Hawaiian-born professional mountain biker Monique Pua Mata always wanted to do an Ironman. When her parents came to the mainland for a visit last fall, the athlete, now a resident of California, decided to drive out to Las Vegas to spend some time with them.

At the end of those few days, Mata was crowned the champion of the Silverman Iron-distance triathlon on Lake Henderson, Nev. Not of her age group—of the entire women’s race.

“I heard about it and didn’t really give it much thought before the words ‘I am going to do this race’ came out of my mouth,” Mata recalled. She immediately went online—only to find out that registration was closed. After a few phone calls and emails, however, she heard back: if she wanted it, she had a spot. “I had a week to pull everything together and I couldn’t have been more excited,” Mata said.

The first thing Mata did to prepare for her upcoming race—just a week and a half away—was head out to buy some running shoes. She ended up with some “super cushy” Asics, because, as she said, she knew she was going to need all the support she could get. She also took her borrowed wetsuit for a trial—it was her first open water swim in four years. “It was good to get the feel of a wetsuit and remember how to sight for the buoys,” she said.

As for her 112-mile weapon of choice, the hopeful Ironman rode the new Ellsworth Coefficient Time Trial bike for the first time on the Thursday before the race. Danny Kam of Nu Vision in Las Vegas took half a day to throw it together and fit Mata to the best of his abilities.

pua trophy

On race day Mata chose a mantra that many triathletes know all to well: “Just get out of the water.” She said goodbye to the friend who’d accompanied her to the start, instructing her to go and get help if she didn’t see Mata exit the water. The swim was a half-rewarding, half-traumatic experience for the rookie triathlete: “Do you remember going to a pond or a lake and feeding the fish with bread? All I have to say is that I was the bread. There were arms flailing everywhere, and after a few mouthfuls of swallowing lake water, I had to force myself to pull together, and find my pace. At last I did.”

Mata exited the water in a state of delirium; she said just thinking about what she still had to accomplish began to scare her. She made it to her bike, and in her words, began “hobbling” out of transition.

“Besides almost drowning in the water, I just purely enjoyed myself.”

Her confidence on the bike—where she knew she could really make up time—was crushed by a rear tire flat just 30 minutes in. What followed was a nightmare for many aspiring Ironman athletes: 50 minutes spent waiting on the roadside. It was her first time working with valve stem adaptors, and after failing to fill the tire with her own two C02 cartridges (and those of another generous racer’s), was forced to wait for race tech assistance. When she heard “the million dollar question”—whether she’d opened the valve on the tube before putting the adaptor on—her heart sank. “I mean, how rookie can you get?” Mata said. “I didn’t really want to admit this, but everyone makes mistakes right?”

Mata figured it was impossible to make up the deficit on both her swim and bike, but was determined to get to the finish line before midnight. “I just decided then to do what I do … pedal.”

When the volunteers mentioned that she was the third female into T2, she was sure they’d made a mistake. She still made sure she took her time, and focused on fueling and getting ready for the marathon. Up until that point, Mata had only run a few sporadic 30-minute runs. When she found out she’d soon be doing an Ironman, Mata tried her legs at a long run, “about an hour and a half or something,” she said.

Punctuated by little laughs, Mata outlines the off-the-cuff training plan that got her through the run: “When my cycling season ends I start going for little runs … basically that’s what I’d been doing before the race. I don’t write it down, it’s just part of a break in my mountain bike training.”

Despite her cool-as-a-cucumber nature, Mata soon began passing everyone that came into her sight, to the point where she began to wonder if she should slow down a little. “I had no idea what my legs could do, but I felt good, so I decided to keep the pace and slow down when it hurt. When I realized I could win this thing, that’s when I started pushing myself.”

Pua silverman run

As she began pounding the pavement, her crew caught up with her on bikes to inform her that the lead woman was only 15 minutes ahead. She informed them that she still had another 13 mile loop to go on untrained legs—15 minutes would be a ton of time to make up. Her crew insisted that she could catch the woman, and took off up ahead to get a split to the lead women. Before Mata reached her friend to get the split, she looked up at the hill in front of her and realized that second place was closer than she’d thought—the woman in second was walking.

“At that moment, I had run farther than I had ever run for many years and I was on a complete high,” Mata said. “Everything in me wanted to go faster, but there was the question of how hard would be too hard after coming this far, and I did not want to find out.”

With just five miles to go, the lead women came into Mata’s view, passing her going the opposite way. She had over 20 minutes on Mata, and at the same point on the second lap, she only had eight. So, she began picking up the pace, determined to pull it off.

And she did.

“With 1.5 miles left I came up on her and made my move. As I passed her, she quickly picked up the pace, but I never looked back. Within 30 seconds I could no longer hear her, and the race was now mine to win,” Mata reflects. She followed the lead bicycle, with it’s “Women’s Full Leader” sign into the finish chute where her support crew waited, cheering. It’s a moment she calls “indescribable.” 

Looking back a few months later, Mata says that her only race goal was to complete it and have fun. “No one expected anything from me and I expected nothing from myself, so I had no pressure,” she explains. “When you’re standing on the side of the road you ask yourself ‘should I just quit?’ You’re so used to being competitive, and now you’re standing there thinking ‘I’m basically done.’ But then you remember that you’re out there for one reason: just to be there and to do it. Even the other racers passing you is inspirational. I truly had fun during the whole thing, besides almost drowning in the water.”

So what’s in the cards for this aspiring Ironman athlete? In the middle of a move to the coast and still trying to drum up sponsorship, this surfer-chick triathlete isn’t certain of much. One thing she can say with confidence, however, is that her sights are set on Kona.

Perhaps she’ll soon be surprising herself yet again on the mother of all Ironman courses, back in her homeland, Hawaii.