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Race On? Seeing The Kona Dream Through Despite Injury

It’s no surprise that many Ironman athletes come to Kona a bit bruised and battered. But is it smart to still race?

As a longtime triathlete, Leslie Knibb, 52, is no stranger to the ups and downs of the sport. A gold medalist in her age group at the 2014 ITU Sprint Triathlon, Knibb, of Washington, D.C. has competed at the Ironman World Championships three times. 2015 was looking to be a banner year for Knibb, who most recently placed sixth in her age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Austria in late August.

And then, during a strength set just over a month ago, she felt a pain, then a pull, then a pop in her left hip. “It was one of those things where I pretended like I kept going, it would fix itself,” she says. “I kept assuring myself that it wasn’t as big of a deal as my hip was making it seem.

Turns out, it was somewhat of a big deal: A strained psoas and most likely a lumbar strain. With Kona just around the corner and her plane tickets booked for nearly a year, she had a crucial decision to make: Would she press on in the hopes her pain would subside—or bag the entire trip?

Knibb, who is also a triathlon coach, chose the former and has since been resting her hip to accelerate recovery. “To this minute, I’m wondering ‘what am I doing, or think I’m doing?’” she says. “I did think about cancelling, but this has been my target race all year.”

Knibb is not alone in her determination to get to the iconic finish on Ali’i Drive. Simply getting to the starting line of the most prestigious triathlon on the planet is a journey that typically requires months of training, racing, and traveling. So it’s no surprise that many Ironman athletes to come to Kona a bit bruised and battered. But is it smart to still race? Knibb knows she may not be making the smartest decision—but admits the draw of competing on the world’s stage is so strong it defies all logic. “As a coach, I’m methodical, scientific, things need to make sense,” she says. “As an athlete, I’m an idiot, so I’m racing.”

Knibb is keenly aware of the risks associated with racing with an injury. But with her triathlon season ending after Kona, she’s looking forward to giving plenty of herself time to heal. And in the meantime? She’s remaining realistic about what may happen on Saturday. Here, she elaborates on adjusting her expectations as well as how she’s preparing—both mentally and physically—to race injured.

RELATED: Should You Race Through The Pain?

“Finish vs finish well”
“I was hoping to beat my previous Kona time (she placed third in her age group in 2013, clocking 10:36:14) and finish top five in my age group.” Says Knibb. “Now, I’m hoping to finish vs. finish well. I have no idea how the day will play out. I’m lowering my goal to just finish.”

“A tough day no matter what.”
“I knew Oct. 10 would be a tough day for me no matter what. If I didn’t go, I’d be thinking about the race all day, following people, wishing I was there, being miserable. But, if I did go, I’d be suffering in the race. It will be a long, painful, slow day. I’m hoping I’ll take some lessons from it, not the least of which will be a whole new appreciation for working hips. It’s already giving me a whole new perspective on Ironman racing.”

“Every race is a test.”
“Maybe I want to see what I’m capable of when everything isn’t ready or right. Every race is a test, an opportunity to learn more about yourself.  Maybe I’m hoping I see another part of me that I didn’t know existed. Maybe a six week taper with no running is what I should be doing before every Ironman!  I’ll never know until I try.”

“Everyone has their challenges and struggles.”
“I’ve been swimming more, and I’m reminded nearly every time I go to a nearby D.C. Public pool how truly fortunate I am. Everyone has their challenges, their struggles. There was a woman at the pool the other day who had no arms–every moment of every day is a challenge for her.  That makes my race seem downright silly. I’m hoping my injury will heal. I feel like we have an embarrassment of riches compared to what others endure. The woman with no arms? That is true endurance.”

RELATED: How To Cope With Not Starting A Race