Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 2014 World Championships: The Race of My Life

“No one ever said it would be easy.  They said it would be worth it.”  Those words echoed through my mind on Saturday October 11th through the quiet storm of emotions that were raging as I ran down the steamy Queen K highway.

 Lins, Krops and I

  I’ll be honest.  I did not want to write this race report.  There are multiple reasons for that, most of which are rooted in my own wanting to avoid reliving the experience and longing to move on without having to rehash the painful details.  After the Ironman World Championships, as I sat with a good friend on a sunny balcony listening to the sound of cheerful banter of my Coeur Sports teammates with the waves crashing in, she became the voice of reason.  She said, “I think it’s important that you share your experiences as a pro, Kim, especially experiences like this one.  Many people don’t get to see the hard side where sometimes things fall apart despite your best preparations.  Sometimes pros gloss over it like it was no big deal or just another day at the office to avoid looking vulnerable or looking like they made mistakes.  People who have loved your blog in the past, have loved it because you never did that.  Don’t you start now.”  I told her my reasons for the shiny happy blog, including me not wanting to make my recent race something more important or significant than it was, but she wasn’t buying it.  So thanks, Michelle.  This one is for you.

Three amigos at the pro meeting

I came into the World Championship tentatively optimistic.  I’d been nursing a hip /glute / hamstring issue through September and early October, but it seemed to be holding up well due to some great PT with Vesla 360.  I had come to the big island earlier than usual to prepare my body for some of the challenges I didn’t deal with as well the previous year including heat, humidity and nutrition.  My mental outlook felt good and I was ready for an incredibly hard mental and physical day.  

When I lined up to tread water with the 35 best women in the world, I didn’t feel pressure.  Hearing the helicopters buzz overhead and the voice of Mike Reilly announcing, I didn’t feel I had anything to prove.  I prayed for a super solid day where I would celebrate this season and get to use my gifts to their utmost ability.  I looked into the eyes of the other women who I’d seen grace the covers of magazines, holding banners above their heads and knew for the first time that I belonged with this group.  It was a good feeling.  I came to compete and it was going to be a great day. 

When the cannon fired, blood coursed through my veins like hot lava...breath, stroke, breath, stroke.  There was no time for sighting; I followed the bodies around me by watching them underwater mirroring their every movement.  For a full minute, I was redlining in harmony with a small group of five to six women which I knew included Beth and Linsey, so I was exceptionally happy with my position.  Then, just like that, out of the corner of my eye the body at my right swerved and I was caught alone.  I looked up just in time to see the group start taking a beeline closer to the buoy and with that I knew I had to find the power to surge.  It was now or never.  Unfortunately, my body’s answer was "no" and the group gapped me by five feet.  I continued to push, but they moved farther and farther away and I knew it was going to be a very long 2.4 mile solo swim.  The swell was up and it seemed to catch the group in just the right way leaving me high and dry.  It was hard to sight and the buoys seemed incredibly far in between.  “Just keep swimming hard,” I told myself for the duration, but it was hard to stay focused on straightest course, especially on the way back.  The current seemed to be pulling me too far to the right inside the buoy lines.  I heard kayakers yelling “LEFT!!” for a majority of the return trip and I kept thinking “TRUST ME, I’m TRYING!!”  I tried not to swallow too much salt water, as I know that can be a recipe for disaster, but at times I’d turn to breathe at exactly the same time as a swell or chop and get a nice big gulp.  
I heard other athletes being announced as they were coming out of the water, and tried not to let it get me down.  Ironman is a very long day and would not be decided in the first hour of a nine plus (or even longer in my case) hour day.  I excited the water, ran through T1 and almost had a small heart attack when I saw the time clock at the bike mount.  

Out onto the bike I felt optimistic.  I’ve been biking well lately when my hip was willing to push and my coach and I had taken a conservative plan for the first portion of the race to make sure that area was happy and not overworked.  It would also give me a chance to start eating and drinking early and with my sweat rate of 60+oz per hour in hot conditions, this was key.  Heading out to the turn-around the highlights were hearing plenty of great cheers and of course staring into the face of a smiling ear to ear Chrissie Wellington.  My heart  rate was soaring and my power seemed a little slow to respond.  I could feel my glute not wanting to push quite as hard as I was hoping, but it often tightens up with the rest period during taper so I wasn’t overly concerned.  I couldn’t help but notice the other girls bombing down the other side of the road before I was even close to the turn around, but I tried to ignore it.  I repeated my mantras for the day “patience pays off, smart consistent following the plan, leave the outcomes alone” hoping they would ward off any negative thoughts. I slugged down two 28oz bottles in the first fifty minutes so I was feeling pretty good about my nutrition progress.  Headed out on the Queen K, I wasn’t really thrilled with my power average, so I attempted to start pushing on it, but the hip just didn’t seem to love my effort so I backed off. More patience necessary.  The age group men caught me much faster than I anticipated, and by 30 miles, I was already dealing with their constant passing, but this year I was mentally prepared for it.  I stayed away from their riff-raff and made sure to maintain a good distance. 

The middle miles up to Hawi started getting windy and I started to let the negative thoughts creep in about my glute not functioning as well as I’d hoped.  I thought hitting these powers was going to come easily and it seemed to be anything but.  The goals coach and I had set were the exact same as I had done the last two races, but unfortunately, my body didn’t seem to be pulling it off.  Slugging back Powerbar Perform, I soldiered on, but not with my usual gusto.  I started doubting myself and my body already, wondering if I was going to even be able to pull together a solid day.  As the winds to Hawi worsened, my outlook grew dimmer and I started thinking about just trying to enjoy the scenery out there.  I watched the blue water while the men passed me, drafting in droves.  I tried to enjoy riding my bike as that was one of the reasons I came, to enjoy the day.  

We hit Hawi and were finally rewarded with some nice winds coming down the mountain.  I remembered my coach's instructions, that if I had to make decisions out there, I should make them in light of preserving the last 30 miles of the bike as being my strongest of the day.  At this rate, they were bound to be as I’d lost so much focus I was just hanging out on my bike for the first 65 miles.  The thing that worried me most was that I was averaging 2.5-3 bottles per hour and didn’t even remotely have to pee.  My stomach wasn’t feeling all that spectacular and I’d started skipping gels to cut down on my carbohydrate content in hopes of feeling a little more settled.  When we made the turn toward home back onto the K, I finally made a decision.  If I did ONE thing correctly on this bike, it was going to be this 30 mile section.  I stopped sitting up (which I did way too much of the first 60 miles, not very aero in the Kona wind) and babying my glute.  I decided that I came here to run this body into the ground, so I had better start doing it and get my act together.  Often times the momentum (or lack thereof) on this very tough section back to town bleeds directly into the marathon.  I was hoping if somehow I could turn this ride around, maybe I still had the chance to run up to my capabilities and feel good about my efforts.  

I started tussling with the men that wanted to pass me and then sit up and eat/drink their buffet.  My power numbers started to resemble something of normalcy and I gained a little momentum back.  I was still worried that I was chugging fluid and it didn’t seem to be moving through my system, but I knew the answer was not to stop.  That was out of the question. I took a caffeinated gel and pushed as the tailwind turned into a headwind for the last 20 miles back to town.  

I knew by my time, I hadn’t broken any records and was most likely pushing the very back of the women’s professional field.  However, I believed that I could still run a decent marathon that I would be proud of at the end of the day.  In T2, I stopped at the restroom to assess the hydration and the news was not good.  “I can still do this!” I told myself and headed out on the run.  For the first ten miles through town I felt ok, my stomach was a little testy so I took some gas-X and TUMS, which I always have with me in my Fuelbelt pouch.  I took some salt tablets too just in case.  I couldn’t stand the thought of more sports drink so I took coke from aid station one right through.  My heart rate seemed to be right where it should be and I didn’t feel too hot which was a big change from the previous year.  I focused on what I could control and the hip only hurt slightly which was completely manageable. 

I heard plenty of cheers and looked forward to seeing familiar faces which helped out on Alii as we ran.  I seemed to be passing a lot of people and I started thinking a 3:10 or below might be within reach.  I started feeling a little more “off” in the stomach near the turn up Palani near the 10 mile mark, so I took more meds hoping to solve the issues. 

By the eleven mile mark out on the Queen K, my stomach started feeling like it was carrying a brick.  The harder I pushed, the worse the pain got.  I slowed down considerably to try to keep things moving and maybe see if my body would normalize, but to no avail.  I stopped to try and throw up, no dice.  I started to jog praying for it to let up, but it continued to worsen.  Little by little I tried to run and then would walk hoping it would go away.  The people I had passed on Alii started slowly passing me back one by one.  Many athletes encouraged me as they went by and told me to keep going.  I tried to stay positive, but things were going downhill fast.  Somewhere between 14-16 miles, I realized that finishing this race at all was going to be a real challenge.  I was feeling so sick I wanted to lie down alongside the road and just roll around in pain.  Walk, jog, walk, jog... watch pro women run by on the other side, cheer for them, repeat.  My heart sank.  This was the final verdict of my day.  I thought about flagging down the medical team at the next aid station and getting a ride back to town.  I passed one pro woman who was also walking during my slow jog phase and she said “nice running” and I didn’t know whether to laugh or start crying.  We were both having long days, but she wasn’t quitting either. 

I stopped taking in all calories except coke and began running on fumes.  The energy lab miles were a blur.  I’m not sure what happened in there, but the other top age group women were now right on my heels and passing and it was great to see my Coeur Sports teammates doing so well, along with my friend Andrea.  In the end, I had forgotten what it was like to be out among the masses cheering each other on even when the high hopes were long over.  The highlight reel from the last six miles included lots of puking (and rallying) and developing a very intimate relationship with a cone at mile 24.  The medical team told me if I didn’t let go, I would be taken in so eventually I did pry myself off and onto all fours, crawling and eventually walking.  Tears streamed down my face through the final miles just as they had the year before, but for entirely different reasons.  I was disappointed in the times I’d given up on myself out there, but I was also thinking about my cousin Mike’s family and how no matter what pain I was in, the pain they faced on a daily basis overshadowed this small blip of my tough day by leaps and bounds.  The strength they have shown recently is like nothing I have ever seen.  If they could do it, I could do it.  I knew Mike was watching and I made a promise not to quit no matter what happened out there.  I thought about my QT2 teammates, Beth, Linsey and Cait all pushing the limits out there regardless of the kind of day they were having and about all my teammates, FYP athletes, Pitt tri club members, Boulder Tri Camp members (specifically my friend Ashley C. who just did her first half IM), friends and family back home watching and cheering me on.  The rubber had met the road and I’d come out victorious over the demons telling me to pull the plug and go home.  I didn’t break any records.  In fact, I didn’t even beat my very first Ironman ever (10:56) on the big island, but I did manage to finish, which at times seemed all but impossible.  My body had been wrung out and left for dead, but the spirit was stronger.  I wondered if I had let myself quit that day, would I ever forgive myself for the promise I had made.  I decided I wouldn’t and for my own reasons, I pressed on.  Other pros had to make their own decisions with other races on the horizon.  For me, this was the right decision that day as I knew this was my final race of the season. 
Alii drive was lined with friends and family and running down it still felt like a party with thousands of your closest friends.  They cheered like I was winning the whole race and maybe to them, I was.  It was getting dark and my finish had looked completely different in my mind’s eye.  Instead of barreling down it guns blazing, I was willing one foot in front of the other hoping my body wouldn’t shut down minutes from the finish line.  When Mike finally said my name, he saw my expression and announced “it was a tough day, great job Kim” and I was being caught by the volunteers.  Safe at last. Off to the medical tent where I lost eight pounds and was treated with lots of TLC.
Even now I know this day was bigger than me. 

What I wrote on Facebook as my status I believe with all my heart. 

"There are days where you ask of your body & it gives you everything it can. Even though it might not be the day you hoped to have, you realize that those are the days where you do exactly what an Ironman does, finish. You finish and give thanks for all the wonderful people in your life. You finish because you made a promise to yourself and someone who you know is watching you from above. You finish because it's a gift & you never EVER take that for granted. Thanks for all your support! I am an Ironman World Champion finisher once again!"

It doesn’t make it sting less, but it does help me to know that my friends and family are there for me no matter the outcome of one day.  I will not let this race define me as an athlete or a person.  There are lessons to be learned and I’m still in the process of figuring out what those are for me.  The biggest one was that sometimes the important part is learning the hard way not to “judge” the race during the early throws when not much has been decided yet.  I lost focus and that was on me.  The nutrition piece in Kona is always a tough one as well and it might have been the salt water sloshing around in my belly or it might have just been my super sweat rate again requiring the amount of sports drink that is beyond all normal limits but hard to absorb at that same rate.  Either way, the big island and I had some time to come to peace afterward and having Kyle with me throughout the day was a huge reason why I could keep trucking on long after my day was supposed to be finished.

Some words from one of my athletes, Scott, were a welcome insight into another perspective.

"Adversity introduces us to ourselves.  I was more proud to have you as my Coach yesterday than if you had won the whole dang thing. Don't get me wrong I wish you all the best and the race of your dreams but when things all went to hell you kept moving. Anybody can shine when everything is going great, but show me what someone does when it all falls apart and I'll tell you who they are.

You looked into the abyss and you kept putting one foot in front of the other, to me there is nothing more noble. I know something about dark places albeit one of my own making and I know what it takes to keep your feet moving and there aren't many willing to walk through fear and pain.

I don't know why stuff like that happens but I no longer spend a lot of time questioning it. I have found that everything happens for a reason and if I keep putting one foot in front of the other the reason will be revealed. I strongly suspect someday you will be able to draw on Saturday to help yourself or more likely in service to someone you care about.

Whatever the reason, you were a champion on Saturday."

Congrats to all of the finishers as it was a VERY tough day out there and being alongside you was a privledge and an honor.  It reminded me about everything good about the sport as people tried with all their might to help me get to that finish line.  Thank you for that!  Congratulations to the other professional women who continue to inspire me to want to work harder than I ever have before and bring out the best in me with their talent and tenacity.  Thank you to my husband, Kyle, for never giving up on me and helping me through the ups and downs of this long season.  Thank you to my coach, Jesse, for being so patient and continuing to support me through injury and the times when you wanted to kill me!  Thank you to my family, friends, Facebook and blog supporters who took time to write a kind word of support about a tough day.  Thank you to the other athletes out there who renewed my hope in the sport and let me see again why I do love this group of swimming, biking and running athletes so very much.  Thank you to my sponsors Ultragrain, Coeur Sports, Powerbar, Rudy Project, QT2 Systems, Fuelbelt, NormaTec, Top Gear Bicycle Shop, Biotta and BlueSeventy for your continued support throughout the year so that I can have the best products and enjoy relationships with companies I truly believe in.  Thank you for reading!

“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”  --- Martin Luther King Jr.


Anonymous said...

remember always that you are competing on a world stage, and win or lose, there is a lot to be said about even competing at that level. you are amazing, keep at it!

Anonymous said...

WOW I LOVE THIS POST!! I hope I get the chance to experience what you did!! Well done!!!! Best wishes from Scotland :)

Anonymous said...

WOW I LOVE THIS POST!! I hope I get the chance to experience what you did!! Well done!!!! Best wishes from Scotland :)

Anonymous said...

WOW I LOVE THIS POST!! I hope I get the chance to experience what you did!! Well done!!!! Best wishes from Scotland :)

Anonymous said...

WOW I LOVE THIS POST!! I hope I get the chance to experience what you did!! Well done!!!! Best wishes from Scotland :)

Anonymous said...

WOW I LOVE THIS POST!! I hope I get the chance to experience what you did!! Well done!!!! Best wishes from Scotland :)

Daren Williams said...

You inspire me. I had a rough day in my last tri (Boise 70.3 in 2011) but nothing like what you went through. Believe it or not, this inspired me to get back at it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Kim, What an amazing race report. Honest, gut wrenching, uplifting, and life itself. Thank you for writing it - and sharing it. You, and this report, show the reality of a competitor, this sport, the IM, and this specific IM. And it provides the evidence of the champion you are. I look forward to cheering you on in the next one! (a house mate in Boulder)

Kristin M said...

Awesome job pushing through! The important part is you finished! You are still an IM!!

Stacy Byers said...

Thank you for being so brave in your race and in your sharing of your story. There is so much we can all learn from adversity. Your story inspires me daily!

Christine Coppola Perez said...

This is amazing, Kim, thank you for sharing. You are an inspiration to me and I am sure many, many people out there.

Kiet said...

Thanks for posting this, just came across this on twitter, "Every race I either win or I learn". And you would have felt worst had you DNF, way to be a professional and get your job done!