||Sharon McNary's Ironman World Triathlon Championships 2011
Hey! I finished the Ironman World Triathlon Championships at Kona! The world's most grueling single-day endurance sporting event! With a broken arm! And set a personal best of three minutes!
Yeah, I know. You already know. Because I've already told you in the elevator, at my running or triathlon club, at the gym, pool, on Facebook or in the line at the supermarket. Good thing I'm not a sports reporter, I'd get fired for missing deadline.
Sorry to have taken so long to write this race report, but I guess I've been reluctant to put this one in the books. Heck, I'm still wearing my Ironman logo blue fingernail polish, all chipped and low-rent looking. I've only worn my finisher's jacket once. So it's time to put it down in pixels and let it go.
Short version for you bottom-liners: Despite being barely recovered from a broken elbow sustained Aug. 25, despite high winds on the bike ride that pushed me across the center line of the road a couple of times, and despite heat and humidity on the marathon run, I finished this Ironman race in my fastest-ever time for that distance.
2.4-mile Swim: 1 hour, 47 minutes, 20 seconds (2:46 per 100 meters) swim to bike transition: 10 minutes, 4 seconds 112-mile Bike: 7 hours, 22 minutes 38 seconds (15.18 mph) Bike to run transition: 6 minutes, 56 seconds 26.2-mile Marathon run: 5 hours, 6 minutes, 48 seconds (That's 11:42 per mile)
Overall time: 14:33:46 (yes, 14 hours, 33 minutes and 46 seconds)
I placed 32nd of 46 women in my age group, including eight who did not finish the race. I passed 119 people on the marathon portion of the race. Here's some video of me in the last mile: https://bitly.com/sharonatkona
Long version for those who want the nitty-gritty
You probably already know my backstory. I've been doing triathlons since 2005 because, as a marathon pacer who does five to eight races a year, the 26.2-mile distance was no longer a scary goal. I started with a short race, did several half-iron distance triathlons and completed Ironman distance races in 2008 and 2010.
I wasn't planning to do an Ironman this year unless I got into the world championship race at Kona (the one they show on TV) via the lottery. My name was one of 200 pulled from the lotto hat in mid-April, so game on. Yes, this is me just minutes after I found out I was going to Kona.
I focused my training on the Oct. 8 race. Everything was going really well. I had added three hours of circuit training at the CATZ gym to my usual buildup of swimming, biking and running. I was getting stronger. I also joined in the KPCC Biggest Loser contest to get down to race weight -- about what I weighed in high school. I might have gotten into the race on the lottery, but I didn't want to look like I did.
Then it all kind of went sideways, when a tourist in a rental car opened his door onto me as I rode by. I fell to the pavement and broke my elbow (the ulnar bone) clear through.
What is the deal with triathletes that they take pictures of their broken limbs in the mirrors of emergency rooms while they wait to find out how badly their race plans are spoiled? And yes, we post those photos on Facebook. Look! I was actually wearing an Ironman bike jersey!
This is a sick sport in some respects.
This was my post that day on Facebook: "Elbow is broken, 4-5 weeks to heal. Kona IM is 6.5 weeks out. I'll be faking the swim, and riding my trainer indoors for the next few weeks, and running in a sling, but I will not be denied this once in a lifetime chance to race at Kona."
Anyway, the doctor came in, showed me the x-ray and told me he had bad news, because the broken arm would take four weeks to heal.
I told him that was good news, because my race was six weeks away. He looked at me like I was living in a fantasy world, but didn't correct me, and told the nurse to splint my arm. I got the same reaction a week later when I went to the orthopedic doctor for the heavy cast.
I had to make a few adjustments. Like learning how to put on and take off a sports bra when one of your arms is plastered at a right angle. (My first try -- taking off the one I was wearing in the crash -- ended in failure. I cut it off with a pair of scissors.) And replacing shoestrings with elastic laces because you can't stretch your arm far enough to tie a shoe. And realizing that the shower at work is actually better than the home shower for a post-workout cleanup when your arm is encased in a big plastic bag and rubber bands.
Through the recovery period, I couldn't swim or ride a bike outdoors, but I continued to train (and talk about the race) as if I were going to compete at Kona. I did circuit training at CATZ, walked a few miles a day and eventually ran with the cast. I also rode a stationary bike for as long as I could stand it. One of my indoor rides was five hours and 56 miles -- I think I must have watched a dozen episodes of Yard Crashers, Top Chef and Storage Wars on that session.
Anyway, when the cast came off, I was ready to resume some harder training, but now I realized why the doctors were looking at me like an idiot when i talked about doing the race. Freed of the cast, I couldn't turn my wrist, or pick up a coffee cup or twist a door knob. How was I going to pull on the swim or support my upper body weight on a bike for seven or eight hours?
Over the two weeks I had left before the race, I got some good physical therapy, I was able to do a short swim in the pool -- enough to persuade myself that I could perhaps sidestroke the 2.4 miles -- and I got a brace to wear on the bike and run. I managed to do a 20-mile run with the brace.
My bike was already on its way to Hawaii so I arrived at the race still unsure whether I was going to be able to do the race.
Hawaii -- One week to race day.
The day after I got here, I swam. The water was calm and warm, the fish and underwater landscape so beautiful, that I swam for a full hour. It was tiring, but it didn't hurt.
I also found the tent where chiropractors from around the world were offering free therapy called ART -- Active Release Technique. With the daily swims and ART therapy, the tendons and muscles in my left arm started to unlock. Thanks to Dr. Matthew Davidson, a chiropractor from Australia.
I also did two 2-hour rides on the race course with friends. The first one, out on the Queen K Highway, surrounded by bleak lava fields and humidity and heat, went pretty well. I found I could ride with my arm locked at a 120-degree angle into the brace. The second ride was much scarier, out of Hawi, with brutal side winds pushing our bikes around. I took advice from a friend who has done this race twice. She told me to lean into the wind and just pedal hard.
With these practice swims and runs going okay, Operation Busted Wing Ironman was a go.
What I didn't realize about racing Ironman in Kona is how many fun things there are to do before the race. Hanging out with elite athletes at Lava Java, an oceanfront coffee house, walking around the athlete village scoring freebies from the venders, etc.
There was a pre-race athlete welcome dinner two nights before the race in the gigantic parking lot of the King Kamehameha hotel. Imagine 2,000 athletes and another 1,500 or so family members and race sherpas (that's triathlon slang for a helpful friend who accompanies an athlete to a race) all jammed together eating bad industrial food watching a hula show and waiting for the "mandatory athlete meeting" with last-minute instructions for racers. Well, you don't have to imagine, here's a photo of me in front of the gigantic stage.
Well, the dinner got rained out. At first it was a sprinkle, then it was just pouring buckets, and as everybody left, our group huddled under the tables, hoping the rain would pass and we could watch the rest of the show. Eventually, we just gave up and left.
There was also the Undies Run, a tradition meant to help these high-strung elite athletes blow off some steam by dressing in tighty-whities and other undergarments. Thanks, Shiggy for the video, and no, you won't find me in the crowd of exhibitionists.
The race: My own private Ironman.
When you are one of 200 normal non-elite athletes chosen by (allegedly random) lottery to compete among 1600 pro triathletes, age group champions, selected celebrities and physically challenged athletes, you spend a lot of this 140.3-mile swim-bike-run race by yourself. Because you are slower than nearly everyone else.
As it happens, I am richly self-entertained, so it didn't bother me to spend 14 hours and 33 minutes in (mostly) solitary continuous forward motion. Call it my own private Ironman.
The race prep went quickly. I got up a bit after 3 a.m., ate a huge breakfast and walked 1.5 miles into town. They stamp a big number on your upper arm, you pump up your bike tires, and you try not to be too nervous waiting to start the swim. You mostly wait in line at the portable facilities.
Newbie screw-up No.1: These black numbers are inked on your arm with this thick paint. They tell you not to apply any sunscreen or lotion until after the swim. Of course, I'm thinking I'm going to be in the water for two hours or more, and didn't want these numbers burned onto my arms. So I think I'm so smart, I spray both arms, expecting the alcohol-based aerosol sunscreen to dry just fine. Instead. I'm wearing the rookie brand of shame, my crisp black race numbers running down my arm like cheap mascara at a chick flick.
At 6:30 a.m., the pro athletes start their swim, and it's time to get into the water. It's an incredibly odd scene, watching 1,800 of the fittest people on earth, all dressed in form-fitting black speedsuits and pink or blue swim caps go through a narrow passageway and down some carpeted stairs to get onto the sandy beach and into the drink.
As this is happening, there is a full-on hula show being presented for the athletes on a stage facing the ocean.
The announcer, Mike Reilly (famous for yelling, "You are an Ironman" to every single finisher) kept urging the competitors to get into the water, but hundreds were hanging back on the sandy beach. I'm a compliant type, so I pushed into the tepid water and started swimming out to the start line.
At 7 a.m., the cannon fired, and the race was on. I had hung back far enough to avoid getting swum over or pounded by my athletic betters. I was far enough forward to avoid most of the incompetent swimmers. I had plenty of space, and because my only time goal on this swim was to finish before the 9:20 a.m. cutoff to avoid disqualification, I was pretty relaxed.
Normally, I would have done about three to four hours of swimming a week coming into a race of this distance and importance, but in the six weeks since I had broken my arm, I had barely had three full hours of swimming. I started to feel the fatigue in my left arm after the halfway point, but I hit the turn at 48 minutes, so I was pretty sure I could finish the swim. I got out of the water at 1 hour, 47 minutes, a time that is close to my best at that distance. (Now, realize the pro's are doing this swim in 50-plus minutes and the winners in my age group are doing it in about 1:10 to 1:20)
The swim-to-bike transition was pretty simple. You run through a bunch of hoses hanging down from a pop-up tent and you can rinse off. Then you grab your bike gear bag from a hook -- actually, I was so slow getting out of the water, a volunteer was ready with my bag and handed it to me -- then into the changing tent.
I had to put on toe socks, bike shoes, and gloves; stuff my Clif Shots and Bloks and a small bag of beef jerky into my back pocket. It sounds simple, and it should be quick, but hands and brains just don't work so well right after a 2.4-mile swim. I also had to put on the cloth and metal brace that would support my left arm through the rest of the race. They also make you run a full circuit of the several-acre transition area on the Kailua pier before you get on your bike. My transition took about ten minutes. This photo is me, starting on the 112-mile bike ride.
The bike ride: Chicked some old guys and a double-amputee
Once I was out on the road, I settled in for a long ride. it was about 9 a.m. and I had to finish the 112-mile ride before 5:30 p.m. to avoid the big DQ. My plan was to pedal with a fast turnover, low heart rate, and to drink every ten minutes, eat something every half-hour. I also needed to monitor the heat, and cool myself off anytime it felt like my core temp was getting high. And not get blown over by the wind.
Newbie Mistake No. 2: I got into the habit of grabbing a bottle of water at each aid station and pouring it all into my aerobar drinking water reservoir or onto my neck, back and legs before rolling into the next aid station. Well, at about the third aid station I rolled into, I had just doused myself and was reaching for the empty bottle of water to toss into the trash heap, but this water bottle was half full. The sports drink bottle was empty. Geez, did I just soak myself with Ironman Perform sports drink?
The wind wasn't too bad until about the second quarter of the race when we turn up the road into Hawi. It is hilly, there was a gigantic headwind, and some very nasty crosswinds to ride through. It was hot, too. I was averaging about 9 mph through this section.
Because my left arm was locked into a 120-degree angle, I couldn't use it to eat or drink as I normally would. I had to do that with my right arm. But because it was so windy, I sometimes couldn't let go of the right handlebar to get any food at the half-hour intervals. So every once in a while, if the wind was too harsh, I would actually stop the bike and stand down to get some food down. That's when I got into a passing thing with the old guys and Scott Rigsby, the first double above-the-knee amputee to finish the Ironman.
The old guys had numbers in the 100s and 200s, which means they were in their 80s, 70s, and probably late 60s. I could pass a bunch of them going uphill, and then when I would stand down off my bike, they would pass me.
Same with Scott Rigsby. He doesn't have lower legs, but he swam faster than I did because he was already putting on his prosthetic bike-riding legs when I was getting out of the water. I got ahead of him on the bike route. I had a chance to chat with him a few days earlier when he was out for a practice swim, and I had seen him cheering for athletes out in the middle of the Idaho dairy farmland during the Ironman race I did in 2008, so I consider him a cheerful guy to see during a race.
But there he was, passing me on the road to Havi. And then I'm passing him. And he's passing me. We are both struggling and getting worn out by the cross winds. And all I can think of is, "Can he unclip fast enough to avoid injury if he gets blown over?"
Eventually, I got out ahead of him, but some of those older guys just hung on around me for another 40 miles with me passing them on the uphills and them passing me on the downhill or at aid stations.
Across the road, I passed a woman athlete being tended to by a medical crew. She had apparently been blown off the road. She had a lot of road rash on her shoulders. Closer to town, where the seemingly random "Donkeys Crossing" signs were posted, I saw a guy sprawled spread-eagle half on the road and half in the roadside lava rocks, his bicycle beside him. He didn't look as if he had fallen, more like he had decided to take a deranged sun bath in Donkey-land. I yelled out to him asking if he needed help, and he responded with some thing like "nein," but I couldn't tell what he meant. This is an international race, after all. I was about the tenth person to tell the next aid station about him, so medical aid got there pretty quick.
Newbie Mistake No. 3: So about 75-85 miles into the bike ride, I feel this stinging pain in my left big toe. It feels like an ingrown toenail, and I'm very worried because -- hey, this is Ironman-- I've still got a marathon to run after this bike ride is done. I go about ten miles feeling all this pain and I decide that at the next aid station I'm going to stop and ask for some toenail clippers. I do that, but all they've got are some medical scissors. I peel back my left sock and I realize that after 91 marathons, it's not an ingrown toenail because I really don't have what you might consider toenails anymore. (TMI?) I put the sock back on and start to ride, and my foot feels absolutely fine. It must have been just a bad fold in my sock bugging me for the past ten miles. I always tell the runners I mentor that if you feel something wrong with your feet, stop and check your socks as soon as you can. I can't believe I rode nearly an hour with that pain in my toe.
I'm happy again and riding into town, only about eight or so miles to go. The wind is subsiding, I'm riding faster, even on the uphills, and I'm starting to see the marathoners out on the course. I realize that for the pro athletes, the race is over, yet I've still got five to six more hours to go.
I roll into the transition area after 7 hours, 22 minutes on the bike. A volunteer takes my bike, I run through the changing tent, put on running shoes, an LA Tri Club visor and stuff a few gels into my back pocket and I'm onto the marathon course. I've adjusted the angle on my arm brace to hold it at 90 degrees while I run.
By this time it's about 4:30 in the afternoon. I beat the bike cutoff by about an hour, and I'm happy because the marathon is the part of this sport that I'm actually good at. Note I didn't say fast, just good.
The run: Finally, we're in MY house
The first 11 miles are in town so you run alongside hundreds of vacation beachside condos. It's hot and humid, but the sun is low enough that there are patches of shade on the run. The aid stations have ice and cola, sports drink and bananas. I'm averaging 11 to 12:30 miles in this section. There are lots of spectators, many of them comment on the arm brace, and I humor them by waving it back and forth.
Finally, back out on the Queen K Highway the sun is going down and the temperature is getting a bit cooler, although it remains warm and humid. It's too dark for me to check my mile pace at the markers, all I can do is just walk one minute after every five minutes of running and try not to trip in the dark.
This is where I started passing the old men and middle-aged women who had stronger swims and faster bike rides than I did. I also passed some younger age group champions who were cooked by the conditions.
One woman was sitting cross-legged in the road, exhausted, talking with medical volunteers. One man was running along with his back bent sideways by about 90 degrees. He insisted he was okay, but he had the international posture of the bonking. I also saw Scott Rigsby running out to the turnaround as I was running in. I could tell it was him because his running legs were rigged to flash lights every time he landed on them. (Note: I saw all three of them finish their races before the midnight cutoff.)
With about nine miles to go -- about 13 miles into the race -- I did the math and realized that if I held to about a 10:30 per mile pace, I could come close to matching my best time in the Ironman distance. So that cheered me up and made me run faster. With just two miles to go, I wasn't sure I could beat my own record, but felt good enough to ditch the walk breaks and speed up to the finish.
Here's that video again -- Me in the last mile of Ironman Kona. I'm telling my friend, photographer Shiggy Ichinomiya, not to slow me down because I'm on pace to match my best Ironman time. And I say, "Who P.R.'s at Kona?"
Because really, that's the surprise in all this. When I broke my arm I went from being pretty sure I could finish this legendarily un-finishable race to being not so sure I should even start.
I told everybody I was going to try it, and having vocalized that ambition, was honor-bound to go for it. Kona or Bust. Go big or shut up.
There is no other race in the world I would have trained through this injury to get to the start line. There is no way in the world I would ever have predicted that I could turn in a 3-minute personal best six weeks after breaking my arm.
But there you are. I don't suck at Ironman.
Guess it's time to take off this silly blue Ironman nail polish, huh?
Thanks for reading,
P.S. Last week, I got an email from the Eagleman 70.3, a half-ironman distance race in Maryland. I won a free entry to that race, it's June 10. Guess I know where the next adventure is.