My IMSA performance of 9:51 was fairly acceptable, considering some time away from training and racing for 2 years. But I was still a little surprised to be heading down the steps onto Dig Me Beach to start at the Ironman World Championship. I was feeling fairly neutral heading into the race. After some decent training and guidance from friend, superstar (she’s led Kona for the first 2 and a half hours before!) and coach Lucie, my swimming, biking, and running times and power were all much improved since April.
My approach was to take it as a ‘normal’ race. I’ve done a good few Ironman, long-distance and half-Ironman races over the last few years and had a routine that I felt comfortable with - whether scientific or completely random. However, and with hindsight, Lucie told me that ‘I was trying to have the race of my life’.
With this unacknowledged pressure I put on myself, the normal stress of a race, the travel, being away from home, other big changes in personal and family life did not help me settle very well.
My niggle that I had mentioned in the previous post was getting worse each day. It was a hip flexor/glute issue that had come and gone over the last three years. Despite best efforts to will it better, it took an early morning/late night Whatsapp call to my amazing biokineticist and chiro team at Synergy Holistix in Linden to get it going the right way.
The day before the race, things finally started feeling good, and I felt confident that after a swim warm up, and a decent bike effort, I’d be good for my run.
Despite it being the Star Spangled Banner, and not Nkosi Sikelel', I was still choking up at the anthem, as the pros started their race. There is something about the enormity of the occasion, and then the quiet, stillness and respect that everyone gives that did me in…
After my tears, I entered the water as late as possible. I swam gently out to the floating start line at the last minute so as not to waste energy treading water. I timed it to perfection and just snuck into the third row when the announcer said 30 seconds to go.
Over the years, I have watched the Kona start on TV and youtube, and heard stories that it’s pretty ruthless up front. As the cannon on the pier sounded out over the bay, I immediately noticed the quality around me. There was body contact and the odd kick, but mostly people were swimming quite fast and mostly straight. It was like being in the sardine run off Aliwal Shoal. This time though it was without sharks – just beautiful coral, tropical fish and even a turtle!
The swim was great for the first few hundred metres as I had a little bit of space, but slowly my area was getting cramped as we started finding small groups. It was quite claustrophobic which I don’t do very well with. I felt trapped and the only escape to calmer water was to turn 45 degrees and swim over some legs to the inside line. I took a few breaths and was off again, back into the sardine run and found some space in the line.
On the way back to the pier, I was feeling good but it was clear we were all of similar ability and speed. There was no way to get a time advantage off faster feet (no quicker swimmers were coming through), just the benefit of less effort. With people in different coloured swimsuits, I remembered a few people after the first 400m, and they were generally with me as we neared the last 400m into the pier.
Up the steps and into Transition, and all was good. Until some Charlie who had forgotten to take off his swimsuit (Andreas Raelert did it a few years ago and actually rode with it), ran back into the tent with his bike cleats on and stood on my big toe… A shot of pain and panic until I realized it was just sore and bruised, and nothing more.
The bike mount line at Kona is chaos. Everyone runs up to the line and tries to get on immediately. It’s a small road and gets congested. I strategically ran ten metres further to clear ground and then jumped on and started up Palani Hill. It’s a 200m gradual climb before turning left onto the Kuakini Highway for the loop back through town. It’s up, down, and around back through Palani, up and out, back through Palani, up and out and off you go on the Queen Kahemanema Highway (Queen K). This first section can be crazy fast and dangerous with crashes and guys blowing their races. I saw a few guys out of the saddle and storming up the hills. I saw them again much later as I rode past them at 150km.
As I turned onto the Queen K, I did my best Titanic impression by sitting up with arms out wide, taking a big breath and letting go a big ‘Whoohooooo’. Here I was – The Ironman World Championships – and about to settle into my favourite leg. In the words of my friend the Captain – Giddy up!!
I felt flat.
In the last two weeks, I’ve tried to unpack what were the reasons for this. There are many possible reasons: general heat, not enough eating in the week before, stress, over training, not enough sleep, too much sleep, nervousness, travel etc. However, with hindsight, there is not one thing that stands out, but lots of small things that may have contributed. Or it just was an off day.
And this was hard – here I was, in probably the best physical condition for a race, and the engine wouldn’t get out of second gear. As I road along the Queen K highway, I desperately looked for solutions. Freezing cold water at the first aid station didn’t help, a Red Bull to give me a kickstart, eating, drinking, and then even swearing at myself to “get going or turn around. Stop wasting everyone’s time”.
Then my mind drifted – still keeping a decent cadence and as high a power as I could. At one point I almost dozed off on the aero bars (yes – my bike is comfy). I even considered blatant drafting to get further up the road AND hopefully get a time penalty so I could have a nap on the side of the road for 5 minutes! Something was off.
Speaking of drafting – this race is the worst that I have ever encountered by a long way. With such a competitive field and a mass start, it’s going to happen. Between 1hr02 and 1hr07, 525 male athletes emerged from the water this year. There were another 600 ahead of them. So you’re looking at 105 athletes PER MINUTE cycling out of transition.
To stay out of a pack or not to draft is really difficult. It’s like the M1 north on Friday afternoon. You’re supposed to leave a big gap, but then a BMW, a taxi and a granny in a Hyundai i10 all pull into the gap you’ve left. So you close the gap… but now you’re drafting. And you can’t drop back to the end of the group/bunch/pack because they’re surging and decelerating all the time, and you’re either 20m back or right up back in the pack.
My race was slowly getting better and I picked up a few spots on the climb up to Hawi. At the turnaround, I grabbed my special needs bag (fortunately without stopping or getting my bag caught in my wheels) and headed down the hill. In the weeks before, I had really struggled here. The wind had blown me all over the place. Today though I was committed. I stuck to the advice I received from Tina Walters – now a Kona resident and former 9th place finisher – ‘don’t get out of your aero bars, and pedal… just keep pedaling’.
I picked up a few more spots on the way down, and was now looking forward to the ride home. Unfortunately, as we turned onto the Queen K again, the winds had turned (obviously), taking the wind out of my sails if that’s possible! Again I felt flat, and started dropping the places I had just gained. This is a long and lonely stretch of road. Lots of lava, lots of wind, no spectators, and no chat. Everyone head down and fighting the wind and their own demons.
As the lava fields rolled by, I decided not to fight the bike anymore, and just do what I could. Mentally I had wasted a lot of energy in looking for answers, so I set a new power goal (about 15% less than my target) and kept focused on the task at hand. I held a controlled but light effort for about 30km, and was delighted to see the new airport, and then the floodlights of the old Airport Recreation Ground as I rolled into Kona.
After the dreadful quiet and loneliness of the Queen K, it was good to be back in town with spectators.
I was through T2 with no issues. Shoes and socks, cap, glasses, another med pack (more Rennies in this one) and some gels. I didn’t check my watch now, but from the few auto alerts on my Garmin I guessed I was 5:20-5:40 bike split. I had to get out onto the run and do what I came here for.
My running had been going particularly well. In training, I was reaching good speeds, my recovery was good, my mileage was up, and my form was good (thanks to Claudia at Synergy Holistix). I had studied the run course, I knew the challenges, I had run 95% of it in the last two weeks and I had quiet confidence.
The first section up and through town is quite easy. Not too hot or humid, and a sprinkling of spectators. You then hit the Hell of Ali’i. Well that’s how it felt to me. My pace was a little off, and my heart rate was again very low, but I felt comfortable for about 3km’s. Then all of a sudden it started getting oppressively humid and hot.
As per instructions, it was lots of ice and sponges in and on various parts of my anatomy, and then coke. However, this was not changing anything or keeping me going. My heart kept dropping, and so did my pace. As my friend said when he saw a picture of me, ‘he looks moeg…’ (very, very tired).
This was now the worst sporting event I have ever participated in (getting snowed on and rescued from a vegetarian cult in the Karoo is a distant second). My mind had been in overdrive all day. Normally it’s pedal, eat, watch power/heart rate, drink, pedal, don’t blow. Repeat for run. I had been struggling all day to find solutions to get my body working.
I ran up to Palani – and started my walk. Palani is maybe 500m long, and by walking I would lose maybe 1 min overall, but would be a lot stronger for it. Unfortunately, there was now a big gap in aid stations. Normally they are every mile, but this seemed a bit longer. To give a sense of the heat, I honestly felt that if I didn’t get something in the next 500m, I was going to pop. Fortunately, this was ‘Merica, and one of the spectators was smashing an oversize burger with his 30 oz Coke sitting next to him. I picked it up, walked a few yards had a few gulps and plopped it back down on the side of the road with a mumbled ‘Thanks’. A bit later, on the Queen K and between aid stations, I also felt a bit on edge, and found a very warm Gatorade that someone had tossed off the bike about 7 hours ago! Lifesaver!!
As I hit the Queen K, there’s a slight downhill on which I actually felt good. I had had an excellent confidence building run on this stretch the week before. And I thought, right let’s get home with a strong finish.
And then the wheels fell off. They had been threatening for a while, but they came off at about 18-20km. It was nothing in particular, but the heat, the stress, the mental anguish of feeling flat, and maybe too much coke – the side of my stomach pulled me into a pretzel. When I could straighten and get going, it was sore and slow and there was a lot of walking. Nothing seemed to get me straight – not even a few magical Rennies tablets.
There is a place on the highway where they stop spectators, and then there is no-one for the 8km loop into and out the Energy lab. It feels like you’re heading off to Mordor with Frodo and Bilbo. I wasn’t daunted going down into the Lab, but as the mental and physical fatigue grew, everything was hard. I started noticing guys who had popped or had tough days like me. I don’t believe the Energy Lab is harder than any other part of the course, but its at 28-32km on the run, and I just believe that this is where guys' races often go wrong.
As my stitch pulled me sideways again, I was trying an awkward shuffle and now started shouting at myself to go. At one point I was particularly vocal, aggressive and sweary, but it was the same moment as one of the age group ladies came past me. She thought I was swearing at her! I did find her after the race to apologise!
I’ve never taken special needs on the run, but it was suggested I pop something sentimental or delicious in there. Firstly – Milo. Brilliant! It was a little box of warm, sweet, milky chocolate goodness. Thank you Brad! And a laminated photo of my two children with an elastic band for my arm.
My son was particularly proud of me, and was truly confident I would win the World Championships (sorry my boy). So with my son cheering me on, my daughter’s blue eyes wishing me home and my wife waiting at the finish, I struggled home.
At this stage I had stopped the coke, and was taking on ice. It seemed to be working. I found about five other strugglers and appointed myself head pace maker. My stitch and hip/glute niggle had forced me to run with my torso at 45 degrees to my direction of running. What a sorry group of limping, sideways-moving, shuffling, vomiting runners on the Queen K.
Now I took a time check for the second time of the day. I worked out what I needed to make certain times and splits, and then it was “vasbyt” time. My legs were fine, but the head was tired, my stitch was ever present and my heart rate was just above my ‘sitting watching TV’ level.
My pace slowly started getting back to something that resembled a run, and I headed back to town. As I turned right down onto Palani, I had a look at the picture of my family and basically cried the whole way home. I had wanted to come down Palani for about 25 years, and here I was.
Unfortunately, the crowds that had cheered Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf had gone. Aid stations were running out of water, and they were sweeping up. This was massively humbling, for even when I have relatively bad Ironman races, I’m still in the front part of the field.
A short and faster run into town, and I was turning onto Ali’i Drive, which had retained its crowds. Fortunately, I was finishing a little before sunset, but the floodlights on the road still made an impressive glow. I ran through the tunnel of spectators, up the little hump and attempted my finishing jump (about 10cm high).
Was it a horrible day? My word! I never want to repeat that. Ever. Mentally and personally, it was, and has been, very tough. To put so much effort and time into one day, and you wake up and the engine doesn’t work. I’m disappointed about the lost opportunity. Disappointed that I wasn’t able to perform near my best.
My race wasn’t bad, but it was below par. I didn’t blow, but there must have been some mistakes in the preparation. I did finish, and many people didn’t. I didn’t win, or place where I wanted, but I finished in the middle third of a World Championship race.
Six years almost to the day, I joined my first triathlon group. Back then, I swam in the slow lane, got dropped off the bike pack, and didn’t run with the group. If then you had offered me a chance to race in Kona and to finish with a 10:39 – I would’ve taken it with both hands. And for that, I am so truly, truly grateful. Thank you.
My experience was amazing but my race wasn’t. I did something I never thought would happen. I qualified for Kona and I finished.
- John Collins, Ironman Founder, 1978