This is the exciting story of Rebecca Romero at kona ironman World Championship, discovers the pain and ecstasy involved in the most iconic competition

Every time I’ve sat down with the intention of writing about Kona, I’ve been put off by having to relive the experience! It’s not that the race was painful beyond expression (although aspects almost were!), it’s just that it was a particularly brutal day that left me overwhelmingly frustrated. The day before and the morning of the race felt good. It was reassuring to feel like a more established triathlete who knew what she was doing.

Although I was facing a gulf in finishing time between myself and most others in the majority of age groups, which could amount to several hours I told myself I’d qualified to be there and was in the field by right. I also reminded myself that, despite being one of the stragglers in this race, there wasn’t another Olympic Gold and Silver medallist!

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On race morning I was trying to forget about how badly my swim sessions had been going in Hawaii. Before leaving the UK I’d done some work with a swim coach and made good progress, completing really challenging swim sets and session lengths. However, in Kona, it just wasn’t clicking. Maybe it was not having a wetsuit and the open sea conditions which exposed my technical weaknesses. I heard a shout of “mind the rocks” just as I smashed my shin hard against something distinctly rock-like.

I gasped as the pain shot deep into my leg. With a last few deep breaths I rehearsed my drill off the start – nice and easy, no effort, breathe deeply and relax. “BOOOOOM” the cannon fired and the frenzied attack began. Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of the swim start at Kona.

Arms, legs, fists, heads, feet, splashing, pounding, punching, white water everywhere ….I began hyperventilating! I had to stop but the swimmers right behind came piling over the top of me. I had to regain composure quickly. As soon as I could I tried to swim again but was ‘blinded’ by the waves and the arms and splashing. It didn’t help that the sea was unusually rough and when I turned my head to breathe I didn’t know if I would take in air or water.

Convinced my only fate was drowning and that I hadn’t a hope of being rescued amongst this commotion I decided to position myself closer to the attending lifeguards and their surfboards. Eventually I settled into it and crawled my way out to the halfway turn buoys.

Rebecca Romero at kona ironman_2

My shoulders were burning as I was deliberately pulling myself up out of the water to ensure I took air not water into my lungs and to make sure I could keep myself orientated. The stretch back seemed to take forever and I was now unable to use my legs which were cramping in the calves, feet and even the front of my shins.

By the time I reached the finish I was pretty mad that not much had gone right. As I got onto the sand and ran back up the steps I saw blood running down my leg where I’d hit the rock.

I was so slow on the swim that the bike transition was practically empty! At least I didn’t have a problem locating my bike! I settled into my more familiar form of locomotion and ate up the first 15-mile loop around town fairly comfortably. On the Queen K Highway I put my foot down, fuelled partially by frustration at the swim. The bike was brilliant fun and I reveled in the course, which followed the highway straight out for 50 miles and back again.

I was confident on my Specialized Shiv bike with Enve wheels and rode technically well in the conditions, committing hard and taking every risk and advantage on the fast downhill and crosswind sections as I could. I paced myself using perceived exertion, watt output, heart rate and to a certain extent average speed.

I felt great and I rode controlled within the power and heart rate limits that I’d established for myself and been producing for previous training and racing. I was really positive coming in and data feedback suggested I’d ridden sensibly and was in good condition for the  run.

My only annoyance with the bike section came from being a stronger rider but starting so far back. I spent the whole time overtaking other riders and because of the strict drafting rules, I couldn’t ride an even steady pace. I’d be stuck at the legal distance riding too easily and too slowly, or having to constantly accelerate to pass others. There were lines of riders strung out for miles and sometimes it would take several accelerations or a push of several minutes until I could find a gap to ride steady.

This fragmented tempo riding can be physically quite damaging. Although I didn’t have a choice in the matter it probably left me fatigued in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and may have contributed to my reduced run ability in the early stages of the marathon.

I aimed to play it exactly as I did for the UK Ironman I’d done earlier – “can go harder, could go harder, but won’t”. However, between miles 3-5 my legs began to disengage and the power drained. On the bike I’d been doing the overtaking, yet on the run everybody was overtaking me! There was no spring, no acceleration in my stride, only flat-footed, lolloping at a rapidly decreasing speed.

Rebecca Romero at kona ironman_3

The crowds were shouting encouraging stuff but I wanted to scream back, “No it’s not a ‘great job’ and I’m not ‘looking good’, I’m looking rubbish, I’m going rubbish!” It was hot beyond description. There were aid stations every mile with a fluid feast of water, energy drinks, coke, cups of ice, cold sponges.

I’d grab the first cup, stop and down it, grab another, stop and down it, then I’d throw a cup of water over my head, squeeze an ice cold sponge over me then start running again.

This was a procedure that took well over a minute and increased at every station. By mile 12 I was walking into, through and out of the station. At every stop it got harder and harder to start again. I was in agony. My hips, knees, ankles were killing me and my fatigued bad running form was exacerbating the problem.

I was reaching into my vest top and pulling out ice cubes to melt on my neck, to suck on and crunch up so I could brush it round my gums to try and cool down, even melting them into my knees to numb the pain. I eventually reached the turn into the energy lab, but before I descended onto the iconic stretch of road that is known so famously as the real suffering area.

Heading past the energy lab, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I developed the worst and most painful dose of hiccups I’ve ever had. Each one threatened to throw up the contents of my stomach. It was embarrassing to say the least and lasted the majority of the energy lab stretch. Next it was back out onto the Queen K Highway for the last 6 miles. Although slow I was nevertheless, bit-by-bit, reeling it in.

I didn’t need any more fluid or energy, I just needed to stay well away from the feed stations, keep going and not stop. I’d suck up the pain, I’d dismiss the fatigue, I’d just keep moving forward because that meant getting closer to the finish line and the end of the misery. Besides my innate stubbornness to cross the finish line came from knowing that there were 60, 70 even 80 year olds out there who would finish.

So, if that’s not motivation enough for a 32 year old athlete I don’t know what is! That last hour of running back into Kona town was the best feeling. I wasn’t running pretty and I wasn’t running fast, but I was accomplishing the epic Kona Ironman battle.

The road had become quieter and the blazing heat gradually subsided. This gave me solace that I was reaching the end and it would be Ok. Knowing I was entering the last mile was the best natural painkiller ever! Assisted by the descent leading into town (which hours previously I’d dragged myself up as if climbing a mountain), new life flowed into my legs. The crowded streets, lights and thumping music energised me and lifted my spirits. It was fantastic to be on the final section, the iconic Alli Drive where for 30 years so many Ironman athletes have become legends 

Now I was smiling and those shouts of “great job” weren’t agitating me. I was agreeing with them! It may not have been the best, but it was my best on that day. I’d been brought to my knees, literally, but I hadn’t been beaten! After starting out in Ironman training only 10 months previously, I was able to run across the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in 11hrs 39min, arms in the air and become a two times Ironman finisher!

In reaching the end of this article I’ve also reached the end of a journey. I started this piece frustrated that I didn’t live up to my expectations, but I’ve reminded myself how much I’ve learnt along the way. Those are the important bits. I’ve also reminded myself of the most important thing about taking part in sport and being an athlete.

Yes, it’s about aspiring to produce the best performance within us and it’s about searching for perfection in order to achieve it. But doing something well is sometimes just simply about doing it. What drives us to repeat training and racing again and again is actually the thrill of the unknown.

That is what defines sport. We are writing a new story every time we walk through the door to embrace a new goal, challenge or race. We open ourselves up to a new opportunity to experience and to learn and in return it offers us a unique dose of emotions, scenarios and personal exploration from which we can grow. That is real the beauty of sport. Not perfection.

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