Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ironman World Championships, Kona Hawaii -- 2007


I arrived with Team Kukta (an assortment of friends and family) in tow on Saturday, Oct. 6, a full week before race day. Based on my experience at IM Coeur D’Alene last year, I figured that I had arrived early enough to acclimate myself to the environment before the serious athletes arrived. I probably don't have to tell this crowd how wrong I was -- bikes everywhere on the Queen K, runners streaming along Ali'i.

That afternoon, not wanting to be left out of the 200 meter sprint competition, I joined the masses and ran up Ali’i to downtown Kona to shake out the nerves and the legs. A number of athletes were getting into and out of the water at Dig Me Beach. Those in the water were swimming what appeared to be the general outline of the course. Never having done a 2.4 mile swim as a single loop, I initially thought that the course wasn’t all that intimidating, confusing the half-mile buoy for the turnaround buoy. Only by standing on top of the seawall and staring at the horizon until the ocean swells rose in just the right rhythm was I able to spot the last buoy. It appeared to be located just north of the equator.

I had questioned the need for a speedsuit when I arrived in Kona, but after seeing the distance to the swim turnaround and watching the swarm of uber-buff Ironman Dudes wearing speedsuits or banana hammocks -- it seemed like you had to join one club or the other -- I decided that I was best equipped to join Team Speedsuit. I mean, because of the reduced drag and all.

I accosted the first person who exited the water wearing a Blue Seventy, which I thought looked cool, and asked her what she thought of it. She said she really liked hers and asked me whether I was a first-timer. Since I practically had ROOKIE stamped across my forehead, I opted to tell the truth, at which point this nice person spent more than a couple minutes telling me about the course layout and some basic race strategies. I said “thanks for the great insight” and “by the way, my name is Steve Kukta.” “Heather Gollnick,” she said.

On Wednesday, I tested out my new Blue Seventy speedsuit. I swam out to a boat serving free coffee offshore from Dig Me. With a double-shot in my system and the psychological boost from the new speedsuit, I got overly competitive and hit race pace back to shore, latching onto the feet of someone fast. I sincerely apologize for the foot-massage Michellie.

Thursday’s Underpants Run was basically a college Toga party with less clothes and no beer. As much fun as it was, by this point in the week I was starting to worry that I was spending too much time on my feet, so I didn’t actually run – or wear underpants.

Throughout the day, I continued to stalk celebrities, buying an underpants run charity tee-shirt from Paula Newby-Fraser, who in return signed a hat for my charity, The Loneliest Road Campaign. Dave Scott, Michellie, Mark Allen were equally happy to ink some hats -- all of them very cool. But I was particularly stoked to meet Sister Madonna, who had broken her arm at Wildflower, but couldn’t be held back from another crack at the big one.

Paula is totally a totally cool person. Props to Desiree for toughing it out and finishing.

Dave was awesome. I would have loved to make him Carnac the Magnificent -- but too much wind and heat put his prediction of my finishing time beyond my abilities. (If this picture of my hat is too small, it says “Never give up! 11:16. Good Luck! Dave Scott)

After my one man paparazzi expedition, it was back to camp Kukta where mom unveiled the stickers she made for my aero helmet. The Rudy Project wore the cause proudly.

Mom and Laura also unveiled a huge garbage bag for an innovative new ice-bath they invented. We dumped 2 bags of ice into the huge double-bagged garbage bag, put the bag in the pool, filling it with pool water. I jumped into the ice/water bag, cinching it around my waist so I could sit on the submerged top stair of the pool with my legs hanging into the deep water. I wore two pairs of long shorts, long socks and a pair of reef-walking shoes, chillin’, looking out over the bay.

The last couple days flew by. I occupied my time relaxing by the pool watching the cruise ship shuttle-boats deliver the cruisers to their luau appointments. I drank Gatorade and Boost like the stuff was about to be embargoed.

Friday morning I did a short brick with a few pick-ups and felt pretty dead-legged, convincing myself that that was a good thing – just the taper kicking in.

Then I made a spectacular pre-race rookie blunder, failing to realize that I was supposed to check in my bike and bags before 2:30, not after 2:30. My awesome wife, Laura, figured out that I was an idiot, which is her job as the captain of Team Kukta. Alerted to the emergency, the rest of the team jumped into action as mom and Aunt Peggy short-circuited a refrigerator-magnet shopping trip, tearing up the streets of Kona in the mini-van to get me to check-in with time to spare.


Race day began at 3:30 a.m. I drank three Boosts and gnawed the corner off a bagel. A stiff cup of coffee and I was off to transition. Set up was semi-smooth. The volunteers let me grab my aero-bottle from my T1 bag and place it on my bike where it should have been last night. (By now you’re wondering whether I’ll do anything right.) Bike pumps were everywhere so inflating the tires to 115 went smoothly. (And there you have it ladies and gents – Stevie K rockin’ the borrowed bike pump.)

Then I saw a familiar face, Nellie from Washington, who I had met at the Hawaii 70.3 earlier in the year. She had flatted during that race, took it pretty hard and yet rebounded to qualify at Vineman. It was great to see her here.

As I was downing a tube of eGel before entering the water for a warmup swim, I bumped into a couple more friendly faces from San Francisco, Monique Petrov, Tyler Stewart and her husband Johnny. Johnny and Tyler gave Monique and me a quick pep-talk and Tyler took care of the zip-up when it became obvious from my hopping-on–one leg, back-scratching dance that I couldn’t get into the speedsuit without help. This was when I made an all-time gaffe, forgetting to apply a final lube job to the neckline of the speedsuit. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!

Monique and I jumped into the water on the back side of the pier and swam out to watch the sky-divers. Monique did a few warmup drills while I tried to steady my breathing. A few minutes later the pros were off and I swam to the start-line to seed myself in the “hoping-not-to-get-eaten-by-a-shark” group.

While I was daydreaming, the cannon went off.

One second I’m lounging on my back, the next I’m a floating piƱata. The survival instincts took over and I executed a 180 spin and started swimming only to get whacked by a wake-up elbow to the forehead. It could have been worse. My goggles were still more or less suctioned to my eye sockets. A little dazed, I glommed onto a pair of feet like an overzealous shoe salesman, keeping those toes in sight until the turn at the sailboat.

At the turnaround, I realized that my neck was burning. This appeared to be caused by a combination of my speedsuit and my tri-top, as well as the lack of any lubrication between those articles of clothing and my skin. Indeed, far from being lubricated, my skin seemed to be getting ripped to shreds by the salt-water skin-peel effect. I stopped briefly to adjust my collar and lost sight of the feet I was following. Alone, I began the painful swim back to the pier, thinking this is what it must be like to HTFU – ouch.

I joined up with the nearest pack, but the tide seemed to pull our leader and hence the rest of us followers away from the buoy line. I wised up after a couple minutes and moved to the inside, joining a group of swimmers on a better line.

By my watch I was out of the water at 8:12 – about a 1:14 swim. The time was a little slower than I would have liked, but I had a great moment later during the race when my wife informed me that my buddy Darren, a big fan of Laurent Jalabert, sent her an excited email reporting that I beat Jaja out of the water by a minute. The thought of my buddy getting excited about that small victory while tracking the race from Marin County made me smile a few times during the day – anything positive in a pinch.

Transition was quick except for when I ice-skated around the corners of the transition in my Sidis. (Note to self: Learn to mount the bike with the shoes clipped in – oh, and dummkopf, would it be too much to ask to take off the speedsuit before you mount the bike? Many thanks to the volunteer who put my wet laundry into my transition bag.)

Out of T1, Team Kukta, in all their obnoxious glory (including the not to be missed “Team Kukta” tee shirts with my picture on the back and the text “Have you seen this man? Last seen wandering around the streets of Kona looking for water…”) were waiting for me on Palani, screaming their freaking heads off – it’s weird that you can get an adrenaline boost from watching your family and friends make complete spectacles of themselves.

I almost made it onto Kuakini before Jaja went screaming by me, making me ever-so-briefly question my own 210 watts uphill. Once on Queen K, I settled into a pack with “Navy”, “Elke”, “dude on a silver Cervelo” and “cute-girl-who-fell-off-the-back-at-mile-90-and-wished-me-luck”.

I held about 210 watts on the uphills and 160 on the downhills on the way to Hawi, averaging 185 watts. I was passed by the gang on every uphill and passed back on the downhills, averaging a little over 20 mph right up to the point where the road turned up and the wind came crashing down like the hammer of Thor. It was everything I could do to keep the bike on the road and moving forward at 10 – 14 mph from mile 50 to the turnaround at mile 59. By Hawi, I had hemorrhaged more than 1 mph off my average speed.

But miles 60 to 70 were just plain awesome – an icy bottle of Cappuccino Ultragen (thanks for being a well-oiled machine, special-needs volunteers), the wind at my back, going downhill at 40 mph at 150 watts in the 53-11. YeeeeeeHAAA! I was getting the average speed back to 20 mph without even trying and Kona seemed so close.

And then we turned left -- directly into a hard wind that was nowhere to be found just an hour earlier. It was at least a 15 – 20 mph head wind or cross wind with some big gusts thrown in just to test our aero-bar bike handling skills. I spent the last 40 miles leaning sideways 10 degrees into the wind, wherever it was coming from.

And to spice up the ride further, for the first time all week there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So we felt the full effects of whatever temperature is created by intense sunlight radiating off lava and black asphalt at high noon. If I had to guess how hot it was, I’d say it was about a snowball shy of the temperature at core of the sun.

To worsen my outlook on life, if that was even possible, the Ultragen bottle went empty and I had to pee. Wallowing in “I just don’t care anymore”, I took care of business without even slowing the bike, dousing myself with a bottle of water to cover up The Act. Don’t tell me you haven’t done this.

As we neared town, I had slammed six Salt Stick pills, nearly 10 eGels, about 7 bottles of Gatorade, 7 bottles of water, the Ultragen, a banana, and I was still short on something as I was now only pushing 160 watts. On the other hand I seemed fresher than a number of other riders around me who were fading hard. And by 85 miles into the ride, the real sufferers were bent over at the side of the Queen K blowing Gatorade and GU into the lava fields.

I might have heard Johnny and Tyler shouting encouragement in the last few miles of the Queen K -- too tired to turn and look, so it could have been voices in my head, but real or imagined, it made me feel good. Despite the tough conditions, I finished the bike exhausted, but not critical.

I did a graceless side-saddle dismount into T2, tripping as I launched the Look into the arms of an attentive volunteer. I said “don’t touch the saddle” and winked. She knew. The bike split was an acceptable 5:58 or so.

As soon as I began to move my arms running through transition, my injuries from the swim came back to life. Only now those sizeable scratches were sunburned and caked with sweat and some leftover sunblock – a cherry on top of a pain sundae.

I stopped at the medical tent where a gentleman in rubber gloves slathered Vaseline on my open sores. (Think the doctor in Fletch. “Dr. Jellyfinger, I presume.”) Then I hustled to the changing tent, threw on the Asics and the hydration belt, got sprayed with another layer of sunscreen by a second guy in rubber gloves and headed out of transition up Palani.

A mile in, I didn’t have my running legs, so I took a risk and ditched the hydration belt to lose some excess weight. On a whim, I started on Coke immediately at the first aid station and would go on to knock back 25 Cokes in 26 miles. (Someone told me that once you start on Coke you can’t quit – and I’m not one to take chances.)

After about the 5th aid station I found a routine that worked: Sponge bath, ice in the hat, a swig of Gatorade, a cup of Coke, a couple pieces of ice down the shirt and one in each hand. Run one mile, repeat. Every three miles I jammed in a Salt Stick pill. I figured that at my 9:45 minutes per mile running pace, a cup of Coke (the only thing I was digesting at this point) had just enough carbs to fuel me for one mile – which was all I needed.

At mile 9, Laura tracked me down finishing up the return leg on Ali’i and started shooting video, which, of course was timed precisely with my need to use the Porto Potty.

Unfortunately, as I stood stretching just outside the Porto Potty waiting for the occupant to exit, a woman coming the other way spotted the door opening before I could release my hamstring stretch and jumped the line. I waited impatiently for a couple minutes and gave up, wishing her bad things.

I walked the first half of Palani following the lead of one of the CEO contestants who had passed me while I was losing time by the Porto Potty. I figured he was smarter than me, so why argue with his strategic insight.

(Please feel free to skip following paragraph if you have a queezy stomach). Away from the cheering people on the Queen K, I gave up any pretense of shyness and joined a German peeing on the wheel of a road grader while another dude was losing his lunch in the bushes nearby. I thought I’d seen it all at that point, but I’d been wrong all day. So as I’m running at about mile 12, a guy is coming towards me about a hundred yards out, looking like he’s finishing the last couple miles strong. I’m thinking this might be a pro or certainly an elite athlete so I pay close attention, hoping to learn something about running form. About 50 yards out, he bends over and hurls in the middle of the running path without breaking stride. Not the education I was looking for, but I think we have an HTFU winner, ladies and gentlemen.

A number of people started to walk just before and through the Energy lab and I took strength from the fact that I was still running and that I had my sponge, ice, Gatorade, Coke, ice system working. At mile 22 I caught up with a guy named Chris who had qualified with a 10:11 at IMCDA and had been reduced to walking by the insane heat, which had shut down his ability to absorb liquids. He started feeling better as it cooled off and ran with me while the sun set over the Pacific. If I could capture the picture of that sunset and the feeling of absolute peace that existed during that mile or so as we glided effortlessly back towards Kona, I’d bottle it. At that moment, for the first time all day I didn’t want the race to end.

With a couple miles left and the sun having set, Chris seemed to come around and made a move to finish under 12 hours. I was happy to be moving at my own pace and continued on relaxed and unhurried wearing a glow-stick halo on my head.

When I arrived at the last aid station coming down Palani, Nick, a tri-buddy and a charter member of Team Kukta who flew out to watch me and wound up manning the YMCA aid station’s sponge bath, ran up to me brandishing sponges and yelled “7 minutes! If you can run a 7 minute mile, you’ll finish under 12 hours!” But by then I knew it didn’t matter. I was happy to be finishing in good spirits and I just wanted to wallow in my last moments on the course.

The right turn onto Ali’i was like running into a tunnel of sound and light. I slapped high fives with a few little kids and smiled ear-to-ear when I saw that Laura was waiting for me at the entry to the finishing chute. I whiffed on a high five with Dave from Pacific Bikes (it was a tough attempt even in the best of circumstances – I’m 5’7, he’s 6’5), grabbed Laura by the hand and pulled her along with me. I slowed up to make sure there was a gap ahead of us, checked to see that no one was sprinting for the line, setting up the husband/wife, arms in the air finish. But at the last second, outside my peripheral vision, Laura veered away, wanting me to have a moment alone at the finish line at my first Ironman Hawaii.

So it’s Wednesday after the race and we’re hanging out in Kona for a few days to enjoy the last hint of the atmosphere that surrounds the Ironman. Naturally, I’m still flying the rookie flag, proudly wearing the yellow IM bracelet, but there are signs that I’m growing out of my wide-eyed rookie days. When Laura said she saw the Lovatos hanging out at Lava Java tonight I strolled by for a peak, but resisted the urge to ask for a picture, an autograph and a pair of souvenir “I’m a winner not a wiener” underwear.

I’m thinking that may have been another rookie mistake.