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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.

Darkness.

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.

Hard?

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Way to go, you guys! I am just like Margy…crying away. Great writing/story, Scott. So happy for you! Loads of love, Gina!

  2. Great read! Great race! Congratulations Scott! Super pumped for you! This really makes me want to go back and race there. Thanks for inspiring us all!


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