The winds of Kona Island was blowing so hard, it was knocking riders right off their bikes. Kitsilano Secondary teacher Ann Hayes kept her head down and continued to pump hard. She was in the second leg of the Kona Iron Man, the ultimate Ironman challenge that brings together 1800 of the top triathlon athletes from around the world. She'd already completed the 3.8 km swim and was part way through the 180 km bike ride. Once she finished that, the final leg of the race would be a 42.2 km run. It was an epic physical challenge for anyone, but for the 60 years old Hayes, it was the challenge of a lifetime.
This wasn't the first Ironman Hayes had competed in, but it does cap off four years of grueling training. Since 2007, Hayes says she's been hitting the sidewalk, pool and roads of Metro Vancouver six days a week, frequently rising at 5 AM to catch an early morning swim and heading out in the evening of the same day for a long run. The workout program culminated in a shot at the 2011 Ironman competition in August in Penticton.
Hayes says the race in Penticton was an amazing experience. She says her primary goal was to have fun, but she ended having more than just a good time. She finished first overall in her age range. The win was so unexpected that when she learned the results, the teacher says she burst into tears.
"The pace of it all was just grueling," she says. "After Penticton, I just wanted a break from the whole thing - the training, the race, all of it."
A break wasn't in the cards. By placing first in Penticton, Hayes had qualified to compete in that year's Kona Ironman. Hayes knew early on that Kona was an entirely different kettle of fish from the Okanagan race.
"They had just incredible cross winds on the island," she said. "It was like a 1000 times harder than Penticton."
The winds weren't the only challenge. The heat was intense. The swim through deep ocean water was markedly different than the pool or calm lake swimming Hayes was used to. And then there was the caliber of the world class athletes she was competing against. All these factors combined into a significant psychological challenge. By the time she was running along the baked pavement of Hawaiian roads, she was in pure survival mode. The big question that kept etching its way into her mind was whether she could physically finish the race. When she finally crossed the finish line, she was physically and emotionally drained.
Hayes says her first feeling was relief. After years of exhausting training, she'd crossed her final Ironman finish line. When all was said and done, Hayes finished 14 out of 22 other women in her age group (60-64 years old). The total time it took her to complete the race? Just under 15 hours.
It was the experience of a lifetime - and one that Hayes says continues to inform how she teaches and connects with many of her students at Kits. Kitsilano Secondary Principal Chris Atkinson couldn't agree more with.
"Ann is an inspiration to staff and students. She is very compelling when she speaks about overcoming adversity and following her passions to attain goals," he says. "I know that she is committed to sharing her experiences with all of us."
Atkinson said while he was thrilled she completed the race, he wasn't particularly surprised she did as well as she did. He says part of it comes from her optimistic credo in life and in the classroom.
"I believe people can do way more than they actually think they can do," says Hayes.
It's a lesson that many of her students have picked up. Pushing yourself can be uncomfortable, but it is worth it.