Wednesday, 14 October 2015

October 10th 2015 Ironman World Championships, Kona, Hawaii

3.8km Swim 180km Bike 42km Run - Temperature 89oF
Swim 1:11:47 - T1 04:31 - Bike 05:17:58 - T2 04:24 – Run 03:21:26 Total Time 10:00:06
7th 50-54 Age Group, 327th overall
I arrived on the Big Island 10 days before race day to give myself sufficient time to acclimatise and adjust to the 11 hour time difference. In recent weeks stories of an unusually stormy weather system had been common place with frequent typhoon conditions and exceptionally hot weather. Madame Pele was clearly planning a real treat for the athletes visiting the island this year.

It was great to be back at Kona and I quickly slipped into the daily rhythm of swimming on the course each day followed by breakfast with friends old and new. It’s great to have time to hang out with like-minded athletes and exchange stories from the season just coming to a close and speculate on who would win the 2015 edition of the Big Dance. As race day approaches you can sense the daily ratcheting up of energy levels to the point that by Thursday I stayed away from race ground zero and the near hysteria surrounding it. I felt surprising calm which in a way was a little disconcerting; a little nervous anticipation is usually a good thing.

The weather forecast see-sawed all week and you could usually find one that suited your preference. Race morning I walked down to the pier observing little movement in the palm trees but waves that were a little noisier than I would have liked. My pre-race routine is well practised and I was quickly through the melee of athletes checking and rechecking their bikes in transition. An almost irrational paranoia descends on athletes as they try to settle their nerves and reassure themselves the bike is indeed as they left it and will, as usual, make it round the 180k course.
The Kona swim is undoubtedly the toughest one on the circuit. Its a non-wetsuit 3.9k rather than 3.8k, the conditions are invariably choppy and you have 2000 A type individuals determined to use their physical attributes to get round, under or over you to make forward progress. Even before the cannon has fired the front line is edging forwards in an attempt to get the smallest of advantages. I slotted in a couple of rows back but nevertheless when the gun fired it was a melee of elbows and feet coming from every direction. I held my line and as we progressed the feet started to melt away but there was still the occasional elbow to wrestle with. I made the turn in reasonable time but the prevailing current made the return leg a much more workmanlike effort. I glanced up at the clock as I climbed onto the pier, registered the mediocre time split and then refocussed on a smooth T1.

The first 10k is a hilly loop in Kailua Kona before heading out on the Queen K highway out to Hawi and back. Many athletes cannot resist the urge to get out of the saddle and hammer round the short circuit as the supporters whip them up before they lose sight of them heading down the Queen K. The first section is nearly always with a tail wind, and feeling fresh, the speed is close to 40kph for the first 50k. By the time I reached Kawaihae I was really starting to feel the heat but had enthusiastically started to believe this was one of the fast years and I might get close to the elusive 5 hour bike split. I ground my way up to Hawi only to be met at the turn by warm rain. This wasn’t a significant issue but by the time others came through it had become a tropical storm, such is the fickleness of the weather on the island. On the way back to Kawaihae the temperature continued to rise inexorably and I had to switch to riding on heart rate alone to ensure I controlled my core temperature; power output and absolute speed were now very secondary considerations. As I made the turn onto the Queen K the head wind and temperature continued to pick up, the last 40k quickly being reduced to just a hard slog as I ticked off the land marks and made little progress through the field.

I staggered off my bike as I hit the dismount line and hobbled round the pier and into the transition tent. I felt pretty hot and bothered and not at all optimistic that I had acquitted myself well up to this point, it was just hard work. I took some time to collect my thoughts and press the reset button. It was clear my core temperature was not in a good place and I would need to manage it down over the first few ks to ensure I didn’t blow up.
I ran out onto the course with the sole focus being to get to the first aid station to grab some cold water and coke. I hit the first aid station at the 2 mile mark and walked through to carefully take all I needed to freshen myself up. that didn’t work, within 100m I was hot again and feeling drained.  I usually enjoy the run down to the turnaround at St Peter’s Church on Alii Drive but not today, I just couldn’t find any rhythm. I worked hard to keep my heart rate below 160 bpm and get back running after each aid station walk. The mile markers came and went but with little fanfare as I slogged along Alii Drive, impervious to the huge energy being put out by the crowds.
I braced myself for the sharp ascent up Palani, shuffling my way up to the aid station and a welcome excuse to walk again and take in more fluids. Left onto the Queen K and a strange sort of release from the intensity of the crowds in town. This is normally the hardest part of the marathon, 8 miles of tarmac and little else to the Energy Lab. This is where it is easy to lose it, faced with the brutal conditions and the reality that despite feeling spent, you are not yet half way through the run. It was later reported that the temperature on the black top was close to 120oC. I had no notion of where I was placed in the race so forward motion was not driven by a wish to be competitive but a focus simply in the moment, step by step. The Energy Lab came surprising quickly and with it a little cloud cover. Whether it is the fact that a chunk of the run was now done or the cooler conditions but I felt a positive lift in spirits, although not pace. I found myself for the first time scanning the bibs of athletes coming back the other way and it quickly became apparent that actually, in my age group, there weren’t many. Back up onto the Queen K and a fellow competitor told me I was probably in the mix for the top 10. Clearly I was having a bad day but others were having a worse one. Only now did I start to race, ensuring I kept fuelling and maintaining what was transpiring to be a competitive pace and, I was starting to enjoy it despite 9 hours of racing in my legs!
I pushed to the line, passing a couple of guys in the last mile which was two edged; two places higher but one mile smashing out any life left in my legs to ensure I wasn’t repassed. Down the finishing chute to the voice of Mike Riley calling out ‘you are an Ironman’; you can’t buy that. Almost as soon as you cross the line it’s like taking the cork out a bottle of emotion. It’s ok to start feeling again, both your body and soul.
72 hours later I am still smiling, thrilled with the result that seemed so unlikely at almost every point of the race. It really never is over until it’s over, ironman is unique in that respect and the Big Island doubly so. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to race on Kona and never take it for granted, it’s very special.

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