Nearly 2 weeks after the race, I’m finally ready to put the day into words. Hope you’re sitting comfortably…
My alarm was set for 3:45am. I woke up at around 3:00am. Not the first time this has happened – I just get way too excited to sleep! I tried to get back to sleep, but when you’re awake and its Ironman World Championship day, that’s not going to happen! Breakfast was the smallest of the four Ironman races I’ve done to date – one energy bar and a bagel with jam, washed down with water and salt. This totalled around 500 calories, a far cry from my 1500 calorie breakfast of 12 slices of toast and jam before Ironman Switzerland in 2008.
5:00am - feeling relaxed and ready to go
At 5:00am Dad and I started the walk down Ali’i Drive towards the pier. There were hundreds of others walking the same way, in silence. The prevailing atmosphere of confidence (and dare I say it, arrogance) was replaced with a nervous tension. We got down to the pier with plenty of time to spare – I hate being rushed on race morning. I walked alongside Luke Bell to body marking, which was a slick process. Soon after it was to the transition area to prep the bike – pump tyres, put shoes on pedals, put drinks bottles and bike computer on, quickly eye up your opponents, then leave.
6:15am - slightly more nervous
At 6:15am and I was ready. The professionals were starting 30 minutes ahead of us at 6:30am, at which point us age-groupers could enter the water. I was one of the first in line to get myself down the steps and on to the beach. I didn’t get in the water straight away though. No point in treading water for 30 minutes getting cold and tired. At 6:48am (roughly!), I got in the water, did a few practice strokes and made my way to the start line.
Where to start the swim at Kona is a bit of a mystery. I’d heard horror stories from last year where people starting on the right hand side had been squeezed in with nowhere to go. Start too far left however and you’re just swimming further. I started just right of dead centre and positioned myself around 5 rows from the front. It was like being in a full elevator, there was no space at all and I was fully prepared for the roughest, toughest triathlon swim yet. With helicopters above and scuba divers below, there was no escaping the fact that this was the big time. No time to get too sentimental though, there was a race at hand. Boom!
The cannon fired and the day had begun. To my surprise I was actually swimming. Not getting punched or dunked, but swimming. This was something I hadn’t expected, but I wasn’t going to ponder over it. Looking at my pool times, my swim fitness was identical to Austria where I swam 60 minutes and change. I figured that in a sea swim and without a wetsuit, that would equate to roughly 65 minutes. So that was the target. I was sighting well and had plenty of feet to follow. I was pretty sure that my line was decent and I wasn’t going too wide past the buoys. What I couldn’t believe was the amount of space I had, this was undoubtedly the cleanest Ironman swim I’ve done. We hit the turnaround buoy in what seemed like good time, though I didn’t check the watch. On the way back I found sighting a little more tricky as I was breathing to the right hand side, staring straight at the sun rising above the mountain. Soon after the halfway point I felt my head getting a little colder – that meant only one thing – my cap was about to fall off. Despite my increased hydrodynamics, I was still following feet. I knew I was to the left of the group, but with space around me I kept my line all the way to the pier. For the last 100m or so I increased my kick to try and get some blood flowing to the legs. Fortunately I spared myself the embarrassment of falling over on the stairs and I was on my way to transition. 1:04:38 – bang on target.
Here’s a wager (I think). I had the smallest transition bag out of everyone. Only my race number belt was inside. This made T1 easy – goggles off (I didn’t even have to worry about my cap!), swim skin off, number belt on, goggles and swim skin in bag, leave. 2:21 – simple.
Now the fun would begin. Guys were absolutely smoking up the hill on Palani leaving me in their wake. I know this is Kona, but come on, what kind of pacing is that!? As with any bike ride, I know what power I can hold, so I stuck to it and got passed. I was fiddling with the ratchets on my shoes for a while before sorting them out – another lesson - no ratchets on next years’ shoes.
My nutrition plan for the bike was pretty simple:
0-60 minutes: 0.75 litre energy drink with extra salt (400 cals) + 0.75 litres water
60-2h30m: 2 gels (400 cals) + 2.25 litres water
2h30-finish: concentrated energy drink with extra salt (250 cals/hr) + 0.75 litres water/hr
During the first few miles on Kuakini Highway
The first 40 miles or so of the ride went by nicely without drama. I was feeling good, sticking like glue to my wattage. It wasn’t until we started the climb to Hawi (the turnaround point), that things started to get tougher. The winds picked up and were pretty vicious. It wasn’t a demoralising headwind though, but a crosswind. This made the simple task of staying upright on the bike really difficult. The good thing was that this really broke apart the large groups that had formed on the bike. The bad thing was that you worried that at any moment the wind would blow you 20 feet away in the lava fields!
At around mile 50 I was really pleased with the progress made and confident in finishing the ride strongly. Unfortunately, I hit a bump in the road, which launched the bottle on my frame that had ALL my calories for the second half of the ride. My first reaction was ‘****’! But then I started thinking about the situation and what had to be done. I knew I wanted around 250 calories/hr with around 1.5 litres of water/hr. I knew I didn’t want the overly sweet energy drink being given out at aid stations, which left one choice. Gels. I like gels. No problem. So with some quick maths in my head I worked out roughly how many hours I had left to ride, multiplied that by cals/hr required and divided that by the amount of calories in an energy gel to work out how many gels I needed to consume. (That was difficult enough to work out sitting on the sofa – imagine the difficulty I had riding a bike in crosswinds and extreme heat)!
Taking the on course gels came with a little snag – they were caffeinated. Prior to the race I’d given up caffeine for 2 weeks in the hope of using its magical powers for the last half of the marathon. I had no choice but to take the gels, along with all their caffeine goodness. The good thing was… I went absolutely bananas. It was like someone was helping me push the pedals. I was going 15-20 watts higher than my target pace and absolutely cruising. I ended up making up loads of time on the way back to town, feeling fantastic the whole way. I was going by guys who were struggling (probably from poor pacing) just whistling tunes and singing in my head. This was the first time I’d finished an Ironman bike leg stronger than I started. After 5:05:34 on the bike it was time to get down to business.
As soon as I jumped off the bike I thought ‘yes’! There are days when you know you’re going to hurt from to get-go, but this wasn’t one of them. I made my way to transition. Helmet off, trainers and socks on, Fuel Belt on, leave. I had my GPS watch, cap and salt pills in a zip-lock baggie which I carried out of transition with me. Cap on, salt pills in pocket, watch on, and I’m already a few hundred meters into the run. 2:46 for T2.
I had a look at my watch and knew that if I wanted to go sub 9:30 I’d have to run 3:15. As it turned out, 3:15 pace was my plan, so I was off, holding around 7:30 minutes/mile. My run nutrition plan was simple, too. I had all my calories with me in my gel flasks and I’d plan on taking a couple of cups of water at each aid station, which were situated every mile. I was concentrating on holding good form and felt really comfortable going down Ali’i Drive. Like the beginning of the bike, most guys were passing me. If they’re fast enough to hold that pace then good for them, they’re better athletes than me. I stuck to my plan and went through 5 miles at an average pace of 7:36 mins/mile. I was feeling good. The next 5 miles I averaged 7:21 mins/mile. That difference may not seem like much, but over the course of a long day it can be very meaningful.
When we got to the hill up Palani I focussed on taking small steps and staying comfortable. Russ passed me up the hill, which was the first time I’d seen someone on the course I knew. When we hit the Queen-K highway I caught up with Russ, wanted to start a little conversation, but couldn’t. I was starting to hurt and had nothing on my mind other than trying to stay strong. Things were heating up and I was grabbing every sponge offered to try to keep cool. The Queen-K was very lonely compared to the hustle and bustle of Ali’I Drive. This is where races would be made and broken. My fatigue was reflected by my pace. From mile 10.2 to mile 17.2 I averaged just 8:32 mins/mile. Ouch.
With 9 miles to go I knew I'd make it. 9 miles is still a long way, but I knew that I'd do it. The question was how long would it take me? My form had turned sour, my cadence must have been around 80 and my stride was short. Yeah, 9 miles can be a long way! I started to think about where I'd be in my age-group. I figured that there were at least 6 guys ahead of me, maybe more. No podium this year, but there was still a good result to be had if I could bring myself together. I was counting down the mile signs until I saw this one - 'Mile 25'. Not long to go now, and we were off the lonely highway and heading back to town. Coming back down the hill towards the finish was great. Thoughts of sprinting to the line were put away - I just wanted to soak it all up and enjoy the moment. I came across the line and punched the air, truly satisfied with what had been an epic day. The final run time was 3:27:22 for an overall time of 9:42:41.
Enjoying some post-race pizza
This was everything I've dreamed of since I started triathlons. I was slightly worried that the race might not live up to the huge expectations that I had - no chance! This was everything I wanted and more. A big thank you to my sponsors, without whom this would not have been possible. I now appreciate the magic of Kona and know why people make it their entire focus. Truth be told - it's now my entire focus, too.