“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” ~Zig Ziglar
The Journey is the Reward
Now that the big day is a memory, I am struck by what seems like a (now) obvious truth: racing the Ironman World Championships in Kona has never been about the race itself – even though, at one time, I had thought it was.
The race itself is not significantly different from any other Ironman. There’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. There are moments of pain and pleasure, frustration and joy. Sure, there is all of the fanfare and excitement that goes with a World Championship competition, but the race itself is only one part of why this experience – this journey – has been so gratifying.
I completed my first Ironman five years ago, and the extreme rush of joy that I felt as I crossed the finish line that day in Lake Placid has been difficult to duplicate. I wasn’t fast. It was a thirteen and a half-hour day for me – and I loved every single moment. I rode the high for a good 3 weeks – and that’s about how long I wore my wrist band – so long that the lettering had all but faded off. (You can read my race report from that first experience by clicking here.)
So, how did I go from a back of the pack, timid little mouse of a triathlete to qualifying for Kona?
Each of the experiences I’ve had from that first race until now answers this question. What and who I have become – been in a process of becoming – is the reason why doing the race is not as magical as the journey you take to qualify for the race.
It is and always will be about the journey.
In this regard, the Kona quest is no different from any other seemingly impossible dream that we turn into a reality through hard work, discipline and belief.
The theme for this year’s Ironman World Championships was ho’omau, which is a Hawaiian word that translates as “to continue, to perpetuate, to persist” (from http://wahinoho.net/page_glossary_ ver_7_hoo.html). Ho’omau is to live in a way that embodies the values of perseverance and persistance.
After seeing the Ironman posters and signs, I wanted to know more. So, google it was. I found the book Managing with Aloha, which talks about this ho’omau, as it relates to business management. However, it’s application to goal setting and sport is undeniable.
I couldn’t imagine a theme better suited for my journey – and no doubt many of the athletes with whom I shared the starting line.
For those who may be finding my blog for the first time, I set the goal to qualify three years ago, and I knew at that time it would be a multi-year goal. In the past two seasons, I had 3 near misses in hard fought races before I finally nabbed the slot at Louisville (You can read about each attempt by clicking the link: Try #1, Try #2, Try #3). While there were moments when my faith was tested, I did not give up – and to no small amount is this due to the incredible support I’ve received from my family, my friends, my coach, my triathlon community – what I’ve come to refer to as my village.
Without the support of my village, the will to fight, to keep going, to ho’omau seems meaningless. Race day is a celebration for all of us who persist, who endure, who perservere, who ho’omau.
That Little Ol’ Ant
I’m sure there are those of you who will look at my race time from Kona and think it’s unimpressive. That’s because it is.
If I’m being honest: sure, I wish I had finished faster. But, I could have come in at 11 hours and wished I was faster. I will always wish I am faster, even when I actually am faster. There is never a time or a performance that is perfect for me. I am a harsher critic of myself than anyone else can be.
It was my decision to approach Kona the way that I did, as an easy to steady day, and I had my reasons for that decision. Most importantly, I wanted to feel the experience, and I didn’t want to spend my day chasing a white line with laser lock focus. I’ve had my fair share of those races, and while that approach comes with its own rewards, it wasn’t the type of experience I wanted for my first and possibly only Ironman World Championship.
I enjoyed every moment of the swim – despite the swell and the current. It is my favorite swim of all of the races I’ve done – and that’s saying a lot given how much I love to swim in Mirror Lake.
While I would love to be able to tell you that I found some peace with the stupid contraption that is the bicycle, I cannot say that I enjoyed
every any moment of the bike.
Other than the first 20 miles, the bike featured a headwind or vicious cross-winds. To be clear, when I say headwind – I mean H.E.A.D.W.I.N.D., which blew on the way out of town and then again on the way back in to town. That’s just a special type of luck, I suppose.
When I first felt the wind on the way out, about 20-25 miles or so into the bike, I remember thinking, Huh. That’s weird. John and Vince didn’t say anything about strong headwinds on the way out on the Queen K…
Cue the spooky foreshadowing music.
On the way from Kawaihae to Hawi (see map to the right), the wind turned vicious. I barely took in any calories during that stretch because I was afraid to take my hands off the handlebars for fear of becoming one of the casualties. (I witnessed multiple crashes from riders being blown over by the wind).
I have not been that scared on my bike since I first rode the big descent in Lake Placid – and that descent with its light crosswind seems quaint in comparison to the getting-blown-all-over-the-road wind that howls all the way up to and down from Hawi.
People, I cannot emphasize this enough: the wind came from EVERY F’ING DIRECTION. EVERY SINGLE ONE – ALL AT ONCE.
So, that was fun.
Here’s the scene: You would be leaning in to the wind – which might come from the right for a few minutes, and then all of a sudden it would switch and swirl, gusting HARD from the left. In speaking with some of the locals and reading some of the reports, we heard those winds may have been among the worst for race day in the past 15-20 years. I can’t speak to that, but I know that I will never think of wind the same way again. Ever.
So, yeah, enjoyment is not exactly the word I would use for my Kona cycling experience. But, ho’omau is.
While it wasn’t enjoyable, the bike was the perfect testament to the journey I’ve taken. Five years ago, I would not have had the grit (or maybe wouldn’t have thought that I had the grit) to muscle through those winds, to steal my courage as I was blown from one side of the road to the other.
But, on this day, I did.
In the early moments of the climb into Hawi, when the reality of those winds began to settle in my mind, I could feel glimmers of panic. I remembered how I felt the first time I went down the descent in Lake Placid. The tingling, throat-gagging panic response was one and the same. But, I did not give in to the panic.
I repeated to myself: I CAN do this. I CAN do this. I CAN do this.
It was a fierce and urgent mantra, repeated in rhythm with the cadence of the my pedal stroke.
At one point, I started singing to myself: “Just what makes that little old ant, think she can climb to Hawi without a face plant? She’s got HIGH HOPES. She’s got HIGH HOPES! She’s got high apple pie cross the finish line hopes!”
You cannot imagine how valuable this distraction was to rework the lyrics to this song, and then sing it to myself for about 10 minutes. After that point, the panic was gone, and it was just a steady slog to the top, and then back down.
Was this ride my finest moment on a bike? Not exactly. But, I didn’t give in to the fear. I found the courage that comes from ho’omau.
As I came into T2 with one of the most miserably slow bikes in my Ironman history, I heard Mike Reilly talking to Rinny who had just won her third Ironman title. I heard she was 14:30 down off the bike, but she didn’t quit. She didn’t stop believing. She got her third Ironman title. Ho’omau, indeed.
Taking My Time, Just Moving Along
It’s a different experience when you are in a race just to finish. Gone were all of the anxieties about how fast to make it through transition, wildly ripping through my bags to get what I needed. Instead, I took my time. And you know what? It was nice! What was an extra minute at this point? I joked and chatted with the volunteers. I drank a cup of water, and nibbled on some chews. I even used a porta-potty (which was a little necessary at that point as I was “blessed” with the gift of menstruation the night before the race).
Despite concerns about temps on the run, I didn’t find it to be hot or humid. I think my perception of what constitutes a “hot run” is forever skewed by Louisville.
The run was a lot of fun, which is exactly what I wanted it to be.
I high-fived EVERY single hand that a spectator held out for me for the entire 26.2 miles. I even got a high five from Chrissie Wellington at mile 9. Her smile and enthusiasm was positively incredible, and she said my form was awesome. So, naturally, I puffed up like a big ol’ peacock.
I partied with the people along the way. I danced with a group out on the Queen K who were playing some of my most favorite trash pop music. My mad moves won me lots of high fives and shouts and hoots and hollers.
I wish I had video of it because I’m pretty sure it would be funny to see. (I searched YouTube for a video titled: “Ironman Athlete Thought To Be Having Convulsions, Turns Out She Was Dancing.” Nothing turned up.)
I saw John on the Queen K, as he was heading in to the finish line, and I was heading out to the Energy Lab.
He said, “I love you! You are going to make it!!!” Um, oh, ye of little faith? 😉
We both cried as we gave each other a hug and kiss. It was my favorite moment of the day. So, flippingly fantastically freakingly awesome. So. So. So. I’m crying now just thinking about it.
I thanked all of the volunteers, who also have a long, hard day – and they do it for no good reason other than the fact that they are awesome people who understand the value of a supportive village.
I made the final turn on to Ali’i Drive and ran in slow motion. But, it all seemed to go so fast, too fast. I wanted to soak in every last bit of the experience.
I found John and his parents on the sidelines, steps from the finish line. I stopped for a moment to give John a hug and a kiss. But, only just a moment: it was time to finish this journey.
The journey to Kona ended the way it began, with those magic words that we all want to hear: “Maria Simone, you are an Ironman!”
So, yes, I took my time to get there – not only on race day, but in the years it took me to earn the qualifying slot.
I understand that you might be thinking that racing below my potential was a waste of the opportunity I was given, and I can accept that. It was the Ironman World Championships, after all, and as Steve Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Maybe it’s rationalizing, but maybe giving your best is not always about going as fast and as hard as you can. Sometimes it is, but other times the best experience is one that teaches us the lessons we need to learn, reminds of the values that matter most, and gives us the strength to ho’omau.
As John recently said, “Every finish line is the starting line of the next dream.” So, I will take these lessons and these values as the next journey begins.
And so it goes. We continue to dream, we continue on to new adventures, we continue ho’omau.
The Kona journey is over, and it was an extraordinary three years. Perhaps some of the most important years of my life – given everything that has happened during that time both in and out of racing. It takes a village – and I have to thank mine.
Much love and thanks goes to my husband John – he believed in me even when I sucked. He would always tell me, “If you say you can’t, then you won’t.” He has taught me to speak and think in the language of can. His positive mindset and beastie boy work ethic is nothing short of extraordinary.
I would never have made it to the Ironman World Championships if it wasn’t for my coach Vince. He is tough when he needs to be, he is supportive all of the time, and he taught me how to believe in myself. He is my coach, my mentor and my friend. *Grunt*
Much love and thanks to my family and friends, with a special shout out to our head sherpas and cheerleaders, John’s parents – John and Jeanne, Team U-Crazy Captains. Your support means more than you can know! I think of you all when I’m struggling – and when I’m celebrating. You make my life full.
I want give a public thank you and shout out to all of you who donated to our “lost cause” fundraising drive for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Thanks to you, my wonderful village, we raised $8,304 in just 6 weeks! If you didn’t get to donate yet, it’s not too late to help us reach the $10,000 milestone. Please click here to donate. Maholo!