Mike Sullivan, M.A., LMHC
Family & Alumni Services Director
It was mile 16 of the final leg of the Kona Ironman World Championship that I hit the proverbial “wall.” My running pace slowed dramatically as my feet began to feel like cement blocks. My hips ached and my stride weakened. My right calf muscle seized with painful cramping. The arid Kona landscape was horribly unforgiving. A slight breeze off the ocean helped cut the intense temperatures and humidity, however, race officials report that the temperature on the asphalt measured 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves obscured my view of the Pacific Ocean, blurring the horizon line between sea and sky. In retrospect, the wavy horizon line may have been a combination of the heat waves rising from the asphalt mixed with heat exhaustion. My body was certainly doing its best to stay cool under such extreme stress.
At this point I had been on the Ironman course for roughly ten hours– having already completed the first two legs of the race- a 2.4-mile open ocean swim and a grueling 112-mile bike ride with 3500 feet of elevation gain. Only ten miles left to go to complete the 26.2-mile marathon run – the final leg of the Ironman. As I gazed over the ocean at the setting sun, I calculated how much longer until dark, calling into question my goal of finishing in the daylight. For many athletes, this is where the wheels come off. “Hitting the wall,” is too much to overcome. The physical demands intensify and the mental collapse follows. Tentacles of self-doubt invade the mind, deteriorating the mental stamina needed to persevere to the finish. The “mental muscle” is the foundation of success, and when weakened and exhausted, the athlete crumbles.
The day started off great. I swam out to the starting line at 6:50, five minutes before the official start of the race. I looked back at the shore to see the thousands of spectators snapping photos and cheering. Helicopters hovered above, video cameras capturing the iconic start of the world championship. With the sun just above the horizon, the water had a morning glow and pleasant temperature. I acknowledged the soft feel and buoyancy of the salt water, sensing a oneness with ocean. Everything felt like it was falling into place, and at that moment, the cannon fired loud in the sky, signaling the start of the race.
The water exploded with swimmers fiercely charging off the starting line. I knew it would be chaotic and was expecting such, however, as flailing arms, legs splashed water through the air and tiny air bubbles clouded the visibility underwater, it was hard to maintain a sense of direction and calm. My head was kicked, almost knocking my goggles off of my face. People were scrambling over and around one another, vying for position. I had to even my keel. I focused on my breath, maintaining the consistent steadying breath that carried me through a year of training. I became mindful of each arm stroke, each kick, and keeping my head level. My mind and body merged, the chaos decreased, and I glided through the water. Throughout the 1:22:18 I was swimming, I maintained a mantra I learned in training at the pool- “I can do this all day.” This mantra grew to be a self-affirming belief that carried me through the race.
As I neared the end of the swim, I began running through my mental checklist of what I needed to do in T1 (Transition 1- swim to bike). I mentally walked through the process of taking a quick shower, throwing on my socks, cycling shoes, helmet, and glasses. Lastly, and importantly, spraying as much sunscreen as I could to prepare for the 112-mile bike ride. This proved to be valuable preparation, as I was wobbly and a bit disoriented when I got out of the water and climbed the staircase onto the pier. I transitioned onto the bike and was pedaling up the street in a matter of minutes (4:37 to be exact!).
The cycling leg is proportionally the longest part of the race. It took me 6:13:49 to bike the 112-mile trip to Hawi and back. The Kona Ironman has a reputation for being the hardest of all Ironman courses, largely because of the heat and humidity, and also because of the quintessential wind on the cycling course. The wind gusts have historically been so extreme, that cyclists have literally been blown off the course and crashed their bicycles. I have trained in winds like these, gripping my handlebars and repeating prayers of survival under my labored breath. This year, the wind was rather moderate, with the most significant winds being head/tail winds. I was thankful there weren’t side winds, however, the headwinds were somewhat debilitating. I persevered through the conditions, maintained focus, and kept my muscles firing at a consistent cadence. My cycling practice helped me recognize the importance of attention and relaxation. The bike is moving at a high speed and it is important to maintain focus on the road and avoid obstacles (and flat tires!). I also paid close attention to the nuances of my body and where I was holding stress. I kept my neck and back loose, and reminded myself to release my shoulders down.
Knowing running is my strength, I was eager to get off the bike and start on the marathon portion of the race. The cycling waned on for an eternity, exacerbated by a grueling headwind for the last 25 miles back to Kona. My bony butt hurt with each pedal revolution. I returned to my morning mantra of “I can do this all day,” and kept putting one foot in front of the other. As I descended the final street into Kona and saw the spectators cheering from the sidelines, I felt a wonderful sense of elation and rejuvenation. At that point I knew I was going to crush the run. Excitement pulsed through my veins.
My transition from bike to run (T2) was slow, yet it seems to be what I needed. Not only did I stop for my only bathroom break on the course, but I also was given an ice cold wet towel to put over my head and shoulders. It felt divine! Cooling off at this point was dangerous, as I slowed to change my shoes and talked with some of the other athletes at the same time. I now see why my transition time was more than nine minutes- I was enjoying cooling off a little too much.
I broke out of the transition area at a fast clip. I felt great on my feet. Spectators cheered loudly waving signs and hands. I encountered my family and friends, clad in green Peak Self t-shirts cheering ecstatically. I smiled HUGE and my pace accelerated. I felt like I was floating on air. My watch beeped, indicating I had completed the first mile. I looked down and was stunned. I had run the first mile at a 6:30 pace- an incredibly fast gait. I slowed my pace a bit and put my body in gear, ramping up for the next 25 miles of running.
My body was firing on all cylinders. Fear, doubt, and extraneous thoughts melted away and I entered a “flow state.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pioneering positive psychologist originally from Croatia, describes the flow state as extreme presence. I wasn’t thinking, rather, I was in a state of knowing and experiencing. My mind and body became one. I glided past a multitude of athletes- calm, collected and feeling strong.
At mile 13 I climbed the hill out of town and turned north along the desolate stretch of highway. I was officially half way through the run. I maintained my pace for another 3 miles and then I hit the “wall.” I wanted to maintain the tremendous pace I had maintained thus far, yet it was slipping away from me. I felt helpless to reclaim it. I honored that my body was hurting and slowed it down, choosing to walk slowly through the aid stations and focus on nutrition and electrolytes. I drew on my psychological tool bag- using positive mental imagery. I imagined myself running through the finish line. I tapped into the gratitude I held for all the love and support from friends and family. Lastly, and critically, I tapped into my most important tool: a sense of knowing that I was going to be successful. I worked hard to sculpt this “knowing” over 34 years of living, and this was my chance to unleash it. I pushed through miles 16-20 and overcame the “wall,” launching into a strong finish. The last 5 miles were fast, culminating in a two-mile sprint to the finish.
I fought to race to the setting sun. I was in hot pursuit as the sky turned pink and faded to dusk. As I neared the finish line, I lost track of the sky. The finish line culminated in a final chute, lined with spectators and giant fluorescents lights. As I entered the chute I felt like I was soaring. Faces of family and friends emerged and then blurred as I sprinted by. I threw my arms in the air as I crossed the finish line at 11:23:34. I finished the race in a true Ironman euphoria, elated and high on endorphins. I had done it. The announcer echoed through the speakers, “Mike Sullivan… YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I want to share my gratitude for my family, friends, teachers, mentors, healers, role models, and students who helped me achieve this unparalleled goal. I couldn’t have done it without you. Further, I want to thank everyone who came to the race and endured the berating sun. Having such a fantastic ohana throughout the race and at the finish line was hugely inspiring. I want to thank Pacific Quest for the amazing support throughout the past year (or six rather!). Thank you!!