May the winds be always at your back.
Perhaps the bright-eyed, smiling volunteer at packet pickup was Irish. The Big Island is a haven for tourists, after all. Or maybe she borrowed this Irish blessing because it was… well, appropriate.
Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, or Honu, as it is colloquially known, has the most famous bike course on the 70.3 circuit. It’s the second half of the World Championship bike course. The hilly part. The windy part. (Though arguably, the first half of the World Championship bike course is just as windy; but I digress.) It also, apparently, has one of the most difficult run courses at the 70.3 distance. I learned this just days before the race. Ignorance is bliss.
I signed up for Honu months ago, with minimal knowledge – but some suspicion – of the power of the elements there. I knew it would be hot and humid; that’s as much part of Hawaii as the hills are par for the course in San Francisco.
I knew I would have a memorable race – I just didn’t suspect how memorable it would turn out to be. Here is how my Ironman 70.3 Hawaii went down. It’s a long story, so grab a cold one!
Adventures in Hawaii
Contrary to what I first thought, Ironman 70.3 Hawaii does not take place in Kailua-Kona. That’s where you go to do the big dance. For the half-Iron race, athletes converge about 30 miles north, in Waimea. The base hotel for the race is the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, hosting the Expo, T2, and race finish.
It’s a fabulous property to stay at, if you’re OK with spending $500 or more per night on a hotel room. Everyone else: consider staying at the Fairways, a complex of town homes typically rented by owners at less than half the price, just a third of a mile down the road.
That proximity came in handy when we managed to miss our flight to Hawaii and arrived a day later than planned. (I will spare you the details, other than confessing that I took us to the wrong airport. Now I know to always check our departure time and location before leaving.)
So instead of leisurely picking up my race packet on Thursday and checking in my bike and doing a practice swim the next day, I had to do everything on Friday — the day before the race. A bit stressful. Or a lot.
Athlete check-in was a breeze and picking up my bike from TriBike Transport: nearly so. Both tires on my bike — which I found completely deflated for some reason — exploded the second I put air in them. Why this happened, I don’t know. The folks at TBT told me the tires (brand new race ones purchased and installed before I dropped off my bike at Sports Basement, to be picked up and shipped to Hawaii) were too loose for my wheels. So when I inflated my tubes — though I had done this without a problem before bike drop off — they got pinched and BAM! Explosion. Why that didn’t initially happen before I shipped the bike, I’ll never know. Long story short, two new tubes and tires later I was good to go. That’s one way to get all the bad luck and tube explosions out of the way before the race, I suppose.
On my brand new tires, I rode the 7-ish miles from the Fairmont Orchid to Hapuna Beach State Park to rack my bike in T1 and take a little practice swim at the beach.
Honu was a non-professional race this year, but the organizers found a clever way to bring all the legendary pros to the race — at least in spirit — all while helping the 2,000+ athletes remember where they parked. (In my case, Belinda Granger’s rack!)
I jumped into the ocean for a quick 20-minute swim before heading back. The water was quite choppy, but I had heard that it isn’t like that early in the morning, so I shrugged it off. Choppy or not, it was warm, blue and fabulous!
And that concluded my pre-race preparations. Race day was upon us and I was as ready as I’d ever be. (I hoped.)
If there is any advantage to racing in Hawaii (besides the place being not too shabby to look at), it’s that those of us in North America, at least, benefit from the time difference. Transition opened at 5 a.m. and I was planning to be up by 4 am so I can make a 4:30 shuttle to the beach. At 3:30 (technically 6:30 for us), I woke up fresh as a cucumber. Brewed a big pot of coffee, gulped down two mugs with two Honey Stinger waffles, squeezed into my race kit, grabbed the Bike Gear bag with my bike nutrition and bottles and was off to the shuttle. By the time we made it to transition, it was already light out. A race first!
I readied my bike stuff, filled my bottles and added my usual three tabs of Nuun in each, visited the porta pots and had time to spare for a little warm-up swim. A smooth start to the morning, and pancake-flat waters, to boot!
My understanding is that Honu used to be a mass beach start, which basically means 2000 people running into the water, from the beach, to start the swim. That must’ve been a sight! This year, however (and possibly in 2014? I didn’t do a great job researching this, did I??) we had a wave start. My wave was women 39 and under, and we started after all the men. There must have been roughly 200 of us (judging from the finisher results), but because the waves were only four minutes apart, the swim was still pretty crowded. Especially once the 39 and older women caught up to us, I felt some pretty aggressive strokes on the side of my head and a few people pretty much swam over me. Nothing out of the ordinary for an Ironman (70.3) swim!
The water at Hapuna Beach is brilliant, though. So blue and crystal clear, you could see the bottom of the ocean at any point during the swim. This somehow made me feel very safe and at home. I almost had to remind myself to keep pushing the water – this wasn’t a leisurely snorkeling trip, after all!
Unaided by a wetsuit, I exited the water a few minutes slower than my previous half-Ironman races – but still quite happy with my day so far!
Swim Time: 43:15
Pace: 2:14/ 100 yds
Division (age group) rank: 38
Transition was quick and logistically easy. Onto the bike and, like the volunteer lady said: May the winds be at our backs!
I couldn’t wait to experience the famed bike course, but I was also a little terrified of what awaited us. Will the winds be horrible? The hills?
I started pedaling. The weather was great: not too hot yet, and not windy! The road was incredible. Silky-smooth surface with not a bump anywhere. Long, long stretches of straight black asphalt that curved gently up and down as we conquered roller after roller, lined by yellow shrubbery and lava on one side (that would turn greener and greener as we approached Hawi) and the brilliant, beautiful ocean blue on the other. Mile after mile, still no wind! Gentle turns here and there, but mostly a very simple, push-the-pedals and let your mind wander kind of ride.
Right as we rode past a “Hawi: 7 miles” sign, a guy riding near me said, “Here we go, the hill. This is the tough part.” I kept pedaling, waiting for the tough part… but it didn’t come. Maybe the big climb is after this mile? I thought, pedaling. Maybe after two miles? Then I got so busy looking at the riders who were on their way back, on the famed Hawi descend, that I forgot that I was currently doing the famed Hawi climb!
Either I was drugged up on endorphins from the first 20 miles of this ride, or the wind never really came. I did wait for it, but before I felt even the slightest push of a crosswind or pressure from a headwind, the Hawi turnaround came.
I can’t believe I’m here! The Hawi turnaround! With that happy thought, I pushed the bike into the hardest gear and slammed on the pedals. And it was amazing! The most incredible downhill ride of my life. My Garmin tracks bike intervals each five miles and during this descend, it beeped a 9:56 five-mile split. If I was having this much fun at an average 30.2 mph, I can only imagine the thrill of riding 50-60 mph (which is probably what the pros average on that segment)!
After reliving the road’s ups and downs on the way back (same hills, but backwards!), I rolled my bike into transition and a woman who came in at the same time observed, quite accurately: “Now time to do a li’l run.” Yes. It was time for a run and I was feeling like a million bucks! Let’s do this!
Bike time: 2:54:45
Speed: 19.23 mph
Division place: 12
It is amazing how things can go from rockin’ in one minute to bombin’ the next in endurance events. And I bombed so, so remarkably.
The Honu half marathon apparently is known for being crazy difficult. Who knew?! Not me!! I had looked at the elevation chart before the race and it wasn’t so bad. Not flat by any means, but not horribly hilly:
Right? Except, the majority of this run is on a golf course with a billion gazillion little hills. You are constantly switching from grass to concrete paths, again and again.
The one larger segment, a little over three miles between mile 8.5 and 11.5, that is on a flat road is very appropriately named on Strava Lucifer’s back yard.
That is exactly what this run started feeling like, and I had just to see the first mile marker. The sun was directly overhead us in the cloudless sky, pounding hard. You could cut the heat with a knife. How did I not feel this on the bike? (Oh yeah, on the bike, you make wind…)
I had directions from Coach D to try and run the first few miles at a 8:30 pace, and then, when I find my legs, descend. The only thing descending, however, was my motivation. What the freaking heck happened to my freaking legs? – But with badder words. – Why so heavy? Why getting heavier?
I started gulping down coke at every single station, but it hardly helped. By mile 9, actually, I realized my stomach might’ve overloaded on sugar, so I stopped. Ice was being dumped in my bra, back and, eventually, pants, at every aid station, as well. (Ice down your pants is very cold, to the point of painful. Only try in extreme circumstances.)
The aid stations were about a mile apart and my goal became to run to the next aid station, then walk while I drink. After about seven miles, I abandoned that goal for a new one: survive to the next aid station, walk whenever. I was doing roughly 5-1 intervals (run/ shuffle for five minutes, walk for one). A stitch in my right side appeared. My entire left leg started cramping and tightening up at the same time. My shoes were so soaked they were making froggy noises with each step.
Each step, torture. A scorcher torture! I kept telling myself that the course is finite and I’ve made it this far. Quitting was not an option. During the first or second mile, a lady passed me and we briefly chatted about the course. “I’m running a full two minutes per mile under what I should be running,” I said. “Don’t worry, she responded, so is everyone else.” After a while, she moved on.
Then I ran for a bit with another a lady, from Atlanta. She let me borrow her mantra (and at that point, I was taking anything that might help): “Take the pain within and turn it into joy.” Thank you, nice lady! She, too, moved on after a few miles.
I didn’t care how many people passed me — as long as I didn’t pass out before crossing that finish line. It finally came – I heard it before I saw it – and I dug for whatever was left in my head and my legs… to manage a 10-minute last mile.
My mile splits are still painful for me to look at:
This is the second slowest half marathon I’ve run in my life, and without a doubt the hardest one. So you can imagine the relief I felt when I was finally done. The finish line really did look out of this world beautiful to me (and now that I see it on the photos, it really was quite spectacular):
Run time: 02:19:35
Age group: 21 (out of 107)
Gender: 97 (out of 823)
Overall: 529 (out of 2,084)
It was finally vacation time!