Beneath it, the audible thud of tribal drums. Pele. Beneath the average persons view . . . order . . . beauty . . . purpose . . . life.
Flash of lights.
It all spins together like a pinwheel in the minds eye: Souls moving forward. Imua. Islands moving forward. Life forward. Forward motion. 140.6 miles ending where it started. Somewhere beyond the hype, the logos, the TV crews . . . the essence of life.
E ho'a'o no i pau kuhihewa.
I find silence. To Pele, I whisper a simple pule. Waist deep in her waters, arms spread wide to the east, to catch the sun’s rays as they spill over the volcano and chase their way down the slopes to ignite
A familiar scene: helicopters that rip diagonal lines across the sky. I open my eyes to the chaotic world of Kona on race day. My joy is centered on a simple fact: to be here in these waters is perfection.
I am at peace and I am happy.
Kahu Billy Mitchell's voice booms, albeit as a memory from races past, to the beat of actual tribal drums. He shared ancient words of courage: “Imua” he had shouted. I float and watch the flags that will signal the race start.
This year the swim start was cramped, dangerous. A sense of panic swept through the “left starters” as racers who wanted to be at the front pushed against those that were in the front and wanted to stay behind the paddle-boarders that prowled the start line to hold everyone back. With no room to tread, some went under and panicked, shoving to get back up . . . for air . . . to find room to tread . . . to float.
This “panic” seemed to trigger aggressiveness, such that when the cannon did go off, there was a willingness to be hostile, overly assertive . . . behavior that lacked honor and left me disappointed.
Less than 1000 meters into the swim, a racer grabbed my ankle in an attempt to “pull over me,” and succeeded only in robbing me of my timing chip. I swam, buoy-to-buoy, stuck in an enormous, slow moving, pack with no path out or around. I parked concern over finding a replacement chip and the annoyance of “the pack” and enjoyed the most beautiful swim in sport.
My love for Ironman has been kept fresh by leaving the sport every few years to explore other challenges. I raced Kona in 1998, 2000 and 2001. In 2002 I shifted goals to ultra-distance running and qualifying for, and racing, the Western States 100 mile trail run.
What is important to share about Western States is that my “fabric” changed during my 27 hours to simply finish. And as an athlete, I am different from what I was before I entered. Even today my mind tries to gain a grip on that experience . . . the volume of broken thoughts that choked me during Western States, haunt me, and loose thoughts from that race still rattle in my head and at odd times one will lodge in my psyche like a burr.
Beyond new perspectives on the potential for pain in endurance racing, and the cementing of views on family, self, limits, broken limits, broken self ... I came to see myself, during a particularly “imaginative” section, in the dead night, as a life moving forward, part of the kaleidoscope of life. And in those many hours of suffering, I came to adopt as mine the words that Pat McCrary had shared, in his book, The Road to Kona Never Ends:
“No one is without weaknesses and limitations. We must come to be patient with the weakest parts of ourselves, before we can be tolerant of the weakest parts of others. Nobody is whole.”
Physical recovery from Western took time and a 2003 return to Kona was out of reach, but qualifying in 2003, for Kona in 2004, was not. I abandoned my previous Ironman training methods and plied my broken body with gentle, positive, self-coaching and unquestioning trust to intuit training volumes and levels of intensity. And while the training was hard, the positive nature of the approach, an understanding of my “self,” my “body”, my “motion,” my “hard work,” brought me across the 2003 Ironman Florida finish-line in nine hours and thirty-five minutes, a PR, and slot back to Kona.
I raced Kona in 2004, 2005 and in 2006.
In February of 2007, I was hit by a car while biking and was sidelined for the year ... and during the months of recovery, between surgeries, I was oddly … at peace.
In an Ironman, if one looks, you see “a life-time” compressed . . . and 140.6 miles from where it starts … it ends. I suspect that birth and death are similar. What happens between those two points is “choice”. . . “choice” of how to adapt to “adversity” and how you accept “opportunity.” Choice to “quit” or “continue.” “Choice” to race with “respect,” “appreciation” and “grace,” choice to commit to investing in “personal best” . . . or not.
We have, in those hours, the opportunity to “practice” . . . to practice the art of “sport”... imitate life. And because it is small, contrived . . . a game . . . it is “simple,” “easily evaluated,” “digestible.” It puts one in a position to “practice” in an attempt to drive towards . . . perfection . . . the “perfect race” ... the "perfect life."
Kulia i ka nu'u
The truth is that “perfect” is only found in the quality of execution and not in how quickly one finds its end point. And what is, fundamentally “beautiful” in endurance sport is “struggle” and “choice,” with the opportunity to apply your sports experience to the canvass of life - real life.
In practical speak; my philosophy for dealing with the accident and recovery was no different than for dealing with a flat: You acknowledge, address, and get back to the business of enjoying your ride.
And so I exited the swim course and sought a replacement for my timing chip. The volunteers were terrific - I signed in for a replacement, had a new chip around my ankle, in a matter of minutes, and was across the swim finish mat. Clock time - 1:09.
I was on the bike in quick fashion and elated to see friends from the mainland and Kona cheering. The only drama occurred just out of T1, I cinched my helmet tight and the plastic webbing came loose from the helmet. I pulled over, repaired it, and was underway - maybe a minute lost.
My goal for the race, after "top-10" age group finishes in 2005 and 2006, was to race for a “top-5” finish.
I felt great on the bike, road hard and 100% clean.
I have been asked: How many watts I pushed? What my heart rate was? I don’t know. I do not use a HRM, bike computer, watt-o-meter, GPS . . . I race. If I feel good I go hard and when I don’t, I back off a little bit . . . until I feel good and then I go hard again.
The winds were Kona-typical and the heat was up: 108 degrees measured in the Natural Energy Lab (NEL) – and I like heat.
My training indicated that I should be able to bike as fast, or faster, than I had in previous years and run 3:25. I define “as fast” in relation to “overall position.” Kona bike conditions are highly variable so a 5:00 bike one year may be a 5:25 the next. This year the “conditions variation,” over 2006, was 9 – 9.5 minutes. Meaning a 5:00 split in 2006 would equal a 5:09:00 – 5:09:30 in 2008.
I entered T2 having biked into the AG "top-10" and was within solid striking distance of a "top-5" finish. Bike Split - 5:08.
I have a fifty-fifty relationship with the run course in Kona. Half of the time I get off the bike, in T2, feel great, and run the “26.2” miles to the finish “swiftly” and “softly.” The other times, I get off the bike, in T2, feel awful, and run a marathon managed around either a bad stomach, asthma, or both.
My “run partners,” this year were, “stomach cramps”, “nausea” and “vomiting”. I much prefer “swiftly” and “softly.” I ran past my wife and friends, and forced myself to smile, to be positive, and thanked them for being out there for me. I worked 7:30 minute/mile run splits. 8-9 miles in, I had to go “off the side” to retch . . . a pattern that continued through the day.
I will share these things from the run course as they are what I will carry forward: The first was a solid “check” to my “racing ego” . . . perhaps needed . . . as I was humbled by an inability to run remotely close to “3:25.” I watched a "top-5" goal, erode to "top-10" . . . erode to “Joe Foster” . . . “Finisher.”
The second moment occurred in the NEL, I had been walking, and was again “off the side,” retching in the heat . . . a fellow racer, a stranger, left her race to come to me . . . she shared her salt-tabs and words to ease my suffering before returning to her event.
Leo Buscaglia said: “We can only give others what we have. If we have a joyless, deprecating, stingy attitude with ourselves, and are unwilling to extend ourselves for our own personal and spiritual growth, we will bring these attitudes into our relationships with others. We must examine and understand what love (and giving) really means. If we live a life of striving and competition and never understand how love works, we will have missed almost all of what life has to offer. But love is best understood in the daily arena of life, where striving, competition and love are blended.”
On the wings of kindness, from a nameless racer.
Imua, Joe Foster, Imua.
In those final miles it occurred to me that I might never be back . . . by design, by ability, by outside event . . . I needed to be very present to see the final kilometer, appreciate my journey, my fortune to be racing Kona again. I needed to see my friend’s faces, to see the volunteers and the families of those on the course, to see my wife, to let her know that I saw her, and how happy I was to be here and with her.
I needed to abandon “cool” and be in the moment – act upon it.
I needed to run those final steps with the presence of a man who is damned lucky to live this life . . . my life . . . moving forward . . . and with a simple step across the finish line . . . my day ended . . . where it began 140.6 miles earlier and as the sun’s rays retreated from Kailua Bay, I whispered a simple pule of thanks to the island for all it has given me these last 10 years.