Visually impaired athlete, Helen Webb, and me before entering the water at the Ironman World Championship. Photo credit: Val Reynolds
No Ironmans in 2017
I wasn’t going to guide an Ironman this year. James and I spent most of 2016 traveling to race and guide. My work travel also quadrupled in 2016, so my intention was to have a more relaxed year in 2017 (relaxed meaning no 140.6 races).
Everything went according to plan, until I received a Facebook message from Helen Webb on May 26th.
I’ll never forget the feeling I got in my stomach when I received her note. I was in my bathroom getting ready for work when I saw the notification.
Helen and I had been chatting for at least a year. She reached out to me when she was beginning to train for her first Ironman in South Africa. I followed her story and offered assistance when I could. It was difficult to do much, given that she lived in South Africa! I offered to guide her if she ever decided to race in the U.S.
That seemed like a remote possibility.
When Ironman announced the winners of the Physically Challenged Lottery for entries into the Ironman World Championship, I saw that Helen had received a spot. I was so excited for her! Our conversation about having me guide her if she came to the U.S. never crossed my mind.
When I opened Helen’s message, my heart rate sped up.
“I have double checked with my South African guide and as I expected she will be unable to [guide in Kona]. So I really, really want you to do it if you can. Reading your posts about guiding was the only thing on the entire internet that made me feel like I would be able to do an Ironman as a visually impaired athlete. It would be such an honor to race with you. I will obviously cover costs.”
It’s incredible to think how much of an impact you can have on someone without even realizing it. Thankfully, my husband, James (we got married one year ago in a civil ceremony and haven’t had a wedding yet, so calling him my husband still gives me a bit of a rush!), encouraged me to say yes. We agreed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It certainly might have been my only chance to race with Helen!
I told Helen that I was in. Next, we would have to figure out the details.
Do you get paid to guide?
Because my social media presence is primarily filled with images of me racing with visually impaired athletes, riding my bike, or photos of my two dogs, people have assumed on more than one occasion that I am essentially a full-time guide.
In the U.S., there is no such thing as a professional guide for visually impaired athletes. In other countries, guides who race with visually impaired athletes at the Paralympic level will receive some compensation, but the U.S. does not currently fund guides. In Ironman racing, there are no professional physically challenged athletes or guides.
I have a fantastic job as a Regional Director at Dimensional Fund Advisors, which is a large mutual fund company based out of Austin, TX. I travel frequently to visit clients and speak at events, so I have a limited amount of time to train. [I have so much respect for people with jobs AND children who find time to train for these races. By no means am I complaining about my schedule!]
*I also want to note just how proud I am to work for a company that truly cares about its clients and employees. I have never felt more supported in both my professional and personal life by an employer.
Though Helen offered to pay for my expenses, I never considered taking her up on her offer. I try to avoid asking VI athletes to cover my travel costs. Now that I am in a position to pay for my own travel, I am more than happy to do so. I also knew that Helen had used up much of her racing budget in preparation for Ironman South Africa, which she completed in April.
(I have raced with some athletes who have been comfortable enough financially to cover my flights. Thank you to those athletes!)
Because I have a large network in the U.S., I put together a Go Fund Me account to help cover Helen’s expenses. Thanks to the generosity of many of my friends and colleagues, as well as support from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Helen wouldn’t have to worry about money.
Through the magic of Facebook, we even secured a homestay for me, Helen, and James for the entire duration of our visits. Karen and Maverick Malech went above and beyond the call of duty as our hosts. I cannot say enough good things about the Malechs.
The last piece of the puzzle was Helen’s bike. In South Africa, Helen rides an absurdly heavy tandem. When I saw photos of the bike, I knew we needed something lighter and faster for Kona. My amazing friend, Tina Ament, who is an eight-time Ironman finisher and ultra-cyclist offered to lend Helen one of her tandems. Thank you over and over again to Tina!!!
So, do you train with the athlete you’re guiding?
Ideally, if you’re going to guide an athlete through an Ironman triathlon, you should spend some time training with the athlete before the race. This was not an option for me and Helen.
I have guided a dozen triathletes, none of whom have lived near me, so I wasn’t worried about my ability to race with Helen.
I did, however, decide that it made sense to enlist the help of a coach. I have worked with a number of coaches throughout my seventeen years of racing, but it had been two years since I followed a structured training plan. My main consideration when it came to choosing a coach was to find someone who could understand and work around the demands of my work travel.
The first person I thought of was Brad Williams. Brad is a pro triathlete, an Air Force veteran, and a new dad, who I’ve known for five years. He has also guided before, which was an added bonus. Brad is the only coach I know that seems to fly even more than I do, so he immediately appealed to me.
With Brad’s help, I trained more consistently than I have in as long as I can remember, throughout the four months leading up to Kona. I lost 10 pounds and increased my FTP by a good bit, and swam every week. Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely swim. In the weeks before heading to Kona, I felt totally prepared for the race. Of course, no matter how prepared you are before a race, there are so many things that are out of your control on race day.
James, Helen, and me in the transition tent on race morning. Helen and I are putting on our XTERRA swim skins. You can see handcycles, wheelchairs, and volunteers all around us. Photo credit: Val Reynolds
Race morning always feels electric to me. I woke up at 4am and began getting ready. Helen met us at Karen and Maverick’s house and we drove down to transition. We walked past all of the fastest age group athletes in the world and were ushered through a special line for pros and physcially challenged athetes, where Helen would be body marked.
After bodymarking, we went through a tent where volunteers weighed each athlete. Finally, we arrived at the PC tent, expecting to find an expanded tent.
When we dropped off our bike the day before the race, the tent was completely full. Race officials must not have taken into account the number of hand cyclists that had qualified for the race. Volunteers had to rearrange bikes in the tent in order to make room for ours. Officials assured us that they would expand the tent overnight so that there would be room for everyone in the morning.
Unfortunately, the tent had not been expanded. All of the hand cycles and upright bikes were crammed into the tiny tent. There was barely room to walk to the porta pottie. Thankfully, the volunteers and handlers were incredible. Any time we needed anything people were there to help.
Helen and I had the best handler of all: James.
Ironman did a number of things wrong when it came to how they treated the para-athletes, but one thing they did right was allowing athletes to choose their own handlers and providing handlers access to every area of the race. James was able to help with our equipment, meet us in the water after our swim, and would have been allowed to enter the medical tent if we had needed him.
After we ensured that our transition bags were ready and that our fuel was on the bike, James, Helen, and I chatted with Dick Hoyt for a bit. He’s raced Kona with his son, Rick, FIVE TIMES. Today, Rick would be racing with their friend, Bryan. I told Dick that he could get a beer with James while we were all on the bike. They would have a looong time to wait (anxiously).
The pro men were in the water. Then, the pro women went off. Next, the age group men. Finally, it was time for the women age groupers and PC athletes to get in the water.
In this photo, I am describing how we will get to the start line to Helen. Age group women are in the background with pink swim caps. Another para athlete is swimming at the bottom of the photo in a green cap. Photo Credit: Val Reynolds
Fifteen months ago, Helen could barely swim 25 meters in the pool. Now, she can swim 2.4 miles with ease! We knew that it would take her the better part of two hours to complete the 2.4 mile swim, which was completely fine, because the cutoff time for the swim was 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Helen isn’t very comfortable treading water, so she asked me to have her swim out to the start as close to the actual start as we could, keeping in mind the fact that it would take her a good 2-3 minutes to get to the stating buoy.
We positioned ourselves at the back of the main group and to the left so that we could avoid getting run over by faster swimmers (and so that we wouldn’t impede anyone else’s progress). In every other Ironman I’ve guided, PC athletes start after the pro athletes, or first, if there is no pro field. I’m probably too accustomed to getting pummeled in the water.
The swim start in Kona was downright civilized, compared to what I’m used to.
For the record, Helen is not a slow swimmer! Athletes in Kona are the fastest in the world, so there were fewer back-of-the-pack racers around us. Helen has a smooth stroke, she swims straight, and she’s very consistent.
I knew that I just had to keep her on course and disrupt her as little as possible.
We only had one incident with an athlete swimming virtually on top of Helen, which shocked us both, considering that the course was NOT crowded at that point! Eventually, I pushed the woman on the shoulder and asked her to give Helen some space. She seemed to be having troubles with her goggles.
Helen made it to the turnaround in great time. When we got to the turn, Helen popper her head out of the water and exclaimed, “Is that a boat??” There was indeed, a massive boat on the course, at the turnaround. The people on the boat leaned over the side and shouted encouraging comments.
We also had what seemed like our own private paddle board escort. A woman began paddling alongside us towards the end of the first half of the swim and accompanied us the entire way back. It was very helpful! She even offered to let Helen hold onto her board when she had to pee, though Helen declined.
During the last third of the swim, my tether stopped cooperating, as did Helen’s. At one point, Helen’s tether either broke or came untied. Before the race, we discussed what we would do if a tether broke, so Helen just stuck her head in the water, retied her tether, and off we went.
When my tether slipped down my thigh, I would just grab it and pull it back up, as quickly as I could.
Finally, I could see the massive inflated gatorade bottle that was positioned at the end of the pier. I focused on holding the shortest, straightest line that I could, as we moved towards the finish.
As we entered the finishing chute, which was maybe 200 meters from the actual finish, I could see James cheering and taking photos. I was overcome with emotion when I saw him and had to try as hard as I could not to cry as I swam.
Fifty meters from the finish, my tether fell off once more, so I decided to just hold it in my hand as we swam in. When I tapped Helen to let her know that we were done, she popped out of the water and danced towards the carpeted stairs that we would climb to get into transition!
James was waiting in the water for us to help us get to T1. It was absolutely incredible to have his help. In the photo I’ve included, you can see James holding Helen’s hand as we climb the steps. It’s impossible NOT to feel wobbly after a 2 hour swim.
Transition 1 (T1):
The first transition was relatively uneventful. My only goal was to make sure I crammed as much food into my pockets as I could. I knew it was going to be a long ride.
For the bike leg, my primary concern is always my athlete’s safety. But in a race as hot as Kona, I also needed to make sure that I didn’t overdo it. I didn’t want to blow myself up and hold Helen back on the run. As a guide, the bike is where I can make the most difference. However, I’m not big enough or strong enough to pull Helen’s legs around, so we are both responsible for putting out power.
Leaving transition, heading out for our 112 mile run. Photo credit: Val Reynolds
I try to ride at a cadence that is comfortable for the athlete I’m racing with, which means I have to be able to ride at both a high or low cadence. When I’m guiding, it is not my race – I needed to ride in a gear that would make Helen feel as effective as possible.
The bike course began with a couple of decently long uphills. I suppose it was a sign of what was to come. When we pulled out of transition, there were a bunch of people cheering for athletes, but I knew that we might end up feeling pretty lonely later on in the course.
One of the first spectators I remember seeing is my neighbor, Chasse, whom James and I encounterd at the Slowtwitch party earlier in the week. We knew that Chasse was a doctor and a cyclist, but had no idea that she would be on the Big Island during race week! Chasse came out to attend a medical conference and to help at the finishers’ medical tent. Chasse said that she just didn’t even know that we did triathlons! Clearly, we weren’t facebook friends yet.
I remember hearing her shout, “Lombardy RULES!!!”
Lombardy is the area of Charlotte in which James, Chasse, and I live. I wish there was a photo of my massive smile after hearing that comment.
As we climbed the first hill, I watched for athletes decending on the other side of the road. I like to set mental goals during races, and one good way to stay focused is to find people to pass. When I mentioned this to Helen, she told me that she feels bad when she passes people, so she likes to say a kind word. All I could think was, I love this woman! Helen and I sometimes seemed to share one brain during the race. Unless I’m unable to speak, I always try to offer encouragement to athletes I pass.
After a long climb and a quick descent, we headed up Palani and out onto the Queen K.
All smiles at the beginning of the bike.
By this point, the race was already pretty spread out, so it was just Helen and me (and Tina’s incredible bike, Cicero). The first half of the bike didn’t feel bad at all. Helen and I had some awesome conversations. We talked about everything from apartheid and U.S. veterans to marriage and children. I’ve said on more than one occasion that there’s no faster way to get to know someone than to spend 100+ miles together on a tandem bike.
Everyone we spoke to before the race told us to prepare for the heat and the hills. Perhaps that’s why the first 50 miles felt manageable. We knew it wasn’t going to be fast.
Things got a little bit more exciting when the men’s and women’s pro athletes began riding past us on the other side of the road.
Before we turned onto the Akoni Pule Highway, we got a huge boost when we saw the first wheelchair athlete coming through! Jentz Platz is an absolute monster. He was handcycling with some of the top age group athletes!
50 miles into the race, we made a right turn to start the climb up to Hawi. The climb to Hawi is 6 miles of a steady, but not-too-steep incline. On the climb, Helen and I had the opportunity to pass three handcyclists (they’re doing the entire race with their arms!) and we got to chat for a minute. It was fantastic to be able to cheer them on.
The climb to Hawi is hard on a solo bike… on a tandem, it’s brutal. Helen did an amazing job keeping her pedal stroke smooth and remaining focused as we made the climb.
It felt incredible to reach the turnaround at Hawi. We made a brief stop to use the restroom and exchange bottles. It was during this stop that I noticed the heat rash that had spread all over the tops of my thighs.
Of course, there was nothing I could do about it, so I just reapplied sunscreen, and off we went.
Riding down from Hawi went smoothly. We caught a couple more people, including Dan St. Pierre, another para athlete that won an entry to Kona through the PC lottery.
Dan only completed his first Ironman a month before Kona – it’s pretty amazing that he wanted to do his second with such a short recovery!
During the decent, we started feeling the heat a bit more. It had been hot the entire day, but the lack of cloud cover certainly wasn’t helping. The sky was perfectly blue. During hot races, I fantasize about jumping back into whatever body of water I had swum in before the bike. During this ride, the ocean was taunting me every step of the way.
By the time we made the final climb back up to the Queen K, Helen was starting to suffer a bit. She began to sweat to the point where her head cover was no longer absorbing her sweat, and her eyes were stinging from the sunscreen that had dripped down her forehead.
We passed an Andrew Jammo, a handcyclist with whom we’d been playing cat and mouse, but forced him to re-pass us when we stopped at the top of the hill so that Helen could wipe her eyes. Andrew shouted at us, “These hills are fucked!” I couldn’t have agreed more.
In most other Ironmans I’ve guided, the hardest part of the bike comes between miles 65 and 85, when you’re not sure if you’ll ever be able to get off your bike.
The middle of the Kona ride was incredibly tough, but it was only going to get tougher towards the end.
Once we hit mile 92, I was hoping to get a second wind. Helen was handling the ride like a champion, especially considering the fact that she trained throughout the winter in South Africa and didn’t even have the benefit of heat training on the bike.
We began to joke that we were being punished for having had such great conversations on the ride out. We were being paid back for our relatively smooth first half of the ride. It felt like purgatory.
With 25 miles to go, I started noticing that Helen was really struggling. She had stopped talking completely and I could feel a difference in her pedal stroke; all of a sudden, it felt like her power output had been cut in half. The heat had finally become too much. I have overheated numerous times throughout my 17 years of racing, so I do everything I can to keep my body temperature down.
Helen and me near the last 40K of the bike, just before we had to stop to cool Helen down. That is not a smile on my face. I am grimacing.
I told Helen that we were going to go get ice at the next aid statin (assuming there was some!).
When we pulled up to the aid station, I told Helen to unclip on both sides and I shouted at a volunteer to help hold the bike while I ran to grab ice. One of the volunteers held open a massive bag filled with ice cubes, many of which were stuck together. (One of the reasons I like Ironman branded races is that the aid stations are generally well-stocked throughout the day. If there hadn’t been ice at this stop, we might not have been able to continue on.)
I told Helen to pull out the front of her jersey and to brace herself for the ice. I shoved a bunch of ice in the front of her kit and then I put some more down her back. As soon as the ice hit her skin, Helen broke down crying. Not just tears, but legitimate sobs. I knew exactly how she was feeling.
Fortunately, as soon as her body temperature dropped a bit, Helen said she felt good enough to get back on the bike. She spent the next 15 minutes of the ride describing what that experience had been like for her. She said that she felt as though her brain had totally shut down.
Helen’s jaw had locked up. And apparently, the only thing she could think to do was to repeat a few phrases in her head that she would inevitably have to say to the medics:
“My name is Helen Webb. I am 37 years old. I live in South Africa.”
Thankfully, we didn’t need medics at that point.
The last 40K of the Kona bike course were the hardest 25 miles I’ve ever ridden. Helen had recovered just in time to ride up a seemingly endless hill, into the wind. The Hawi climb had nothing on this part of the course.
The most twisted part of Kona is that the winds get worse through the day. So, pros and fast age groupers might have a very different experience than the slower competitors.
It is way harder to ride a tandem bike on this course than a single bike. In other Ironmans people have joked that my athletes and I are cheating or that riding a tandem looks so fun. No one made those jokes on the Big Island.
When we hit the few slight downhill sections, it was a struggle to hit 16-18 mph, which is normally cruising speed on a tandem.
We both just wanted to get off the bike and start the run.
I also noticed that the rash on my legs has completely covered my legs. It looked like I was having an allergic reaction. I wasn’t sure whether heat rash would have an impact on our run. But worrying wouldn’t do us any good, so we focused on getting to the end of the bike.
Towards the very end of the ride, we passed part of the run course. It’s always a bit tough to see people racing that are so much farther along than you are. It’s not about whether people are beating us; for me, it’s just knowing how much longer we’ll have to be on the course.
But Helen told me when she first asked me to race with her that she just wanted to finish the race within 17 hours. My goal was to get her to the finish line safely.
7 hours, 41 minutes, 5000+ feet of climbing, and 112 miles after we started riding, we rolled into the finishing chute of the bike. Just before we turned the final corner, I heard my friend, Patrick Hight, screaming for us at the top of his lungs. Patrick is a huge advocate for para athletes and organized and ran the Team Red, White & Blue Triathlon Camp for the 5 years it existed. He was in Kona as a lead Moto driver. There’s something about seeing an old friend in a totally different context that really gets to me. I was in tears as we approached the dismount line.
Transition 2 (T2):
James was waiting to help us as we got off the bike. I wasn’t feeling great after the ride. I had ridden as conservatively as I could, fueled appropriately, and hydrated as well as I could, but the heat and the wind had definitely gotten to me.
I threw a bit of a fit when I tried to access the bathroom in our transition tent, only to discover that it was blocked by a chair. Ironman officials had assured us that there would be enough room for all of the athletes and their equipment, but that didn’t seem to be the case. It felt like we were a bit of an afterthought.
Helen and I put on our running shoes, hats, and race belts. We clipped the tether that James made for that morning onto our race belts, and headed out to begin the marathon.
At the outset, Helen and I decided to walk the ascents on the run course. I will never forget watching a 63 year old woman pass me on the run course when I did 70.3 Hawaii in 2007 (as a 23 year old). This woman walked every hill and I still couldn’t catch her. Helen and I both agreed that it seemed like a reasonable strategy.
Walking up the first part of Palani before turning right to merge with other runners. This is my, “OMG, we have to run a marathon now?” face. See how chipper Helen looks? Photo credit: Val Reynolds.
I felt like I had done everything I could on the bike to remain “fresh” for the marathon, but on that course, on a tandem, it was virtually impossible.
When we first ran up Palani and turned right, the crowds were amazing. But we encountered runners who were nearing the finish line, as about half a mile on the course overlapped with people finishing. It was hard not to feel a bit jealous of the runners that only have a mile left in their race.
One challenge unique to guiding is that you have to deal with another person’s energy level for an entire race. Imagine if you’re feeling amazing and you’re just pumped to be on the course, but the person you’re running with is either cranky, hurting, or just not up to talking. Well, that happens in almost every long race I’ve guided. The interesting thing about Ironman races is that you’ll feel great and then terrible and then great and then terrible, all in one race.
At the beginning of this run, Helen was way more energetic than I. For a while, I tried to hide how I was feeling, because my biggest fear as a guide is that I will slow my athlete down. My only goal besides keeping Helen safe was to help her have her best race.
Helen is an incredibly perceptive person, so it wasn’t hard for her to notice that I wasn’t feeling great. She also had the wisdom to let me know that I could tell her if she was being too chipper. Most of the time, her energy didn’t bother me at all. But at one point, I asked her if she was ready to run a flat section and she said, “KEWL!” In the perkiest voice she’d used all day and I had to ask her to tone it down. That may make me sound like a jerk, but I’m sure that any fellow endurance athletes will understand how I felt in that moment.
Thankfully, despite how bad I felt, I was able to run the pace Helen wanted to run. It was a strange feeling because I didn’t feel impaired or sluggish, I just didn’t feel happy or energetic. I’ve never experienced a feeling like that in an Ironman before. Due to Helen’s limited vision and lack of depth perception, my job on the run was to let her know if there were obstacles on our path and to determine when we were on a hill, so that she would know to walk.
Here I am, pretending to feel good around mile 4 of the run.
Around mile 4, I saw a runner sitting by the side of the road, stretching. He shouted to tell us that we looked strong. When I turned to look at him, I realized that the runner was 6-time Ironman World Champion, Dave Scott.
I shouted back, “I met you at my first Ironman, 12 years ago!!!” I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about, but I was able to recount the story to Helen: I met Dave before I attempted the Silverman full-distance triathlon in 2005 (non-Ironman branded). I chose the race because the weather was supposed to be nice – which it was. However, I neglected to look at the profile of the bike. There was over 6000 feet of climbing! So, when I met Dave, the first thing he said to me was that he thought that some people would have trouble making the bike cutoff. I’ll never forget how afraid I was when I heard those words. I felt an obligation to finish, just like when I’m guiding, because I was worried about letting people down. I had raised almost $5000 for a nonprofit for which I had volunteered during college. I did finish Silverman, and it’s still the only solo 140.6 I’ve ever attempted.
Hearing Dave cheering gave me a bit of a boost, but I still wasn’t feeling fantastic. The only other time I remember feeling energetic during the first 10 miles of the run was when we passed by the Gu house, where speakers were blasting 50 Cent. I can’t remember what song was playing, but I remember feeling like I had been sent back to my college rowing days.
I don’t bring a ton of nutrition onto the run because I try to get most of my calories on the bike. I’ll eat whatever I can stomach at the aid stations, which tends to be mostly Gatorade, coke, and orange slices. I’ll take salty food whenever I can get it. Most Ironman races serve chicken broth later on in the run course, which can be an absolute godsend towards the end of an Ironman. At Ironman Western Australia, I begged for leftover pizza from volunteers, but I didn’t expect that to be an option in Kona.
At one aid station, a volunteer offered us tortilla chips when I yelled to see if they had anything salty. The chips were exactly what I needed! She even offered us hummus, which I don’t think was part of the spread for athletes. We declined, but the offer was just fantastic. Ironman volunteers are truly amazing.
After the 10 mile out and back on Alii Drive, we saw James just before we headed back up Hualalai Road which would take us up Palani (again) and onto the Queen K. James snapped a photo of us, which I believe is the last photo that was taken while we were both still somewhat coherent!
Just before it got really dark. Photo Credit: James Spencer
At that point, it was already getting dark. Volunteers gave us glow in the dark necklaces at the turnaround at mile 5, but those only served to make us visible to other runners. They weren’t bright enough to illuminate the road.
For the first time in my Ironman guiding career, I had remembered to pack lights for the run. However, I left them in my run special needs bag so that I wouldn’t have to carry them for the entire marathon. What I didn’t realize is just how dark it would get before we reached the half way point of the run. I also didn’t realize that special needs was at mile EIGHTEEN of the run. In most Ironman races, the special needs aid stations are at the half way point on both the bike and the run.
Because Helen has some vision, she relies heavily on the vision she does have, which made the darkness on the course even more challenging. Because we felt that it would be far worse to have Helen trip and fall than to walk the dark portions of the run course, we ended up walking a lot between mile 11 and mile 20.
We thought that one benefit to being on the course after dark would be a drop in the temperature. The temperature may have dropped, but heat was still radiating off of the asphalt on the Queen K. Helen and I were both dealing with pretty severe heat rash, so the heat coming up from the group was incredibly unpleasant. I felt like my legs were on fire for most of the run. Heat poisoning feels completely different from a sunburn (with which I am quite familiar). We both had hot, itchy bumps all over our legs. At one point, Helen’s legs felt so bad that she decided to try putting ice on her rash. The sound she emitted after rubbing ice on her sore skin made it quite clear that I should not do the same.
There was no relief on this course. We couldn’t even take Advil from a volunteer because that would be grounds for immediate disqualification.
Unfortunately for Helen, her energy level and mood had begun to match mine!
It felt like we would never reach the turnaround on the Queen K. When we finally did, it was a huge mental milestone for me. Just past the turnaround, we headed into the Energy Lab, the final out and back before heading towards town. However, I didn’t realize just how long run into the Energy Lab actually was. I probably should have been able to figure it out when we passed the 20 mile mark on the other side of the road, given that we had just passed mile 17. It’s hard to do simple math when your brain is fried!
The Energy Lab was fairly well lit, but Helen didn’t seem to be feeling fantastic, so we continued walking. We were conscious of the cutoff time, but weren’t too concerned about making it. We did, however, confirm that the women would have until 12:20 AM to complete the race. We started with the age group women, whose race began at 7:20. Apparently, there have been years when the women were still required to finish by midnight, which would only allow them 16:40 to complete the entire event. On a day like this, I was grateful for the extra time.
I knew that some of the men that were immediately behind us would be pulled from the course before too long.
When we reached special needs, which was right around mile 18 on the course, I grabbed both of the knuckle lights. I turned one on, and clipped the other one to my race belt. I didn’t need much from special needs bag, but I was looking forward to chewing some caffeinated Run Gum. It wouldn’t do much to help me physically, but I hoped that it would help me mentally.
At the turnaround, we crossed over a timing mat. Every time we crossed a timing mat, Helen and I celebrated the fact that the people who were tracking us would know that we were still on track.
I didn’t think it was possible, but after mile 18, I began to feel even worse. My stomach was killing me and my legs felt like lead. Thankfully, when Helen said that she wanted to try running, I was able to run. Slowing her down was not an option.
With 5 or 6 miles to go, James rode up on our tandem. It was such a relief to see him. I told him that I was feeling terrible. Poor James – there was absolutely nothing he could do for me, so telling him that I felt bad probably made him feel utterly helpless. He also seemed concerned about our ability to make it to the finish line before our cutoff. But Helen and I had been doing our best to calculate just how slowly we could go and still make it to the finish in under 17 hours, so we were still confident that we’d make it.
We reached an aid station where the volunteers were incredibly energetic. Each volunteer was yelling loudly to let runners know what was available. Unfortunately, they were yelling so loudly that they couldn’t hear me when I called for chicken broth and water. When I’m guiding, I sometimes need volunteers to put a cup directly into the hand of the athlete with whom I’m racing. Normally, this isn’t a problem, and I’m generally able to react quickly, if a volunteer isn’t responding, but I was in total meltdown mode. I almost started crying when I couldn’t get them to hear me! Of course, the volunteers were just doing their jobs. This situation was just an indication of how shitty I felt in that moment.
I could tell that James was alarmed, so I asked him to distract us. That was something he could do to help! I asked him to tell us who had won the race. The professional racers finished their entire race before we were even off the bike, so we had no idea how everyone had done.
Thankfully, the distraction worked! Helen and I began running more frequently. Suddenly, we were back at the turn onto Palani. James helped us create a plan for how we would finish the race – when we would run and when we would walk. He encouraged us to walk down Palani because it was so steep. But Helen wanted to run, so run we did. The hill was steep enough, that running slowly was really hard. It felt like I was putting on the brakes. I asked Helen if we could pick it up a little and she said, “Of course!” She didn’t want to ask me to run fast, because she thought I felt terrible. And of course, I didn’t feel great, but I told her that she should have asked me! In that moment, I felt like I could fly down the hill. Throughout the race, I kept checking in with Helen to make sure that we were going as fast or as slow as she wanted.
After running the entire Palani downhill, we knew that we were around a mile from the finish line. I had begun to feel much better. Running even felt better than walking. Helen asked if we could walk a short stretch during the final mile, but after we turned onto Hualalai again, we ran the entire way to the finish.
The one consistent piece of advice I was given leading up to Kona was to ENJOY the finish of the race. So, as we approached the finishing chute that was lined with the flags of each nation that was represented, I tried to soak up the moment. The best part of finishing a race close to midnight is the fact that so many racers come back to the finish area to cheer for the final finishers. The finishing chute was lined with people who were screaming their heads off for us.
I noticed that one of the cameramen was following us towards the finish. They had followed us on and off throughout the day, which provided some entertainment (and a bit of motivation). I hope I get to see some professional quality footage of our finish at some point, because it was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
As we approached the finish, I began to cry. It’s not uncommon for me to cry at finish lines – especially at Ironman finish lines… but this was different. I was sobbing.
Before we got to Alii drive for the last time, I told Helen that I would step behind her when we got to the finish line, but she shut that idea down immediately. She said that she wanted me next to her at the finish, so I said that we should hold hands as we crossed the line. I find that holding hands is helpful when you’re sprinting to the finish, for a number of reasons.
16 hours, 27 minutes, and 25 seconds after we began, Helen and I crossed the finish line of the Ironman World Championship. Though I was nameless and numberless in the race, somehow, Mike Reilly even called my name as Helen’s guide.
Hearing Mike say, “Helen Webb, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” Was an indescribable moment. So much had gone into this race. Not just on race day, but everything leading up to it. The fact that Helen said that I had earned this race, given how much I have guided, was just incredible. I was filled with relief, gratitude, and joy.
I just couldn’t stop crying.
I was able to step aside briefly before we embraced so that Helen could have a moment in the spotlight.
This is my favorite photo from the race. I think it sums everything up.
After a long, emotional hug, we walked towards two people wearing floral crowns. I had no idea who they were, but I figured that they were professional triathletes.
A small, thin guy put a necklace around my neck. A taller, attractive woman put one around Helen’s. Helen and the woman hugged and Helen appeared to be crying. I gave the man a quick hug and then stood looking at him, awkwardly.
I found out a few minutes later that my awkward moment was with Patrick Lange, the men’s champion. Now that I’ve watched a few interviews that he’s given, I’m a massive fan of his!
Helen was locked in an embrace with the legendary Daniela Ryf! Thankfully, Helen had recognized her voice and asked, “Are you Daniela?” So, they were able to have a moment together.
I don’t think I stopped crying for at least 30 minutes after the race. I knew that I wasn’t going to get a medal or finisher’s shirt, so I wasn’t focused on anything except getting to a place where I could lie down.
At some point, James or I must have told the volunteer that was walking with me that I wasn’t allowed to receive a finisher’s medal, though I don’t really remember. The next thing I knew, a volunteer at another station had snuck me a medal My crying only intensified after that.
I asked James to capture the moment after a volunteer handed me a medal. So many tears.
Somehow, after lying on the grass for a good 30 minutes, during which time my neighbor, Chasse, came over and diagnosed our rashes as heat rash, we made it up Palani one last time (walking very, very slowly), and got into the car to head back to Karen and Maverick’s.
It’s only been a week and I still haven’t been able to process all of my feelings about the Kona. This was different from any other event I’ve ever attempted. It was hands down the hardest Ironman I’ve ever guided. But it wasn’t just the difficulty. Kona is an incredibly special place. The island is gorgeous, the people are wonderful, and when thousands of the best triathletes descend upon the Big Island, it transforms into an even more magical place (for athletes, at least).
I am so grateful to Helen for inviting me to come race with her. I know that I’ve made a lifelong friend through this experience. I learned so much about myself through the process of training for the race while trying to balance my work travel and attempting to make time for James and our puppies. If I didn’t have a supportive spouse, this wouldn’t have been possible. Supportive doesn’t even cut it when it comes to James, but anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram knows how special he is.
This is a terribly unflattering, but utterly perfect post-race photo. Thanks to Karen and Maverick for the champagne! James, I love you so much!
I am proud of Helen and she will kill me if I don’t say that I’m also proud of myself. I am proud of myself. I think that Helen and I preserved through incredibly challenging conditions. This was our first race together and we had only met 5 days prior, so the odds were stacked against us.
Races that come close to breaking me are the ones I love the most. Kona is now one of my all-time favorite races. I hope to return one day. But more than anything, I hope to race with Helen again in the future.