Cancer to KONA – Paul’s 2017 KONA Race Report
Ironman World Championship: Kona, Hawaii
Date of Race: 10/14/2017
Total Race Time: 14h 12m 1s
Overall Place: 1960 / 2232
Age Group: Male 50-54
Age Group Place: 185 / 212
I will try not to go into too much detail too far back as most folks who care to read this know my story.
In June last year (2016) I was diagnosed with Appendix Cancer. It was discovered when my appendix burst just two weeks after completing the National 24-hr challenge road race. I went through a few surgeries spending 5-6 weeks in the hospital off and on – most notably for one month in September 2016 where many complications occurred. In December I started chemo therapy and completed my treatments in June 2017. I spent most of that time sick in bed due to the side effects of the chemo treatments.
I qualified for KONA 2016 in Ironman Arizona. When I found out I had cancer I cancelled the rest of my races, but reached out to WTC to defer my KONA spot until 2017. At the time, the doctors told me my treatment would only take a couple months so I figured I would have time to prepare for 2017. WTC was extremely supportive and deferred my KONA slot to 2017. Tiffany was my main contact and she even sent me all the SWAG (duffle bag, towel etc) from KONA 2016. She also sent me a card when my treatment was over signed by all the Hawaii Ironman team. Pretty cool for them to do all that.
Early on during chemo when feeling reasonable every other week, I tried to do an easy trainer ride but it created additional risks and I finally I had to stop. So, getting ready to race KONA was not in the cards. For the record, I did race KONA in 2011 and 2012 so I have experience on the course going hard and was pleased with my finish times those years so racing for a time goal was not that important to me anyway.
When I finished treatment, I was extremely weak and my first goal was to make it to the start line. There was more than one time I honestly did not think I was going to pull through. Those were dark times, and the thought of getting to the start line in Hawaii didn’t seem possible, let alone finishing a race like that. After I got myself to reasonable health I turned my attention to finishing. I planned to work my butt off and get fit enough to finish under the cutoff. I have never gone into a race worried about the cutoff, but this time I had to work my tail off to try and make that cutoff.
Training was very difficult. I still have a hernia in the middle of my abdomen so that complicated things as well. My doctors will deal with that at the end of this year or early next year. They also left me with no belly button, but it turns out the belly button isn’t critical to Ironman training which is nice. I could not swim much right after treatment and I could not run at all. I was able to start swimming a little but I could not run at all – supporting muscle structures just did not allow it and each time I tried, it caused issues. So, I rode my bike and rode some more. I also did strength work to build back muscle. I swam a little but did no running leading up to the race.
For the first month or two, it was frustrating. I would ride for an hour as hard as I could and could barely manage 14mph with a heart rate above threshold. No workout was easy. Even if I tried an easy ride, my heart rate was extreme. The power and speed were easy, but the workout was not – every workout felt like a threshold workout. Eventually things started improving and every week I felt stronger. I still couldn’t run and I swam only a little, but my cycling was showing real progress. My heart rate was still abnormally high but I was gaining strength, speed and endurance. It was pretty cool since I could actually feel the improvement on a weekly basis.
By the end of my training cycle I was riding with the big boys and girls in the club and holding my own. I was working hard but I could do it.
Jim and I arrived in KONA the Sunday before the race and spent the week just hanging out and doing all the things you do in Hawaii – snorkeling, swimming, eating, drinking, shopping, site seeing and mostly chatting with old and new friends. Ironman week in KONA is a spectacle in itself. I like to call it Chucky Cheese for Triathletes. There is swim, bike and run SWAG being given out all over the place and every vendor out there has a booth with all the current and new products. Everywhere you go there very fit athletes in skimpy speedos and spandex. It is like a Triathlon festival all week long up and down Alii drive.
I checked in on Tuesday and received a Golden Ticket. Oakley gave 200 random athletes a Golden Ticket in their registration packet. I took that Golden Ticket to their booth in the Athlete Village and they gave me a free pair of Oakley Radar Pace sunglasses. Those things are high end Oakley sunglasses with built-in headphones for music and integrated realtime coaching – e.g. while running it will tell you how fast you should be going at any particular time. Pretty sweet. As you might expect, I already have a pair so I gave them to Jim. I am a bit of a gadget geek.
My biggest concern was making the swim cutoff. KONA is a very tough swim since it is a non-wetsuit Ocean swim. The waves can get pretty rough and the salt water burns which can be an issue if you swallow too much or your goggles leak. The first day of race week, I swam the entire KONA swim course to see how close I would be to the cutoff time (2h 20m). I did it in 1h 52m so my confidence was high that I could make the cut.
It’s really cool in KONA since they have a bunch of buoys out a week ahead of the race and they have boarders and Kayakers on course all morning every day so you can swim whenever you want. I swam each day Monday through Thursday. The practice swims can be more difficult than the race because folks are going in all directions.
I rode my bike on the Queen K for about an hour each day. I was feeling pretty good about the bike but the traffic was pretty bad due to all the construction so you had to be extra careful. One of the pros (Tim Donn) got hit by a car on a practice day and could not race due to his injuries. It is worth noting that although my cycling has improved dramatically in the last 12 weeks, I was still working abnormally hard on my rides. My heart rate was much higher for my efforts vs. pre-cancer HR levels. So, even though I could hold decent watts, it was at higher effort levels. That has been a theme since the first day I started training again.
I did not run. I thought I might be able to since I was healthy in that regard, but I didn’t want to risk getting injured since I only felt *run healthy* for the last 2 weeks. If I was gonna get injured I wanted to wait until race day.
Jim and I got up about 4 and went down, got body marked and got my bike setup and ready. I had 25mm rear tire and the slots for bikes in KONA are very tight. Many of us with 25mm tires needed to use a crow bar to widen the slots so we could get the wheels to get into the slot. Nothing major just some info that may come in handy later. Jim and I went back to our hotel and I went back down before the swim start.
I typically eat about 1,000 calories a few hours before an Ironman. For this one, I ate a bagel with peanut butter and drank water and coffee. I was full. I am not sure why I didnt fuel up like I needed but I didnt and that was a mistake. I probably needed *more* than usual since I knew the swim was going to take me a lot longer and a lot more energy than usual.
I did not do a warmup since I knew the swim would be my warmup. We just sat in transition waiting for our turn to get in the water. I chatted with a lot of athletes and most were nervous. Its always fun since KONA has so many international athletes to chat with.
Swim Time: 1:36:27
Although I was nervous about the swim, the water was more calm than it was last time I did it due to the wind direction – bad for the bike but good for the swim. This made me confident I could make the cutoff and even in the 1:45-ish time if things worked out.
I knew where I had to position myself in the crowd and how I had to start — I actually did think about this ;-). I went way left in the back to stay out of the scrum. When the cannon fired, I did breast stroke easy for the first 30 seconds or so to let everyone go by and I got myself some nice clean water. It was beautiful with lots of cool marine life below. The swim in KONA is very tough and the salt water burns but it is beautiful. So, I got some clean water and just enjoyed it. I had my watch set to autolap every 500 yards. I was doing them in 10-11 minutes so I knew I would easily make the cutoff. That helped me relax and keep things the way they were.
I was concerned about the women since they started 15 minutes behind us which meant they would be swimming on top of me at some point before the turnaround at the body glove boat. My strategy was to stay wide the entire way since the fast agressive swimmers stay tight on the buoys. I saw the women swim by starting about half way – at the boat. I had no issues and watched them go. I tried hopping on the feet of some of the ones that passed me slowly but could not hang on to any of them and I did not expect to.
When I got out of the water, I was as happy as I could be. 1hour 36 minutes. Not a time I would normally be stoked about but on this day, it was incredibly awesome. I smiled from ear to ear directly into the camera.
T1 Time: 10:30
Took my sweet time in T1. I was in no hurry. I walked into the tent and completely changed into my bike stuff and put on socks and shoes and drank some water. I walked slowly to my bike thanking and high fiving the volunteers. It was a very slow, but stress free T1.
Bike Time: 5:47:18
Any one who has raced here will tell you that this bike course is a beast. It is not flat (~5500 feet of climbing). It is hot and feels much hotter. And it is windy. The winds can be crazy and unlike any other course I have ever done by far. The winds can also get you from many directions throughout the day as they change. On race day during the bike they started from ENE and ended SSW. That is kind of the opposite of what you want and the KONA winds up to Hawi are just crazy and suck the life out of you.
I felt prepared, but the wind and the heat won on this day.
My plan was to go pretty hard on the bike since I knew I could not run. I felt good and was averaging close to 24mph through the first 30 miles. Boy how things change. At around mile 30, I got smacked in the face with some heavy head and cross winds. That was sooner than I expected but the weather forecast clearly predicted it. It was also very hot and on any climb, it felt like an oven and just was sucking the life out of me bit by bit. I was not ready for this.
At the same time (about mile 30), my feet and neck started to hurt a lot. I could feel the blisters forming on my feet and it was getting painful. For the rest of the ride I tried to adjust my shoes and feet in the shoes but got no relief. It kept getting worse and it was driving me insane. I have not had this particular issue on the bike before but it was my own fault. I wore a new pair of bike shoes and wore socks. For me, the socks get wet and then blisters form. Also, my shoes were too narrow / small which was made worse by the thick custom insoles I used. I typically put chamois on my feet and in my shoes and let the water drain which had served me well in the past.
To make things worse, my back and neck started to ache. Again, my bad. By half way, I was sitting up a lot trying to stretch my back and neck to get relief but I never got much. I rode so well here last time, this was terribly frustrating.
I glanced at my heart rate just to see if I was justified in how I felt and my HR was way too high. I was seeing 160’s and 170’s and my past experience taught me that I need to stay below 140 during the bike leg in Ironman – preferably 135. Any time spent in the 160’s or higher was a no no for sure. But that is where I was. I got it down from 170+ but could not get it down much lower until I almost shut things down.
I have never been great in the heat and always experience elevated heart rate but this was extreme. I was definitely not ready for the heat and it showed. Almost all of my long training rides over the last 8 weeks have been in really nice weather most of the ride – certainly not hot. I was not in good enough shape to handle this however you slice it.
When we turned up towards Hawi, the winds expectedly got stronger and many more crosswinds. There were many times I got pushed around quite a bit side to side on my bike and had to re-act quickly to avoid something terrible.
After the turnaround, we got relief and a tail wind for a little bit but then hit the strong winds once again. Heart rate was still above anything I could handle. Later I checked and my average HR was 151 with my target average being 135.
To be frank, I was disappointed in my bike performance. I honestly thought I could ride 5:15. I did 4:59 and 5:08 here and I thought I was 90-95% bike fitness. Unfortunately, I was not. I really missed on this one but I promise that I will get back to full bike fitness soon enough.
As I mentioned, I screwed up bike nutrition. I typically have a strict regimen of 350-400 calories and 40 oz of fluids per hour. On such a hot day I go up to 60 oz per hour which is why I continue to use the big Aquacell for Ironman races. My previous IM strategy used a combination of bonk breaker bars and highly concentrated mixes of EFS or something similar. I could carry 2000 calories and just needed water and small supplemental calories from the course.
I didn’t plan my nutrition at all for this one. I remember on our last long ride in Cartersville, Tim asked me what I was doing for nutrition for this. I said I didn’t know and I hadn’t thought about it at all. A couple days before the race, I gathered up 4 Clif Bars at the expo for calories. That, plus water bottles full of mostly water and a little gatorade was my complete bike nutrition. I supplemented that by getting a bottle water at most of the bike aid stations and a bottle of gatorade at a couple.
This was clearly a really bad idea and I believe it contributed to my sub standard bike split. Even in my current situation, I feel I greatly under achieved here.
I think I missed it since I convinced myself that since I wasn’t truly *racing* this one but rather just trying to complete it, some stuff didn’t matter that much. Turns out that it does matter and it matters a lot. Probably mattered even more given how long I was out there.
Bike Lessons Learned
- Nutrition Matters. I don’t need to rehash what I said above. I messed up.
- No Socks. I quit wearing socks years ago instead opting to put chamois in my shoes and on my feet. When I wear socks in ironman, they get wet and my feet get blisters. I had pretty major blisters on 4 of my toes and it started about mile 30 of the bike. I chose to wear socks because I knew I would take extra time in T1 and T2 but I forgot that was not the reason I quit wearing them. Note for next time: NO socks. This one combined with the new bike shoes caused me grave pain for at least 3 hours.
- No to new bike shoes. I opted to wear a new pair of red bike shoes vs. the ones I have been training in. I did this because I expected them to be more comfortable (they felt fine for the few short rides I used them) and they matched my ATC bike kit. My feet were killing me starting at about mile 30 on the bike. I kept adjusting them, pulling feet out and wiggling them around to try a get relief but nothing worked. I pulled my shoes off immediately in T2 as the pain was unbearable. Note for next time: Wear the same shoes I plan to race in on most training rides and certainly the long ones.
- Practice on Tri Bike. I enjoy riding my road bike way more than my Tri bike so I basically avoided riding my Tri bike in training. While I don’t believe it is necessary to ride it all the time and I still plan to stick to the roadie in group rides, I should have ridden my Tri bike on several very long rides to get used to being in the position. Before cancer – after the first several years – I didn’t ride my Tri bike much either but I raced all the time and I hadn’t been sick in bed for a year.
- Manage the Heat. I didn’t manage the heat well. I stink in the heat and I should have remembered that. I should have started slower and focussed on keeping core temp down with ice and more fluids. Training in the heat a little would also help but frankly the best training for the heat is to be extremely fit and that wasn’t in the cards for me this time.
- Understand fitness level. OK, this is a tough one. I didn’t honestly understand my fitness level in tackling this race in these conditions. To be fair, I didn’t really know since I used the microwave training method vs the slow/steady base, build, peak model – no time for that. I followed the get healthy enough to ride, peak, peak, peak method. I raced as if I was as fit as I was before I got sick and it was not the right thing to do. I am not as fit as I thought. I now accept that. Therapy session over.
T2 Time: 9:12
As soon as I got into T2, I immediately got out of my bike shoes. Normally I doing flying starts and flying dismounts but I was wearing road shoes with that BOA thing so that was not possible and I was not concerned about my transition times. 4 of my 10 toes had big blisters and my feet hurt like hell. I have never had that happen before and I did not enjoy it. Getting those shoes off felt pretty good and I felt like chucking them off the pier, but I couldn’t do that to all those beautiful fish.
I took my time in T2 and changed into my running gear. Nothing interesting happened but I took my time.
Run (aka walk) Time: 6:28:36
It was an interesting experience for me since the winners were finishing as I was just starting my run. It was a mixed, strange feeling but it also brought to my attention that I had 9 1/2 hours to complete the run. Even in my weakened state that should be quite doable. I quickly calculated that I could walk well over 20 min/mile and still finish in 9.5 hours. That was comforting but I hoped it wouldn’t take that long. Eeeks.
I started walking up Palani out of T2 figuring I could pick things up after I settled down past the initial short climb. I thought I could do a run/walk of 1 minute run, 2 minute walk, repeat a gazillion times. I couldnt. Each time I tried to transition from walk to run, my knees, quads and heels could not handle it so I just kept on power walking. Trust me, I was not lollygagging, I was doing a serious power walk. The walking on incline during training turned out to be decent preparation for that.
I was able to pace at about 15 min/mile which was pretty good but phsycially and mentally challenging. Power walking is much harder than I thought. My quads were burning pretty bad for the last 3-4 hours. I completely underestimated how hard it was gonna be to walk the run.
As always, it was extremely hot. The air temp does not tell the whole story in KONA. The *feels like* was about 95 and they say the ground can radiate up to 130. There are no trees for cover – just black lava. I got water and/or gatorade at every aid station and poured ice down the front and back of my jersey. I also carried some ice in each of my hands. By the time I got to about mile 8 the aid stations didn’t have ice but it was within an hour of dusk so it was not as important at that point. Of course, I would have liked it.
Hot corner (Kuakini meets Palani) was a big party and they had a guy announcing athletes as they came through. He high five’d me and congratulated me for attempting this as he explained to the fans about my battle with cancer. It got me a little choked up but also made me feel special.
It started to get dark well before I got to the energy lab and when I turned into the energy lab it was pitch black. They had loud music and a party going near the entrance / exit but the rest of that section was completely dark with no lighting except the one at the turnaround. It was totally different from what I experienced and it was very strange. I was surprised since you spend about 3 miles in the EL and it seemed a bit dangerous. We had glow sticks so we wouldn’t run into each other.
I continued power walking and my pace slowed but only a little. Until mile 24, I never thought about how much was in front of me – I only thought about what was behind. This has always been a rule of mine in Ironman (although the rule only goes to mile 20 when I *race*) and it was especially important today since it took so long.
I got to the turn down Palani and felt warm and excited all over. I wanted to start running very badly but attempting that down Palani would have certainly caused me to fall over and die. This would be a horrible time to die. So, I walked down Palani and went past mile 25. Once I got to the flat part I saw Rogue and started a slow shuffle jog. Rogue ran with me until I got to Alii when Jim met me. He stayed clear enough since he said he didn’t want me DQ’d.
I continued to run down Alii, trying desperately to hold in my tears. The crowds were huge and almost completely blocking the run. I had to shuck and jive to avoid them a little but it helped take my mind off things. I picked up the pace to what was almost a run as the adrenaline completely took over and I finally crossed the finish line. Mike Reilly pronounced my name wrong (He says “Linik”) but I didn’t care. I was overcome with emotion and almost fell over when the catchers grabbed me and wrapped me in a towel.
Power walking 26.2 miles in an Ironman is hard. It is mentally a huge challenge knowing it is talking soooo long. The impact on the quads was much more severe that I ever imagined.
To prepare for Ironman, it is advisable to do some running. I don’t plan to do another one (or any triathlon) without any run training in the future.
Smiling really helps. It gives you a boost of energy inside and the crowds love it. When you smile the cheering gets louder and everyone is happy. Its a win win. I realize that is corny but it worked for me. I have a lot to smile about these days so it was not that difficult. Now looking at the pics I realize I must get that teeth whitening thing done. My teeth are ugly. I can’t really blame cancer for that but for 21 days I couldn’t eat or drink — the doctors only let me suck on dumb dumbs. So for 3 weeks I was sucking on candy all day and not brushing my teeth which certainly didn’t help :-0. I have excuses all over this race report so why stop here.
It was a very emotional and special finish. Mike Reilly announced to the fans about my fight with cancer and everyone cheered and cheered. It was truly an EPIC moment in my life. Something I was certain I would never be able to do again and I just did it. It took a crap-long time, and I was depleted and in pain, but I felt fantastic.
Tiffany (look at how white her teeth are) from Ironman met me at the finish line and gave me a big hug. Jim was waiting for me as well and he was crying with joy. He took care of me through all this and continues to be there for me at every turn.
Jim took me to Splashers for a cheeseburger where we met Allison and Rogue. Luckily Allison is a nurse since after I ate about half my cheeseburger she noticed me floating off into the Abyss. She grabbed the medical tent Doctor (Craig) — who luckily was seated right by us — and he took me back into medical tent in a wheelchair. The doctors were a bit freaked (and extra careful) that I just finished chemo in June, had an open hernia, and did this race. That made them a little concerned about what could be wrong. But they did call me their *hero* (aka nut-job) which is a good boost to the ego. Everything turned out fine and after about 30 minutes of rest and fluids I was released. Jim, Allison and Rogue made sure I got to the hotel safely. I zonked pretty quickly after that.
What I would do different
It was interesting. After 23 Ironman completions (plus 2 failed attempts), you would think I would know what to do. I trained super hard for this but I dropped the ball on several items and I hope folks can learn a little from this. I think the main reason was that it was a less *serious* race in terms of competitive performance. Sure, it was a huge accomplishment for me just to finish, but I knew I could not be competitive and no matter what happened, it would be a victory if I just completed it. So, I let things slide and didnt take certain items seriously enough. That was not a good idea. No matter how long it takes, Ironman is really hard and the proper preparation and execution needs to be carefully considered. I wasted some of my hard training unnecessarily.
Of course, the biggest thing I did different was not in my control. Getting cancer, being mostly in bed for a year being pumped with poison, then trying to get in Ironman shape in 3-4 months is not ideal. It is not good ironman prep strategy. I started from less than zero fitness and was still full of nasty chemicals. I do not recommend this.
Some of the other items I messed up and would change are detailed through this report so I won’t rehash them here. Sure, I know I did that a crap ton in this report, but sometimes I catch it and correct it. I will probably do it some more before the end. Ok? Fine. I am a software geek, not a writer.
Suffice it to say I made a lot of mistakes and have much room for improvement beyond just being in insufficient physical condition.
This one was really special for me. I had serious doubts that I could finish any race, let alone the Ironman World Championship in KONA. I worked and suffered as hard as my body allowed for the last few months to try and get fit enough to attempt it. I remember trying my first few rides in June after chemo and it seemed impossible. In those days I figured I would end up cancelling the whole notion. Everyone would understand and no one would care. Except me.
It was the most difficult Ironman I have ever done. My body was in no condition for this and it was a huge mental challenge. I felt I had to prove to myself that I could do it and I did not want to let anybody down. I had so many people wishing me well and supporting me along the way I can’t mention them all. If I do, I will leave someone out and I will feel like shit. You all know who you are. I did this for myself and all of you. I had the best excuse of all to quit when it got horrible, but I knew I would not quit as long as my legs could move. All of you have been great motivation and I sincerely could not have done it without your support. People say this sappy stuff all the time and I now truly get it. It would not have been possible for me to do this alone. No way. Thank You.
Am I disappointed in my time? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. Given I was well over 4 hours slower than the last time I did this one, it would seem obvious. In some small way, I must admit, it bugs me. In Ironman (not Kona per se), I used to be one of the contenders — a real AG FOPer — and now I struggle to make the cut. I spent years building fitness and suffering to get to that point and it’s gone. In that sense it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.
Of course, in all the ways that matter, I am the exactly the opposite of disappointed. I am ecstatic. I can reset my PR — my post-cancer PR is 14:12. I should be able to improve upon that. And, I was not in last place. Pretty cool. It was an Ironman victory like nothing I ever experienced. Looking through my hospital window at this time last year, praying just to make it, I never expected to be able to do this again. I thought that part of my life was over. I feel lucky I reached the start line. I put as much work into this as humanly possible. A lot of (i.e. most) doctors/nurses advised me not to do it. To me, it was an important part of my recovery and forced me to get my butt back in shape. Crossing that finish line gets me one step closer to normal I feel fantastic.
My follow up scans are scheduled for the first week of November. Fingers crossed. I have one more surgery to repair some of the remaining issues. Unfortunately, I think my belly button is gone for good. That will put me out again for a bit, but I am back and ready for whats next.
Thanks to everyone for being there with me for the last year and a half and also for everyone who endured this race report.