…is really a tale of two races.  The story actually goes back quite a long way and includes some chapters I'd rather forget.  I've been struggling with where to start and finally have decided to start at the beginning…

From the moment I first set foot on the Big Island to compete in the Ironman in 2004 I knew I would be obsessed with getting back.  I was totally swept away by the beauty, intensity and power of the lava and the sea.  It was love at first breath.  Though I came tantalizingly close, qualifying a second time was an elusive goal that seemed to slip further from my reach as I became an "elder" in my 45-49 AG.

IM Western Australia 2007 would be the first open IM qualifying race on the calendar after my 50th birthday (pre IM adopting USAT age rules) so I could have the advantage of being the youngest puppy in my AG.  Unfortunately, shortly after beginning IMWA specific training I had a bad fall while hiking, fracturing a rib and the transverse spinous processes on two lumbar vertebrae.  It was the most excruciating injury of my life!!  I feared at the time it was an athletic career ending injury.  Fortunately, I was able to recover but IMWA that December was out of the question.  The broken bones and damaged muscles healed in time for me to tackle IM New Zealand 2008 instead and I was lucky enough to earn a Kona slot in that race.

My fantasy of what my second trip to Kona would be was drastically altered toward the end of August in two separate solo bike crashes.  The first left me half skinned alive.  Three weeks later I fractured my scapula and separated my shoulder in a
less dramatic but more devastating accident.  Tenacious (stubborn?) perhaps to a fault, I vowed to start (and finish) Kona despite the damage to my shoulder.  The result was an amazing race, not in terms of speed or place, but in the experience of overcoming setbacks and accomplishing what many thought impossible.  As I crossed the line on Ali'i Drive with my one good arm raised in celebration I vowed to return again to Kona…healthy.

My 2009 Kona qualifying dreams got dashed in a double whammy.  First, another bike crash in a bike race that fractured and separated my other shoulder and pinched nerves in my neck in late February.  I still had plenty of time to heal and rebuild before my Kona qualifying races.  But then, the coup de grace, I was smitten with an abnormal heart rhythm during a routine workout that resulted in hospitalization for cardioversion just 10 days before Honu 70.3.  I made it to that race, and to Eagleman 70.3 two weeks later, but I was not myself physically or psychologically.  I had lost confidence in my own body, my own heart.  I was afraid.

For a horrifying month my cardiologists were convinced that I was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, an untreatable and ultimately fatal disorder.  Even after the docs decided they were wrong and I was not dying, I decided to withdraw from all of my planned races for the remainder of the summer to focus on recovery.  My health, well being and confidence gradually returned during the summer with the help of Mark and Luis.  I tentatively returned to racing in the fall, holding off entering the next race until the previous was successfully completed.  First an Olympic distance in September, then a half ironman in October, all while eyeballing IM Western Australia if everything went ok.  After recovering well from my half ironman I actually entered IM Western Australia just one day before race registration closed.

My preparation went well…no accidents, no injuries, no illness and I was eager to race.  Then, ten days before I was to depart for Australia, I learned my father had gotten ill.  Three days later it was apparent he was dying and I found myself on a plane flying in the opposite direction from Perth to be with my father.  I spent the following days holding his hand, expressing my love and gratitude with no thought of actually going to Australia to race. 

My Dad was always so proud of my meager accomplishments as an athlete.  Apparently he would just light up when he told others of his triathlete daughter and her racing.  While he could still communicate he made it clear that he wanted me to go race.  I told him I would and I would be racing for him.  He died on Thanksgiving Day.  That same day I boarded a plane bound for Australia. 

It was a rollercoaster day in Western Australia.  I had the swim of my life in one of the most spectacular bodies of water I've ever been in.  Sticking to my HR limits on the bike course allowed me to take advantage of the fast course without crumbling in the strengthening heat and wind and ride to a new bike PR.  I had been told at the swim exit that I was third out of the water and I was pretty sure I had passed two women in my AG on the bike course.  I hit the run course thinking I was leading the W50-54 race.

The early race start, fast bike split and imminent summer solstice placed me on the run course during the hottest part of the day on a day the temperature would reach nearly 100 degrees.  Despite my best efforts I could feel my core body temperature rising during the second loop of the three loop run.  All around me was carnage.  Two athletes of every three were walking.   I'd had experience with heat sickness and I recognized the feeling…as if I was mired in molasses and an overwhelming sleepiness as if I would fall asleep on my feet, mid run, like a narcoleptic.  I thought I was leading the race and I knew I was on the verge of serious trouble.  I had to get my body temperature down or collapse.  So I slowed my pace and spent extra time at the aid stations…and I thought of my father.   Miraculously I succeeded in overcoming the physical distress and gradually was able to pick my pace back up to finish running strong, a feeling hard to describe after battling such a profound bad patch.  I ran down the final 100 meters to the finish more full of emotion than I had been at any previous Ironman finish.  The euphoria was short lived as I heard over the PA "…our second place finisher in the women's 50-54 division!"  I had been so sure I was in the lead.  I found myself in a hard to define place of being thrilled with my effort, honored to finish second in a major international event, yet still sadly disappointed, like I had somehow let my father down.

By the next day all disappointment had abated.   I had confused grief for my father with sadness for the outcome of the race and overnight I had been able to sort those feelings out.  The Kona slot was not to be this time.  I had arrived at the race healthy and raced my best.  My father would have been so proud.

The entire 2010 season lay ahead for another shot at a Kona slot.  As I often do I began planning for the next big race while recovering from the last one. I was fluttering through my options, unable to decide, like a butterfly in a field of flowers that can't seem to choose which to land on.  I was looking at races I had not yet done that were on my "must do someday" list.  That has been my pattern, to travel to new races.  Of the 9 ironman's I had done thus far, Kona was the only race I had done twice.  I had narrowed my choices to South Africa and Lanzarote.  Then I had a dream.

The dream was one of the most vivid dreams I've ever had.  I clearly saw myself on the hilly section of the IM Brazil run course.  I was light on my feet, feeling strong and alive.  I could feel a mystical energy coming into me from the land and the sea.  When I woke up from the dream I examined the more practical aspects of choosing that race, even though I knew in my heart I had already chosen it.  The timing was perfect.  Late enough to fully recover and rebuild from IMWA, yet early enough to do the same for Kona.  From the moment I made my decision I knew it was the right one.

I felt more confident about my preparation for this race than I have for any other.  Throughout the chain of adverse events that began in '07 I had been struggling with alarming deterioration of my running.   Wisdom, guidance and suggestions from Mark and Luis combined with the first time in a long time I'd had a full year of good health resulted in a running "reboot".  I was finally seeing improvement rather than decline in my running.   The day of my departure for Brazil was exactly one year after I walked into the ER in atrial fibrillation.  Against the odds given me by my cardiologist I was still in a normal sinus rhythm.  When I went to IMWA I was reeling from the loss of my father.  The empty space that the death of my father had left in my heart had since been filled with an even deeper connection to him.  Feeling so healthy and so complete created a deep sense of calm approaching the race.

At first it seemed like race day would never come then all of a sudden it was the night before.  Final shakeout workout done, bike and transition bags checked, nutrition bottles prepared, gear for the morning laid out, nothing left to do but wait, rest and visualize.  I went through my routine of visualizing my race and settling on my different levels of goals:  Primary goal, as always, to finish the race and enjoy the journey.  Challenging goal to go under 11:30.  Fantasy goal to break 11:15, a time I have always felt represents the best I could possibly do on a perfect day.  Although I was there in pursuit of a Kona slot, that did not actually come up in my goal setting.  I would race my best and the outcome would be the right one, no matter what it was.

All week long there had been wildly changing weather predictions.  Race morning dawned overcast, breezy, 70 degrees, a bit of chop on the water.  The swim is known for its insidious current that can't be felt but that will pull you off course if not corrected for.  I had gotten a good feel of what I needed to do to compensate for the current hit the turn buoys during the practice swim and had found stationary landmarks to sight on. 

When the horn sounded I started aggressively in the thick of the field, willing to take a bit of a beating to get a good start and swim my line.  There was a lot of contact until about halfway to the first turn, then the current began to pull things apart. Although the water was a bit rough (many wave hits to the face), the current was favorable if navigated well.  I stayed very focused on sighting my landmarks versus following other swimmers and also tried to concentrate on technique rather than effort.  I nailed my chosen lines spot on and hit every turn and beach landing perfectly.  The swim seemed to go by faster than any previous ironman and before I knew it my feet were hitting the sand at the swim exit.  I started no watch and the sun was glaring off the race clock.  I tried to read it but couldn't.  Whatever.  I felt I had executed my swim plan perfectly and I felt fantastic.

Once onto the bike course getting out of town was a bit sketchy.  I came out of the water in the thick of the pack so bikes were everywhere, adrenaline levels were high, roads were cobblestoned and speed-bumped and athletes were reaching for bike shoes and water bottles.  Miraculously I made it to the main road without incident and it was time to settle in and RIDE!

I felt amazing.  I really had to hold myself in check to keep my HR close to 140.  My plan had been to stay under 135 for the first half but it just felt so easy I decided to take a bit of a risk and let it hover around 140.  Weather conditions were near perfect, road conditions less so.  The kilometers flew by.  My focus was 90% on rhythm and effort, sticking like glue to HR of 140-142, while paying close attention to how it was feeling, 5% on remembering to drink every 15 minutes and being sure to consume all the calories in my bottles (lesson learned at Wildflower, my tune-up race), 4% on technical aspects of passing large numbers of cyclists on varied road conditions and staying legal (to my delight the bike course was heavily marshaled with yellow cards flashing like crazy) and 1% on watching for new friends on the course.  There was nothing left over for worrying about how fast I was going, how much time had elapsed, what lay ahead or how I was doing relative to the competition.

Overcast gave way to rain as I was on the final 5 kilometers of the bike course.   It was coming down hard by the time I headed out onto the run course.  I found my running legs amazingly quickly but just as quickly my wet feet began to blister.  By mile three I was telling myself that no one ever died from blisters and concentrating on maintaining a normal footstrike in spite of them.  Coming off the hills on the first half of the course I had somehow gone beyond the pain in my feet and I was no longer aware that they hurt.  Somewhere around 30K my quads began to scream.  I told myself that no one ever died from sore quads and I willed them to keep running.  They did.  When I felt myself hovering on a "bad patch" I just put my head in my feet and listened to the rhythm they danced on the pavement and I would feel strong again.  My watch was set to display only heart rate, I had no measure of elapsed time.   It was not until the sun began to set that I began to grasp what an outrageous race I was having.  My personal best was set on this course in 2007.  I remembered exactly where I was the moment the sun set that year.  When I reached that point this time the sun still hovered above the horizon.  Running in that magical light of the setting sun with the knowledge that I was going faster than ever before filled me with the power I had felt in my dream.   My memory of running down the finish chute is one of floating toward a clock that displayed 11:13.  I did not know yet that I had won, at that point it did not matter.  I had experienced the rare magic of a nearly perfect race that I had raced perfectly.

After my miscalculation and disappointment at IM Western Australia I made it a point to ignore my competition, who and where they were, focusing only on executing my race plan.  The athlete tracker on Ironman.com allowed me to reconstruct how the race unfolded.  I was third out of the water and hit the bike course a full 16 minutes down from the defending AG winner.  With the fastest bike split of our group I moved into second place after the bike.  I started the run six minutes behind.  Halfway through the run I had closed to within 2 minutes of the leader and took over the lead probably somewhere around 30 km.

I have used Mark Allen Online since taking up triathlon racing in 2004.  Mark and Luis have succeeded in taking an aging, broken down ex-runner and patiently molding me into long course triathlete.  They have guided me through some rough patches and some major setbacks.  Their motto is "train smart, get results".  What result could be better than a personal best in my 10th Ironman at the age of 52 and a return ticket to Kona?

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