I have had the distinct privilege to race on the Big Island twice. I have felt the heat and humidity slap me in the face as I first stepped off the plane in Kona and experienced the anxiety that inevitably follows. How will I ever be able to finish an Ironman if I can’t even get to the bathroom to change into shorts without sweating profusely? I know the pure joy of that first plunge in Kailua Bay, getting easily distracted during the swim by the abundant marine life. I always want to venture beyond the boats, but I am a little too afraid to go alone. I know just how magical it is to finally cross that finish line, after the most grueling, painful, yet beautiful race of my life, and hear Mike Reilly say “You are an Ironman.” It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
This year I traveled to Kona for my third Ironman World Championship, not to race, but to support. I knew this would be a very different experience, but I was looking forward to working with some of my sponsors (mainly Coeur Sports and Quintana Roo) and cheering on my teammates and friends. I have only spectated one other Ironman and I can honestly say I’d rather be racing. When you’re an athlete, your nervousness ends when the gun goes off. You live in the moment and are consumed with thoughts of eating, drinking, power, and pace. When you are on the sidelines, your anxiety doesn’t end until all of your friends are safely across the finish line.
Race day was hectic from the start. After a typical pre-Ironman restless night of sleep, I was up before my alarm at 4AM. I made it over to the swim start by 6, but by then all the prime viewing real estate was taken. After some searching, and one unpleasant interaction with a grumpy Australian spectator, I landed a spot on a dangerous strip of sea wall that was only available because the previous occupants had been washed off by an unexpected wave. …I figured I’d take my chances.
After watching all four cycles of the mass swim start washing machine, I ran up to the Kuakini to see the first professional men come flying by. For the next hour I watched athlete after athlete pass, mesmerized by the looks of focus, determination, joy, and fear. I whistled, cheered and lost my voice before my last teammate headed out to Hawi. Back at the Coeur booth I sat in front of my computer, refreshing the athlete tracker over and over, with the voices of Matt Lieto and Greg Welch on Ironmanlive in the background. When the pro men hit the airport on their way back to town, I was back outside to watch the final miles of the bike. Some of the racers still looked strong, ready to attack the run, others looked defeated in their salt-caked shorts. The Queen K is a relentless stretch of road that can humble even the best athletes. I was beyond excited to see that a few of my closest friends still had the fire in their eyes. I knew they were having a great day and I couldn’t wait to see them run!
Spectating the run is my favorite part of the race. The athletes are finally going slowly enough for me to get out a proper cheer, even if I barely had the voice to deliver it. Having raced this distance more than 10 times, I have gone through every possible circumstance and emotion – elation at running better than expected, feeling miserable and just barely moving, vomiting, bathroom stops, walking, jogging, running hard. I saw people I knew in each of these categories. I tried to think about what I would need to hear in their situation. For the girls having great days, it was to remind them of what they were about to achieve. Keep pushing, driving, and go get what you deserve. For the athletes struggling, I reminded them how incredible it was just to be at the World Championships. “You are among the best in the world, be proud of that! Don’t worry about your finish time, just keep moving and only allow positive thoughts to enter your mind.” I know from experience that having someone say the right thing at just the right time can make all the difference. I was hoping I could be that someone for my friends.
Finally, the last athlete I knew made it across the line. There were triumphs, struggles, DNF’s, and long awaited bowls (Congrats Hailey Manning and Sonja Wieck!!). I saw the best and worst that an Ironman can do to an athlete, and at the end of it all… it made me want to race! The Ironman World Championships is a truly magical event, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of it all. It made me long to race my next Ironman – my chance to show the heart and courage of all the competitors I saw in Kona. Congratulations to all the amazing finishers! Chin up to all those who weren’t able to cross the line – there will be other opportunities and better days ahead! -Jessica Smith