wetsuit bottoms, swimming, getting out of the pool, showering (after I wait for the dumb ass to get out of the only accessible shower stall because I can’t use the 9 other showers that are empty but inaccessible), drying off and getting dressed, and then heading home. The logistics truly are more work than actual swimming.
In terms of which race I’ll be doing this June, I’ve booked hotel rooms in Luxembourg and Texas. In May I’ll decide which race to do. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and neither one is easy to get to.
To take my training to the next level and escape the Canadian winter, I drove down to Florida on February 10th to train outside in the heat. I’ll be here until April getting in as much swimming, cycling and running as possible. Next week I’ll be doing the LPC Triathlon Training Camp again and if I feel up for it, I’ll stay until mid-April and race the Haines City Half Ironman race on April 10th. It’s just 30 minutes from me, so it seems to make sense to get a practice race under my belt before I head to a qualifier in June. I think it’s funny how Half Ironman races are becoming much less of a big deal. I respect the distance, but have no concerns about being able to complete the race. With four Half IMs behind me, it’s now about continually improving my time and performance.
Occasionally (usually when I’m run down) I question why the hell am I doing this to myself? The time, effort, costs, pain, isolation, and just general frustration is consuming. Spending thousands of dollars and countless days to try and earn a spot in a race that will subject my body to 226 kms of racing on a volcanic island, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The best answer I can come up with, is that I don’t want to live with the regret of not having really tried to do the improbable. I’m not getting any younger, so I need to make the most of what I have, while I still have it. Kona gives me a reason to push myself and to discover the limits of what’s possible for me physically and mentally. Bouncing my needle off the rev-limiter forces me to be in tune with my body and to find my limits, hopefully without injuring myself. Like life, Ironman training is a balancing act. The big difference is that it’s a choice. Oddly enough, I need to remind myself of that.
The Kona goal demands daily focus and effort (even more mental than physical). And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself over the past few years it’s that I need to have goals like this to feel productive and stay positive. When I’m not moving forward I start sliding backwards, and that’s not good for anyone. Unlike those things in life that happen or are done to you, this goal is mine, and figuring out how to overcome the multitude of challenges involved with qualifying for this race, even if they don’t result in a Kodak moment at the end of it, will keep me moving in the right direction.