Ironman World Championships-Shoot for the Moon, Podium at Kona

After a decent night of sleep, I awoke 15 minutes before my alarm was set to go off race morning. I sat at the table with the lights dimmed and ate what would be my last meal of real food for the day. It was still pitch black outside, not even a hint of dawn, as I listened to the waves crashing against the lava wall through the darkness. I picked at my bowl of oatmeal and Nutella; my appetite dissipated as my nervousness swelled up deep inside me. I powered through and finished eating before my parents arrived to pick me up.

More than once on the way drive down Ali’i Drive, I said out loud “This is stupid. I cannot believe I am doing this.” My mom tried to comfort me, but her apprehension was apparent as well. My dad dropped us off and my mom, whose role was now Sherpa, followed me to body marking. I started feeling very overwhelmed as I was corralled through body marking. I felt like I was going to start crying as the volunteer was tattooing my number to my arm in a very calculated manner displaying her experience in the art of tri-tats. A little small talk and hearing the volunteer share her stories of past Ironman helped to calm my nerves.

Age groupers lining up for body marking. 

I reconnected with my mom and dad before making one last trip to transition before the race to pump up my tires, fill my bottles, and add some last minute items to my gear bags. Maggie and Elizabeth Rich were also there attending to the last-minute details. We shared our sentiments of “this is crazy,” and “cannot wait for this to be over with.” Both are seasoned Ironman veterans and this would be Maggie’s last amateur race and Elizabeth’s last Ironman. I was walking out of transition the pro men were getting into the water; it was only a matter of time before I would be doing the same. 

Sunrise over Kona

We all met up in front of the King Kam for the last of the pre-race ritual and good luck hugs. The “Star Spangled Banner” was performed as skydivers circled above Kailua Bay. It was quite a spectacle and only caused my anxiety to rise. My dad helped me to zip up my swim skin. Being too anxious to stand around anymore I headed into the corral, saying one last goodbye to my parents.

Pre-race smiles!

It is a two person job zipping up the swim skin. 

It seemed like I was waiting around for ages before the women were given the go ahead to get in the water. That was probably the worst part of the whole day, standing idle, and wanting nothing more than to just get it over with. Finally it was time to walk down the steps into the crystal clear blue waters. The waves were crashing right up against the seawall, the highest I had seen the waters of the bay since I had been there and I began to anticipate a rougher than expected swim. I lined up towards the front close to the pier, unsure if this was the best place to be. The competitors were all treading water and it was near impossible to not bump into one another as the waves crashed around us. 

Three minutes…deep breaths…one minute…you got this Em…30 seconds….almost go time. BOOM! Lots of contact was made in the first 200m and it was impossible to finish a stroke without hitting another swimmer. I lifted my head up more than I usually would to sight and breathe and try to find some clean water, which was impossible. What was supposed to be swimming felt more like trying not to drown, and while I experienced my usual moments of panic I was surprised that it was not magnified by the particularly intense circumstances. I found a rhythm, calmed down and started moving up in the pack, propelled forward by the momentum of the fast swimmers around me. I only had a singular choking event upon gulping down the high salinity water, which for me is an accomplishment especially in the longest and roughest swim of my life. A small victory.

I had found a few swimmers to stick with just before the turnaround where we started catching up with the slower swimmers in the men’s wave. I stayed with them the whole way to the pier. If I had had the Garmin 920XT on my wrist, I have no doubt that it would have showed me doing quite a bit of weaving as I was tossed around by the waves and swimming around other athletes. I grew excited once I could finally hear the noise from the pier, I had to be getting close. At last I made it to the steps and the current created by the masses of bodies emerging from the water dragged me toward them. And I was out in 1:09:47, not that I paid much attention. My focus was getting to the bike. 

Out of the water!

The volunteers helped to peel off my swim skin and put my bike shoes on my feet. The sunscreen that was sprayed on me burned the raw skin on the back of my neck that had chaffed under my swim skin. I was good to go and dashed to my bike, grabbed my Speed Concept from the rack, and rolled it to the mount line. I leaped on while there were people all around me, but stayed in my zone. My main goal in the first miles before the Queen K was to stay relaxed and not overshoot my power goal early on.

Out of T1 to begin the 112 miles ride

Competitors crowded the bike course, all trying to get into a good position before the final ascent up Palani to the Queen K. These are some of the most frustrating moments on the bike because everyone has loads of adrenaline and not necessarily thinking straight. The crowds that lined the hill on Palani carried me up to the top, and as I made the left turn onto the Queen K I bid farewell to energy and excitement of Kailua Kona and welcomed the relative isolation of the desolate lava fields.

Flying down the Queen K.  Photo Credit David Eisenberg

My mantra became “nutrition, fluids, stay legal, don’t draft.” I could control my fluid and calorie intake with relative ease, drafting was another story. The density of athletes on the course-and not just any Ironman athletes, but the best in the world-poses a real challenge to one’s ability to abide by the rules. I stayed cognizant of my position relative to other riders and for the first time ever used my clock to time my passes. My vigilance paid off, as I did not incur any penalties, but saw other riders who I had been leap-frogging in the penalty tent around mile 30. 

“Take in calories, stay hydrated.” I picked-up at least one bottle at every aid station; some for drinking and some to spray on myself to stay cool. I pedaled on, making passes and progress towards Hawi. The crowds thinned out, but the winds picked up. It was a warm cross-wind coming down from the lava fields. Large gusts would toss me around and blow me sideways across the highway; there was no hiding from it. I had to white-knuckle my way through aid stations in order to keep my bike steady while I was grabbing bottles, with my heart pounding in my chest.

The climb to Hawi was made even more challenging by the winds, and their shifting directions, but this would be no comparison to the descent. At some point the wind had changed directions and was coming off the ocean, with gusts that I was told reached upwards of 40mph. I stayed down in aero for as long as I could, but fear rose up inside of me as I saw riders down the road be shoved in all directions, so I played it safe by gripping the base bar. Flying down one of the steeper portions, no more than 50 meters ahead of me, I saw a girl blown off of her bike and slide down the pavement. I tried to suppress my panic and remain focused on the 40 or so miles to go.

Heading back toward Kailua-Kona

The final 35 miles seemed long, and I felt discouraged by the fact that I would not be off my bike within my initial projected window. However, I was feeling good, not over extending myself, and comfortably close to my target numbers. I continued to battle the cross winds and head winds, which apparently were the worst in 25 years, through the lava fields and back into town. I leaped off my bike and made the painful sore-footed run around T2. 

I felt like I was taking my time in the change tent, drinking several cups of water before getting back to my feet and jogging out of transition. My legs felt much better than I expected after the 112 miles on the bike and I was eager to be doing my thing, running. I saw my parents standing on the side of the road. My mom was snapping pictures and my dad enthusiastically yelled to me that I was in 12th place. I gave them a smile and thumbs up and carried on. 

Checking my pace as I head up Palani. 

I kept Kiley’s advice in the back of my mind, “However fast you are running when you leave T2, it is too fast,” and tried to reel it in. But I kept rolling down Ali’I Drive and eventually was running side-by-side with a fellow Duke alumnus, Morgan Anderson.  Fellow Breakaway teammate Dave Lambert had followed me down Ali’I cheering me on and taking pictures. It was great having a familiar face out there giving words of encouragement. 

Morgan and I. Yes, we are smiling and laughing during the marathon, because why not?

She would pull ahead on the hills, and I would catch back up on the downhills. This continued until we reached the Queen K and I chose to settle into a more relaxing pace, if I can call it that. A few miles down the Queen K, my pace had slowed, especially with all of the uphill climbs as the course heads out to the energy lab. I was passing people, which was boosting my confidence, but I was no longer feeling as spry as when I first set out. I did not fret; I knew this was par for the course for doing an Ironman. After all a marathon is hard enough on its own, and I had preceded it with a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike ride. 

Running past the crowds on Ali'i

The road kept going up ahead, and even past the halfway point, there was no sign of the Energy Lab. Not once during the run did I panic, instead I fought to keep going and not fall apart. The sun was beating down as I ran down the Queen K, but I had so much adrenaline and focus that it did not bother me. Clouds began to roll in and overcast the sun, and just before I made the turn into the Energy Lab a light rain began to fall. Between this and the slight downhill slope to the last turnaround I was able to pick up my momentum. I had lost time on Morgan and had to make a pit stop and pick-up my special needs and lost even more time.

Running through the Lava Fields

With less than 8 miles to go, I started ticking off the miles. With less than 4 miles to go Morgan was in sight again and I thought I could catch her. I did not have much left in me, and was trying to be judicious with whatever kick I had left so I did not burn out too far from the finish line, but I dug deep and started my hot pursuit. Within 2 miles I had closed a 90 second gap to 17 seconds. I was closing in until the last hill when she turned around and saw me and pulled away. I had done what I could and set my sights on the turn to Ali’i drive. 

Crushing the final mile. 

The last mile was one of the best experiences of my life. With the energy of the crowd and knowing that I was about to hear those four words I have waited for months to hear I felt like I was soaring, even thru the pain. I kept my momentum as I made the final turn toward the finishing stretch, the greatest finish line in the sport.

Flying with my feet off of the ground and a smile on my face :)

A light rain was falling but I hardly noticed. And then I arrived. I threw my arms in the air in celebration, and in typical Emily fashion blew some kisses to the sky to show my appreciation for all whose spirits helped carry me across the Big Island that day.

Blowing kisses

Emily Sherrard, You are an Ironman!

I wish I had savored the moment at the finish line a little more, but before I knew it I was flanked by two volunteers and being carried away, hardly able to pick my feet up off the ground.

I was initially turned down at the medical tent, but found my way back so I could put my feet up and get some fluids. I connected with Dave Lambert there, and he helped me to find my family. At that point I had no idea where I finished, but thought I had just missed the podium.

Me and Pat. Tired, but happy first-time Ironman finishers. 

As I sat on the side of the pool with my legs dangling in the water to help ease the pain, someone came over to show me that the tracker had finally updated and I had finished fourth place! I was surprised and overjoyed, but unable to fully express my emotion through the fatigue. I knew that with the race I had that day, I had earned a well-deserved spot on the podium.

Doing an Ironman was probably the craziest, stupid thing I have ever done, but totally worth it. I felt so loved and supported through it all, that I knew no matter what the outcome my friends and family would be proud. It was so amazing to have my parents here for this special moment; I could not have done it without them. While I often have my doubts as to whether or not they fully comprehend what drives me to compete in the highest levels of the sport of triathlon, I think that having been witness to what perhaps was the race of my life they now at least have a better understanding. I do not think I have ever seen them more proud of me and what I have accomplished.

On the Podium.

Mahalo to all who were cheering for me from far and near, thank you for your love and support. A huge thank you to Matt Lieto for putting my bike together and to the mechanics at SRAM for getting it race ready. Much appreciation to Quarq for giving me the opportunity to be one of a select group of athletes tracked by the Qollector on the bike. Thank you to my sponsors at Breakaway Bikes, Trek Bikes, and Reynolds Cycling. Mahalo to everyone at Philadelphia Bikesmith, I truly value your dedication to my success and all you have done to support me. Thank you Brian for guiding me to the starting line and the finish line. 

And last but certainly not least, thank you to my family. This dream would not be possible without you and all of the ways you support me on this journey. I know I am never alone. 

Goals that are not written down are just wishes