Kona. If you know anything about triathlons, you only need to say this one word to convey the pinnacle of a sport, brutal heat, wind and humidity, epic triumphs and failures, community, joy, and achievement. It is every part of Ironman racing amplified.
I have long dreamed of racing in Kona. When I finally started to believe I could qualify, I put pictures of it in my training room, I visualized myself on that course thousands of times. I believed I could race here well before I qualified, which is why I qualified (check out my visualization tool I used). To visualize a race is one thing, to actually race it is a whole different experience!
I had VERY high expectations of Kona, especially after waiting 1+ years after qualifying in IM CdA. My expectations were met and exceeded! It is so fun! So many people, so many things to do! I went down for a swim and somehow spent 5hrs in the tri black hole and all the sudden it was 5pm! It is like Vegas, you lose track of time so easily. I had to put a curfew on myself for the days leading into the race. It's a bad idea to spend hours in the heat and sun before a hot race.
This is my first time racing Kona, but in 2021 after the race was canceled I still went and trained on the course. And it scared the shit out of me. The winds on what would have been race day coming back from Hawi had me in near tears on the highway. I can ride in the wind, but sustained 25mph with gusts up to 50mph are damn straight terrifying. The ocean was crazy choppy, like waves cresting on my head on the course, and the Energy Lab was brutal as usual. It was this course that I prepared myself to race, this windy, this choppy and this hot. I was relieved when the wind forecast was “normal” Kona and the ocean was only sort of swelly, but I went in with a healthy respect for this course and even then it totally and completely kicked my ass.
I wanted to “race.” For me this meant bringing the best I had on the day. That meant no “outs”, no “it's just a celebration," it was game on for me. I wanted to see what I had when I raced the very best. I had no exceptions on time or place, only that I would bring my best in every moment.
There are many factors that make Kona such an intense race. Weather, the best in the world all lining up together, the lava fields, but I think the biggest factor is the energy of the island itself. She and all her energetic beings are intense! A volcano rumbling underneath combined with athletes digging into the depths of their physical, mental and emotional capacity creates an energy that is raw, unpredictable and so damn intense. It can propel athletes to great heights (the women and men races were next level on human achievement) and absolutely crush them. You don’t know what lessons the island has for you until you are out there. I was fully open to all the lessons the island had in store for me. In fact, I asked the island to bring it on! This race was going to be one where I let go of so many things I hang on to - fears, expectations, shoulds. My intention was to burn them as energy and release them as I swim/bike/run. It is one thing to have this mindset sitting on a lava rock overlooking the ocean at sunrise. It is another to practice it for 140.6 miles, especially in the last 16 miles of the run. The last 3 hours were one of the darkest places I have ever gone in a race. I asked for transformation and mine it turns out, was going to be through fire.
The Day Before
Pride. I sat overlooking the turn swim buoy the day before and I started crying. I was full of pride for getting myself here. In 6 years, with zero experience in any sports, I got here, to Kona. It was of course with so much help from many people around me. My coach, family, friends, my daughter. We are never alone in our achievements. But it was me that worked day in and day out for a dream and I am so damn proud of that. For most of my life I have shied away from really feeling pride, as if it was an indication of a character flaw to have pride in yourself. But that moment, on the lava rocks, I let it wash over me. I thanked every part of me that got me here and relished in the beauty of the moment and dream about to be fulfilled. I had October 6, 2022 as “Dream Day” marked on my calendar for a year and I was ready for it.
Many people have asked how the finish line felt. It was amazing. But the actualization of my dream came not at the end of the race, but in the 5 minutes before. We had just watched the female pros start. The first equal 50 spots for pro women and the first female only pro Kona race ever. It was an honor to share this day with them and the other women around me. As we treaded water for 5 mins waiting for the gun to go off, I came into full awareness that my dream was happening. Right there, I was in it, living it, breathing it, touching it. The next 11+ hours of the unknown was the unknown of my dream. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I looked at the women next to me and I said “this is happening.” She replied "lets go!” I was not the only one living a dream, I was surrounded by thousands of other athletes living theirs. We were all breathing it, touching it and on the precipice of it. It was my dream and I got to witness the dream fulfilled for 5200 athletes.
In the last 2 races I have had pretty severe breathing issues in the start of the swim leading to 5-8 minutes of treading water to get it under control. There were a few things that could be wrong and I basically tried to solve for all of them - warm water, acid reflux meds, mucinex, eliminating wheat days before, no pre-swim gel. My main goal was to not have breathing issues, ease into the swim, then go for it. I started out very wide and relaxed until I was certain my breathing was normal. I focused on my strokes and the fish. I scooted in closer to the pack, but I decided to stay wide and out of the fray. I wanted to stay true to my goal, no breathing issues. I swam hard and solo for the majority of the swim. I finally hit a large group and caught feet in the last 500. While the time was not my best, the effort for basically a solo ocean swim was my best IM swim ever. I was focused, strong, and swam more or less straight. I never got fatigued and I was surprised when it ended so soon! I was having fun!
My favorite! My HR strap for whatever reason did not sync to my bike computer so after some finagling I gave up and used my watch for HR. Not ideal but it was enough. I race mostly on feel and I am dialed into my effort, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t overheat so I needed HR.
Right as I finished figuring out the HR situation I was on the Queen K and saw the most beautiful rainbow. I had to smile and laugh. A glorious rainbow for my dream. Sometimes life is a movie.
I was excited to ride with all women, a first for me. What a difference it makes! When we got on to the Queen K, legally spaced packs formed quickly and smoothly. We passed 2 by 2, usually verbalized when passing. It was fluid, smooth and respectful. Fascinating really. It also helped to have so many women riding roughly the same pace. As I was enjoying this amazing ride, I suddenly heard “WATER, WATER NOW!” From a deep voice, then bam! The age group men were on us. The fluidity was out the door and suddenly the packs became more fragmented, the riding more sloppy. Now some of this is because there is a difference in speed, but the change in energy was felt and fascinating.
I let it “control” rip on the climb to Hawi. I am a good climber and I love it. Although not sure I would really consider it a climb if you can stay in your big ring for the majority of it :) Same on descend, aero and let it fly. I knew after the turn back on the Queen K was when the suffering would happen if people went out too hard and oh did it happen. I don’t think I have ever seen suffering like this on mile 70 of an IM, not even St. George Worlds. People were sick and out of gas. I felt great and turned up the effort. The benefit to having age group men come up behind is I had loads of fast trains to take back. I got on one and when I was spat out another would roll on by. I made quick work back and I felt amazing! I ate and drank everything, I was cool, I was ready. And here is when my mindset shifted from no expectations to expectations. That damn ego! I thought, wow I had a great swim and I rode this course perfectly! I saved watts with fast aero riding and pace lining, I might be on track for an amazing run and the best IM ever! This is what bit me in the ass. Expectations. I went in with none and suddenly created a whole 26.2 with many. The island definitely had many lessons to teach me.
Skratch Super Fuel (3 bottles)
3 Right Stuff packets
SiS gels + Skratch chews + Cliff Bloks
I took my time. I was racing but not racing for something so I wanted to be comfortable. Extra lube, potty break, ice etc. It was a luxury I don’t usually have in other races so I took full advantage of it.
The miles through town were AMAZING! It was so hard to keep the speed capped because I felt awesome and the crowd was energizing! I saw my daughter and parents at mile 2 and mile 4. She made the best sign and wrote “Team Jennifer” on the ground. She is light and joy. It was so special for her to witness my dream to the fullest. Although she is still confused why Mama runs so slow. Having just seen the pro women run by earlier certainly did not help.
I felt great and on track for my race plan, especially after Jan Frodeno handed me a cup of ice. Then I turned on to the Queen K, mile 10 smacked me in the face and holy shit. I suddenly got chills and felt the heat and I knew I was in trouble. My typical salt plan for hot races was not enough. I was not sure how in the hole I was but I knew I was in it. I walked aid stations taking in Gatorade, water, SiS gels. I did have one Right Stuff packed on me, but it was not enough for what I was losing. My pace slowed. I decided to stop looking at my watch. I was going to run to my best ability for the next 16 miles. But I was mad. I was mad I was not going to reach expectations I had just created 90 mins ago. I was frustrated I didn’t take on more salt and that my legs hurt. I was all up in resisting what is.
When I got to the Energy Lab I was really slowing and cooking in the heat. When you go in the heat rises with the surrounding lava rocks and the wind stops. It is brutal. I had been wet since the race started and my feet were starting to feel it. What happens when you lose the big toenail underneath the toenail you already lost? I was going to find out! I was struggling up Energy Lab when my friend Barry came by and gently placed his hand on my back and told me to loosen my shoulders. That one tip made a huge difference. My upper body was extremely tight and I was able to loosen up a bit.
I have never wanted to walk so bad in my life. My legs were in a lot of pain, my stomach was over it, and I had nothing on the line. I could walk and finish, who cares? Kona is hard, no one would care. This thought came up not just once but every 2 minutes in the last 13 miles. Each time I said “no, this race is for you and when you wake up in the morning do you want to know you walked Kona?” Each time I said “no, I will not walk, I will move forward as fast as I can until the end.”
As this battled played out in my head, hundreds of people passed me. I was humbled. I am used to being in the front and having most of the athletes behind me. It was desolate. I fought back my urge to walk and my mind telling me I did not belong here. It was 13 miles of redefining my worth as an athlete and refusing to give in to the easy way out. I was in a dark place of both physical pain but also emotional pain. I was resisting everything around me. All thoughts of my dream were gone.
I looked over and saw the sunset over the Energy Lab and paused. There, there was my dream. It was this. The reality I was in, the physical pain, the emotional battle, the heat, this was it. My dream doesn’t always have rainbows, it doesn’t always feel amazing, it is full of pain and full of joy, it is duality in its essence and it is exactly how I wanted it. It's what I came for, it is what I asked the island for. I asked for transformation and I was in the throws of it. I breathed and relaxed, I laughed a little and I stopped resisting. I settled into what is, each step in front of me. Still in pain, still battling all my demons, and but each step I ran, I got closer and closer.
Running up Dave and Mark hill, the last climb before town, I had nothing left in the mental strength tank to keep running. I was starting to resist again. Gillian, a competitor and “IG friend” came, put her hand on my back and said “lets go, stay strong.” It was the last push I needed to get out of myself and remember why I was here. With > Against campaign was launched that week promoting the idea that we are stronger when we race with our competition not against. That was summed up in this moment. Gillian was not racing against me, she was racing with me. At that moment she wanted me to succeed even more than I did. It was exactly what I needed to hear for that last bit of effort. Resistance once again gone, just the moment ahead.
The last 2 miles are a blur. Color, lights, people, cheers, the finish line. I started to cry the last .5 miles. It all came rushing through. I did it. I got to Kona, I raced it, I made it happen. It was the hardest Ironman of my life and here I am. Joy, just waves and waves of awe and joy. I crossed the finish line and my daughter and parents were to the left cheering like crazy! The bright lights and the cheers, Mike Riley. It was my dream in technicolor.
Nutrition: I honestly have no idea
Many SiS gels
Gatorade at 5 aid stations?
Coke after mile 13?
Water at all + ice+ ice + more water
The Right Stuff
Overall time: 11:58
I was shocked I was under 12 hours. I didn't look at my watch after mile 10 and I was convinced I was at least 13 hrs. Funny what we make up in our heads and how far it can be from the truth. I smiled one last time at the finish line then I told the volunteers I was going to vomit and needed bushes ASAP. I proceeded to lay in a fetal position next to a hedge for 90 minutes. I was not ok. That was the most fucked up I have ever been after an Ironman. It took time but eventually I got enough salt in me I could walk and find my family. Azella was so proud of me and my parents were beaming. Joy. Just joy.
This was the race of my dreams. Not because it was easy or I had a great day. I managed a sub 12 hours but it was my slowest IM and slowest run by almost 20 mins. It was the race of my dreams because it was everything I wanted and asked the island for: brutal day, community of athletes, witnessing people live their dream, letting go of thoughts that hold me back, opportunities upon opportunities to dig deep, remembering to allow the day, not resist, to keep moving forward despite it all. It was so intense. It was transformational and it was AWESOME! It was all things I love about Ironman x 100. Will I be back? 100%
What happens when you fulfill a dream? You get the gift of creating new ones! I have so many more dreams I want to live, I am just getting started!