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Triumph Over Heartbreak: My Kona 2019 Story

By Barbara Perkins | Oct. 22, 2019, 2:06 p.m. (ET)

barbara perkins ironman athlete

“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.” - Rumi

The two days leading up to the IRONMAN World Championships, it rained in the afternoon. I hoped the winds would be calm and we would be blessed with a rain shower to quell the stifling heat Kona is known for. On race day, as I started my 140.6-mile trek, it was overcast, and the winds were calm. I thought my prayers had been answered.

The day started out with one of the best swims of my triathlon career. For the first time this year, IRONMAN implemented a wave start to spread out the field and discourage drafting (though there was still drafting, but that is a story for another time). I strategically placed myself in the front of the wave start and swam with a pack of strong women through 2.4 miles.

I leapt up the swim-exit stairs in just under an hour, excited for what the day would bring. The beginning of the ride to Waikoloa was picture-perfect and there still were no winds. I really thought we had lucked out with another year of ideal conditions. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.

The winds picked up, whirling around in every direction. At times, I felt I might be blown off the road. I tensed up and held onto my bike for dear life, and the 20-mile stretch up to the town of Hawi only seemed to get worse. I was riding my bike at an angle and staying upright as best as I could when my chain started to fall off. Over, and over, and over again — six times during miles 30-80.

It seemed like everything was going wrong, and I was spiraling out of control mentally. 

Turning back onto the Queen K, I got a second wind (not the one blowing me off the bike) and a nice boost of energy. Unfortunately, that jolt of power was short-lived. As I hit the headwind in the final 20 miles, the gusts were coming directly at us, unrelenting. At one point, a woman rode past me. She looked over and said, “This is pretty soul crushing, isn’t it?”

All I wanted to do was get off the bike. On one of the final climbs, I was sitting up, eating my nutrition and passing another athlete. As I was passing him, he went to pass someone else and I didn’t complete the pass. A course marshal appeared next to me and handed me a five-minute drafting penalty, and I almost lost it right there. I had to refrain from tossing my bike into the lava fields.

Somehow, I kept myself together and tried to rationalize the situation. I could use the five minutes in the penalty tent to cool off—both literally and figuratively—before starting the marathon. 

Once out of transition and onto the run, I became a new person. I decided to let go of what happened on the bike and start a completely new race. Up and down Ali’i, my spirits were lifted, and I cracked a smile and started passing people. Up Palani, a volunteer showered me with a jug of ice water—it was the single greatest feeling of the entire race. Then, I turned onto the Queen K for what was left of the marathon. I was still feeling pretty good at this point. At each aid station, I grabbed sponges and ice and shoved them everywhere.

As I ran over the undulating hills of the Queen K, my stride shortened, and I was doing damage control. I tried to stop and stretch my hip flexors, but to no avail.

The wheels came off somewhere around mile 15 when I entered the infamous Energy Lab. With each step, my hip flexors were screaming in agony. It became a war of attrition and I went into survival mode. Trying to combat what my body was going through, I turned to other participants on the road and started talking with them. We were all in this together—battling our inner demons and triumphing over them.

This section of the course exemplifies the human spirit—you will find out what you are made of. The Energy Lab is a test of will. The body will do almost anything the mind tells it to, and I told mine to keep moving. 

I finally made it to the last mile of the race. It was either pure adrenaline or a sugar high from all the Coke I had ingested, but the rush of energy I so desperately needed kicked in. Running down Palani, my heart was soaring. I made my way to the final stretch of Ali’i, onto the red carpet, and across the finish line.

This race broke my heart twice, but I still feel drawn to its mystery.

You will find your true, innermost self out in the lava fields of the IRONMAN World Championship course. Some people will fall victim to the brutal conditions. They will give up, but others will conquer the course and everything inside them that doubted they could make it there. Most will come away with some itch left unscratched, drawn again to the island to discover its unique possibilities.

However, only in letting your heart break and picking up the pieces will you truly know what is possible.

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