Kona. The sine qua non of Ironman. By some miracle, I was permitted to race it. To be clear: I am not fast, and I may never be fast in that way. This Not-Fastness gave me a most evocative and profound Kona permitted only to those who race it after sunset.
Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows;
The swim start of Kona terrified me the most, as I had never been in a mass start before. Truthfully, it wasn’t much worse than age group starts I’d experienced before, only the kicking and swatting continued through the entire course. That was fine with me; it meant I was keeping up with a pack! Normally I find myself in between packs, slicing my own way through the swells, but this time I could be pleased—and I admit a little irritated—to try to avoid punching other swimmers in the butt, instead.
I exited the swim in a later group of girls, one of the packs that had long since been picking off the slower men but would not be in one of the coveted early bike lines that gets pulled along the fields of the Queen K in a pseudo-peloton. That was well enough; the swim is my strongest discipline, so I was pleased to see at least a third of the bikes still in their stalls as I ran past them in transition.
Though, I hadn’t qualified for this race; I had been chosen from a lottery pool. Keeping up with anyone was never on the agenda.
For my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die
On the way out, I soon found myself staring into a headwind not unlike those on O’ahu, so I dutifully settled into my aero bars and cranked my way along, trying to ignore the whirring of deeper wheels consistently buzzing in my ears. Instead, I imagined that the tailwind on the way back would be marvelous and managed to convince myself that I was damned excited about all the downhills I could smash. My uphill riding might be mediocre, but I can smash the shit out of most people once over the crest. As far as I was concerned, the long way up to Hawi was the price I would pay for that tailwind carrying me back to Hualālai. The best thing I could do was to relax my neck, keep cranking, and heed my Garmin’s trilling reminders to eat and drink.
After I turned off the Queen K (accompanied by some last minute shouts of encouragement from my coach), I saw the little caterpillar-pelotons coming back down the other side of the highway. Trust me: it’s easy to see the drafting problem at Kona from the back of the bike leg. How can anyone help it? If so many athletes of a similarly stellar caliber all exit the water at the same time, a clusterfuck on the bike is inevitable and mathematically impossible to avoid. Who wouldn’t feel a bit of relief being forced to ride a few bike lengths behind someone into the unforgiving trades of Big Island? If I were faster, I sure as hell wouldn’t attempt the absurd pace it would take for a miles-long legal pass. As for me, I quickly found myself alone on the road often. Good thing I always train alone; I knew how this was going to feel, and I was always already prepared to sit with that.
However, as I turned back onto the Queen K, I had the horrible thought: Why are the plants tilting back toward Hawi? The optimism I forged for an awaiting tailwind to guide me home melted into the asphalt when I realized that the circular air patterns of Big Island had come around to reverse the wind, and once again I was fighting against it. Damn it. Ah well, I thought. Head down. Keep cranking. You can do this.
Prior to the race, I had offered up prayers to Kanaloa and Pele for swift passage through their waters and across their lands. Unhappily, I forgot to ask Lono for kind winds. Perhaps I was paying for my omission. Perhaps I was paying for my presumption that a haole has the right to ask the akua for anything. Perhaps I was simply paying for my slower legs. That was okay, though. I embraced the test of my mettle, and I knew headwinds quite well; this was home territory, however unfortunate.
It may be the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles whom we know.
It was a long and lonely ride into back to Kailua, cranking my lowest gears downhill and flattening into my aero bars against my back begging for a moment. Every now and again I could see a cyclist half a mile up the road, and I knew there were many still behind me fighting to make the bike cut-off times. I was safe, but I was also keenly aware that I had spent at least an hour or two longer in the saddle than anybody planned.
World champions had since been crowned when I pedaled past my fellow age groupers running the last 10k of their marathons. I wished I weren’t quite so fluorescent in my multicolored kit and helmet of the Please Don’t Hit Me hue; I wanted to fade into the background and finish my ride unnoticed. Occasionally a runner would give me a side glance, and I imagined they must be feeling momentary relief: well, at least I’m almost done. She isn’t even off her bike yet. The harsh sun of Kona seemed only punishing. Aquinas’ dark night of the soul begins mid-afternoon on a bike seat, apparently.
The advantage of my position lay in the impending sunset; at least the last half of my marathon could be completed in the cool darkness where distances disappear, spectators won’t bother, and core body temperature regulation becomes largely irrelevant.
Kona after sunset is the Kona of the slow and the stubborn but also the Kona of the blessed. As the sun set while I pressed on toward Palani, I knew I would transition into a different Hawai’i.
Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are;
Video footage of the Ironman run show multitudes of feet pounding on radiating asphalt, hordes of people sweating together through the Energy Lab desperately collecting sopping sponges from volunteers and dousing their hats with cups of cold water. Else, it shows the lone older competitor walking with determination and shredded hope toward the finish line, begging the clock to wait for them. I ran between these moments.
I ran alone into the darkness of the Queen K, grateful for the stars and for the darkness not allowed me on the bike. Rather than racing a clock or a competitor, I raced my pain. This was my plan: once I could no longer maintain a run (which happened after the ascent up Palani for me), I would run four repeats of sixty strides counted by sixteenth notes, and then walk one count of sixty by triplets. Once I was thirty beats into a run segment, I would beg a little more speed out of my legs. If I felt like stopping before the count was over, I would speed up again, instead. The only breaks to this pattern took place at aid stations
(as my stomach was roiling and begging both for chicken soup and to throw it up again) and on hills where I could hike up them far more quickly and efficiently than I could zombie-shuffle. Many of the aid stations had disappeared, empty cups and used sponges strewn on the ground as evidence of where water once was, and I tried not to despair that I was too slow ever to see these stations. Instead, I counted. This continued for hours. Stick to the count. The count is all that matters. I ate through the remainder of the field on the run, overtaking at least fifty people. Stick to the count. The count is all that matters.
After I turned around at the Energy Lab and ran home, I ran past every competitor who would finish that day and every competitor that wouldn’t. That was perhaps the greatest honor of Kona: bearing witness to the struggles of those who race the clock and failing stomachs into the pitch black cold of Energy Lab— very alone and carrying sixteen and seventeen hours of an inviolable will to keep going. I don’t know how many did not make it, but I will never forget their characteristic tramp out into the night, both replete and devoid of hope, relentless.
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Auddie Hungerpiller is a member of TeamSFQ and a PhD student in English at Ohio State University.