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Kona Race Report: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of the Stones, but this song often hits me smack dab in the face and really sums up how I’m processing this race

Look at me, riding up Palani!!!!

It’s been two weeks today since I crossed the Ironman World Championships finish line in Kona and I’m just now, here, writing my race reports, both the personal one and the technical one for myself and my coach (the truly incredible @idropboys, Julie Dunkle of Nyx Endurance, who will be oft mentioned here). This isn’t normal for me as I like to process thoroughly, when things are fresh, and also note all the small learnings I have from the day to continue to improve.

But this race was different, it is different, and that’s largely due to the enormous weight it carries for me and thousands of other triathletes. My story starts as a high school athlete contemplating her future in sport in the earlyish days of Title IX, when on page equality did not at all mean equity in sport, and the only examples I had of adult women playing professional sport were tennis and golf.

But Wide World of Sports used the Ironman World Championships 1982 Crawl of Fame of athlete Julie Moss in their thrill of victory and agony of defeat promos, and I watched that race. My mind was blown. So hard, so painful, grit and determination over talent and skill. And I was hooked. That looked awful. I wish I could do that. It would take 25 years for me to enter my first triathlon.

Julie Moss crawls to the finish line CREDIT: CAROL HOGAN

And Kona is not just any triathlon - it’s the dream, and you can’t just sign up, suit up and go. It’s been a very exclusive event reserved for only the most elite, the fastest, the superior triathletes- or those with extraordinary dedication and determination. I always knew I would one day get there if I could just stay in the sport. The story of getting there I’ve already written, but the thing I will add is that the hardest part of the journey was putting my hand up, first to myself, then to my coach, and then out loud and saying “I’m going to Kona. And not in 12 years, this next year.”

My coach has helped me see my superpowers in triathlon (and spoiler: life) and two of those are:

  1. the ability to suffer more, and

  2. the ability to put myself in uncomfortable situations.

The latter is a skill I’ve honed in many areas of my life, including two careers in very male dominated fields. Walking into a room, feeling like an outsider, watching, learning and flipping the script has become second nature for me. Doing something that scares the crap out of me? It makes me feel most alive.

Race report Meg! The TLDR here is that I went into the campaign to GET to go to Kona, the campaign to train for Kona, the campaign to be at the start line and race ready all the same way: way out of my comfort zone and ALL IN. If you ask me about my race, this is what I am most proud of. This was a journey decades in the making, and probably 16 months of personal, team and family work to make it happen. We were all in - whatever it takes. As my husband and kids would say when I would falter even a little: It’s KONA baby.

I qualified in March, and then spent a little over a month recovering and getting ready for the battle mentally. Many thoughts of “Oh. Now I got what I wanted and now I have to actually DO THE THING.” I also wasn’t inspired by my performance in South Africa thanks to illness, and that didn’t make me feel great about the road ahead. But see the title of this post. I got over myself.

Unfortunately, an accident from my teens still rears its head in being prone to hip injuries, and in early June, I arrived fit AF and ready to race a 70.3, but my hip (and what we found later to be a torn high hamstring) had other ideas. I finished the race and PR’d the course, but I was in EXTREME shooting pain on the run. With a little over 3 months to Kona, and IM WC 70.3 Worlds in Finland on the way there, we had me take a break from running, and full court pressed healing with chiro, PT, massage, mobility and cross training. The wiser decision might have been to stop. But these were World Championships, and well, my dream.

Continuing my campaign as #thechipper, and working to keep slowly but surely improving, was sort of put on the back burner. My new goal was to work the swim, nail the bike, and get healthy enough to NOT WALK the marathon.

To FINALLY get to race day (and there are a few more lessons along the way I’m processing), I arrived in Kona a little over 2 weeks early to get final prep in on the island, acclimate and mentally prepare. It was the best decision and so worthwhile. When I balked about the cost and considered waiting til race week, Rob my partner said “We’ll find a way. It’s Kona.” The added epicness of it being the first All Women's IMWC in Kona and all the takeaways from that are TOTALLY another post in itself. It’s coming.

As we walked to the start line, I wasn’t nervous any more. I was ready for battle. I was EXCITED. I turned to Rob and my kiddo and said “ it’s going to be a long hard day at the office and I can’t wait.” As we got to swim start, I dropped my bags and got into the chute. I sat near the front, did some hip mobility and waited for the other badass women in my age group to join me. I drank and ate and waves of excitement, gratitude and just effin awe came over me. We were here. I was here. We were doing this.

We got in and swam out the 140yds ish to the swim start and treaded water. Paddleboarders went back and forth to keep the line, and I found myself right at the very front. Oh shit. I’m a good swimmer and like a good mosh pit, but even that felt nuts to me. A few women pushed to the front and that felt about right- very close to the front, but not too cocky and just get destroyed. The gun went off, and away we went - well, we tried. It was probably 15-20 seconds but the moments it took us to actually start moving as we all thrust forward and tried as a pack to start swimming felt like forever! But aided by the waves and some women backing off, move we did. I swam strong and hard but also knowing this is a long, not at all aided swim. Swim your face off at a pace you can handle the whole damn way, and be able to increase the second half, passing those who did not swim 18-20 swims greater than 4K swims in their build. And that’s exactly what happened. I lost the super speedy women in my AG by the 3rd buoy, but I also started passing AGs around then too, which always motivates me. The boats at the turn felt like they took forever, but once around them, I went from “oh my god are we ever going to get there” to “oh my god I’m going to be done with this swim before I know it and I’ll have done it!” And I reminded myself of how many swims Julie gave me, all the dragging my ass to the pool, and the joy in putting another long swim in the bank. The super fast swimmers in the AGs behind me started to pass me, and instead of using that against myself, I found some feet and held on as long as I could, then found the next set. That giant Gatorade bottle on the pier started to get closer and then it was in, up the stairs and through the showers. I DID IT!!! I purposely did not look at my time and just hit my watch button, knowing I use my swim time to mudfuck myself throughout the day. This works for me. I use how I feel about my effort and execution to set the tone and not be elated or disappointed and carry that weight. Deal with that later, on to the next one.

Coach Meg finishes the Ironman World Championship swim in Kona
Swim Finish Joy

Given the distance and intricacy of the pier set up, I hustled through and was happy with my T1. I was on my bike, feeling good and DOING THE DAMN THING.

Coming to the island early, I had my last super long ride on course, and some valuable and HARD lessons out there on the Queen K. I experienced the soul suckingness of the last 34 miles of the course, and I was mentally prepared. After letting myself fly on the through town section and have fun, I rode smooth and mostly seated up Palani and celebrated how far I’d come, ready to hunker down. And hunker down I did. The near perfect conditions to some weren’t my ideal. I love racing in the wind, and know from racing in Cozumel that low wind can mean higher heat, or feel of it.

Firing on all cylinders out of T2

I was a little hot power wise on the in town section, so I settled my ass down on the Queen K and found an PE I felt like I could handle all day, even if it got hotter or harder. Turns out it was a little lower than my target power, but it helped me nail the goal of not looking like I jumped off a cliff. I lapped each section, and looking back, my power except for the section in town was within 5 watts per section. At one point, a super speedy friend passed me and shouted “WOW you must have had a great swim!” and that was such a boost. I DID.

My goal here was to ride steady and I really wanted to NOT DIE on that last 30 miles and have my power profile look like I jumped off a cliff. I ate and drank like it was my job (cause it was). I dumped water on myself at every aid station, long long before I felt the heat. I took salt tabs every hour, and at every milestone, I checked how I was doing on grams of carbs per hour, fluid and sodium. I was on track.

I wanted to push harder on the climb to Hawi. I’m a better climber than I used to be, and I really like this climb - steady up but with rolling sections. I could have pushed more but also the heat was kicking up, and I KNEW I potentially got a little break with the descent but then the soul sucking. As we rolled into Hawi, and I got to special needs, I thought “I’m doing this, I’m being smart, I can run off this bike.” I got my bag, refilled my stuff and got out of there. My second set of bottles were still partially frozen and I was delighted. Others were stopping, sitting and eating. I wasn’t riding hard enough to enjoy this luxury, and I wasn’t in a bad enough place that I needed to. Onward.

The descent from Hawi on BGP <3

We did get a good descent with little of the dodgy crosswinds that the ride down from Hawi can dish out. There were still women heading up, and smiling and nodding and encouraging one another as we went up and down pushed us all onward. As I rolled onto the Queen K, I felt strong enough and well enough for the battle ahead. And it was TOUGH. Not enough wind to cool you. Enough to have to pay attention. Another bottle and nutrition check, more salt, and grabbed bottles at every aid station for drinking and cooling. More salt as I drank more plan water because it was cold. Slugged back hot bottles of PH hearing Julie tell me “you can drink hot salty water and eat hot gels and chews because you have to,” and I did. The more of the long slow inclines and the closer I got back to town, the more excited I became. I WAS GOING TO FINISH THE KONA BIKE BABY” It wasn’t going to be a bike PR by a LONG SHOT but I felt like I played it smart and was ready for the run. And even though I had done all the sections of the run, and knew it was a hard run course, I didn’t even know then how drastically I had underestimated this.

I could tell when I got to T2 that I was hot, and uncomfortable. And having been run compromised for the last few months leading in, I knew this was where the real battle physically and mentally would come. I would need to go smooth and steady and prepare here in T2. The tent was crowded, hot and smelly, but the volunteers were clutch. I got a cold wet towel draped around my shoulder, sat and changed, and made sure everything was at the ready. Armor on, two headlamps in my run belt (best decision ever), porta potty stop done in case (oh I had peed a ton on the bike but it was right there and I wasn’t having a COZ situation slow me down) and shoved some gel in my face. Let’s see what we got.

That Living the Dream Feeling on Ali'i Drive

I was elated in those first miles of the run. Focused on form to try and keep the hip happy. Drink, eat. The PH 300g gel that worked so well, even when hot, on the bike, was a struggle to take in, but I pushed it down. Possibly not enough but I kept it up. I ran out on Ali’i and saw family, friends and Julie, who asked me how I felt cautiously - on the way out, I screamed “GREAT!” and meant it. I knew it was early. I didn’t look at pace, just a peak when the watch ticked off mile by mile. I was HAPPY and grateful that my hip was letting me run this course. This pace wasn’t going to light anyone else’s world on fire, but it was right around my previous best marathon pace so I was on track. I knew it would get tougher, but I didn’t know how much tougher, so I really tried to enjoy this - the crowd, the cheers, the ocean. That I still had an hour or more of sunlight! (Sun sets early here!) Pre-race, I had told myself I would be happy if I got out to the Queen K before sundown, and I was definitely going to do that. When I passed Julie in front of Lava Java on my way to the turn to head up to Kuakini and then Palani, I shouted “I’m going to make it?” as a question. It was a question not a statement and she said “Hell yes you are.” I had so much time, but when I saw her I was just hit with so much disbelief that THIS IS MY LIFE and I was LIVING MY DREAM and it was really happening. Yeah, it took me til mile 8 for it to hit me super hard.

As I ran out towards the Energy Lab on the Queen K, which is not flat (yep, uphill both ways), I got to watch the sunset, which other women pointed out was beautiful. I was going into the well, and my leg started hurting. But I realized I had hit one of my goals in terms of daylight and held onto that positive, and I would need it shortly. I jogged or briskly walked the aid stations, and soaked in their energy. My hip was now hurting and I was slowing but it wasn’t god awful and I had loads of time.

Chasing Sunsets and Dreams Photo: Kara Turner

Those of us on the Queen K, who could see each other, started to encourage each other more. Women were hurting. But goddamn we were doing this, and as competitive as we were all damn day, we all wanted each of us to get to the finish line. Headlamp on as it got dark. My athletes who flew out to Kona to cheer, and my daughter Phoebe, were on bikes and all lit up like deranged Christmas trees. And LOUD. On my way into the Energy Lab, I was grateful as hell for them and soaked up the encouragement. Know that I did appreciate you and was verklempt on my way down in the dark. I shared that encouragement (and my spare headlamp) with other women struggling in the heat and the dark. I watched several women who either didn’t have a headlamp or had packed theirs in special needs eat it into the pavement because of the uneven road surface and PITCH BLACK.

I don’t know what the catalyst was, whether I should have had a little more nutrition, or walked the steep uphill on Palani, or used different damn shoes, but as I entered the energy lab, the hip started hurting. My IT band was so tight, and my trochanter throbbed with every step. It would not get better, just progressively more stabby and painful. But I knew I would not quit. I knew I could finish. I had gotten what I asked for, but NOT what I wanted. There were moments of extreme pride during the day, but once the hip flared, I went to a dark place, both physically and emotionally. I lost all executive function and could not do math. The mile up from special needs to the top of the energy lab vibrated and I saw the pace and almost broke down right then. I did SUPER BAD RACE MATH and was like “oh my god that’s only two miles an hour and I have like 8 miles and I’m not going to make it!” SPOILER: It was slow but nowhere near that slow and I was going to have time to spare. But that bad math took me to a dark place. Come so close and fail math. My crew cheered and rode up and down the queen K yelling and cheering on EVERYONE (so proud of that) and me? Well I wanted to punch them, but mostly cause I hated everything and everyone and myself. But is it really an Ironman if you don’t go to a dark place of self loathing at least for a bit and come out the other side?

That self loathing was deep on that run from the time I hit the Queen K and all the way to the top of Palani. My takeaway from my first Kona is that this course is “not that bad,” but also all the parts of the course and the environment add up to make it one of the hardest days ever. Good thing I like hard.

My goal was NFW: no fucking walking. Spoiler: there was no fucking walking, even if you tracked me and thought you could walk faster. I might have been faster in some spots if I had walked or power walked. And lots of women did, and kudos to them! You may be smarter than me. For me, this was KONA baby, and my dream was to honor it with no walking. I do need to apologize to my athletes and my kid who were trying to help while screaming past me on the uphills on their ebikes and telling me to “pick it up.” I truly apologize for everything I called you, loudly.

That last hill from before Target to the top of Palani felt eternal. But I knew I wasn’t “almost there” when I hit the top, but that the rest would be less dark and desolate. I was SO excited to hit Palani and the downhill and let what was left rip (which was probably hilarious looking and it HURT LIKE HELL QUADS) but locals were still camped on Palani with their kids shouting “you are incredible” and that hit hard. “Thank you for having us here” I shouted back. At the bottom of Palani, my son was at the barricade crying and screaming “That’s my mom!” and I heard the crowd shout “GO MOM GO!’ and tears just came. The Kuakini section felt longer than it was and I rounded onto Ali’i. It was late. It was dark. There were no crowds and I was so deflated as I ran through the beautiful Hoka lights. My hip threatened stopping right here just before the Banyan tree, so much damn pain, but pain is temporary. As I hit the Banyan tree, I could see the curve and it started getting louder and lighter, and I rounded the curve and saw the finish and I FELT NO PAIN only elation. I touched every hand down the chute and RAN. ALL THE EMOTIONS

Paul Kaye was hyping the crowd so much and it felt full circle since he called me across in South Africa. And Joanne Murphy was calling me in! I came across a finish line LIKE NO OTHER in complete and utter disbelief - despite the highs and lows of the day, THAT JUST HAPPENED! Arms raised in victory, almost falling over, holding my head in my hands because WE DID IT WE DID IT WE DID IT.

That just happened. Photo: Finisherpix. Guns: Tonal and Swimming.

My vegan friend Deepthi caught me, and I didn’t even recognize her until she said it was her. Complete daze. Complete disbelief.

Video Reels by Ironman and Hoka

I cringed a bit at all the congratulations in the weeks since. This race was everything I hope it would be and NOTHING I hoped it would be. It would have been nice for my hip to have hurt after I was finished, but then there might be an off chance I would join the ranks of women I heard say “Well, now I’ve done Kona and I’m retired from full distance.” Full disclosure: I said, even out loud, as I exited the Energy Lab, “I’m never doing this again.” and my kid looked at me and said “mom!?!” and I said “I cannot wait to do that again.” Both of these emotions are true out there, and a part of the process for me anyway.

I lived my dream. I played in the big leagues. I reached for the stars. I stepped into the arena, and I did not die. I was left bloody as hell, but not dead. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I got exactly what I needed for me to fall in love even more deeply with long course racing. Your first at bat in the big leagues might not be a home run, but you gotta swing for the fences. Just you all wait til my next at bat.

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