Thursday, January 2, 2014

Making Changes

A few days ago I wrote about the amazing year Eileen and I shared in 2013. I covered travel, weddings, puppies, and careers. What I left off was any substantial mention of triathlon. That isn't because nothing exciting happened on the racing circuit in 2013; It did, but I've written extensively about all of that before. What I haven't shared is this: Things are changing in 2014.

The most dramatic change is with my coach. Kat Donatello has taken control of my training program.  Officially, we began working together earlier this week, but realistically we've been working together throughout the offseason to prepare for more formal training. While my relationship with Stephen, who is a phenomenal coach one whose guidance provided me with a level of achievement I never thought possible, is solid and I can't overstate how much he's done for me, I'm excited about what the change to Kat means for my training and racing. 

Kat and I just after my finish of Pumpkinman 2012
Having worked with Kat for a number of years (and having been very close friends with her for even longer), I know how she operates and that's made the transition easy. Kat is incredibly detail-oriented and is already bringing that focus into my training. She has me thinking about things in new ways and is structuring my training in a way that is sure to pay huge dividends. Apparently it also means getting up really early in the morning, but I can live with that!

Being yelled at before she was even my coach!
Kat and I are interested in developing success not only this season, but for many seasons to come. That in mind, we have had many conversations about the direction of my career and the result of those talks has led to a shift in my focus. While I've been focused exclusively on short course racing in the past, that is going to change in 2014. We aren't yet ready to release all the details, but I can say that I will be mixing more long course racing into my schedule beginning immediately. And beyond 2014 that trend is likely to continue. This decision was easy given Kat's experience coaching athletes at all distances. Added to her own personal success in long course racing, her knowledge base and proven record gives me confidence moving forward in this direction. 

Kat at the finish of the 2013 Ironman World Championships
Kat lives 5.5 miles from my house. That, in itself, will be a huge benefit to my training. It's now possible - when I need it - to have my coach with me at the track, while I'm on the trainer, when I'm doing core work, etc. Whether its for testing, motivation, technique analysis, or just for company, It'll be great to have my coach so close. 

Part of my deal with Kat was that I needed to invest in a power meter. It's something I've been pondering for a long time and Kat gave me the push I needed. The information generated by the power meter will allow me to work smarter and be more targeted with my approach in training and racing. The value that this will add to my cycling training will be immense and will also have a huge impact on my ability to run well off the bike. Thanks to Fit Werx 2 (like, a big thanks for putting up with the 40 or so emails I sent during the process) I'll be set up with a Stages PM for 2014 and beyond.

I consider myself fortunate to have been relatively successful in this sport. In the past seven years I have won a number of races and experienced great achievements regularly. However, I certainly have not hit my limit; in fact, I think I'm just beginning to explore those limits. With Kat on board, I am confident that I will continue to make strides toward fully realizing my potential this year and into the future. I am excited for what this partnership will bring and I can not wait to see just how fast I can go with her at the controls. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Magical Year in Review

It's rare that I write anything resembling your standard year in review. In fact, season-end race summaries aside, I can't recall ever doing so. But 2013 wasn't your typical year so it's receiving special treatment! Momentous occasions were scattered throughout the year and I can't help but reflect back and relive them one last time before the calendar flips to 2014.

At the end of 2012, having been in our new house for a year, Eileen and I decided that it was time to expand our little family. So we took to Pet Finder in search of the perfect rescue puppy. For weeks we sorted through pictures and profiles without any luck. Then, this ferocious beast caught our eye...

Nala, then Harmony, a few weeks before we adopted her

After an application, a few interviews, and a home visit we were informed by the wonderful people of Golden Huggs that our family was about to grow by one! The weeks between that notification and Nala's actual arrival were excruciatingly long. But the wait was worth it and on January 26, we were united with the cutest puppy ever born!

A shy and nervous Nala just seconds after leaving the transport truck

Nala on her first night in our house

Nala doing what she does best...
Nala's now 14 months old and she's completely changed our lives. She goes everywhere with us and makes everything more fun. She's incredibly athletic. She's fast, strong, and smart. She trail runs, snowshoes, climbs mountains, and, without exception, is up for anything we throw at her. 
Nala and her best friend, Oscar

Growing up so fast!

In April, with Nala settled into her new life, Eileen and I embarked on our first trip in five years. Eric, Eileen's brother, and his (now) wife, Amy, held their wedding in Cudjoe Key, Florida. Neither Eileen nor I had ever been to the keys before, so we were thrilled with the opportunity. The trip lasted five days and we made sure to fill every moment. We spent a good deal of our time in Key West where we did our best to sample every key lime pie available. But we didn't limit ourselves to just pie: smoothies, cookies, dog treats (for Nala, I had to draw a line somewhere), soda - you name it, we tried it. And did I mention pie? There was even some talk of ordering a few to be shipped home, but we played it cool and showed some restraint.

Photo op at the Southernmost Point
Amazing sunset views at Sunset Pier 
Pausing briefly for a picture before going to find more key lime pie
The wedding itself was incredible. The casual, outdoor ceremony and reception provided a perfect setting. We were so happy to be there and celebrate with Amy and Eric! They planned a beautiful wedding in an amazing location and both Eileen and I loved every moment of the entire experience. 

Wedding reception fun!
With one wedding and trip under our belts, Eileen and I shifted our focus to our own nuptials. As I've already provided a full play-by-play, I'll spare you a second recounting. However, I will say that everything about that day was perfect and it's a day neither of us will never, ever forget. We're so thankful to everyone that made the day possible. From our families to everyone at the Red Barn at Outlook to all of our amazing friends, we are immensely grateful for all of the support and love. And, with that said, I'll let the pictures do the talking...

Eileen arriving a few hours before the wedding/
(and my favorite picture of the entire day)
A perfect afternoon for a wedding
Another one of my favorites
Happily married!
Mr. and Mrs.
Two days after our wedding - brace yourselves for this - we took ANOTHER TRIP, this time for our honeymoon! Can you believe it? Two trips in three months after a 5 year hiatus from traveling. Again, I've shared the details of our trip to Disney World before so I'll keep this brief. A Disney honeymoon certainly isn't for everyone, but it's something we always knew we wanted to do. Having gone to WDW in 2008 following our college graduations, deciding to go back was a non-issue. We'd had such a great time on our first trip together that we knew our honeymoon there would be perfect. And it was.

We received special attention on the planes, in the parks, at the resort, and everywhere else we went. While we were on the go constantly, we were also able to relax and enjoy our time together. The entire trip was, as every Disney trip is, magical.

Honeymoon bound - first class style!

Making our way through the parks
Breakfast at Chef Mickey's
Custom artwork now hanging in our home
Post wedding and honeymoon, life settled down a bit. We got back into a regular routine which pretty much involved one of us racing every weekend. There were some highlights sprinkled throughout the summer, but for the most part things seemed uneventful given everything we'd been through earlier in the year. The biggest result of the season really happened when Kat qualified for Kona in August. I was thrilled for her as it was an amazing accomplishment. I was even happier when I was invited to make the trip to Hawaii with the Donatello family. This would be my third trip of the year and my first to Hawaii! Amazing for someone that's idea of a vacation had become a one night stay in a hotel the night before a race...

My trip to Kona was unforgettable. Not only did I receive VIP access to a ton of restricted areas during the swim portion of the race, but I also got to experience some uniquely Hawaiian events throughout the weekend. And, of course, I got to watch Kat compete on the most epic course against the best competition in the world. Again, all of this has been chronicled before so I won't walk you through the entire event. What I will do is show you pictures!

Breakfast doesn't get much better than this
I lost count of how many meals we had at Lava Java.
Each one was awesome, though!
Overlooking the swim course from the Swim Director's perch on race morning
I'm still amazed they allowed me this access!
I REALLY want to do this again! 
Back at home exciting things happened as well. Eileen, after years of waiting, got a full time classroom in third grade at Eliot Elementary School. It was a long road to get there, but she was patient and it all paid off in 2013. I also made a leap in the schools and began the process of finalizing my teaching certification for high school social studies. It's still a work in progress, but one that should be finished by the spring of 2014. There was more exciting changes too, but you'll have to wait until next year to learn the details behind those!

It's often said around this time of year that people are excited to leave the year behind and are looking forward to the changing of the calendar. For us, though, that's not the case. While we are excited for all that 2014 will offer, 2013 will be a difficult year to beat. It's a year that will hold a special place in our hearts and minds forever. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Unanswered Questions

Two weeks ago I was assisting a student during his mixed media art class when, from across the room, I heard another student exclaim, "Wow! This is REALLY good!" The words were pure and refreshing. It's not often you hear such positivity echoing through the classroom of a high school; it's even more rare that those words were uttered about the student's own work and talents, not those of a peer. The statement, while simple, was impactful. This girl was pleased with herself. She was honestly proud of her artwork. She valued her talents and recognized her hard work. She was doing the opposite of what, sadly, I've come to expect working in a school. And she should have been; her piece was incredible. 

As I went through the remainder of the day these words stayed with me. It put a smile on my face and I enjoyed reflecting on the moment. But a day later, I was still thinking about the situation. Then two days, three, four... and two weeks later the words have become embedded themselves in the forefront of my thoughts. I've spent two weeks acknowledging that this was a unique situation and one that resonated with me. Well, curiosity finally has me considering this more carefully. If anything hangs with you for this long, it's probably worth investigating. 

Why is it that I can't let this go? In order to answer that question, you (and I) need a little more of the backstory.

As I've learned this semester, art students are required to critique their own work and the work of their peers. While this is conducted in a variety of formats, it is common for the students to put their artwork on display and sit while the remainder of the class analyses it with brutal honesty. While I value the process, I am often stunned at the resilience these young people display when they're carefully crafted compositions are shredded by their peers. There is a civility present in the exercise, but the critiques are raw.

Two days ago the girl who was so pleased with her work when she deemed it complete just days before took to the front of the group. Normally my student does not participate in these critiques, but as we were in-between projects we decided to listen in. The timing was perfect as I was curious to see how the work and the student were treated. What I saw helped me understand why the original situation had impacted me so greatly. 

I sat for 10 minutes and listened to fifteen students offer (constructive) criticism on every single aspect of the girl's work. She sat, composed and attentive, listening to every word. She displayed incredible grace and dignity as she heard dozens of comments on how the work she'd once deemed exceptional could be improved upon. This color wasn't right. The framing wasn't right. She should have done this. She ought to do that. Why would she have used that color? The matting didn't really "fit". The lettering could have been..... The critiques - while offered in an attempt to help - were hurled without hesitation from every direction. To her credit the student was, on the outside, composed and strong. But...

How did she really feel? I recognize that she understood that her work would be subjected to the critical eye of other budding artists, but I question how the newly imposed perspective on her work - a perspective that differed greatly from her own - impacted her. Did the critique change her feeling on her work? Did she still think it was excellent or did she now see flaws in her work? Did she still respect the time, effort, and talent that went into the work or was she focused on the perceived imperfections? My questions were endless. And, tonight, they remain that way: numerous and unanswered. 

What I do know is that this girl is not alone. We all face this situation in our lives and I realize now that my fascination with this story has grown out of this connection. How can we see value in ourselves while facing a barrage of critiques? How can we maintain a sense of satisfaction with ourselves - the same enthusiasm a high school student might express upon completing their best work to date - when the world is busy highlighting our flaws? At what point is good to me good enough? When do we turn off the outside noise and honor ourselves for what we can do rather than what we can't?

Again, the solution escape me and I'm left tonight - as I was two days ago in class - with numerous, unanswered questions. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Change of Pace

Burnt out and ready for a break from the routine I'd crafted for myself over the past seven year, I found myself craving a change this fall. My triathlon season was, as I've said before, somewhat of a disappointment. It was far from a complete failure, but it was also far from satisfactory. So, when the bike and (skimpy and revealing) drag suits were put away in early September, I sought out something new. I began with a bit of road racing, which wasn't at all new to me, but provided a much needed shift in focus. And then - brace yourselves - I did something revolutionary and uncharacteristic. I decided to run on something other than pavement! Yes, you read that right. For me, a big change in routine meant racing the same distances just over dirt, grass, and mud.

With soccer as my background, I'd never actually competed in a cross country race until a week ago. But it's just running, right? I mean, how hard could it be?


The race I entered was, by far, the smallest and most relaxed I've ever witnessed. That was fine because my training had been equally laid back and I was just looking to have a new and challenging experience, not toe the line with world class athletes. The race, the Pine Tree Academy Trail Race, was a first year event put on by the private school's PTA. Located about a mile from my brother's apartment in Freeport, made it an easy first XC event. Low key and cheap - my two favorite things. 

I showed up about an hour and fifteen minutes before the race and found myself standing alone in a field. Like I said, this was low key, but I was literally there with the timer and like 3 volunteers! So I got myself checked in and set off to figure out the 2.5 loop, 5K course. Unlike running on the road, I figured there might be a few key spots to examine before the race start. While the course was exceptionally well marked (relieving my major source of anxiety), there were many tricky spots that required some careful foot placement. Just one week out from an ankle sprain in training I used extra caution in picking lines and took the time to look for troublesome areas on the trails. When I returned twenty minutes later, there were about 10 people mingling around the start line and registration table. With 30 minutes to the start, I was beginning to get a little concerned that I'd gone too low key. 

Back at the car, I made about 50 outfit changes. Gloves with arm warmers, no gloves with a singlet and arm warmers, just a singlet and shorts, gloves, a signet and shorts without the arm warmers, I literally tried out every combination of attire I had with me. In the end, I determined that it was only going to be 20 minutes and I could survive in just a singlet and shorts. I was the only person there in a true racing outfit, and one of only a few that wasn't waring long sleeves. For once, I looked like a real runner at a running event!

We were herded into a starting area that consisted of two cones and a spray painted line outside the school's gymnasium with about 5 minutes to go to the race start. As I looked around, there appeared to be exactly 2 other people that were legitimate runners. They were very obviously high school athletes and either ran track or XC (or both). When the gun went off - well, misfired - we took off on a long grassy straightaway at about 4:20/mile pace. No joke. This lasted all of 45 seconds before I was tailing off the back of the lead.

One minute into the race and I was ready to collapse
The two high schoolers quickly gained a gap of about 50 yards, but by the time we exited the woods for the first time and started running along open fields I was able to see that the gap was not opening. It held steady and I knew I was in a decent position. There was nobody in sight behind me so I knew I could be patient and make a move late in the race to move up the podium.

At the one mile mark, my lungs were on fire. In a road race you don't even feel like you've started by the first mile, but this was different. I was already exhausted and I had two more miles to run. Fortunately, I was motivated by the fact that I was gaining ground on the two leaders. As we darted in and out of the woods, I got glimpses of a closing gap. By two miles, I was within 10 yards of second and about 25 of first. Still being patient, mostly because my legs and lungs were maxed out, I waited. I was strong and knew I could run this pace (whatever it was, good luck getting GPS to work in the woods) all day, but dropping it even 10 seconds per mile was not an option. 

As we made our way up the last significant hill (picture a grassy Everest), I made a decisive move into second place. We spent the next half mile traversing the fields around the school and I made up even more ground. It was clear that I was a faster runner than the leader over somewhat even terrain. However, I found that I was not nearly as skilled (or daring) over difficult terrain. As we entered the uneven wooded trail for a third and final time, I lost contact with the eventual winner. He gained about 10 seconds over me and there was nothing I could do to make up the difference this late in the race. But I continued to plug away, just trying to get to the finish unscathed. And, twenty minutes and forty something seconds after the race had begun, I did just that. The time was slow, the pace was pathetic, but I was thrilled. It was incredibly hard race even though the course was far from the most challenging around. Not being able to dictate your own effort at all times made things tough but rewarding. Not only was I overcoming the distance, but the terrain as well. It really was a great expereince. 

Coming out of the race, I was thrilled with my new direction I'd taken this fall. The change of pace was perfectly positioned in my year and has allowed me to reinvigorate my passion for running and endurance sports. I'm certainly not finished with XC racing as it's something I plan to do much more of in the years to come. And, given how much this has done for my attitude toward training, racing, and my future it's safe to say that I'll be trying some new stuff in all three sports. Stay tuned throughout the winter as I branch out and rediscover why it is that I do what I do...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall Racing Update

Oops. It seems that I've dropped the ball in regards to my own self-promotion. It's been nearly two months since I've posted a self indulgent race report so here's to making up for lost time...

In order from worst to best performance, here are the three unaccounted for races from this fall:

Pumpkinman Sprint

Pumpkinman week is, perhaps, the most stressful of the year. The combination of my return to work at school and the behind-the-scenes work I'm doing as an RD for the race does not generate the best of conditions for an athlete. It's true every year, though every year I seem to forget just how difficult racing well is under the circumstances.

My performance this year was one of my worst in memory - not just for Pumpkinman, but as a race in general. I didn't swim well, I biked poorly, and I ran rather slowly. It was the trifecta of bad racing. But that happens from time to time, so it's not a huge deal. It wasn't the ideal end to a season of racing, but I welcomed the finish line none the less.

The poor result should have come as no surprise even if it hadn't been placed at the end of a hellish week. I'd had an up-and-down year in terms of results and attitude leading into the race. By the time Pumpkinman rolled around, I was ready to put my goggles and bike away for the year. I was burnt out and ready to be done for awhile. So done, in fact, that I have not been back to the pool since the race and have only touched my bike on a handful of occasions. A change of pace was in order.

Eliot Festival 5k

If you're really interested in the details of my race around Eliot, read my reports from 2011 and 2012. This race played out almost exactly like the ones from the two previous years. So closely related were the performances, that only about 6 seconds separated the three results. I took 4th place this year, which was respectable, but the finishing time was less than stellar. It was mediocre, but promising at the same time. While the 5:50/mi pace I maintained was fairly pedestrian for a 5k, I felt that I could hold it forever. I didn't have a next gear, but I was cruising at that speed. One week out from a half marathon, I felt I was in good shape regardless of two consecutive so-so performances.

Craig and I after going 4th and 5th overall.
Obviously, I won...

Nala didn't care how the race went, she was just happy to see me afterwards

Maine Half Marathon

In 2006 I ran the Maine Marathon. It was and will always be the worst racing experience of my life. Completely underprepared (or at least ill-prepared) to run 26.2 miles, the wheels did more than fall off at mile 16, they completely disintegrated. The final 10 miles of that day were awful and I finished more than one hour short of my worst expected time. It was that race that pushed me into triathlon. I gave up on road running, thinking I was terrible and had no aptitude for running as a standalone sport. While my reasoning behind that decision was clearly flawed, things worked out for the best. Yet, I regret stepping away from road racing so completely and abruptly. 

About six weeks before the 2013 half marathon that shared the roads with that fateful marathon of 2006, Craig signed me up to run. We'd toyed with the idea of running a longer race together and I'm glad he made the executive decision to force my return to long distance running.

Going into the race, I was unsure how my body would react. As my training and racing has been geared toward shorter, faster efforts for many years,  I toed the start line with no idea how my body would respond in the second half of the race. I'd made the decision to race fairly aggressively as I had nothing on the line except some pride. So, rather than go for a conservative goal of breaking my (very slow) PR, I decided to run as close to 1:25 as possible on a fairly hilly course.

I set my pace to 6:35 early in the race and stayed there for the first 6 miles. At the turnaround, I felt shockingly fresh and moved the pace closer to 6:30. By 10 miles I was still floating across the streets and bumped the pace toward 6:20. Ultimately, I finished the race (13.25 miles) in 1:26:42. What that serves as my official half marathon time, I did go through the exact mark of 13.1 miles in 1:25:32. 

I have hundreds of medals and ribbons, but this is the one that I'm proud of.
 Normally, I just toss them in a box, but this one's still displayed in our house!

The Maine Half Marathon was, by far, my best race in years. There isn't even a close second place. I exceeded every expectation I had for myself and actually enjoyed the entire experience. The race simply could not have gone any better. It was exactly the performance I needed at this junction in the season. I've spent much of 2013 mentally drained because I've underperformed in more ways than I care to recount. To have a race play out perfectly - with, brace yourself, everything going according to plan - was such a relief. It's allowed me to exhale. It's refreshed my perspective on racing and allowed me to accept that it's okay to venture away from what I'm most comfortable with. Even more, it's demonstrated that by testing myself in new ways, I can actually propel myself forward in all aspects of racing (and, probably, outside of athletics, too). 

Stay tuned for my latest adventure, where I REALLY step outside my comfort zone and try something (almost) completely new...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Adventures on the Big Island: IM Kona and so much more

This summer I achieved something that very few in the sport of triathlon are able to accomplish: I punched my ticket to Kona. Well, technically Kat punched her ticket to Kona, but I was like the chad hanging from a Florida ballot when she did it! Her World Championship qualifying performance at Ironman Mont Tremblant this past August was epic and while I had very little to do with it, I can't help but take most of the credit! I am, after all, an amazing source of inspiration - one so critical to her success in racing that she couldn't help but bring me along to the Big Island for Ironman Hawaii. As an honorary member of the Donatello family, I couldn't resist the family's invitation for me to join them for Kat's once-in-a-lifetime journey.

Eileen and I with my "extended family" at our wedding!
While I was naturally ecstatic to have the opportunity to watch Kat race, I was determined to take advantage of the trip professionally. I set out to secure the professional development opportunity of a lifetime; I was determined to shadow Kona's swim coordinators in order to better my understanding of best practices for water safety and, in the process, secure the required race director continuing education credits needed for recertification. Initially, my dreams were shattered. Between Kat and myself, we received exactly zero responses for about a month. Everyone we called or emailed told us we were crazy. Those type of opportunities didn't exist at the World Championships and our asking was presumptuous. Of course, this just drove my desire to secure the opportunity even further. And, after six weeks, my request was met with the most unlikely of responses: YES! Ironman Hawaii and the WTC would honor my request and allow me unlimited access to their Assistant Swim Director on race day. It's an opportunity you literally can not pay for (which is saying a lot when you're dealing with the WTC!). I knew I was in for the experience of a lifetime.

Bags packed, tickets in hand, and VIP pass secured, I headed to Logan Airport. With Kat's permission, I'd sprung for a second row window seat on my first flight from Boston to Las Vegas. The thought was that I would have a bit of extra legroom and get some sleep on the overnight flight. And then this happened in the first row...

The middle aged cast of the Hangover IV settled in directly in front of me 
These guys were Vegas bound, but were not concerned about starting the party a bit early. In fact, I'd guess they started the party sometime around noon for our 8:20pm flight. So sleep was at a premium on flight number one. No worries, though, I still had time in the Vegas airport to rest.

And then this happened...

Actually, it was more the video poker machine but you get the idea
I must say, I consider myself somewhat of a gambling savant as I was able to leave the mid-airport casino without losing so much as a penny. Granted, I didn't make so much as a penny, but I'm pretty sure that still allows me to classify as some sort of slot machine and video poker genius.

With two strikes against me, I was finally able to get a bit of rest on the flight from Vegas to Honolulu and then the quick trip from Hawaiian capitol to Kona. There, I was able to get a ride into town from the race director of Ironman St. Croix 70.3. He was a cool guy and even gave me a tour of the race venue when we got to the Kona pier. He also helped me navigate the VIP and Credential offices where I was able to secure my pass and bracelet for the weekend. 

Before taking one final nap, I was able to snap a photo on the way out of Honolulu
Finally, after hours of travel (and like 20 minutes of walking around lost in Kona), I was reunited with Kat, Jeff, and the closest thing I have to sisters in Mia and Lydie. We sat down to an oceanside breakfast and started mapping out the remainder of the weekend. 

A guy could get use to breakfast spots like this one.
Not pictured is the sea turtle that joined us for the meal!
Not wanting to waste any of the precious time we had on this beautiful island, Jeff, the girls, and I headed straight for the beach across from our condo once breakfast was finished. While I'd never snorkeled before, I figured there was no better time to figure it out than in the waters of Hawaii.

A view from the condo and of one of Hawaii's best snorkeling spots
The underwater views were well worth the gallons of water that ended up in my sinuses. While my underwater camera picked the worst of all times to fail, things pretty much looked like this...
And this...

I was absolutely stunned by the reef and the fish that called it home. So much so that I couldn't say no when we left one beach and headed for another!

An amazing black sand beach at the bottom of the volcano
The views here were just as amazing as those outside our condo. Potentially even better. The backdrop of a massive dormant volcano added to the beauty of this place. The fish were plentiful and another sea turtle even made an appearance. I wish I had evidence to allow you into this world, but the hours I spent in the water with my "waterproof" video camera managed to destroy every second of footage I had taken. While the camera failed, the views are something I will never forget. 

After draining my ears and sinuses of even more water (I will make zero claims about being adept as a snorkeler in this blog!) we headed out to witness one final shocking view for the day. 

Lava Java might be my new favorite restaurant
Lava Java, the famed Kona hotspot, lived up to its reputation. The food was fantastic and the views were unbeatable. So great was the experience, that we'd end up eating there three or four times in three days! Granted, my ability to order off an adult menu is pretty limited - but I give the pizza and pancakes two thumbs up each! The rest of the crew can vouch for the rest of the offerings.

Lights out, as ordered by Kat, came at 8pm - which to me was like 2am Eastern time, so it was cool. By 3:30 I was awake on the couch. Again, it seemed like 9:30am to me as my body was still on EST. Kat and Jeff soon joined me in the kitchen and we mapped out what was sure to be another epic day - well, for me, Jeff and my surrogate little sisters! Kat, on the other hand, would be off her feet by mid day.

Before Kat was on Ironman bed rest, she and I took off for the Kona pier - home of the the World Championship Swim Course. Our swim would be short, but it would also become one of the greatest sporting memories of my life. As the sun rose over the volcano to the east, I fixed my gaze downward at the hundreds of fish darting around the reef below. Between the importance of the setting to our sport and the spectacular views I was able to witness, this quickly became the best swim of my life. I enjoyed every single stroke and even found myself pausing to watch the sunrise or stare at the wildlife on a number of occasions. Again, it is another Kona experience that I will never, ever forget. 

The site of one of the most spectacular swims in the world
Upon (reluctantly) exiting the water, Kat and I met the founders of the new company, Roka. Former Stanford swimmers, these guys were impressive to speak with. We spent about twenty minutes talking about their products, our race, and exchanging contact information. They even offered to let us try out their suits - which Kat did, though I declined as I informed them that I wasn't racing. Thirty seconds later, when they told us Kat could have the $300 suit for free, I REALLY wanted to change my answer! 

I did get a silicone cap, so at least I didn't leave totally empty handed...
After the swim, I departed on a 5 mile run down Ali'i Drive on the same stretch of road that the athletes would run the following day. A bonus to my not racing was that I was able to enjoy the luxury of the sponsor houses that lined the road. Each one had a tent with various drink and energy gel/chew options. In all, I probably consumed about 1000 calories in 35 minutes. I ate EVERYTHING! By mile 3 I was quite full and carrying bottles, gels, chews, bars, and anything else I could get my hands on. It's no wonder I slowed down toward the end of the run. I was probably carrying 15 pound of nutrition - either in my hands or stomach!

I got back just in time to learn that we (minus Kat) were headed out to Lava Java (again!) before going cliff diving. Breakfast was great and I even met and spoke with ITU pro from New Zealand, Kris Gemmell (I would have been star-struck had he not been so humble and easy to talk to). Then, we headed off to a seaside cliff and cave carved out of lava. Like with snorkeling, I had never launched myself off a cliff and into the depths of the ocean before setting foot in Hawaii. But, if Mia could do it, so could I!

The adventure began with a five minute walk along a path through a lava filed. We were essentially walking across the surface of the sun and it's a miracle that my skin didn't melt away instantly. But it was worth it, because at the end of the path was a gorgeous (and somewhat terrifying) cliff with a cave at the bottom.

Here is a video shot in the same location - The End of the World in Kona:

After watching Jeff leap first, which was like the ones demonstrated in the video above, I turned to the girls and asked how we were getting into the water, because I certainly wasn't catapulting myself from that height. Fortunately, there was a beginner-friendly option that was only about 15 feet high. It took some fairly decent descending skills to reach the lower platform, but once there I was sure we'd made the right choice - at least to start.

After a few test jumps, it was time to step up to the big leagues! We made our way to the top platform (well, 2 feet down from the top platform). The jump was exhilarating, terrifying, and incredibly fun. I only wish we'd had more days to go back and continue the adventure.

Watching Jeff and thinking, "That's a LONG way down!"
Feet firmly on the ground back in the condo, I headed into town on Jeff's sweet rental bike. It was approximately four sizes too big and the riding wasn't made any easier given the fact that I was in cargo shorts, a polo and wearing a backpack - all in 90 degree heat and 100% humidity! Five strenuous and sweaty miles later, I found myself in the midst of Ironman Hawaii fever. I made my way past the hundreds of athletes training (way too hard one day before a race of any distance, let alone an IM) and into the host hotel to meet up with Mike Atwood, Assistant Swim Director for the event. For two hours, he and I discussed his duties for the next morning and he showed me around the venue. Eventually, we parted ways as I had evening plans with the Donatello crew (once again, minus the resting Kat!).

Those plans: an epic night of snorkeling with enormous manta rays. Out boat left the harbor about 45 minutes before sunset, allowing us to take in some pristine sights on the way to the dive location. All the time, I knew this is what was waiting for us...

After a quick dive (snorkel) briefing, we threw on some gear and plunged into the darkness of the Pacific Ocean. At the outset, the activity was minimal. Two or three mantas circled twenty to thirty feet below the surface, more interested in the divers than the snorkelers. As the minutes passed, more and more of these magnificent animals arrived. In total, 29 made an appearance. And, as a bonus, a bottle nosed dolphin stopped by to check things out. After about thirty seconds, though, he'd had enough of the activity and ended his investigation. The entire experience was amazing and I'm so fortunate to have had this opportunity. For forty five minutes, I marveled at the wonders the Pacific had to offer. It was an event I'll never forget, and an experience I recommend to everyone.

Prior to our departure that evening, Kat had given us specific instructions to keep our mouths shut when we arrived back at the condo that night! So, naturally, we all did our best to enter the condo silently and get right to bed. The next day, after all, would be one of the most important in her sporting life. 

Three-thirty in the morning came quickly, but there was no hesitation in my rise from bed (well, my makeshift bed). I was excited for the day to get underway, but tried to keep my cool so as not to add any stress or nerves to Kat. Within an hour of rising, we were on the road and headed to the start. The ride was quick and mostly silent other than a few comments about the awesomeness of the manta rays from the previous night.

At the race site, Kat and I (proudly wearing my VIP pass and bracelet) exited the car and began the process of navigating through seemingly endless security checkpoints. By the time we reached weigh in and body marking, my VIP pass had become (momentarily) useless and we had to part ways. I handed Kat all of her gear that I had been sherpa-ing and wished her the best of luck. And with that, she walked into a sea of people and I went about finding my way to my host for the day (though not before waiting 15 minutes for Kat to exit body marking - which, apparently, takes a long time in Kona!). 

After connecting with Mike, an Assistant RD, I began the process of navigating even more security checkpoints. Given the magnitude of the race and the tragedy that unfolded in Boston last spring, security was tight. So tight, in fact, that my VIP bracelet did not provide adequate clearance for me to join Mike on my platform above the swim course. Fortunately, he knew a back way into transition that was staffed by another high level RD. There, we were able to access transition and our perch for the morning. Once there, before things really heated up, I started snapping pictures. These were views that few ever see. Ultimately, if you aren't on this tower or the NBC camera platform, you can't see the race from this vantage point.

Looking away from the water and toward transition / bike & run out

Looking out over the pier and toward the swim course
Thousands of spectators lined the sea wall as the swim start neared
As I soaked in the views, the athletes made their way to the water and it wasn't long before the race kicked off with the pro starts at 6:30 (men) and 6:35 (women). What I was really looking forward to, though, was the 2000 athlete amateur start. I'd seen it many times on screen, but never in person - and certainly not from this perspective. It didn't disappoint...


The next three hours were riveting. Between listening to the advice Mike was able to give me on race directing, watching the Kona staff in action (like the snipers on the hotel roofs after a tire burst making a sound mimicking a gunshot...), and seeing the race from such a spectacular location I was completely entertained. The pros, both men and women, got out in massive packs - 27 for the men and 13 for the women. The age groupers streamed in for over an hour and the final few athletes struggled to make the cutoff. The entire experience was one I will never forget. It taught me many things about being a better race director and reinstalled some of the motivation I'll need to get through a long winter of training.

An Ironman, even for the fastest people on the planet, takes LONG time to finish. So, when you're a spectator you need to find things to do. For me, that mostly involved finding places that sold good smoothies. I think I had 4 on race day - and would have had more had it been socially acceptable for me to go back to the same stores 5 or 6 times. 

Jeff and Kat had the absolutely genius idea of getting a hotel room in town for race day. With our condo too far out of town, this gave us a place to call home while the race was unfolding. As an extra bonus, it happened to be right on the race course so we didn't have to go far to access the car or each other. It also had a shower, and I couldn't be more thankful for that! It was HOT and HUMID. I don't know how the athletes were able to function because I had a hard time just standing on the roadside. Every few hours Jeff and I would decide that we'd had enough of the heat (and sweat) and head inside to showers and charge our cell phones. 

In between Kat spottings (and she was doing amazing!), we grabbed more smoothies and headed to Lava Java for another meal. 

We saw the leaders at mile 1 and mile 9...

Luke McKenzie leading at mile one. He'd hold on for second

We saw Hines Ward...

Hines Ward, former NFL player, at mile 9

And we saw the top pros finish. Jeff even tried to get a high five from the champion, Frederik Van Lierde as he neared the finish. Frederik was staying two floors below us in the condo and Jeff had spoken with him Friday, but that didn't seem to matter when he went in for the congratulations! We both got to the Hawaiian guy carrying the flame in front of Van Lierde, but the motorcycle detail kept Jeff at a distance.


A few hours later, Kat got her moment in the spotlight as she crossed the fame finish line in front of thousands! It was a great moment that I was glad to share with her, her girls and her husband. But, she was quickly swept away and that posed a problem - we didn't know where to find her, though we knew that she would want to get back to the condo as soon as possible. Fortunately, my VIP pass allowed me access to the post-race area Kat was one of the first people I saw there.

140.6 miles later and she's still smiling!
After navigating through the crowds (and taking all of her things from her - especially her medal, because the weight of it was about to topple her!), we made our way to bike check out. As we walked, she talked. She first told me she was "NEVER doing this race again...". I nodded my head and said, "Ok, Kat. Keep walking." (Two days after the race I got the call that she was, in fact, not done with this race... ). Then she'd something semi-sensible and I'd say, "Ok, Kat. Keep walking". And, occasionally, she'd say something that made NO sense at all. I just nodded and said, "Ok, Kat. Keep walking."

Eventually we made it to the bike checkout and despite my best attempt to act like I belonged there (Kat's suggestion), this is where my VIP status apparently stopped and I was left to wait with everyone else. After she emerged with her bike and we located the family, we headed for the car. It was a journey that took some time, but as long as we kept moving forward, Kat was alright and able to walk! Jeff and I took care of some business by dropping her bike and gear at TriBike Transport while the girls looked after their mom. From there, there wasn't much left to do other than get back to the condo and get some rest.

Early the next morning we headed back down Ali'i Drive to visit the Finisher's Merchandise Store. I, Kat's personal shopper, pretty much followed her and held things that she either wanted to try on or buy! I must say, I was decent at it and could likely make a career of it should this teaching thing not work out!

Soon after, I parted ways with the Donatellos at the airport. They headed off for a few more hours of fun while I waited to board my first of many flights back home. The first, Kona to Honolulu, wasn't bad, but it was followed from a 9+ hour trip from Honolulu to NYC...

Nine hours is a LONG time to sit still
The only thing worse than a lengthy flight is a lengthy layover - which is exactly what I had in NYC. But some french toast and Matty in the Morning podcasts smoothed things over; before I knew it, I was on a plane for Boston. And, waiting for me upon arrival was Eileen! I'd expected for her to just pull up curbside, but she was waiting just outside the gate! It was great to see her and I was eager to get in the car and go home! While the trip was amazing, I couldn't have been happier to be home with my girls, Eileen and Nala.

headed home to see my family!
When most people return from Kona - or any Ironman, really - they're convinced that it's something they need to do. That wasn't the case for me. The experience was incredible and I am grateful for the opportunity to share in the experience with Kat and her family. The VIP access and my time with the Kona RDs was something that few people ever expereince, and again, I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity. All that being true, I didn't leave the Big Island with Ironman fever. I'm still on the fence if it's something I want to do. I now know it's not something in my 2014 plans, but I haven't decided past then. Maybe I will and maybe I won't, I honestly don't know what the future will hold in term of my long course racing. What I do know is that I'll probably head back to the half distance and see how I fare, but that's all I'm willing to commit to at this point.

Again, I owe the Donatellos a huge thank you for inviting me on the trip and allowing me to tag along on all the fun activities! And, of course, thank you to Eileen who held down the fort and kept the puppy entertained - with the help of my parent's dog, Oscar - while I was away!