You learn more out of defeat than success, because sometimes success makes you overlook things.
– Chris McCormack, 2x Ironman World Champion
The highs I experienced winning my age group at Ironman Canada was surreal. I felt like I was on top of the world. I was happy and giddy for days. As an age grouper, I reached the pinnacle of my sport by becoming an age group champion. It remains the highlight of my triathlon career and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. To this day, just thinking about that moment gives me goosebumps.
From the moment I began this sport, my goal was to qualify for Kona. I’ve experienced many fiddlestick-like days with my fair share of less-than-stellar performances. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, I hate when I underperform. However, it’s these types of races that have built my character, both in triathlon and life. As Rocky put it: It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
This video inspires me and portrays how professional triathletes cope with adversity and defeat. Just like myself, they’ve all hit lows in their racing careers, but they all bounce back to fight another day.
I put my heart and soul into triathlon. I eat, breathe, and dream about the sport. Qualifying for the Ironman World Championship was my key focus this year. I realize just toeing the line at Kona is a huge honor and privilege many people will never experience.
Flipping through the Hawaiian Airlines magazine, this tidbit described the race well:
During my pre-race meeting with Nick, we discussed goals for the race. No triathlon race compares to Kona. I love racing up front and being competitive. Racing in the hot, windy lava fields with the fittest athletes in the world humbles me. Nick and I discussed my mentality going into the race.
- Don’t get caught up in the hype– In Kona, there will be athletes simply better and faster than me. Everyone is either good, or really good in Kona. The lava fields won’t give me magical powers to ride at a 10 percent higher watt output or heart rate. Racing smart was key.
- Race to my own abilities – I wasn’t racing anyone but myself. My main goal was to executive my race strategy, stay within my limits, and finish the race with confidence.
- Have fun– I am truly blessed to race my second Ironmann World Championship. Although I was prepared to hurt and give it my all, Nick reminded me to cherish the day. He kept reminding me: Kona is just icing on the cake.
I flew into Kona on Wednesday, three days before the race. I had a room to myself at Uncle Billy’s, a zero-star resort. Reviews for this place were a little sketchy. Yelp reviewers experienced mysterious cuts on their legs at night, cockroach infestations, bloody sheets, bathtubs that didn’t drained, mysterious faces on rocks, and children falling off the balcony. The only positive review of this hotel was its convenience. It was situated right next to the expo and a short, five-minute walk to the pier. I was a monkey’s uncle for staying at Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel.
First objective – Clif Bar house party with Linsey.
My parents, Grandma Rae, Auntie Alva, Uncle Lee, and Sherie made the trip to Kona to cheer me on. Ohana means everything to me and having them support me, in person, made my entire Kona experience even more memorable.
Jenna and her mom flew from Phoenix to spectate. Their family has been so generous and supportive of me. They’ve attended and dressed up at all my big races. At home, I’m treated to countless LGO dinners, sugar highs, popcorn, and endless laughs and good times. They are my favorite monkeys.
Thursday, I rented a moped and rode the bike course to get myself acquainted with the heat, wind, and climbs. There’s something about the Kona sun and humidity that makes it feel so much warmer than Phoenix.
I got 70 miles to the gallon on this hog.
Some of the views throughout the bike course:
(In order: Queen K, Scenic Point, Hawi descent)
As I stopped for a coffee break in Hawi, I met this interesting fellow. Although he joked I was too little to do an Ironman, he wrote down my race number and told me he’d cheer for me at turnaround. I told him to wear the same shirt so I could recognize him. Shaka brah!
Friday, I went for a quick bike, run and swim and relaxed until bike check in. The Cervelo photographer was a big Seattle Seahawks fan.
Hawk’s television debut 14 seconds in!
Colin and his wife, Kristen, were staying next door to me at Uncle Billy’s. We cooked pasta for dinner and relaxed.
Before going to bed I reviewed my training logs to remind myself that I was more than ready for this race. Compared to last year, I felt a lot more prepared and physically-fit. I visualized every portion of the course and “played out my day.” I reread my Canada race report for some extra mojo. Although nervous, I felt confident and excited for the grueling day ahead.
Colin and I walked to transition at 4:50 a.m. to beat the body marking lines. We hung out at his friend’s room in the King K, met up with family, and relaxed.
Colin and I walked down to the swim start at 6:30 a.m. The media helicopter was flying overhead, huge crowds around the pier formed, and the sound of Hawaiian drums created a lot of nervous energy around me. As I lined up to walk into the water, I felt calm and at peace with myself. I didn’t experience the extreme nervousness I felt last year. As I stood in the water, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and told myself: this is just another race. I lined up at the buoy line, to the far right, about five rows back from the front.
I mentally prepared myself for the beating of the swim start. Yet, as soon as the gun went off I found my own space and contact wasn’t too bad. I drafted off the same guy’s hip for most of the swim. I depended on his navigation skills and rarely sighted. The swim seemed unusually easy and effortless. Out of the three disciplines, I put in the least amount of training time for the swim (2-3 sessions a week). The swim leg went by fast as I looked at my watch heading up the stairs and saw I beat my time from last year!
I quickly hosed off, grabbed my bike bag, and headed toward the changing tent. It was packed!
The first part of the bike was an out-and-back on Kuakini highway. I assessed how I was feeling. I was really bloated from drinking so much salt water during the swim and my stomach didn’t feel well. It’ll pass, I kept telling myself. I forced down a gel and sipped on water.
As I headed up Palani, that feeling still didn’t go away. Though, I made sure to follow my power and heart rate numbers. I never surged, got out of my saddle, or spiked any of my efforts. I let people pass me and followed my game plan. I kept reminding myself: I’m only competing against myself.
My stomach finally settled 25 miles into the ride. My nutrition plan was the same I used for Ironman Canada and long training rides. One salt tab every 15 minutes, an Accel Gel every 45 minutes, a Honey Stinger waffle every hour, and a Clif bar to munch on throughout the ride. I alternated drinking water and Perform. At every aid station, I sprayed myself down with water to cool off, and grabbed a new bottle of water and Perform.
Unlike last year, the infamous Kona winds were present. Around Waikola, I faced some stiff headwinds. I didn’t fight it, and just stared at my Garmin sticking to my power plan and got as aerodynamic as possible. I couldn’t believe how many people were passing me. At times the wind gusts almost blew me over.
Arriving at Kawaihae, I performed another self-check. My stomach was better, physically and mentally I felt great, and I knew was riding very conservatively. I was executing my game plan.
Looking back, I felt the best all day climbing Hawi. I had a lot of energy and was having fun. At the turnaround, I saw my family (who live in Hilo) cheering. I had a huge smile as I gave Lisa a high five. I also saw my colorful shirt friend! He was cheering his brains off, jumping up and down, screaming, “Go Elliot! Go Elliot!” It made me chuckle.
Descending Hawi and climbing out of Kawaihae is where I made my few passes of the day. I tucked down and bombed down the descents feeling safe despite the winds. Ascending Kawaihae, my legs felt strong and I was in great spirits.
Back on the Queen K, only 32 miles to go, I was treated to a strong tailwind. I averaged 35+MPH in this short stretch. I remember thinking, this tailwind all the way back to town is going to be awesome! Then, the cross winds came. It got really lonely out there as the entire field thinned out at this point of the race. As I reached Scenic Point, I told myself: Ok, that’s the final big climb, it’s easy riding from here on out.
Boy was I wrong…
The headwinds came and I started to struggle. My power plummeted, I felt weak, and my stomach was upset again. All at once, it hit me. What the heck is going on? It’s just a bad spell, this feeling will pass, I told myself. I tried fighting through it, taking in a gel, drinking water, and backing off my effort. As the final miles ticked by, I felt even worse. I had no pop in my legs. I closed my eyes for a little bit as I tried to mentally get back into the game. Nothing worked.
As I reached the airport, I began panicking as my mental and physical state worsened. My mind was playing games on me as I began thinking about the marathon. Focus, Elliot, focus! I kept reminding myself this race wasn’t supposed to be easy and I was supposed to hurt. I started singing to myself attempting to take my mind off the distress. Believe me, I tried everything. About three miles to go, I threw up. As I dismounted and ran toward my run bag, I tried hard to focus on the task at hand. I kept telling myself, I’ll bounce back. I’ll rebound from this and have a great run.
Approaching the dismount line:
From mile one, I knew this just wasn’t my day. My legs felt lifeless. The run is my strength and it demoralized me that I couldn’t go fast.
I saw my friend, Dusty, along Ali’i and these two words to him described exactly how I was feeling: f*cking shit.
My 8-minute miles soon slipped to 10-minute miles, then 12-minute miles… soon, it turned to pure survival. I couldn’t keep in any fluids and was dry heaving every couple miles. David Tindall caught me at mile four and I tried sticking with him. I stopped to throw up and he was long gone. Cam Loos came by soon after. We were running 10 minute miles. I couldn’t hang, throwing up again. It felt like the whole field was passing me.
I’ve never felt so much pain, humility, and suffering… ever. I saw my family 10 miles into the run and I didn’t have the energy to smile and wave. I felt like I failed myself and everyone supporting me. I still had 16 miles to go. Even worse, it was on the Queen K and Energy Lab, where I’d be all alone.
Then, the lowest point of the day… I started crying as I saw Jenna on Palani. I put my arm around her shoulder, crouching over, completely defeated, saying, “I can’t do this.” It was the closest I’ve ever been to quitting.
As I shuffled up Palani I thought to myself:
I don’t care how slow I go, I’m going to finish this damn race. I’m going to finish for my mom and dad… for my Grandma and all my other family members… for Jovie and Aunt Billy…for all my friends and fans rooting for me back home. I need to do this for myself. I was having the most miserable time of my life, but quitting lasts forever.
First objective: get over my pity party. There’s no crying in triathlon.
My teammate, Dmitry Baer, was only two minutes up the road as I headed on the Queen K. I laughed as I peaked at my watch doing the Ironman shuffle. These 13-minute miles seemed so challenging… harder than any mile of my 3:08 marathon in Canada.
As I saw the pro women running back into town on the Queen K, I remember Natascha Badmann yelling at me as I was throwing up on the side of the road: “Keep going! You’ll bounce back!” A true class act. Being this far back, I witnessed the true carnage of this race. I couldn’t believe the amount of people laying down, stumbling, cramping, and delirious. I wasn’t alone. Although the Queen K is a very lonely place, I felt camaraderie from all the other competitors. Chrissie Wellington came by on her cruiser bike and told me to “keep fighting!”
I battled out there… albeit a very, very slow battle… but I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. There was no doubt in my mind, I was going to finish.
It took nine miles to finally catch my teammate. Dmitry and I had a heated rivalry this year, but we were both struggling and happy to see each other. The miles were ticking by so slow running but having his company helped. We motivated each other as we shuffled out of the Energy Lab. Newton had a big screen that displayed pre-recorded video clips that family and friends created at the expo. I saw my mom and aunt on the screen yelling: “Go Elliot! Beast mode!!!”
An NBC camera came by for at least five minutes videotaping my sufferfest. I’m praying that footage doesn’t make the national broadcast.
The last 10k was agonizing, but Dmitry and I encouraged each other to keep fighting. We stopped together to take walk breaks. He gave me water from his hydration fuel belt. I gave him a gel. We constantly looked out for each other. Two Ironman age group champions, surviving together in the lonely lava fields. I can honestly say we became true teammates and friends that day.
The last mile of the race was a blur, but I reminded myself to remember Ali’i drive, running under the banyan tree, passing the church, and running past all the cheering spectators. Dmitry was literally pushing me from behind because I was hurting so bad. Every single stride took serious effort. He kept saying “C’mon Ellie Bean! Let’s finish together, we can do this!”
We did it.
Kona veteren, Russ Brandt, informed that in event of a tie, the athlete finishing on the ocean side is declared the winner. Rookie move on my behalf.
After spending an hour in medical, I limped over to the King K. Family and friends fed me Skittles, licorice, and gummy worms to bring me back to life.
Walking back to my hotel room, I felt defeated. After dedicating so much time and energy towards this one day, and made so many sacrifices, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. Everyone I knew beat me. I just wanted to hide.
As I approached my room, I was startled by the sign on my door. Jenna had broken into Uncle Billy’s during the race and planted fake cockroaches and ants, dog feces, bloody feet, mice, and scary signs everywhere.
Then, it hit me. At times I forget that triathlon is just a damn hobby. I do this sport for enjoyment and good health. I’m a very competitive person but sometimes I take myself way too seriously. I’m at the Ironman World Championship with fake shit and cockroaches laying on my bed, can it get any better than this!?
Family and friends traveled a long way to support me. Although it was my slowest Ironman to date, this experience was so much more than a finish time. The first person I saw after the race was my mom. I’ve never seen her so happy as she ran over to me, gave me a huge hug and said, “I’M SO PROUD OF YOU ELLIOT!!!” She was ecstatic that her son just conquered one of the most iconic endurance races on the planet.
Two months ago, I was fighting for the win in Canada. In Kona, I was fighting just to finish. Shuffling 26.2 miles to get to the finish line was the hardest thing I’ve done in this sport. Kona truly tested my character and I proved I ain’t a quitter.
Do I want redemption on the Big Island? Heck yeah… but as Macca put it:
Defeat means reassess, rebuild, chase again…
For now, it’s time to enjoy a very successful, memorable 2014. It’s truly been an unforgettable year.
Thank you all for the support.