Summer 2016 I decided to set up new goals. I believe in visualization big time. So I set up a vision board, where I had 70.3 WC slot and picture of Chattanooga city pinned. But one once said that you should “Dream Big”, so I pinned another picture to the board - a picture of a cyclist riding on Queen K highway and it read “Conquering Kona”. Just few months later and 2 Chinese 70.3 races, I had the qualification slots to both Ironman 70.3 & Ironman WC in my pocket. Lucky me :))))
Training for Kona
The training started somewhere in March this year. We decided with the coach that Kona will be my first full distance. I previously registered for a full in Port Elizabeth. It was hard to withdraw from IMSA, but it was better for me.
We started building my endurance. Long rides, long runs - first I enjoyed them and couldn’t wait for the volume to increase until I was having enough - enough of long hours of riding & running at nights. I never had a company and was doing all trainings solo. I had several meltdowns during those months. It was hard but I never quit my sessions – I knew I was gaining mental strength. Hours and hours of cycling, swimming, running, strength training, sports massages, osteopath and physio sessions. I couldn’t wait to get to the Big Island.
Big Island of Hawaii
A magic place, you won’t find another one like this. Sooo unique - black lava fields, tropical fields, volcanos, blue clear ocean, mountains. Absolutely love it.
I arrived in Kona in the evening of 6th October, it “only” took 25 hours to get to the island. Kona met me with a warm tropical rain, completely dark roads and thick air. I couldn’t wait for the next day to see the island and ocean. And it didn’t disappoint – a beautiful sunrise, dramatic skies and dolphins.
Two weeks before the race Kona changes from a lazy chilled town into a sports central – athletes swimming, biking, running everywhere at any time of the day. You feel the urge to put some extra sessions in (don’t give in to that urge and stick to your plan).
I was lucky to have my own support team with me. We stayed at a nice condo about 3 kms from the race start. The days leading to the race we swam, biked and ran some parts of the course. On those training sessions I didn’t experience any strong winds, the island was gentle on me on those rides. The training run at the famous Energy Lab road - the first part I didn’t feel bad as we had a nice breeze accompanying us until we turned around to experience what felt like a frying pan with no air circulating the final 3 kms (my HR was skyrocketing). I made a note to myself – I might have to walk these hard 3 kms on the race day as the rest of the run I will have some breeze along the way. Alas, it was a completely different scenario on the race day (((.
Ocean swims - I couldn’t get enough of them. Water so beautiful and clear, you can see everything 20-30 meters down. And, of course, the famous coffee boat - I wish we had one in Dubai for the sea swims. I lost my beloved Roka swim skin a day before the race. I left it by the shower at “Dig Me” beach (((. I bought a new Roka, a model with sleeves that was specially released for Kona. As they say that you should never try anything new on the race day, I took a risk. I love the brand and the previous model fit me like a glove. I wasn’t disappointed with this one and it’s the fastest swim skin I ever tried. However, it did chafe my neck horribly as I made a rookie mistake and forgot to apply Body Glide.
Ocean swims - I couldn’t get enough of them. Water so beautiful and clear, you can see everything 20-30 meters down. And, of course, the famous coffee boat - I wish we had one in Dubai for the sea swims. I lost my beloved Roka swim skin a day before the race. I left it by the shower at Dig Me Beach (((. I bought a new Roka, a model with sleeves that was specially released for Kona. As they say that you should never try anything new on the race day, I took a risk. I love the brand and the previous model fitted me like a glove. I wasn’t disappointed with this one and it’s the fastest swim skin I ever tried.
Three days before the race were spent on briefing, parade of nations, shopping at the expo (another must!) and checking in the bike & gear. I was pleasantly surprised with the volunteers’ work - the best I ever experienced. Each athlete was taken individually through the bike & gear check-in and shown the way around the transition area.
The nerves - I honestly had quite an emotional roller coaster the days leading to the race. But once I checked in the bike and gear, I became calm. I knew I have done all the work required. I didn’t have a goal time set and probably was one of the few athletes that didn’t pressure themselves with the race time. We agreed with my coach that I should be able to finish sub 12 hours. But finishing the race was my ultimate goal.
I woke up at 4 am. I woke up from a dream - I finished in 11 hours and 55 minutes because something went wrong on the run.
Quick breakfast of oats, banana & PB and we set off to the race start. Athletes get their race number tattoos applied on the race morning. You don’t do it yourself, there is a dedicated team of volunteers that do all the work for you. Everyone gets weighted before stepping into the athletes’ pre-race zone.
I felt quiet and surprisingly not nervous at all. Dropped off my morning clothes bag, got sun lotion applied and sat down on the shore waiting for the start. First cannon went off at 6:30 am - the start of pro men, followed by pro women start in 5 minutes.
It was time for me to start dryland warm up. 7:05 and I made my way to the swim start. Age-group men were just sent off and pink caps started their way to the water. As I walked down the stairs, I suddenly lost my breath and started trembling (oh no the nerves started playing again!). But gladly the moment disappeared briefly. I decided to line up at the front with the strongest girls. I knew I could battle the first 200-300 meters and avoid most of the action in the water getting through other swimmers. Surprisingly, it wasn’t much of a washing machine (at least at the start), until the turn around when we caught most of the slower men. They didn’t want to let us through. I received few punches and elbows as I was making my way back to the pier. On the way out I found myself multiple times off course. The wave was strong enough to move me few meters away from the group I was swimming with. I decided to start sighting every 5th stroke and kept following the bubbles in front of me. My new swim skin started to chafe my neck horribly as I made a rookie mistake and forgot to apply Body Glide.
I was aiming for 1 hour swim time (sub 1 hour would be ideal, but following Rory’s advice “don’t kill yourself on the swim, it’s a long day and few minutes won’t make much difference”, I swam at a comfortable pace). 1 hour 4 minutes - I am happy with my result. As per Garmin I swam extra 500 meters (that’s a lot! We know that Garmin can be inaccurate and I did swim off course few times).
Running through the showers and grabbing my bag, quickly changing and off to my bike. I tried to move as quickly as possible (at least in my mind it was relevantly quick). Mount area and I’m on my bike to quickly realize I forgot to apply sun-screen. Mistake No 2.
First thoughts - how much would I sun burn? 6 hours on the bike will turn me into a tomato (I’m one of those who turns red when sunburnt). I was hoping for clouds to appear but the sky was clear. I shut down all the negative thoughts as I was making the way through the city. The first loop took us through Kona town and then onto the first climb on Palani road. It was my support team first spot - a quick thumb up, I saw the message written on the road for me “Go Olga No 2183”, smiled and turned to Queen K.
Queen K – a long stretch with black lava fields on both sides, I settled into a comfortable gear and started working the targeted power. Everything worked fine and I felt great, praying to the island’s gods to keep the wind this way. The wind was gentle until I reached around 50th kilometer - a massive headwind blew, a wind so strong I’ve never experienced before. I felt at times I was pushed back and was not making any progress. In Dubai winter months we have Shamal wind, I can absolutely state Shamal is a little brother of Kona winds.
I started talking to myself - stay in aero position, head down, this headwind would pass. And it did, once we took a turn towards Hawi, there was a less strong headwind mixed with side winds. I was able to stay in aero position most of the climb towards Hawi town.
There was a lady in a cowboy hat standing on the side of the road that appeared as if she was standing naked covering her nudity with a banner that read “Ironmen are sexy”. She definitely turned some heads.
The sun was high and sky was clear, I could see some clouds surrounding Mauna Kea Mountain. Oh, I begged the island to send them to Kona. I felt I was burning, but how badly I couldn’t understand. I felt heated and kept hydrating and taking water& Gatorade at each aid station (each 11 miles). Huge mistake, my mistake No 3.
I finally reached Hawi at km 96 and started riding downhill, expecting a nice tailwind (on the training day that was a fast decent). There was tailwind but together with strong side winds that felt like doubled in force since the climb to Hawi. I couldn’t stay in aero position, scared to be blown away from the course. I would suggest putting a low profile front wheel (mine was 5 and could feel how the winds were moving me sideways). On my way to Hawi I saw a cyclist going down who was blown off with his bike, he crashed at a very high speed. I was really scared. When I’m scared I have a bad habit of pushing breaks but I promised myself not to break (my heart dropped every time the wind blew me sideways).
At one moment I saw a photographer, and said to myself no way I would appear looking scared on the photo - let me smile)))).
On that downhill from Hawi, I was overtaken by so many cyclists. At one moment I was overtaken by an older lady who had a cameraman following her. She almost caused me a crash as she cut me badly. Soon she started to lose speed and I passed her, asking “Are you some kind of celebrity? This cameraman is only following you!”. She smiled and answered “yes”. I tried to remember if I’ve seen her before but couldn’t recognize her face. I noted her race number to find out later she was Julie Moss (the most famous finish line crawl!). How come I didn’t recognize her! I’ve seen so many documentaries and “Tri Movie” with her. Next day I found out she didn’t finish the race and decided to withdraw after the bike leg.
I was counting kilometers to Queen K highway turn and once finally turned, there was another headwind waiting… yuppie )))) just keep positive. At one point I cried to the island - “Come on! Enough headwind and side winds! How about some tailwind for a change????”. I don’t know if any of the fellow cyclist heard that cry.
Onto Queen K, passed the airport and I saw my support crew, they were shouting some encouragement but I couldn’t hear them - I wasn’t enjoying it anymore and counting last 10 kilometers to the T2. Turned to Palani and into T2. I had no power to undo my shoes, passed my bike to a volunteer and started to run or more likely to walk through the transition. Legs were hurt and jelly, I could feel the damage those winds done to them. In the changing tent I had an amazing volunteer assisting me. She put a cold towel on my shoulders, put my running shoes on, brought me water, put my gels into my pockets. I lifted my tri suit to see how badly I burnt (it looked very red), I started to cry but the lovely lady said “you didn’t sun burn, you got the most amazing tan”. She applied sun lotion on my skin and sent me off with positive words. I thanked her greatly.
The run - a loop through the city via Alii Drive, then up back to Queen K to the Energy Lab and back in town. The first few kilometers I felt ok, I passed Katey from Abu Dhabi Tri Belles who gave me some energy and smiles, ran down to Alii drive. The heat from the pavement was really strong, it was very hot like on a typical summer day in Dubai. My first thoughts were “I never do this again”, “Why did I sign up for another full?!”, “I hate running”.
The support of locals and volunteers along Alii drive was amazing. There were few spots with locals standing with the water hoses, giving cold showers to the runners. The turnaround came sooner than I expected. I bumped into Rory on the way back to the city, I didn’t recognize him as my mind was already cloudy.
Soon I started having tummy cramps. Oh no, it was hellish enough already to add tummy problems to this. I walked when the cramps were unbearable. I had few toilet stops and I felt better until I reached Palani’s climb. I walked it up and turned into the long stretch towards Energy Lab. I thought I could keep my strategy- running from one aid station to another, walking each station but had to adapt to my tummy. I was combining walk & run - running as much as I can until I couldn’t bear the pain in my tummy and had to walk. I kept taking water and Gatorade at each aid station. The heat and humidity were strong, the road was reflecting the heat and it felt like a frying pan. I was surprised to see how many men were walking. I saw 2 Andies on their way back to town - and judging by Andy E face expression he wasn’t having any good time. At one point I started talking to fellow competitors: “Hey, isn’t it a nice day today? Hot and humid - lovely! Blah blah blah.” Some were positive, some were not so much. I thought this way I could take my mind off the pain, it worked! I couldn’t wait to reach the turn to Energy Lab (somehow I felt it wouldn’t suck my energy but would give it back to me instead). And I was right - I ran most of it. I was expecting the Energy Lab road to be empty but it had one of the most amazing support and multiple aid stations. Energy lab road was the second best part of the run course. The sun was setting down and I could feel the temperature cooling. I was begging for my cramps to stop so I could carry on with the run. I was upset as the sun almost set down as I was exiting the Energy Lab road cause that meant I would be coming back into town in complete darkness.
My friend joked a few days earlier that I would be having a disco party on the run. Gosh, he was right – I was given glow sticks on my way back to town. The roads in Kona are not lit, there are no street lights on Queen K highway and only aid stations had some lights. I was waiting for my eyes to adjust to the complete darkness so I could see the road. I continued with my walk/run strategy from one loo to another ((((((. Something I hoped would never happen to me in a race, happened to me in Kona. I was hoping not to start throwing up as that would be a complete disaster.
In the darkness my friend found me. He knew I wasn’t having any good time. He kept riding next to me and talking to me. He carried me through those last dark kilometers. As I almost bumped into a road cone, he switched on a flashlight on his phone. I know that personal support is not allowed at the race but I didn’t think about it at the time.
My head was completely empty, I had no positive thoughts left. But it never struck me that I would not finish, if required I would crawl to that finish line no matter what else might have happened to me on that run.
My GPS was showing that I was very close to town and finishing the run, but the official marks were showing different numbers. After the race I realized that I ran an extra kilometer going from one toilet to another as they located a bit off course.
And finally there it was - the turn to Palani and last 2 kilometers through the city. Euphoria - I have completed one of the hardest races, I have “conquered” Kona and I could finally call myself an Ironman. As I stepped onto the red carpet I couldn’t hold my emotions any longer and tears started running down. Most of you have seen the finish line video, a gift from my coach who recorded the final seconds of my race (I still cry when I watch the video).
Two volunteers helped me to the medical tent, where I was weighted again. I gained 5 pounds. I had about 10 toilet stops. The nurse asked me how much did I drink? I did drink a lot. They laid me down waiting for the doctor to check on me. Turned out my upset tummy and cramps were caused by over-hydration - I drank too much and my liver couldn’t handle all the liquids causing the pain, bloating and cramps. Lesson learnt the hard way ((((.
I spent some time in athletes’ post-race area, I tried to get some food but couldn’t stand the taste and smell (I can never eat after a race). Massage was out of question as my skin badly hurt. All I wanted is a shower. My friend got his way through security and took me home. I was dreading of the shower, dreading my burns will hurt once I put shampoo on. I was applied an aftersun treatment on the burnt areas, my neck was affected the worst, it hurt so bad I saw stars in my eyes, I thought I would faint as the pain was unbearable. I cried badly. Neither could I sleep that night being high on GU and sugar.
Surprisingly, next day I felt ok, I could walk normally and stairs were not an issue. I was emotionally drained for the next 2 days. But on the third day it was “cry me a river”. It all the sudden came to me what happened and I couldn’t hold the tears.
The race was brutal - physically and mentally. It was the hardest day of my life but the experience was truly rewarding. The finish line and Mike Reilly’s words “Olga - young lady, you are an Ironman!” - worth it, worth all the training hours, all the struggles and battles, worth each penny and fil spent, worth all the sweat, tears and blood.
When I did the run and after finishing the race I said to myself “Never again”. But never say never. This race was an eye-opening experience. Racing against the world’s best athletes makes you realize how much work needs to be done to be close to their level (#rookieagainsttheworldsbest).
The mistakes were made and lessons learnt. As much as you prepare for the race you never know what battles you will be going through in Kona.
I consider myself very lucky to race Kona and have my first full ironman done in such an amazing place. I definitely want to come back to the magic island - maybe not as a competitor but as a spectator. The race week atmosphere is so unique and thrilling, I wish every athlete dreaming about Kona to experience it.
It is now time to set new goals and targets. I have decided not to race a full distance next year and transferred my entry from Ironman Frankfurt to Dubai 70.3. There will be a time when I will attempt another full Ironman. Now it’s time to work on my weaknesses.
P.S. A post of gratitude
I would like to thank everyone who was part of my “Road to Kona” – my coach Neil Flanagan and my InnerFight family (without your guidance, knowledge and support I wouldn’t have made it to Kona). My company The First Group, my boss and colleagues that helped my dream to become reality. My friend Volker who was with me in Kona, my girls (you finally have me back in the social scene), my personal trainer Steven Erwee (thank you for all the strength trainings that made me a better cyclist and runner).Thank you to Dubai Masters and Brett Hallam for the swimming sessions, Reiss Adams for the sports massages that helped me to stay injury-free. To all my friends triathletes – for endless support, encouragement and motivation. Mahalo xxx