Even if it's only as a spectator, you should absolutely go to Kona solely to experience the energy and excitement of the IRONMAN World Championship at least once (and eat some tasty food)! The Big Island is marvelous and arriving a few days early was the best decision we could have made because we got the opportunity to experience Kailua Village while it was still laid-back and quiet. There are always runners/cyclists up and down Ali'i Drive (even a week after the race), but by Thursday the crowds start coming in droves. Barricades are getting constructed, the finish line starts taking shape and if you go for a practice swim on Friday there is actually a floating coffee shop you can swim up to! Triathlon Taren was everywhere at once, vendors popped up on every available horizontal surface and by the time bike check-in started, the finish line was complete in its full tribal-drumming, technicolor glory.
If you haven't heard by now, I actually got the opportunity to participate in this race and I'll tell you - It was an experience I will never forget, but race morning started a little rocky.
For starters, Ali'i drive was blocked to the public and the shuttles that were supposed to take athletes into town never made an appearance. I forgot my pre-race breakfast in my girlfriend's bag along with my phone so there was no way to contact her. Thankfully I had a cornucopia of snacks in my own bag, thanks to the brilliant foresight of my coach, but it wasn't my normal PBJ + Banana and that made me a little nervous. Worst of all, I learned right before I got into the water that my heart rate monitor wasn't working which could easily ruin my entire bike ride! On the flip side, I passed within a foot of Patrick Lange on the way to the swim start and if that's not good luck I don't know what is! You're welcome, Patrick ;)
The swim at Kona is a mass start out in the water, which means you swim out of the shallows and tread water for several minutes before the cannon goes off. I had practiced for this in the pool and the treading itself wasn't really an issue, but I what I didn't plan for was being jostled and whacked by everyone around me several minutes before the swim even started. I was most worried about getting beaten to death when the cannon finally fired, but somehow I was actually spared a good amount of thrashing. I got kicked in the face a couple of minutes in, but it was honestly more disorienting than painful, and the water wasn't too choppy. The tide was fairly strong though, and at one point found that I had drifted further to the left than I was entirely comfortable with so I adjusted my course. Time flew from there and before I knew it the boats that mark the turnaround were in sight and I was on my way back! While the swim back felt longer, I could actually see the shore, so the view, while I was breathing anyway, was infinitely more engaging than the endless ocean views of the first half and I soon found myself stumbling up the stairs!
Fascinating fact: my bike was directly under the giant, inflatable Gatorade bottle so it was very easy to find. There were people cheering everywhere when I left T1 and it with so many people watching it was very hard not to bust up Palani hill like it was a sprint. Luckily I had been well coached on exactly how to perform and what the consequences might be if I didn't. The roads were the smoothest I have ever encountered and the first thirty miles were smooth sailing. After you get onto the highway the ride is fairly flat, but pretty soon course turns into either a slow, shallow climb or rolling hills. Once you hit Kawaihae though, it's almost entirely up-hill - not super steep but enough to slow things down, and it seems like it's never going to end. Since I didn't have the benefit of my HR monitor and I'm not quite as comfortable racing on power alone, I tried to constantly monitor how I was feeling and stay relaxed so I wouldn't use too much energy. In hindsight, I probably could have given it more gas, but I was afraid to risk it. After the u-turn in Hawi, it's downhill for miles and it feels fantastic! It was the best possible reward for all of that hard work because I was flying at 30 mph for miles! It flattened back out after a while and there were a few of the same rolling hills from before, but overall the ride was infinitely nicer and I made up some of the time I lost climbing for so long.
Back at T2, I learned to fully appreciate just how gigantic the transition area at Kona is! I had to walk around the entire perimeter before I even got to the changing tent! I tried to jog, but my legs still felt a little wobbly and I had to take my cleats off. I was taking a little too long in transition, so I decided to eat my snacks while I hiked up Palani to make up for lost time.
As I started the marathon, the sun was starting to set but it was still pretty hot. There were a few moments where I started to feel a little gross, but walking helped and thankfully the temperature kept dropping. I was feeling much better by the time I made it back into town the first time, and shortly after - I kid you not - Daniela Ryf rode by on a pink beach cruiser and cheered for me. It sounds like a hallucination and I admit that I was a little skeptical myself, but I found out the next day that it really was her! It started to rain around mile 10, which wasn't entirely a bad thing because it kept me cool but it came down pretty hard at times. When I finally got to The Natural Energy Lab, it wasn't at all what I expected because I was slogging through water! I could still feel some of the residual heat coming off of the pavement though, even with the rain. I made a quick pit-stop at special needs and by the time I made it back to the Queen K I only had about 9 miles left and was happily re-fuelled.
Somehow, I was ahead of schedule and miraculously still feeling happy to be there! I was honestly a little concerned that my watch might be malfunctioning so I asked someone nearby what time it was just to be safe (the watch was fine) and realized that I was talking to Kathleen McCartney. Since I had verified that I was indeed running ahead of schedule, I decided to play it cool, act like I didn't know she was a Kona winner and walk with her for a few minutes because how many opportunities would I get to do that?! We were only about 3 miles away from the finish by this time and could hear Mike Reilly and the crowd in the distance. She told me "once you make the final turn onto Palani you feel like you're floating the last two miles. It is the most amazing sensation you will ever experience". It was so true. Once I made that turn it was downhill almost the entire way to Ali'i and I had no trouble running the last two miles (I will admit I walked for a minute to collect myself before turned the corner to the finisher shoot. I didn't want to pass out on the carpet!). What a rush! Everybody wants to give you a high-five and I tried to slap as many hands as I could! It was complete sensory overload! The lights were so bright and it was so loud and absolutely exhilarating at the same time. I was honestly just hoping to cross by midnight, but by some miracle was 11:10 pm when I finally crossed the finish line after 15 hours and 50 minutes and Mike Reilly announced me as an IRONMAN!
I'm still a little bit in disbelief that it actually happened. I am even more shocked at how fun the actual race was! I went into it fully prepared to be physically crushed and mentally brutalized. Don't get me wrong, it was definitely the most challenging thing I've ever done, and it did hurt sometimes, but in my mind, I had prepared for a torturous experience that I would hate until I made it to the finish and relish in the fact that I survived. The fact is though, I was prepared and are so many inspiring and positive people around the entire time that the positivity seeps into you no matter how bad you feel and you can't help but be joyful at what you're experiencing. I made a point to remind myself regularly to have a good time - I might never have the opportunity to have this experience again, so I took the time to "stop and smell the roses" which I wouldn't have done if it were any other race. After I crossed, got my medal and had a minute to sit down, I went to the finish line to watch the rest of the finishers come through. I got to be there when the oldest man to ever compete crossed the finish line and I was able to snag a spot at the front of the barricade to watch the closing ceremony for the perfect end to the best 17 hours of my entire life.
My eternal gratitude to my amazing Coach Amari Holmes - I could have NEVER accomplished this without you! My Playtri family (and the biological one) for your incredible support and constant humor, Mel Nwaokai for keeping my body injury free, my friends Bo and Bobby for coming all the way to Hawaii to catch me at the finish line and my beautiful Jessica for putting up with me for almost a year of insanity and for being a super sherpa!
Congrats Ryan from everyone at Playtri! We loved following your journey and are so proud of you!!