It’s that time of year again — smack dab in the middle of some massive training weeks for those fortunate enough, or crazy enough, to be preparing for next month’s Ironman World Championship. Top-tier professionals may spend upwards of 40 hours per week training for the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run, while many top amateurs may log nearly 30 hours per week along with keeping down a regular day job.
These weeks are physically and mentally brutal, even more so for the rookies. Most outsiders wonder how they do it and why?
Last year, I wrote a “Five weeks until Kona” column, chatting with newbies Dan Gampon, Michael DeCarli and Jon Jokiel. This year it was the ladies’ turn as I caught up to three amazing “iron-women,” all of Kailua-Kona, to share their stories and mindset in the leadup to their first Ironman race.
Pamela Harlow was selected by lottery in June to compete in October’s race. She then decided to put her part-time position as an urban consultant on hold to accommodate more training time. And recently, she has been sporting a new hairdo — going platinum blonde.
“I told my husband that it’s my new race hairdo,” Harlow chuckled. “That was the color of my hair when I was young. I thought it would help me to have the energy of a 5-year-old on race day.”
“I don’t think of myself as a competitive person,” Harlow said. “It has everything to do with the social aspect that doing the race brings. I really enjoy working out with other people, whether it’s swimming at Masters, going on training rides with Anita (Leao), or running with Joe (Florendo). Getting to train with others has been the best part.”
Harlow said she drew inspiration to do Ironman from watching her father and husband compete. Her father, Warren Harlow, is a 3-time Kona Ironman finisher (1994, ’96, ’97) and competed in his first race at the age of 60. Her husband, Richard Ritter, did it in 1995. Not wanting to be left out, it would only be a matter of time before Harlow would find herself at the starting line.
“Watching them race was inspirational,” she said. “It made me realize that (doing an Ironman) is not unattainable. If you are a reasonably fit person, you can do it.”
Harlow admits that she has the most undisciplined approach toward her training. While most athletes preparing for the 140.6-mile event have triathlon coaches or online training programs to help guide the way, Harlow said she gathers information from talking with other triathletes and reads a triathlon book by Joe Friel to give her some sense of direction.
Her hardest week consisted of swimming four days, riding nearly 200 miles on her bike, and running 40 miles — hardly the newbie, and more the schedule of a seasoned athlete.
“The toughest for me will be the run,” Harlow said. “It’s what I’m most focused on. Being that it’s the last leg, I know that it will be the hardest.”
Crossing the finish line on race day will have many different meanings for Harlow, who hopes to finish in less than 15 hours.
“It will be relief knowing that I don’t have to train so hard,” she joked. “It will be a wonderful feeling for sure. My dad will fly over, and my husband will be waiting. It will be a walk down memory lane and offer a different perspective for me. I want them to be proud.”
Anita Leao’s life has been a juggling act since her name was picked in June’s lottery. Her husband, Camron, typically prepares breakfast and then drops their 8-year-old off at school before heading to work. A babysitter for their 20-month-old arrives at the house by 7:30 a.m., and Leao has dinner covered but that’s only after a full day of part-time work, training and keeping the household in check.
As a wife and mother of two young girls, it’s all about time management.
“I have everything all calculated out time-wise,” Leao said. “I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the only way I can get through my day.
Leao said the thought of doing an Ironman distance race didn’t ever appeal to her in the past. Even after competing in several Ironman 70.3 Hawaii races, Leao didn’t think she was mentally ready to take on the challenge.
“I thought doing Ironman was crazy,” she said. “But somehow this year I finally felt mentally ready to do it. I wanted to take it to another level, I wanted another challenge.”
Leao is no stranger to endurance challenges. In December 2012, she had her second daughter, Ava. A year later, Leao competed in her first Honolulu Marathon, finishing with a time of 3 hours and 38 minutes. Now, with training in full swing, Leao looks forward to toeing the line with nearly 1,900 of the world’s best athletes Oct. 11.
“I definitely like triathlon more now,” Leao said. “I like the endurance and mental part of it. It really makes your mind strong. At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.”
Leao’s toughest training week topped off at 24 hours — four hours of swimming, 14 hours of riding and six hours of running. Having to spend more time on Queen Kaahumanu Highway comes with a few sacrifices Leao has learned to endure.
“Not being around for breakfast, and not being around to drop Alex off at school has been tough,” she said. “I’m so fortunate to have such a supportive husband — I wouldn’t be able to do it without him. And Alex is really excited. She tells everyone I’m doing Ironman, she is really proud of me.”
For Leao, the butterflies in her stomach have already begun. Riding her bike through notoriously windy race conditions has got her feeling nervous, and she is still figuring out what nutrition would work best for her on race day. But for the 37-year old, it will be worth it once she crosses that finish line.
“I’ll feel relieved, I’ll feel excited, I’ll be ecstatic that I’ve completed this,” Leao said. “I’m really amazed, inspired, and have respect for athletes doing Ironman now that I’m going through it. It’s going to be awesome.”
As a young girl growing up in Connecticut, Winona Chen had always thought of herself as an unfit person. She would struggle just to run down the block in her neighborhood, and never considered herself an athlete by any means once entering high school. So when Chen earned an international slot by winning the women’s 18-24 age group at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii in May, one can only imagine how shocked she felt.
“I never dreamt in a million years that after 2 ½ years of doing triathlons I would be granted with this great opportunity,” Chen said. “Since I was so focused on Olympic-distance triathlons, I really didn’t expect to get a slot.”
Chen’s first triathlon was Lavaman Waikoloa in 2012, and she was “hooked” once she crossed the finish line. Since then, she has finished many triathlons, including Lavaman Keauhou, Honolulu Triathlon, Hilo Triathlon and the Honu.
Working full time as a bookkeeper and administrative assistant along with teaching spin and core classes has its challenges for the 24-year-old needing to squeeze in long hours on the bike and run. Social engagements with friends have been put on the back burner for more recovery time that Chen finds crucial to balancing the heavy training load.
“It’s been like a jigsaw puzzle in trying to figure out how I can get everything done,” she said. “Time management has definitely been a challenge. I really enjoy hiking, going to the beach, social stuff with friends, but I don’t get to do it anymore as I feel so tired at the end of the day. Right now I need to be more focused until I cross that finish line.”
Chen said her biggest training week has totaled nearly 24 hours of swim, bike and run. Spending a lot of time on her own during long training sessions has taught her a lot about character building.
“What I learned most about myself is to be patient,” Chen said. “ It has taught me so much more about life, how to live it, and learn to be in the moment. No matter how my day unfolds, I just go with the flow of it.”
So take a moment to imagine being in their shoes, and what it will feel like crossing the finish line five weeks from now on a spectator-filled Alii Drive. For Chen, the girl who never thought of herself as an athlete, Harlow, the self-described noncompetitive triathlete, and Leao, who never thought she’d do an Ironman, on Oct. 11, they will certainly come to know and embrace Ironman’s mantra that — “anything is possible.”