“I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.” – Vince Lombardi
Ever since I started to race Ironman, I have strived for the above quote. That feeling of purity; Pure exhaustion, pure joy, pure effort. In Ironman Florida last year, after 10 years of racing, I finally was immersed in that feeling. After that day, it’s almost as if I was satisfied with triathlon and Ironman. No more demons in my head and no more disappointment in myself. I could walk away from triathlon and act like a proper adult and be totally cool with it all. But let’s be honest, I’m not sure I could ever act like a proper adult. Instead of packing it in and finishing with the best Ironman race of my life, I figured what the hell?! Let’s give Hawaii another go.
The Florida race changed everything about my preparation for Hawaii. If I was forced to take that hard look in the mirror and have a 12-step moment of admittance, I would admit that I am an exercise slacker. Just like all the years of soccer, I worked hard. Just barely hard enough to keep improving. And while I worked hard (ish), I sure bitched about it. A lot. However, for this buildup to Hawaii, it was as if the shift change was just acceptance. No bitching at WJones for the hard schedules, or if he understood what it was like to be in a hot ass garage on the computrainer for 3x20min. Instead I just trusted WJones, and I trusted that the work he prescribed was the work required to have a good race in Hawaii. After all, while I’d put it together a complete race on the beautiful shores of Panama City Beach, the 140.6 miles of Kailua – Kona is a totally different beast.
Now before you yawn from that monster paragraph above, please understand that the tale of the Ironman Hawaii cannot be told without the groundwork of what it took to get there. The race is only the tip of the iceberg. I got my ass kicked in Hawaii the first time, but I was determined to flip the script this time. Obsessed is usually pitched in a negative connotation, but that was me to the T. I pulled every magazine I had (I am somewhat of a hoarder) with any Ironman Hawaii information in it to re-read. I scoured the Internet for old interviews, articles and comments from Peter Reid (who in my opinion is the most methodical IM Hawaii champion ever) or Torbjorn Sinballe (a big guy who like myself has struggled in the heat). Jones cooked up crazy treadmill hill workouts, and big rides where I just crushed myself. I looked through UFC fighter’s diets to understand cutting weight for the race more completely. I took advantage of Chevron’s health and wellness program to meet with a superb nutritionist. And when I asked Molly the most embarrassing question I think any Cajun guy could, “Is it possible to do this training, keep my energy and drop my weight by going vegetarian?” she never so much as batted an eye. The nutritional guidelines she put together for me were perfect. I’ve never felt so good, and I’ll be forever grateful for her time and guidance. I quit listening to the radio, and downloaded every podcast with Hawaii and Ironman in the description. Looking back, it was all encompassing and truthfully exhausting. But I knew that this might be the last time I’ll ever get to race Hawaii, and nothing is guaranteed. If I prepared as perfectly as I could, the only thing that’s certain is that I’ll have an opportunity to have a good race. But if my preparation were shit, then I’d be guaranteed to have a miserable race. With all this preparation, research and focus, I knew that there was one stone that I had to turn over before I got to tread water in the bay.
Everyone talks about the heat and humidity of Kona, and yes it’s hot. But come on, south Louisiana is the place Lucifer comes for summer vacation. So there was not really much of a change from being at home to being in Kona. I arrived Sunday, but it seemed like a lifetime away from the race. More important than getting rid of the travel legs or adapting to the sun’s strength, I knew that I had to make peace with the island. Now before you call me a stoned-out hippie, there is something about this island. When I first read Mark Allen talk about it, I said the same thing in my head about him. “Oh, easy on the new-age hippie sauce buddy.” However after spending time here, I knew that this island’s energy is like a mirror into your own soul. I knew that I had to accept that I did the best preparation that I could, worked my hardest, and in the end this may not be enough. I made peace with this feeling that the island may win again, and that is ok. Because the fun isn’t in the result, but the fun has been in the journey. And I gotta be cool with that. After I made peace with this and the island, it was time to focus on the task at hand.
The second time around, it just seemed like everything was easier. You get a lay of the land, know where to eat (Da Poke’ Shack EVERY-DAY!), how to maneuver around all the craziness of Ali’i drive, and generally get it all figured out. I hit up The Coffee Shack and Kona Joe, which to me are mandatory spots to check out. This year I mostly stayed away from Ali’i, Dig Me Beach, Lava Java and the expo. As a triathlon geek, it’s hard not to walk around and mix it up in that area with the sport’s fast and famous. I think the closest that I got race week was having lunch with Larkin Carter at Lava Java. I didn’t pick the place, but the food was good. While we were eating lunch, in addition to your food you could taste the nervous energy from all the racers in there as well. One last place on my short list that I had to hit up was Mark Andrews’ condo. Who is Mark Andrews, you ask? Do you ride a speed concept? Have you ever watched a Trek YouTube? Chances are 100% you’ve seen him. He is one of the masterminds behind the speed concept, and is like a Doc Brown style mechanic. The guy is a mad genius, and I needed his help. I broke a stem bolt right before shipping my bike to Hawaii (via Tri-bike transport and HIGHLY recommended) and it needed to be replaced. Lisa got my part to Lafayette before I got on the plane, so I had it with me and fully intended to replace it once I got my bike. Not on Mark’s watch! He told me that it was no problem, and to just come back in the morning. The bike would be race ready and tuned up. It was an awesome gesture of kindness from Mark, and it allowed me to just save a smidgeon of energy here and there by not having to fuss with it. After I ran my mandatory errands, I just kind of sat around the rest of the week. Well, there was that quick little trip to the expo to hustle up some cool swag and free gear. Because at the end of the day, I’m from Louisiana. And we have Mardi Gras. Free stuff is a way of life.
My parents and Elyse arrived Thursday. They were entertaining like always. There is nothing I love more than seeing people who just pulled 16 hours worth of flying with minimal sleep and hygiene. As their taxi driver, I always ask the same stupid question, “So where do ya’ll wanna go?” Easy dumb ass, to the condo. To sleep. Or translated into the Bear’s (my dad’s) language, “Buddy, we are gonna catch some zzz’s. We’ll hit the farmer’s market tomorrow.”
Friday is the day that everything gets real. As you wheel your bike toward check-in, you look around and see that the face of Ali’i and the competitors is changing. There is no more expo, no more athlete or companies swarming twitter offering free stuff and invitations to parties. People you see on the street have that 1,000-mile stare. You know that pit of the stomach feeling that you got when the middle school bully told you he was gonna whoop your ass, and the teacher made you go on the playground? Well, that feeling didn’t go away. It just laid in hibernation for 25 years.
And the intensity is no greater than athlete / bike / gear check-in. In reality, it’s a comical circus of shenanigans but it sure doesn’t feel that way. There are people running around trying to give you t-shirts or hats for riding a certain bike, or wheels. There are gaggles of people who are tallying what frame you are riding, wheels on your bike, saddle you sit on, group set, etc. I mean it’s the closest this country bumpkin will ever get to a red carpet walk. And while I laughed about it while shooting that video (you know, the fishbowl video where I filmed the people who were staring / filming me), it’s highly uncomfortable and just taking that anxiety to another notch on the totem pole. Getting through transition and bike check-in as quickly as possible was a high priority. The quicker I could wrap it all up, the quicker I could remove myself from this mosh pit of anxiety.
Despite the horrendous condo bed and lack of air conditioning, sleep came pretty easily Friday night. However, Saturday’s 4am alarm was about 10min after that snooze fest. I tried to pretend I could eat, but it wasn’t happening. So I slugged down 4 Pediasure’s, ate an egg on top of rice and got the hell out of Dodge. Or actually the hell into Dodge, since the Bear and I got into the Dodge caravan and headed down Ali’i drive to the pier. That ride to the race start is always awkward, no matter who you’re with or how many times you’ve raced. Someone you love is driving you down to a spot where they know in the very best case scenario that you are gonna get your ass kicked. And at the very worst case, well, no one ever wants to acknowledge that the worst case could actually happen to them.
A lot of people think I’m being a prima-Johnna when I draw the parallel between Ironman and what it must be like in the UFC. Minus the obvious blows to the head and never having to be across the fence from someone named “Spider” or “Bones”, they have a lot of similarities. The walk through body marking to “the octagon” of the pier is a deafening silence. You try to feign confidence, contain the anxiety by putting in the earphones and getting out the swagger. But you don’t dare make eye contact, as you are certain the person you lock eyes with will see through your bullshit. You weigh in. The doctor talks to you but it’s as if you don’t even know he’s there. The looming battle is getting more real by the moment, and it’s all consuming. That first cannon firing for the pro start almost frightens you out of your swim skin. It’s the triathlon equivalent of that cage locking behind you. No turning back now. There’s only one way to freedom, and it’s 140.6 miles that way.
The mean mugging continues while we tread water in the pier. Thousands of heads bobbing up and down in the water, all with a gunfighter’s trigger finger and waiting to be released onto the course. Those paddle boarders and referees must say 200 times in the span of 15 minutes “BACK UP! BEHIND THE BOUY! YOU WILL BE DISQUALIFIED!” No one listens, as everyone refuses to give one inch to someone that they have never met. I listen to blatant lies “I’m going to swim an hour.” Nope, you’re a liar. I detected the shake in his voice, I better get in front of this kid. He’s gonna panic 400 yards in. The years slugging it out in this mass start swim arena teach you a few things. You learn to pick out the contenders from the pretenders. I know I’m ready for a 57-58 minute swim. Jessica threw her best stuff at me all buildup and I took it. That feeling in my stomach is back, but before I could acknowledge it BOOM! All hell broke loose.
Somehow starting on the left side of the buoy was a stroke of luck and genius. I got 10, then 15, then 25 strokes in a rhythm before I got smacked. This swim is in stark contrast to 2011, where I got to experience what would happen if a mosh pit turned into a bar fight. Sure enough, 500 yards in, people started to implode. I’m trying to pick my way through the shrapnel, deciding to try and make that front group. But the front group is like that mirage you see on the road during a scorching summer day. It isn’t there. And if you do ever catch them, then why would you swim with them? You’re going faster. So I just tried to get into a rhythm and head toward the turn buoy.
When I got to the buoy, it was as if I got my entire swim beating at once. Some guy thought it would be comical to keep swimming wide, and then randomly slam into me. Each time, I backed off and allowed him to swim in front of me. After the third ramming, I dropped back and went to work on this kid’s feet. Every stroke, tickle his feet. Every stroke, smack his ankles to throw off his kick. I’m a gentleman most of the time, but I am not afraid to use the tricks I have up my sleeve. After about 10 minutes of this back and forth, I had enough. I figured if I accelerated I would get past this Martinsville paint trading and get back to swimming. The last bit of swimming had me a bit bummed. As I was stuck in what I thought was no-man’s land. Not fast enough to be with “that group” I saw just up the water, and ahead of the demolition derby behind me. Using my highly skilled predictive swim model (patent pending), where I judged the gap versus the contact and my perceived time in the water divided by my start position squared to derive a time that put me at or around 1:03 from my estimation. So when I got out of the water and saw a 57, I went with the only thing I could think of “HELL YEAH!”
Transition was a mad house as usual, and this year I added a “fantastic” twist. I was going to try and put on a top that was dry, while I was wet. I mean, I even did practice runs in the condo, developed a proprietary folding pattern that would expedite the donning of said aerodynamic and (most importantly) sun protecting top. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men…. left me frustrated and tangled up, but fully dressed and onto the bike. Remember that demolition derby guy? Well, apparently I will not be getting a Christmas card from him because he punched me in the back as I was standing at my transition spot grabbing my bike. I kind of laughed because I knew the feet / ankle routine worked. Besides, bitches and punks hit people when they aren’t looking. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
In 2011 I flatted 3 times in the first 2 miles. No, that is not a typo. So needless to say, I was holding my breath until we descended off of Palani. I swam a 57, and got out of T1 in 1:01:00 so the racecourse wasn’t too bad. But coming back down the hill from the out and back was the angry mob. And they were angry. On a good day, if the wind is right and God smiles favorably upon me, I can do 300 watts for 10 minutes no problem. Well, I was holding 300 on the climb and people were coming by me so fast that I looked down no less than 3 times to see if the brake was rubbing. That first hour was like a Soul Train dance line moving to the music of “Drop John”. I came through the first hour at a pace that would give me a 4:30:00 bike split, and people were blistering by me. One guy who was particularly entertaining was wearing a Michigan Wolverines tri kit, and weaving in and out of the reflectors on the road as he tried to pass people. I didn’t know whether to laugh or fear for my life. Another person of interest was a guy I met a few days ago. I recognized him because of his kit, introduced myself and chatted him up a bit. Just as I was going to leave, he asked, “What age group are you racing?” I said 30-34, to which he replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.” Huh? What are you sorry for? That my dashingly handsome looks and baby blue eyes make me look like a 20-24 thoroughbred? No, John, in the world of edgy triathlon smack talk I believe it means he is apologizing in advance for crushing your age group dreams. Well, that guy passed me too. It kind of made me angry, but then I realized that if he could really predict the future like that (him beating me), then I should ask him for the next Powerball numbers. And that feeling of being a Powerball winner killed off the anger. Really during the first 1.5 hours, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was holding good watts, watts that I know I can hold and run well. But there were mobs of people dropping me. And I knew it wasn’t my weak descending skills as I made a deal with myself pre-race to descend like a proper bike racer. So if I wrecked then I went down more like James Dean, less like Steve Carrel. All I could do is rest my belief in that the other racers passing me would either blow up, or were just better than me. The pace we kept down the Queen K highway was still batshit crazy. Turning onto the road headed to Hawi is where it went from straight speed, to brute strength.
The climb to Hawi isn’t that bad, but it’s sneaky. You just keep climbing and climbing and climbing. Sometimes you’re going fast, then it’s like you are standing still. Then the random crosswind gives you a sober slap across the face for daydreaming. You keep looking down at your cassette, as if looking and wishing will somehow sprout another sprocket on the cassette. Then you’re stuck in between the big and small chainring in front. The big is faster but noisier and more painful. The smaller gives you a fluid pedal stroke but you’re losing ground. Things are starting to heat up, and you’re just getting grumpy. Like that tight pair of underwear that just keeps riding up, things are getting uncomfortable. Just as the aggravation is starting to boil over, you see that car coming toward you with the massive Timex clock on top and immediately you feel giddy like Christmas morning.
For me, the coolest thing about Hawaii is that I’m racing, but I am still a fan. It is so cool to geek out and see all the guys / girls you read about, look up to, cyber stalk for equipment choices, prototype equipment, etc slugging it out on the same tarmac you are suffering on. You may only see them for a snippet, but it’s an all access pass to the levels of pain some of them go in the race. And this year, there was no more vivid memory etched in my brain than Andreas Raelart pedaling at 6mph with his feet on top of his clipped in shoes, holding the bullhorn bars, helmet cocked to the side and head hanging dejectedly. He was weaving like a downhill skier carving fresh powder. He was a knockout casualty of the day, and a cruel reminder to me that I need to race my own race no matter what.
When we bombed down Hawi, I just gave into the fear that if I crashed on this decent I would definitely break my collarbone in the best scenario. Worst case is that the road rash would not allow me to wear a shirt for several months. Let it go, and let the bike go. I can’t say that there weren’t scary moments, but once I made peace with the consequences, I got to kind of started to enjoy flying 40+ mph down the hill on two skinny tires 2.5 feet off the ground.
I came through the 100-mile mark in 4:12:00. HOLY WOW! I’ve definitely slowed since the first hour, but that was still brutally fast in my book. The bad news was that the wind was picking up. I was a little behind on taking in enough water, and after 4 hours in the saddle, well the natives were restless. In short, the last 12 miles took me 46 minutes. However, I did gun it once I knew I had a shot of riding under 5 hours. Yes, it’s immaterial and vain, but it’s my sand box and that’s what I did. I came flying into transition in 4:58:00. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Bike hand off to the volunteer. Uh lady, for your own safety and well-being please don’t touch those shoes…. never mind.
Oh sweet mother in heaven, that plastic chair in T2 was more comfortable than any Lay-Z-Boy I’ve ever plopped my rear down into. I just wanted to sit and reminisce for a bit, but I knew all too well that this fight still had two more rounds. My plans were to “lose” rounds 1 (swim) and 2 (ride out to Hawi), and win rounds 3 (Back from Hawi) and 4 (Run to energy lab) while winning round 5 (Energy lab to home) convincingly. Well, I accidently won round 1, and got into a slugfest in round 2 while still losing. Round 3 was a draw. Now it was time to see what I actually had left for this marathon.
Against my better judgment, I ran with a GPS to keep my knockout punch in my bag of tricks until the time was right. So 7:00 pace it was until the energy lab or the wheels fell off; whichever came first. And along Ali’i, it was all rose petals and fairytales. I was actually doing it! 7:00 pace would give me a 3:03:00 marathon, and that would be a massive run PR for me and convincingly catapult me through my age group. I saw my parents on the way out and back. Stanley, Tonia, Smitty and Shawn near Lava Java. And that smokin’ hot lady I call “WOMAN! NO BUTTER ON THE TOAST!” ok, ok. I saw Elyse right before I turned up Palani. I couldn’t believe it; I was doing what I said I would do. Here it was. I was a little over the 7:00 pace, but well within tolerance. And seeing Elyse being so positive and excited put some fire in my belly heading up Palani.
I don’t know why, but it was never in the cards for me to walk up Palani. I did a ton of crazy “sweaty man flinging sweat off the treadmill” hill runs at Red’s. I was ready for Palani. But in the face of danger, as Tin Cup would say, I laid up. I played it safe. I walked up. I don’t know if I would do it again. I don’t even know if it affected the race at all. But I know that I think about that moment, and how it defined the race for me. It was an outward example that today I was racing with my head instead of my heart.
Off of Palani and onto the Queen K, things were a bit slower but still good. Casualties of the pros were starting to show up. Jodie Swallow was laying in the median with cold towels all over her. There were quite a few that were shuffling, head down and defeated. And misery loves company. So I had to almost say out loud to myself that we were not stopping to “kick it with the homies”. We had a job to do, and we needed to run. Mile 13 was when I started to wobble the foundation a little bit. The pace started creeping in the 7:30’s to 50’s when running. Add that to walking the aid stations for ice, and we are falling off. Then the positivity kicks in. If I could run 3:15, in Hawaii, that would be badass. Just keep running little buddy. And when that Dr. Phil stuff didn’t work, I just went back to the only thing that ever works. I counted my foot strikes. 1 to 20. Start over. And again. And again. The melodic rhythm and routine of it all just quieted my mind. Before I knew it I was in the energy lab. But now I was desperately looking forward to each aid station so that I could have a break. Not because I was cramping. No, I convinced myself that I was “racing smart” by walking the aid stations. And oh sweet Jesus did walking feel good! The energy lab was uneventful, except that I saw a familiar face right before the energy lab turnaround. Ole’ “Sorry” was right there, and it was clear his doors were blown clean off. I wanted to say something, and in a past life I probably would’ve. But I had my own demons to wrestle with, and I knew that this island could turn around and bite me in the ass at any moment. So I didn’t even acknowledge him. As Maverick would say, “Just fly right by.”
I had a quick picnic of Red Bull on ice at the energy lab aid station, and trudged out of the energy lab hole. It was getting late into the run, and I was running desperately low on resolve and energy. All I wanted so desperately was to have a great race here. 2011 just quietly taunted me in the shadows. No way someone like me could have a good race at Hawaii. I’m a fraud, a cherry picker. I never even deserved to go in 2011, and the race let me know. How arrogant of me to think 2013 would be any different. I just didn’t have what it takes to go well in Hawaii. I have no endurance pedigree, and I am no elite athlete. This is the big boy table, and I need to be sitting outside with the kiddos. No matter what you do, the voices in your head will tell you all that. After a while, you just have to quit listening. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 1, 2, 3, ….. to just tune out the noise. Get back to basics. In one hour, this race and your season will be over. But you will live with the effort you gave in your heart forever. That’s what I focused on. Not a time, not a “LOOK AT ME NOW MO’ FO’S!” but an effort that I could hold in my heart and be proud of. An effort that would let me be at peace. An effort that I knew was complete and genuine.
I just threw myself down Palani. FTW! I’m running for this. If I fall or cramp, or eat a mouth full of asphalt, it will be at full tilt. I saw Elyse one last time. She said she didn’t cry, but I know she did. There it was, the last chapter of my race. The finish line, and the knowledge that I gave it my full effort. I just ran. Maybe a bit too hard, maybe a bit too fast to savor the moment. What was I running for anyway? The difference between 52nd and 54th in my age group? 43 seconds on my finisher’s photo? Nope. I was running for me. I was running to empty the tank, and cross the line exhausted; victorious.
There are so many people that I have to thank for getting me to the start line of all these races and giving of themselves so that I can go out and chase whatever it is that gets me out of bed every morning.
- First and foremost, my most awesome best friend, manager, soigner, counselor, assistant, emergency bike mechanic and pillar, Elyse.
- WJones, the mad scientist that has never backed down from a challenge and has kept pushing me to new heights since he told me that I sucked in 2010. We talked about a complete performance, and “dropping the mic” after our best effort. I feel that we did. Best race I could have hoped for overall.
- My parents for always encouraging me, and never once telling me “to grow up” or “kids ride bicycles, John”. There is nothing more rewarding to me than having my parents tell me that they are proud of me. I’m sure that I could probably skip the 9 hours of self-ass kicking and they would still tell me. But giving your best effort for them to witness will always hold a special place in my heart.
- Jessica aka Swim Gurzi. I’m not gonna hug you like Eric did, but just know that the 57 was your doing. Also know that I’ll celebrate that for like 3 weeks. Then I have bigger plans (which does include MORE PAIN and spitting in the pool gutter WAHOO!)