The alarm went off at 3:31 a.m. and suddenly it was real! No going back now. Carolyn and I ate breakfast, got dressed, and grabbed our drop bags to head to the busses. She was doing the half marathon and it was her first race *ever* so I tried to focus on being excited for her rather than terrified for myself!
This still felt crazy. I obviously didn’t have anything that remotely resembled a proper marathon training cycle for this. BUT I do have years of running underneath me now, had built up some solid Ironman fitness last fall (pre-crash), had run/walked the Dopey Challenge in January, got a few decent long runs in for Boston, and felt like I had just finally tapped back into “my” legs. And I’ve been in marathon shape enough times over the past few years (whether I’ve actually been able to materialize that into a race or not) that I knew how to do this. It was FAR from perfect, but there was enough rusty fitness somewhere in there and I had enough determination in me to dig for the bottom of that well. At least, that's what I told myself on the long bus ride to the start.
It was already 76 humid degrees in Waikoloa Village by 6 a.m. The wind advisory (up to 30 mph constant, 50 mph gusts) was slated to end right then, and it had indeed calmed down a little. It was still plenty windy, though, and the wind was only going to pick back up through the course of the marathon. Temperatures were cooler at the start, but I found that I didn’t actually need the jacket or gloves that I had brought. It was going to be a hot one! And I realized that I had left two important things in the hotel: sunscreen and my tube of BASE salt – a necessity for racing in the heat. Shoot.
This was the inaugural Kulia Marathon, which normally might have caused some pause for me from an organizational standpoint. But it was hosted by Revel, which has a reputation for putting on quality races. I wasn’t disappointed – the morning logistics were smooth and easy, there were plenty of amenities at the start line, the course was well-marked and well-monitored, and the aid stations were consistent and well-stocked. A huge high-five to their company for a job well done! One nice touch was a Hawaiian blessing with singing and conch shells for good luck before the start. Then the National Anthem and it was time to go!
The sunrise was beautiful and I had to pinch myself that I was actually running in Kona. I tried to keep the whole “running A MARATHON” thing out of my consciousness at the beginning, because geeze, 26.2 miles is daunting! So instead I enjoyed the sunrise as those first two miles clicked by. Around then, I naturally fell into step with two Hawaiian locals, Mele and Ben. We chatted about the race and our backgrounds and living in Hawaii, and it was nice to have the company for a few miles! An owl flew right over us, and they both were excited: it was a pueo – a good omen in Hawaii. This was going to be a good day.
I’d made the decision beforehand to not babysit my watch during the race. I wanted it for reference, but I was going to run by feel and not let the Garmin dictate my pace. Plus, with the sun getting hotter (temperatures stayed similar but the “real feel” increased) and the wind forecasted to just get stronger, I was happy to take the good miles when they came. That first 10K had the most downhill of the entire race (which actually sucks to start the race with that kind of muscular damage), but having a conversation with Mele and Ben kept the effort in check.
I hung with them for a couple more miles as the course started to flatten out, but knew that couldn’t last. My 40-degree dry desert runs this winter hadn’t exactly adapted me for humid-high-70s and it was showing! I started tasting salt by mile 5 and pouring water on myself at aid stations at mile 7. Meanwhile, my Hawaiian running partners were just chillin’. So the mental battle ensued: I knew I had no business running those paces in those conditions, but I also knew that running *with* people has both psychological and physical benefits (hey Ben, want to block some of that wind for me?). Ultimately, I was responsible and made the decision to pull back while I still had matches to spare – I was going to need those later.
After just a few minutes, my running partners were still in view, but I was “alone” as I came upon a ranch. About a dozen horses were there by the fence, standing majestically against a gorgeous Kona backdrop, watching the runners pass by. I smiled and waved at them as I approached – and then as I began to run past them, they turned and ran alongside me. And I smiled at the beauty of it all, running free with the horses on an island that I love. This entire trip was worth it just for that moment. I took that memory – the one that is too perfect for even Hollywood to believe – and bottled it up for safe keeping in my lifetime running highlight reel.
Magical moments aside, there was still a marathon to run! So, there I was, alone in the lava fields, clicking the miles by. My lungs were feeling fine, my heart rate was in check, and I was almost in Ironman mode – robotically doing my heat management routine at every aid station. It takes some extra time at each aid station, but I’m convinced it saves time in the long haul. When I made the big turn toward Waikoloa Village at mile 15, it was noticeably hotter, and the winds were noticeably stronger.
It was now 78 degrees, with Hawaiian humidity, Waikoloa winds, and nothing to spare you in the barren lava fields. The wind was relentless, forcing you to steady yourself to stay upright with it at your side, and pushing you back when you turned into it.
I know this island so the conditions weren’t a surprise. In fact, it was just a few miles from the finish line that a semi ran me off the road by the shipyard last fall. That left me with scars up and down my left side, post-concussion syndrome, and a big hematoma on my left hip that had taken two months to go away. In its place, I’d developed some high hamstring issues on that side that I’m generally able to keep under control – but that “locks up” with hills of any kind. (My hamstring and this course did not get along well.)
My watch beeped mile 20, and I had just stopped to “pop” my hamstring before heading uphill. I looked around for the mile marker to see how I was doing on tangents. There it was, a few feet ahead, lying flat in the brush after being knocked over by the wind -- the 20+mph wind that I was now facing head-on as I climbed the hill. My legs were screaming in rebellion and I couldn’t help but think that this was crazy and I should just pull off the gas and jog it in.
But there it was, clear as day in the distance: the shipyard. I had thought it could be poetic to stake my comeback so close to the setback, but now it felt almost masochistic. Then again, I’ve always believed in facing your demons head on – and here I was, literally staring at mine in the midst of my struggle. And I felt that fire.
“I get to win this time,” I said aloud.
I wasn’t sure what that would mean in terms of race time. Normally at this point, I’m constantly doing math in my head: If I can hold X pace for the remaining X miles, then… But I was too far gone even for that. Besides, who knew how many times I’d have to pause to unlock my hamstring? (Answer: 7.)
The time didn’t really matter anyway, though. This was me, claiming some control over my body and my life for just these few hours. I got to choose how this would end.
Winning this one meant never stopping the fight. Just keep pushing. One foot in front of the other.
For those last few miles, I didn’t look at my watch. I hardly even looked for the blown-over mile marker signs. I kept my hamstring unlock breaks quick and ignored the mounting cramps elsewhere. I just kept moving, almost mechanically. And any time I wanted to pull off the gas, I glanced over toward the shipyard and then down at the bracelet on my wrist: “Never Stop.” Just keep pushing, I’d tell myself. It will be worth it.
At last, I saw the finish line, like a mirage in the desert. I finally looked at my watch and realized I might actually make it. See, I didn’t have a goal time for this race – I just wanted to do my best that day. I was realistic in understanding the situation and knowing that could mean a wide range of finish times.
But I did have a goal time for Boston 2017. I had run a 19:10 5K and could tempo for up to 8 miles in the 6:40s leading up to that race. I’d felt like a NYC qualifier – sub-3:13 – was in my wheelhouse. But then I was really, really sick with acute bronchitis that Marathon Monday, so goal times went out the window. I put myself in the med tent just securing a BQ that day. I also hurt my foot during that race, and thus commenced a long string of bad luck! I’ve been wanting to go back to Boston and get that 3:12 ever since, so that would have been my goal had I been able to target and “race” Boston this year. But I can’t – which is why I was here, in Hawaii, running a last-minute marathon. And hitting 25.2 miles at 3:04:55.
I scraped to the very bottom of my well for that final mile. My left hamstring pain and my legs were done miles ago. But my heart wasn’t, and it was all out on the line right here, right now.
I crossed that finish line at 3:12:20.
They gave me a medal and a lei, and kept handing me more Gatorade for the cramps while pouring ice cold water over me to cool my body temperature. And I cried some happy, painful, complicated tears.
Carolyn was a life saver. She came back into the finishers area and massaged my legs (especially that high hamstring) with cold washcloths to help me recover. Finally, a half hour later, I felt human again (at least, as human as one can feel after running a marathon). We took finisher photos and hobbled to the bus… And then spent the rest of the day at the beach!!!
I’d been looking forward to swimming in those Waikoloa waters with sea turtles since March of 2018, when we decided to add some extra days to our Ironman World Championship trip that fall. I would honestly daydream about it to get me through those crazy months of solo parenting and solo house renovating and finding a tenant and moving across the country. Then I crashed on our first morning in Waikoloa and never got the chance.
But now, I could celebrate a marathon on that same beach I’ve been craving for a year – and what do you know? We were immediately greeted by a sea turtle. I put on my goggles and dove right in. My soul was rejuvenated.
I took the red-eye home that night and was happy to be back with my family for breakfast. All of those hard things that lie ahead? We’ve got this.