The Hawaii Ironman—A Look Back at 2006

Trish DowningRace Blog1 Comment

My good friend, Jane, keeps trying to remind me that life is a journey, not a destination. But I’m an athlete and I really crave reaching the destination. The one that says FINISH LINE.

Now, why I have picked the Ironman as the ideal finish line, I just don’t think I’ll ever figure out. I mean, it’s not really fun to punish yourself for 15+ hours during a race or 20 hours a week in training. But I guess it’s accomplishing something that you never thought you could that’s the real draw. It’s pushing yourself to your absolute limits and realizing afterward that you could have pushed even harder. We are all capable of so many things and it’s such a feeling of pride to know that you’ve given your all.

So, that brings me to the Ironman. I did my first one in 2005 in Oklahoma City, Okla. It was a tough test. I finished in 18 hours and 3 minutes. That was a great accomplishment, but in the world of triathlon there’s this hierarchy of races. There’s an Iron distance race. Then there’s the Ironman. Then there’s the Hawaii Ironman. And Hawaii has taken the position of Top Dog. THE race to do. The World Championships. THE finish line to cross. I guess I’m like all other triathletes. I want to go the distance!

In 2006, I had great aspirations and qualified to race in Hawaii. But that year was plagued with bad luck, plus I was still new to racing and to such a long distance. I couldn’t blame my performance on any one thing, but suffice it to say, I came, I saw and IT kicked MY ass. Didn’t finish. Went home with a frown on my face. But this year, I have the opportunity to go back and I hope for a better result.

For the next two weeks, I will update my blog daily with my Hawaii prep and adventures, but first, a look back at my race report from 2006:

October 2006

Well, I guess not every day turns out just the way it was planned. By now I’ve had about 12 hours of sleep to process my race yesterday and while I am disappointed with the results, I am content with all that I did to make it happen and I know that there wasn’t one thing I could have done to make it turn out any differently. In that way, I am satisfied.

Yesterday began at 2:45am when I got up to get ready for the big race. I knew that I would be able to tell a lot about how my day would go just by how I felt when I woke up. I didn’t feel so hot. But it wasn’t like I could just decide to skip the race, so I did my best to put my worries aside and get ready for a long day.

We arrived at the King Kam Hotel just around 5:00am for the opening of the transition area. But before you can go into transition where all the bikes and equipment are located, you have to go through the tents out back of the hotel to be body marked. Neal went with me while Steve parked the car. For body marking at this race, they don’t just use a black marker like they do at the local triathlons, but these big block numbered stamps. My number was 182 and it pretty much took up my whole bicep by the time they finished stamping it on. They put it on both arms and then write your age on your calf. Once we were done with that we were able to go to the transition area.

The PC athletes had their own tent (all other athletes had their bikes racked in the open air). With all13 of us with our equipment it was pretty cozy in our tent…cozy, as in, hot, sticky and smelly, like a locker room. Anyway….Steve and Neal helped me get my equipment set out the way I wanted and then it was just time to hang out until the start. Fortunately for us, we got to hang out and be entertained by my friends One-arm Willie and Jon Beeson. It is always fun to see these guys, because they live in California, we only get to hang out at races and events.

Finally 7:00 am started rolling around and I had to get my wetsuit on. Since the water here is so warm, it’s actually not a wetsuit legal race for the able-bodied racers, but all PC athletes are allowed to wear wetsuits at all races. It’s nice because it adds extra buoyancy and also because a lot of times, water that’s not very cold to ABs is still very cold to me. In this case, the water actually IS warm to me, so I was concerned that I might get overheated in the water, but I didn’t.

The swim is a mass start so Neal and I got in the water and found a boat to hang on to until we went off, so I wouldn’t have to waste energy treading. The whole cove  where the race was, was surrounded by thousands of spectators. It was truly quite a site. Usually triathlons aren’t exactly what you’d call a crowd draw. But here, it’s the biggest thing going. Ford is the sponsor of the race and they even had one of their SUVs sitting on a huge float in the middle of the water.

When we were off, Neal and I took my usual strategy of starting in the back, but I found again that I am not the slowest swimmer and there were a lot of people swimming behind us. I did my fair share of clubbing people in the head, but that’s what happens in a triathlon when you’re not moving fast enough. I told Neal that I wanted to do 1 hour 20 minutes for the swim, because I knew that with the bike time cut I’d have to have a perfect swim AND a perfect bike to get back to T2 by 10 hours and 30 minutes. I really tried to motor on the way out to the boat where the turnaround was located. My arms didn’t feel good, but usually it takes a while to warm up so I just kept telling myself to keep moving and eventually the pain would start going away and I’d get into a groove. The waves tossed me around a bit, but I found if I just got going in a floating/swimming groove that I was fine. I ingested some salt water going out, but it didn’t seem to be so bad at first. When we got to the boat to make the turn we were at 44 minutes. Perfect for me…that was just right about where I wanted to be, but on the way in, the waves really seemed to pick up. I was swallowing more and more salt water and less able to keep my head above where I could breath. I couldn’t see Neal’s hand signals very well anymore and I felt like I was just blindly swimming. My goal was to stop as little as possible, but every so often my goggles would fill with water and the salt would sting my eyes, so I would stop and hang on to Neal while I cleared my goggles. On the way out, we only had to stop a couple of times, but on the way back in, not only did I have to empty my goggles, but the salt water was beginning to make me feel sick and as the waves picked up I began chocking on water. Every time I sat up it seemed that the shore was getting further away instead of closer and I was being bounced around like crazy. Fortunately, there were several “rescuers” on surf boards throughout the water, so there was always one to hang on and get my bearings. I kept yelling to the surf board guy, who later introduced himself as Clint, after I had rested, belched and dry heaved while holding onto his surfboard.

Eventually after 1 hour and 1 minute we finished the second half of the swim and Steve and Neal carried me up the stairs from the beach, put me in my chair and started ripping my wetsuit off. We all knew that every minute was going to count in me making the bike cutoff so I had Steve, Neal and Joyce all working to get me ready to go out on my bike. While one person put my socks on, another was slathering me with sunscreen, someone else was putting on my helmet, and in about seven minutes from the time I exited the water, I was off on the bike. (Incidentally, I learned that this was one of the rougher water swims in Ironman history and as many as 26 able-bodied racers didn’t even make it out of the water before the time cut, so I count the fact that I made it, to be one of my small race victories).

I already knew from the moment that I got on the bike, that the time cut was probably out of reach. But that still wasn’t a reason to abandon the race. You never know what can happen in a race…being faster than I thought, a giant tailwind or maybe a miracle. As the race slogan suggests, “Anything Is Possible” in an Ironman. But as I set off on the handcycle I couldn’t seem to get anywhere above 6 mph. I felt awful. I was thirsty from the salt water, but also had a stomachache and my arms were like rubber. I kept willing my body to pick it up, but it wasn’t responding. All I had in my water bottles was sports drink and I was craving water like never before. I needed liquid though so I started chugging the sports drink. WRONG thing to do. I could feel it starting to work it’s way back up, but I didn’t want to stop pedaling so I just leaned over and threw up off the side of my bike while still making forward progress. After throwing up a couple of times, I started to feel better, but I was still fatigued and dying for water. I had the slowest first five miles I’ve every had in a triathlon, but after I finished the loop that went through the town of Kona, I headed out on the Queen K Highway which is where about 60 miles of the bike leg takes place. It’s almost a straight shot through lava fields and while the road travels up and down, it’s actually an uphill battle. Even when it seems relatively flat you’re still going up, which is evident when you’re on the return trip and you’re cruising.

Traveling along the Queen K was very quiet at first with just some stragglers passing behind me every so often until I got about 10 miles into the ride. I started having an NBC car tagging along with me, stopping every so often for a photographer to get out and take some video. Then it got more interesting when the rain started in and was pouring down, soaking me and making it so I couldn’t see out of my sunglasses. I was kind of happy about the break in heat, even though the water on the pavement was slowing me down. Soon I was over taken by vehicles coming both ways on the road and a huge helicopter flew super low to the ground just to the right of me. On the nose of the aircraft was this huge camera and I knew the pros must be approaching from the opposite direction heading back to transition. Although I was miles and miles behind them, it was neat to be able to watch up close as some of the best triathletes in the world passed on the other side of the road.

Following the pros the age groupers began streaming by me and I kept a lookout for my teammates. As always, as each athlete comes by, I take an inventory of body parts. My teammates are easy to pick out of a crowd…just look for missing arms, prosthetic legs and I can usually think fast enough to figure out who it is behind the helmet and sunglasses and let out a quick cheer as I go by. After about 30 miles, the Queen K ends and you make a left turn onto a short 1 or 2 mile highway and then a right turn on the road that leads to Hawi, the course turnaround. Of course it’s not a quick journey to Hawi…it’s 18 miles and mostly up. At this point I was still waiting to see the guys on handcycles and every couple of miles I would see another until I counted all five. I really had expected to see them on the Queen K, so I considered it another small victory that I was even as close to them as I was. But eventually, I was on the road to Hawi alone. I was the last cyclist in the race to hit the turnaround. The final seven miles to Hawi is a climb and my speeds fell to between three and eight miles per hour. The winds really picked up and I was getting frustrated, but I kept remembering what everyone had said about the return trip being so fast. I was relieved to see the turnaround, but looking at my watch I knew there was no way I was going to make it back before the time cut. Apparently, my timing chip did not register there either, for those of you watching at Ironman.com. I’m not sure what happened with that so I don’t exactly know what time I hit that marker. On the way back down I was thinking that maybe I should just flag down a support vehicle to pick me up—I was frustrated and didn’t see any reason to keep going. But, I did. Once back on the Queen K my ride picked up considerably. It really was a lot of downhill. I was averaging 18-20 mph and had a follow vehicle by that time. When the driver drove up next to me, I asked him if I was going to be swept off the course. He said, “yes, but I’m not going to be the one to do it, so just keep going and I’m going to follow to make sure you’re safe.” So I did and finally started enjoying myself because the ride was so fast and I had gotten my second wind. But, at 10.5 hours all I could do was wait for the hammer to fall. I kept trying to get as far as I could, thinking that maybe they would give me a break and let me ride all the way in. Better yet, maybe they’d just give me an exception and let me finish the whole race. Afterall, every racer gets 17 hours to finish an Ironman. If I just had the chance to finish the bike, I would have been on pace to do even better than 17 hours, but unfortunately that 10.5 hour time cut for the bike gets in the way. It’s an interesting rule, one that was made for the able-bodied racers, but is enforced on the disabled racers too. So where an able-bodied racer only needs to race at an average speed to make the time cut, I have to race at my max, for eight to nine hours (depending on my swim time) to have any chance to squeak in under the time. Yesterday just wasn’t my day to do that. At 92 miles (just 20 miles from the finish!), I was swept from the course. I was picked up by two of the nicest guys, who were just looking for a friendly little chat, but frankly I wasn’t in the mood. I tried to be polite, but that’s hard to do after you’ve invested a years of training, $8,000 of expenses and 10.5 hours of racing, only to be pulled from the course.

Now that it’s all over I look back and am glad I gave it a shot. I really did the best I could do considering the event, my challenges as a disabled athlete (aka time cuts) and a six week bout with giardia. Could I do better if I gave it another shot next year? Yes. Am I physically capable of making a cut designed for the able-bodied athlete? Not sure. Will I keep trying? Today may not be a good day to answer that question, but ask me in another week and I will probably say yes. Will I end up being the first paraplegic female to complete this race? Maybe, maybe not.

Kona is the place where people come to realize their triathlon dreams. My dream didn’t come true this year, but as always, I tested myself, my courage and my strength. I don’t need the medal or the t-shirt for the validation to know that I am a tough competitor. I gave it what I had in the tank yesterday. Maybe in the future I’ll have more to give.

To be continued?

One Comment on ““The Hawaii Ironman—A Look Back at 2006”

  1. lynn schnautz

    Trish,
    My sister Jane has kept me posted on your progress. My husband Kurt did Oklahoma in 2006 and the Louisville Ironman in 2007. My family will be praying for you every day and following your blog on race day. Go out their and KICK THAT IRONMAN ASS!
    Lynn Schnautz

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