BY APOLO ANTON OHNO
The Ironman World Championship was like no other event I have experienced. All week, athletes on the island of Kona prepared for the most grueling endurance event on the planet. The cannon went off at 6:50 a.m. Saturday morning signifying the start of a nearly 10-hour race day. It’s difficult to describe the experience, but it was incredible. The triathlon community is one of a kind and I’m grateful to have become a part of it.
Paula Newby-Fraser, my coach and an eight-time Ironman champion, shared final course insights and tactics before the race to help me physically and mentally endure the day. My main focus before entering the ocean was to keep calm and not exert additional energy before the race. Friends and family gave me my final send off and it was time to focus.
I was crawled over and kicked. I didn’t enjoy that part. Despite the battles in the water, I knew I had to find my own line to shore, and I needed to continue with my own stroke. I eventually found my rhythm and a group of guys to pace with, and focused on keeping up.
I exited the water not really knowing how I did. I was just glad that part was behind me. I learned that I had come out of the water in exactly one hour, as I had hoped. I lost time weaving and zigzagging, but I am still very happy with my swim time.
The bike ride is 112 miles on the Queen K Highway. It was some of the most unforgiving wind conditions the course had seen in years. My focus was spinning lightly for the first eight miles, knowing that other athletes would be passing me in the beginning with the plan that I would soon see them again, and I’d be passing them. I kept in my head what Paula told me: “Keep your own pace,” and “bike within your limits” to be ready to endure the 26.2 mile run ahead.
After the bike, I began mentally preparing for the next three hours on the run, knowing I would need to dig deep to maintain the pace if I wanted to break 10 hours for my total race time. I knew the desolate miles (17-20), known as the Energy Lab, would require brute strength and a mental state that was prepared and concentrated.
Coming out of the Energy Lab with approximately six miles to go, I was taxed. My body was not absorbing nutrients, my thought process was not fully functioning and I was beyond tired. I zoned out and channeled the spiritual energy of the island to carry me home. The serenity of hundreds of feet pounding the pavement and the sun, heat and wind provided me a spiritual strength that helped carry me the rest of the way.
I was in full warrior mode. I wasn’t going down or going to be defeated, but knew I had to find peace within myself as my body fought its way to the finish like a warrior in battle.
I had set out to complete the Ironman in less than 10 hours, a time I didn’t share with anyone. With only a few miles to go, I was determined to not fall short. I wanted to cross the finish line knowing I left everything I had out on the course — which I can honestly say I did. Coming up the famous Ali’i Drive to thousands of spectators chanting, I heard the announcer, say, “Apolo Ohno, you are an Ironman.” I finished in nine hours, 52 minutes and 27 seconds.
One of my proudest moments of the day was seeing my dad, Yuki, and coach, Paula, waiting for me at the finish. My dad greeted me with a lei and a hug.
I was definitely a little out of it, but also overwhelmed with emotions and appreciation for those that got me to the start line healthy and to the finish line strong. After collecting my thoughts and a quick dip in the Pacific to rinse off the sweat, and grime, I was looking forward to showering and heading back out to the finish line for the final hour. I wanted to cheer on all the other athletes before the final cutoff at midnight.
Watching all the other finishers cross was one of the most memorable and inspiring experiences in my athletic career. I loved the enthusiasm of the crowd, the determination and look of relief and pride in the faces of the athletes as they heard their names and the phrase, “You are an Ironman.”
This was a lifetime experience. With this race, you learn that anything is possible. You learn that if you put your mind to something, your body will follow. I hope everyone tunes into the Ironman World Championship broadcast on NBC on Nov. 15 — especially those who have never watched an Ironman. It will inspire you, like it did me.
Through this experience I took my body and my mental capacity to a place I didn’t think was possible. What I learned that day traveling through the lava fields on the Queen K highway is that triathlon is much more than a sport. The first 60 miles of this race is preparation and the last 80 is determination. Conquering the Ironman enriched me physically, emotionally and mentally and it will be a milestone in my life, among my eight Olympic medals, that I will always remember.
At the closing awards banquet they welcomed every finisher to call Kona their home; it is a truly magical place that I will cherish forever.
Seattle native Apolo Anton Ohno, 32, is a short-track speedskater who won eight medals in the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics. He is also a former winner on the reality TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” an author, businessman and philanthropist.
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