Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ironman Canada 2011 Race Report (Kona Qualifier)

“Kona Kukta”

Ironman Canada, Penticton, Canada -- August 28, 2011

For your reading convenience, this report has a travel section and a race-report section.  Each section stands on its own, so read what you dig.

Pre-Race:  The Crooked Path to Penticton, Canada

There was nothing unusual about the way the trip to Ironman Canada began.  It was your garden-variety debacle.  Certainly, God wasn’t dropping any hints that I might finish on the podium and qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. 

Sunday, two days before departure to Canada we realized that the FJ Cruiser would be too small to transport Laura, our friend and teammate, Erik Wilde (aka, Dret), and me 2,000 miles in comfort.

Part of the problem was that Dret goes 6'5" -- slightly taller than your average NBA point guard -- a nuance lost on him since his German upbringing left him with no appreciation for watching big men dunk. 

The bigger problem was that Laura prefers to take most of the household with us when we travel.

So, 36 hours before lift-off, I bought a hitch for the Xterra, moved the bike rack over from the FJ, bought a roof mounted luggage carrier and issued baggage-size-limitations edicts to passengers named Laura.

A test-packing on Monday revealed that we were a “go” for launch.  Most things fit inside the SUV and what didn’t fit, our tall friend stuffed into the overhead carrier.

On Tuesday, the day of departure, just as the Clampets were about to begin their journey to the Great White North, Dret announced that he couldn’t find his bike shoes -- which was cause for serious concern since his massive shoes are difficult to misplace and hard to replace.

We quickly organized a search party, to no avail.  His size 14‘s were most likely acting as speed bumps in a parking lot at Lake Berryessa, the scene of our last training ride with our teammate Tom Trauger.

Tom Trauger (right), Dret (left) and Dret’s shoes (lower left).  Everyone’s a runway model until someone leaves his bike shoes sitting in the parking lot.

A quick call to Tom revealed that Tom had not accidentally taken Dret’s shoes -- which, given the size of those boats, was no more likely than Tom accidentally taking my FJ Cruiser home with him.

Sadly, we had to abandon the search for Dret’s shoes and head for Canada -- via the the Davis Wheelworks bike shop -- a store that purported to have two size-14 bike shoes in stock.  We figured it was worth a shot, otherwise Dret would have to race in a pair of badly fitting bike shoes that he’d worn once.

As we exited the Xterra in Davis, a town about 10 miles out of the way from the most direct route to Canada -- a bigger concern occurred to me.  I asked Laura hopefully -- "Just wondering -- did you happen to bring our passports?"

A beat later, she said -- "They're still in the safe... .  Why?  Do we need them?" 

Applying the power of positive thinking, I got on the Internet and researched.  It turns out, unfortunately, that Canadians care about things like denying terrorists access to their country. 

In the meanwhile, Dret sat on a store bench having a similar lack of success.  The new size 14‘s didn’t fit like the ones sitting in the parking lot.  Dret’s feet had grown since he last bought shoes.

Laura and I left Dret in a Starbucks in Davis and began the 40 mile drive back to our house to get our passports.  On the way home, Laura mentioned that she may have “hidden” the safe-key, so she would need me to help her look in her "hiding places". 

We couldn’t find the key.  The passports were safe from us, and, more importantly, burglars.

Fortunately, I am an Ironman.  As such, I had the strength to wrestle the safe into the Xterra.  We drove the safe 10 more miles away from Canada, to the local locksmith.  In less than a minute, he cracked it, proving that it would be substantially easier for a burglar to pick our safe than to look for the key.

After returning to our house and hiding the safe -- because now we couldn’t lock it, we began the journey to Canada... again.  

Things began to look up when we remembered to stop in Davis to pick up Dret.  As usual, Dret was unfazed by the chaos, but wasn’t excited about racing in his badly-fitting backup shoes.

Still, it was a beautiful day for a thousand-mile drive.

By Mt. Shasta, a couple hours north of Davis, Dret had two cameras firing at every mountain and windmill in sight.  Which, I believe is what distracted me from turning right at the exit to Bend, OR. 

This missed turn made Dret’s bike Garmin (which he was determined to use as our navigational device) very angry and it beeped angrily at me for the 3 miles it took me to get to the next freeway exit.

As I proved throughout the day, though, no one does U-turns like me.  I got us back on track, making the Garmin happy and allowing Dret to resume taking pictures of Mt. Shasta from both the west and north sides, in addition to the south side, which had been adequately documented.

As far as I'm concerned, you've seen one exploding mountain, you've seen them all.

We crossed the Oregon border around night-fall, with Dret lobbying for us to stop in beautiful Klamath Falls for dinner.  “Klamath falls is a pretty big town with plenty of places to eat,” I remember him saying.  

Even the waitress at the pizza place -- the only place, other than the pool hall that was open at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday -- didn’t defend Klamath. 

I said to the waitress, “this town seems pretty dead.” 

Dret piped in, “ yes, but there is another part of town.  That part is probably busier, right?”

Waitress: “Nope it’s dead there too.”
I can only imagine that there’s no one in Klamath Falls because they were all eaten by the incredible swarm of insects that live at the lake.  Heading north, we seriously plowed through a billion bugs at 70 mph for a solid hour, caking every surface of the Xterra in bug bodies.  Fortunately this acted as a protective covering from any gravel that might have scratched the car for the rest of the trip. 

Because of Dret’s height, he was put in charge of washing the windows.  He could wash the entire window from just one side of the vehicle.

That night, we paused our journey at the Best Western near Bend around midnight. 

After a night’s sleep, Laura, Dret and I set off on a short jog.  At least it was short for Laura and me.  After losing sight of us, Dret made a turn away from the river that guided our first couple miles, ran across a private golf course and was forced to make the return trip to the hotel by running along the freeway.  Laura and I took the more conventional, non-freeway route back to the hotel. 

Needing recovery fuel, Dret discovered a do-it-yourself waffle maker in the hotel breakfast room.  Fascinated by the device, he put on a waffle-making and waffle-eating clinic for the gathered guests, after which we crumpled Dret into the Xterra, and set off on day two of the adventure.

At the Hood River crossing, we stopped for lunch at Dinty’s Deli.  Laura refused to enter the establishment, preferring to dine at McDonald’s -- Dinty’s had a certain anti-charm and was located in a structurally questionable structure. 

Dret and I bravely entered Dinty’s and headed to the deli counter, where Dret, who is a vegetarian, became visibly pale at the disturbing selection of meats.  I got into the spirit of the place, ordering the “Monster Sub”, and then headed off to the dim outer reaches of the deli to find a large coffee with which to neutralize whatever bacteria might live in a Monster Sub.

A few minutes later, Dret, still looking a little queasy and somewhat worried, found me stirring my coffee and asked, “what exactly did you order?”

“I dunno... oh, a Monster Sub.  Why?”

“Because the lady behind the counter just placed what appears to be an entire cow on your sandwich.” 

This was not entirely correct.  She actually placed a cow, a pig and a turkey on my Monster Sub.  And they were delicious.

And to be fair to Dinty’s, Dret seemed to enjoy his Monster Veggie Sub just as much as I enjoyed mine.   In fact, we liked it so much we hit the place on the way back too -- though Laura continued to do business with McDonald’s.

  Laura, posing at what was formerly a massive waterfall before the dam was constructed.  She doesn’t look bad for someone subsisting on chicken nuggets.

From the lunch stop at Hood River, we traveled northwards a few miles to buy Laura a scanner in Yakima (or Yakama, depending on which road sign you believed), picked up another snack, ignored Dret’s effort to navigate us with his bicycle Garmin in favor of a route chosen by Google Maps, missed that turn too and made our way randomly to Soap Lake, WA, just a few hours short of Canada.

In spite of its name, Soap Lake is far from clean.  It’s actually a smelly place where people cover themselves in slimy black mud in an effort to “heal”.  Unless I had a fatal disease, you’d have a tough time convincing me to cover myself in sewage on the off chance that I’d be healed.

We arrived at the U.S./Canada border around 9 p.m. that night. 

As we sat in line waiting for our turn to cross the border, Laura whispered that I should not admit to having fruit in the vehicle.

"Do we have fruit?"  I asked.

"I think we have oranges in the back."  She replied. 

"You think or you know?  There's a difference.  If you're not sure, I could say that I'm not aware of any fruit in the car and then I could blame you if they search us," I said.

Laura:  "There were oranges in the snack bag when we left." 

Me:  "I just told you not to tell me that.  Ok let’s try this again.  Is it possible that we ate them?"

Laura:  "No."

Me:  "You’re not getting the nuance of what I’m suggesting.”

Laura:  “What are you talking about?  We have oranges.  Don’t tell anyone.”

Me:  “So you're asking me to lie to a uniformed border patrol officer?" 

Laura:  "Quit being a wimp."

Me:  "I'm not lying for you.  I'm an officer of the court! (I love saying this when I get ethical)  I will sell you and your oranges down the river if I have to."

The possibility that her husband might snitch her out did not make Laura happy. 

We pulled up to the inspection line and handed our passports to a young, blond, not too bad looking female border guard.  I immediately felt good about my chances of charming my way through the border.  Laura still seemed a bit annoyed with me however and I worried that the guard would sense the tension.

Of course any sane person not engaged in a fruit-smuggling debate would realize that our bigger problem was not oranges, but a 6’5”, dark, buzz-cut-sporting, vegetarian German, living in Switzerland, visiting Vallejo, traveling to Canada.  The man we sometimes called the "Dretinator" -- who was folded into our front passenger seat.

Dret tried to look harmless, flashing a charming smile at the border guard, whose demeanor had changed from “happy-to-see-you!” to “what-have-we-here?” upon seeing Dret’s red passport. 

She opened the interrogation, shifting her eyes between the passport and Dret:  "Where were you born?"

"Berlin,"  he said. 

I was pulling for him nervously and silently cheered what I hoped was the correct answer. 

"And where do you live now?"  Wanting to help smooth over a layer of complexity, I was about to volunteer, "in our guest room", but Dret responded, "I live in Switzerland". 

“Why are you in the U.S.?”


"Why are you traveling to Canada?"


I loved it.  Dret was handling cross-examination better than most of my trained expert witnesses -- with his first language tied behind his back.  Short answers.  Don’t make conversation. 

"How long are you staying in the U.S.?"  She was having to work at developing questions and was grasping at straws to trip him up.

"Three weeks,"  Dret volleyed.

"That's not very long, is it?" -- an open-ended question -- a last gasp tactic that lawyers use to draw deponents into a free form conversation that sometimes opens other areas of inquiry.

Dret wasn’t biting:  "It is long enough,” he replied with a smile that said, “I can do this all day.” 

Check mate, I thought.

Our blond inquisitor paused to digest the last answer and then, seemingly agreeing that 3 weeks was enough time to spend in a country like the U.S., said, "Welcome to Canada.  Good luck in the Ironman." 

I hit the gas and drove the German, my gloating wife and her illegal oranges over the border.  I later learned that she had also failed to declare a bag full of wine.

And with a good night's sleep, at our favorite B and B, the Eden House, I was back into race mode.  Or at least pre-race mode.  The next day, after Dret and I freed the bikes from their captivity on the back of the Xterra (Dret had strapped them onto the bike-rack so thoroughly and with such complexity, we barely had to worry about locking the bikes on while we slept the night before), we got busy wasting time on more important things like random pre-race training, mugging for stupid pictures and firing up the fan-base.   
I can't wait until this race is over so I can eat.

Dret, me and Jerry Nista (L to R) -- pre-race horseplay.
Our fans psych themselves up for race-day.  Horton and Laura (L to R).

The Race Report

“Now I 'lei' me down in the medical tent...” 

Here’s the short story:

After 9 and a half hours of racing, exiting the water behind 51 of the nearly 400 guys in my age group, 112 miles of cycling into an unfriendly wind, climbing two mountain passes, catching and passing 50 of the 51 guys who outswam me, and 18 miles of methodical, energy conserving running in 90-plus degrees of pure Fahrenheit, my struggles were rewarded -- I passed the only guy in the 45-49 age group who was ahead of me. 

I was leading my age-group in an Ironman race.

The joy of that moment would have been awesome if I had known that I accomplished it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.

But still, whether I knew it or not, at this moment, I was leading the race -- which is a far cry from where I was when I started this Ironman thing years ago.

Now, here’s the long story:

In 2004, I watched my college buddy, Rick Snyder (aka Digger -- everyone gets a knick-name in college) finish the Vineman Ironman-distance race and watched in admiration as he hauled himself, shivering with exhaustion and cold, to the medical tent for a blanket and fruit juice. 

I was also impressed by the hard-core way he protected his private parts with a Band-aid and then ripped that Band-aid from said private parts with a war-cry that echoed from the hotel shower through the hotel room where Laura and I sat eating Rick’s pizza with his wife Michelle. 

“I should do this some day,” I remember thinking. 

Two years later, in 2006, Rick and I completed Ironman Coeur D’Alene together.  And by “together” I mean we started together and finished on the same calendar day.  He finished in day-light.  I finished at night, barely breaking the 14-hour mark with a heroic slow-motion sprint. 

But still, I heard those magic words: “Stephen Kukta, you are an Ironman!” and I was hooked.

The following year, in 2007, I won a lottery slot to Ironman Hawaii on my first and only try.  I nearly panicked when I saw all the amazing athletes walking the streets of Kona before that race, but I held it together and finished in a not-so-speedy-for-Kona 12:01.

All the same, my family and friends greeted me with pride and tears at the finish line -- as if I had done something a notch more difficult than I knew this feat to be.

It was then that I set the goal of trying qualify for Ironman Hawaii.  I was proud to have finished it, but I hadn’t earned my spot the way others had.  I had just been incredibly lucky to win the lottery.

Oddly, I had never been a lucky person in my life -- I had always achieved things by being good.  On the other hand, like most folks, I had always wanted to be lucky.  But now that I had gotten lucky, I realized that being lucky wasn't all that it was cracked up to be and I learned that earning something by being good just felt better.  

The only problem with being good at something is that it takes a lot more work than being lucky -- and I mean a lot.  But here I was, after four years of training 15 to 20 hours per week and after racing approximately 30 triathlons, including a dozen 70.3's and four more Ironman races -- leading my age group at Ironman Canada -- with a chance of qualifying for Kona.

Here’s how the race unfolded:

I started the swim on the front row, to the inside of the first turn buoy.  This meant that I didn’t have a straight line to the turnaround.  Unfortunately, when I arrived at the first buoy, I failed to course-correct and continued to swim at an acute angle to the course -- away from the turnaround. 
That's me in the midde -- swimming directly at that white boat in the distance.

From that point on, I was like a migrating bird during a geomagnetic pole reversal.  I would sight to a buoy and then swim away from it, over and over again.  I finally straightened my line when, with a quarter mile left, a leg cramp forced me to do the backstroke.

The swim took me about 1:08, and with a 2 minute transition, I was on the road in 52nd position in my age group, a little after 8 a.m.  

The first 40 miles of the bike, to the base of Richter Pass, rolled by at 25 mph.  We had a slight tailwind and I was averaging about 200 watts -- a lot compared to past Ironman races.  The previous year on this same stretch, I had averaged closer to 180 watts for this section and averaged 24 mph.  Of course, I started to worry that I was going to hard. 

At mile 50 or so, I caught my friend and teammate, Tom Trauger (one of the top 10 triathletes at any distance in the U.S. in our age group).  This didn’t make me any less nervous about whether I was going too hard.

I didn’t know at the time that Tom tripped in T1, flipping over his bike, gauging his right leg with the chainring and jamming his rear brake against his rear wheel.  And since riding with your brakes on is no way to conserve energy in an Ironman, Tom had pretty much blown himself to smithereens by the time he realized that something was wrong -- which realization struck him when I defied the laws of gravity, coasting by him on a downhill while he pedaled like a maniac to keep up.

On the bright side, once Tom observed me bending the laws of physics, he soon figured out what was wrong, unclamped his rear brakes and tried to salvage what he could of his race.

At mile 60, I caught another friend and age-group rival, Brett McDonnell, a guy I knew I needed to out-bike because of his strong swimming and running skills.  It had taken me 3 hours to make up his 8 minute lead out of the water.

Brett said “hi” and I asked him what his swim time was.  "Under an hour," he responded.

"Wow.  I've had to ride hard to catch you.  I was 8 minutes back when I started the bike."

Brett reminded me that this was a long race and not to push too hard too early.  This moment was not as important as the moments a few hours from now, he said.

I reminded myself that if I got off the bike at the same time as Brett, I’d never see him again.  Dude just runs faster than me.  So now was more important to me than it was to Brett.

Determined to put time on Brett, I dropped him as quickly as I could.

I was feeling great about my bike split until I hit the Yellow Lake climb at mile 90, where Laura and Donna and Sarah Trauger were cheering for us.  As I got out of the saddle to put something extra into the effort, Laura said, “you’re doing great!  Dret’s way ahead, he’s crushing the bike course.” 

I was momentarily confused.  How could I be doing great and be way behind Dret?  But looking down at my bike computer, I realized that I was still holding 20 watts more power than I had raced this course last year -- but Dret, was an animal.  We later learned that Dret had hit the run course in 11th place among all the amateurs. 

I entered T2 ten minutes behind Dret, having biked a 5:13, finishing in second place in my age group.  Fortunately, I’m in an age group older than Dret, who is a spry 44 year-old.

But most importantly, I was a few minutes ahead of Brett, who sat in 3rd in my age group. 

Considering that I’d ridden the last 3 miles into town on fumes, my running legs felt pretty good.  (I have no explanation for how this can happen.  I know, it doesn’t make sense for a person to be able to run after depleting themselves on the bike.)  

As I ran onto the marathon course, I heard the announcer say that I was the 37th overall amateur among the 2,800 participants in the race.  This made my legs felt even better. 

Only 25 miles of running to go. 

Having decided to not wear a watch, I focused solely on being smooth, balanced and steady -- running at whatever pace felt right for 26 miles.  As usual, I was passed by about a dozen fast young guys in the first 10 miles, but I also managed to pass a few folks myself. 

This passing people on the run thing was a new experience for me and I liked it.  Maybe I could hold off Brett today, I thought. 

Things kept getting better.  Around mile 10, I began catching more guys than were passing me.  Many of these guys ran by me earlier in the marathon and most of them were taller guys who weren’t handling the heat well.

In fact, I started to notice that the only athletes who were passing me were even smaller than me -- which is saying something for a guy who goes 5’7”, 135.  So although I wasn’t happy to be passed, it was sort of fun to be the tallest guy still running a decent pace.

And though I should have done the height/heat/speed math and realized what was coming next, at mile 14, I was shocked to see that Dret was faltering. 

As I reeled him in on an uphill, I could see that he was feeling miserable.  I said “keep pushing, buddy!” hoping to encourage him to run with me, but 6’5” is a terrible height for racing in a sauna.  Dret just said, “I am having a complete meltdown.  You are doing great.”  And I pulled away.

Tom, surging late.
At mile 15, I saw Tom Trauger coming the other direction about 3 miles back.  I had continued to open a gap on him and I now saw that he probably couldn’t catch me.  This was a mental boost for me, because it meant that I was probably running pretty well, since, even on his worst day (which this, unfortunately was turning out to be), Tom is always in contention. 

But Tom and Dret were not the only guys melting down.  By mile 16, the race course was littered with former contenders who were now walking.

The heat though, was not affecting me in the same way.  For one, if nothing else I’m a great heat-dissipater; and for another, I had done a huge amount of hill training with my friend and Ultra Marathon National Champion, Jorge Maravilla this year.  I was making quick work of hills that others were now forced to walk.

Not that I didn’t feel the heat, I was just feeling it less than others and I was managing it with massive amounts of fluid, dorky arm coolers and by packing ice into my shorts.  (Note to self:  Invent cozy for the man-parts before the next hot-weather race.  “Numb Nuts” is better as a figurative expression.) 

So, by keeping a steady rhythm and minimizing the effects of the heat, I took over first place in my age group, though, as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t know it.

It was about this time that I heard my friend Anne Thilgas cheer me on from the opposite side of the road, heading out on her run.  She had finished within one spot of qualifying for Kona in so many consecutive Ironman races, it was beginning to become painful to watch her race.  I yelled “go get ‘em Anne!” and hoped hard that this would be her day.  At least Anne is short, I thought.

A few minutes later, my teammate Jerry Nista appeared, “plowing a lonely furrow of sorrow” (nod to Phil Ligget for the quote) a few hundred yards behind Anne.  He was running like he was bracing himself for 20 more miles in 95 degree heat -- head down, eyes fixated on the white line.  I waved my arms, shouted his name and did a little dance to catch his attention. 

Nothing -- no sign of recognition or brain function whatsoever.  He continued to jog robotically with his eyes staring, unseeing.  If I hadn’t been racing for a spot to Kona, I would have run across the road and held a mirror under his nose.

But that’s when the fun and games ended for me.  At mile 18 or 19, as expected, Brett McDonell caught me and took a share of the lead.  He tried to gap me, but I wouldn’t let him get too far ahead.  When he slowed for a drink at the next aid station I re-took the lead and made him catch me. 

Look at me strategizing, I thought.  

Of course, being a fast swimmer and a more experienced triathlete, Brett was far more in-tune with race strategy and positioning than me, and I was eager to hear where we were in the age group race.

When Brett reeled me back in, I was about to ask him what place we were in, when he said, “so, what place do you think we’re in?” 

“How would I know?”  I thought.  I had passed so many guys since getting out of the water, I’d need an abacus to keep track of my position.  Brett, on the other hand, was 8th out of the water and only had to keep track of the occasional guy here or there.

“I think we’re doing ok”, I said with no conviction.  “I passed a lot of guys on the bike, I passed one guy on the run and and I haven’t been passed by anyone in our age group all day.” -- at least not since half the field crawled over me at the swim start, I thought.

“Top 5 maybe?”

“Yeah, I think so too -- right on the bubble [for Kona qualifying],” he said -- just as wrong as me.

“Yeah, it’s me and you again, just like Vineman (where a few weeks back, we had both qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, finishing 3rd and 4th -- he beat me by 25 seconds).” 

So for the next couple miles, we geniuses swapped 1st and 2nd place back and forth, thinking we were chasing the fast guys in our age group.  What we didn’t know is that there were four guys in our age group just minutes behind us.

Around mile 20, one of those guys launched an attack and ran by at a pace that Brett and I couldn’t match.  I knew my limits and remained focused on staying with Brett, making the occasional push to go ahead of him.  I felt like I was just as strong as him on this day and was determined to at least stay with him until we had to sprint for the line.

Of course making strategic plans 6 miles from an Ironman finish is foolhardy.  And I was promptly punished for my lack of humility. 

Suddenly, and painfully, my right hamstring seized.

I did the only thing I could think of to continue forward progress.  I stretched for a minute and then staggered peg-legged towards the finish line.  With four miles to go, this wasn’t going to get it done.

Another couple guys in my age group caught me.

I figured that I was now in 8th place, making my hopes for a Kona spot exceedingly slim -- but not quite dead enough to make me give up.  A roll-down spot wasn’t entirely out of the question if I could remain in the top 10.

As I staggered like a man on stilts, a minor miracle happened -- a gentle hill appeared and caused me to redistribute my weight slightly forwards.  And suddenly my cramping muscles began to stretch out and release.

I was able to sort-of-run again as long as I leaned slightly forward.

At first I ran gingerly, hoping that a conservative trot would get me to the finish line.  But as a couple guys in the 30-34 age group moved past me, I realized that a trot wouldn’t hold off the next guys in my age group.

So, at mile 23, I picked up the pace -- like a guy running out of gas trying to feather the accelerator to make it to the gas station.  When I ran with good form, my legs worked.  When I got out of rhythm or turned a corner, I could feel the twinges of a cramp threatening to steal my legs again.  

I made it 2 more miles like this.  Then, a mile from the finish, the sadistic race organizers had placed an out-and-back segment along the lakefront, likely under the impression that competitors would enjoy running the last mile along the beautiful shoreline.  And in past years I had enjoyed the view.  But this year was different. 

This year, I realized that there was a strategic reason that the race organizer had set up the course this way -- in that final section, you could see exactly who you were chasing -- and who was chasing you.  There was no lying to yourself about how hard you needed to run.

As I ran towards the turnaround a half-mile from the finish, I could see that I was only a few hundred yards behind all four of the guys who had passed me, including Brett, who was now only a minute or so ahead.  With a huge effort, I might catch one of those guys.  Of course I might also fry my hamstring and collapse a few yards from the finish.

Adding to the strategic dilemma, as I rounded the out-and-back, I could see that another guy in my age group, No. 1495, was chasing me a minute back. 

Laura was standing on the side of the road with Donna and Sarah.  Laura was jumping up and down and pleading with me to run as hard as I could.

“Run hard Honey, Go!  Run harder than you’ve ever run!  Brett’s not far ahead!”

She was way way more emphatic than I would have thought for a girl cheering a guy in 8th place. 

Chasing 954.  I've looked better.
A light bulb went on.  The four guys ahead of me might actually be the top four in my age group.  If Laura had seen 7 guys in my age group run by, she wouldn’t be this intense -- at least that’s what I figured.

After 140 miles of racing, my age group could be decided by 6 guys sprinting down the last straightaway for what would likely be 5 qualifying spots to Ironman Hawaii.

Five spots -- and I was in 5th.

Excited, yet panicking slightly, my whole race came down to this:  I had to hold off No. 1495.  
At 400 yards from the finish I was running hard and suffering badly, but I passed a couple guys in the younger age groups.  This small victory gave me an emotional boost, but also created a problem in that I could sense the presence of someone running behind me.  And since, without eyes in the back of my head, I couldn’t differentiate between the guys I had just passed and No. 1495 gaining on me, I had no choice but to assume that the person behind me was No. 1495. 

Caught him.  The last quarter mile.  Donna and Sarah, left.
At 200 yards away, I decided to completely empty the tank. 

Having done this 200 yard sprint three times in my last 3 Ironman races, I knew it was possible to hold a sprint this long, but also knew that this kind of effort came with an express-lane ticket to the medical tent.

I closed my eyes to block out the illusion that the finishing line wasn’t getting closer and tried to relax my stride even through the growing heaviness of my legs.

Then, as I heard the crowd in the stands on both sides of the chute roar, I opened my eyes and turned my head slightly in each direction to see if anyone was with me. 

No. 1495 would not catch me today.  I gripped the finishing line tape and stepped over the line alone. 

The timer above the finishing arch read 10 hours, 15 minutes and 48 seconds -- not as fast as I had hoped, but all that mattered was what the announcer said.

“Stephen Kukta, from Vallejo... he may be the final qualifier to the Ironman World Championships in Kona for the 45 age group!”

I was too tired to make complete sense of what that meant or even to trust that I heard exactly those words, but I knew it probably meant something good. 

As I stood unsteadily in the finishing area, a couple volunteers escorted me to my date with the medical tent.

After a short time hanging with the medical staff, enjoying chicken broth, a Coke and a sports drink (not a tasty combination).  I was allowed to join the general public in on the lawn near the finish line.

There, Laura greeted me with tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face.

 “You did it.  You finished 5th.  I think you qualified. You’re incredible!  I can’t believe you did it.” 

Yep, you get these cool capes just for collapsing in there.
Seeing the smile on her face, the pride in her eyes and the tears running down her beautiful cheeks was worth more than any qualifying spot to Ironman Hawaii. 

Laura and I had learned to swim, bike and run together nearly 6 years ago.  She had put in countless training hours with me.  We had run our first marathon side-by side, and when she could have dropped me at mile 22 of that race, she waited and walked the last 4 miles with me.  She had even completed Half-Ironman races of her own, largely to keep me company as I chased this goal.  This year alone, we had run 4 half-marathons and a marathon together because Laura knew I needed to improve my run to compete for a shot at Kona.

And now, Team Kukta will be heading to Kona as official qualifiers. 

It feels just as good as I hoped it would.

Post Script: 

Having qualified for Ironman Hawaii, I announce my plans to start a nude modeling career.
Dret and Tom hung tough and finished the race in 29th and 14th in their respective age groups and within a couple minutes of each other, right around the 10:30 mark.  And despite not having the days that they hoped for, both were happy for me to have qualified for Hawaii.  I guess if you’ve climbed that mountain as they both had, you can appreciate what it means to those who do it for the first time.  If not for all the hard training days, chasing those guys up every hill in the Bay Area, I would not have qualified.  So a part of them is heading to Hawaii too.
Anne Thilgas, Me and Dret.

Jerry Nista was, in fact, alive.  After missing my arm-waving, cheerleader dance, he kept right on trucking, nearly cracking the 12 hour mark on guts and determination.

Anne Thilgas qualified.  There must be a God.  She finished 5th in her age group.  There were only 3 qualifying spots and the odds were good that Anne would miss out on a Kona slot by one or two places for a 6th straight race.  But Anne finally caught a break.  And so ends one of the unluckiest streaks in Kona-qualifying history. 

Laura didn’t force me to smuggle the fruit back over the border.  Our wonderful B and B hosts, Sandy and Matt, told her the sad tale of someone who tried to smuggle a sausage into Canada.  This cured Laura of her demand that I break the law.

On the way home, Dret shot pictures of every mountain and windmill from Canada to Sacramento -- the same shots he took on the way there. 

My mood was so good, I even let Dret’s Garmin navigate us to the glorious Yakima Olive Garden, another Best Western with another waffle maker, through Bend, into another insect swarm massacre in Klamath Falls, past a plane wreck near the California border and into our driveway in Vallejo -- without missing a single turn.