Racing in the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona was truly the experience of a lifetime. The energy from the crowds, the support from the volunteers, the sight of the pros flying by, the excitement in the air and the stories from athletes from around the globe truly made this a world class event.
For me, racing Kona was the culmination of a nearly 2 year Ironman journey that was expected to end at Ironman Lake Tahoe last year. When I got in to Kona through the IMLT cancellation lottery, I knew I had to train smart and race even smarter to make sure I was crossing that finish line in this likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (thanks Coach Duane!).
The photos of race day show a story of sheer joy and jubilee. And yeah, I was definitely happy for most of the day (“oh my god I’m in Kona!” I kept telling myself). But the truth is… this course is absolutely brutal, and being in the back means a lot of lonely miles. I had to dig deep, stay focused on my nutrition, and power through.
The big island, as expected, threw everything at us: strong winds, heat and humidity with no shade, rain showers, and strong currents. I had a few dark moments and definitely my share of obstacles. But I took every challenge as a test of resiliency and I just moved forward.
The tough conditions are exactly what make the IRONMAN distance so special, and why I was jumping for joy across the finish line after 13 hours and 55 minutes. I accomplished all of my goals, I never gave up and I had a ton of fun along the way. I’m just so happy and grateful for the opportunity to race in Kona, and I didn’t take any of it for granted.
Below is a detailed look at race day along with shoutouts to the incredible people who helped make this happen. MAHALO and ENJOY!
Pre-Race: Goose bumps are forming
My boyfriend, Mark, drove me down to the race start at around 4:45am where I was ushered into a line for bag drop-off, body marking, and weigh-in. It was a really efficient system and the volunteers were so friendly and chatty. We did a final round of hugs and photo shoots before I had to say goodbye. I drank the rest of my Osmo Preload, chatted with other athletes, pumped my bike tires, took deep breaths, and watched the pro men and women start their swim.
The few hours before the cannon went off were full of nerves. I knew I was well-prepared physically and mentally for this race. But this is Kona! Anything could happen. What if I can’t finish?! But what I heard at the welcome ceremony so many times is that Anything is possible. It’s the Ironman mantra. Deep inside we are all athletes, and we’re stronger than we think. I held onto that phrase the rest of the day and repeated “I will finish this!” Confidence is a powerful thing!!
Swim: Finding Nemo
2.4 miles in 1 hour 44 mins
The swim is a deep-water ocean start, so we had to tread water for a good 10 minutes before the cannon went off. And with 1 minute to spare, I see Kristin!! It was so great to see a familiar face out there and to give her a big pre-race hug. It really helped calm my nerves!
The swim is my weakest leg and it was the portion that was causing so much pre-race anxiety. But as soon as I started swimming I felt wonderful. I didn’t panic at all (even though I got kicked, hit, and scratched a bunch of times), I looked for fish, and I was able to swim the whole time without needing to catch my breath or stop at a kayak. It was a huge success for me!
But I learned after looking at my Garmin file that I actually swam 2.75 miles, which means I need to work on sighting a little better and more frequently. The currents were pretty strong and I could feel my body being pulled sideways and in random directions so it sort of makes sense I swam more than I was supposed to. Oh well. Also, my goggles were leaking for the first time ever, so I had to fix those a few times. But all very manageable issues.
Bike: Go ahead, try to break me down
112 miles in 7 hours 3 mins
Coming into the transition area I was a little delirious. Thankfully I had 2 volunteers personally helping me get changed, stuff my pockets with my nutrition, grab me water, and put on sun screen. It was AMAZING! Those volunteers went absolutely above and beyond. I was on my bike within 7 minutes and ready to rock!
Starting the bike was so energetic!! I couldn’t believe how many spectators were out there cheering! It was insane! There were no other athletes around me so I just enjoyed the moment, yelled WOOOOO as loud as I could, and waved to the crowd. I felt like a superstar!
To make things even better, I saw my incredible spectating crew a few minutes later with their custom signs and orange hats. I was so happy to be out of the swim, on my bike, and to see them that I actually stopped to give hugs and kisses. So fun!
But it wasn’t long before the crowds dwindled down and it was just me and the Queen K highway. ~56 miles out, ~56 miles back. 1 turn. Zero shade. Wind bursts. Very few spectators. And sweat-all-day humidity.
The ride started out great because we had a very nice tailwind and obviously you’re going to feel strong at the beginning. I was taking in salt tablets along with sports drinks, energy bars, energy chews, and water. Between burning ~3,300 calories on the bike alone + sweating profusely, staying on top of nutrition, salt and hydration was absolutely critical to feel good on the run.
Climbing towards Hawi — the half-way point — we were delighted with a rain shower and some cloud cover. It felt SO good! We had been climbing into a headwind for several miles so the relief was just what I needed.
After the turnaround we had a downhill and a tailwind. WOOOO!!!!! I was absolutely flying in my aero bars. It was incredible! I felt pretty stable because I made the decision to race in a ‘regular’ front wheel instead of a more wobbly and deep race wheel. It was perfect.
The next several miles were just hot and sweaty and full of rolling hills. I stopped a few times to put on sun block because I didn’t want to fry out there.
At around mile 75 I started to get some really random knee pain. I had never experienced pain so excruciating on the bike before. I was shouting in agony and couldn’t pedal any longer. So I stopped to stretch out, rub out the painful area, and did some walking around. A volunteer asked if I needed help from medical. “No thanks!” I knew if I got treatment and they had to take me away my day would be over. “I can power through this!”.
I got back on my bike and within a mile the pain was gone and it never came back. Phew!! That could’ve been the end of my day!
I looked at my Garmin, did some quick math, and realized that I was about to have a really fast bike split. Which was weird because I had kept my heart rate in Zones 2 and 3 and wasn’t pushing it too hard.
At mile ~78 it all became painfully clear. We had a stronger-than-I-thought tailwind on the Queen K going out. Now it was time to face the headwind coming in. The final 35 miles were directly into the wind. It was absolutely brutal. Like someone punching you in the face relentlessly for 2 hours. I was going 10 mph in some flat sections, down from a usual 18-20 mph. I kept reminding myself to stay aero, stay strong, and stay positive. I got this!!
I finally finished after 7 hours and was so happy to be done. The elements were brutal on that bike course and it felt like Madame Pele was trying to beat me down. Well it was going to take more than that!!
Run: Under the Stars
26.2 miles in 4 hours 52 mins
Coming out of the changing tent in transition, a volunteer poured a huge handful of ice down my shirt. And it was like being shot with adrenaline. I jumped in the air, gave another “WOOHOO!” and I started hitting my stride. Only a marathon separates me and that finish line!! Feelin’ good!!
I started out running really strong and definitely noticed all of those brick runs paying off in training. I got to mile 2 and saw my energetic spectating crew jumping up and down with their signs. They had even recruited their neighbors to help cheer! Woot!
Running up and down Ali’i drive for those first 10 miles was incredible. There were so many spectators cheering for every single person, and calling athletes out by name. It was so cool. I saw my family again at mile 8 and was so happy! I told them “I’m going to finish this! See you at the finish line!” I was feeling so good that there was absolutely no doubt that I was going to complete this thing.
At around the half-way point I watched the sunset and it was stunning. I thought back at all of the sunsets in Hawaii so far, and just how beautiful this place is!
It got dark pretty fast and was happy to have a headlamp with me. The Queen K doesn’t have any street lights so it was pitch black out there and desolate under the stars. I was alone but just kept a really steady 10:00 – 12:00 min/mi pace and stayed focused. It was still hot so I poured ice down my shirt at every aid station.
Near mile 15 I saw a guy wearing a Team in Training shirt so I started chatting with him. He was from Texas and had raised over $85K for blood cancer research. He was also raising money for the the American Sniper’s family (one of his buddies). Talking with him brought more meaning and perspective to this event. It allowed me to dig deep and think about people who are battling cancer at this very moment, who have real struggles and who are enduring much more pain than me.
A mile or so later I saw my family and Mark again! “Wait… what are you guys doing here!?” I asked. It was a total surprise!! I’m in awe that they were able to navigate the closed highway and the dark roads to see me in time. Bravo!! They were having a blast dancing to the DJ’s music. I got to see them twice during that section. Then it was only 7 more miles to go!!
7 miles under the stars. That’s nothing. That’s like a Turkey Trot with a little extra kick. I was on auto-pilot and still feeling really strong. I ran the entire way, and slowed down only to fill up water and grab food.
The only issue I had on the run was an upset stomach, probably from too much orange Gatorade on the bike. Nasty.
The final mile is hard to even describe. I was about to finish Kona. I did it. I paced myself well on the bike to have a strong run. I raced with all my heart. And I did it. The spectators were cheering so loud in that final mile and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was going to finish this day strong and happy. Those were my only goals.
One final hug to my family in the finisher’s chute and I was ready to throw my hands up in the air. “CAROLYN ROHDE, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!” My face was in permanent smile. It was a magical day. A perfect day. A party to celebrate the 9 months of training. And a day I’ll never forget.
Post-Race: Pop the champagne!
My dad was ready with a bottle of champagne and we were ready to party! After a glass of bubbly we had dinner near the finish line and recapped the day. It was so fun hearing all the spectating stories and looking at photos. We stayed until midnight to dance and cheer the final athletes running into the chute. It was the most inspiring part of the entire day to see them dig deep and hear their names over the loud speaker. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN! Anything is possible. Anything.
I’d like to thank my coach, Duane Franks, for crafting a highly customized training plan for me. I didn’t have a single injury all year and never felt burnt out. We worked closely together to come up with a plan that took into account business travel, social events, and other commitments. He has decades worth of triathlon experience and it was extremely valuable to be able to learn from him. He was even there in Kona to cheer me on. Thanks Duane!!!
I’d also like to thank my parents, my brother, and my boyfriend for traveling half-way across the world to be with me in Kona. They deserve a medal for their spectating performance. Mark had designed 13 customized signs such as “Swim, Bike, Rohde!” and “free puppies at the finish line!” and sawed wood from the local Lowe’s to make sturdy signs. They were a huge hit, not just with me but with other athletes. And then they surprised me out at mile 16 on the run. Too perfect. Thanks guys!!
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who was cheering near and far. It meant the world to see the videos, comments, and good luck wishes. It really powered me through to the finish line. MAHALO!