Kona Race Report

My Ironman journey started in 2011 with Ironman Canada. On August 30, 2020 (my birthday) that same race will likely be my final full Ironman distance race.

In 2015 I was awarded a spot in the World Championships at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, but I had doubts about the circumstances of the day that resulted in my win. I raced Kona for the first time in 2015, a fantastic experience and placed 14th. I still had unfinished business.

For the last 4 years I focused on Ironman 70.3 (half distance) races and really enjoyed the experiences. In 2019 I aged up into the 60-64 division and decided to try again for a Kona qualification. I chose Santa Rosa after much debate and discussion with friends, family, training partners and coaches. The choice worked out well and I secured a qualifying spot for Kona 2019. I had and amazing day where everything seemed to come together, except my witness of a cyclist crashing that still gives me pause and shivers when I think of it. I also raced Calgary 70.3 with my sights on the Ironman World Championships in Taupo New Zealand in November 2020. I also won my age group in this race and secured a position for Taupo.

2019 has been a fantastic year from a health, training and racing perspective. Winning spots in 2 world championships this year was beyond my wildest expectations and a significant step in erasing my doubts that I can compete competitively as an endurance athlete. The true validation would be the Ironman World Championship, Kona Hawaii – October 12, 2019.

September 26th, 2019 the wheels of the plane touch down and the doors soon opened to a rush of hot humid air that is so familiar to Hawaii. My heart started racing and a bead of sweat started to form on my brow. I was not sure if it was the heat or the reality of being in Hawaii to race “the Ironman”.

Training continued as I endeavored to acclimate to the heat and humidity that was abnormally high for this time of year. I monitored the weather forecast and trained in various sections of the racecourse as strategically planned by triathlon coach Mike Neill, Human Powered Racing. Training in the heat was tolerable, but only raised more doubts about how to survive race day. A few calls to my mentor and friend Jill Kirker to calm my nerves and strategize my execution were a welcome boost of confidence.

Oct 10, race day preparations and final decisions. The weather forecast was for moderate surf, chance of rain, heat and high humidity over the lava fields and high head and cross winds in the north 60-km section of the bike course up to Hawi. I was consumed with doubts about my ability to ride the forecasted winds with my aero wheels and determined with the support and confidence of my coach Mike to stick with my race wheels.

Oct 11, race day staging. I walked my bike through bike check and received the all clear to stage my bike in transition 1 (T1). Husband – Michael, volunteering, guided me to my spot that was well positioned on the pier. I was 4 rows over from the pro’s so I would be running farther to my bike after the swim, but a lesser distance to the bike exit while pushing my bike. This is a significant advantage that was just the luck of the bike rack numbering sequence.

Michael guided through the maze I would be traversing tomorrow from the swim start to my bike with a few added words of strategy. It was mandatory to leave your helmet with your bike and optional to leave your shoes. I chose to leave both and hung an empty Bike transition bag in my slot (empty bags were still required to store your swim cap, googles and skin suit after the swim, but most importantly so they could verify you finished the swim and exited the water safely). I had one final glance back at my bike wondering if I made the right decisions about my race wheels.

Oct 12 – Race morning. I woke to our cell phone calendar notification “Ironman Kona” at 1:30 AM and could not get back to sleep. I decided to get up and start my race prep.

3:50 AM I did my final check that I had everything I needed for the day. I prepared my race nutrition the night before and froze it in soft sided cooler bags with ice packs. These bags were small enough to fit in my transition bags and would thaw slowly so I would have cool beverages when I needed them throughout the day.

Michael was volunteering race morning on the pier in T1 so I would meet up with him after body marking and weigh in (each athlete is weighed on race morning for medical baseline purposes).

This year the swim start changed format from a mass deep water start to a deep-water wave start by age group. I was positioned in the second last wave at 7:25 and hour after the official start of the pro men and by default destine to run in the dark for the last 15km of the race.

Swim 3860 meters. Actual distance 3920 meters, time of 1:16:43 pace of 1:59/100

With the precision of a military exercise, each group entered the water, swam 200 meters to the start buoys, a nice warmup. Once there we treaded water for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the start horn. As I waited, I could not have known my day was about to unfold in ways I never could have anticipated or imagined.

I positioned myself at the right start buoy and treaded water behind the row of surf boards hovering perpendicular to keep all swimmers in a line. The horn sounded and in perfect unison the surf boards pivoted like gates of the start block of a horse race and the thunder roared form an explosion of arms and legs.

I was first at the line and first out holding my breath for 10-12 strokes before then keeping a high interval pace for the next 200 meters before lengthening my stroke and calming my breathing. By 400 meters I was in a rhythm and was looking for feet to follow. The surf was present, but not overwhelming. I paid attention to the ebb and flow to sync my breathing, sighting and rolling as I had been coached by Chris. This worked very well, and I was thinking I was in a good rhythm as an Eagle Ray passed under me: Good luck sign, I told myself and could not help but smile (you can do that under water).

As I caught feet, I notice something I had never witnessed before: Purple tape on the feet of not one but a few athletes. It seemed to me that this was their way of creating a group of like swimmers with an easy way to identify each other. I looked and followed purple taped feet until the 1⁄2 way turn and then jumped on the heels of the better swimmers coming up from the final swim wave: the increase in draft was noticeable. I swam with this group for as long as possible and then found more purple tape feet as I headed back to T1.

I exited the water and bounded up the Roka swim stairs in 1:16:43, 6 min faster than 2015. I was all smiles from ear to ear: it was my best ocean swim that I attribute to the techniques passed to me by Coach Chris Lough, an amazing “Crazy Canuck” long distance swimmer.

I was 6th out of the water and headed directly to the showers to get the salt off my body and out from under my tri kit to avoid chafing from the ocean salts that would be abrasive in spots you don’t want abrasions.

My bike bag was in row 1, 4 bags from the end – again an awesome position. My bag was empty and ready to go. Everything I needed was at my bike and I needed only to place my swim cap, goggles and skin suit into the bag, drop it as I ran through the change tent and out onto the long carpet corridor into the bike coral. There were 2451 bikes on the pier that day and I was at the far end by the pros. I approached my lane and saw a smiling face cheering me, it was Michael strategically positioned.

Shoes, helmet, glasses and a smile to Michael as I headed towards the large arches marking the start of the bike course. My transition time was 4:19, 2:20 seconds faster than 2015 I gained 2 positions through transition as I mounted my bike and headed up Palani.

Bike 180 kilometers in a time of 6:15:12, average speed 28.82 km/hr

I settled into the bike quickly and my legs were feeling strong. I remembered a recommendation from Lisa Bentley whom spoke at the Canadian breakfast 2 days before “drink 2 bottles within the first hour to replenish your fluids from the swim and start bike hydration – don’t get behind on your hydration. This was twice as much nutrition as I had planned, but the hot humid day required extra liquids so I integrated this recommendation. It was very hot and humid as I passed the airport on the Queen K highway towards Hawi, so it was no problem getting 2 bottles down.

The first 60km went by fast with a tail wind pushing us along at speeds of over 33km/hr. I was re-applying sunscreen and knocked my watch lap button on the aero bar… Darn, I was now in T2 having completed the bike course… don’t I wish. I took a breath and then decided to end this race (on my watch) and start again… my map looks hilarious with a short swim and another T1 along the highway nowhere near the ocean!

Speeds began to fade as we passed Wiakoloa as the winds changed, as expected, and continued to get stronger as we turned to headed up the north coast to Hawi. There was now a head wind with high cross winds, and I knew from the forecast that they would remain for the next 35 km, up to the turnaround point in the town of Hawi the highest point on the bike route. What I did not know is that forecasted cross winds of 55 km/hr would be upwards of 65 km/hr.

I had stressed about the wind forecast and which wheels to put on the front of my bike (deep aero or narrow rims) and with the advice of my coach, Mike Neil, I chose my aero wheel. We also talked strategy for how to ride the infamous winds of Hawi that this race is known for. I put my head down and told myself “I owned” the wind. Afterall, I thought it is the same for everyone, but I have to own it, it’s mine. The winds were intense, and I had to lean hard into the wind to stay on the road. This section of the bike course seemed to take forever and thank goodness the road was closed to traffic as cyclists were being blown around like kites at the park. I rode into Hawi looking forward to the cool nutrition replacements that were there waiting for me. My strategy to freeze my nutrition and placed it into a soft sided lunch cooler with a gel pack to keep it cool… worked perfectly.

The ride from Hawi started with a strong tail wind, a welcome break from the headwinds of the last hour and a half. This reprieve was short lived as high cross winds ensued as we turned south back down to Kawaihae. I had to lean harder into the winds than ever before to stay on the road but this time at higher downhill speeds. The winds were brutal, and I could see the apprehension bordering on fear in people body posture as they hesitated in front of me. I am not sure why I had this confidence and determination even as the wind gusts pushed harder. I gave supportive comments to those I passed and the more people I passed the more my confidence soared. I DID own the wind.

With the tenuous and taxing section of the ride behind me, I re-assessed my posture, form and bike statistics now that I had time to check my watch. The wind had slowed me down and I would be longer on the bike than I planned, but now was not the time to try to make it up as it would have a far greater negative impact on my run that was going to start within the hour.

I understand it was a nail bitter of a ride for all of those that were following on the IM tracker app. Apparently there were 6 or so in my age group that were changing positions all morning and I moved around within this group (4th to 3rd to 2nd to 3rd and even 1st for a while). I stuck to my plan for the duration of the ride and increased my cadence for the last 4km through town to prep my legs for the run. I rode into transition 2 (T2) in 5th place.

T2: 7:07, longer than planned but still 2:02 faster than 2015. I stopped and applied sunscreen to ensure I did not get burnt to a crisp.

The bike course took its toll. The strongest athlete, in our AG, on the bike course who battled from behind to capture and hold 1st place after the bike segment did not start the run. She received a DNF (Did Not Finish) and her results are omitted from the final placements. On-line I am presented as a 5th out of the water and 4th off the bike which does not recognize the impact she had on all of us to this point in the race. My story includes her.

Run 42.2 kilometers in a time of 4:21:51, average pace 5.96 min/km, ok 6 min/km

My assessment of this year’s F60-64 athletes showed that it could be anyone’s day and the tight race on the bike course confirmed that a spot on the podium would come down to a run race.

I left T2 in 4th place and saw my sister Jocelyne, her husband Colin and Michael cheering me on as I started the marathon up route up the short section of Palani Rd. The lead group headed out of T2 within 10 minutes of each other. No one had a commanding lead and I was feeling good but knowing this would be the hardest run of my life.

Just out of T2, as I passed Hot corner, my race focus was distracted as motorcycles with cameras rolling appeared to my left. Lucy Charles Barclay was passing me headed to the finish line. We were an arm’s length from each other (she was just finishing her marathon and I was just starting). It was so exciting, and I cheered her on. She was one of the contenders to win this
race and was less than 1 km from the finish, I was unfortunately 41 km from the finish… back to work.

The next 10 km positions jostled (4th to 3rd to 4th to 3rd) as everyone was working extremely hard to stay with the 2 frontrunners that were maintaining their pace. As I left Alii Drive and headed for Palani Rd, I remember Jill telling me that there was huge value in keeping my heart rate down in the early stages of the run and I could do this by walking the Palani hill. It was a hard decision as I saw myself go from #3 back to 4th as Janie passed me. I thought to myself, I’ll see you later, and I did. I passed her again three stop lights later on the Queen K. The run race continued into the Energy Lab section and I knew another fierce competitor, Jane McLeod, was on my heels. I held her off until the 28km mark. I stopped for my special needs nutrition that I desperately needed if I was going to finish the race. I had met Jane earlier in the week and knew she was a runner, a very good runner and a fellow Canadian.

I was now in 4th place and needed to focus on getting through this lonely dark and hilly section of the “Energy Lab” that is so often a point in this race that runners doubt their ability to finish. I was at this point in 2015 and Coach Mike and I worked a training plan to ensure this did not happen again. I spent many training runs over the last 2 weeks at the Energy Lab to prepare. I also broken down the remainder of the course into small segments that would be less daunting. I was soon out of the Energy Lab and headed back to Kona. I re-focused on each of the final segment as I had trained, achieving small wins with the distance ticking by.

I could envision the end, the last 10kms. Coach Mike and coach Jill both told me this is the real start of the race. Everyone would be putting it all on the line in this 10kms to build the lead they had, hold their position and ultimately gain positions. I knew my 4th place position could be easily overtaken and if I truly wanted a podium position it was “go time”.

The run from the Energy Lab to the edge of the city is pitch black with few traffic lights. I had put a lightweight 500 lumen head lamp with my special needs nutrition bag to help guide my way. Younger athletes with better eyes might not need so many lumens, but it worked awesome, and no one passed me as I transitioned from the dark at the edge of the city, I had measured the distance from this point and knew I had 1⁄2 km to the top of Palani Rd and this was my only goal, finish this final uphill section. I could hear the announcers, their excitement and faint cheers coming from Hot Corner, I used this to pull me along.

At the top of Palani Rd I could see the crowds and embraced the downhill to get my heartrate down for the final push. I turned at Hot Corner, less than 2 km to go, and started my final push knowing that if I was passed during this last section, I would have no regrets.

I was working harder than I had ever worked as I approached the last turn on Alli Dr. The crowds were amazing and pulled me along towards the black & red Ironman logoed carpet that signaled the last 50 meters. No one had passed me, and I was going to do my best to ensure it did not happen now!

I pushed harder and crossed the line in 4th place with a run time of 4:21:51, 14:05 faster than 2015. I raised my hands in triumph. It was over, I achieved my dream and would be on the podium. My overall finish time was 12:05:12, a course PB by 42:21. Michael was there to catch me and gave me a big hug, his nail-biting day was also over.

The reality of my finish was not as I recall. I was informed that I struggled, as I did in 2015, in the last 25 meters weaving and stumbling along the protect fencing towards the finish and my arms raised in triumph were over head for only a few seconds and I immediately slumped into an ape walk. I was dizzy and my speech incoherent. I can only surmise that reaching that carpet signaled to my brain the race was over and lights started to dim. I had truly given it my all, I had nothing left in the tank.

Michael and medical support recognized my predicament and I was ushered off to medical. They say I lost 3.5 kg (7.8 lbs) and needed fluids. The medical staff were amazing and treated me with some chicken soup, hydration and comforting congratulations. It did not take long to get back on my feet and head out to the recovery area for my medal and finisher picture. I so wanted a better finish than 2015, but that did not happen. The only saving grace is that the video feed was refreshing, and no one saw my finish.

A Boston qualifying run, my second qualifying run this year during a full iron distance race. I am shocked and ecstatic. Run coach, Jim Finlayson, was with me out there and I could not have achieved this goal without the improvements to my running that I have gained over the last number of years.

This day and this achievement was only possible because of the support I received from the Victoria triathlon community, Human Powered Racing, my training partners, friends, coaches and my family.

Mike Neill: Swim and Triathlon coach whom prepared me physically and mentally to the level required to compete for a qualifying spot and then at this World Championship race to a podium finish. He prepared me with his knowledge of this course, being a former pro, racing this course a total of 11 times.

Jill Kirker: Mentor and friend whom coached me and prepared me for racing as a woman in F60- 64 and all the nuances that life in this age group bring. Jill has known me and coached me the longest and I own much to her for my years of triathlon development.

Chris Lough: Mentor and friend whom coached me and prepared me for an ocean water swim.

Jim Finlayson for his past 7 years of run coaching and who gave me confidence when he said I was “run” ready for this race before I left Victoria.

Thank you to my entire coaching team for your belief in me. I am grateful to all for you for your guidance and support.

My final sentiments and gratitude go to my partner Michael. We train and race together which was never more important than in 2019 and especially the weeks we spent in Kona preparing for race day. His encouragement, training sense, race day strategies were ever present on race day so I knew I was not racing alone. He also volunteered on Friday to ensure he was there if I had problems in bike staging and so we could walk the pier together and talk about race day transitions. He started his volunteer shift at 4 am on race morning and I knew he would be in strategic locations to encourage, support and finally catch me as I crossed the finish. His volunteer access also allowed him to escort me to medical, and to help me checkout my bike. Michael you are my rock and I am grateful to have you in my life every day.