I raced the 2014 Ironman World Championship as a Legacy athlete. It has taken me 15 years to achieve this goal and I have to say right from the start that it was worth every minute of waiting.

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Ever since I saw Julie Moss crawl across the finish line in 1982 I’ve had a dream of one day competing in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. For several years my dream was just that, a dream. Then in 1995 my wife, Carla, and I started competing in triathlons. Just short local races, but it gave us the idea that taking on the Ironman might someday be possible. We worked our way up to longer and longer races and in 1999 we competed in our first Ironman triathlon in Canada.

That day was a big turning point in our lives. The feeling of crossing the Ironman finish line had us hooked. We have spent the past 15 years competing in Ironman races all over the US and in Europe. The whole time our goal has been to qualify for the World Championship in Hawaii.aa9e9e52ce686791744dc3c57c417674

Unfortunately there’s been something standing in our way. We’re just too slow.

To qualify you have to be in the top of your age group. Carla has moved to within striking distance, but I am still finishing far back in the pack. It started to look like our goal might be dead. But the Ironman organization was about to throw us a lifeline.

In 2012 Ironman started a new program to recognize athletes like us who were dedicated to the Ironman lifestyle but not fast enough to qualify for Kona.

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Last year after finishing 14 Ironmans we put our names in for 2 of the 100 spots available. In March of this year we got the news: “Congratulations, you have been selected to compete in the 2014 Ironman World Championship on October 11th in Kona, Hawaii. ”

So, 32 years after it was first a dream and 15 years after it became a goal, we got a golden ticket to the biggest race in the sport of triathlon. I had to explain to my non-triathlete friends, “This is not like winning tickets to the Super Bowl. It’s like being invited to play in the game.”

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I think about how easy it would have been to get discouraged and quit before reaching this goal. We have no illusions of victory, but just the opportunity to race on the same course as the best in the world will be victory enough.

Race week in Kona is worth the trip alone. All the hoopla leading up to the race really makes the experience that much bigger than any other race. Every morning swimming from Dig Me Beach I was thinking, “Holy shit, I’m doing Kona”.

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The vibe was really great and I was happy to get such a positive reception from my fellow athletes, most of whom had qualified at a race somewhere in the world.

When race day came I was surprisingly calm. I’m usually a lot more nervous before a big race, and this being Kona I thought I’d be really wound up. Instead, I was feeling really happy and relaxed. My race plan was to be conservative and make sure I finished. Easier said than done.

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For the first time ever in Kona they split the age-group swim (men then women) and I think it worked pretty well. It was one of the cleanest swims I’ve ever had.

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I didn’t have any contact until the fast women started to plow through the men. I don’t think it was a matter of gender, just very fast swimmers in wave 2 moving through the slower ones from wave 1. I just focused on the beautiful, warm water and tried to keep from pushing too hard.

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I was happy with a 1:20 non-wetsuit swim and surprised when people were saying how rough it was.

I planned on riding at a comfortable pace with a 6:30-7:00 bike split. That didn’t happen. The wind kicked up at mile 28. At that point I had a 17.8 mph average. By the time I got to the turn around at Hawi my average was down to 13.8. The wind just kept getting stronger all the way to the turn around. I did St. George in 2012 and this was much worse. Saw a few people who had obviously gone down in the wind. Had to stop at the aid stations to refuel. No way I could take my hands off the bars. At one point I was going 5.5 mph on a flat road. It felt like someone and loosened the stem on my bars and I was dragging a bag of cement behind me.

In terms of drafting I saw very little either going my way or with the fast guys coming back. There were a few blatant exceptions and I heard one athlete arguing with the marshal. Not a wise move. Overall it looked much cleaner than your typical Ironman, but I heard later that over 260 drafting penalties were given. I was going so slow that drafting was the least of my worries. Instead of a moderate 7 hour ride I had to really push to finish in 8. I knew I would be cooked for the run but not much I could do about that.

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My plan was to run easy for 20 miles and then pick it up if I had anything left. The cloud cover was great. It was much cooler than previous days but the humidity on Alii Drive was still oppressive. I was going easy for the first few miles and the vibe was awesome. Great to see friends out there cheering and realize that I was going to finish. It really helped keep my attitude from going south.

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I saw the usual pacing and outside assistance with little to no marshaling. Whatever. I was going pretty well until I got to the hill on Palani and had to walk. That’s where I saw a wheelchair athlete traversing the climb agonizingly slowly. Honestly, I did not think he would make it. The temptation to give him a push was strong, but I had too much respect for him. I just said “Climb this MF’er and I’ll see you at the top”. Sure enough he came by me about a mile down the Queen K and saluted me as he rolled by.

Once the sun goes down at about 6:30 it is blacker than pitch out on the Queen K.

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I was glad I brought a headlamp and was surprised to see so few people with them. Hitting the Energy Lab at mile 16 was a big boost. I have dreamed of running there for so many years. Funny how I always visualized doing it in the daylight. At the turn around there was a big Hawaiian guy cheering us all on. He was telling me, “You got this Brah”. I reached out to shake his hand and said, “I’ve waited 15 years to meet you”. That’s when my sweaty, shirtless, 300 pound friend pulled me in and bear hugged me. It was awesome. The aloha was very real out there.

It is very lonely to be a slow finisher in Kona. I ran along, alone in the dark for a few more miles thinking about my day. Finally, I hooked up with another Legacy guy out on the Queen K. We ran (jogged) and walked together. Having some company probably shaved 30 minutes off the last 6 miles. At about mile 23 Andrew Messick (CEO of Ironman) rides up to us on a bike and asks us how we are doing. He saw my name on my bib and told me my wife was done and waiting for me. I found out later he had given her a seat in the VIP bleacher so she could be there when I finished. That small kindness meant a lot to me.

Coming down Alii Drive to the finish is everything you imagine it would be. You emerge from the darkness to the crowd, the lights, the music, and Mike Reilly’s voice. I soaked it all in.

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The Ironman World Championship was by far the toughest thing I have ever done. The conditions were epic, but I wouldn’t have asked for anything else. I am very grateful to have been given this opportunity.

Put in for the lottery, get yourself Legacy eligible, or train your ass off and qualify. If you are an Ironman, Kona is something you owe it to yourself to experience.

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Gary McMurtrey is an age group triathlete and race director from southern California.

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