I had the opportunity to compete in the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on October 14th, when I won the IRONMAN Madison in September 2022. After a year of training, I started the 2023 season by tearing my Achilles tendon on mile 10 of IRONMAN Chattanooga 70.3 in May. After canceling my other races for the 2023 season, I focused on rehabbing my Achilles. During the summer, I relied on the help of God, great medical help (thank you, Dr. Mike Anderson at Summit Orthopedics and Andrew Moran at Odom Health and Wellness!), and a lot of family support. With six weeks until race time, I decided to tackle what is arguably the most challenging IRONMAN course.
Racing any IRONMAN is intense, but IRONMAN Kona is a heightened intensity.
SWIM – Time: 1:04:39
As someone who doesn’t love open-water swimming or mass starts, I was most nervous about this leg. I was thrilled (and relieved) the first time I stuck my face in the ocean to see how COOL it was! The water was clear, and I could see the wildlife! I grew to love open water swimming in the ocean.
Race day was different than the practice swims. All wildlife (wisely) vacated the area. IRONMAN implements a rolling “chainsaw” starts at Kona. At any time, three heats are in the water and gradually move to the course start, about 20 feet deep. That necessitates treading water as you wait to begin.
Horizontal paddleboards hold racers back. When the race officials blow a horn to indicate the start, the paddleboards rotate vertically to allow racers to the course. As one heat begins, the next three move up a spot.
One expects the water to clear out early in a typical mass start. My age group was the second-to-last to enter the water. Beginning the swim was a dog fight, and I bumped into people the whole way. I remember thinking about 3,700 yards into the 4,224-yard swim, “I am really ready to be done with this.” Thankfully, the exit pier was in sight, and I made it safely and quickly to the swim exit.
The Kona transitions are on a pier, and my age group was at the back.
Exiting the water, I drafted an unsuspecting volunteer to unzip my skin suit. IRONMAN hangs hoses from the ceiling of the transition tent. I quickly hosed and dried myself, applied sunscreen, dressed, and ran my bike from my station to the swim start.
BIKE – Time: 05:18:14
Kona’s total elevation gain is 5,814 feet, but the course is notorious for the heat and trade winds. Nearly 80 of the 112 miles are through lava fields surrounding the Queen Ka’ahumanu (Queen K) highway (watch out for lava rocks!), and the whole course borders the ocean. I experienced one trade wind that knocked me off balance. Thankfully, though, it felt (mostly) flat and fast.
Hydrating and keeping your heart rate down are the keys during this portion of the race. Aid stations are approximately every 15 miles. That made it easy to intentionally (slowly) move through the stations to refill your bottle and spray yourself.
I racked my bike on the pier after 112 miles, grateful for no flats or mechanical issues. This transition felt more like a typical triathlon, and I was grateful to get on the run course.
RUN – Time: 3:36:05
Before the race, my coach, Steve Brandes, told me the run is where the race begins. He was right.
You can divide the run course into quarters. The first quarter is through the town. Being off the bike energizes you. That part also has the most spectators. Many slow down significantly when you reenter the deserted Queen K Highway, and I had to keep my speed in check.
The Queen K takes you to the infamous Natural Energy Lab. The State of Hawaii conducts science experiments in the Energy Lab due to the extreme heat. The Energy Lab falls between miles 15 and 20. At that point, athletes feel tired, but the end isn’t close. Plus, all the road closures make getting to the Energy Lab challenging. There are very few spectators at that point in the race. Once you get through the Energy Lab, it’s back to the Queen K and down to the finish line.
FINISH – Total Time: 10:09:18
After mile 25, you reenter the town of Kona to finish. The end is electrifying. Spectators cheer you on while the announcer classically seals your race experience with “Maggie Swanson, you are an IRONMAN!”
All I have left to say is thank you. Thank you to God, my medical support, coach, family, the IRONMAN volunteers, and everyone who supported me. Kona was an unforgettable experience.