Our HOTSHOT team arrived home last week with so many wonderful memories of their time at the IRONMAN® World Championship in Kona. We wanted to share just a few . . .
Like so many, I became enamored of the IRONMAN® World Championship after watching the iconic Julie Moss crawl to the finish line in 1982. As a young child that memory of watching the NBC Show from my living room in small town Vermont was forever etched in my mind. It led me to participating in Triathlons in High School and College, and finally racing in a full IRONMAN distance race in Germany last summer, something I had wanted to accomplish all those years. As much as I love to watch the Pros and top age-groupers fly by with perfect form in the swim and bike, then run with an effortless stride; it is the athletes that line up at the starting line for a completely different reason than winning that capture my heart. There was the oldest competitor this year – an 85-year-old man from Japan; another athlete who had finally qualified for this race after 17 attempts; an athlete with less than 9 months left to live, whose final dream was to participate in this race; the inspirational duo of Rick & Dick Hoyt . . . the stories are endless.
The athletes who have overcome incomprehensible odds and adversity are the ones whom I truly love to watch. The power of their passion, drive, and sacrifice overwhelms me with emotion. We are provided a window into their stories throughout the week, then we become personally invested in them on race day. We track them online throughout the day, cheering inside every time we can see they made it through another time cut on the athlete tracker.
That final, special hour from 11:00pm to midnight is when the competitors who have been out on the course for over 16 hours start coming in, all in need of a little extra energy from the crowd to bring them across the line. This crowd more than delivers! Even though most have been up since 4:00 AM, they stay and clap, dance, sing, ring cowbells, and bang thunder sticks with incredible energy to bring these athletes home across the finish line to the golden voice of Mike Reilly shouting the words they have been waiting to hear all day . . .”You are an IRONMAN.” I know I wasn’t the only one shedding some tears that night. You can feel their elation, and you truly feel that moment with them.
As I write this on my fight home far from the lava fields of Kona, I can still hear his voice in my head, and it still brings a tear to my eyes. I am in awe of the power of the human spirit that is showcased on this day. With a dream, perseverance, and belief in yourself, you can truly accomplish anything.
The World Championship week in Kona is filled with diverse adventures, all of which involve meeting athletes from around the globe. We meet them at the expo booth, at Dig Me Beach, at the poke and coffee shops, during shakeout runs, and we get to know their stories. The stories give life to thousands of bib numbers. We then spend race day on the run course, officially giving out HOTSHOT, but unofficially cheering for the men and women we’ve met along the way. Down on Ali’i Drive at 10pm, the stories flooded my mind. Nine years of trying to qualify, the dream of finishing with your wife of 30 years, a scary mid-season bike crash . . . these are just a few. As I watched each of these champions cross the finish line, we reminisced about their individual journeys and shared in their joy and accomplishment.
This year, the HOTSHOT team was lucky enough to be at the epi-center of the finish line energy during an 11PM swag toss to the crowd. The energy of running backwards along the chute and throwing free HOTSHOT gear to cheering fans is second only to finishing our own races! Keeping the hype high at hour 16 of a 17 hour race was an amazing feeling and huge highlight of the week.
I have always been inspired by incredible athletic performances. Being a runner, I am in awe by what triathletes do. They’re adding two more specialties on top of running, which is amazing. Watching my first IRONMAN in Lake Placid inspired me to begin to train for a triathlon. Watching the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona have inspired me to set my sights even higher to maybe one day qualify for this race. I always leave these races filled with inspiration and even tears from thinking about how proud each and every athlete must be to complete such a hard athletic endeavor. I just wish I had time to hear everyone’s journey to get here. Whether this was a PR, or just a rough race, I hope that every athlete knows how they inspire people along the way. I know I’ve been beyond inspired by every person who worked so hard to get here, and I’ve never been so inspired to do what they do.
I’m always amazed at people’s reactions when they interact with 3X IRONMAN World Champion and HOTSHOT athlete, Craig “Crowie” Alexander. This year, we asked him if he would be willing to go outside of the “usual” appearances and try something new. He happily agreed, so this year we saw Craig out on the HOTSHOT SUPs sampling swimmers in the early morning. He took over the HOTSHOT Jeep to give unsuspecting people rides up and down Ali’I Drive. And finally, he headed out to Run Aid Station #10 on the Queen K to offer encouragement and HOTSHOT to runners in their darkest hour. No matter the situation, people’s reactions were the same… surprised to see that he was there, and delighted for this unexpected visit with this Kona legend.
It was so exciting to see another HOTSHOT athlete, Tim Reed, charge out of the water in the first group of swimmers. I knew that this was a good sign for the race. Then, when I saw him make it to the top 3 in the bike group, I felt like this just may be the race we knew he was capable of. But, when a punctured tire delayed him by 5 minutes, I was crushed for Tim. When I finally saw him on the run at mile 14, I was expecting him to charge through the aid station but he slowed to grab a HOTSHOT and shared his mindset at that moment. I ran alongside him and offered some words of encouragement. This little interaction was unexpected and made me feel like I played a small part in giving Tim a boost during the hardest part of the marathon. While this wasn’t the race he had hoped for, he never gave up and eventually finished in 23rd. place.
It’s after 8 PM on race day and Jordan and I have been at the HOTSHOT aid station at marathon miles 14 & 21 for 4 hours . . . we’ve been awake for 16. I am facing the runners approaching us at mile 14, HOTSHOT in hand, smile at the ready, trying unsuccessfully to ignore feet aching, hips hurting, bugs swarming, stomach growling. I see the glow sticks and head lamps out there in the distance, coming toward me . . . I think. Runners, sometimes walkers, emerge from the darkness into the excessively bright light a few feet ahead of me. Shoulders back, smile on, mustering cheer and enthusiasm, I shout some combination of “HOTSHOT for muscle cramps . . . you’ve got this . . . look at that strong stride . . . great work . . . keep it up . . . crush these last miles of the day . . . you can do it!”
Sometimes they don’t respond, eyes down, face blank, lost in the inertia of the 128.4 miles that have come before this one. Sometimes they smile and say “thank you for being here.” Sometimes they even slow down to ask about or take a HOTSHOT, hoping it will ease some of their pain and speed them on their way. Sometimes they offer a wry laugh and say “yeah, right. I don’t feel strong.” To which I offer even more words of encouragement. Sometimes, they just make eye contact. No words. No facial expression. Just their eyes, meeting mine. They are the ones I remember the most.
I had a yoga instructor who would make us stand in front of a fellow yogi and stare into each other’s eyes for 3 minutes, silent and expressionless. After the initial awkwardness subsided, I was consistently surprised by the raw intimacy of those 3 connected minutes. Standing out at Mile 14, our eye contact lasted for seconds, not minutes. But in those seconds, I saw them. I recognized in them persistence, inspiration, patience, pain, motivation, pride, hardcore determination and niggling self-doubt as the 17-hour deadline loomed ahead. These moments were brief as each runner moved on to the cheering teenagers at the water stop, then on to food and loud music and back into the pitch-black darkness. I didn’t see them again until the finish line, when their accomplishment overwhelmed them with smiles and tears. The finish line was joyful and inspiring, but what I will always remember are those moments at Mile 14. Because you were there. And I was there. And we saw each other.