Its 4:30am and I’m walking on deep soft carpet laid on the pier at Kona Hawaii. Its the Ironman World Championship 2022, back after 3 years in its birthplace, and I, an ordinary athlete, am racing.
The air is warm and humid, there’s a low buzz from the crowd. I periodically gulp for breath, blink away tears and grin at the sheer incredulity that I’ve got here.
As I complete my bike checks, the sky begins to lighten and the beauty of Kona mesmerises me. Waves crashing against black lava rocks, volcanic mountains shaping the horizon, reflected lights glittering in the sea.
I’m soon in the coral ready for the swim start. I hear the cannon echoing across the bay as the pros begin. Then its my turn. The 40-45 female age group is swimming out to the start line, one hundred meters from shore. Green hats bobbing amongst the waves.
Then I’m off, with a goal of completion. The conditions will challenge me to my core and I’m racing the best in the world. Its going to be very, very hot (topping 35OC) and humid. Well out of my comfort zone. So I swim to conserve energy. An out and back course, swimming 1.2 miles straight out to swim around a boat then home.
I try drafting and get into my flow. I get out to the turning point at the boat without any major events. Coming back the waves begin to build and I can’t see the buoys and end up alone. My mind wanders as I compare the vastness of the sea to life. So powerful and uncontrollable. Battling it will exhaust me so I ride with it.
Deep below me I can see flickers of coral reef. I look to shore and see a rainbow stretching from one side of the island to the other. Its beautiful and I sob. I lost baby Leo to SIDs at 5 weeks in 2015, and the days that followed were marked with rainbows. This is a rainbow from heaven, Leo is with me today.
Soon I’m back with the crowd, grappling for space – then we’re out, through transition then out on the bike course.
The bike is pure, unadulterated endurance. An out and back along the coastal highway. Long hill after hill, heat, humidity and hot gusts of winds making riding precarious. The scenery is unchanging so there’s little to distract you, which adds to the mental challenge.
I start strong then I slow up. I suffered badly in a race in Utah because of heat and nutrition. I eat and drink to the point I feel sick. The heat is really effecting me but I crunch up the multiple mile long hills then whizz down them at max velocity – my happy place. Flying down the hills I overtake lots of people. But then as I begin climb after climb I feel myself tiring.
Mile 30 I hit a mini wall. Mile 40 a more substantial one. But I know this feeling. I look to the mountains for inspiration. The clouds create a face around the volcanic shaped peak. The ground is covered in black lava from a flow in the nineteen fifties according to an Uber driver. There are little grass bushes colonising the rocks, and I pass an ancient woodland of trees only a few meters high.
As I near halfway I begin to climb, for miles. The infamous Kona cross winds begin to hit the higher I climb. Then I hit half way and its fun time. I push into my aerobars for stability. The winds blast making my bike wobble. Its not refreshing as its hot air. Like being blasted by a hair dryer.
I’m struggling with nutrition. Energy bars are making me feel sick. I have a bottle with all my gels in. I need Gatorade for electrolytes to ward of cramp. But I also need a bottle of water to drink and one to pour on my head as its so hot. I do the water at each feed station – but 15 miles apart mean I’m running very low and rationing to get through.
Ninety miles in a familiar ailment kicks in. Foot pain. I’ve got shoes a size bigger as this has crippled me in every hot event. My feet swell and my toes get crushed. I’m quite surprised I’ve lasted this long! I stop and take my sock of for a bit of extra space.
Ninety to one hundred miles seem to take forever, and I stop again this time for the loo, but once I pass the magic century the clock speeds up. I ride past the marathon runners running to the notoriously challenging ‘Energy Lab’. Lonely and exposed this has broken many a competitor.
I’m worried sick about the run. Having seriously struggled in Utah I’m plagued with self doubt. Seeing the runners in the 4 or 5 mile ride in from the Energy lab out in the sun, with no crowds or nothing to distract them scares me. I’m not sure I can do this.
But I ride into transition and rack my bike and prepare for the final phase. As I dismount dizziness hits me. I’m so scared but I won’t back out. I take my time in transition. I wear an iced towel, have a gel and go to the loo again. I decide to approach this 1 feed station at a time and see where I get to. I put my trainers on and I begin the marathon.
I start at a very steady pace. I want something I can maintain and I know the heat will add an extra layer of pressure to my body that I’m not used to.
The first few miles of the Ironman World Championship 2022 in Kona Hawaii are pure joy. I feel incredible. The crowd are amazing. I trot down the main street. Now and again there’s a gap in the buildings and I see the sea. Waves crashing on the beach. Majestic banyan trees and palm trees. Bright hibiscus flowers. Someone is playing ‘Take it Easy’ by the Eagles. This was my dad’s favourite song. We played it at his funeral. I sob. He’s with me too today.
I fuel well at each feed station and keep going. The miles seem to clock by with ease. I’m up to about 7 or 8 then hit the highway for the long trek out to the Energy Lab. Michael Reilly – the Ironman caller is out there to encourage us and shakes my hand.
Things start getting a bit tougher. An Ironman staying at my hotel told me a story about a shepherd who beat a load of ultra runners by just shuffling along without letting up. I shuffle on. ‘Everybody shuffling’, resounds in my head. Its starting to get dark.
Its getting harder. Then mile 13 I bonk. I go really dizzy. I’m so angry with the feeling. I force feed myself an energy bar. And then I actually get going again. But mile 14 at the Energy Lab I bonk again. Bad style. Like St George. I’m really dizzy and panicky and miles from home. I walk. And I try everything I can think of to make myself relax and enjoy the experience.
I grab my own shoulders and push a pressure point. I stare at the beautiful night sky. Dad holds my hand in my imagination. But I can’t shake it. I walk a feed station and eat and drink. Now I’m desperate for a wee. I feel sick and faint. I take a cup of crisps and walk the next food station breaking tiny pieces of crisps, mm at a time, so I can swallow them. In a 1.5 mile walk I probably manage 5 crisps.
I go the loo again – between now and bed I must go 15 times. I must be very overhydrated. Another worry thought! I take a slice of pizza this time and tear off about a quarter. Then nibble tiny, tiny pieces. I’ve almost eaten it bar one piece of pepperoni. I put it in my pocket as terrified on being disqualified for littering.
Another station, drinks, and a banana to eat. Another. Broth. Now and again I feel almost normal but its fleeting. I’m scared to talk to anyone in case it triggers more panic. I feel horrific and I daren’t think about finishing in case it causes more panic thoughts. I’m so dizzy. I focus on the lights in the distance. Its a lonely highway. The world is rocking.
The miles chip away. I want to run but I fear I will collapse so I just walk, and breath, and panic. After an eternity I reach town. Even with a mile to go I’m terrified I’m not going to make it. Then I near the finish. Its so late most people have gone home. But the volunteers are here to spur me on. I finally break into a trot again.
The crowd gives me energy and suddenly adrenaline kicks back in and I feel incredible. I’m actually going to do this.
Then I’m on it. I’m on the red carpet of the Ironman World Championship Kona Hawaii 2022. I run down the red carpet, and I throw my arms to the sky to those most iconic of words. ‘Lorna Hopkin, you are an Ironman.’
My Ironman journey ends here, at the highest point I could ever achieve. Something way beyond what I dreamed possible. An athlete as ordinary as me qualifying for and completing in this iconic event, one of the most challenging races set. A journey kicked off with tragedy but one that has taken me all over the world, achieving sports goals way above what I thought possible, experiencing all types of emotion, meeting my tribe.
Ironman isn’t just a sport, its a philosophy.
Show up, work hard, set big audacious goals and never, ever give up.
Be an Ironman too.
If you’d like to support other parents effected by SIDs then please help me raise money for the Lullaby Trust https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/lorna-hopkin1