Bree Wee was headed for a resounding, long-desired home town victory at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii when she followed the waving arms of a volunteer about Mile 8 and ran a very long way off course. Just before the missed turn, Ironman.com reported her lead at 7.2 miles was 4:27. By the time she backtracked and returned to the course, that lead turned into a deficit reported by Ironman.com as 3:57.
Wee wept before gathering herself to stave off the surge of the 4th place runner and ran hard to finish in 3rd place.
At the finish, winner Belinda Granger offered Wee words of sympathy and the Kailua-Kona resident calmed her many supporters who were upset that there was no bike guiding the women’s leader. After all, said Wee, “it’s the competitor’s responsibility to know the course.” And, she added, “I’ve done this race 9 times and for the past three years the course has not changed.”
Wee, a passionate competitor who prepared well for this race, should realize that she is far from alone in making such a mistake. In the wider world of sports, Roy Riegels of the University of California scooped up a fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl game and ran 69 yards the wrong way to score a safety against his own team. In 1938, aviator Douglas Corrigan flew from Long Beach, California to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. While he was scheduled to return to Long Beach, he claimed he was confused by fog and flew to Ireland instead – earning the immortal nickname “Wrong Way Corrigan.”
In triathlon, Wee has some very good company in making the kind of mistake Scott Tinley says leaves competitors with “the worst sort of feeling.”
A few examples:
Tinley recalls a 1984 triathlon event in Sydney Australia where the course layout led to so much confusion that he and New Zealand triathlon legend John Hellemans arrived at the finish line simultaneously – from opposite directions. In the early ‘90s, pro Andy Carlson was leading the Wildflower long course by a good margin when he ran to the 10-mile mark and found the volunteers were late coming to mark the turnaround. After running a futile mile further down the road, he was so discouraged he ultimately dropped out, exhausted and heartbroken. In 1998, age group star Pete Kain was leading the men’s overall at the USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals in Clermont, Florida when he followed an arrow chalked on a turn in the road that led him off course and to a DQ. At the 2006 LA Triathlon, Leanda Cave and several top women pros missed an out-and-back on the bike at 6th and Highland and inadvertently cut 3 miles off the course, earning Cave and the group a DQ.
After a few days to take it all in, Wee graciously answered questions about her misadventures.
Slowtwitch: Looks like you were primed to win your home town classic 70.3. Great swim and a killer bike brought you a big lead. How much did you focus on preparing for this race?
Bree Wee: I poured my heart into Hawaii 70.3; it’s one of my favorite races of the season on a super fun course. Earlier in the year, after 3 months off with a broken foot, I raced Ironman Melbourne and took almost last place thinking I could finish 140.6 miles "just because I love Iron distance." After the Australian humble pie I came home and actually focused for a solid couple months.
ST: Seriously, how did you crank out such a strong bike split? Did local knowledge and your many rides along the Queen K, play a part in it?
Bree: My boyfriend moved to Hilo this year for fireman school. We made up a goal that as many Fridays as I can I'm going to bike to the other side of the island so I can drive home to Kona with him for the weekend. I think having built that little bond with him and my bike has given me more bike motivation, a lot more confidence, and it makes me feel like he is part of my training/racing. I think it helps that I really love my bike too...The Swift Carbon.
ST: How aware were you of your lead? Did you calculate a pace that could hold off your esteemed pursuers?
Bree: This was my third Hawaii 70.3 with Belinda and the previous 2 races she caught me just after that Mauna Lani turn. This time I made the turn and they told me I was 2 minutes up. I figured she would get me about Kawaihae this year -- she has never not caught me on the bike. But I never saw anyone on the way to Hawi. The girls were behind and the pro men were too far up the road. It literally felt just like a training day to me. I'm always up there riding all by myself during the week. At the Hawi turn, my lead was 5 minutes and I was in absolute shock. That took away heaps of pressure but it never felt safe. I mean Belinda on a bike coming from behind, you are never safe. Coming back from Hawi I just kept feeling stronger and stronger. By this time all my local friends in the race were riding up the hill and everyone was screaming and hollering for me. It’s such fuel to have friends and training partners out there believing in you. Into T2 they said...”7:40 lead!!’ I about pissed my pants (sorry for the wording), it honestly did not feel like I was riding that hard to have that lead.
ST: How were you feeling halfway through the run when you seemed to have a strong position to win the race?
Bree: I felt like a little kid out there, the lead felt so safe. I was running relaxed. It was actually enjoyable even in that heat.
ST: How did it feel to have so many fellow Kona friends cheering you on?
Bree: Racing at home is so special to me, I absolutely love triathlon and being able to travel, but there is no better feeling than running through your back yard with all your friends and family out there with you. Every mile of the course I knew somebody -- it felt as if they were in the race with me, not on the sidelines. I'm really, really blessed to have such a great little town to call home and have it home to one of the best 70.3 races on the circuit.
ST: Can you describe the point at which you ran off course and why you ran further than you had to?
Bree: What a nightmare. At this point in the race I was running all by myself. Pete [Jacobs] and a couple other men just passed me about a mile earlier and were long out of sight. I keep running and came to the "go straight or right" section and I was directed to go straight and I ran straight into mile 12. My heart literally sank, because mile 10 was the next mile marker for me. There was no way I was going to carry on to mile 13 like that, whether it was the woman’s fault for misdirecting me or my blame because as athletes we take responsibility for knowing the course. I knew I’d get disqualified for skipping mile 10 and 11, so I turned around as soon as the man said, "You’re in 4th place overall, a mile to go."
ST: What did you think when you were alone a long way down the wrong road?
Bree: I was nearly a mile down the road and no company had been the theme of my day. I just couldn't stop crying as I was running back and pro men were running towards me on the way to the finish. I got back on course, made it to mile 10 almost 2 miles later, then mile 11 and saw my friend Mike. Up till that point I held the situation together pretty good despite the tears, but when I saw him I just broke down. It was near an aid station. I walked right through it and fell apart, almost to the ground in disbelief. He told me to get moving because 4th place is coming. At this point I was 4:30 back from the lead and fell from winning to 3rd.
ST: There were reports that a cyclist told you that you were on the wrong road. What did the cyclist tell you when he caught up?
Bree: There was no lead cyclist with the girl’s race.
ST: Why no lead cyclist for you?
Bree: In years past the girls have a lead escort on the run with us. I wish he or she had been there with me Saturday. But at the end of the day, I know volunteers and other race helpers are not paid to be out there, so I appreciate them and have found out the hard way that ultimately it is up to us to know what to do and where to go.
ST: Did you have any temptations to quit, thinking it was hopeless?
Bree: Quitting is not a good look for me. I try really hard to finish everything I start in life.
ST: What were you telling yourself/thinking as you ran back on the course?
Bree: I had no idea where Belinda and Julia were, I was a tiny bit optimistic that just maybe I'd still be in the lead. I was very wrong.
ST: Since this was your home race, how did you go off course? Was it a change of course from years past?
Bree: Same exact course. When I race I just follow directions that are yelled to us as we move through the course like zombies: Swim exit here, bike mount/dismount here, turn here, slow here, water bottle drop here, trash throw in this zone. Volunteers, officials, and directors are all over out there and I just trust them and turn, exit, enter, slow, pass, drop back, or whatever they say to do.
ST: Have you ever gone off course in a race before?
Bree: Yep, one year the lead motorcyclist for the female leader on the bike turned me down the wrong street.
ST: Have you heard of anyone - pros or other side - going off course in a big race before?
Bree: Yes. Sadly it happens, our sport isn't fenced in, caged in, or some kind of arena.
ST: Did you have enough energy to fend off anyone coming from behind?
Bree: Yes, because Mike told me to move it as 4th place was coming.
ST: What did you tell your son Kainoa? What did he say to you?
Bree: Kainoa is 6. He has no clue what it means to be in 1st or 100th place. If you cross the finish line and get that finisher’s medal you are a champion in his eyes. He always tells me he is proud me.
ST: What did your friends say?
Bree: They got fired up when they saw the lead male with his escort but not one for the girl’s race. At the end of the day, though, they know it's just a race and not what defines me. I think they just know how hard I’ve been working and felt bad for the day to go down the way it did.
ST: Did Belinda Granger have any words for you?
Bree: Of course she did, Belinda has never not had any words. She was so encouraging at the finish line and felt pretty bad for me. I'm going to keep those words to myself, as Belinda over the years has really been wonderful to me as I grew into a pro triathlete. Some of the things she says stay with me as quiet confidence.
ST: What lessons came to you after the race?
Bree: There is never a moment in the race when I can lose focus, because if you do, it might be the moment you lose the entire race.
ST: Do you take some encouragement from your actual performance on the swim bike and run - up to the missed turn?
Bree: Of course. It was a really good day out there in all 3 sports.
ST: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about what was a really tough day.