Weekend warriors are solely motivated by new challenges, pushing their bodies to new limits. On Saturday, five Cayman residents had the satisfaction of completing their first Ironman.
It was the Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas at The Woodlands, near Houston, and the heroes who had trained diligently for months to earn their badge of honor were Chris Smith, Jonathan Roney, Jens Pankalla, Helki Weber and Jody McFarland.
Imagine having to swim 2.4 miles in murky, gray water, then bike for 112 miles in blazing heat, undulating terrain and swirling winds before taking on a full 26.2-mile marathon run in sweltering conditions – and just for a medal at the end of it!
Roney said he had a great start to the day, and an even better finish, but the middle bit was some of the toughest moments he had ever experienced on a bike.
No real pre-race nerves meant he swam well to finish in 64 minutes.
For him, the first transition was a “mud-fest” and it was hard gearing up.
Initially on the bike, he felt good with a low heart rate and the nutrition was going down well. He was even overtaking a few competitors. But then he got a splitting headache.
“The sun was strong, no cloud cover, similar to Cayman, and the tight fit helmet wasn’t giving me much cooling,” Roney said.
“The headache got progressively worse and at around 55 miles I took the decision to stop, take the helmet off and cool down. After about three or so minutes I felt good enough to start again but the headache kicked off almost immediately.”
The ride back – into the wind on some very bumpy roads – did neither his head nor mental state much good. He slowed considerably and dreaded the marathon leg.
At the 105-mile mark, Smith went past Roney, but it barely registered because of his headache. He persevered and finished the bike leg in agony.
“In the second transition I dumped the bike and entered the changing tent expecting some relief from the heat. Nope, the tent was like a stinking sauna. A combo of the wet mud, sweat and sun made it hell.”
Roney must have been disoriented because he kept mixing up his biking and running kit and putting on the wrong gear.
“In the end, I just had to get out of there, but not before wolfing down half of my ‘only in emergency Snickers’ and popped two ‘only on pain of quitting’ Ibuprofen pills.
“I stumbled onto the run course and immediately got slathered [with sunscreen] by some girls wearing surgical gloves … It was a weird moment and snapped me out of my misery.”
Thankfully, the Snickers and pills kicked in because after walking only a short distance “something magical happened” and he started running, accompanied by a realization that he was going to finish.
“It’s weird, but the run is a bit of a blur. I ate, drank and took salt all the way, and at the switchback after 17 miles I spotted Chris [Smith] about four minutes ahead of me and was determined to catch him.”
Roney caught Smith at mile 21, which was a really happy moment for him because “after nearly 12 hours racing and countless hours training together, it seemed fitting to finish the journey together.”
For the pair, the last five miles were “fun,” as they high-fived the crowd, chatted and simply savored it.
Roney said, “We crossed the line together, hands joined, held high to the triumphant announcer: ‘Chris Smith and Jon Roney, you are Ironmen!’ Music to my ears!”
Roney’s official time was 12 hours, 32 minutes, 52 seconds and Smith’s was 12:28:15.
The race, which was the North American Championship, was won by American Matt Hanson in 8:07:03. A total of 2,239 finished inside the cutoff time of 17 hours. Dozens either did not finish or were disqualified.
Smith said he was grateful for all the support the five received from their families and friends and from the Cayman sporting community.
“All their words of encouragement and knowing we were being followed online made it so much easier, and there was no way any of us was about to quit.”
Smith’s swim went well, considering it is the discipline he likes least.
“Being spoiled by our beautiful Cayman waters, it took time getting used to the murky lake, and it felt great finishing after just over 90 minutes,” he said.
The bike course was a bit more challenging than he expected, especially the second half, riding into the wind. For him, it was also a more hilly out there than he expected after reviewing the course online beforehand. “Even so, I enjoyed the ride and the beautiful scenery and all the Texans cheering us on along the way.”
He is a strong runner and thoroughly enjoyed it, even feeling fresh at the end and soaking up the atmosphere.
“The unbelievable crowd support will be something I will cherish for a very long time.
“I still can’t really comprehend what we all accomplished that day in the Woodlands, but I would definitely go back and do it again.”
McFarland at times wondered if she could complete the course.
“The first lap after the bike was in sweltering heat and I was so grateful for Dale Avery’s advice about taking salt. It allowed me to press on,” she said.
“The run went through a riverwalk canal that was lit up with white Christmas lights on all the trees and it seemed like the whole town was out to cheer us on, like we were in a parade.”
McFarland said the only annoying part was when competitors had to run through men dressed in bikinis who kept trying to get them “to slap their butts as we ran past.” On reflection, it helped lift her spirits.
“The hilly Texas countryside was gorgeous too,” she said. “I loved how the families drove their tractors down to the roadside for a place to sit and cheer on the racers. Texans really love their sports.”
McFarland finished in 14:26:38 in around 30th place in her age group. “It’s nice to be in a race where there are so many older, fit women. I can’t thank Justine Plenkiewicz enough for telling me about the event – and thanks for all the support, y’all.”
Pankalla and Weber trained together. “I still can’t believe I’m an Ironman,” Weber said. “Months of training and lots of ups and downs led to this point. The day was a bit of a blur at times.”
The swim was the most horrific for Weber. “Being born and raised in Cayman where you’re surrounded by clear ocean, swimming in a lake where I could not see my hand in front of me was petrifying.”
Thankfully, she had her panic attack at the practice swim the day before, so she knew what to expect. The swim went well.
“I was so glad my shoulder held up because I was worried about the injury. There were a few jabs here and there and some foot grabs, but luckily I could keep my composure despite stopping twice to fix my leaky goggles.”
Weber completed her swim in 91 minutes, with Pankalla two minutes behind.
She said: “I had a Honey Stinger gel, threw on my helmet and grabbed my cycling shoes and socks. Out I went to the gloved volunteers ready to slather on the sunscreen.”
There was some relief after the smelly, muddy transition area because little kiddie pools were set up with water to clean off the mud, and towels – albeit wet ones – were provided.
She paced herself well on the bike leg, having not had much experience of long rides.
“At about 20 miles, my sweetheart Jens came sneaking up on me and I was relieved to see him. It was nice to see a familiar face. He went on his way, ahead of me.”
Because Cayman roads are so flat, negotiating the hilly terrain was arduous in the heat and headwinds, which were so powerful at one point she was almost thrown off her bike.
“While I had a lot of positive moments, I did dread the ride after 70 miles as the time did not fly
by. As I glanced at my watch, I had moved only one mile and thought it must have been five!
“It was so hard to keep going as the calves were burning from going up the hills.”
As she approached the second transition, the crowd’s cheers were great motivation. Apart from a sore shoulder, she felt strong going into the run leg, but as a precaution after a mile, she started intervals of walking and running.
“I really relished the journey and enjoyed it as best as I could, thanking the volunteers and the crowd for being completely awesome.”
Weber even slowed down to encourage and chat with other athletes, many of whom were extremely friendly.
But she did experience a really low moment and started getting stomach cramps.
“All I could think about was how hot it was, how terrible my feet felt, but I could taste the finish. The energy from the aid stations was incredible. It made it all worthwhile.”
She even got to slap a few of the bikini-clad guys’ butts and gave high fives to “dirty hippies.”
Children were high-fiving too, and she was enthused by the warm-hearted crowd and hilarious signs being waved around by supporters.
With around 800 meters left, Weber could feel the energy from the cheering supporters. After having walked for the previous three miles, she found the energy to run hard.
“I felt so spectacular. There are no words for that moment when you hear the hundreds of people roaring and everyone is extending their hand to you. You really feel like a million dollars.”
She started getting emotional, and when her name was announced, she felt incredibly proud and got goose bumps.
“This has been the greatest achievement in my life, not to mention the longest journey so far. It was a truly amazing, humbling moment.”
Pankalla finished in 13:25:34 and Weber’s time was 13:57:45.
“While I would have done a few things differently, I wouldn’t change the whole experience,” Weber said. “I have memories that will last a lifetime.”