“Gentlemen, the rules are simple. There are three five minute rounds, starting and ending with the bell. Protect yourselves at all times. Any questions from the blue corner? Any questions from the red corner? Touch gloves and come out fighting. BRING IT ON, COME ON!”
Ok, so pre-race wasn’t as intense as Steve Mazzagati prepping me in the octagon for a battle with BJ Penn, but the air around the pier was palpable nonetheless. It was as if my dad was the cut man in my corner handing me the sunscreen, then aquafor, then the final Vespa. Big John, aka The Bear, isn’t a man of many words which worked out well on this day as there were no words needed to be said. My ears were ringing with the silent conversations of the athletes around me and the buzz of what was about to go down. A simple, “hey kid. I love you and I’m proud of you” was the jumping off point I needed. It was time to climb over that seawall and into the bay of madness.
On the way to throwing my leg over that wall, I ran into Sean. For every word that we said to each other, there were about 1,000 going through my head. Before we parted, he pointed to the Banyan tree about .1 miles from the finish line and said “Hopefully I catch you right there. That means we both rocked this race.” I knew it was a compliment, but once you slip into fight mode, everything is a threat. My mouth said, “Yeah that would be cool” but my eyes said “I’d go to the deepest darkest places of my soul to outrun anyone in the last half mile, friends included.” There is something about racing that makes me calous and cold, even among people I like. It's time for the battle, and my armor is on. I made my way to the wall, over the barrier and into the caldron. As I surveyed the line of people already treading water, I made the executive decision to swim to the tires tied to the pier. I figured I would chill there, and then 5 minutes prior to starting I would slot in line and instigate the war. Well, out of all chutes to pick I am convinced that I made the worst of choices. We were really close to the inside buoys, and in any other Ironman I’ve done they’ve let us swim on the inside of the buoys as long as we swam around the outside of the last one. Straight lines being the same distance and all, I figured this would be the case in Kona. In fact, this was as far from reality as I could contemplate. Kayakers, SUP’ers and lifeguards lined the entire inside buoy line and were very protective of anyone coming even inches inside that line. So needless to say I spent the entire out portion of the swim in hand to hand combat. There was not one 50 meter section where I got any semblance of a rhythm. I am pretty honest about my swim shape, and the age group start in Kona was not a fair reflection of my swim fitness. I got elbowed (when someone gives you a 6 o’clock elbow to the ribs I’m pretty sure it was no accident), punched, legs pulled, etc. So pretty much like a cat wondering into a pit bull kennel. I will admit that the slow swim is somewhat of my own doing. I lack the confidence and testicular fortitude to immediately jump on someone’s feet if they are slicing through my group. It’s like all of a sudden I’ve got plaid knickers on, hanging out at the 7th tee letting people play through. The triathlon swim is not a gentleman’s sport, and I need not be a gentleman during it. The swim is a primal affair full of alpha male/female types, and I should start acting accordingly. Anyway, apologies for the side note. I was out of the water in a touch over an hour, and into the transition area. I really enjoyed the fresh hose water as an hour of salt water in your mouth will really make you grumpy. The change tent was a mad house. Bodies were everywhere. Chaos is such an understatement for this transition tent. I did the quickest change that I could and hit the Astroturf running to my trusty steed.
There are 1900 bikes in the span of about a basketball gym, some picking up that lagniappe neon yellow helmet race week did help a bit to find my bike. I was hustling through to the mount line/bike course and all I could remember was how many people were going every which way in transition. It was like a bomb threat at a Pilates convention. After the eternity of Astroturf running, I got on the bike and away I went. Or so I thought.
I hit the road out of Alii and onto Palani, then a sharp left. Not one person around me was acting like they were about to head out on a 5 hour bike ride. This was a full throttle drag race straight out of the parking lot. We hit the only rough patch of the entire bike course (and I do mean that accurately. The state of Hawaii has a PHENOMENAL DOT and paving program. The only crap pavement I saw all week on that island was the 2 block section that is about to change my race.) which was about two blocks. I was down in my Aerobars getting adjusted, and didn’t even see what was about to derail me. A big seam/pothole in the road engulfed my front wheel. I knew when I hit it; I didn’t even need to wait for the sound. The tube pinched and popped immediately. For Pete’s sake, we’re in mile 1 of Ironman Hawaii and I’ve already got a flat. Not too flustered, I change it relatively quickly. The bead doesn’t sit right the first time, so I had to use both CO2 canisters to get back rolling. I gathered everything, made the back of that block and back onto the Palani descent where was a “supposed” no passing zone. It’s funny to me how much of the week I was confronted with the dreaded Triathlete “snowflake” syndrome. This syndrome allows people to look at blatantly obvious signs, rules, etc. and say “Well, they must be talking to everyone else but surely not me. I’m special.” Yeah, special like a snowflake. Or as my mom says, “You’re special, just like everyone else.” About halfway down the Palani descent, my same front tire blows out again. Now I’m a little worried. With no C02 left, I get tech support to give me a floor pump. Get the new tube mounted and away I go. I’m nervous because I only brought two tubes, and we are mile 1.5 into the bike and I’ve used both of them. I put a super emergency tube and C02 set in special needs but I am conveniently 68.5 miles away from there. I really didn’t even get to form that whole previous sentence as a thought in my head before the tire blew again. I just, there are no words. My soul just deflated right there on Palani. I had no idea what to do. I did the only thing I could do, which was take the front wheel off and start walking my bike. Once I walked my bike through a crit finish because of a rolled tubular, but that was 3 city blocks. This walk was going to be a little bit longer. As I’m walking down Palani, I look over and see Elyse, my mom, and my in-laws. So I did what anyone would do, “Hey mom.” Her response brought back memories of my youth where I’d do something super intelligent like use the van as the green monster for home run derby (breaking the side window in the process), she shrieked “JOHN!” “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Well, I didn’t really feel like being sarcastic so I just told her what happened and handed her the wheel. It was over. 8 years, sweat, tears, miles travelled, dollars spent all to be done in 1.5 miles into the bike. The real punch in the face was the Michellie Jones interview. You can see it on Universalsports.com at time 2:23:20 or so. I tried to be positive and cool, but I really just wanted to go back to the rental house. I mean, I haven’t even burned enough calories to get a pint of Ben and Jerry’s yet. And my day could be over. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I’m guessing probably 30 minutes went by. My buddy Neil who was spectating the race saw me and was gonna run to his hotel and get a wheel, but that may take an hour. Then one of WJones’ friends sprints up to me: “I’m Erica. Will’s friend. What’s wrong?” So I try not to be neither captain obvious, nor a panicking Peter and simply say “I kind of need a front wheel. You got one?” She didn’t, but said “I’ll be right back” and sprinted off. Sure enough she came back 5 minutes later with a wheel. I don’t wanna know who she robbed, but as Dave Chapelle would say, “BACK IN THE GAME!!”
This is the part where I want to pretend that I still had that warrior spirit, and that I was as battle hardened as Chrissie Wellington by saying I got my shit together and just went on the attack. But truth be told, I just didn’t have it. When Michellie asked if I just wanted to finish, I said “Yes, it’s great to be here.” And really that’s how I rode the rest of the bike. I tried to ride hard, I really did. But I never really dipped into the “Suitcase of courage” or went to the well out on the course. I did, however try and dip into my nutrition gel stash at about mile 30 and proceeded to drop my Vespa AND back up Vespa on the Queen K. With the nutrition plan now shot, I was going to have to rely on that “awesome” powerbar drink and coke.
My buddy Damon told me to not even think about riding my bike hard until I got to the end of the Queen K highway. If you’re wondering how you know when you’re at the end, well you hit a stop sign and take a left. Follow the signs that say Hawi. And that, my friends, is where the race starts. Basically it’s a steady 20 mile climb (with some downhills) from sea level up to the town of Hawi. All the interviews I’ve ever heard about this race talk about the winds of Hawi, and all I’ll say is that they need to be experienced to be understood. They aren’t hurricane force, but the gusts will make you pucker a bit. Once on the road to Hawi is where the highlight of my race happened. I got to be a real-time fan on the road. The Ford Explorer with the clock on the top crested the top of the hill with Lieto, Vanhoenaker, Alexander, Bockel, et. al in hot pursuit. I had seen this on TV and the internet feed so many times, but to see the battle unfold on the road gave me Goosebumps. As cool as the moment was, those winds on the way to Hawi have a way of sobering you up quick. Once I hit the turnaround, gathered my special needs and collected that now desirable extra tube and C02 cartridges the rest of the ride just kind of went by. Once we got back on the Queen K and headed into town, I was surprised by the amount of people up the road that were weaving back and forth. The heat was wearing on a bunch of people. Either that or I was having one wicked acid trip. To say I was glad to get off the bike is an understatement. As hard as it was not to think about it, all I thought about was “if I wasn’t an idiot with 3 flats, I’d be an hour up the road.” Those negative thoughts have a way of creeping in at the worst possible moments.
Running into transition reminded me how HOT Hawaii was. I mean, Louisiana is hot, but I’m never stupid enough to be walking around barefoot on the pavement during summer. In the transition area, the Astroturf was hot, the concrete was hot. Hell, the tape holding the strips of Astroturf together was hot. There is just a crazy amount of heat bouncing back up at you. And the last thing my legs wanted to do was run. Regardless, the positive side of the run is that there are minimal things that can go wrong out there equipment-wise. I could even have a “wardrobe malfunction” and keep on keepin on.
The run gently lures you in by sending you out onto a few turns then running straight down Alii drive. I got to see Elyse and my family which always gives that boost and most of the Alii out/back is shaded. OH WONDERFUL SHADE! This is how the Hawaii marathon gets you in her clutches. After passing Lava Java, I slipped on the latex glove Torbjorn style to keep me cool. A word to the wise: use a heavy duty latex glove or something tough. That “super cool trick” lasted a whopping 3 miles before I ripped it. I had so many siren song thoughts, “If you weren’t an idiot, you’d be at mile 10 right now. You should stop under that tree. Man, just hang out at the aid station. Doesn’t walking feel good? You can walk; all you have to do is stop running a while.” It’s almost as if the voices will drive you mad. In all the madness, the only weapon I have is to count my left foot strikes. Count to 20. Start again. Count to 20. Start again. This strategy actually got me into a decent rhythm until I hit Palani to head out toward the energy lab. It was here where good and horrible happened. The good? Seeing Chrissie Wellington beaming from ear to ear bringing it home for her 4th title. Such an amazing athlete, and more importantly an amazing person. The horrible? Palani is where the walking started. I walked up Palani. Like a punk. All I needed now was a flowing white robe, a beard, a walking stick, and change my name to Gandalf. The run/walk went on, more running then walking. But once you succumb to the devil by walking you are doomed. It’s so much easier to walk the second time, then the next and so on. By the time I hit the energy lab I was excited and I mean PUMPED to see an 8:xx on the pace. What happened in the energy lab can only be described as a mix of the time I stumbled drunk through the streets of Florence and ALLEGEDLY embarrassed myself and being the guy in the corner of the frat party. At special needs, I got my Red Bull. “Oh please sweet Austrian nectar of Zeus GIVE ME WINGS!” Down the hatch that Red Bull went. And it did in fact give me wings, for 8 steps. Then the flood gates opened. And by flood gates, I mean a raging river of vomit. A symphony of expulsion. As violent and disgusting as the episode was, it was almost like I got to press ctrl+Alt+Delete on my body. I felt weak as hell, but the stomach cramps and midget in my stomach all subsided. I clawed my way to a weak jog, which turned into a vicious battle between me and a 50-something Japanese man of who could make it out of the energy lab first. Good thing I didn’t have to trip him to win, because I would have. But there was no need, as I “smoked” him with my galloping 10 minute/mile pace. Once I was back on the Queen K, the stark realization that if I didn’t bust my ass I would be finishing in the dark and in 11:xx:xx. I just had to run more, and run as swift as I could. It may be a small, feeble victory, but I wanted to finish in the 10 hours range. At that point in my life there was a vast ocean of difference between 11:03:xx and 10:55:xx. Looking back now, that’s absolutely silly, but at the time it was the coupled thought of finishing in the light and under 11 hours that kept the legs ticking over. And they did tick over, slowly, painfully. So much emotion was balled up in that last 4 miles of road. I was just silently suffering in my own corner. It was dark, I was hurting, I knew the race was a full on shit show for me. Coming down Alii drive after the corner was the realization of both goals. BARELY getting in before sunset and under 11 hours. But there was no joy, no excitement, no satisfaction. Just a shell of me walking across that line. I was just hallow, emotionless and standing at the end point of the biggest race in the triathlon universe. Elyse and I did the post-race shenanigans for a Timex study, and then like that it was over.
8 years ago I don’t know what I expected to happen by getting to race in Hawaii. I’m not sure really why I was so fixated on this race for so long. It really is an amazing atmosphere to be a part of. However in the end this race is just a race. A wise person told me to know what you’re capable of on race day, but hold the expectations and hopes in your heart. That is my only regret of this whole journey. I foolishly said that “anything under 10 hours I’ll be happy with.” It was this really simple yet foolish statement that gave me feelings of embarrassment and shame post-race. Never in a million years did I think that I would be clawing, scratching and fighting to squeak in just before it got dark. Yet that is the reality of my day. Am I bitter about that? Absolutely not. I’m quickly over the embarrassment of not putting together the race I know I’m capable of because the truth of the matter is that there is always another race up the road. And the best part of Hawaii for me is the journey that got me into the race. Memories of Kaplan rides, Wednesday world championships, stud parade runs, crazy 5am Gurzi swims, “assaults” on Mt. Lemmon, John Fell memorial loops (even though I’m not dead yet. Odd, I know), driving through Texas en route to Buffalo Springs, Coeur d’Alene, convincing the ticket clerk that the monstrous black bag is in fact a massage table and not a bike, actually racing in Many, LA during a monsoon, or barely beating the train in Natchitoches. That life list of cool experiences stretches further than the eye can see. Or how would I ever know how much my family loves me if I never raced. Then I would never realize that they smile when I do well, get upset when I struggle, get nervous pre-race, cry when I cry, hurt when I hurt and feel my victories and defeats as genuinely and intensely as I do. And how could I ever feel the genuine love of someone who cares for me so much that they sacrifice so that I can chase my dream? In a society of instant everything, it’s almost unfathomable to find a woman that will stand by you through the trials and tribulations of your heart’s passion, encourage you when the chips are down, build you up after another failure, and give of themselves to help your pursuit of. Without this 8 year journey, I may not know how wonderful Elyse is to me or what a caring, loving and supportive family I have. I would have never met so many colorful characters, and excellent mentors for sport and for life. As I look back on this journey of 8 years, thousands of miles and oh way too much money squandered in the name of a dream, I regret not a second of it. After all, Hawaii for me was just “My pursuit of”, my proving to myself that I had the gumption and the work ethic to accomplish something way out of my comfort zone. To show myself that deep down in my core, I’m a stubborn little dude. A warrior. To prove that I can fail not 7 times and get up 8, but fail 7 x 77 times, and get up still. And maybe with saying I wanted to go 9:30:00 in Hawaii I was shooting for the moon. But by missing, maybe I still ended up in the stars.
Thank you for being a part of my journey. It’s been wild, wonderful, frustrating, exciting, and almost surreal all at the same time. I do want to take a moment to thank a few unreal people who made this a reality for me:
- Mom and dad. You two are my biggest fans. I am honored to be your son. Even though I know you are, I always strive to make you proud.
- SKeither, Rachelle, Elle Belle. Not many in-laws fight like we do J Not many people would care for me like you two have over the years. The blindness issue was just a drop in the bucket of all love and support.
- Kell and Scott. You two are simply fabulous. Thank you for unconditional everything.
- Lisa Lisa. 8 years of dreaming, and you were with me the whole way. I’m blessed to have someone look after me like you and the boys at Capital do. I’ll be with you till I hang it up.
- WJones. You CRAZY bastardo! I took the trust fall as you were the only one with the cajones to tell me I needed improvement and was overtraining. The ride has been amazing, and we only pause to acknowledge the great stuff we’ve accomplished. Now onward and upward to 2012. My results are your results. I trust you infinitely.
- Last but not least, Elyse. The love of my life. You are blunt, callous, caring, beautiful, strong, soft, and all of things I need you to be when I need you the most. You are my rock, and I guess I will publicly admit us getting married IS the reason I finally qualified for Hawaii (your mom kept telling me that, but I denied it as I didn’t want your head to get big.)
As for me, is Hawaii the closing of the book? Will I go back? I don’t know. There are so many cool experiences out there. I’m just lucky I got to be a part of the greatest triathlon show on earth. Until then, as Bill and Ted would say… “Be excellent.”