I had a great night’s sleep and woke up at 3:50am to prepare breakfast, which was 2 plain bagels, 3 scrambled eggs and sliced ham. I went through body marking shortly after it opened at 4:45am, then went to transition to prepare the bike and left transition at 5:15am. I went for a 10 minute jog along a very dark Kuakini Highway, thinking about the day ahead and what I had to do. The benefit of staying close to the pier was that I went back to the condo to relax and sunscreen up before the swim start.
I lined up towards the left in the second row from the front, confident that this would lead to a less physical start. As soon as we got going I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of all the races I’ve done, the first few hundred metres was the most physical I’ve ever experienced. After kicks, punches and one guy literally having me in a head-lock, it was clear that I was surrounded by weaker swimmers than me. I was expecting to come out in an hour, so I couldn’t fathom why these guys had put themselves so close to the front. I kept to the left and found myself with loads of space for the majority of the outward leg until we hit the turnaround. I’d kept the effort steady and was passing people who has obviously gone out too hard and were faltering.
Someone in front of me turned on his back, which could only mean that he was at the front of our group and wanted someone else to do the work at the front. I wasn’t about to sit behind him and let the pace slow, so although swimming’s not my strength, I wasn’t afraid to do some work. I consciously upped the effort and bridged my way to other swimmers ahead. The swim seemed to pass by quickly and I was really pleased to see 59:23 on the clock coming out the water, 11th in my age-group.
I had a big advantage in T1, which was that I was wearing the ZEROD oSuit and didn’t have an extra swim skin to remove. I quickly removed my cap and goggles, put on my race number belt and grabbed my headband and sunnies and was out. After stupidly running a few metres past my bike, I put my helmet on and it was time to roll.
Going along Kuakini there was one guy I was looking out for, and that was Matt Burton, last year’s 18-24 winner. I couldn’t see him and assumed that I must have missed him somehow. It turned out I was out the water before him, but climbing Palani he passed me and put 20 seconds into me by the time we reached the top. I wasn’t going to try to ride with him, as that would have been akin to suicide. I was amazed at how sparse it was for the first 10 miles along the Queen K, which is the benefit of swimming <60 minutes in a competitive field. All of a sudden things changed and there were herds of riders passing by. As with the last two years, things were starting to get messy. Surprisingly, it seemed to be even more congested on the road to Hawi, as I saw at least five red cards being handed out along this stretch. The marshals weren’t pulling any punches and were card happy, and I noted to myself to be extra attentive of not encroaching on the 7 metre draft zone.
We turned at Hawi and Matty had put 4 minutes on me – but I was confident that I’d be able to ride strong on the way back to town. The crosswinds were minimal so staying down in the bars wasn’t too challenging, but as soon as we reached Kawaihae the headwinds were in full force. By now there were very few riders around me and I could concentrate on sticking to my target wattage. I was on top of my nutrition getting in about 330 cals/hour, putting out good power and everything was going perfectly. That is until we hit mile 94 at the climb past Scenic Point. I was climbing at 11mph and moved to the left as I came within 7 metres of a rider ahead of me. Before I knew it there was a red card in my face. I asked the marshal what it was for – I couldn’t believe that it would be for drafting. ‘Drafting’.
I was fuming, both at the marshal and at myself. I’d managed to safely negotiate hundreds of riders, but now at the tail end of the ride with only two other riders in sight I was pinged. According to the rules I was guilty – I came within 7 metres and didn’t pass within the allotted time. There was nothing I could do, I bit my lip and had a 4 minute penalty to serve at the next penalty tent. I debated what to do – ride angry and say to hell with it? That’s not really my style. I tried to stay calm and keep on going as if nothing had happened. I came into T2 in 2nd place with a 4:56 bike split and ran to the penalty tent. I was given a stop watch and had to wait for 4 minutes, watching people I passed run by, including Philipp Mock in my age-group. To say it was the slowest 4 minutes of my life would be an understatement. After what seemed like an eternity I ran out and prepared for the marathon ahead.
I grabbed my bag from a volunteer and ran into the change tent, sat down and emptied the bag in front of me. The floor in the tent was wet and gritty, so I wiped my feet with a towel before putting my socks and shoes on. I tucked my salt tablets down the front of my suit and ran out whilst putting my watch on. Like last year, my legs felt magic running up Palani and along Kuakini – the chase was on. After a few hundred metres I caught Sergio Marques – one of the best runners in Ironman – and paced off him. This was cool, here I was near the front of the field running alongside the Sergio! I went through the first mile in 6:40 – too fast. It felt easy, but everyone knows that running along Ali’i is just a prelude to what’s to come.
I backed off and settled into my target pace. I caught up with my friend Rachel Joyce, who was having a tough day after suffering a chest infection earlier in the week. Though she was struggling, she was gutsing it out, which was inspiring and motivating to see. Having the extra support from friends on course was amazing and a huge boost.
The next 4 miles went by smoothly in 6:50, 6:47, 7:04, 6:56. At the turn on Ali’i Drive Philipp was still ahead maintaining his 30 second lead over me. I was confident in my run and in no rush to bridge the gap. The miles seemed to fly by – 6:59, 7:03, 7:14, 7:01, 7:14. Running past the crowds outside Lava Java was fantastic and I was feeding off their energy. Just as we made the right turn on Hualalai I caught him and we were ready for the long climb up Palani. He gapped me slightly, but I kept the effort under control up the climb. As we crested the hill, some of his fans were shouting at him in German. ‘What did they say?’ I asked. After 5 years of studying German I knew exactly what they said, but I still asked him. I’m not sure why. I think the competitive racer in me wanted to know whether this guy was going to tell me that we had an 8 minute deficit to Matty, which he did.
He then said something along the lines of ‘I don’t think we’ll catch him’, to which I replied ‘You never know’. There were still 15 miles of the race to go and I wasn’t about to give up hope. Once you resign yourself to 2nd place, that’s it. Game over. I believed it was possible. I had to.
Running north along the Queen K was desolate. I stayed a few steps ahead of Philipp, trying to assert some sort of authority. Around mile 12 I started to pull away slightly, although at no stage did I look back. I passed mile marker 13 in 1:32, which was right on target. After running out of T2 a little too fast, I’d settled down into a comfortable rhythm. The 4 miles heading towards the Energy Lab seemed to take an eternity as the pain started to settle in. I was still making decent time with the miles passing by in 7:11, 6:58, 7:11, 7:06. Coming into the Energy Lab I knew that I’d see Matty soon and would find out exactly how far behind I was.
When I hit the turnaround I looked at my watch – 10 minutes. Another 2 minutes had slipped away and I’d run well on the Queen K. I was doing all I could, but he was putting together a great run which I couldn’t respond to. That was a turning point, with 8 miles to go I knew that I’d be racing for 2nd place. It was my first sign of mental weakness and immediately my pace slowed. The mile split climbing out of the Energy Lab was 7:54, my slowest by far. When I reached mile 19 by the aid station on the Queen K I walked for the first time, making sure I got in plenty of fluids. 7 miles isn’t far, but at mile 19 of an Ironman, it can seem insurmountable. I remember saying to myself, ‘Come on, come on, come on’ over and over. After psyching myself up the next mile went by in 7:18, but everything seemed to be catching up with me. I walked every remaining aid station (except the final one coming down Palani) and the miles went by slowly – 7:57, 7:37, 7:59, 8:11.
When my watch beeped to show an 8:11 mile split something ticked. Even though I wasn’t closing out the run the way I envisaged, I hadn’t worked all season to run 8+ minute miles. I was better than that and I needed to prove it to myself. With nothing to run for but pride, I picked up the effort for the final 2 miles. I saw my friend Scott at the top of Palani, who said I was just outside the top-10 age-groupers. I ran down the hill as hard as I could, my quads and ITB’s screaming at me. I gritted my teeth and tried to push aside the pain. As I made the right hand turn on Ali’i Drive the crowd was dense with everyone cheering you on. I saw my Aunt and grabbed the Seychelles flag, my eyes watering from the discomfort as I ran towards the finish.
I slowed a few metres from line and raised both hands. My 3:09 split was a 9 minute run PB for a 9:13 finish, 5 minutes faster than last year on a day where times were 15+ minutes slower. 2nd 18-24, 11th age-grouper and 40th overall. I must congratulate Matty on the win and thank him for motivating me to train harder than I ever have this season. He’s a great athlete and I know we’ll have many more races against each other in the future. Even though 2nd place is no improvement on last year, it was a privilege to race against the best guys in the world and to come away with another Umeke bowl is an achievement that I’m very proud of.