Heidi’s Kona Report – ‘staring down the paper tiger’

by Heidi Sowerby


Now that its done, and I can feel the post race euphoria ever so slightly sliding down a gentle slope back to whatever might be considered normality, I still recall vividly one of the best weeks of my life – Hawaii Ironman. Hawaii was always somewhere in the plan, a tiny hatchling of an idea that, over 20 years ago, drew me to the Big Island. I had NFI of what the ironman actually was back then, but on that stopover home to Australia after working in the US, I bypassed Honolulu and flew directly in to Hilo. The fact that Hilo is not even close to the epicenter of Ironman on the Big Island proves just how little I knew, but what I did know is that the island was the home of something truly epic… something that I could be a part of one day. In that brief stopover, I did make it to Alii drive for about 30 mins, and with a brief “huh”, my first Kona experience was locked away into the depths of my subconscious.


I reckon there are many conversations and events in life that, however innocuous they might be at the time, change direction of where you are heading. Hawaii Ironman happened for me because of that. I had been having a bit of fun with my mates doing sprint and Olympic distance tris for about four years and had gone to my first tri camp before Noosa tri. On a long hard run, the coach flipped that Hawaii switch in me when he said that I had Kona written all over me. A change of work circumstances occurred not long after that, and it gave me time to train for my first Ironman in Busso 2013 and qualify for Kona.


Even as we flew into Kona a couple of weeks ago and I saw the Queen K stretching out amongst the lava fields, I knew I wanted to come back. They say the race is the party, the reward, at the end of all the training and I could already feel it. Our plane was packed with excited and nervous triathletes (including Xena and PJ) and there was an energy on board I don’t know how to describe. Maybe just “thick”. Stepping off that plane and hitting the Hawaii heat was both welcoming and full of the reality of the conditions that I had been reading about. I was fortunate to have my family and a best mate with me so there was a bit of normality thrown into Kona week if that is possible.


Arriving ten days before the event was awesome as we saw Kona transform from its sleepy village state to crazy ass triathlon mad heaven. We got our bearings quickly and the next day we were at Dig Me Beach and doing a pier swim and heat run. Pro spotting was not difficult in Kona and if I was in triathlon heaven, Jo Baxas was in stalking heaven, a land where it requires absolutely no effort to stalk. We had a couple of pros staying in the same accommodation as us, Macca was yelling hi’s from his moped behind Caroline, we were walking to dinner chatting with Dave (Scott) and Bob Babbit became almost like a mate by the end of the week. Surreal in some ways, but I suspect maybe normal for Kona week? The week passed quickly with tapering training sessions, visits to the expo, catching up with other triathletes and coaches, coffees at Lava Java, the Parade of Nations and registration. I suspect it wasn’t the ideal taper, but holing myself up in an apartment with the air-con on full blast wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend my first Kona experience either.

Heidi and PonchomanHeidi and Bob

During the week, my confidence for that race was like a roller coaster but thankfully it was not dipping right down near the bottom of the track. People were telling you it was just another race, people were telling you to respect the island, warning you of the heat, the wind, the legend of the Hawaii Gods and giving you that knowing look when you thought you have your mindset under control. The best piece of advice I got during the week was from legendary coach SIri Lindley. I had asked her what does she tell her crew to think about when things are getting tough out there on the Queen K. Her response was “belief and gratitude”. Basically have belief in yourself, your coach, your training and have gratitude that you are here, in Hawaii, with the opportunity to race the best in the world. That hit a home run for me and got me through the Ironman with a positive attitude that stayed with me all day.


The pre race athlete area was chock full of nerves, serious faces and a few last minute flat tyre changes.  The girls started 10 mins after the guys and if I thought I was a decent ocean swimmer, race day made me think again! It was like a washing machine in there for at least the first 2.5k and we were continually running up the back of the slower men.  I was definitely not in cruise-mode, heart rate was sky high, breathing every stroke for the first 2.5k. It was pretty brutal too, punches, goggles off and kicks everywhere. I don’t even think I saw one fish below me on race day even though, with all the aquatic life, it is like an aquarium out there.


The wind was in full force on the bike, and the word on the street was that it was the windiest Ironman in 15 years. The winds started about 2/3 in and were either across us or full force into us heading into Hawi.  On the uphill into Hawi we were into the wind and had some gusty crosswinds – a few of the girls near me lost it and ended up being blown off their bikes. One girl I saw on the way back had ripped one side of her tri outfit and had grazes down her entire right side, including her face. She apparently finished the race – what a trooper. After the downhill, the wind swung around and we were also into it on the way home – kinda cruel, but that is Hawaii.


On that trip to Kona I learned the importance of having few mantras in your bag of tricks and on race day was never so evident than on the bike ride….


Earlier in the week I had read a blog from Brett Sutton about the concept of facing the tiger staring you down at some point in the race (when things get tough). His message was pretty much the more you practice and succeed the more confident you can be that the tiger is made of paper and you can blow right through him.  So, this was my moment for that mantra – on the way back down that hill from Hawi with the wind behind picking up my speed to a truly uncomfortable, even scary level, crosswinds gusting on the aero wheels pushing me around the road – all I could think of for that was “a lot of swearing at you paper tiger”!!!  Getting to the bottom of the Hawi hill upright was a huge relief to say the least. Thank you paper tiger.


To say I was more than a tad concerned about the run was an understatement. I normally am a decently confident runner, but after an injury in the lead in to Kona I had a grand total of two long runs under my belt (21 and 24k) … and a huge block of 8 weeks of no running at all before that. Evidently though, having some biking legs meant I could still run and I did a half decent job of the marathon (even managed a qualification to Boston Marathon). The highlight of my run was the huge cheer squad my husband and kids had organised on Palani hill heading out of town, with about a hundred random people all cheering as I ran up the hill.  The last 2km was absolutely cracking.  I had worn my Aussie kit and the amount of cheering was phenomenal.  I finished strong down the straight and the Triathlon Australia rep handed me an Aussie flag on the way through the chute. I ended up with a 10:56 – I was happy to have hit my goal of a 10 and know I still had lots of room to improve.


We headed down to the finish line party afterwards, which was surreal. Music blaring, spectators twenty/ thirty deep, deafening cheering and lots of weary but excited triathletes with their war stories to tell. The close-to-midnight finishers received a rock star welcome in to the finish line on Alii Drive and, after nearly 17 hours on course, they bloody well deserved it too. Running on the Queen K in pitch black darkness with only a glow stick for light has got to be a lonely place, but the welcome and cheering at the end would have been completely worth it.


One of the best things about Kona week was sharing it with people that had probably witnessed me turn into a bit of an Ironman loving freak since mid year. I knew my family, my mates, my coach, the Maccax crew, Thanyapura supercampers, The Trispecific crew, WItsup women, Tri Travel athletes, Aussies and clubbies were all sharing the experience, either in Kona or back home on the internet. Having my kids there in Kona was awesome too – I reckon you never know what is going to inspire the next gen. They named the Ironman as their highlight of the week – it even topped their “I had the most amazing day of my life” volcano tour……

So, that was my Kona experience. Now the rewards continue as I do some things that I have let slip over the past 4- 5 months. Yesterday, it was a bit of reckless rollerblading near the beach with the kids on their skateboards and today it is mountain biking and catching up with some mates for lunch. Noosa triathlon next weekend will all be about fun. Having said that, after this completely-out-of-character- being -sensible phase of recovery, I am looking forward to Kona project 2015. Although, the winds of Hawi were a vivid reminder that you don’t always get what you want, I am going to give it my best shot at qualifying again. Game on.