Racing in Kona is a soul bearing experience. Every single person that races there has sacrificed a great deal just to get to the start line. It is so hard to get everything right in Kona and put together a good race and not make mistakes in the difficult conditions. The island shows no mercy, and that's what makes it Kona, and what makes it World Championships.
The reason I want to race Kona is because this is where the best have gathered for years to test ourselves against one another: it’s the Ironman world championship. I am motivated by big days. I want to race the best, I enjoy it because it brings the best out in me. I like a big stage. I like pressure, and Kona has plenty of all of this.
Last year I came into Kona pretty light hearted, serious and meticulously detailed as usual but with not a lot of pressure. This year I came in knowing what I was in for but also with greater expectations because I had made improvements in both my racing and training that showed me I needed to expect more. I also came in with the confidence to go race my own race.
So without turning this post into a novel let’s cut to race morning. I was nervous, but I attributed that to it being a big race. I had some nausea but again it’s race morning. I got to transition early and I got everything set up. I headed down to the swim start with plenty of time for a swim warm up.
I went out for my warm up noticed the water was a lot cloudier than it was earlier in the week and there were a lot of particles in the water. I swam towards Ali’i Dr to stay out of the way of the boys cueing up for their start. Without warning I suddenly threw up. Not my whole breakfast but certainly the gel and bottle I had just drank. I got out of the water and got water from one of my friends. I took some deep breaths. I decided to just chill on the stairs until the boys went, and then I swam out to the swim start.
I was calm and ready on the start line. I started next to my friends knowing that we would just put our heads down and go and not spend time beating each other up. The swim started fast- I think we all knew the pace was going to be quick with some super swimmers in the field. It became clear early that they were in a league of their own and the pace of the chase group was just a little slow but not slow enough for me to want to go around to the front. Kona is a long day and trying not to expend energy that you don’t need to early in the race is important. I exited the water in 5th place and I had a great T1.
I got onto the bike and the pace was on. I told myself no, this is exactly what you said you would not do. I stayed disciplined holding my appropriate watts. I tried to get calories in pretty early since I was ill in warm up and after about 20-30min I started vomiting. Anything I put in me came right back up. It didn’t matter if it was water, gels, chews, salt, coke, electrolyte drink- nothing stayed inside me. I kept pushing though, willing my body to hold down some calories. I climbed about half of Hawi and then the lack of calories began to hit me. My slow fade began and as I descended Hawi; the vomiting was not stopping and I was bleeding time. It’s so hard not to panic- it felt like I was trapped inside a horrible dream.
I got back up on the Queen K and saw Camilla pull out; I didn't know at the time but after the race we spoke and she was also throwing up. Then Sarah Piampiano came by me- she said was also ill and cramping. Then it was Michelle Vesterby with just a few miles to go. She was actively throwing up- I could see it was just clear fluids like me. We were both so upset and discussed what to do- we agreed that we would get to T2 and decide together in the change tent. We sat down, put our shoes on and decided we would just try. Michelle pulled out a couple miles in. I saw Jarrod and he gave me instructions from coach that as long as I was moving okay I could run the out and back on Ali’i and reassess before I climbed Pilani.
I was so surprised to find that I was moving super well for the first 3 miles. I started to think, “hey, if I run a 3:12-15 I could run myself into the top 20” and then moments later my body showed me it just couldn’t go anymore. I had no fuel for my body. I still hadn’t peed since before the race. Now I was worried about the long term damage I was going to do to my body if I raced on truly empty tank. I saw Jarrod shortly after 8 miles and knew my day was done. The reality of what had just happened didn’t feel real. Was I really standing on Ali’i Drive with world champs going on all around me and I was choosing to stop? Spectators gave me apologetic looks and I was embarrassed. There was no hiding from what had just happened. Some day I may look back and feel differently but right now I still feel deep saddness and disappointment over what happened. I’ve only ever DNF’ed two races in my entire life- the last one was back at Cornerbrook, Newfoundland when I was 18 years old and I was unknowingly anemic. I don’t quit at anything, which is why I struggle when on the very rare occasion it is the right thing to do.
Even though I hate that I had to DNF in Kona I do not feel regret. And I promise that’s not my pride or ego getting in the way of feeling that. I know deep down running a marathon in 90+ degree heat after already exercising for 6 hours without keeping any food or water down would have been a terrible idea for my health. It is possible I could have done serious damage to my body and it could have really jeopardized the rest of my season.
I have a really big and important race left this year: the Island House Triathlon. It’s a stacked field and I’m very fortunate to get to be a part of it for a third year. I will put everything I have left in me to perform well at that race in just under 5 weeks time. For the remainder of this week I will focus on recovering both physically and mentally from Kona and make my plan to move forward. I know it’s important that I process what this Kona experience feels like so that I may learn from it. It is not something you can just shove in a box and pretend it didn’t happen. I will also see a couple specialists to rule out that an allergy or something anatomically isn’t causing me to be ill. I will re-examine my nutrition to ensure there isn’t something there I could be doing differently or if there was some kind of critical error I made that I can't see right now.
The question I keep getting is: do you know what made you sick? No- I don’t know for sure and that is so frustrating. I know I’m very sensitive to contaminated water and food. I’ve been violently ill from swimming in bodies of water before that were not clean. It is possible that the heavy rain that happened hours before the race caused some run off and a new interesting theory was that all the particles in the water that day were an algae bloom. Ironman (like all races) doesn’t take race day water samples so I will never know if that was the culprit. This was a rule the AAC tried to change years ago but race directors felt it opened them up to liability. Water quality is usually tested 4 days prior to an event so that results may get back to the race director in time.
A couple things put my whole Kona experience in perspective. Tim Don and Matt Russell’s accidents have really shaken me and the professional triathlete community. Neither athlete were doing anything wrong and in a single moment their lives changed. It puts what happened to me in perspective. At the end of the day my ability to do this sport is a gift. I have a healthy body and mind that allows me to push it hard enough that I can peruse such a crazy athletic endeavor. I’m very very fortunate. It can be easy to have tunnel vision for a goal and pursue it relentlessly, but you have to have the clarity to see where that pursuit fits into your life. Triathlon is important to me, but it is not more important to me than my family, husband/ marriage, or my health. There will a very long life after triathlon and someday I plan on starting my normal human life with all of those things in tact and thriving.
None of this deters me from wanting to come back to Kona. Failing makes me more determined than ever to requalify and put together a race that I can be proud of and know is complete reflection of the preparation I have done for this race. I know I will come back and give this another go. We never KNOW that it’s going to go better but there is vulnerability and determination in being willing try again at something you failed at.
As the old saying goes, there is no failure in trying.
***Photos property of Michal Cerveny***