This was my first Kona and the atmosphere during race week on Ali’i Drive was everything I had expected. Even though it is the world championship and I wanted to have a good showing, it was also a relief not to worry about racing for a Kona slot where every minute or second could be the difference between success and failure. My goal was just to execute a smart race and to enjoy the event.
I’d heard over and over again about how the race is so epic, so tough and so much more difficult than any other Ironman. Part of me was skeptical, since every other time I’d heard people talk like this about a different event (e.g., about the difficulty of a particular course or hill) it had turned out to be a big exaggeration. However, I also entered into the race with a healthy dose of respect and fear of the unknown.
It turns out that the race (at least this year) was just like any other Ironman, but with 3 particular challenges that could be handled with proper preparation and execution. The challenges are: (1) the winds on the bike; (2) the heat; and (3) difficulty being intelligent and executing your plan in a supercharged competitive environment. I was also dealing with a personal challenge (a foot injury) that I needed to plan around.
Winds. I prepared for the winds by leaving my 808 front wheel and disc cover on my bike and doing rides in heavy winds in training. I’m not sure I got much more skilled at riding in winds, but at least I raised my fear threshold. I accounted for the winds in my race plan by realizing I couldn’t always raise my watts whenever I was hit by strong winds since the winds allegedly were going to be slowing me down on the way out and the way back in. I would, however, make sure I got as small and aero as possible when faced with winds.
Heat. I prepared for the heat by: (1) not fixing the broken air conditioner in my car and driving around with the windows closed; (2) training in the Pleasanton, CA heat; and (3) doing a handful of heat specific sessions (heavy clothing on the treadmill, with a heater pointing at my head on the computrainer). I knew I was acclimated when it became challenging to create conditions that made me feel uncomfortably hot. During the race I’d deal with the challenge of the heat by: (1) making sure I’m drinking enough; (2) taking the time to put ice in my hat and shorts at every station on the run; (3) putting water in my helmet vents and on my shirt at every bike aid station; (4) consuming additional salt on the bike; and (5) being prepared for my stomach to revolt at any time.
Turbo Charged Environment. I knew I would have no problem executing a smart race despite the environment since I enter every race 100% mentally prepared to do just that. (It’s actually quite a simple matter despite the fact that so many people fail to do so.) Mental preparation and making sure you are 100% ready to follow your own plan and rules is a post for another time and it is a discipline that I picked up as a day trader (the turbo charged environment of the stock market makes Kona look like a garden party).
Foot Injury. In addition to the 3 challenges above facing every athlete, I was facing a special challenge in that I had injured my foot in training and had only done 3 runs over 1 hour since June, and had been limited to mostly 30 minute runs on grass or treadmill and pool running in the months leading up to the race. I planned for this by: (1) realizing I wouldn’t be able to “rip” a marathon at the top of my steady zone (which would be about 7:15 miles at this point) and that I’d have to dial it back a notch to a quick jog; and (2) being mentally prepared to jog/ limp as fast as possible through any amount of pain to get to the finish.
How did it turn out?
The swim course is amazing and beautiful. I lined up at the far right (which appeared to be the shortest line) and let anyone looking serious and aggressive get in front of me. The atmosphere at the swim start was electric and I was excited to get going. To my surprise, the swim start was no rougher than any other in water start. I focused on staying on a pair of feet 100% of the time and I’d guess that this was the lowest intensity that I’ve ever done an IM swim and it paid off with me having the lowest heart rate I ever had when starting out on the bike (usually I’m in the 160s and I have trouble getting my HR to come down, this time I was in the low 130s). How much time did I lose by not pushing it on the swim and following a faster pair of feet? Probably 2-3 minutes max, likely well worth the savings in energy.
Swim: 1:06 (120th in AG, 702nd overall after the swim)
I took it nice and slow because I didn’t want to aggravate my injured foot.
On the intial 10 mile “warmup” section before heading out on the Queen K highway, it seemed I had a tons of people flying by me despite the fact that I was putting out decent watts. I also noticed that most people were quite happy to pedal like madmen down hills when coasting would have been just as fast. Going up Palani hill to to the Queen K I was putting out around 290 watts and people were zooming by me as if I was standing still.
Once out on the Queen K, I think most people had lost their initial enthusiasm and I started to gradually move up the field. The course is rolling and seems pretty fast as you make your way along the freeway out to the turnaround at Hawi. I made sure to coast whenever my speed exceeded 30 mph and I think this conserved tons of energy (most people around me were not coasting much at all and I coasted a total of 30 minutes during the ride).
On the climbs up to Hawi the famous Kona winds began to blow. It’s exactly as it looks on TV– you hold on tight and lean hard into the wind to keep from blowing over. As I was going up the hill I was watching the pros zoom down the hill– most of them were in their aerobars and didn’t look like they were going to get blown off the road. I gave myself a pep talk– if all of them could zoom down the hills in their aerobars without getting blown off the road, then I could too!
After the turnaround at Hawi I started zooming down the hills in my aerobars. It was scary– at one point I was blown onto the shoulder by the cross winds. At another point a gust of wind was so strong that I had to summon all my strength to pull my body and bike to the left to fight the winds blowing my over to the right. It was like an arm wresting match– the wind gradually was bending me right and I had to pull hard to slowly lean my bike left!
For some reason I was passing people like crazy and moving up the field constantly after the turnaround. This might be partly because I had ridden to the turnround fairly conservatively while many others had been much more aggressive. When we hit the main highway section of the Queen K again, the cross winds subsided some and if anything it seemed like we had a bit of a tailwind.
In the meantime I had been consuming my nutrition quite aggressively, figuring that if my stomach was handling the calories well now on the bike, that I might has well keep going. The aid stations seemed to be much more frequent than at other IM races and it it threw off my usual plan a bit. I usually mix 2 squirts of concentrate into my aero drink every 10 miles at the aid station, but this time my aero drink would still be partially full at every station, so it became a bit of a guessing game to figure out how much concentrate I should put in to make sure that it’s diluted enough and that I’m not taking in too few calories. I also consume 1/6 of a cliff bar when my watch beeps every 10 minutes. As I was getting near the end of the ride I had finished all 5 cliff bars, all 1000 cals of concentrate and I even started consuming the emergency Gu I carried in case my body wasn’t handling the Cliff Bars well in the heat. It turns out I had consumed about 500 calories per hour! My usual challenge it not consuming enough calories, but this time I might have overdone it on the other side! (something to mentally prepare for next time).
As usual, I dialed it back during the last 5 miles or so of the bike to physically and mentally prepare for the run. I had felt strong throughout the bike and could say I wasn’t feeling fatigued at all. I was squirting water into my aero helmet vents and onto my shirt and I hadn’t felt hot during the ride.
Bike: 5:09:35, 21.7 mph (moved up around 300 spots to 4o6th overall and to 89th in my AG), averaged 210 watts
I jogged easy and took my time– making sure I took care of my foot. As soon as I was in T2 the heat hit me! It was hot! I put on my shoes, grabbed my bottle (intially filled with Mountain Dew), garmin and my hat and made my way onto the run course.
A moment I remember clearly from every IM I’ve done is the first time during the run when I know for sure I have my run legs. I always have a fear that I’ll run out of T2 and my legs won’t respond. So I was overjoyed when I first glanced down at the Garmin and saw I was running under 7 min pace (of course I also immediately slowed down!).
The first 10 miles of the run is an out and back along a crowd-lined Ali’i Drive. This part of the course is famous for people getting swept up in the atmosphere and going crazy and running way too fast. Since my run training was limited I wasn’t even tempted to try to let it rip and I just plodded along at 7:30-7:40 pace and people flew by me. I kept my heart rate alert at 160 and was happy to discipline myself to stay under it. I saw my family along the side of the road and I stopped to say hi to my family.
At every IM I’ve ever done I am always surprised at how good my time is coming off the bike and this was the case at Kona. I realized if I could just jog 8+ minute miles without overheating, bonking or aggravating my foot then I’d break 10 hours, which was my goal time. This provided an even bigger incentive for me to follow my nutrition, pacing and cooling plans.
One challenge that arose immediately on the run was that my stomach was not very happy– probably due to all the calories I consumed on the bike. I ditched my Dew, as it was plainly obvious that it wasn’t going to work. I switched to water to help my stomach empty then used a combo of water and IM Perform drink. My stomach was on the edge throughout the run, but I managed to continue to take in nutrition throughout the run.
During most IM races I feel absolutely invincible for the first 15 miles or so of the run. But at Kona this feeling only lasted about 3 miles before the run became a hot, rusty grind. It pretty much felt the way you’d expect a marathon to feel if you prepared by doing mostly pool running and doing short runs on the grass and treadmill.
As I was running up from Ali’i Drive I saw Macca zooming down to the finish. (I love Macca– he’s one of the few people who hasn’t let the word beat him down into a cliche spouting robot). Once you get away from Ali’i Drive and go up to the Queen K, the run become bleak, monotonous and barren. Those miles on the way out and back are the the mentally toughest part of the course. I started passing quite a few people starting at this section of the course as I maintained my 7:30 grinding miles (including stops for ice at every aid station). My mantra was “just keep jogging.”
Going down into the Energy Lab toward the turnaround and back up people around me started getting a little more chatty and enthusiastic as we realized that were going to be headed back to the finish soon. That part of the course has a fun energy and it went fast. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among the competitors, especially as we got closer to the finish– I never felt like I was racing “against” anyone.
The longest and bleakest part of the run was the last miles along the Queen K before you get to run down Palani hill toward the finish. The miles went by so slowly and even though you know you are getting close to the finish it is so monotonous and you never see the stop light at Palani until the last minute. At this point it had become a SUPER grind for me and I was repeating my mantra “just keep jogging” over and over and over and I kept up my 7:30ish/ mile average. I took a few steps of race walking up one of the steeper hills (as I often do during a race), and everyone racing around me encouraged me to keep running!
Finally we reached the top of Palani and it felt awesome to coast down the hill and know it’s basically over. Even the last half mile back in town was a nasty grind, but it was a beautiful nasty grind. For once I took my time in the finishing chute and celebrated finishing. My time of 9:43 blew away all my expectations coming into the race and I couldn’t have been happier with my performance on the day and how I executed my race.
Run / Overall: 3:17:58 marathon (7:33 / mile) moved up another 150 spots to finish the race in 254th overall and 46th in my AG with a final time of 9:43.