09 Kona Race Report
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        09 Kona Race Report

On October 10, 2009, I was treading water in the Kailua Bay waiting for the cannon to sound to start my “ new beginning” during the 31st Ford Ironman World Championship. Here is a review of how the day played out for me.

The race was to start at 7AM for the age group athletes. After a restful sleep, I rolled out of bed at 3:45AM to have one of two small breakfasts. I will spare readers detail of my nutritional plan for the day, as that is a whole article in its self. I usually do not have much of an appetite race morning (I admit to some prerace nerves) so I find smaller more frequent feedings works best for me. Ironman is a long day so you need to get the body fuel tank topped off.

My bike and race gear bags were dropped off the night before so David and I walked the 1-mile down to the transition area. I felt pretty calm and was ready to get my race number stamped on my arms then set up my bike with my nutritional items. All went pretty smooth so I got to hang out until the Pro wave started then made my way to the steps of Dig Me Beach to enter the water.

The 2.4 mile swim remains one of the most stressful parts of any Ironman race. It’s the discipline that does not come easily to me and is least enjoyable part of my triathlon experience. In all of my Ironman starts I have ALWAYS had a friend (or husband) to start next to in the swim. We may not have stayed together long but just having a friendly body next to me to buffer one side from the crazy arms and legs splashing and kicking gave me some comfort. This day I had no one. I was on my own.

I managed to get myself mentally ready for the swim beating. I wanted to minimize the pounding by trying a different tactic from my other Ironman races. I waited until just a few minutes before the start and swam to a spot that looked fairly clear (to the middle left of the swim buoys). I was treading water for about 2 minutes then the gun sounded and I thought, “ Here we go, no turning back now!” Face in the water, I just started to swim. I concentrated on staying relaxed, calm and was waiting for the swim congestion that seemed inevitable.

I could see other swimmers around me but I was surprised at how much room I had! Its weird because the more I swam the more I felt like I was in this protective bubble. When things got a bit more congested another odd thing happened…. I started thinking about a wonderful man, Buzz Hoge (He passed away in July of this year) who was a major influence on me taking the endurance sports road. I am not an overly spiritual person but for some reason he was on my mind and I found myself asking for his help…… when I did I found calm water. I was able to relax and enjoy the remarkable visibility of the water. I got to see the coral and most beautiful fish. Yes, during an Ironman I am looking at these things! The swim was the most relaxing and peaceful swims I have ever had in a race and I feel I owe a thank you to Buzz.

After exiting the swim I did catch a glimpse of the time clock. I was briefly disappointed, I said, “1:21 OH great my slowest Ironman swim to date!” I did refocus pretty quickly and got my gear bag and headed into the changing tent. Once inside I did something I usually do not do in a race. I sat down! Not only did I sit down, I asked my volunteer her name (Michelle) and thanked her for what I was going to ask her to do for me. I did not have any sense of urgency getting to my bike so methodically applied my sunscreen (happy to report I finished this race with NO sunburn) collected my things and off I went…..to my wonderful bike!

My 2007 race in Kona was the bike from hell. It was painful and demoralizing. This day I was determined to not repeat the same mistakes I made last time. I knew the ride out on the Queen K highway to Hawi would be fairly easy with less wind. I felt really good on the bike and the main thought, it's hot! One of the most memorable moments on the bike came early. I found myself riding up on a very inspirational young man, Rudy Garcia-Tolsen. This guy has guts and determination!

Rudy was attempting to be the first above the knee double amputee's to conquer the granddaddy of Ironman. This dude is pedaling is butt off….literally. What I mean by this is he is going to ride 112 miles on one of the most challenging bike courses with only the muscular power of his gluteal muscles! He has no use of quads or hamstrings, just his butt muscles. As I past him I said, “You are awesome Rudy ”. I thought about his motto: A Brave Heart is a Powerful Weapon. This experience just added to my mental arsenal for the day, which included a DNFQ -Do NOT Fing (fill in the blank with your favorite f word) QUIT!

Again the bike felt good! I used my power meter to help manage my effort and settled in for a long day. The climb and crosswinds up to the turnaround in Hawi once again did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I found the hip tightness that progressed into extreme pain in 2007 was starting to happen again! Damn the combo of climbing hills with a wicked crosswind! This time I did not let my stubbornness make me stupid.

Just after the Hawi turnaround, I grabbed my special needs bag (aka lunch bag) and did something I have never done in an Ironman…..I stopped! Yes I unclipped BOTH feet and had a little lunch and stretch break as others are flying by me on the bike. And you know what, I did not care! I was actually pretty darn happy eating my Smuckers Uncrustable Peanut Butter sandwich and washing it down with a can of V-8. Sounds tasty doesn’t it. After a few minutes I ditched the bag and jumped back on the bike to bomb the descent out of Hawi…..THAT was fun. I loved passing many folks too “chicken” to be in the aero bars because the crosswind gusts where pushing their deep-rim race wheels. Needless to say, I was delighted with my training wheel choice for the day!

After Hawi, I got out to the Queen K highway. It was now only 30 miles or so to go. For much of the bike, I did not pay attention to time or speed, only mile markers, cadence and watts so I figured this is great I am in the home stretch! Well it was great until I got smacked in the face with some pretty hefty headwinds. With this race, the longer you are out there the tougher the conditions seem to get. As the day goes on, the winds pick up and the bike course becomes more challenging. Because I was taking my sweet time, I guess I deserved having to suffer the last 30 miles. Even though I still felt strong, the pace naturally slowed and I found my right hip starting to tighten up and cause some discomfort pain in the hip/ butt area. So once (actually twice) again I did some thing I never do…I stopped to stretch. These stops I did keep fairly quick but it’s not something I really wanted to do. I knew if I wanted to finish the day I needed to just be patient and suck it up and DNFQ!

Rolling back into town was a joyous moment because I was OVER the winds. When I did look at my watch for the cumulative time I was quite happy. I would be starting my marathon before 2:30PM, which was 7.5 hours into the race. I briefly thought, “ heck maybe I could still have a good day even if I do a 5 hour marathon!” Well that did not happen.

Ironman is great because after 112 miles, a volunteer happily takes your grimy bike. From that point, you have to try to find some legs to either walk or run (I did run!) to your gear bag and head back to the changing tent to prep for covering 26.2 miles in the heat of the day.
Into the tent, was thankful to sit back down and chat a bit with Amanda who helped me get all my crap out of my bag. She politely reminded me that my helmet was still on my head and I might want to take it off. She then asked me a very basic question: Do you have to go to the bathroom?

I paused. She quickly says…”oh if you have to pee please don’t do it on the chair!” By the smell of it, I suspect some gals had but I reassured that I would not. This question got me thinking…when was the last time I “went”? As I realized it was before the swim, I thought, “ NOT good.” (For those reading this who do not do triathlons or Ironman, you should have to urinate at various points during the day. No potty breaks usually means some level of dehydration. )

After a lengthy 8 min T2, I headed out on what I think is the true test in Ironman, the run. I had many restless nights during training and coming into the race. The “possible early stress fracture” in my left hip (femoral neck) kept me from running much of the time leading up to this day. I did what I could to progress fitness (lots of pool running with supplemental elliptical training) while trying to let me hip heal. My doctor gave me permission to START running at the end of October and here I am heading out to cover a marathon mid October with only a few weeks of walk/runs under my belt. As I have stated before if this was any other race I would have not even started……but with it being the World Championship, I felt I had to try. Needless to say I had TONS of uncertainty starting the run.

So on to the run, I did run the first .5 miles! Dave saw me and I was HAPPY!! I felt good… no pain in my hip! Shortly after I past Dave, I started to feel lightheaded and dizzy and I knew this was a result of my less than optimal hydration status. (My conclusion was I sweated out more than I could ingest and I drank A LOT) So I walked for a couple minutes then when my watch timer beeped I attempted to run…again no hip pain but had to walk because of dizziness. This is all happening in the first mile.

At this point in the race, I kind of knew “finish time” was irrelevant. I had 9.5 hours to cover the run course and finish what I started. I had no doubt that I could do that as long as I did not pass out and get removed from the course. I did not want to jeopardize my finish so I knew I needed to get rehydrated and feeling better. I knew the only way to make things better was to keep core body temp down (lower the intensity) by walking and hydrating while replenishing electrolytes until I finally had “nature calling”. For the first 1.5 hours of the marathon, I walked 4 min and ran 1-2 min. After lots of sports drink and salt until I finally visited Mr. Port O John and then it was able to shift to run for periods longer than my walk.

As someone who is wired as a competitor, it really is a mental challenge to concede to walking and finishing later than you may have hoped. Remarkably, I had a lot of support and cheering during the race thanks to my TriGators singlet. Gator Nation is everywhere and it was in full force in Kona. It was great that folks were cheering for the “Gator Girl”, sharing Gator chomps and happily telling me “we” were beating SEC rival LSU. Thank goodness Florida won as I think the few LSU fans that did reveal themselves would have heckled me.

So even though I was walking way more than I anticipated, the first 10 miles were very fun because of all the people! To head out of town for the final 16miles, you had to climb up Palani road (its long and steep) and make a left on the highway. I saw Dave at this point and he walked with me and just told me to keep going and that he would be there when I got back. I laughed and said, “That’s going to be a while!"

On the way out of town down the Queen K highway all you have to look at is lava fields and the highway with the heat radiating off the black asphalt. The athletes heading out of town where on the right side of the road and the athletes coming back towards the finish on left. Those on the left looked much happier than those of us on the right. Only cheering during this part of the course comes at aid stations.

By the time I got out on the highway (close to mile 13) my plan shifted back to more walking than running because a) my hip although not painful did not feel “normal” and b) my feet hurt really bad when running. I vowed not to let my pride get in the way and push through the discomfort. I did not want to cause damage to my ill prepared legs so walking seemed to be my best bet. It would have been easy to hang my head and start my pity party but as any negative thought came in I said, No! and silently asked for the strength to just keep on keeping on. To help raise my spirits, I started cheering for the folks passing me on their way back into town to finish. Many thanked me and offered kind words in return but I think more folks looked stunned. I guess they did not expect the Gator Girl to be so chipper knowing I had a lot of miles still yet to cover.

The last 13 miles of the marathon really were the most difficult but I drew strength from all the great people who wished me well before I left. I had PLENTY of time to think out on the course especially in the darkness of the last 9 miles. I thought about those athletes I have coached who inspire me through their dedication to training, their natural gifts and the mental fortitude to tackle tough situations to those who joys I shared with first time experiences or break through performances.

I had many special moments on the run course but the most special moment came when I arrived at the top of the hill before the entrance into the Natural Energy Lab. (The Energy Lab-photo below- is the turnaround point for the run) Just as I am getting up the hill I stop in my tracks to enjoy a breathtaking sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Again not be an overtly spiritual person, I found that this was the moment that I thought about an awesome woman. This woman has inspired me greatly with her will to fight her “Time Limited Project” but unfortunately was dealing with a set back and was back in the hospital. I said a short prayer for her and her husband then continued on into the “lab” as darkness set.

The turnaround point in the Energy Lab is a significant point in the race because you know its about 9 miles to go straight back to town. I resisted the urge to look at my watch for my current race time because I wanted to stay positive. My time will be what it will be.

So I was committed to forward progress using only my watch timer beep as a nudge to periodically test my running legs. Unfortunately there weren’t too many folks to chat with, as most walking were not very happy. So in the blackness of the night, I just stayed in my head thinking about people, singing songs (like The Climb) and looking at the stars while trying to follow the faint white line on the road. I was careful to not fall over the safety cones looking for each mile marker as my excitement for finishing was growing. During this time I was also wondering: What will time clock say?

At mile 22 came another memorable moment. I was getting closer to town so more folks were scattered on the highway waiting to cheer loved ones in. Just before this point Cherie Gruenfeld (65-69) scooted past me to be encouraged by her husband who I suspect was letting her know that upon finishing she would be crowned a World Champion, again. At first my thought was “Oh great I am getting run down by a 65 year old woman!”

My competitivness started to rear its head. I had successfully avoided looking at my watch up until this point but could no longer resist. The cumulative race time? 12:25. I thought “Can I run the last 4.2 miles in 36 minutes? The answer was No. So I plodded along sulking briefly about the "pass" but able to get back to being joyful. Why? Because I only had 4 miles to go! I knew now this was going to be my slowest Ironman to date and you know what….I DID NOT CARE. Talk about feeling liberated!

The final miles of the race were all I had hoped they would be. After the Cherie pass, I did try to run a bit more than walk. The last 2 miles I think adrenaline kicked in and feet not longer hurt and hip was feeling fine. I ran down Palani Road, the steep hill I walked up earlier in the day. Dave tried to run along side me saying” how are you running down this?” before dropping back. More adrenaline must have been infused to my muscles because after turning left and crossing the mat to signal 1 mile to the finish, I felt the best I had all year! My happiness showed and folks cheered. A few folks remembered Gator Girl and congratulated me. All I could do was smile and give a thumbs up. No way was I going to walk feeling as good as I did.

Then it happened….

Ahead on the road I saw a familiar figure. Its was the soon to be 65-69 Ironman World Champion…Cherie. My competitor cap went on and all I could think then is…”Ha, now I am going to pass you!” As I fly by her with now less than .75 miles to go I had a brief (and ridiculous) thought, “Is she going to try to go with me?” Now I know how silly this is. I have had over 1300 athletes kick my ass today and I am finding a sliver of pleasure in passing a World Champion.? Just silly!! Anyway, Cherie held strong and did finish behind me but not by much! (Kudos to Cherie for her win!) So after the pass and ridiculous internal dialogue, I made the right onto Kalani then right on to Alli Drive for the final stretch into the finish line. All I can say about running down Alli is the most energizing street of any Ironman.

I remember the joy of the two previous times running down the finisher’s chute….this time was going to be even sweeter. I soaked it all in. If a hand was out, I slapped it. If I got Gator Girl cheer, they got a Gator chomp in return. Once I felt the softness of the carpeted finishing chute under my feet all I remember is the cheers, "my" finish song “Jesse’s Girl” playing over the loud speakers (couldn’t they have picked something better than Rick Springfield?) and the voice of Ironman bringing me in with:”Jennifer Hutchison, you are an Ironman!”. As I came across the finish line, I raised my arms, put an even bigger smile on my face and thought, “Finally, IM Done!”

And done I am, with Ironman that is. I feel satisfied and complete and have no yearning to do another. I guess that could eventually change but right now I feel blessed knowing that the obstacles leading up to the race and the special moments I had on this day may be part of some unknown master plan.

Thank you so much to all that supported me I could not have done this without you.

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