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Monthly Archives: October 2012

When I began this blog, I intended to write a story. As a story, I thought that it should have a beginning and end. Last week, after Katie and her boat won Head of the Charles, after something really athletic and cool happened to our daughter, I thought that my Kona story had ended. It hadn’t and now I don’t know that it ever will.


We had a Halloween costume party on Friday afternoon at work.  Once again, I came as Walter Payton. This is the world’s most perfunctory costume but I never feel bad about paying homage to the greatest football player of my generation. Margy and I spoke by phone and she had made reservations for us at a nearby restaurant, Campiello’s. We agreed that I would leave the party to arrive home by 5:15 and leave from there for dinner. After driving home, I walked in the back hall and headed toward our bedroom to change. Campiello’s is less suited to Payton homage than Halloween parties. Margy said hello from the kitchen. I changed course, rounded the corner and…


My entire family, except Katie, welcomed me. I fear that I appeared concerned and confused more than happy. Ultimately, of course, I was thrilled after shedding the numbness of complete surprise.

They had come for the weekend and to watch the NBC broadcast of Kona. They were all ready to party. Someone cued the music, a luau soundtrack CD from a party store. I spotted a bird of paradise flower on the dining room table courtesy of my sister Ann and her husband, Rick. My four year-old niece, Harper, and seven year-old nephew, Davis, jumped up on an ottoman and pretended to surf to the Theme From Hawaii Five-O. My mom had made a special lei for me from decorated Purell bottles.

Bird of Paradise, Mini Me and Purell Lei

Serious self examination might be in order when your mom makes fun of your neuroses. At least no one gave me a tee shirt that said “Will Run for Purell,” though suggesting it here gives me pause.

The element missing from Kona had been what made Madison so special: Except for Margy, my family had not been able to come to Kona to soothe me before the race, cheer during the race and listen to my stories after the race. So, here they were to complete the experience and to be with me as I relived the race through the lens of the NBC broadcast. Unfortunately, Katie’s rowing season continued through the weekend to keep her in Maine but my family and my Kona trip seemed otherwise complete. I had seen Katie only the week before and that would have to do.

Craig and Me

We gathered in front of the TV to watch the cinematic NBC coverage. I found myself choking back tears a few times, not so much out of sympathy for some featured participant and her courage but out of an overwhelming sense of connection to the time and place. As the camera followed pre-race preparations and showed scenes from past races, I could now identify that place and recall what it meant to me when I was in that exact spot.

I had warned my family that the NBC cameras caught me in two places: coming out of body marking and into transition at 4:50 a.m. and as the sun was going down in the Natural Energy Lab at around 6:00 p.m. We watched patiently as the show followed prominent pros during their week of preparation for the race. When the show turned to race morning, sure enough, there I was walking side by side from body marking into transition with the defending champion, Craig Alexander. My family cheered fanatically. For just a few seconds, I shared the screen with my newfound friend, Craig. I told the story, for the umpteenth time, about asking him to let me walk a step ahead so that I could say that I led him ever so briefly on race day and my quip that if he stuck with me, he would get this sort of media attention all day long.

The first and last time in Kona that I was even with last year’s champion, Craig Alexander.

The shot of me in the Natural Energy Lab at sunset apparently hit the cutting room floor. That was OK. I did not want Craig to accuse me of hogging the spotlight.

The End

This is, I believe, the end of my blog but I don’t think that it is the end of my trip to Kona. I have come to believe that Kona is not a discrete event, not something with a beginning or an end. Instead, it is something that began as a formless aspiration, the name of an athletic contest, a place, an achievement, a qualification, a distinction, an icon. With the event past, Kona has become a deeply embedded experience without one particular meaning or specific significance. I suppose that I will think about Kona frequently, whether recalling efforts to train and qualify, time there before the race or race day. Family may mention  that they are related to a guy who ran Kona. Friends may say that they know a guy who raced the Hawaii Ironman, the one on TV. It may even be that when I am gone, I will be remembered for once having competed in the Ironman World Championship.

I hope not to fruitlessly linger on my Kona experience, to become someone who left left his best on a single day on a small island floating in the Pacific. I hope that my memories of Kona burnish with the passage of time, that they become a comfort and a satisfaction balancing in proper proportion pride and humility. More than anything, Kona will represent a a time when I felt the love and support of family and friends too numerous to count. In the end, it will be the confluence of that place and those people with whom I shared my trip to Kona who made it a dream come true forever. Mahalo and aloha.

My trip to Kona came to an end yesterday on a National Rental Car bus between the return lot and Boston Logan International Airport. It was an end to my trip so improbable and audacious that I had not even bothered to dream it.

The Charter.

Today I get to write about the part of my story that has most interested me. That is not so much the part that deals with training or even racing Kona. It’s the part that deals with what comes after now that I have been granted my wish, my day in the sun.

The Twin Cities in Motion board of directors enacted term limits. I wrote the bylaws provision implementing a rule that prevents board members from running again after having served ten years. I voted against adopting the bylaw provision that I wrote. It was not my idea and I hated the thought of ever leaving the TCM board. On the Wednesday night after returning from Kona I was engaged in the process of interviewing prospective board members to take my place. I was still wearing my “Kona Athlete” wristband and an “Ironman World Championship” golf shirt. Clearly, I had not gotten over Kona and relished the attention that my fellow board members lavished on me and my accomplishment. Whether I admitted it or not, I wanted people to keep asking questions so that, in my answers, I could hang on to my time in Kona, to relive the swim start in Kailua Bay, the windy ascent to Hawi on my bike or the pitch black run on the lava fields coming back from the Natural Energy Lab.

My dear friend, Dr. Charlie Fazio, and I spoke after the meeting. He put it to me succinctly.

“You’ve done Kona. So what are you going to do now?”

It was so absolutely like Charlie to say only a few words but to expose the very most important question.

Here I was in the twilight of both my race at Kona and my tenure on the TCM board. These two things had defined me for years and were about to become increasingly small dots in my rear view mirror.

The Itinerary.

Four weeks ago, Margy and I met in Boston and drove to Brunswick to visit Katie for Parents Weekend. The following Sunday, we boarded a plane for LAX, then Kona. The Sunday following the Ironman, we flew overnight from Kona to LAX to Minneapolis. The following Friday, I met Margy (inbound from Phoenix) in Boston to see Katie row the Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest regatta and capstone for her fall rowing season.

Our prior trips to Head of the Charles had featured gentle fall sun and colorful maples lining the grassy banks of the river separating the MIT and Harvard campuses. As a Midwesterner, I always felt a long way from home, immersed in the traditions of Boston, rowing and the prestigious universities bustling with happy energy. At no time did I feel like I was back in Des Moines.

From the start, this trip felt different. Margy had a dreadful cold and it was a complete miracle that she had dragged herself from Kona to Phoenix to Boston. That she was bound for Warsaw directly after Sunday’s race would represent a feat of endurance and determination that embarrassed my quaint efforts in Kona only a week before.

Instead of the sunny mid-October skies that had greeted us on prior regatta weekends, the sky was thick and gray, spitting rain that forecasts predicted would get even worse for the race. We drove from the airport to a bagel joint near the regatta to collect Katie, then headed to our hotel.

Margy and Katie were too busy with writing (Margy on her fifth book) and studies (Katie with “Politics of Development”) to do anything other than hole up in our hotel. I went out for a walk on the slick streets and soon felt discouraged from venturing more than a few blocks.

For dinner, we walked to the North End for Italian food. We figured that Katie could do with some carbo loading for the next day’s race. The rain had picked up and we all hunkered down into the hoods of our rain jackets. Crossing the Government Center’s massive outdoor commons Katie turned to me.

“Dad, do you think that I could do an Ironman?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitating.

“How long would it take me to train?” she asked.

“About a year, I think.”

“If I do one, I want to do it with you.”

Her emphasis on “with” let me know that she did not just want to enter the same race; she wanted to race side by side through the entire event.

I smiled and said, “Absolutely. Any time.” I smiled and we trudged on. The rain did not feel so bad.


I woke up early on Saturday morning and slipped out of the room while the girls slept. It would be my first run since Kona. I met a guy in the lobby. He was outfitted in all of the right Dry Fit gear, Newton running shoes, running hat and an “M Dot” tattoo on his calf. Even so, it looked like he had not run an Ironman this year, maybe for several years. His features were not taut and trim but were full and soft. I asked him  for directions to the running path on Storrow Drive so that I could run the regatta race course. He obliged but did not notice my “Kona Athlete” wristband, somewhat to my disappointment.

I tried to follow his directions but it was completely dark and I soon found myself hopelessly lost between the North End and the TD Garden. Under a bridge, I nearly stepped on several homeless men sleeping on the running path, then came to a dead end. I turned around and needed to thread my way through the men in their sleeping bags under the bridge. I felt pretty good physically but had to admit that between the light rain, complete darkness and feeling totally lost, I was not having much fun. I managed to re-orient and run on Boston Commons and along a boulevard nearby, admiring the brownstone houses.

Back at the hotel, I discovered that a combination of my fatigue from Kona and poor judgment in running so far made me extremely sore. Things hurt after only an hour run that almost never hurt. My hips were killing me, my groin was sore and my hamstrings ached. It was hardly a triumphant return to running.

The weather began to clear as we got into the car, left the hotel and drove toward the regatta. We drove on Storrow Drive along the regatta race course. Katie narrated, rehearsing for herself each segment of the upcoming race. She identified beaches, bridges and boathouses, each with its significance and distance into the race. She had prepared thoroughly and had even gone so far as to have the course as the background on her computer screen. Every chance she had gotten, she imagined herself on the Charles, noting where the port rowers would need to pull especially hard or where getting through one of the bridges’ archways would be particularly tricky. (Whose child is this?)

At the regatta, Bowdoin had racked its boats under some colorful maple trees that sheltered us from the increasingly warm sun that had now taken over the clear blue sky. Katie spent her time nervously checking her oar lock and asked her coach, Gil Birney to check it out. Gil disassembled the oar lock, lubricated it and reassembled it. I remembered the first time we met Gil.

The Handshake.

Just a little more than two years ago, we were hustling around the Bowdoin campus, parents soon to live without our daughter and our daughter soon to live without her parents. We attended all of the events we could, maybe an effort to distract ourselves from thinking too much about what was to come: ceasing to be the family that we had always been.

Katie and I were crossing central campus when we noticed a rowing shell on slings in the spot that the very most kids and parents needed to pass for all of the many activities. A man stood in the bright sun with long, wavy gray hair sticking out the back of his baseball cap. He wore a long-sleeved, blue chambray shirt and Carhartt pants that looked pretty well shot. His face was deeply tanned and creased in a way that made it look like he had spent most of his life outside. He looked like a perfect Maine lobsterman or commercial fisherman. For all I could tell, he might have come to campus straight from fixing the transmission in his pickup. (I learned later that he is an ordained minister, former coxswain for the Williams College rowing team and is married to the former first lady of Maine. But that is a story for another time.)

As we approached, he introduced himself as Gil Birney, the head coach of the rowing club. Katie shook his hand and introduced herself.

“I’ve heard of you,” Gil said, not letting go of Katie’s hand. A friend of Katie’s had earlier declined Gil’s invitation to join the team but gladly gave Katie up in an effort to move on.

“We could get you out onto the water and teach you to row,” Gil said.

“I’ve been on a rowing team the last two summers,” Katie responded.

Gil’s light blue eyes narrowed and his smile widened.

“Well that’s just fine,” Gil said.

I could see that he increased the pressure of his grip, still shaking Katie’s hand. He pulled her just a bit closer.


There wasn’t much need to ask Katie if she felt nervous. We sat on plastic bags from the grocery store, trying to keep our bottoms dry on the grass still wet from the rain the day before. The sun shone hot and humid. Katie didn’t have much to say and chose to lean against a snow fence in the shade and stay off her feet.

“Do you want Dad to run along with the boat?” Margy asked.

“Yes, definitely,” Katie said.

It would have been a relief if she had said otherwise. I still felt sore and did not know if I could run from the finish and launch area back down the course to see Katie and her boat go toward the start, then race back to see them at the same places before the finish. It was hot and I was pretty hobbled. In addition, I did not look forward to boarding a plane smelling like I had run a 7K, which was just about the distance I figured that I needed to cover at a strong clip to see the boat. No use debating it, though, because I really did want to do it because I knew that Katie wanted me there.

We hugged. I whispered in Katie’s ear, “Concede nothing to anyone. Nothing.”

Katie nodded and silently walked over to join her teammates.

Katie and her crew hoisted the boat and carried it to the river, then rowed away. Margy and Katie’s boyfriend, Collin, walked to a bridge to see the boat come back up the course. I ran to one bridge where I yelled loudly enough to startle some of the spectators, then ran along the river, shouting encouragement the entire time as the crew paddled easily toward the start. I was very hot and very sweaty and very conspicuous. After Katie and her boat had gotten beyond the reach of my voice, I limped over to a park bench to wait in the shade. I struck up a conversation with an Australian couple. He had rowed an eight earlier that morning and they asked about my Ironman shirt. I gratefully acknowledged that I had raced just one week before but it felt a little trivial. I was now in a different bubble totally dedicated to rowing. I was no longer amongst those true triathlon believers in Kona drowning in all of their obscure Ironman considerations. I was in a world that intersected the triathlon world in that we mutually respected the discipline, determination and athleticism that our sports shared. But it wasn’t my world, it was theirs and Katie’s and that of thousands of other rowers gracefully plying the waters lining the United States’ most prestigious academic city.

At Head of the Charles, boats start in an order determined by their last year’s finishing place. So, the first boat, Hamilton College, started first, and each boat thereafter started ten seconds after the preceding boat. It is relatively easy to determine if a boat is going faster than its nearby competition by seeing whether it has overtaken boats starting ahead of it or, conversely, if the boat has been overtaken by those behind it. There were 38 boats in the Women’s Collegiate Fours division, including the single entry from Bowdoin.

Once the first women’s four came into view, I excused myself and wished the Aussies well, then mounted the  bridge nearby. Katie’s boat had started fifth and was in the process of overtaking the third boat, having passed the fourth starter. Now I was screaming at the top of my lungs, sprinting to the opposite side of the bridge as Katie’s boat passed beneath. Once by, I ran very, very hard along the shore shouting, then back up another bridge approach. I could not conceive that Katie had not heard me. From there, I cut the course, running along Harvard Street by Harvard Stadium. The parking attendant at the drive into the stadium eyed me somewhat apprehensively, a 54 year-old man running in jeans and without a shirt. I couldn’t blame him.

I intercepted Katie’s boat only a few hundred meters from the finish. More screaming. I was spent, too, and reverted more frequently to calling her “Peanut,” our pet name for her as a little kid. I wove through the crowd, who apprehensively parted for the wild-eyed Midwesterner gleaming with sweat and holding a tee shirt in his hand.

As Katie’s boat crossed the finish line, I saw Katie drop her oar to the water and slump over, too exhausted to even hold her head up. The other girls reacted similarly. They had finished without any gas left in their tanks.

It took some time for the girls to cool down and return to the dock. I walked over to Gil. I could tell that he didn’t have a good feeling about this race.

“What happened out there?” He said, his blue eyes flashing. “Did they lose their steering? Why did they come around so wide?”

I demurred, saying that I had not been able to see much of the last turn. Gil went back to pacing at the dock, waiting for the girls to return.

We had time only for a few photos with Katie and a hug, then Margy and I ran to our rental car, Margy leading the way, me limping. I drove aggressively. We needed to get Margy to the airport with enough time to make an international flight. We drove into the National lot and yanked our roller bags out of the trunk. I needed to put my raincoat into my bag and the rental car jockey scolded me for blocking a lane. I ignored him and then gave chase to Margy who was already boarding the bus. I was sweating again. The bus driver held the door open until the bus was crowded. People stood in the aisle. Margy checked her watch disapprovingly. The bus lumbered over some bumps at the lot exit, people swaying precariously, then accelerated toward the terminal.

Margy pulled out her iPhone.

“I wonder if the results are in yet,” she said. She keyed in the URL. I looked over her shoulder. The results showed up tiny on her phone screen. Here is what it said:

Status: 1 Finished: Bowdoin College K. Ross Bow: 5 Time: 19:14.11 Delta: (blank space) % 0.00

I blinked. Margy didn’t say anything for a few seconds and then said, flatly, “They won.”

“Yeah,” I said, equally flatly.

“They won?” I asked.

“They won,” Margy said.

“They won,” I said, now forming a declarative statement where I had previously asked a question.

They won.

The results, for those uninitiated to rowing, showed that the Bowdoin College women’s four boat had finished first with Katie Ross as the “stroke,” the rower sitting in the back of the boat to whom all of the other rowers in the boat look to set their stroke length and cadence. Bowdoin had finished in 19 minutes, 14.11 seconds. Their “delta” showed that there was no time between their boat and the winner. (They had won by 5.49 seconds.)

We called Katie. Like us, she was not so ecstatic as disbelieving. She said that she hadn’t dreamed of winning the Head of the Charles because it seemed so improbable, so audacious that she had dared not dwell on it. She said that Bowdoin had never won Head of the Charles but had once put a boat into second place, back in 1999. She said that Gil talked about that boat like they were legends, super humans. Now…. She let her thoughts drift without articulating.

What Now?

I had not known what would happen once I finished Kona. How would I answer Charlie’s question? As it turned out, I didn’t provide the answer. Instead, it was Katie who replied to Charlie.

By the time I showed up in Boston, I had worn my “Kona Athlete” wristband for too long. I had risked becoming boring and boorish, somehow lost in the fog of an accomplishment that I could not quite get over.   People around me had been interested all week long but time was marching on and one more story about the lava fields risked an abrupt – and justified – change of subject.

So things have turned out exactly as they should, exactly as I would have hoped. The really cool thing that I did has receded into the past, displaced by something really cool that our daughter did – something even cooler. Events recede in time and cease to maintain their importance. Time marches on and, if we are lucky, it will be our children who more and more do the cool, significant things.

I thought again: Status: 1 Finished: Bowdoin College K. Ross Bow: 5 Time: 19:14.11 Delta: (blank space) % 0.00 and smiled.


I arrived home last night and went upstairs to our bathroom. I have arranged all of the wristbands from my Ironmans under the edge of the lights that illuminate the mirror over my vanity. I took out my pocket knife and cut off my “Kona Athlete” wrist band, placing it alongside the others on the mirror, just below the picture of Katie as a kindergartner. I took care, however, not to damage the wristband that Katie gave me on Parents Weekend. Here is what it says:






I looked at the fourth line, dwelling on it for a moment and wondering what, exactly, Katie meant.

Head of the Charles, October 20, 2012, Bowdoin College Women’s Four. 19:14.11. Gold. From left to right: Mary Bryan “MB” Barksdale ’15, Katie Ross ’14 (stroke), Bonie Cao ’13 (coxswain), Samantha Burns ’13, Catherine “Cat” Yochum ’15.

Mini Me. Here is a birthday present from Margy and Katie. I hadn’t gotten a chance to put this into my blog yet but as I wind it down, I thought I better take the opportunity.

People ask how I feel after an Ironman. Strangely, after rising at 3:00 a.m., swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 and running 26.2 miles, I can’t sleep. Margy was fast asleep and I sat thinking. I felt really hot. Maybe my metabolism gets turned up high and I was just too hot to sleep. After falling asleep around 1:00 a.m., I was awake again by 5:00 a.m. and thirsty. It’s always that way.

Yes, my legs hurt like thunder. Going down stairs is the toughest. Even so, it helps to get up and move so we went to breakfast at a local place with great cinnamon rolls and a view of the ocean. It was a nice walk and I felt much better.

My sunburn hurt even more than my legs. As much as I had tried to cover myself before heading out and even letting volunteers slather me after swimming and biking, I got fried.

Margy hung out by the pool and got a lot of Aussie triathlon gossip. I stayed inside and rested, dedicated to soaking up air conditioning. I had enough heat for a long while.

We honored tradition and had a pizza on Sunday afternoon. So far as I recall, I have not run a marathon without enjoying a pizza within 24 hours.

Ironman has a nice awards banquet after each race and this one is the Big Kahuna of Ironman awards banquets. We did not have time to stay for the whole thing, but I decided to wander down and see if they reeled off any interesting statistics. Margy stayed back in the room because we decided not to pay the confiscatory price to get her in only to suffer the bad food and interminable awards. I wandered around for a few minutes waiting for the ceremony to start, then decided to leave. It was starting to get dark and Ironman was not happening there for me.

I cut through the hotel grounds and walked over to Kailua Bay for one last look. I stood on the steps and watched the gentle waves lap up on the sand. It was fully dark and a few tourists played on the small sand beach. It was hard to even imagine that only the day before, this little beach hosted the start of one of the most grueling athletic events in the world. I wandered beyond the steps and onto the pier. There was no hint that Ironman had been there less than 24 hours before but I walked to about where I thought my bike had been racked and looked the short distance over the bay to where the finish line ramp had stood. The distinctive little church just beyond where the finish line had been was lit with an orange streetlight glow. Cars crawled along Ali’i Drive, once again turned over to local traffic. I heard laughing and music from the two open air seafood restaurants looking over the bay.

My day in Kona had come and gone, leaving scarcely a trace. Even here, even at the very epicenter of triathlon, the world had returned to normal.

I started back toward the hotel in the dark. It was time to head home. Then something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. It was a man swimming at a steady distance pace out along the course and into the dark ocean.

We drove out onto the Queen K. Just a mile or so north of town, it was entirely still and black. I couldn’t believe that I had run there in the very same darkness. Even in a car, it seemed like a long, long way from Kona to the 20 mile mark near the Energy Lab drive.

Our flight left Kona at 8:50 p.m. for LAX. The airport had been overwhelmed with bike boxes and airlines had baggage tractors and trailers lined up in a special area dedicated only to hauling bikes to planes.

A woman sat in the window seat beside Margy and me. We needed to get up to let her in. I warned her that I had one more up and down left in me for the day, so she had best use it wisely. She was a doctor from the medical tent. She laughed and said that she understood.

After a short layover in Los Angeles, we flew to Minneapolis and the dry brown autumnal landscape below. It felt like we had missed the colors of fall.

As we moved through the airport on our way to baggage claim, I turned to Margy and commented, “People here look normal. It’s weird.” She laughed.

As I approached baggage claim, I saw a guy who totally had The Look. He carried an Ironman backpack like they had given away in Kona. He wore compression socks and flip flops. This might be my last chance to trade a quip with a fellow Kona traveler. When he sat to remove his compression socks and put on neon running shoes, I approached him.

“You would have looked totally normal in compression socks in Kona. Not so much here,” I said.

“They really help when I travel,” he said. “I use them because I can get off the plane and go work out.”

I must have looked shocked. Then I looked more closely at his bag. It said “Ironman Wisconsin.”

“Were you just in Kona?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Yeah, about a month ago I ran Wisconsin. I keep trying but I just can’t seem to qualify.”

I wished him luck and headed toward the baggage carousel, remembering that I was wearing a Bowdoin sweatshirt and hat. I guess that even to the initiated, I had not retained The Look even for 24 hours.

We drove home and I reflected on just how intense the scene had been in Kona. The society completely swallows you and it is a world entirely unto itself, immersed in watts and splits and aero bars and 70.3s. And now here I was back in the sunny cool of a mid-fall Minnesota afternoon. I wasn’t sad to leave Kona but I hadn’t taken off my athlete wristband yet, either. When I cut the wristband off, it is a ceremonial good bye to the recently run race and the society surrounding it.

We turned left onto Boulder Pointe Road and drove up to our house. My eyes welled up with tears one more time. Leis were strung in our ash tree and over the neck of a sculpture in our garden. Posters of me were stuck on our garage congratulating me. The authors remained anonymous but I was deeply, deeply touched.

Aloha from Eden Prairie. Mahalo.

Hi Everyone,

I sent out a post an hour or so ago that included several photos. We have discovered that Outlook, in particular, does not take these email posts. I am not sure why. If you want to see some of the professional photos taken yesterday, just go to:

You can click on the post entitled “Photos” to see some of the pictures. Of course, many of you may have already gotten that post, most of whom will be using an email other than Outlook.


I just got the professional photos taken yesterday and thought that I would share a few with you.

I am the one without a speed suit. Everyone else had a $300 suit that made them swim faster.

Hanging loose on the Queen K

Running into the finish chute.

Come to think of it, I was pretty happy.

Mahalo, everyone.

I really don’t know how many people have a dream like mine or get to realize their dream. On Saturday, October 13, 2012, at 7:00 a.m. I got to live my dream. (Note: It may not always be a great idea for people to live out their dreams. Think of Las Vegas.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, my day and my dream differed somewhat. In my dream, I would not have woken up at 3:00 a.m. and not been able to fall back asleep. Likewise, my dream omitted walking out of body marking with the defending world champion Ironman, Craig Alexander. (He was really nice to me.)

Fear and Chaos for Breakfast.

As many of you may know, my highest ambition was to step into the water in Kailua Bay and count myself among the very best Ironman triathletes in the world. Unfortunately, I was absolutely numb with anxiety and did not savor the moment, though I noticed that the sun peeked above the horizon at the very moment that I entered the water. I swam out to the starting line and it felt good to glide through the cool water with long, smooth strokes. The pro men had started a half hour before and the women had started 15 minutes earlier. So, it was just me and 1,800 close (or closely packed) age group friends. Sardines have more room in a can.

Usually, a cannon fires to mark the start of the swim and one of sports’ most remarkable scenes ensues with the water suddenly turning to a froth that envelops 1,800 people all trying to go the same place at the same time. This year, some snafu meant that Mike Reilly just began to shout, “Go, go, go.” And we did.

I can’t really describe the chaos of a mass swim start. It’s all arms and legs and torsos and kicking and stroking and hitting and gasping for breath. Eventually, the chaos subsides somewhat, then suddenly resumes unexpectedly farther down range as groups of swimmers collide, blind to one anothers’ movements until they are atop one another. I had purchased a new pair of goggles earlier in the week and they had worked well in practice. I was glad to have them because they fit close to my face and were not easily kicked off in a mass swim start. In the thrash of the first 800 meters, I got into a tight spot and one of my fellow swimmers, without meaning to do so, kicked me square in the right goggle. Good news: My goggles did not come off. Bad news: He drove the goggle so deeply into my eye socket that my eyelid and eye ball rested against the inside surface of the glass. I was Quasimodo in tight swim trunks. The problem was relatively easily remedied though it did hurt.

The Ironman Kona swim goes 1.2 miles out into the Pacific Ocean and then turns right back around to where we started, the inbound and outbound legs of the course separated by about 100 meters. I had been looking at the eastern shore and the light blue sky with a touch of haze on the way out to the turnaround but noticed when we made the turn, everything to the west was illuminated orange in the low morning sun. That relaxed me.

During the swim – and throughout the day – I did not let having others pass bug me. In years past, I had always been intensely competitive. If anyone passed me during an Ironman, perhaps they would take the Kona slot that I so desperately wanted. In Kona, though, I knew that almost anyone who passed me was a “two percenter,” one of the top two percent of finishers in their age groups at a qualifying Ironman. Somehow it was enough for me just to be with them, to admire their talent and to let them encourage me to rise to the challenge.

Baking and Biking.

I waved to Margy from the swim exit and set about my business. I got out of transition without incident and headed south on a road following the shoreline. It was a relatively short segment, but beautiful, with shade and ocean views. Then we ascended a steep hill to the Queen K Highway. My college football teammate, Ray Britt, described the remainder of the bike ride in four segments. Segment one proceeds north approximately 25 miles and enjoys favorable morning winds. I felt like that went fast. I was digging it, though the wind sometimes changed from a tailwind to a crosswind. My fellow competitors and I needed to lean pretty far to the right to keep our bikes going straight without blowing over. Instead of feeling frustrated with difficult conditions, I thought, “OK, Madame Pele, do your worst.” Madame Pele is an island goddess that Hawaiians hold responsible for things like weather and I was glad to get the full treatment. It would have been something of a disappointment to have a day not plagued by the weather that makes Kona so feared but so special.

On the second segment, the terrain changes to more hills. Don’t let anyone tell you that the IM Kona bike course is flat. It is not and the road goes from near sea level to 785 feet over 16 to 18 miles leading to the bike turnaround in Hawi. As we approached Hawi, the wind howled. Palm trees bent and shook. Riders leaned sharply right to stay upright, then pressed forward to make arduous progress in the swirling wind. I got caught in a group of three cyclists and could not get ahead of two in front of me fast enough to avoid a penalty. It was, technically, a good call but enforcement was hardly uniform and I felt a little picked upon. This meant that less than a mile after the turnaround in downtown Hawi, I would need to visit a penalty tent at which they would give me a stopwatch that I could give back to them after four minutes.

Hawi is a very small, downscale Hawaiian village overlooking the Pacific several miles distant. A few spectators gather there but don’t get to see much other than bikes make a 180 degree turn.

It just so happened that a very nice guy from a bike shop I had visited earlier in the week was the penalty tent marshal. He completely understood my situation and said that sometimes you just get stuck in bad spots. I did. The penalty probably did not hurt, though, because I got up and stretched and poured water over my head after taking off my aero helmet. I probably rode stronger for having the break.

Heading back down from Hawi is the third segment of the bike. It is 16 to 18 miles of all downhill riding with a very strong wind generally at our backs. There was little time to eat or drink. My hands were locked tight on my handlbars just to keep control. Then the ride got interesting.

The fourth segment traces rolling hills from Kawaiihae all the way south to Kona. As the day heats up, the wind shifts and we went straight into the teeth of a strong (22 mph) headwind. On several sections that featured significant downhills, I needed to pedal strongly just to keep moving. I felt grateful for all of my time training in my basement on a stationary trainer that makes me pedal consistently. I hunched down to present as little to the wind as possible and silently thanked the folks at the active release therapy tent figuring that I could stay low and comfortable more easily after their preparatory treatments. I was also thankful for my (not so stylish) aero helmet, which I pointed straight at the ground. I could feel it best shed the wind in that orientation, though the view was pretty monotonous. The result: Pedaling constantly for the last 40 miles of the ride as the sun had climbed into the afternoon sky, beating down hard. The temperatures on the Queen K across the lava fields, even with the wind, were in the 90’s, maybe around 100.

I wound up back in Kona feeling great. I had drunk plenty and kept up with my nutrition. I had set up a good run.

The run proceeds south on a road along the beaches in south Kona, then comes back to within a block of transition. From there, runners ascend a very steep hill back to the Queen K. I walked that hill just to get a “reset.” My heart rate stayed plenty high. Once again, the course changes dramatically. Gone are the trees, beach views and spectators. A few low, industrial buildings built on lava fields give way to plain lava fields with just a few tufts of dry grass scattered randomly here and there. The course proceeds toward the Natural Energy Lab, a 1970’s federal investment in alternative energy sources of which Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney would strongly disapprove.


Have you ever seen the NBC coverage of the Hawaii Ironman and watched the older competitors stagger along as the sun sets into the Pacific and darkness falls? Now you know one of those guys. The Natural Energy lab starts at about 16 miles and competitors run down a long, shallow grade to the ocean, turn around at 18 miles and hit the Queen K again at about 20. As I descended the hill coming down from the Queen K, I watched the sun fade behind a cloud and the orange glow rise above its rim. At the turnaround, I faced the up country. A low brim of steel gray clouds obscured the top of the volcanic mountain and homes dotted the hillside. Just a few house windows perfectly reflected the fading orange sun to make tiny, shimmering lights on the deep green backdrop. The sun no longer baked me but the temperature did not drop all that much because the lava rocks and black asphalt continued to radiate the heat that they had soaked up during the day.

Turning south toward the finish area with just a bit more than a 10K to go, I started to fail. I had walked a little bit in the Energy Lab but started to do so for longer stretches, trying to do a “reset.” When I ran, I ran pretty fast but I was all but out of gas. I had put too many  of my nutrition bottles in my bag to pick up at the run turnaround in the Energy Lab and not enough on my Fuel Belt thinking that I would get this bag at 13 miles, not 18. I had run very short of calories. Worse, the sun had fully disappeared and I was stuck in my sunglasses, now caked with sweat and dried Infinit Nutrition drink concentrate. I couldn’t see but I couldn’t prop the glasses on my hat because I had kept my hat completely full of ice from every aid station since the start of the run. I could not hold my glasses in my hand because I was holding a water bottle which I was refilling at each aid station and taking drinks every chance. I could not see a darn thing and worried that I would run straight into an outbound runner.

I really was not thinking, just putting one foot in front of the other ad infinitum. I had the time, so I tried to think a little about my dad, but my mind was pretty clouded in the dark and heat. For reasons I can’t explain, all I remembered was the sound of his voice and something he used to say to me. I hadn’t thought of it for years but I could conjure up exactly the way it sounded when he used to say “Hi swell guy.” Those words gathered from decades long past made me feel better. No spirit sightings for me, just the comfort of a nice memory at a time when I had run pretty short of comfort.

At 23.5 miles, there was an aid station and I chucked the bottle and took off the glasses. I still could not see, now because I lacked prescription lenses and there were no lights at all out in the lava fields. It was pitch black. I had walked about a quarter mile from 22 to 23 but then just told myself to suck it up and run, which I did through the bottom of a famous hill at 24 miles where Mark Allen dropped Dave Scott in the 1989 Ironman Hawaii. I pounded up that hill and turned right down Palani Drive along its steep descent to a highway turning left for about five or six blocks. From there, I turned right, then right again onto Ali’i Drive, the most hallowed place in Ironmandom. (I made that last word up but I like it.)

It seemed wrong. Only a few spectators and locals were walking along Ali’i Drive and I really couldn’t hear the finish area, even though I knew that it was only 400 meters away. It was very, very dark and eerily quiet. A few guys reached out and offered congratulatory high fives. By this point, I was moving fast. I rounded a curve and saw the blazing lights and heard the deafening sound of the music and Mike Reilly, the man who makes it official.

The finish line at Ironman Hawaii is built up on a platform about two-and-a-half or three feet high so that everyone can see the finishers cross. A small ramp leads up to that platform and then, just as quickly, descends to the ground and volunteers waiting to usher finishers into the area with drinks, food, medical care, photos, medals, tee shirts and hats.

A Digression: Sisyphus Reconsidered.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a bad hombre. Greed, avarice, cruelty: The guy was versatile. Zeus gave Sisyphus what he deserved. His punishment was to take a massive boulder and roll it to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down time after time after time forever. I have thought a lot about Sisyphus in the months leading up to Ironman Kona. Maybe Sisyphus’s story is one of the few bits of Greek mythology I know because I identify with Sisyphus. Who among us does not feel as though we spend each waking day trying to make progress, only to rise the next day and find that we need to push the same rock up the same hill? For Sisyphus, it was clever punishment by the major domo of Greek gods. For the rest of us, it’s just what we do.

The Last Hill.

Eleven hours, fifty seven minutes and forty seconds into my race, I pushed myself to run up a very short slope, raised my arms, cheered and smiled. Then I ran back down onto the darkened pavement beyond the finish line.

Mike Reilly said, “Scott Ross, you are an Ironman.” He also noted that I described myself as an underwear model in my official Ironman race profile. I smiled and waved at Mike thinking of my underpants run only a couple of days before.

I suspect that once I am back home in Minnesota, I won’t have changed a bit despite having climbed that platform and having realized my dream. Instead, I will rise at 4:45, look at my workout schedule and push my own personal rock up the hill one more day.


A friend asked me to compare Kona with Ironman Wisconsin. I have run Wisconsin and Coeur d’Alene and made both even harder to finish than Kona because I made some outrageous mistakes, mostly due to inexperience. Don’t get me wrong, I made mistakes at Kona but they were comparatively minor. Yesterday, I benefited from my experience and ran the race reasonably well, though I could probably shave 15 minutes pretty easily on a second go around.

Getting to Kona was the hardest thing that I have ever done. My reward? Kona is the hardest race I have ever run. There are several reasons. The competition is absolutely fierce. (Margy used to comment on the fact that competitors at Madison and Coeur d’Alene came in all shapes and sizes. Competitors at Kona are “one size fits all.” They are uniformly lean and muscular. It’s all but impossible to tell who is a pro versus who is an age grouper.) A non-wetsuit ocean swim is slower and more difficult than wetsuit swims in Madison and Coeur d’Alene. The wind is really strong, tricky and can be dispiriting. Most of all, though, it’s the heat. Reported temperatures in the upper 80’s do not reflect the way that the sun beats down on the lava fields and absolutely bakes you. You can’t describe it; you have to feel it.

After the race, I ran into two fellow Minnesotans. (There were nine of us here.) I asked about their days. They began to talk about the deficiencies in their respective performances. I cut them off. “We just finished Kona today. It was a great day; it’s definitional.” They paused and smiled.

So yesterday I swam in Kailua Bay, rode on the Queen K and ran on Ali’i Drive. These are Ironman’s most sacred ground. Only a select few are allowed access one day a year. Yesterday was a great day.

In the years leading up to Kona, I found that the best part was the connection with family and friends all wishing me well. Kona was my George Bailey moment: You don’t always have the chance to realize that you mean something to so many people or that so many people mean so much to you. It really is a wonderful life. Then again, maybe it’s really only about the tee shirt, hat, medal and lei. If so, mission accomplished.

Thanks, Marg.

In the days leading up to Kona, Margy waited on me hand and foot. Nobody in Kona had anyone in Margy’s league for support. Here is what she did for me the night before the race just outside the finish area. What a lucky guy I am.

The rest of the story is Scott’s to tell.

Mahalo everyone!

Here’s Scott coming down Palini Road into T2. I was SO relieved to see him coming off the bike. It’s going to be a brutally hot marathon, but I worry less about Scott on a run that I did when he was on the highway where he’s less in control of his destiny. Of course, visions of his fellow Wisconsin qualifier who broke his collar bone earlier this week flashed through my head repeatedly while I was anxiously awaiting Scott’s arrival into the transition.

I saw Scott again about 1/3 mile into the run (below). He told me that he pee’d five times on the bike (which means a dismount and more hand sanitizer for Scott). He also mentioned a penalty, although it wasn’t clear if he got one or not.

And finally, here’s a picture from around mile 10. Gad, he looks fresher than I do! The smile is hugely reassuring. Either he’s feeling pretty good, or he’s an excellent actor.

I’m headed down to the finish line. A not-so-friendly fellow from “Mark Allen Online” told me that I can’t get close to the finish unless I have “credentials.” Give me a break – who could be more important than the spouse of a nearly 14-time IronMan??

More after the finish!

To quote a totally exhausted Eastern European competitor at a very steamy IM Wisconsin who declared, “I queet,” so has Chris McCormack. Ironically, I chatted with his wife in the King Kam elevator about 30 minutes before hearing this news. (Yes, I’m bonding with all the other Ironmates – ha!) She told me that he wasn’t doing as well as they’d hoped, but he’d make it up on the run. Confidence must run in the family. Maybe next year…

Meanwhile, the lobby of the King Kam hotel looks like a war zone. Spectators are dropping like flies. Like me, most supporters are stuck in the transition area, but without a room at the inn, they’re sprawled on every available horizontal surface (including lots of carpet) in the hotel. The hotel’s pool is literally wall-to-wall people. This hotel is not on my list of all-time favorites, but as they say, “location, location, location.”

Scott looks to be doing well on the bike. I’m hoping he caught a tailwind heading out of town and not just adrenalin.

Quick update as I just saw Scott as he left town around 7 mi. He looks really good! Couple shots from this AM…

Scott just before leaving me at the fence line. From here, he went to the porta-potty before joining the masses getting into the water. He suddenly came back to me in a panic asking for hand sanitizer. I didn’t have any in my camera bag, so he went to locate some in the medical tent before getting into the ocean. I took this as a good sign – Scott was just as neurotic this morning as he normally is. Jared, perhaps this helps explain why his transitions are so slow…

Final wave before walking down the steps from Kailua Pier.

Game face on!

They’re off with Hawaiian music and shell horns (?) blaring.

Figured I had a decent viewing spot as Chrissie Wellington was standing right in front of me. Of course, she was on the fence reserved for IM royalty, while I was with the mere mortals. I’m not sure who she was following, but she took off after seeing some female swimmers get on their bikes.

Out of the swim and looking for his fan club! He said he hoped his swim would be between 1:15 and 1:20. 1:17:22 just about split the difference.

Ready to mount his bike. Notice the loads of sun screen. That’s goodness as it’s cloudless this morning and around 75 degrees at this time. I’m hoping for a little cooling breeze on the Queen K Highway (but not too much!)

Riding down Palani Road back towards the hotel from the Queen K for a quick loop through town before heading north to the lava fields…

I saw him again as he headed out of town, but no photos.

More later. I’ll post another update after I see him next following T2.