Kona Ironman First Time Perspective
Tuesday, 28 July 2015, 9:00 AM
In my late teens, I promised myself that one day I would do the Hawaii Ironman. As the years have gone on I realised it was very unlikely I would ever qualify. As a consolation I decided to do the Taupo event so that I could at least say I had done an Ironman.
During the 2013 event I had a disastrous run and ended up walking and vomiting the last 30kms of the run. It felt like a “hollow win”, so I snuck in another entry for the 2014 to try again, and in addition to that they had an extra 10 slots for Hawaii as part of the 30 year anniversary. After this second time I was accepting of my final overall time – “Ironman event: CHECK”. And didn’t manage to get one of the extra Kona slots. Then out of the blue, and almost forgotten about, a month later I received an email confirming my Kona allocation in the global lottery - WOW!! - 25yrs of wanting to do this event was becoming a reality – be careful what you wish for!
Race day morning. We had arrived nice and early for the body marking. This just means long queues first thing in the morning.
After body marking and a weigh in, I miraculously find a much needed loo without any queues. [I can share the location for a small fee]. After this, taking in the atmosphere and a couple photos, I totally forgot that I had to check my bike and pump up my tyres. After a quick go on the pump to get the tyres done, load some food on my bike, re-checked location so I can find my bike, then head back to the bag check in. As everyone throngs towards the swim chute, it starts to get crowded, shoulder to shoulder, throngs of people, eager to get in the water but you have to wait until the pro’s start. Several helicopters hang over head make it very loud and surreal, the smell of sunblock is very strong. The pro’s canon goes off, and we’re next, heading down the stairs. Straight away I notice the wash swirling around the little Dig Me beach.
I get down the stairs and head straight out and get some good head down strokes to warm up. I take in the crowds on the pier and beach and just at that moment realise just how special this day is. The sun is just about to rise above Mt Pele and the sunbeams are spectacular in the morning glow. Wow. Over the loudspeaker they are giving a local blessing and we all nervously participate in the “Ha! Hey!” chant. Apparently the cultural blessing is wishing us safe travels and fair winds (no he didn’t just say wind, did he?).
Either I missed it or there wasn’t a count down, but all of a sudden the canon booms and we are off!
Again I’m pleased with my start placing - so far so good I think to myself. The water is fantastically clear, you can see the bottom and the amount of fish below us is incredible. I remember as a teenager reading an article in a magazine which compared the race to swimming in an aquarium.
The swim is an out and back course so as I approach a cluster of boats and stand up paddler boarders I’m assuming it is the turnaround point.
The return pace is good and I’m feeling good. No idea of the time, but that’s not important. I notice the occasional swell (set) rolling through which I try to ride back to the pier.
About half way back on the return leg I notice the “stickiness” of the water – the current that helped us out is now pushing against me.
Not too far from the finish I get passed by two pink caps - Girls!! Who started 10mins after me! Swimming with these top female swimmers reaffirms to me that I have the right approach and that they are likely to be on the 50mins mark which means I’m on the hour mark – all good.
When its knee deep I stand up and am greeted with some friendly smiling volunteer faces directing me towards the stairs, “watch out for the hole” - I step straight into the hole, falling forward.
Everyone around me is sprinting into transition. I jog through the fresh water showers making sure I don’t rush and make any mistakes.
The transition process goes without any issues. The day before when you check your bike in to transition you get told that you will have to run the perimeter of the biking transition to get your bike? I try running in my bike shoes but end up walking - it takes ages. When I eventually get to my bike I notice that there are quite a few bikes already gone - wow these guys are good swimmers. Heading out on the bike, I’m still happy and feeling good.
As I head out I get comfortable, drink lots of water to wash away the salt taste, and look for something quick to eat. Heading up the Kuakini highway I’m in awe of the view and really in love with this beautiful place. It’s a quick out and back dash up the Kuakini highway so the return downhill has magnificent views. Like a typical non-qualifier I am here for the experience: so far so good.
After doubling back into town you head up onto the Queen K highway for some more heat and lava fields. I'm holding a good pace and quicker than usual I put it down to a tail wind.
Along the way I tick off the landmarks on Queen K as we head out, feeling the occasional cross gust of wind: “hang on, don’t get caught off guard, focus, stay alert, pay attention”.
The cross winds slowly become more frequent and soon they are noticeably from the front(!), damn this is now a head wind - that’s ok as it will be tail wind coming back right, (right?!). There’s wind and more wind. At this time I consciously note that I’m heading down a hill in my easiest rear gear and really having to grind into the wind to get some free wheel action – nothing – keep the pressure on, concentrate – there’s a guy on the side of the road, road rash all on his elbow, quad and knee - concentrate.
Our tour guide got some supporters out into the lava fields for some encouragement. I notice the spectators are dealing with the wind too - it’s very strong.
And so on it goes: head wind, grinding away, more head wind. I remember fighting to get any kind of speed downhill. I have never ridden is such power sapping winds – just brutal.
The pros having started earlier managed to get a tail wind on their return (some were doing 80k/hr on the flat), that’s ok cause we’ll get this tail wind right, Right?!
The climb up to Hawi is long and slow. I get passed by so many cyclists now, more headwind, climbing, did I mention there was a brutal headwind.
The initial part of the return trip is fast. But soon the massive crosswinds start to turn and approach from the front again. The typical day in Kona has winds that blow one direction in the morning, then blow back out in the afternoon – the perfectly wrong situation to be riding today, head winds on the way out, and head winds all the way home – only these are monster strength winds.
The 6hrs I was hoping for is now slipping away, now I’m out longer than anticipated and need to plan what to eat and when.
After an eternity of sitting in a wind tunnel I get onto the home stretch. With the transition in sight I check myself. Man that was tough, that was hard work, and mentally taxing, concentrating not to be blown off, I’ve lost count of the number of times I hit those damn cats’ eyes on the side of the road. I’m ok but that took way longer than I ever thought.
I tell the friendly smiling volunteer at transition to keep my bike as I never want to ride it again -ever! (I’m over riding for good).
In transition it's time for some more sunblock, running shoes on, a quick drink, then head out. I’m feeling ok – even good maybe, I got this. Heading out on Alii drive I put ice in the bucket cap that I’m wearing, I try a cold sponge, and a drink. Things are fine and I’m running comfortably until the 9km mark, my stomach starts to feel a bit queasy.
I get chatting to a fellow tour friend who helps distract me but later stop to let him go as it feels like I have a pebble in my shoe. Turns out it wasn’t a pebble, only wet skin turning in on itself because I am so wet – something I hadn’t thought of trying in the NZ winter was running in very wet shoes.
Running back into town I see my wife on the side of the road, I tell her to "get comfy it’s going to be a late night". She tells me to “suck it up” and get on with it. No sympathy there then.
Everyone walks the Palani hill, so did I. The out and back on Queen K starts with another one of Hawaii’s beautiful sunsets – I’m at least an hour later than I thought and starting to realise just how dark it's going to be.
By now I have stopped putting ice in the cap and avoiding the sponges – my feet aren’t as wet and I don’t notice the blisters anymore.
About 22k into the run I start chatting to a fellow runner (Val), she convinces me to keep on running and just walk the stations; something I was trying to do myself but not disciplined enough to maintain. Val doesn’t take no for an answer and I don’t want to lose face to a girl so I run when she says run. It’s at this point I start to feel better. I start on the coke (once you start you have to carry on). I feel a slight spring in the step now and running almost ok between aid stations.
Then we get to the turn off for Energy Lab, and it’s very dark. Val, a 5x Kona finisher, schools me to run in the middle of the road to avoid the rough bits which probably saved me from injury. The turnaround is a bit of a blur but now I know I’m heading home. I grab my special needs bag, I can only stomach half of my Marmite sandwich, and with some Kiwi pride I ditch the cap and put on my NZ Ironman running peak.
Only 15km to go now, in the dark on Queen K home trip I lose Val. Now I’m alone again in a very dark place – mentally and physically, but I now want to finish this more than ever before.
At the end of the next aid station I come across another athlete – I try my best to give her some encouraging words and pretend I know what I’m talking about, and then all of a sudden she’s running which is also a boost for me. A little later we come across an American guy who had tried to get me running earlier – I return the favour and now there are three of us running together. I’m eager to get to the finish line.
One piece of advice I got was to ensure you space out the finish chute so that you don’t bomb someone else’s finish photo. I manage to finish strong and high-5 the supporters along the finish chute, taking in the atmosphere and the overall experience. I also get my finish photo all to myself - perfect.
The finish line is a big party atmosphere. I find my wife and we hang around and find a good spot to watch the rest of the athletes coming in. The party atmosphere is contagious with everyone dancing and cheering on the late finishers up until the midnight cut-off.
It was 25yrs in the waiting and worth every bit of the wait.
It was everything I thought it might be, hot, windy, stunningly beautiful, from swimming in an aquarium, riding in a wind tunnel, and running on Mars: I loved it.
Hawaii Ironman Kona: CHECK.
Richard Completing His Kona Dream
Tips learnt and gleaned from others:
• Stay close to town – to get the atmosphere and activities
• Practice in strong winds – get used to being smashed by cross winds, so you know how to drink and eat without disaster
• Ice in a trucker cap – at first I didn’t really think about this but when you feel the heat it definitely makes a difference
• Be realistic about your swim start – remember most of these guys have qualified so will be decent swimmers
• Use an organised tour / guide – best thing I did was use Tri Travel.
• Do a recce of the bike course and make some mental landmarks – one lava field looks just like the next.
Originally published in New Zealand Triathlon & Multisport Issue 100, January 2015