“I hear the winds in Kona are as fierce as the heat,” my dad said on the other end of the line.
Two weeks separated me from the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. My dad would be cheering for me from across the Pacific. Since being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2003, he has more than outlived the 5-year average survival rate. And though he continues to defy the odds, his chemotherapy occasionally cuffs him to California.
“I hope Kona isn’t like Hurricane St. George,” he laughed.
I laughed too, recalling that it took me 1 hour and 51 minutes (!!!) to escape the St. George swim alive.
But instead of agreeing with my dad, I told him that I hoped race day would bring the windiest and hottest day Kona had ever seen. I wasn’t racing for time, I reminded him. I was racing for place.
But I was also racing the strongest, most-experienced triathletes in the world.
On a course with easy, breezy conditions, the outcome will favor the triathlete with the greatest physical prowess. Having raced my first triathlon only 18 months before and having learned to swim 6 months before that, I knew that I could not compete on the international level on physical terms alone.
But the harsher the conditions, I told my dad, the larger role fortitude would play in the outcome of the race. Should the winds kick up and the sun beat down, my mental game could help me minimize the experience gap.
“Well, you always liked a great challenge,” my dad replied.
The greatest challenge I have faced in the past 18 months is open water panic.
I pinpointed the source of panic as the rough contact experienced during a mass swim start. I set about to overcome that fear with the help of some riot police in Kona.
After some convincing, the riot police agreed to let me swim with them in practice while they simultaneously pushed, punched, and pulled me under water. With each day, I panicked a little less. And before the cannon fired on race day, I felt mentally prepared to face my open water demon.
Drafting in the water (i.e., swimming in someone’s slipstream) is legal, unlike drafting on the bike. AND it leads to faster swim splits. But until this race, I had lined up far from my competitors, bypassing the drafting advantage that comes with a higher risk of kicks to the head. This time though, I lined up close to my competitors, jumped on a pair of feet, and gained the drafting advantage for the first time in my life. After much body contact, and some salt water in my belly, I exited the water in 1:14. No fear. No panic attack.
Though I emerged 18 minutes behind the leader, my mental game was on. And I couldn’t wait to put it to the Queen K test.
As I biked toward the Queen K, Sherpa Jeffrey yelled that I was 43rd out of the water. Though further behind than I anticipated, I put it back in perspective. Two years ago, I laughed at my brother-in-law when he suggested racing an Ironman together. “Brother,” I said, “I can’t swim.”
“If anyone is tough enough to learn girl, it’s you,” he argued.
This memory filled my eyes with tears, momentarily spiked my heart rate, and gave a bolt of energy to my legs. I gave my brother those first 10 miles for seeing something in me that I never would have seen myself.
I focused on even pedal stroke, strong breaths, and catching superior swimmers for the next 50 miles, which got me to the turnaround at Hawi with a 22mph average. Of course, the crosswinds were too strong for me to notice the tailwind. So when I hit the turnaround only to face a brutal headwind, I watched my average speed drop off precipitously. I struggled to keep my heart rate up. My legs felt more like they should at the end of a build cycle. And I still had 52 miles to go.
In preparation for those low points, I had written on my left hand the names of five people who would never have the opportunity to do what I was doing, people who know the true meaning of harsh conditions. People whose courage I would honor as I faced the day. I gave each of them 10 miles during which time I replayed in my mind memories we had made long before I knew triathlon.
Those thoughts carried me into T2 with a smile.
Mind and body had weathered the wind.
And we biked our way into 21st place.
My left hand carried five names, but my right carried five words.
Every time I step into my running shoes, I acknowledge that I am doing something that my father once loved to do, taught me to do, but can no longer do himself. When I run, I run for both of us.
With a patient and steady pace over the first 9 miles, I had worked my way from 21st into 17th.
It was around 2pm, the hottest recorded point of the day. The next 15 miles took me out and back along the boiling blacktop of the Queen K Highway. I hear the heat index exceeded 100 degrees. I hear it felt like a furnace. I hear there wasn’t a single ocean breeze. But I can’t remember any of that.
Instead, I remember my legs and mind running us into a 9th place finish. In the WORLD!
As I lay in bed that night, too elated to sleep, I revisited several of the pre-race conversations I had with Kona veterans. A few in particular advised me to view my first Kona more as a learning experience than a competition. “You’re new to the course, you don’t know that heat, and you’ll make mistakes,” one told me. “Odds are not in your favor.”
That’s okay, I remember thinking to myself.
I am my father’s daughter.
To our friends and family who fight for Team Poppy Tony!
To the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) for fighting to advance the cure with body and mind.
To Jeffrey, my patient and loyal Sherpa. More on his awesomeness here.
To Coach Cummings, for teaching me to aim beyond the qualification.
And to the 5,000 (!!!) volunteers who make an Ironman World Championship happen! Here, with my favorite volunteers, Tracey and Mike: