Wow – so where to start??? It was an honour to be the first member of Hampstead Triathlon Club to head to the Big Island to take part in what has become such an iconic race. The support from the club before, during and after the race was phenomenal. Here are a few thoughts, memories and experiences.
The road to Kona
Qualifying at Ironman Wales in September 2015 for the 2016 World Championships was a great buzz. But it came with the realization that 13 months of tough training lay ahead, if I was going to improve on (or even match) my form at IM Wales.
In terms of winter training, after 18 months of relentless bike training in all weathers, I needed a bit of a break, so I joined London Heathside running club to see if I could make some progress on my marathon. Having run basically the same time (3h 04m) twice in 2015, it was time to get serious if I wanted to go sub-3. The Sunday long runs, Tuesday track sessions and one very muddy cross-country race at Ally Pally all helped, as did building the mileage towards 50 miles a week, which I just about managed in December and January before the wheels fell of the bus a bit with ongoing achilles problems in Feb/March. The resulting partial layoff may not have been such a bad thing though – I went into the London Marathon in April feeling well rested, and somehow my usual flake-out at 22 miles was avoided and I finally broke 3hrs (2hrs 59m 21s to be precise).
Swim training was probably the aspect I enjoyed most over the year, and looking at my last few races, the swim has definitely taken over from the run as the discipline where I tend to get the best rank. The only problem is, of course, that in triathlon, the swim is by far the least significant event in terms of overall time. (Hence my new-found enthusiasm for Swimrun – more of that in 2017 I think…)
In comparison, I did very little on the bike over the winter, only really getting going in April once the marathon was done and dusted. There was then a lot of work to do to get back to where I was in Wales, never mind improve on it. I managed to keep pace with my bike-focused brother Sam during the RideLondon 100 mile sportive, but only thanks to Sam hitting a pothole and having to ride the second half of the course with the brakes catching on his buckled rim, so not quite fair. In September I used a couple of hundred-mile test rides on the same route I’d used as practice for IM Wales as a yardstick, which told me that I had just about got back up to the same form. That would have to do. Though somewhat worryingly the pain in the ball of my foot while cycling (caused by Morton’s Neuroma) was having more and more of an impact, especially on long rides.
Heading to the Big Island
So, a week ahead of the event, it was time to head to Hawaii – a relatively gruelling trip involving 2 or 3 flights depending on the route you take, and an 11 hour timezone shift. At Heathrow it was not difficult to spot the athletes who were clearly heading Kona-wards, and we quickly got chatting in the departure lounge, discussing important topics such as the best way to avoid paying the ludicrous sum that Delta and Virgin had recently introduced for carrying bike boxes.
That fee started to seem even more of a rip-off a few hours later when, sat on the taxiway in Seattle, the TSA summoned me and another Kona-bound triathlete off the plane and demanded the keys to our bike boxes so they could be unlocked and searched out on the tarmac. Half an hour later, I got back, not my key, but a little notecard from the TSA saying effectively ‘Sorry dude, we broke your lock… and your key….’ Fortunately there are few things that duct tape won’t fix…
So, having arrived in Hawaii, the key goal was acclimatize, acclimatize, acclimatize. With just 6 days of leadup to race day, there was a limit to how effective this was going to be. Somehow, it didn’t seem like the three 20-minute sauna sessions I’d managed to squeeze in during the run-up were going to count for much once out there in ‘the oven’ that is the Kona course.
Kona’s heat, humidity, and winds are legendary. Given I wasn’t going to be able to fully adapt (to put it mildly), I figured the best I could do was familiarize myself with what it might feel like to swim, bike and run in these conditions. Having only really done events in cool, temperate countries, this was uncharted territory.
First order of business was to scope out the swim and (Kona being a non-wetsuit affair), I needed to get used to swimming in my Zone3 Swimskin. Beforehand I’d joked about sharks all the time, but frankly I do find deep-water sea swimming pretty anxiety-inducing, all the more so in locations which really do have shark attacks. The great thing about race week in Kona though, is that you’re not swimming solo – every morning hundreds of athletes head out to swim the course from Dig Me beach, and somehow, that was sufficient to dispel the paranoia. I guess mainly by giving you something else to think about – sizing up the competition, and attempting not to bash heads, which given the non-demarcated out-and-back route, was easier said than done.
I did 3 practice swims overall. The one on the Tuesday was extra special as Zone3 (provider of my oh-so-sexy bright red swimskin) had organized for some of us Zone 3-supported age-groupers and pros (Joe Skipper and Tyler Butterfield) to go out swim together, after a photo-op under the banyan tree. A lot of fun to chase after the pros feet, even if they were obviously taking it super-easy.
Next thing to get my head around was the run, and since the toughest segment is generally considered to be the exposed out-and-back stretch through The Energy Lab, that’s where I started. The Energy Lab is basically a private road through a lava field industry park a few miles up the road from Kona, where new energy technologies are being developed. You hit it at about 26K into the run. As far as my training run was concerned, it felt fine. It was stupidly hot, obviously, but 10K running up and down the road at an optimistic (I didn’t yet know just how optimistic) 3h 20m marathon pace felt reasonable (Strava). Obviously, not being massively overheated/dehydrated at the start helps, and by the end of the 10K, as my water bottle emptied and I ran the last kilometer getting gradually thirstier, I did have an inkling that 42k’s worth of the real thing might be a little bit tougher! (video)
Finally, it was time for my nemesis discipline, the bike – also the most infamous part of the Kona course. Not only do you have the heat and humidity to contend with, you have a relentless moonscape of an out-and-back course along the Queen K highway surrounded by lava fields, endless rolling hills, and an ever changing variety of cross-, tail- and head-winds. So gusty that Kona is the only Ironman, as far as I know, where disc wheels are banned.
Nothing on the course compares in steepness to the hills at IM Wales (or Exmoor 70.3), but the overall vertical ascent is actually not far off Wales (1772m vs 2095m). There is one extended climb of 10k or so up to the turnaround point of the bike course in the small town Hawi in the North of the island, so I headed off (once again, aided by my trusty support crew), to do battle with the Hawi climb.I figured I would see how my average speed looked if I rode about 12k up to Hawi and 12k back down. My theory was that the out-and-back would cancel out both the wind and the hill, and that was probably the toughest bit of the course, so whatever felt genuinely comfortable there should be achievable on race day (ha!).
One of the big unknowns with Kona is the weather. Although it’s always going to be pretty humid and warm, the cloud cover varies hugely from day to day, from hour to hour, and from mile to mile as you move into the hills inland (where it basically never seems to stop raining) or up the coast. In some years, much of your bike and run will be in relatively grey, muggy conditions. In tough years, you’ll bake in sunshine the whole way around. Which was this going to be?
Given the whole heat thing, one area I was kind of worried about was drinking enough and maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance. So it was fun to go along and participate in a research academic project taking part in the Ironman Village, supported by Gatorade, which was looking to measure how electrolyte loss and replacement was managed by different athletes and how that correlated with performance. I look forward to seeing the published research paper.
Another aspect of Kona is all the product launches which happen there. This year the big one was Cervelo’s $15,000 P5X superbike, whose cantilever design divides opinion aesthetically, and for which Kona was going to be the first real world race-outing. But it was great fun to test ride
The final countdown
Kona has one or two odd rituals/traditions. One being the Thursday morning Underpants Race, supporting local charities. The historical rationale for the race makes no sense whatsoever (something to do with discouraging inappropriate wearing of speedos in public), but athletes and teams certainly make an effort!
The arrangements the day before were very much like any other Ironman race. The one bonus in Kona being that several of the bike manufacturers were giving out freebies to anyone checking in one of their bikes. Yippee – a another free T-shirt!
The morning conditions couldn’t have been more different from the choppy swell we’d had to deal with in Wales. Very calm, which was a shame really, as from what I can tell, rough conditions seem to work in my favour. It turns out there was some marine life at the start, but nothing with big teeth.
The extent of the frenzy following the start was beyond anything I remember from my previous events, which isn’t surprising, as this is the largest field, there’s no rolling start, and pretty much everyone is going for it, rather than hanging back.
Looking at my GPS track, although the way out felt like I was being jostled continuously and struggling to maintain a good stroke, my actually time splits were great.
At the half way point there’s a boat you swim around, and at that point you have a bit more of a challenge in sighting your way back to the landing point. This was where things got a bit frustrating as I found myself stuck in no mans land – I had a big stream of swimmers 20 yards to my left, and another big stream 20 yards to my right. I tried a few times to head towards one or the other, but never quite made it as I wasn’t convinced which looked the better option- I was very much like the proverbial donkey between 2 bales of hay. On the upside, I felt confident I was on course, and had plenty of space. On the downside, I had no one to draft!
Looking at my GPS track on the way back is a bit frustrating as my meandering back and forth is in evidence, and more importantly, although swimming by myself felt good in a ‘now I’m definitely not drowning’ kind of way, it was pretty terrible not having anyone to draft. Strava’s “flyby” feature makes painfully evident that I was being overhauled by many swimmers on either side of me who I’d easily stayed ahead of for the first half. My average pace looks to have dropped from 1.30/100m on the first leg to 1.50/100m on the way back which is mad. Current and tiredness may have played a role, but I think a lot of it was down to the lack of drafting.
But not to worry, for better or worse, the swim is a tiny part of the Ironman equation and coming into transition seeing 1.02 on my watch, I knew that was plenty good enough to be going on with. Now for the real deal – the bike.
I’m never going to be a super quick and slick transition merchant, but there were no big problems in T1,and I made it through and was out on my bike in a fairly par-for-the-course 5 minutes. In retrospect, the bike seems to have followed the pattern or the swim a bit, in that the first half was pretty good, and based on some (admittedly rough and ready) calculations using Best Bike Split, I seemed to be on track for my 5h20m target split. The tailwinds coming back down the hill from Hawi were great, but the last rolling 75k was pretty tough.
As with IMNZ, I found that not having ridden the full course before made it surprisingly difficult to pace it. For Ironman Wales, the Long Course Weekend had provided a great chance to do the full bike course a couple of months in advance. For me that seems to make all the difference- perhaps the most important thing is that psychologically/subconsciously, if you’ve done it before, you know what’s to come and you body is able to push harder because it has the confidence that what remains is finite, rather than indefinite, suffering.
A couple of other factors which didn’t help my bike experience:
(a) my goddamn stupid feet. I’ve been suffering from cycling-aggravated Morton’s Neuroma for the last couple of years, and it really sucks. Just when you need to dig deep and give it everything you’ve got, ⅔ of the way into the bike, the balls of my feet were killing me every time I pushed down on the pedals – not the greatest inducement to top-level performance.
(b) nutrition. In terms of staying hydrated, this was another area where I learnt a lot. I was so paranoid about salt balance that of the various bottled drinks on offer at each aid station (water, Gatorade, Coke), I generally kept drinking the bright orange Gatorade. Probably more Gatorade than it’s advisable to drink in a lifetime. Towards the end I mixed it up a bit, taking some coke and some water, and I think I would go more with those options next time. I’ve got to compliment the volunteers and the aid station setup though. It was so slick – everyone rode through the aid stations pretty fast, but the volunteers has the handover down to an fine art, running along side you and making an absolutely clean handoff of the bottle every time. Very cool.
Less cool was the rest of my on-bike nutrition. Let’s just say it didn’t handle the tropical climate well. At other events, a trusty combo of Clif Bar chunks and jelly babies had given me the calories I needed while also tasting pretty good. For Kona, I was paranoid that about salt balance, so threw in some salt tabs into the mix too. Unfortunately, the combo of Kona humidity and spilt Gatorade didn’t combine with it too well, and it rapidly became a sticky, salty, slightly orange and pretty much inedible sludge. I have a nasty feeling that my chain became drenched in sticky Gatorade at one point, and I rather doubt that helped its power-efficiency. It certainly made a curious noise from that point on! The one thing I did enjoy were my Espresso gels. A great invention for coffee addicts, and frankly I could happily have consumed a dozen of them, and next time maybe I will.
One issue that was raised a lot after Kona this year was drafting. It was definitely a problem – in that there seemed to be no attempt whatsoever by Ironman to police it for agegroupers, and for the first few miles at least, the basic laws of mathematics prevented you from maintaining the required gap. As post, in Kona this year 350 male athletes exited the water between 60 and 65 minutes (> 1 per second). I was bang in the middle of that peak. But by the time we were well into the Lava fields, I think I’d dropped back sufficiently that I didn’t see the worst of it .in an excellent
Towards the end of the bike, as you approach Kona on the Queen Kaʻahumanu highway, you see the pros heading towards the Energy Lab. I couldn’t help noticing that while the guys in front were going well, at least a couple of pros at the tail end were walking, or not far off, which did make me a little bit paranoid about how I was going to handle the run section.
Coming in off the bike in around 5h35m, I was around 15 minutes off the bike split I’d hoped for, which at least took a bit of pressure off in terms of my overall time goals. I wasn’t going to be getting any kind of crazy quick time, so my main goals morphed into:
- avoid having to walk the run
- finish before it got dark (in Kona it gets dark around 6pm, so this meant I needed to be safely sub-11hr)
- beat my Ironman Wales time (10:43:01).
The first leg of the run is 8k out and another 8k back along the Kona shorefront (Ali’i Drive), with great support along the way. Ironman runs have amazing aid stations each and every mile, which are quite an important to factor into your race plan, in terms of deciding to what extent you slow down in order to take on fluids etc. As a bonus in Kona, as well as a range of drinks there is also copious ice on offer. The first 2 hours of my run were in full afternoon sun, and I wasn’t taking any chances on the overheating front, so each and every aid station I put two cups of ice down my tri-suit, while munching on a few extra cubes to bring my core temperature down. It did the job, in terms of keeping things comfortable, but at some cost to raw speed (you probably don’t get as much oxygen as you might if you have a mouthful of icecubes). I think in future I might take a more moderate approach.
My attempt to take salt tablets along with me on the run was an ignominious failure, as I somehow managed to drop them all in transition in one of those moments of comedy clumsiness I’m known for. As it happened, mid way on the run, a sponsor was giving out tiny vials of BASE Performance Electrolyte Salt which was a far better option – you just lick your thumb and then shake the vial to get a thumbs worth of salt crystals to lick. Really nifty, and a lot more sensible and practical than working with loose salt tablets in such a humid climate.
Another unusual product being given out on course was HotShot, an anti-cramping formula which, from what I can tell, is just a kind of capsaicin (chili pepper) syrup, based on some neuroscience evidence that stimulating your capsaicin receptors can prevent cramps. Ironically I ran past this at 25k on the run, thinking ‘Ha! Lucky me, I only get cramps when I’m swimming.’ Of course, what’s the first thing that happens when I enter the Energy Lab? I get stomach cramp… Slightly worrying, but I pummel it into submission, and within a few km it is back to normal.
Overall, looking at my pace on my watch, I was shocked by just how much of an impact the heat was having on my speed. In both New Zealand and Wales I’d run the marathong in around 3h30m (which works out at 5 mins/km), and had been hoping to go quicker in Kona. But maintaining anything like that 5 min/km pace felt like an impossible dream much of the time. Hitting the half way point, in about 1hr 55min, I realized that I’d better look lively if I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having a 4-hour marathon on my record-sheet. This seemed to give me the necessary motivation, and unlike both the swim and the bike, I managed to maintain a pretty flat set of splits with second half taking the same time as the first half, partly thanks to the very enjoyable downhill last mile or so through the backstreets of Kona to the finish. Again, not having done the course before felt like a handicap (although one I shared with a large fraction of the field). If I’d had a better sense of what was still to come, and also of how my body would handle the heat, the run is definitely felt like one area where I could in retrospect have risked pushing a bit harder…. But so it goes, and definitely better that than failing to finish or having to walk (or crawl!). I made it over the line in 10:38:18, 5 minutes faster than Wales (still having energy for a finish line pose, for once), but I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed at my final ranking (120th of 275 finishers in my age group).
What did I take away from Kona?
As with my first Ironman in New Zealand, this one felt like very much a learning experience and a recce leaving some unfinished business. It was great, but definitely left me thinking about how I could do it better in future.
Maybe I will manage to return in a few years time (2020 is when I move to the next age group), but meanwhile good luck to Ade who will be flying the HTC flag in Kona next year.
Thanks to the on-site support crew
Cheers guys – what can I say- it helped!
Sarah, Sally,Pam and Debs, plus Marc and Martin (not pictured)
Additional thanks to:
- Ray at Swim Canary Wharf for giving me great swim tips (even if I’m not very good at following them)
- Zone3 for the SwimSkin
- Bike & Run for ensuring my bike was in fine fettle.
- Hampstead Triathlon Club – the encouragement on Whatsapp kept me motivated throughout
The race in numbers
|Overall||10:38:18||120 / 276 (M45-49)|
|Swim||01:02:36||Strava||85 / 276 (M45-49)|
|Bike||05:34:23||Strava||140 / 276 (M45-49)|
|Run||03:50:28||Strava||120 / 276 (M45-49)|
Bonus geeky stats
|Swim halfway splits||00:30:00||00:32:36||(Oh dear…)|
|Bike halfway splits||02:50:00||02:44:00||(Downhill on way back)|
|Run 10k splits||00:52:19||00:56:15||0:57:00||00:54:00|
The top 6 M45-49 finishers at IM Wales all qualified for Kona (I was 3rd). How did we all get on, relative to each other? 1st and 2nd swapped places, but otherwise we stayed in the same order. Interestingly, only two of us managed to go faster in Kona than we had in Wales. A couple of spring chickens from the M40-44 age group were old enough to race as M45-49 in Kona. Both were a bit quicker than me in Wales, and stretched that lead in Kona. The overall picture definitely seems to be that the faster you are, the less of a deficit caused by the Kona conditions.
Talking of faster athletes…
The calibre of the top guys in my age-group was awe-inspiring. In my hypothetical dream world, had I gone 15 mins quicker on the bike, 20 minutes quicker on the run, and shaved off another 3 on the swim/transition, I would have hit 10 hours. But I would still have been beaten by 39 athletes!
- The winner’s time was a total of 09:14:35
- My swim was 10 minutes slower than the fastest swim in my AG
- My bike was 43 minutes slower than the fastest bike in my AG
- My run was 48 minutes slower than the fastest run in my AG (!)
On a positive note: my swim was faster than two of the guys in the top 5 of my age-group.
But that just goes to show that swimming ain’t ever going to win you an Ironman…
Finally, a couple of guidebook recommendations for anyone heading to Kona
Neither of these is what you could call an undiscovered gems, but both worth seeking out: