I knew from the moment I stepped off the plane onto the stairs leading to the tarmack of the Kona airport that this year was going to be different.  How?  I didn't dare to venture a guess but it would be different, I was certain.  In past years, when I have made that first step off the plane a wave of intense heat radiating off of the runway and surrounding black lava has washed over me as a sharp reminder of where I have just arrived.  This year it was overcast and raining, bordering on chilly.  As I always do, I went for a short "Hello Island!" run as soon I was checked into my condo.  It had stopped raining, the air was still cool and the humidity was about 220%.  Hello, Big Island!

The days leading up to the race seemed different from past years. 

First the Island.  She was showing many different sides of herself in a short period of time, ranging from gentle and tranquil to fierce and wild.  Crystal clear, calm waters for a totally relaxing swim.  Crazy crosswinds from which legends are born for a harrowing, white knuckle bike ride.  Blazing sun with intense heat.  Torrential downpours with wild lightning.  

Next the demeanor of the event.  It seemed the tension level was dialed back from normal.  Ali'i Drive did not feel like a coiled up rattlesnake, it felt a bit more relaxed and kicked back.  Perhaps this had more to do with a shift in me than an actual shift in everyone.  I felt fit, healthy, prepared and calm.

This year was also different in my connection with my Mark Allen Online teammates.  Thanks to Diana Hassel's team race calendar and monthly team race updates, thanks to Kelly Lear-Kaul organizing a team training camp in Boulder and to Mark and Luis for their participation in that camp, thanks to the team functions on the Big Island on race week and (I hate to say it!) thanks to facebook we have become more than a group of strangers who wear the same race kit and use the same coaches.  We have begun to evolve as a team and actually get to know each other.  I really felt that connection this year in Kona.  I drew a lot of positive energy from this great group of fellow athletes!

The healthy part fell apart just 36 hours before the firing of the canon when I began to feel fatigued and headachy.  I thought maybe I'd let myself get a bit dehydrated until searing throat pain woke me up in the middle of the night.  The kind that makes you dread having to swallow again.  By Friday morning there was no mistaking that I was coming down with a mother of a cold. I went through my prerace day routine, ten minutes of swimming, 15 minutes each of biking and running.  I actually felt ok from the shoulders down.  I spent the day organizing and checking gear and hammering down zinc, vitamin C, Echinacea and saline nose drops hoping to keep the worst of the cold at bay.  The humbling take home message was - do not think you have made it to the starting line healthy until your toes are in the water on race morning.

Nothing like being sick to get a solid sleep the night before a race.  I slept like the dead and felt like I was crawling out of a deep hole when the alarm woke me at 3:00 AM race morning.  Once I got moving the cold seemed static, no better and no worse.  I decided that, for sure, I was able to give the race an honest go.  The ritual of the race morning routine was very calming for me.  Body marking, filling bottles on the bike, airing up the tires, and then finding a quiet place to sit and reflect on the day ahead.  Even at the Ironman World Championships there is always a quiet spot to be found to step outside the growing tension and pent up energy of 1800 athletes anxious for the race to begin.

My timing was perfect and I was headed towards the steps leading into the Kailua-Kona Bay as the canon fired to send the pros off at 6:30.   I entered the water with a prayer for body, heart and spirit then stroked out towards the start line.  I positioned myself about midway across, fairly close to the front.  The age groupers canon fired.  I waited for the frenzy to wash over me.  It never did.  It was one of the least physical, smoothest race starts I have ever experienced.  I was in a crowd but everyone was swimming straight and giving each other enough space.  As I often do in this race I got distracted by the beauty of the water and the ocean floor beneath us.  Watching the coral and the fish, relishing the feeling of being gently lifted and dropped by the swells, I kept catching myself being a bit lazy in my swim effort and tried to force myself to focus on swimming strong.  Then I'd see another cool thing below…like the manta ray that was about 1,000 yards offshore.  It wasn't until we hit the turnaround that I got into "race mode".  I found a swimmer that I couldn't quite pass and latched onto her feet.  She was doing a stellar job of navigating so I only had to lift my head a couple of times to confirm her accuracy the whole way back.  I felt like I had only swum the second half well but I had thoroughly enjoyed the entire swim.  My swim time of 1:24:xx is not fast but still 5 minutes faster than my previous effort on this course with two good arms in 2004.

T1 was unhurried and methodical.  It is a lengthy run from the showers at the swim exit and change tents around the entire pier to the bikes, long enough that I carried my bike shoes and put them on when I got to my bike.  I met my prerace goal of being out on the bike course within 90 minutes of starting the race.

The bike starts with an 8-ish mile loop around and through town that includes some short hills.  I used this as a gentle warm-up, sitting up, spinning on the small front chain ring, starting on my hydration and nutrition.  I was provided a bit of comic relief by folks who were hammering this section like they were racing the last lap of a criterium.  It was hard to resist reminding them that there was still over 100 miles to ride.  After we made the turn onto the Queen K, I shifted onto my big chain ring, pedaled back past them quite easily and said out loud "Now the bike ride begins!"

Now the bike ride does begin.  Call me sick, but I love it out there in the lava fields.  I love the heat.   I love the endless feel of the black rock.   I love the contrast of light blue sky, black lava and deep blue ocean.  I love the wind.  I love seeing the trees bent over with fronds whipping around.  I love the volcanoes in the background, always present.  I love the Island and feeling the energy of the Island coursing through my veins, filling my lungs and surrounding my body.   I always enter my own space out there.  The other athletes, the mile markers, the aid stations, the race itself all sort of dissolve into a vague blur of a background.  My focus and awareness are on the moment I am in: the breath I am taking, the muscles I am contracting and relaxing, this turn of the pedal, the look and the feel of the Island at this moment.

There are some landmarks that I noticed as I passed by:  the Energy Lab and the Airport, the Donkey Crossing, Waikoloa, my friends cheering me from Puako Rd. (the lone spectators there), Kawaihae.  Some mysterious internal clock rousted me from my meditative state roughly every 15 minutes to remind me stick to my nutrition/hydration plan which I managed to do religiously.  It wasn't until the climb toward Hawi that I began to have conscious thoughts.  The first was, where is the wind?  Often the headwinds begin to get quite pesky as early as Waikoloa.  Now I was halfway up the climb to Hawi, past where the gusty crosswinds usually start, and the wind had yet to show itself.  Maybe there would be no crosswinds today?  Just as I began to believe this might be the case, WHAM!  Like someone had flipped a switch I was hit by a powerful gust that took me almost across the center line.  Aaah, now the wind was out to play!

I had to shift my focus a bit outside my little space to stay on the road and upright in the wind.  Watching the riders in front of me getting pushed sideways or shifting to a 45 degree angle prepared me for an impending gust…weight on the windward arm, power on the leeward crank, lean into it but not too hard or you'll bite it when the gust lets up.   Though the crosswinds were wild the headwind stayed fairly mild by Hawi standards.   Around the turn in Hawi town then it was time to negotiate the crosswinds at speed on the descent.  I was able to grab special needs and change bottles on the fly on my way out of town.  I tapped into my bravery bank to remain aero for the entire descent, though I did use the brakes so I could keep pressure on the pedals to handle the wind gusts.

Safely down from Hawi, through Kawaihae, to the portion of the course where heat and fatigue often begin to take their toll.  In the past I have been among those who begin to falter around mile 80 on the bike.  This year I felt stronger at mile 80 than I had at mile 10.  As others around me began to slow down I began to speed up.  I felt so strong and controlled for the last 30 miles I felt I could have kept going forever.  I've read a lot of post race comments about the heat, I did not notice it.  The wind, which can be a persistent headwind from mile 80-105, seemed to be more of a crosswind and was infused with the essence of the ocean.

It seemed I had only just left T1 and now I was rolling into T2.  I had just ridden the bike course over half an hour faster than I had before and I was feeling fantastic.  When I exited T2 my fantasy goal of breaking 12 hours in Hawaii was within reach if I could average 10 mpm on the run.  My aerobic run pace in high heat and humidity is just about 10 mpm, so I would have to have a perfect run.  The first 10 miles was perfect.  My legs were strong and responsive.  I felt I was holding back, just a little.  My heart rate was right where it should be.  Nutrition was going down well.  I was staying cool enough with ice and sponges.  I was averaging exactly 10 mpm.  I began to look forward to running down to the Energy Lab before sunset for the first time. 

Shortly after mile 10,  starting the climb on Palani, I fell apart.   The power went out, utterly and completely.  I developed a killer side stitch that wouldn't go away and made me feel slightly nauseous.  It's the hill, I thought, it will get better once I'm over the hill.  I allowed myself to walk up the hill.  I actually felt worse walking.  Turning onto the Queen K I started to run again but my heart rate would not go back up to where it had been and I was crawling.  I tried drinking coke thinking maybe I needed fast carbs. no help.  Doubt and fear crept into the picture.  I worried that maybe I was sicker from my cold than I had thought and that my body was overwhelmed by racing with illness.  I kept jogging only because walking felt even harder.  I feared I was done and I would not be able to finish.  I have never, ever felt I could not finish a race before and now I was wrestling with that possibility.  I actually stopped at the aid station closest to mile 13 to try to regroup and figure out what to do. 

Then I remembered something my coach Mark had said at our team breakfast…break the race up into pieces that you can manage.  What piece could I manage now?  Well, I could jog to the next orange cone about 20 meters away.  So I did that.  Can I make it to the next one?  Yes.  So I did that.  In that manner, doggedly chipping away at the course from one orange cone to the next one, I began moving forward again…20 meters at a time.  I clung to one goal:  to watch the sunset after the turn around at the Energy Lab.

As I was working my way from cone to cone I remembered something else Mark had said at that breakfast talk.  If it seems your body is just not firing right try taking some salt.  SALT!!!!  I had been carrying salt tablets all day and had not touched them.  My sports drink is loaded with salt and I had not had any cramping issues so I'd assumed my salt intake was adequate.  But wait, a side stitch is a cramp and my body is definitely not firing right.  So I finally pulled out the salt tabs at mile 16 of the run and stuck one under my tongue.  Within minutes the side stitch went away and strength began to return to my body.  Doubt melted away, euphoria took its place.  I made the turn towards the Energy Lab in the midst of the transformation and with each step my I could feel my power growing stronger.  It was as if I was being energized by the Energy Lab.  After the turn around at the bottom of the Energy Lab I noticed the sky was taking on the colors of impending sunset.  It was still light when I made the turn onto the Queen K to head back to Kona and I was back to clicking off 10 mpm.

I had seen all of my teammates heading back into town, towards the finish during the time I was at my lowest of lows.  Now I was flying high with only the Island as a witness and that seemed exactly as it should be.  I have never had a more spectacular feeling final 10 miles.  Coming down Ali'i Drive to the finish feeling so amazing was made even sweeter by having been through such a profound bad patch.  I think the expression on my face in my finish line photos says it better than I can here.

Anything is possible!

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