My Ironman Kona Experience
Friends and family – thank you for being part of this journey! As you know, nothing gets accomplished in life without great people around you.
“You have not lived in the world of competitive sport until you have fought a battle that is not against an opponent, but against yourself.”
- Peter Pollack
My 2011 Ironman Kona Experience
When I first started participating in triathlons in 2005, I had only vaguely heard of the Ironman race. Then a friend of mine told me that the Sprint Triathlon I had just completed (.47 mile swim, 12.4 bike, 3.1 mile run) was not even a warm-up for an Ironman race. I nearly passed out shortly afterward.
Like any journey, it starts with a step forward. Oddly enough, this became my mantra for the rest of the triathlons I would go on to participate in – to always move forward and finish the race, even if I was the last one. In other words, to borrow a phrase from John Collins (founder of Ironman), “You may not be the fastest on the course, but you are certainly ahead of those that never tried it.”
When my name was one of the 200 names selected from the 15 to 20 thousand people who apply annually to the Ironman Kona race and I qualified by racing Arizona Ironman, one of my bucket list items had come true – “Participate in an any Ironman race at least once: if you get into Kona by some miracle – sweet!!!”. Like everything you ask for but rarely get in life, this opportunity is once in a lifetime; however, it came with a price. The price was overcoming the injuries I had sustained during the Ironman Arizona race – Plantar Fasciitis, a bone spur in my heel, and my good old friend sciatic nerve pain was back and active as ever a few weeks after I started training for Kona.
Training was incredibly painful; at times I was barely able to set my feet correctly in the morning. I tried every treatment imaginable, but didn’t find a cure until two weeks before the Kona race. I literally could not do any long distance running for two months, so I had to mentally prepare myself for a grueling day of running and walking with this type of pain in mind. It was not an easy task and the doctors’ advice wasn’t helping much, so I just trained as best I could, focusing more on swimming and cycling. Another component of my race preparation was to change my nutritional plan to a plant-based diet (70% vegetables with minimal chicken and fish). The other training element I changed was to do more yoga and stretching.
Arrival in Kona
When we arrived in Kona, I was intimidated right off the bat. We got our rental car and headed towards the condo. Immediately when you turn right on Queen K from the airport, there are signs along the road saying “Ironman – Athletes in Training.” Then a few feet later, there’s another sign saying “Athletes in Pain.” Seeing this, I cleared my throat and smiled nervously…
After a few miles, I saw the famous Energy Lab facility where participants enter and run a few miles within the complex during the race. This is the hottest point in the race depending on what time of day you hit this section of the course. Again, I saw athletes running near the complex and to be honest, I just wanted to turn back home at this point – NOT!
Energy Lab – Six miles from Kona, this facility is one of the hottest points during the running race.
When we got to the condo, we were greeted by next door neighbors France and Sylvia Cokan**, both of whom made this journey even more inspiring. When we met, they asked me if I was doing the race. I replied kindly, “Yes I am,” to which France replied, “Well, so am I.” I looked at him in awe, did a double take, and asked, “What age group are you in?” He responded, “I’m in the 80-85 bracket.” France is one of the most recognized age groupers of Ironman! As you can imagine, I took advantage of the opportunity to pick France’s brain. He was so kind to give me and several other athletes in the complex advice on the race. In short, his best advice was simply, “Just keep moving forward!” France finished his 24th Kona Ironman race in 16:50 at the young age of 81! If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what else is…
(Left to right Tanya, France, Frank, Angie, Javier, Sylvia)
With a week left before the race, Tanya and I greeted Javier and Angie, Katie, Fausto, Norma and Carmen. It was amazing to have the support of my friends and family in pursuit of this personal goal. I can’t thank them enough for being part of this journey. It was great, but at the same time nerve-racking because I didn’t want to disappoint anybody, especially all those that hadn’t won a race slot through the lottery. Just to give you an idea of how coveted these spots are, there was a race participant whose name was finally drawn after trying to compete in Kona for the past 19 years. He finally got his spot and successfully finished the race.
During the week, we toured the Island and ate at several local places. In fact, at one local restaurant we ate breakfast at, unknown to me, Rosanne Barr was also having breakfast. Tanya recognized her and Angie stated that she’s now living in Kona. There were lots of events during the week, including two particularly memorable ones. One was the Parade of the Nations. The parade included the 50 countries being represented on race day. The most memorable event we enjoyed was the “Under Pant” event to raise money for various Kona charities. The idea for the event was started years ago because the founders of the non-profit kept seeing Europeans walk around Kona with their bikinis and Speedos around town.
The Night Before Race Day
Would you believe it, the day before the race, I was making adjustments on my bike and taking a quick 10-mile ride around town when whala! - my bike slipped out from under me. I landed on my hip and broke my helmet when my head hit the ground. Everyone around me was so nice and helpful, all I could think was checking my inventory (my name, street address, place of birth, arms function, legs, check, check, check). Luckily nothing serious happened, but when I got back to the condo, my hip and my head were pretty badly swollen, so I spent the rest of the day in bed with an ice pack to get the swelling down. I didn’t tell anyone because I knew my peeps would have said, you’re not doing it, so I kept it quiet.
Much like the rest of the athletes were probably feeling, I had everything prepared and ready to go the evening before the race and I couldn’t sleep. The morning of the race, my neck was stiff and my shoulder was aching from my accident the day before, but at this point, there was no turning back. I hoped the adrenaline would kick in and make the pain go away. Once I got to the body marking area, I looked back and waved goodbye to Tanya, Norma and Carmen. That’s when the reality set in…
Kona Race Day – The Swim
Get this, the race directors ask people to get to the starting line 10 to 5 minutes from the start time. No problem,
right? Well, the starting line is about 100 yards from the beach. So, you have to tread water in the ocean until the cannon fires off to start the race. Knowing I wanted to preserve my energy for the actual race, I dog-paddled my way to one of the floating sponsor ads and hung on until start time.
What a jolt! After the cannon fired to start the race, it was such a rush and to be honest, I didn’t know where I was going. I was just trying to move and get people off me. A few times, I got kicked on the face and almost had my goggles knocked off. Nothing personal, it was just part of the event. Once I settled down, I was amazed to see all the tropical fish around the swimmers in the crystal blue water. I heard from other swimmers that there where dolphins around, but I guess I was so focused on the swim, that I didn’t see them. Before I knew it, I was finally settled in among a set of swimmers and halfway through the swim portion. It was strange, but we all connected through swimming and formed a little team helping each other stay together. I’d heard of teams forming during the swim to help each other out, but this was amazing to me because it just formed spontaneously with none of us really planning for it.
The greatest feeling during the swim is right before you set foot on the shoreline floor; with 1 hour 40 minutes on the swim course, I just wanted to touch land, hit the shower and prepare for the next event.
Kona Race Day – The Bike
The nice thing about being a slow swimmer is that when you transition to T2, you can easily spot your bike!
While there had been over 1,900 bikes in the waiting area, most of them were already gone, so finding my bike was no problem. Like most first timers, I had no real set plan for the bike course. My overall objective was to enjoy the moment and have fun during the race. At first, I was going rather fast because there were fans all over the place and I easily got caught up in the moment. I had to remind myself to stay focused and just stick to my average bike speeds. Also, I had to remind myself that the hard part (the climbing and head winds) were yet to come. After Mile 40, there’s no place to hide. Surrounded by lava fields, heat, humidity and wind, there was no place to go other than to keep pedaling to push forward. When I got to Mile 60, I started seeing lots of accidents and other athletes with flat tires. Fortunately, I was able to keep my tires cool by throwing water on them, and not put too much pressure on the tires so that they didn’t expand during the race.
When I started the climb to Hawi, the climb seemed steady and straight forward. After all, I love hills, but in this case; the head winds and climb made it miserable. Slow and steady but eventually I made it to the top and the turnaround point. As I approached Hawi, the first thing I wanted to know was where the special food need bag was. Why? The special food needs bag is a bag they give you to put any type of nourishment you want. My bag contained Tanya’s homemade ham and cheese bagel sandwich and yes, without my nutritionist knowing, I had included chips, a diet coke and some Oreo cookies…I couldn’t resist
After I literary shoved the food down my throat while riding my bike; I started the decent and my bike started to accelerate faster and faster…30 mph, 35 mph, 40 mph…then all of a sudden, the winds reversed and I started getting head winds again. And just like that, my speed dropped down to 15 mph. Unbelievable, but oh well.
Once I made it down hill and back to Queen K, the nutrition started kicking in and I started to feel better. Then with out any warning, I started getting blisters on the bottom of my right foot! What?!? How is it possible? I’d been riding all kinds of 100 mile rides and had never gotten blisters, so what happened? Well, guess what? Frankie decided not to wear socks during the bike to save a few minutes during the transition and with all water I was pouring over myself and all the spinning I was doing, eventually, the water got under my feet and voila! BLISTER time. With 45 miles left back to Kona, I decided to slow down and save whatever I could for the run. I had an extra pair of socks, but they were wet so I decided to “air” them out and get those socks on as soon as possible. Can you imagine? Socks on each side of my handle bars getting dry while riding in the Ironman Kona race? I should have just washed the rest of my gear while I was at it…
When I started approaching the transition area, I couldn’t wait to get off of the bike. I was so happy to finally transition to the run, however, after the first step, my blister started getting worse. I went to the aid station and asked them to put a band aid over it and kept moving on…
Kona Race Day – The Run
One of the best short-lived feelings is setting your feet on the ground after the 112 mile ride. For the first few steps, it’s one of the best feelings, that is, until misery sets in and you quickly realize that you still have to run 26.2 miles. Gut wrenching? Sure is…
Without too much thought, I changed and put suntan lotion all over, the event volunteers are awesome and very helpful. The start of my run was slow, I couldn’t seem to get my legs moving, but to be honest, I didn’t want to run too fast. With all the fans and volunteers cheering and waving banners around me, I just wanted to be in the moment and experience it for as long as possible.
After a few miles, I started jogging again and started to feel comfortable. With my feet dry and everything working well, I made a horrible mistake; I started throwing water over myself. After Mile 9, my feet were soaked and all I could think was “blisters,” and “oh man, this is going to be painful…again.” The blister I had gotten while riding was getting worse and this time, there was nowhere to dry my socks like I did during the bike ride. So, I kept my mantra in mind and just kept moving forward.
After Mile 10, the course turns left on Queen K and you’re hit with a few rolling hills, then a long stretch of nothing. I saw the rest of the athletes coming back and I kept cheering them to hang on and to finish strong. I saw a few familiar faces along the way including Sally Crawford – an awesome Ironman Kona old-timer who I’ve had the privilege to train with in Orange County; Larry Davidson – Carmen’s boss, who’s done two Kona races and is just an outstanding athlete. I also saw many of the familiar faces from all of the 50 nations represented in the race.
I can’t explain how tranquil everything got as the sun was setting. Because you are literally in the middle of nowhere, you don’t hear anything other than your own foot steps and the thoughts running through your mind. The sunset was brilliant and amazing and so hard to describe because it was so colorful. It was my “ahhh” moment because it was so surreal. Eventually, sunset passed into darkness. In some areas, it was so dark that they gave the runners neo lights to wrap around themselves and honestly, the only thing you saw was the neolights moving along the highway.
When I got the Energy Lab area, I was happy but worried because I’d heard so many stories about this spot being the hottest point in race. Well, here’s a tip…because it was dark, the ground had kind of cooled off. I really didn’t feel the heat during this part of the course so I was happy about that. Another good reason to be a slow runner…
Once I did the turn around at the Energy Lab, I started getting concerned about what mile I was at and how much time was left. I saw a lot of people on the course, but didn’t realize what time it was. Then several volunteers started shouting run, you can do it, you can do it, run and in my mind, I was thinking, “Oh no, I’m not going to make it.” In my mind, I had at least 6 to 7 miles to go. Then I asked how many more miles to the finish and somebody said it was 4 miles. And then I asked, what time is it, and they said its 8:40 PM. I can’t express it well, but that was the best news I had ever heard and the most relief that I had ever felt. Four miles left with 3 and half hours before the cut-off time, I can do that!
When I turned right on Alihi Drive, there were crowds of people waiting to cheer on those finishing the race – it was an experience that I will never forget. People from all over were cheering and somehow even with all the people around me, I focused on a baby in the crowd, clapping his hands and looking just so happy to be there. I grab his little hand and gave him a little high five. His mom said thank you, and I continued on to cross the finish line. Then all of sudden, I heard the words from Mike Riley, “Francisco Avalos – You are an Ironman.”
|Big Screen Shot|
I saw my sister Norma, as well as friends Fausto, Tanya, and Carmen cheering along with everyone else around. It was both unbelievable and emotionally draining but it was finally done. I thanked everyone around me and said a prayer for everyone on Planet Earth, especially my Mom and my Dad, who I dedicated this race to for their sacrifice and commitment to make our family members into good citizens of this planet. Dad passed away in 91′ from a work-related accident and though Dad was not physically there at the race, I always feel his presence around me during these endurance races. It’s an unbelievable sensation but I know that he was there with me every step of the race. Mom is now being cared for, for mild dementia and diabetes, but all things considered, she’s a happy camper. When I spoke with my mom, one of the first questions she asked was if I won the race. I responded, “Yes mom, ‘we’ did win! I’ll be home soon.”
In addition to my parents, this race was dedicated to my aunts, uncles, and friends (Al) who have passed away from cancer and related diseases. Two friends of mine, Katie and Robyn are cancer survivors and I truly admire their amazing will to fight and beat out this disease. All of you know I work and help foster non-profits, so all of you from my non-profit will know- this one is for you as well!
Many thanks to Katie, Norma, Fausto, Carmen, Javier, Angie and Tanya for being there for me, and all my friends who were monitoring me from home. The only thing that I can say is that I’m so sorry for keeping you up so late!
After the picture taking and getting the medal, I rushed to get a massage. The massage was so good that I couldn’t walk afterwards. Tanya and Norma had to hoist me up and get feet on cold ice in order to get the blood flowing in my legs again. The adrenalin had worn off and the pain was starting to set in as expected, but at this point, I was smiling deep down inside.
Yesterday I recognized the amazing exploits of Lew Hollander. What I failed to mention, though, was that he was one of four competitors in the men’s 80-84 age group who competed in Kona this year. Another, who will be featured in the NBC show on Saturday, is the ageless France Cokan.
Cokan got off a boat from Slovenia in 1959 with $11 in his pocket. Over the next few years he re-trained to get his internal medicine degree that would be recognized in the United States. He started doing triathlons when he was 52 – the race in Kona was his 44th and 21st time at the Ironman World Championship. But for Hollander, he would have claimed his 11th world title in October. In the end he was five minutes behind and got to the line less than a minute ahead of Lyle Roberts.
“France Cokan got off a boat from Slovenia in 1959 with $11 in his pocket. Over the next few years he re-trained to get his internal medicine degree that would be recognized in the United States. He started doing triathlons when he was 52 – the race in Kona was his 44th and 21st time at the Ironman World Championship. But for Hollander, he would have claimed his 11th world title in October. In the end he was five minutes behind and got to the line less than a minute ahead of Lyle Roberts.” – email@example.com