The first Kona Ironman: A retrospective blog (Part III)

If the hours before are the worst, those first few minutes after the gun sounds are the best. I see that feeling in my dogs when they have been cooped up in the house for hours, and they finally get to go out. I went out hard as usual, and after five minutes or so we had our little group.

One thing that has always confused me when open water swimming, iit appears that there are always many people in front of me. I get this feeling that I must have screwed up, and the group has left me. I saw Kim there with me, and there were 3 others, so we got into our groove. Kim and I had planned on pacelining the swim, and eventually this guy Tom Boughy joined in with us.

Tom was an Ironman veteran and college water polo player. The story about Tom was that he was one tough guy. In his Ironman on Ohau, he had no support crew, so he locked his bike in his car in a shopping center. When he finished the swim, he would get his Hide-a-key, put his bike together, then go into the market and buy his food and drink for the ride. All along the course, he would use the quickie markets as aid stations. He was a no-frills guy, and each year he still does one race with his kid in Newport Beach. We still come out of the swim together, and it's no freebie to win that 50+ AG with him in the race.

The swim was rough that year, only one other year in the race's history was it worse. That was probably one of the reasons for the change from February to October. No problems for us, though, and our group of five exited in around 56 minutes.

Along with Tom Boughey there was another guy, Jody Durst, with us. He was one of the very few East Coasters at the race. He had come out to California to train with us, and he just kind of hung out and kept it low key. We kind of felt sorry for the guy, always unshaven, and seemed to be on a student budget. He always told us that he would only be able to do the sport for a few years, because he would have to go to work in the family business. I had always imagined that it was some mom and pop hardware store or restaurant. It wasn't until many years later when I was reading Forbes magazine, and looking at the 100 richest Americans, that I found out who Jody Durst really was. Apparently his father and uncle owned more real estate in Manhattan than anyone else, and they were near a billion dollar family. Jody was groomed to take over a billion dollar empire, and we felt sorry for the guy. You may also recognize the name from the news a few years back: Robert Durst killed and chopped up his victim, got caught with the gun and cleaver, and got off as self-defense. He is a relative of Jody's that I'm sure the family would love to forget.

We got onto the bikes, and Kim and I quickly got out onto the Queen K Highway. We couldn't see anyone in front for a while, and we passed a recreational rider at about mile-20. We decided to ride side-by-side together, so that we could chat and not get bored with the long ride. There was a camera van that came along side us, and we asked the guy hanging out the side door what place were we in. He just gave us this blank stare, and we yelled out again, "What place are we in?"

He must have been deaf, because he gave us this stupid, blank stare again. We finally got annoyed with him, and screamed a few expletives at him, and asked one more time. What we didn't know at the time was that all camera and race personnel were told not to talk to the racers about their placings. So the guy finally hung out the van, and pointed to the side of the van. It took us a minute to figure out what the hell he was doing, and then it hit us. He was pointing to a giant number 1 taped on the side of the van. Apparently the recreational rider we passed was the guy that won the swim, and he was the only one out there. All that time I was worried that a dozen or so swimmers were out front. There was one solo swimmer out front, and we were the lead swim group. We were leading the Nautilus Hawaiian Ironman, and my confidence that I would win the race just soared.

About 35 miles into the race, we made a left turn off the highway and rode down to Hapuna Beach for the first of three bike weigh-ins. Of course we were both much heavier than our scratch weights from Wednesday's weigh-in, and we headed back out to the highway. We had a huge lead, and I only remember one rider coming down while we rode out. We continued to chat back and forth, and both of us were up on the hoods riding about 21 or 22 miles per hour. I had some trouble with my peanut butter jars in which I carried my fluids - unscrewing the caps - and I would have to drink it all because I could not screw the top back on with one hand. Then I would hurl it out into the lava fields. At least the front end of my bike was getting lighter as the race went on.

We got on the climb to Hawi, and there was the usual headwind blowing down the hill. Once on top we got into a groove and began to think about getting halfway through the ride. I remember watching the ABC coverage at this point, and there is a shot of John Howard, deep in the drops and hammering toward us. You can see Kim and I sitting up on the hoods, still chatting away, and Diana Nyad says, "Look at John, he is like a shark, gobbling up Mark and Kim like they were Sunday cyclists." Of course John was stamping out his dominance at that moment, and Kim and I later caught back up to him for a couple miles before he made his final move. I can remember it clearly, he goes by, and Kim and I both yell at him, "Way to go, John buddy!" It was caught on tape for all posterity. We really liked each other back then - we still do - and this whole thing just seemed like a training day with your buds. The course back then went all the way through Hawi, and there was a right hand turn up the hill for a half-mile to the next weigh in station. All three of us were together, and that is where they got the idea that we were somehow superhuman to have still gained weight during this race. Of course it was Kim, John, and I, all whom went on Monty's crash weight loss program.

We lost sight of John, but continued to ride together, and chatting about how we thought John would do in the run. The next weigh-in was back at Hapuna Beach again, so we pulled off the highway and rode down to the beach. At this point I had to take a natural stop. I weighed in first, and told the guy I need to hit the head. He grabbed me, and we started walking down this path. Then it ended, and he was pulling me into the lava field. I was kind of dazed, but I was just beginning to wonder where the hell he was taking me. He finally stopped, looked around, and said go right here. There were no toilets, no paper, just some rocks to squat over. I remember being pissed that he wasted so much time, when I would have just gone there at the scales. So I did my business and ran in my cleats back to Kim. Once again ABC captured this whole episode. Kim was waiting for me, and he was just sponging himself while I was doing my thing. He looked very antsy, but we had decided we would ride together, so he would wait. In the meantime, this young Mexican kid came through, weighed in, and passed us for second place. It was Scott Molina.

We continued on with our ride, and one more guy passed us before the finish, Jody Durst. We did our next weigh-in at T2, and Kim and I started the run in 4th and 5th, still heavier than the scratch weight. We rode about 5:39 or so, not bad for a long course, with 3 weigh-ins, and two transition times added. John went about 5:03 after a 1:11 swim. He dropped 50 minutes off his swim from the previous year, so I suspect our little swim sessions helped. In the ABC coverage Arthur Ashe, the famous black tennis player, was the cycling expert commentator. Apparently he had suffered a heart attack, and as part of his recovery he rode an indoor exercise bicycle. That made him a cycling expert. He did hit the nail on the head, though, when they showed Molina riding his bike, with his wifebeater undershirt, black calf-high socks, seat waaaay too low, and spinning a cadence of about 110. Arthur commented that he appears to be burning himself out.

We ran about 8-minute miles, and everything felt pretty good. I remember toward the end of the bike ride that I just wanted to get off this thing, even if it meant running. Another Ironman veteran and Navy Seal named Chuck Newman passed us on the run. He is the guy that did the entire ride in running shoes, thinking it would save some transition time. Like I said: a lot of just plain tough guys back then.

After about 6 miles, I started to get my first cramp. I stopped and stretched it for awhile, Kim waiting for me once again. I also remember that I had a bloat that looked like a bowling ball. Looking back, all that forced drinking I did with the peanut butter jars, with this new ERG drink, just overloaded my absorption rate. A little while later I got the next cramp, only in a different place. I finally told Kim to go on, I will catch up later. After all, I was a much better runner than he was, so I was confident I would see him again later. I got back into a groove, and I passed Chuck on the side of the road, puking up a bowl full of orange slices. A couple minutes later he passed me again, apparently relieved after his purging.

A couple miles later we were in town getting ready to head out onto the highway for the long journey of the marathon. Then it hit me, cramps in two different places. I would stretch one, and the other would snap. Bam! Then a third cramp, only not in the legs this time, in my stomach. I was doubled over, and had to arch back to stretch. I thought I was going to cramp in every muscle in my body. The only relief was to get pressure on the muscles. I looked across the street, and there was the old banyan tree. I hobbled over to it, and I placed my hands in a spot that relieved my stomach cramp, and extended my legs to hit the hamstring ones. Then the quad would pop, and I would have to shift to stretch that one. I finally found a spot where I had relief, but if I moved one inch, it would set off a chain reaction. People were there yelling at me, "You can do it man, you are top-10 still." What they didn't realize was that I was in fear for my life at that point, and the race was the farthest thing from my mind.

About an hour later some medical personnel came by and tried to get me on a stretcher. One move off that tree and I was a goner, so they left me there. It was very frustrating standing there, every runner in the race going by and telling me to come on and run with them, and the crowd trying to will me back on to the course.

After about two hours in the hollow of that old tree, the first runners were coming by for the finish. It was John, and I was so embarrassed that I hid my head there and said nothing. I didn't want him to see me like this. I was slowly pulling out of my cramp mode, but still couldn't move. Looking back, my bloated stomach probably started to absorb my fluids. Then the other finishers came running down, and it took me about 4 hours before I could finally leave that tree and walk into town.

Once I knew I wasn't going to die, I just wanted to. Having to face all my friends with my DNF was the worst. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I didn't know what had happened. Kim got 11th place - one off the podium. Looking back at the ABC coverage, Molina was catching John in the run, and it looked like it would be his day, then he found his own banyan tree. There was a siren coming into town, and they were rushing a stretcher across the finish line. It was Scott with his hand over his head, looking like death warmed over. I know exactly how he felt.

The next day, we all got up to go eat the buffet at the King Kam hotel. The finish line was still up, and people were still finishing. We got there in time for 74-year-old Walt Stack to cross in 27 hours. He was the hardest of the hard core. His job was a hod carrier. That's the guy who holds the cement up on a platform so that bricklayers can get to it. Imagine trying to suspend fifty-plus pounds in the air all day long. He would ride his one-speed bike to work 15 miles every day, swim in the cold San Francisco Bay, and do a little run after work, every day of his life. And like all hardworking men, he was a hard drinker too. The last six miles of the marathon there in Hawaii, he would have a shot of bourbon and a beer at each station.

We were all pretty stoked when old Walt came across the line and, of course, it just made me reflect on my disastrous race. I decided right then I would be back, and would conquer this race, no matter what it took. I had no idea what it would really take at that time, and 15 consecutive starts later that damned race would still get the best of me.