Swimmers at Ironman Hawaii
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What it's like to race Kona for the first time

British age-grouper Gail Wilkinson recounts the 2014 race – pushes, punctures and all…

I feel nervous. I always do. A few little nerves are always good before a race, they take your mind off what will come.

You know that you are at the World Championships when you have a personal chaperone to take you through transition the day before the race and talk over any questions that you might have.

My personal chaperone is called Emma, a lovely lady from New Zealand. Her brother is racing so she volunteered her time for the duration of race week. It’s her second time in Kona, and my first.

On race morning I get a lift to the race start. I see someone hitching and ask if we can pick her up. We drive on. We get a great spot in the car park. We walk to the start. It is each person for themselves now.

Spectators are already taking their viewing spots on the pier wall for the swim start. It’s 4.45am.

By the time the cannon goes off this viewing wall will be five to 10 people deep. We are ushered through a tent and line up to be weighed. Line up to collect race numbers. Line up to get the race numbers stuck on. It is an efficient (ish) production line of zombified humans, process, process, process.

Competitors. Doctors. Volunteers.

On the morning of a race, I kind of go in to this zone where everything becomes a little hazy and abstract, you are there but not quite there, if that makes sense. It feels soothing not to have to think about too much.

Some of the volunteers (5,000 in total) are trying their hardest to get us going with shouts of encouragement. I can’t help but feel it’s a little misplaced with how I’m currently feeling. It’s 5.15am. 

Helpful pros

I drop nutrition bottles off to my bike, pump up the tyres. Not quite sure of what PSI to put in. Maybe I put too much in. There’s a last minute drop-off of run hydration bottles in the run bag. Now what to do with my clothes?

I ask a friendly looking female athlete if she knows where the bag drop is. I walk off towards bag drop, then hear a male athlete congratulate the friendly looking female on her latest win. Go back and apologise to Corinne Abraham for not recognising her.

I drop off my bag in the designated area, as identified by Corinne. I wait.

There is a moment before a race where I begin to question why I am here. Why do I do this? This moment is amplified on the Kona stage.

I am entranced by the singing of “Star Spangled Banner” and the sight of 2 paragliders spiralling above, with ringlets of smoke billowing from their heels. There are drummers drumming. The sun’s rising. My heart’s racing. Helicopter hover noisily above.

I feel like I am part of a show. I am – the Ironman show.

Athletes prepare for Ironman Hawaii 2014 (credit: Paul Phillips)

The cannon goes, and I catch a glimpse of the male professionals as they head off through the chop. An age-grouper asks me to help zip up his slightly-too-tight speed suit, I wish hime good luck.

I have always felt to wish another athlete good luck is to take away their effort. It’s not good luck that has got them to the start line, it’s more like a lot of sweat, a great deal of hard work and sacrifice, with a little luck thrown in.

The female pros set off, then the male age groupers. It’s the turn of the female age groupers. Wow, that 30 minutes flew.

Start

When the cannon goes I’m a little surprised. Ooh. Race.

I swim. I swim some more. Will my goggles be ok? I swim a little faster. My goggles feel ok. I started on the far left. I’m now on the far right. I feel like I’m swimming really hard. I like the swim. Are my goggles ok? Ooh. There are the boats. That’s the turnaround point. 

I swim some more. The goggles will be fine. The water is getting much choppier now. It’s more difficult to navigate, especially as I catch up to the slower male swimmers. I find myself swimming at the same pace as a woman. She elbows me in the face. Then she pushes me. I move. 

It was at this moment when I realised that I don’t want to win badly enough to hurt someone else to get to that aim. I just don’t.

T1 

I run out of the swim and underneath the hosepipes fashioned as showers, towards T1. There is a line of volunteers calling out the numbers for the bags. “1460’” I shout as a woman thrusts bag number “1468” towards me. “No,” I say, “1460”. She nods, still thrusting “1468” towards my chest. 

This charade carries on for about 20 seconds, until I move her out of the way, grab my bag (which she’s standing in front of), still hanging by its string where I’d left it the day before, and run off towards the female changing tent.

When I put my watch on, I do a double-take at the time. I can’t believe that I’ve been swimming for that time! I keep shaking the watch and looking at it. I then manage to convince myself that we had started late, and that I could easily take 10 minutes off the time. A late start was obviously the problem.

Ha. My swim time was actually 1hour and 17 minutes. I thought that I’d had a great swim. 

Bike

Out on the bike. I get a steady rhythm going. It should feel easy. It does. A quick lap around the town then out on to the Queen K highway. Boy it’s windy. Makes me smile. Lots of people will over bike in this wind. I’ll make up good time on the run.

I smile again as I think of myself as a runner. That’s a first. I can run. 

I feel a little dehydrated, and decide to take some salt tabs. The top of the salt tab dispenser comes off in my mouth. Two out of five tabs drop on the floor. I take a salt tab. There is actually only one salt tab left total. Salt tabs are my life right now. Until a second later and I get over it. 

A couple of women overtake me. I keep to my plan. Maintain a steady rhythm. It should feel easy. I keep pace with a couple of women for about 20 mins. Then I watch as they hammer it into the wind.

Biking on the Queen K (credit: Macca)

Around 30 minutes later, I happily overtake them. My plan’s working. I feel good. Average speed is good. Happy days. The side winds are a little hairy though. 

Checking average speed. Checking nutrition. Checking hydration. Feeling good. 80km. 

I see one of the guys I know racing pass on the other side of the road. I spend the next 10km trying to work out how far ahead of me he is.

Puncture

At 90.5km a strange but oh so familiar whirring noise comes. Puncture.

Should I use tyre sealant or change the tube? Tyre sealant or change the tube? If I use sealant I can be on the road in less than a minute. I go with sealant.

I notice two holes in the tyre as the sealant spits through the holes. I hold the wheel and spin it, then decide that the sealant is setting and go to put the wheel back on the bike. But it’s still spitting out of the valve and the holes in the tyre. It’s not working.

I’m holding the wheel and looking desperate when another competitors asks if I’d like some help.

“What about your race?” I say. “I’m only here for the experience,” he replies, “I’m not here to get a time.”

How lucky am I??? The two of us try to get tyre levers under my new tyres to change the tube, to no avail. 10 minutes later he leaves me to go and get help.

“Go”, I say, “think of the children”. OK, I don’t say that. But before he leaves he asks me if I need anything, water? Gel? and this reminds me to eat. 

Salvation

It’s hot. My good Samaritan does exactly what he said he would, and help arrives.

I’m contemplating moving to the shade when marshals arrive on a motorbike to save the day. They tell me that I’m lucky it’s only a puncture. Several women have been thrown off their bikes by the side wind.

I work out I’ve spent 23 minutes at the side of the road, then am back on the bike and on my way. 

I ride. I ride hard. I have a headwind. I have a headwind for 180km (even though there’s only 90km left of the ride) apart from when it’s a sidewind. It’s a headwind. I feel cautious. I want to stay on my bike. 

I ride as hard as I safely can. My average speed is dropping, as is my fighting spirit. 

I’m picking off the laggers. I’m riding solo. I’m feeling deflated. My average speed is dropping and dropping. As is my will to dig in. I see several women at the side of the road crying with their bikes. 

I gain perspective. I feel lucky to be moving on my bike and heading towards home. Oh wait, no, I’m heading towards a marathon… 

My goal changes. My goal is now to finish. My initial goal was to finish. Then to finish with a smile. Then to finish in as best a time as possible. I’m happy to finish right now.

T2

I get to T2. I check my bike split. My bike split is shocking. 6 hours 30 minutes and change. I get off my bike, and it’s taken and racked for me.

My legs feel rubbish. My first thought is that I have to run a marathon on these legs and I want nothing more than to stop. Now. My legs hurt.

I run out onto Ali’i Drive. My legs feel terrible. My head feels terrible. 

The first three kilometres feel horrible, I just want to stop. Slow down. You don’t need to run that fast. Still feels horrible, I want to stop.

OK. I can walk up Palani. But I want to stop now. No. I must run, but don’t check run splits because I'll be disappointed. The watch beeps. I keep running.

You can walk when you get to Palani. 8km out and 8km back. 16km total.

Palani Hill

Run. Run. Run.

Palani Hill is very busy. Lots of spectators, lots of competitors. I walk. Right from the very base of it, probably a fraction of a second before it even becomes a hill.

I get to the top of Palani, and see a message that’s been written in chalk for me by a friend whose sister happened to be at the race.

“GO GAIL LFTC. LFTC GO GAIL”

My friends are thinking of me, my London Fields Triathlon Club friends.

I can run. If I couldn’t run, that would be different, I can run, I just can’t win.

“GO GAIL LFTC” is my mantra. I’m on the Queen K and I feel incredible.

Then I see my friend and start to tell him that I had a puncture, and, and, and, and… “Focus on the now,” he tells me. 

Energy Lab

I look up. The sun is setting on the sea. It looks beautiful. The water glistens. The sun shimmers a pinky orange hue. A runner stops in front of me. We’re heading downhill.

I tap her on the shoulder: “Come on,” I say, “this bit is the easy bit, it’s downhill.”

She runs. We run. She picks up her pace. 3km. Side by side. Three lovely kilometres.

I’m hot. Water. Water. Water. Water. One over the head. One to drink. One over the head. Sponge, ice cold, over my head. It takes my breath away. Lovely.

I turn around in the Energy Lab, still not checking my run splits. I want to walk. I try to work out how much longer I have to run if I continue to run at this pace to the end.

My head hurts. I work out that it will take me four weeks. I think that my maths is not working so well right now. My head really hurts. I strike a deal with myself that I can walk the aid stations. 

I hear myself admit that I can walk. So I walk. I walk for a kilometre. I walk out of the Energy Lab. Then I run.

My hopes of a daylight finish are dashed. The sun sets beautifully on the horizon. I share the moment with another woman who has had a bad day.

Volunteers have had time to clear the paths of the plastic cup debris. Its getting late. It’s dark.

Chicken blooming soup?

Water? Cola? Chicken soup?

No thanks.

“Chicken soup?” I think – are you kidding me? Chicken blooming soup? Then I chuckle to myself and think “Well, it is dinner time I suppose…”

Run some, walk some. The support is sensational.

I start counting down the kilometres and chat to fellow finishers about their day.

After what feels like ages I reach the top of Queen K. It’s the final aid station, there are glow sticks, volunteers are dancing. Music’s pumping. I run through.

The finish

Irene Cara’s “What A Feeling” is playing on the loudspeaker. That damn finishing chute can’t come soon enough. 

Then there it is. The arch. It doesn’t look as wonderful as I thought it would. I only care about crossing the line. 

Gail WilkinsonI don’t think about the two other people getting their moment of glory. I don’t think about my visor turned backwards, or the shades that I no longer need hanging from my race belt.

I don’t think about the photographs at all. “Gail Marie Wilkinson, you are an Ironman…” 

Now where the bloody hell is that chocolate milk.


Follow Gail on Twitter at @gail_wilkinson


 
 

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