It took me 4 years, 14 hours, 13 minutes and 33 seconds to return to Kona and cross the finish line of the Ironman World Championships after my first failed attempt in 2009. And what joy I felt when I arrived under the finishers arch on Ali’i Drive. Ten days later, I am still smiling.
Race morning, I was crying. I felt a lot of self-imposed pressure to finish the race this time, but I was not feeling confident about making the swim cut-off. If it was possible, based upon my finish time at the 2013 Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles in nearly 3 hours) and my self-timing at long ocean training swims, I was swimming slower than ever. So, it was definitely possible that I wouldn’t make the 2:20 cut-off. I had been doing lots of swim training and I even watched some movies right before race day to get my swim mojo going. Finding Nemo stuck in my head and I tried to smile thinking of Dori’s advice, to “just keep swimming” for 2.4 miles. But any smile on my face before the race started took a ton of effort.
As I entered the water, I stopped crying and told myself to get a grip and just swim and make the damn cut-off. After all, I had completed 6 other Ironman swims well within cut-off times, although 4 of the 6 had been wetsuit swims which make for faster times. I seeded myself towards the back and to the left, as I had been coached to do. I employed a strategy I used at Ironman New Zealand to keep myself relaxed and in control. When the gun went off, I slowly counted to three and then started swimming. It worked again! No pounding heart rate or panic to start off my day. It didn’t hurt that I was swimming at my very favorite place. Kailua-Kona’s bay, right off of the pier, is simply gorgeous. As I swam surrounded by other athletes my confidence rose. I hadn’t been dropped out of the gate! I was swimming with a group (a good sign for me) until I reached the Body Glove boat that marked the turnaround.
Making the turn around the boat, the group really thinned out. I didn’t know what had happened. Was I tiring? Was current making a difference? The swim back seemed to take forever. As is typical in my swims, I was pretty much alone out there. I vowed to stay on course and swam buoy to buoy to make sure I didn’t add extra yardage to make things worse. I did have one older gentleman swimming with me on my breathing side and I noted how clumsy he looked in the water. Was I really that bad? Oh well, at least he wasn’t breast stroking. Since most swimmers had long since finished, we were swimming through a chute of rather bored looking volunteers on surfboards who were patiently keeping an eye on us. While amongst all of these volunteers and with my gentleman companion, I eyed a large, dark mass of something ahead on the ocean floor. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Perhaps a large rock outcropping? As I swam over it, I was amazed to see that it was actually an enormous ball of fish, each fish perhaps 6-8 inches long, swimming tightly together in a circle. I wondered if they swam like this to thwart predator interest by looking like something really big and scary.
After seeing the fish ball, I was sighting on the finish area. Almost there! While I had been at 50 minutes about halfway through the swim, a glance at my watch showed me that I would finish at around 2 hours. Extremely slow, and much slower on the return than on the way out, but with plenty of time to spare before the cut-off time.
At this point, I knew I would finish the race, barring an unlikely mechanical issue or crash on the bike segment. After all, there were 8 1/2 hours to complete the 112 mile bike course and after that 6 1/2 hours to run the marathon. Generous times for me. So, I couldn’t help but plaster a big smile on my face. And I carried that smile all the way through the next 12 hours of my race–through transitions, on the bike, on the run (even in the dark), down the chute on Ali’i Drive, and until this day.
Yes, I will continue to work on my swimming. I won’t give up on improving my personally frustrating, embarrassing and race-threatening weakness. You see, my goal is to qualify to return to Kona, get a PR and smile all the way through next time.