Every once in while you are blessed with a very special day when history is rewritten, records fall and you surpass your own notions of what is possible to achieve. On 8 October Craig Alexander broke the long standing course record to take his third World Championship win, age group records fell, athletes overcame personal struggles and finishers finally grasped their own personal holy grail. I am so proud to have been part of that historical day.
This blog reiterates, and adds to, the messages I tried my best to convey at the Awards Ceremony. I apologize for my tardiness in putting fingers to keyboard, but there were some serious celebrations to take care of, some luxuriating to be done at the Mauna Lani Bay hotel and some tree trunk like cankles to offload. With the benefit of the passing of time (and sobriety as the affect of the champagne wears off) I have been able to better reflect on what I consider to have been the most exciting, challenging and best race of my career.
Last year I was devastated to succumb to illness and be unable to defend my title. That day Mirinda Carfrae gave everyone a show to remember, especially with her record breaking 2.53 run split, to be crowned world champion. My non-start, however disappointing, instilled in me a hunger like never before. As the saying goes, don’t know what you’ve got until its gone. The fire and desire to regain the world championship title burned all the more brightly.
Coming into a race we all want perfect preparation, minimal disruptions to our routine, great training sessions and no injuries. I am no exception. Up until two weeks prior to the Kona everything was looking rosy – I was on track and determined to give my best ever performance. But this was due to be my 13th ironman race, and we all know about unlucky number 13. And on 24 September it seemed like lady luck had definitely escaped me. We were on our last long ride in Boulder, approaching a corner that I have taken a million times. I was on the hoods, and then suddenly – bang! Body hits tarmac. The result: a sizable donation of skin and blood from my left leg, hip and elbow to the Colorado asphalt. In the days that followed the abrasions were the least of worries. I bruised my hip and elbow, damaged my pectoral muscle and contracted a serious infection in my left leg, which became swollen and red and rendered me unable to walk. On the Tuesday Tom and Dave (Scott) had to carry me out of the pool after my failed attempt at swimming. There is a reason I am nicknamed Muppet.
I delayed my flight to Kona, arriving on the Saturday instead of 10 days before. Greeted with open arms, and a lei, by my Kona mum and dad, John and Linda, and struck, as always, but the smell of the flowers, the warmth of the air, and the energy that the island exudes. Hawaii has a very special place in my heart and arriving at the airport never fails to move and excite me.
But the joy was shortlived. I spent race week unable to swim, and as an impatient patient at Kona Hospital. I had ART treatment from the ceaselessly supportive and sanguine, Mike Leahy, as well as my acupuncturist Allison, who had only come out for a holiday, but was put straight to work. The care I received was outstanding – but the disruption and continued discomfort all added to the weight on my shoulders. Of course, I am no hero, and many other athletes have endured – and overcome – far serious illnesses and injuries than I. I am not recounting what happened in the weeks proceeding the race to elicit sympathy, or make excuses, but rather to share the most important lesson that I learnt: to never to let my head or heart drop.
So yes, life threw me curve ball. I could either be crushed by that ball or I could throw it right back and, to follow the advice of a friend, rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the crash. But would be lying if I said that I wasn’t scared, nervous and apprehensive, and physically suboptimal, coming into the race.
On my race wristband, and on all my water bottles, I write some simple words. One is ‘smile’ and the other ‘never ever give up’. I always say that ironman is 50% physical and 50% mental – all the preparation in the world will not carry you to victory if your mind is not prepared. To plunder the words of Mohammed Ali, “the will must be stronger than the skill”. I was scared of the pain, scared of not being able to do my best and yes, scared of losing. But I had to look fear in the face: conquer my doubts, override my concerns, and attempt to do what I thought was impossible: win the race.
So 8 October dawned. My suboptimal swim left me a lot of work to do. I had been nervous about the pain, I suffered from a lack of power in my right arm, and I didn’t have the speed at the start to fall into the pack that I wouldn’t have wanted to be in. But I had Dave’s wise words ringing in my ear. “Don’t worry if your swim is slow, it’s better to take it steady and be able to complete the race, than to put yourself in a hole you cant get out of”. And so there is was, 1.01 on the clock and a 9min deficit to Julie, and 4mins to Rinny. Suboptimal indeed. I named my bike Phoenix, for obvious reasons, and once aboard I tried to quell any rising panic, keep my head and slowly try to real in those ahead of me, as well as resisting the charges from behind. I managed the former, aside from Julie who was having the ride of her life out in front, and Karen Thurig, who was doing what she does best, dominating the bike and leaving most athletes in her wake. I overtook Rinny on the climb up to Hawi, where I saw my family and friends jumping up and down with huge banners, and behaving in a manner that would have gotten them arrested under normal circumstances. Despite their smiles and funky chicken dancing I knew they were more concerned than I actually was about the deficit that was mounting between myself and Julie. Soon after, I was overtaken by the bullet that was Karen Thurig, and I managed to stay with her for about 10miles, until I had to concede that her pace was over and above my capabilities. I ignored the aches and pains that attacked my body, coming and going, and preventing me from ever really feeling comfortable. I sat up at every aid station and incline to try and open up my hips, and ease the numbness that had developed in my lower back. The sensation when my pee trickled down my leg into my wounds resulted in more than a few swear words. I just made sure that NBC wasn’t there to capture it.
In T2 I slipped into my special War on ALS racers, with the War on ALS laces, I was about 22minutes down on Julie, and 10 from Leanda and Rachel, who were all having fantastic races. I proceeded to run like I had a firework up my backside. I was determined to make hay while the sun shone, and it was definitely shining with no cloud cover and temps of about 90 degrees plus. Once again I had Dave’s voice in my ears “Focus, focus focus, I know you want to smile and wave, but you need to devote every ounce of energy to your performance”. So yes, there were a few less smiles than normal.
There were many instances when body and mind were screaming in agony. The pain in my right hip was excruciating, my form was poor with my left foot turned out like a duck, and soon after other areas of my body started to feel the affects from my changed gait. Hamstrings, calves, even my shoulders cried out for me to stop. I had that ugly voice on one shoulder suggesting I quit and take the easy route. But I hate the goddamn easy route, and I know that I can never rest until I know I have given it absolutely everything. So I ignored the pain. I ignored the internal whispers. It was the other voice, the louder one on the opposite shoulder, which gave me the will to continue: which enabled me to keep my head, and to plunder the words of Kipling, to force my “…heart and nerve and sinew to serve their turn long after they are gone, and so hold when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them ‘Hold On!”
I let the cheers of the crowd lift propel me forwards. I had the sight of my boyfriend Tom, en route to an amazing 11th pace, to give me a boost. As I overtook Julie, Rachel, Leanda and finally Caroline, at the entrance to the famous Energy Lab my confidence soared but, unlike the name of the lab, my energy levels were waning. “Just keep your head, keep your head” rung in my ears. “Never ever give up”. I recalled times in training and racing when I have suffered and endured pain, I recalled Jon Blais and others who have shown what it is to be truly courageous, and I thought of my family and friends and my desire not to let them, or myself, down.
Once onto the Queen K Highway for the long run home I felt better, and my strength returned over the next 7km, only to fade again as I climbed the final hill to Palani. I was given all manner of splits “4mins from Rinny, 5mins from Rinny, Rinny is only 3mins behind!” – I knew couldn’t let up, not even for a second. It was only as I descended Palani and let the momentum carry me down did I truly believe that my body would hold out, and that I would win my fourth World Championship crown. And as I finished the final meters along Ali’i drive, waving and smiling I truly felt overwhelmed by what I had managed to achieve. Like 2007, when I won Kona for the first time, it seemed so surreal (although this time people knew who I was!). I heard the conch shells, the noise of the crowds, the sound of the drums, and the voice of Mike Reilly I was awash with emotion. As I reached the finish tape, hoisted it over my head, and then rolled in memory of Jon Blais, I was overcome with a sense of pride, satisfaction, relief, and unadulterated joy that I had won: that I had defied what I had thought possible.
I left everything out there on the course in Kona. Blood, sweat and tears, and a few bits of skin. I lay my my heart and soul on the line in an attempt to conquer my demons, the course, the brutal conditions, my injuries, my doubts, and all the other amazing athletes and win that race. I have often said that I have wanted to finish an ironman feeling emotionally and physically spent. On that day my wish came true. People sometimes say to me that I make winning ironman races look easy. I hope I showed that I am human. I bleed, I cry, I even curse, but I will dig to the depths to give everything I have to this wonderful sport, to realizing the potential inside myself and be the best I can be. The time was irrelevant, ordinarily I would have wanted to be faster across all three disciplines, but this is not the criteria by which I judge success. Success to me is knowing I have given it everything I can – that I have done the best with what I have. Of all my ironman victories this is the performance - this is the moment in my life – that I am without a doubt the most proud of.
But I couldn’t have done what I did without my competitors. The women’s field is replete with talent. Their presence, their guts, determination and strength forced me to dig deeper than I have ever dug. I am accustomed to racing from the front. This was different. It was a true race, a hard fought battle. This is what competition is all about. I have the deepest respect for everyone that toes that start line, and my victory is also due in large part to their incredible performances.
Although we athletes race as individuals, we cannot do this alone. I shared the start line with Tom, the love of my life; and I looked up at the pier, and saw these huge banners, held by my family and friends who had travelled millions of miles to support me. And at the different points on the course, there they are jumping up and down as I went past (I did spot a mai tai in their hands on more than one occasion, which may have explained the increasingly vigourous and enthusiastic support!). At the finish they are the arms I fall into, with the thought of my brother and so many others watching on their computer screens never far from my mind. Of course my family is also made up of my great sponsors, my wonderful manager Ben, my support team and especially my coach, Dave Scott. I know I almost gave him a heart attack two weeks ago, but luckily as six time World Champion his heart is strong enough to withstand all the stress. My family means the world to me. Without their support I wouldn’t have achieved my dreams, and I credit my victories to them.
But everyone who crossed that finish line is part of the special club: an ironman family. We come from different countries, we span age categories, we have different backgrounds and abilities but we are united by the same goal: to be crowned an ironman. I was there to greet some of them as they crossed the line. It is the age group athletes that never cease to amaze me. Of course, it is not all about the athletes. The ironman family comprises tens of thousands of volunteers the world over. The day after the main awards ceremony they have a volunteers party. 4000 people come – their aloha underpins this race. I was so happy to able to go to this party, and to say a personal ‘mahalo’. And the crowds. I couldn’t believe the how many people lined the streets, especially those dressed in weird and wonderful outfits. Of note were the bananas, who took me back to the fruity marriage proposals I received in 2008. These bananas were female this time, but still extending offers of marriage. Always pleasing. And a special mention has to go to the man in the huge sumo outfit, who ran with me as I came back into town for the last time. It’s incredibly embarrassing when a man in an oversized sumo outfit can run much faster than you. And even worse when it is captured on film!
This interaction, this aloha, this mutual respect, support and encouragement is what being part of the global ironman family is really all about.
When I first tuned professional 4 ½ years ago I said to my then coach “Brett, I feel so selfish, everything I do in this sport is for me and me alone”. His response “Just you wait Chrissie, within a couple of years, through your achievements, you will be able to affect more change than you ever thought possible”. His prophecy has come true. I have said it before, and I will say it again, sport has phenomenal, far-reaching amazing power. It is a vehicle to do great things. For me, winning races is not about the glory, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the times. The key is the manner in which I try and win, the lessons I learn and the message I hope I convey. Kona 2011 offers me a valuable, simple lesson. It teaches me never to stop believing. It should teach you all never to stop believing too. Our limits may not be where we think they are.
I sit here writing this as four-time World Champion. I am so honored to hold that title. It means everything to me. This is so much more than a victory. Being World Champion is a privilege. It is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. It is a platform – a once in a lifetime opportunity and I will do whatever I can to help represent our amazing ironman family, and be a champion you can all be proud of.
Majority of photos by Larry Maurer, www.maurerphoto.com