Qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii has been an elusive dream of mine since being first introduced to Ironman as a young girl while watching live coverage of the race on TV with my dad.
Many of you know I started young. A competitive swimmer since my early youth, at age 10 I found a brochure at our local YMCA for the Lake Keesus triathlon, and begged my parents to let me register. It was a family affair, with my dad and younger brother also competing in their first triathlon, and a day I will never forget. Since then, I’ve completed many triathlons, and attempted my first Ironman in 2002 as a member of the UW Triathlon Team. My parents thought I was insane, and given my tendency at the time towards running injuries, they were scared I would not be able to finish. I, too, had my doubts, and although the marathon was tough and I walked a great deal of it, I ended up finishing in 12:47. From then I was hooked.
While I’ve always tried not to make such a big deal of it, deep down it’s always been my dream to qualify for Hawaii. But it’s hard to get wrapped up in a dream that at times seems so unattainable. And so I knew in my heart that my time would come eventually (even if it took me until I was a card-holding member of AARP). Unfortunately, the goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Championships is not quite as intrinsic or clear-cut as qualifying for the Boston marathon, for example. Essentially, there are a set number of qualifying spots for each Ironman race that are divided among the age divisions based on the number of competitors in that division. This year, there were 90 women in my age division, which equated to 3 qualifying spots. The past two years, I’ve placed 5th and 6th in my race division, respectively, so I knew that there was always a chance this time. But really, you just don’t know who is going to show up to the race, and how you or they will perform. And I think if you get too focused on qualifying for Hawaii, you can quickly loose perspective. So it’s always been a dream, but somewhat of a “stretch goal.”
Amazingly, the stars aligned for me on Sunday. I woke up at 4:45am and quickly took down a cup of coffee, a banana, and half of a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter. At 5:15, I drove with Karen and her family to the race site. We dropped off our special needs bags at the appointed spot near the capitol, before heading into the transition area to pump up our bike tires, get body markings, and zip into our wet suits. Luckily, I saw my parents while I was heading down to the race start, and gave final hugs before wading into the water and taking a position near the front. At 7am, the cannon blew, and we were off. The swim was relatively uneventful, although I did find myself in a few bottle necks, with bodies violently crashing all around and over me. For the most part, I was able to get into a comfortable rhythm, and completed the swim in 58:41.
From there, I ran up the Monona Terrace helix into the transition area, where I threw on my bike gear and arm warmers, since the temperature was still a little cool. I had trouble getting into a rhythm on my bike. I was being passed left and right, which is pretty typical but still discouraging, and I had to remind myself to stick with my pace and ride my own race. I started feeling much better 20-30 miles into the bike, and continued to concentrate on getting in much needed calories. Throughout the bike I consumed lots of Gatorade, 4 cliff shots, a vanilla power bar, an oatmeal raisin cliff bar, 4 cliff blocks, and 6 electrolyte tablets. On the second loop, a considerable head wind made things a little more challenging, and I definitely felt myself tiring on the last set of hills. On one of the final climbs, I felt a severe cramp in my legs, but quickly downed Gatorade and two salt tablets, which alleviated the pain almost immediately. On the way back into town, I was encouraged by a few friendly male competitors who shouted that I was riding smart and very well. I was also very pumped to see my parents at many points along the course. My mom was sporting a cow print skirt during the bike portion, which definitely made me chuckle. I ended up finishing the bike in 6:12, which even at an 18.1 mph pace is certainly my weakest link.
When I arrived back to the transition area, I was thrilled to be off the bike. Just being able to get out of the saddle after 6 hours is enough for me to want to run a marathon. I was able to get into a rhythm pretty quickly. The spectators and support are phenomenal, and I just love how the run course winds through campus and downtown. Definitely feels like home. The run went really well, except for a short funk between miles 13-18. During the last quarter of the race, I felt great and was so pumped and excited to be close to the end, that I kicked it into high gear. I knew that I was probably in the top 5 in my age group, and just wanted to finish strong. The last mile and a half I started to cramp up, which was very scary. I though maybe I would be forced to cross the finish line on my hands and knees, Julie Moss style. I quickly took down a couple cups of Gatorade at the closest aide station and was somehow able to keep it together and cruise into the finish line. Once I rounded the capitol, a huge smile spread across my face, and I broke through the finish line in 11:15.
Afterwards, I found out that I had passed the 3rd place woman in my age group just 2 miles out from the finish. I ended up with a 3rd place finish in my age group, and secured the third Kona spot by a very close 2 minutes. I was also so much on target with my goal times that my friends found it comical (My friend Brodie is already asking me to predict his finish time for next year!). I celebrated with my family and friends at the finish line, and also had the opportunity to speak with my brother over the phone, who had been obsessively tracking my progress online from Austin, TX, all day.
On Monday morning, I claimed my Hawaii spot, and am officially registered for the 2009 World Championships. It feels surreal, and although I'm still in a lot of pain from the race, I feel more excited and motivated than ever to start training again. Qualifying for this race is the culmination of so many dreams and hours of hard work and dedication. And I am thrilled that Karen, and possibly my entire family, is planning to share the experience with me next October.
Thank you so much to all of you who cheered from the sidelines or followed my progress online. Your support and words of encouragement definitely helped make my dream a reality. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.