Racing the Ironman World Championship in Kona was, by far, the most difficult thing I have done since combat. That said, I would not trade the experience for the world.
Ironman invited me as an ambassador, which included speaking on a panel to talk about how I went from a veteran with PTSD and severe alcoholism to competing in long-distance triathlons.
The family and I flew to Kona the Monday before race day. Throughout the week my extended family and friends filtered in to be there for the big day. Ironman staff graciously provided VIP passes to all of them which included a welcome dinner, swag bag, refreshments, and special access to viewing areas for the race.
Race week in Kona can best be described as the confluence of a contagious buzz of athletic energy, gear expo, and ear to ear grins on compression sock-wearing athletes from around the world. This electrolyte-fueled carnival descends on the otherwise peaceful town of Kona, whose locals receive athletes and spectators with open arms.
I had the honor of speaking on the Ironman Ambassador panel with other inspiring people, including Dr. Tricia DeLamora. Tricia raced Ironman Santa Rosa with me earlier in the year and during the bike course noticed a fellow athlete collapsed and unconscious on the road. She administered CPR, which saved the man’s life. Then she got back on her bike and finished the race, a badass one-two punch combo. Doing one of the two might be a defining moment in one’s life, let alone a day. Like many heroes, she deflected the spotlight and was very gracious about how she was “just doing her job.”
The nights before the race my family all gathered outside our rented condo for fish tacos, my pre-race dinner. The buzz of race week festivities was over and earlier in the day I recorded a short message to everyone about why I race. It’s easy for the important things to get lost in the shuffle.
Race day started a little earlier than most. My heart soared when I read the card from Sarah, telling me how proud of me she was.
Meditating on the lawn before the start, I opened my eyes to see I was sitting next to none other than Jan Frodeno. I said a final prayer of gratitude for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and ambled through transition and into the ocean. The tropical sun peaked over the slopes of Mauna Loa on my left. On the pier to my right, familiar faces waved and called my name. Sarah and my extended family were amongst the crowd, eager to see me off.
Hearing the cannon fire, I joined the mass of age-groupers out amongst the soft Kona swell looking down at yellow tangs, butterfly fish, and schools of other tropical fish in the clear, aqua-blue Hawaiian waters. Smooth, long body, breathe.
Smooth, long body, breathe. My mantra settled me into a rhythm and I focused short-term from one buoy to the next.
I am still surprised at how buoyant I was without a wetsuit. Between two or three of my fellow swimmers, I managed to draft the entire way. Knowing my pace from Santa Rosa could have been faster, I pushed it just a bit harder. Despite the lack of speed from the wetsuit, I emerged from the water only a two minutes slower than Ironman Santa Rosa.
Out on the Queen K Highway, I learned why people have to qualify to race in Kona. It kicked my butt. Heading out of town, packed crowds of spectators stood cheering and ringing cowbells.
A few blocks later, I followed the course out of town. Out on the highway, the headwinds and crosswinds cutting through the scorching lava fields were the only constant companions on the 112-mile ride. The contrast of beautiful and refreshing ocean waters on the horizon with barren lava fields flanking me brought my mind to the balance of destruction and creation on this volcanic island.
The heat of the late morning burned down. Steady crosswinds were relieved only by the occasional headwind. Turning around in Hawi, I enjoyed the speedy descent back to the lava fields that took me back to Kona.
Coming off the bike, my butt was screaming at me from the six-plus hours in the saddle. I was so happy to be off the bike and I even got to briefly see Sarah and the kids.
Bike time: 6:34:37
Running shoes on, I trotted out of T2. It was a little after 3 PM. The heat and humidity of the mid-afternoon sun were in full effect. Rain poured down on Kona the previous night, giving the day extra muggy conditions. My head was already pounding from dehydration in the first mile. I did my best to keep my mind off how it would probably get much worse over the next 26.2 miles. My spirits were high through the first several miles. Music blasted from oversized speakers and several house parties raged, complete with people spraying hoses at athletes eager to be cooled down. In short intervals, the coast met the road and gave me a front-row view to waves crashing on picturesque beaches.
I ran past an ancient Hawaiian temple, Kuemanu Heiau, where Mark Allen first came in 1989 to make an offering to the island spirits. He went on to win six championships after he asked for the blessings of the native spirits. I did not have such lofty goals.
As an offering of peace, I left a small granite rock on the altar. I had collected the stone from the Yuba River for this purpose. The Yuba River has been a source of peace and spirituality where I go to reconnect. The day before the race I prayed and asked them to allow me safe passage through their island and asked that they see my heart and my intentions of racing to honor my fallen Marines. As I left the temple under a setting sun, I heard a voice telling me my heart would be tested. What did this mean?
Not even a third of the way done, exhaustion set in. More than a few times, I just wanted to stop and walk. My legs hurt. My knees were swollen. My feet had hot spots and ached. My back muscles were contracting and locking up. The course headed out of town towards the Energy Lab. Once again, I was running through the barren lava fields on either side of the Queen K Highway. It was cresting a hill that the sunset in a spectacular array of oranges, pinks, and purples. Unlike Santa Rosa, athletes here were not pacing with each other or talking.
No cheering crowds of people, save for the station volunteers. No cowbells, no music, and no scenery to take my mind off the marathon and a growing fatigue. Darkness and the sound of footsteps and heavy breathing. My spirits descended with the sun and the negativity and dark memories emerged.
“What a joke. You don’t deserve to be here. You aren’t an elite athlete like the people who earned their way to Kona. Just give up.”
Then the highlight reel began to play.
….The smell of cordite and burning plastic in Fallujah, sweat dripping from my kevlar helmet into my eyes, making the already impossible task of clearing houses in the dark even harder. Why did we wait until dark? My penlight clenched in my teeth, its inadequate blue light barely illuminating the insurgents hiding in the room, waiting to kill me and my team. How many times can I kick down a door and get the drop on people inside waiting to light me up? Fuck it, here we go again….
….The familiar beep that precedes radio transmissions and the following reports of heavy casualties from Bravo Company a few blocks away. More of them. Who is it now? Nope, push that out. Can’t think of that now. Just smoke another cigarette and wait. Sit and wait. Just another blown out concrete house with family pictures and plastic furniture protruding from the rubble. My guts twist into knots. No one is talking, just gazing out into the still, uncaring blue sky that is so out of place with the sporadic gunfire and explosions. This waiting is killing me. Let’s just get it over with and move out. Why are we waiting? Smoke another cigarette and wait…
….pinned against the wall behind me and shoulder to shoulder with Remi, my point man. Shots coming through the thin metal door an arm’s length in front of us and whip past my neck. Gomez takes a round to the helmet and falls on the stairs behind us. Lee yells something I can’t make out. This is it. Getting harder to see through the smoke now. I don’t cry out for God. I wish I could see Sarah one last time. I’m so scared, but I accept my fate. My team is here with me. No one else I’d rather go down with…
Your heart will be tested.
I felt my knees hurting and my back locking up. A quick moment of clarity and I was able, somehow, to remember how fortunate I am to be alive and healthy. If my legs hurt, I still have legs! If I feel pain, I’m still alive! It took much longer this time, but I emerged from the downward spiral of pain, memories, and self-pity. I harnessed the gratitude for this chance to race the greatest course in the greatest sport on Earth. I had been talking all week to people and the media about how I transform pain into gratitude, and gratitude into energy. Finally, but only after surrendering and being willing to feel the pain do I have access to this energy. I had become unstoppable.
Bringing it Home
I thought of the twenty-nine Marines who adorn the back of my triathlon jersey. Some of them were my closest friends. More of them I knew casually. But with most of them, I tried my best to emulate their qualities of leadership, grit, and determination. As I came up the last hill leading back into town I saw my dad and niece who began jogging alongside me on the sidewalk telling me I was so close to the end.
A half-mile before the finish line on Ali’i Drive, my friend Kevin from Zealios sunscreen handed me my Marine Corps flag. I took it in stride and began calling cadence in a voice so loud I was surprised it came from my exhausted, aching body. With the flag waving in the breeze of my quickening pace, now a full-tilt sprint, I savored every second of the roaring crowd lining the street. I savored every shooting pain in my body that told me I was truly giving it my all. My heart was truly tested.
Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, brought me in with a booming,
“Mike Ergo, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
The never-ending race was finally over. It was worth every painful stroke, pedal, and step of the 140.6-mile journey. Tears and sweat coalesced when I hugged and kissed my family. I did it. Not by myself, but with the undying support of my wife and family. With the blessings of the Hawaiian spirits to pass through their land. With the help of 29 fallen friends carrying me to the finish. It was finally time to rest and spend time with my family.
The Run: 4:59:50