IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
A: AKAHAI - Kindness
L: LOKAHI - Unity
O: ‘OLU’OLU - Agreeable
H: HA’AHA’A - Humility
A: AHONUI - Patience
“From the ocean to the mountains, the spirit of Hawai’i and its guardians maintain balance and harmony through Aloha. The lessons of humility, patience, and perseverance are gifts passed down through generations; they remind us that as we move forward we should embrace and respect our past.”
That was the theme for this year’s Ironman World Championship race. Appropriate on a number of levels. And I certainly experienced humility, patience, and (thankfully) perseverance.
Ahhhhh Hawaii. Fortuitously the week leading up to the race fell on my children’s fall break. We were very lucky to all travel there in 2015 when my father and I both raced - which was really special. Since that time, it has been the one place my kids have always asked to return to. “When are we going back to Hawaii?” is a recurrent question. Bella even said to me one day, “Mama, smell this flower, it smells like Hawaii”. My sister, Robyn, was coming with her family (Fred and Caitlyn), and my youngest brother, Roman, was also joining us.
So, while the trip was about the race, it was also about family time and enjoying the destination. I had coached an open water swim camp in Kona with Total Immersion Swimming in 2015, and one of the swimmers who attended the camp lives part of the year in Hawaii. I contacted her before we went, because I had seen where she had done a ‘Lavaboat Tour’ in the spring, and if the volcano was active I thought that would be a pretty amazing thing to do. She gave me the info for the company she used (www.seelava.com) - the family was agreeable, so we booked it.
We arrived in Kona late Saturday night. Sunday just spent an easy day, did some grocery shopping, and checked out the nearby beaches. Monday was our lava boat adventure. So…we decided to do the sunrise tour (I mean, sunrise over flowing lava - how cool is that?), and we had to be there at 4:30 am. And - it was a 2 1/2 hour drive. Thank heavens the 5 hour time change was in our favor, because we sure did load up in a van and head out at 1:15am. Our captain was great - very no nonsense, and went through a whole list of information - things like….hang onto the bar in front of you at all times, we will be in the open ocean, waves can be 10 feet or more, if you’re not hanging on you risk cracking your head on that metal pole, if you get sick we prefer you to throw up off the back of the boat, raise your hand and we will help escort you there, if you are pregnant, old or disabled, this is not for you. OK.
So we climb onto this boat which is still loaded on a trailer, drive over to the ocean, back in, and suddenly we are afloat, in the ocean, in the dark, in the waves, heading off to see lava from an active volcano. We were not in the water for 30 seconds when Sebastian started crying that his belly hurt and wanting to get off the boat. And, I am thinking … what have I gotten us into? Oh, man, I was pretty concerned for a while. I got him to lie down in my lap and close his eyes, and he settled down. Luckily it was a relatively calm day, but I kept a tight grip on my metal pole. And then, ahead, out of the dark you could see a glow. It was absolutely one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Our captain was amazing - he got us so close you could feel the heat - he said it was about 2000 degrees, and the water we were in was about 100. And as the sun came up in the distance, it was a pretty spectacular way to start the day. Sebastian rallied, and by the way back he was sitting next to the railing laughing as the boat rocked and rolled over the waves. Thank goodness.
The rest of the week was a combination of training, my family pitching in to help watch the kids, visiting some different beaches, seeing the wildlife - turtles, fish, dolphins, and getting in some relaxing.
There were athletes everywhere - running, swimming, cycling - continuously. And, the really, REALLY cool thing is - everyone was SO friendly. Running along Ali’i Drive with a constant stream of runners pretty much everyone made eye contact and gave a smile or a wave. Very cool.
We stayed in a condo and cooked in for the most part, so in the evenings we gathered together and ate outside watching the sun set over the ocean - and of course watching for that elusive green flash. Yep, life is good.
And then, race day was here. Jeff (my husband) drove me down early Saturday morning and dropped me off. I like being early, so I had a few minutes of standing in line before body marking opened. When they opened the gates all the volunteers cheered and clapped, then applied our number tattoos for the day. We went around a corner for a mandatory weigh in for medical, and then had access to our bikes (we had to check our bikes and our gear bags for the bike and run the afternoon before). Every row of bikes had 2 floor pumps at each end, which was very nice, so I pumped my tires, put on my water bottles, attached my shoes, made sure all was good - and found a place to chill for the next few hours until the race began. I watched for Jeff Fejfar (a friend of mine from Memphis who was also racing) and never found him, but my friend Michael Ross from Paducah found me - so we hung out and waited together. And then - it was time.
Swim start - amateur females were the last to go, at 7:20. It was an in water start, just a little off the beach. The last time I did this I started beside the pier on the far right - and got absolutely beat up. So - this time I started far left. And, it was perfect. Right from the start I found a pair of feet that were going my speed, staying out of the chaos, and holding a good line. I usually prefer to swim on my own and choose my own line - but every time I strayed from those feet I had to sight more and work harder and went slower - so on those feet I stayed. For the entire swim. It was the nicest, smoothest, least stressful swim I have ever had at an Ironman. We went a little wide a few times - but it was still much faster for me to stay on those feet. A friend of mine who coaches Total Immersion, and Fresh Freestyle swimming, and who has worked with me the past two springs named Dinah was actually doing the “Swim the Suck” a 10 mile swim in Chattanooga the same day - and I just pretended I was on her feet (and happily only doing 2.4 miles). At the far end of the course where you turn around the huge Bodyglove boat and start heading back I thought about my dad. When we did the race two years ago, as I was swimming around that boat I looked over and, out of the thousands of people out there racing, there was my father. And, yes, I gave him a good poke in the ribs when I realized it was him. Pretty amazing!
Out of the swim, through the showers, through the change tent where I got my bike bag and got sunscreened up - to the bike, and out on the course. The first part of the course winds through town a bit, lined with spectators - so that is really fun. I saw Mary Ann (who recommended the lavaboat tour),
then a couple that I coached at a Total Immersion course in Florida (who had come to watch me race - I am still beyond honored by that) - Don and Misty Wright.
A little further down were Elvis, Robyn, Fred, and Caitlyn, and then Wendy Fejfar (first time I’d seen her on our trip!), and then Dave, Angela, and Nathan Hacker (also came to watch, combining it with an anniversary trip/vacation). Then the road turned to climb to the Queen K - and it was out to the lava fields. All in all, I was very happy with my bike. The one thing I did prior to leaving for Hawaii was make a trip to Memphis to visit with Dale Sanford and Bryant Funston (BPC Performance Systems) and had a Precision Hydration sweat sodium test done (more info on this here: https://www.buildpeakcompete.com/hydration/). I have always felt I am a ‘salty’ sweater, and often succumb to muscle cramps at the end of hard efforts - and especially in hot weather. If I started to cramp on that bike it was gonna be a long day. I am so, SO thankful I did that, it gave me more info going into the race and made me again realize just how important the nutrition/hydration/electrolyte part of an Ironman is. I stuck with my plan, forcing myself to grab a bottle of cold water at every aid station. The winds picked up going into the turnaround at Hawi, but then the tail wind reward on the way back in was really, really sweet. Conditions were pretty classic otherwise, relentless heat from the sun and the lava fields, with occasional beautiful views of the ocean in the distance. Just kept it steady, and felt I was where I needed to be.
And then, the run. A volunteer grabbed my bike for me after the dismount line, and I collected my run bag, got more sunscreen applied, race number and run stuff on, and got back out there. Legs didn’t feel too bad all things considered. My plan was to start super conservative, even walking if I felt I needed to (I hate walking in races unless I have no other option, so I just jogged slowly), but I felt ok. Tried to keep around an 8:15 pace or so. The first several miles of the run are an out and back on Ali’i Drive - again lined with spectators and music and beachfront views. Very fun. Saw all my group again, including Don and Misty, Captain Thad and Nicole (from the Music that Moves Tri group out of Nashville), Celeste and Cleve (more friends made through Total Immersion swimming - both are coaches), found Roman wandering along Ali’i, and the rest of the family (with Elvis) were at the far end by the turnaround. Even (finally) saw Jeff F. and also my friend Michael Ross - both looking great. I felt good all the way until we made the turn out onto the Queen K again, and the heat, and then things started slowly deteriorating.
It.Was.Hot. I.Was.Sunburned. I could feel it. Heat from above, from the pavement, from my back. Every aid station cold water went in me, on me, on me, on me, in me. A lot of places there were so many people you had to get your own water. Some aid stations had cold sponges, some didn’t. I kept sticking to my hydration plan, making sure I got enough sodium in me while getting water down. I took one gel with electrolytes around mile 8. And then, my stomach started rebelling. Off the Queen K is a left hand turn down to the Natural Energy Lab - an amazing stretch filled with music and the energy from the aid stations is just palpable. By the time I made it to the turnaround at the far end, it was getting bad. I was extremely thirsty, but so queasy it was hard to make myself drink anything. I’ll spare details, but I did have to make a quick stop. As I started back the desire to walk was getting stronger and stronger. It is always there, a little voice saying how nice it would be just to slow down for a bit, just walk a little, but - I have had to walk a few Ironmans. And - it is a long day. After a particularly rough race one year my whole goal became to do an Ironman and not walk the run. I managed to do that and vowed that if at all possible I would not walk another one. I may be a little stubborn at times, so despite going slower and slower, I kept ‘running’ - well, maybe shuffling - but I did NOT walk.
I got passed by lots of people. Lots. Some I knew. Many I did not. All offered words of encouragement. Some tried to get me to run with them, ‘just to the next aid station’ - didn’t happen but it was a nice thought. I thought about everyone I knew watching and cheering every time I crossed a timing mat. I thanked the volunteers, I sang songs to myself, I thought about Bobby McGee run form (even while shuffling), I pulled out every mental strategy I possessed, and I kept moving forward. I made it to the turn down Palani Road and saw Cpt Thad and Nicole again - I had 1.2 miles to go. Getting there. Turned on Kuakini Hwy, then down Hualalai Road where I found Robyn and Fred - and they were SO excited. I think I even got a comment from Robyn about being able to run faster than me…which she certainly could! lol. And then, finally, I made that last right hand turn onto Ali’i Drive. People were everywhere. And there my sweet, dedicated, amazing family were waiting - cheering like crazy. I nearly cried. And - they were SO excited.
My friend, Bailey Bell, recently did his first Ironman in Chattanooga. I had messaged him good luck, and he responded to me afterwards and said, “what an experience! I can see why you are hooked!”
My immediate thought was, ‘the finish line of an Ironman is a very dangerous thing to get hooked on’.
There are no words that can describe it, no pictures that do it justice. An Ironman finish line is one of those things that you have to experience to understand. My father told me after we did our first one (Ironman Florida) together that there are few things (if anything) in life that you put so much time, effort, training, and sacrifice into that come down to one day. 17 hours is the cutoff time for most Ironman races. 7am to midnight. A whole day spent swimming, biking, and running. But the race is so much more than that. There are the elements, the nutrition/hydration, the mental and psychological, and the inevitable things that don’t go according to plan (and there is always at least one of those - at least!) and you have to react and adjust to on the fly. To persevere and to overcome, and to keep moving forward until you reach that finish line, that is a true test on many different levels. So - let me tell you, that finish line is a special thing. And while on some levels it is individual, there is something to be said for every person who is out there cheering. The energy from those cheers have kept me going on many an occasion. And...that finish line stretch is just magical. Again - I don’t have words to do it justice, but if you have been there, you know. The music, the crowds, the knowledge that you will make it, the relief in that knowledge, the pride in overcoming all that threatened to prevent you from making it, that no matter the outcome your hours of training and dedication got you to that line, and hearing those oh so wonderful words . . . “Kirsten Sass, You Are An IRONMAN”. Oh, yes. That is a dangerous thing to be hooked on indeed.
The next day was my daughter Bella’s 8th birthday. For years the one thing she has wanted to do was to swim with dolphins. So the next morning we packed everything up, and went out on a boat ride to see some dolphins. We did see a few up close, which the kids were really excited about - but unfortunately the water was too rough to actually get in. And, that was ok, because there was a little hesitancy about actually getting in the water with dolphins when it came right down to it.
We were taken to a nice snorkeling area in calmer waters which seemed to suffice. And - we left a little something to do should we ever be fortunate enough to return. We wandered around the street market downtonwn for a while, had a nice meal together, then headed to the airport to begin the long journey home.
I can never say thank you enough to all of those who watched, cheered, sent good vibes and positive energy, and spent your day following mine. Every one of you crossed my mind at some point out on that course. Thank you to my coach, Suzanne Atkinson, who I present more challenges for than probably anyone (despite all my attempts to be low maintenance). Big shout out to Dale and Funston for taking the time with me and answering all my sweat related questions - and had I not done that it would have been an even longer day out there, if you have not had this done - you need to. Period. (https://www.buildpeakcompete.com/hydration/) And - to those who traveled to Hawaii and cheered me on, I cannot begin to tell you how much that means to me. My cup runneth over indeed. And, especially, to my family - helping me get my training in leading up to the race, staying out there and cheering until the end, helping me carry my bags during the long trip home, and putting aloe on my incredibly sunburned back - thank you. I am one very, VERY lucky girl. Finally, to my father. You were on my mind the entire trip, and especially during that race. Thank you for teaching me, and showing me, that Anything Is Possible.
So - here are a few random numbers just for interest’s sake:
13 - years since my first Ironman Hawaii
3 - number of times I have done Hawaii (though I have qualified 4 times)
13 - number of Ironmans now completed
8 - number of World Championship races this year (including one as a guide)
8 - weeks between the first and last
And - that’s about all the number stuff I have. ;)
OK - and some pics!!!!
Mahalo for reading!