Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Ironman World Championships: Best Day Ever

First off – if you want to read and see pics, continue.  If you have 8 minutes, check out this video I shot on race day.  I carried my GoPro along with me and cut it into a pretty neat little piece.  Watch it in HD with the sound up if you can.


This is a bit of a novella….so in short I had an amazingly epic day!  It was wonderful not caring about time and just taking in the day and celebrating the unthinkable distance completed at the finish.  I feel as though I’ve come full circle in honoring my father through endurance sports and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to complete the most famous race in triathlon.  Thank you, Ironman Lottery.  Hawaii was a special place for my dad and I – I really felt his presence the whole trip, and especially on race day (and race night!)

My Dad and I having fun in one of our many Hawaii trips together.


The journey that was Ironman Kona really wraps up my 4 year journey that started when my father passed away in 2007.  That year, just a month before my first marathon in early 2008, I somehow found the NBC special on Ironman Hawaii.  In particular, during the 2007 special a man named Scott Rigsby and his determination, not to mention his carbon fiber legs, made an enormous impression on me.  That spirit that lies in each of the athletes is indeed infectious.  The seed was planted then, and would slowly grow over the course of a few years.  Ironman was insane to me at that time (it actually still is when I think about it!)  Running a marathon was my Everest then – then the bar got raised to the Ironman.

I had the privilege of meeting Scott in Kona.

Kona was always my “it” race.  The famed finish of Ali’i Drive, my family’s history in Hawaii, the list goes on.  Knowing how difficult to get in though, I quickly made the decision to realize my Ironman dreams last year in France.  And what a day that was.  I was basically fulfilled.  I made a deal with Julia that I would start entering the Kona lottery, and if and when I ever got in, that would be my next Ironman for awhile.

My journey to this point is actually summarized quite nicely in an article written by Don Norcross on Ironman.com:

http://ironman.com/events/ironman/worldchampionship/kona2011/kona-preview-doing-kona-for-dad class

Enough of the backstory – onto the juicy race details!


I arrived last Sunday and was busy with the normal pre-race week tasks, as well as some unusual ones, such as an interview with NBC!  I tried to lay low as much as possible, but it’s very tough as the excitement in town basically builds to a chorus throughout the week.  I swam most days, even seeing my first ever Manta Ray on Thursday!  I also made several trips to the famous coffee boat.  And Julia and I enjoyed taking part in the “Underpants Run.”  Don’t worry, no pics of that!  After the bike check in on Friday, I retired to the room with some takeout pasta and basically rested up as much as possible.

I somehow managed to be right behind Chrissie Wellington at check in!

My ride was ready to go!


I woke up Saturday at 4:00 AM and tried to consume as much food as I possibly could.  I then walked over alone to body marking and to load up my bike with the necessary nutrition.  As I made the walk past the finish line around the host hotel there was music gently coming through the PA.  Enya.  It was such an interesting and amazing choice.  I remember being introduced to Enya by my dad when I was a kid and sick with viral meningitis as a kid.  Love her or hate her, there’s a very calming effect to her music.  In this context it actually felt “anticipatory.”  Amazing.

All marked up.

After I was finished pumping up my bike tires and loading it with fluids I headed back to the hotel (just a short walk away) and hung out with Julia and my mom for a bit.  At 6 AM I headed back to the start and got ready to go into the water.  The pros had just headed out and it was our turn to fill the bay with a mass of people.  Getting into that water was so exciting.  The nerves were amazing – there was electricity in the air.  As I ventured in I was pulled aside by NBC where they asked me to describe what I was feeling.  I can honestly say I have no recollection of what I told them - I was so freaked out and so excited at the same time.

I was most definitely nervous but couldn't ask for a more supportive wife!

Kissing mama goodbye for now.


I lined up in the middle of the pack – I wanted that mass start experience!  

A shot from my GoPro before the canon.

Treading water for 15 minutes was a good warm up!

The canon went off and the nerves turned into energy….we were off.

The mass swim start was somehow anti-climactic.  At my previous Ironman in France last year I had people grabbing me, trying to swim over me…here it was a much bigger area and therefore more spread out.  And usually I’m a middle of the pack swimmer, but here, the World Championships, the field is balanced differently – there are fewer average swimmers – so I had plenty of room.  I got myself into a rhythm, taking my time.

That's me swimming from the chest mount!

I indeed carried my GoPro Video Camera on all three legs and thoroughly enjoyed taking some video along the way.  It definitely slowed me down, but since I wasn’t here for time I didn’t care!  I even stopped and treaded water several times to try and get some above water shots as well as shots of me swimming using the “GoPro Chesty Strap.”

I was literally smiling the entire swim and even shouted out at random times under the water “I’m doing Ironman Kona!”  I was so pumped and thrilled.  Shortly after the turn around I was minding my own business and a pair of dolphins and a baby swam underneath me!  It was incredible.  I was screaming!  I stopped and watched them swim by.  They were clearly on a mission going the opposite direction.  About 3 minutes later I found my own swimming rhythm back.  Then the cavalry rocketed by!  At least a dozen spinner (dolphins) or more!  It was epic!  I was going ape-sh*t.  What a dream.  I had seen a manta ray earlier in the week on a swim and am marveled that I could be in a race and be able to see DOLPHINS!  My day was already awesome and I was only an hour into it!

You can barely make them out on the upper left.  
They were much more exciting and clear in person!

As I approached the Kona Pier I reflected back on my swim.  In training, I can’t tell you what a bear getting to my swim workouts are.  Since it’s the one “gimme” out of the three sports I tend to miss a lot of swims and my races seldom suffer somehow.  But this swim was special.  It might as well have been snorkeling!  I hopped out of the water and got under the hoses, rinsed off, took a few gulps, and got into my bike shoes.  Before I knew it, bike in hand, I headed for the bike mount line.

The swim exit.


I hopped on and headed up Palani.  An uphill right out of transition, it was easy to spot Julia, wearing her “Ironmate” shirt and my mom with her “Ironmom” shirt – my own personal cheering section.  They were as excited as I was!  I screamed at them, gave them the “hang loose” sign and carried on.  Through the two loops through town (one out and back that included a nice little climb) it was tough to get my heart rate down – and I’m pretty sure it was mostly raw emotion, as I was not (yet!) working hard.  As I turned onto the famous Queen K I took some deep breaths and tried to settle in.

Flashin' the "hang loose" to my wife and mom.

The Queen K is the long section of the course that goes all the way out to the small town of Hawi, some 55 miles away.  It’s by no means flat as it undulates its way there with several fairly substantial rolling hills.  My plan was to take it easy, and enjoy the day.  I seldom looked down at my Garmin, and when I did I would try and mostly eye my heart rate and cadence, but definitely snuck a peak at speed too.  I was going a little slower than I did in training, but it felt right so I stuck to that same effort.  I also really tried to focus on hydration, downing the sports drink like crazy.  That along with the salt tablets was really working for me.

I was in an interesting place in the pack.  Being a lottery winner I was with some men who were a much older than me and also some women my mom’s age!  It was amazing riding with the best of the world – despite the fact they had like 30 years on me!

Long stretches of nothin' but lava.

Somewhere between 30 and 40 miles a convertible pulled up beside me – the NBC crew!  So bizarre being the focus like that.  They basically interviewed me while on the bike and I did my best to give them what they wanted.  It was a trip!  During the interview I got a glimpse of the first pros on their way back to town.   Amazing to see the race develop in front of me!  It was hard to make out their faces, but it was amazing to see their concentration as they battled each other through the cross winds.

I barely got out of the saddle.  This was for the lens!

It was starting to get hot.  And windy.  From what I hear the wind was less this year than normal….but man it was tough!  Climbing into Hawi the wind was completely in your face with the occasional side gust.  It was impossible to hydrate during this time for fear of being blown over.  It was also a hot wind….so it didn’t even cool me down!  I was really starting to be effected by the Kona sun.  The climb went on forever but I finally made the turn around.  Shortly after I got more salt tablets and gels out of my “special needs bag.”  I also peed – which was a good sign for hydration.  I spent some time switching my GoPro camera around for different angles and was on my way.

The decent out of Hawi was intense and exhilarating.  I probably averaged about 35mph for that section, although it was a bit scary with the crosswind.  Sometimes it would really come out of nowhere!  There was obviously no way to take in nutrition under these circumstances so I pulled over a few times to change the camera, eat and drink.

Still happy despite the pain.

Finally making it back to the coast the wind was really picking up.  I had heard about this section being particularly grueling.  By the time I hit mile 85 I was pretty cooked.  Hot.  I would grab water from a station and basically pour it all over myself.  I even tried stopping and having the volunteers shower me down but the relief was short lived.  One thing helped a little more than others though: Coke.  I’m a big Dr Pepper fan, but nothing beats Coke on a bike or run.  It’s AMAZING.  I didn’t have much on the bike, but just enough to get that twinkle in my eyes back.

As far as I came to being unhappy the whole day.

Shortly before mile 90 I had something special to stop for.  Earlier in the week my mom and I had driven the bike course.  When we saw the word “Ironman” spelled out in corral on the lava rock with a huge space below and more corral in a pile nearby we went to work.  It now read “Ironman 4 Eric.”  I stopped, paid tribute to my dad and was on my way back to town.

A little timelapse of my mom and I with the lavarock.

As I passed the airport I was a bit out of my mind.  I saw two goats on the site of the road and had to ask a cop at the next intersection if they had goats on the islands – I thought I was hallucinating!  Luckily he nodded his head, “yes, they do have goats.”

Before I knew it I was turned back onto Palani and was again greeted by my Ironmate and Ironmom.  I headed into transition hot, but so ready to get off that bike!  I sure love the bike in general, but 112 miles in and out of the “aero position” and through wind, heat and hills is no easy task – going for a nice little jog in paradise sounded like a good idea.

Julia about to cheer me in off the bike.


I took my time in T2.  A volunteer got me a cold towel to wipe my salty face down as he had the thrill of applying more sunblock to my shoulders.  Before long I was up out of the comfy chair and off to tackle a marathon run.  This is crazy.  Just 3 and a half years ago a marathon was my Everest and now I was starting the 26.2 mile run after over 8 hours of swimming and cycling.

Excited to see the family after a 7 hour hiatus.

As I made my way up back up Palani I had my GoPro on a telescoping pole.  I saw Julia and my mom and even stopped for a hug.  Julia even ended up running with me for a short bit.  As I turned down Ali’i Drive for the first long loop through town I began to realize how tired I was.  But this is Ironman.  Ironman Kona!  Of course I was tired, the key for me was to keep moving.  And that I did.  I tried to just walk the aid stations, which is something I more or less kept to.  I ate some pretzels, coke and banana – but that was about all I could handle.  I talked to people, tried to encourage those around me and tried to feed off the crowd.  (Obviously) I’m a chatter box.  I love interaction, especially in this atmosphere.  The spectators were amazing.  I loved egging them on and seeing their reaction to my little GoPro camera.  People loved it!  Especially the other athletes – people could not believe I brought it along….but why not?!

Yes it looked strange, but the video is gonna be sweet!

Shortly after the turnaround at about 6 miles I had my first major problem of the race.  It must have been the heat, but my stomach turned.  I’ll spare any details, but for a short time I was worried I might be reduced to walking the rest of the race.  Fortunately I was still able to maintain my slow jog but had to make several more “stops” throughout the race.  Certainly not ideal, but I managed to remain positive the whole time, and was partially excited and intrigued by the idea of running into the night. (In France my race ended right as the sun was going down, so I didn’t get the full nighttime experience!)

Yup, still happy even though my stomach wasn't.

As I passed Julia and my mom again at mile 10 or so I was both excited and sad to have just 16 miles to go.  This was the ultimate for me, to take part in this race.  And I was only three or so hours from completion – in the blink of an eye it would be over!  As I said goodbye to them for the last time before the finish I ran up Palani – the steepest section of the course.  The athletes going the opposite way instantly excited me – they were about to finish!  I went pretty crazy screaming and high fiving them – trying to egg them on.  I think I was more excited than they were about their finish!  This was a really nice moment for me, but I quickly realized how fast I was tearing up this hill!  My hip started to tighten up…big mistake!  I got way too emotional way too early and thus pushed it way too hard.  I didn’t panic – I just gave myself a nice little walk break so I could recover and started to jog again once the terrain leveled out.

High fiving a dude less than 1 mile out!

As I jogged on the Queen K the sun was setting over the ocean.  It was beautiful.  The next aid station had chicken broth.  I thought given my stomach trouble that that would be a very good idea.  I also had some pretzels, coke and water.  As sun went down quickly it was dark before I knew it.  I now had a glow stick thing around my neck.  The darkness was eerie at first, but quickly became dreamy.  A long line of driven people were making their way back into town to finish their race.  Meanwhile, those of us slower ones were running out of town so we could loop back and finish ours.  All so we could experience the Kona Ironman by being in it.

The sun went down quick!

It was pretty quiet out on there on the Queen K.  There were some street lights, but a lot of silence between the aid stations.  One aid station in particular was really rocking it out.  Awesome music, dancing, basically hilarious.  The volunteers of this race made the race.  They were incredible – the best!  It definitely helped.  But it seemed like a really slow grind for me.  I was oddly ok with this.  I was not even eager to finish – it was all part of the experience.  I can honestly say this was the first time in a long distance race where I was content to be out there experiencing the pain and fatigue of racing – I was not eager to end it.  Part of me wanted it to last forever.  I made the left turn for the energy lab –it looked pitch black.

Turning into the energy lab.

As I ran into the darkness it seemed to get quieter and tranquil.  It was so spiritual!  It was easy to gate out the pain and stiffness in my legs and focus on my breath, the crickets.  There were long stretches of darkness and there would be a bright event light at the end of the road – a sort of beacon that I’d run towards.  It would cast shadows of the runners just ahead of me and the ones running towards me - on their way home.  Once I’d pass the light my shadow would be cast in front of me.  It was exceptional.  The state of mind after 125 miles sure makes you appreciate the little things in life.  I made the turnaround and high fived a few locals – I was on my way back home.

My eyes saw just slightly more detail than this.

And it was blinding when you got there!

I visited the second “special needs” stop where I picked up the last of my salt tabs and somehow managed to down a gel.  Still feeling ok I kept jogging until I hit the “Ford Motivational Mile” somewhere around mile 18 or 19.  As I passed over the mat the big screen read “C. Westheimer You Are Great.”  I smiled, high fived the two volunteers who were dancing feverishly and carried on.

Back on the Queen K I tried to settle into a rhythm.  It was a funny duality.  I was within striking distance, but still had a ways to go, and much of it was a false flat going uphill into town before the final decent on Palani.  I maintained a slow run, allowing myself to walk at the aid station and continue walking until I had finished eating and drinking.  This worked out well, despite yet another bathroom stop at around mile 21.

Julia and mom patiently waiting.

These last miles were something else.  Here I was, having covered 135 miles since dawn, running into the night.  This certainly did not happen in my first Ironman!  Night on Queen K was perhaps the best and most unique part of the race.  As I made my way closer to town I started to allow myself to celebrate.  I was within 3 miles and I knew the last mile would basically not even count, so I really wanted to savor those last two.

As I was running that last bit I wanted to pay special tribute to my inspiration – the man who I model myself after.  He’s inside me and will always be with me.  My dad was the best father I could have ever asked for.  We had plans that would never be realized.  We had dozens of more trips to Hawaii where we’d snorkel, boogie board and argue about where to park the car (long story.)  He was my best friend and I could feel him with me.  This is why I keep doing this.  When you peel the layers of the onion away – me in my rawest place – he’s so deeply a part of me I feel like he might as well be running right next to me – egging me on, cheering for me.  I was getting so excited to finish soon, but I also a bit sad that this day – the day I had dreamed of since 2007 was now coming to a close.

As my heart was filled with emotion and my eyes a bit teary, at about mile 24, I saw a bird fly by the street lamp – it was perfectly illuminated.  I quickly remembered that there were Owls on the island.  I’m quite “raptor obsessed,” largely due to the many connections with my dad and birds of prey.  I scream out “OWL!” uncontrollably.  Unbelievable.  I’ve never been able to make one out so clearly.  As if to cheer me on the Owl circled back towards me for one broad loop, not quite over my head before disappearing into the darkness.  “Thanks, Dad.”

With that lift I proceeded towards town.  I could hear the announcer, the “Voice of Ironman,” Mike Riley, in the distance now.

As I turned down Palani towards the mile 25 marker I allowed myself to rejoice.  I was basically going nuts already.  I was high fiving everybody in site – especially the kids.  I took the downhill way too fast, letting my emotions get the best of me once again.  I was screaming out “THIS IS AMAZING…” “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS!”  It was a rush.  By the time I hit the bottom of the hill I had just a few blocks to go before I made the final turn down Ali’I Drive.  I quickly realized how exhausted I was from the downhill celebration!  Opps!  Since the street was not so crowded with spectators that I could celebrate with I decided to walk a few steps so I could recuperate before the REAL celebration!


As I made the final turn down Ali’i I was smiling and rejoicing uncontrollably.  I was yelling to the crowds, “Can I get a Hell Ya?!”  And they’d give me one!  I made my way through the sea of people, high fiving and screaming.  A quarter mile later (which felt like the quickest 400 meters ever) I was in the finish chute.  100 yards of pure bliss.  I had it all to myself.  I was running back and forth, spinning around, jumping up and down, basically going nuts.  The crowd was also going crazy, smiling, cheering - it was amazing.  Towards the end of the chute I saw my Ironmate and Ironmom.  I ran over to them and basically gave them the biggest hug ever.  They were screaming in my ears so loud that they distorted in stereo – that probably took a year out of my hearing!  But all for good!  Mike Riley was announcing my name and exclaimed, “Some are just happier than others!”

As I made my way up the ramp, I was still going nuts – I couldn’t believe it!  And then I realized that there were no fewer than 3 video cameras pointed at me, just feet away.  Wow.  This was crazy.  I was still screaming uncontrollably.  I certainly was happy!  I pointed at the icon of my dad on my jersey for the camera and exclaimed, “It’s all for this guy!”  I calmed a bit.  Then as if to continue the celebration after the brief lull a volunteer and I started randomly high fiving, one hand after the other.  Hilarious.  Finally, after what must have been a five minute celebration (but felt like 5 seconds!) the NBC producer took me back over to the pier for my “post race interview.”  He basically said “go” and I dished out my raw emotion.


After my interview I met up with Julia and my mom and was still absolutely ecstatic.  We walked over to the tent where I picked up my medal and shirt.  Before long I was downing slices of pizza.  Mediocre pizza never tasted so good!  After a bit I picked up my bike and transition bags and went back to our humble hotel room.  I took a brief shower before making my way back to the finish line – I wanted to experience Ali’i Drive on the other side.

The vibe was electric.  The chute was lined to the teeth with rabid spectators beating their thunder sticks to the music.  There was such an anticipatory feeling the later the evening got.  I stuck my hand out trying to remind finishers to celebrate in the chute.  It worked on some, but others were just too focused on that line.

One person that was particularly amazing to see finish and cheer for was none other than Scott Rigsby - perhaps the first initial seed that got my mind thinking “Ironman” years ago.  Now I got to cheer him in.

It got more and more exciting the closer it got to midnight.  Mike Riley is a master of the microphone and I can only say that the only thing that tops cheering for people on Ali’i Drive is being cheered in by the people on Ali’i Drive.  I’m so happy I got to experience both in one night.

Can you say "bling?"

The next day I got to see the message my mom and wife wrote on Ali'i.


From a training standpoint I had anything but a perfect race, every one of my three splits being significantly slower than what my training told me I could do.  Yet I could not imagine a more perfect race!  I operated perfectly within my means on that day and pushed myself by going the distance, not by driving myself into the ground.  The conscious decision to take this race as it was – a gift – was perhaps the best decision I’ve made since being involved in running and triathlons.  I smiled nearly the whole day and filmed over 3 hours of footage (video coming soon.)  I stayed positive and enjoyed the experience 95% of the time.  And with that finish – that makes up that 5% and more!  This was a race that truly was not about time – it was about heart.  For that, my dad would be proud.

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About Me

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Film composer moonlighting as a runner, cyclist and triathlete