Sunday, November 13, 2016

Coach Amy's Recap of Ironman World Championship Kona

I have been watching the Ironman World Championships in Kona on TV since the 80s.  I remember Julie Moss crawling across the finish line.  I remember the Mark Allen/Dave Scott IronWar.  I followed Natascha Badmann, Paula Newby-Fraser, Chrissie Wellington and Mirinda Carfrae as they ruled in Kona.  I’ve seen Normann Stadler, Craig Alexander and Chris McCormack be amazing. I have at least a dozen Ironman Kona DVDs that I have watched countless times while sitting on my bike trainer.  I still cry every time the cannon goes off to start the swim. I shed tears over the finish line video of countless strangers accomplishing something incredible.

So when I qualified to participate in the 2016 World Championships, it was really quite overwhelming!  ME?! In KONA?!?!

I had an entire year to get ready and it took every bit of that. Sam was my coach for this journey and promised to get me to the start line prepared and healthy. I’m lucky to have a great group of friends to support me and train with me.  We spent hours putting in base miles over the winter on bike trainers in my basement.  My husband took the roll of strength training partner and encouraged (read forced me) to go the gym to build muscles necessary to pedal me through the heat and hills in Kona.  Angel woke at 0’dark thirty to run with me before work.  It takes a village to be ready to arrive at the village of Kona.

After 82 miles of swimming, 4,531 miles of biking and 760 miles of running from January to October, I was ready physically to take on the challenge of the greatest triathlon on earth.  

We arrived in Kona one week prior to the race.  I had an amazing group of 10 friends and family members who came to Kona to support me and enjoy some vacation time on the Big Island.  From the moment we arrived, it was obvious that this was going to be something special.  The Ironman Village was being set up, the wall of athletes’ names was outside the host hotel, the swim buoys were placed for swim practice and everywhere you looked there were athletes training.  Very fit, very fast athletes.  Running on Ali’I Drive, riding their beautiful bikes on the Queen K Highway and swimming in the crystal clear water of Kona Bay.  It was totally intimidating!!  Trying to make myself believe that I belonged there, with all those super athletes was not an easy task.  There were lots of anxious times filled with doubt and fear.

To fight off the demons, I tackled some of the iconic sections of the race during the week.  I ran in the famous Energy Lab, I climbed the 6 windy miles to the turn around point of the bike in Hawi, I ran on Ali’i Drive and swam in the beautiful ocean.  It helped a little….

Athlete check-in, bike check-in and the athletes’ dinner all made it seem very real.  I really was in Kona, with an athlete wrist band on, preparing to participate in an event I’ve watched in amazement for years!  WOW!

Race morning dawned calm and warm.  Angel and Sam dropped me off at check in and it was “game on”!  As the athletes gathered at the swim start, the sun rose and turned the sky a beautiful pink.  The announcer was talking and a live band was playing traditional island music.  I was blessed with a feeling of calmness and confidence.  Don’t know where that came from, but there were no tears, no jitters, no anxiety.  Just – let’s go do what I came here prepared to do!  It was exciting to see some of the pros as they made their way to the swim start.  The look of concentration on their faces would melt a statue.

The pro men went 1st. Then pro women. Next the age group men had their start and it was finally time for the age group women to go.  We tread water for about 10 minutes waiting for the famous cannon blast.  Which, by the way, wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be.  It was constant contact, foot to face, craziness for most of the swim and I was having a blast!  I loved every moment of the swim even though I drank way too much salt water!

Out of the water, through the fresh water shower, into T1 for some sunscreen and off we go for the 112 mile ride.  The sky had been cloudy all week, but race day was crystal clear and the view from the bike was amazing!   Ocean on one side, lava and mountains on the other.  And as far as you can see there are cyclists experiencing something awesome!  The ocean swim came back to haunt me as I barfed 5-6 times in the first several miles as my body tried to rid itself of salt water in the belly!  The sight of the lead male cyclists returning toward Kona with a brigade of motorcycle cameramen and helicopters was crazy!  They blew by going the opposite direction and then the constant stream of returning riders began.

I didn’t expect to see my family and friends on the bike course as we had been told it was difficult for spectators to get near the course.  Well, my group had other ideas!  They were everywhere!  It’s impossible to place a value on how much it means to see your people out there yelling for you!  They made posters that made me smile and their cheers kept me excited.  The infamous winds of Kona were definitely a factor as they blew from every direction and made forward progress difficult at times and holding a straight line difficult at other times.  But I got the gift of a tailwind coming out of Hawi and my worse fear of cross winds on the descent never materialized.  Now I just had to remember to follow my nutrition plan exactly and hydrate thoroughly so that I could begin the marathon.

I arrived at T2 happy, hot, sunburned and SO ready to get those wet socks off my blistered feet!  More sunscreen, wet towels, ice and water and it’s off to run!  The first two miles were a blur of yelling spectators and excitement.  Then it seemed like my body just said “No”.  Miles 3 -10 were not great as my legs seemed like lead and doubts crept in.  I saw Ken around mile 8 and said “It’s gonna be a long day baby.”  He called ahead to Angel, Bill and Sara who were ready with words of encouragement.  Angel, seeing me obviously suffering, teared up and her voice cracked as she assured me I could do this.  They called ahead to my daughter Michelle who was up the road a bit.  She also had tears and a cracking voice as she ran along the sidewalk yelling strong words of encouragement that I really needed.

I hit the famous Palani hill and followed my race plan to walk this hill.  Drank extra water, visited the port-a-potty, had a gel and started feeling better.  About then I see JULIE MOSS standing on the side as a spectator.  I called out her name and she slapped me 5 and said “You’ve got this!”  WOW!!  Shortly after I topped the hill, I got a 2nd wind and started feeling better – that’s when I saw Ryan and India.  They had been warned of my tough going and expected the worst.  But I rebounded and greeted them with a smile and a fist pump!  Only 15 miles to go!  That thought was a bit scary as 15 was my longest run in preparation for this event.  And now that’s what I had to do on tired hot legs.  A little while later I saw Sam.  She held out her hand for a high 5 and told me her hand had just high fived Mirinda Carfrae at the finish line.  I was sure to have the strength to finish now! 

One aid station at a time I made my way, watching the sun go down and looking forward to the next time I would see my people.  The Energy Lab was pitch dark but full of life.  There were aid stations, loud music, the awesome sight of the turn around point and the special needs station.  I snagged my headlamp from my special needs bag and headed for the exit back to the Queen K Highway.  At the last water stop inside the Energy Lab one of the volunteers offered me water.  “no thanks” I said. “I have plenty”.  Then I looked at the volunteer – it was Dave Scott!!!  What?!?!?  Dave Scott offering me water – heck YES I’ll take some!!!

Six or 7 miles to go to arrive at the greatest place of all in triathlon…. Ali’i Drive and the glorious finish chute with crowds, music and Mike Riley calling out names of Ironmen!!!  It was the longest 6 miles ever!  You can hear the finish line long before you can see it.  Finally as I came around a bend in the road I could see the lights, the Mdot carpet, the flowers and flags lining the chute and the crowds of cheering people.  It’s magical.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s bright and loud and people cheer for you like you are someone special!  I saw an arm reach out of the crowd with a beautiful white lei.  Was it for me?  Should I take it?  There were no other athletes in the chute near me so this person must intend for ME to have this.  I couldn’t see the face because the lights were so bright, but I took the lei and ran with joy over the finish line while Mike Riley announced “Amy Griffith, from Cumming Georgia – You ARE An Ironman!”  JUST WOW!  One of the greatest moments of my life!

After some confusion, I finally found my group of family and friends who had gotten me through this day.  Ken brought champagne and squirted it on us for a celebration.  There were sweaty hugs and huge smiles.  And the person offering me the flower lei in the finish chute?  My awesome husband – I’m sure glad I took it!

Kona was everything I had imagined and more.  We made memories that will last a lifetime.  And I’m so grateful to have shared it with my family and friends because THAT’S what it’s all about.

About the Author: Amy Griffith is a USAT certified triathlon coach and a RRCA certified running coach for Precision Sports Coaching based in Atlanta, Georgia.  Visit to learn more about custom coaching services.

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