Nov 13 2015
There are some things in life which fail to live up to our expectations - we build them up so much in our minds that when we eventually experience them, they are a let down. It was always going to be hard for my Kona experience to live up to the expectations that I had placed on it. All I wanted was to have an experience I will remember for the rest of my life, not too much to ask, is it? Well I need not have worried. Kona for me was everything I had hoped for and so much more. I had heard so much about the race week and the race itself, but nothing could prepare me for the spectacular place that is The Big Island, Hawaii! It really is a magical place, one of those places that it is hard to believe is real until you get there and experience it, swim in its waters and run and bike on its roads.
Any Ironman is more than the event: it is the atmosphere, the build up, the excitement and the hype. It is the culmination of months or years of effort and sacrifice, it's the cherry on top of the cake, crossing the finish line is the moment we visualize while lying exhausted on the side of the track or pushing through one more swim set or yet another challenging bike ride. What makes that finish line so special is the difficulty of getting there. This is even more so for Kona, as it is so difficult just to get here - but it is worth it. The memory of running down Ali'i drive with the crowds closing in from both sides, feeling like I was on a mountain stage in the Tour de France, high-5'ing spectators will be something I carry with me forever. Kona is special, and deservedly so, it is a dream worth working for.
During race week I got to swim with dolphins and turtles as well as experience the legendary Hawaii winds and heat first hand. I also managed to break my chain, get a flat and damage my bar tape on a single ride which meant my 3 bad things got out of the way very quickly. I didn't feel nervous for the race at all - just apprehensive about the heat and wind on the course.
The swim has a water start which means you enter the water a few minutes before the start then tread water until the cannon goes off. I positioned myself towards the front in the middle of the pack with a plan of sprinting off the line and finding clear water. This didn't happen. When the cannon went off, mayhem broke out with loads of people swimming over each other and many punches thrown. After a few minutes of fighting for survival I took a sharp left turn to move towards the outside of the pack and find some open water, which eventually allowed me to relax a bit and actually focus on swimming instead of just survival. It was the most aggressive and violent swim I have ever taken part in. The rest of the swim to the turnaround was still pretty intense but on the way back I actually managed to get everything under control and find some time, realize where I was (Hawaii) and what I was doing (swimming in the Ironman World Champs). I even got to watch some fish and imagine what they made of the mayhem they were witnessing in their usual calm and serene waters. Many people reported the swim being long with my Garmin eventually showing a distance of 4.2km.
This was mostly uneventful except I managed to get sun lotion in my eye, which meant my eye was streaming for the whole bike ride. I managed to find my bike on the first attempt (high 5 to myself!) and mount without an issue while dodging others who fell off their bikes on the mount line.
The bike was awesome! I rode to power the whole way letting people go flying ahead early on in the ride then catching many of them later on when they started to tire but I still felt good. The bike at Kona is an out and back along the Queen K, through lava fields and up a rolling climb towards the turnaround at Hawi. It is known as hot and windy bike course, with the winds frequently being at Cape Town levels but they are less consistent than Cape Town as they seem to change direction all the time. The heat is something else entirely. The air is generally pretty hot but this feeling is multiplied by heat radiating from the lava fields along the Queen K. As soon as you reach the lava fields it feel like someone has left an oven open, it's that warm. The roads on the bike course in Hawaii are really smooth and comfortable, nothing at all like the bouncy, broken up surface we are used to from PE. This makes it much easier and less tiring to ride at higher and consistent power. Aid stations were every 7 or so miles which was great as I could get a fresh bottle of water at every aid station and empty it over myself. I had heard from people that the key to riding well at Kona is to keep something in reserve for the way back from the turnaround, as when you get to about 120km there is quite a long slow climb up towards Scenic Point and then, given the usual winds, it is a tailwind all the way back to Kailua, so you can hammer it. Unfortunately when I got to Scenic Point it felt like someone had left a hairdryer on full blast! There was a serious headwind (think Cape Town south-easter level) but unlike Cape Town the wind was hot! I was really glad to have held something back as I managed to pass a lot of people in the final 30-40k even though I was just riding at the same power level I had been at all along.
By the time I arrived in T2 it was a seriously hot day. I unclipped from my bike while approaching T2 and ran through transition in my socks but by the time I reached the change tent I could feel I had burned the bottom of my right foot. There was astroturf in transition so you didn't have to run on tar, but it was just a very hot day. I changed, grabbed a few cup fulls of ice and was on my way.
The run in Kona is a 16km out and back on Ali'i drive followed by a 26km out and back on the Queen K and into the Energy Lab. Ali'i drive is beautiful, runs along the beach front and is lined with spectators. Unfortunately it is also very sheltered which means there is not a breath of wind to cool you down. As soon as I started to try to run I knew I would be fighting for survival. Coming from Cape Town winter I had been unable to run in anything close to the temperatures I was experiencing so I felt like I was slowly cooking. I started to feel nauseous and got a headache and immediately decided that I would do whatever it took to complete the race - even if I had to walk the whole marathon. My real concern was that I didn't know how my body would react to overheating. I knew I could cover the distance just fine but the real unknown was if I ran and overheated would I end up in a ball on the side of the road or in an ambulance? I hadn't come all this way and given up so much to not get a medal at the end of the day. My strategy immediately became to walk whenever necessary and run when I could. Things got a little worse when I started to develop blisters under my left foot too, due to the heat (Jan Frodeno said it was like he was running on hot coals) and I was still on Ali'i drive! I was set for a long day when I saw Cindy (my wife) on the side of the road I told her that this could be a long day but I would do whatever was necessary to complete the event. Running along the Queen K and into the energy lab is a stark contrast to the noise and excitement of Ali'i drive. Out there it is just you and your thoughts and a bunch of people who are not looking terribly happy about life :-) The Queen K also feels a lot longer when running than the cycle earlier in the day. Eventually I made it back from the desolation and into Kailua, winding down towards the most famous road in triathlon: Ali'i drive. The only way I can explain it is that it reminds me of an Alpine stage in the Tour de France. The crowds are deep and sometimes you cannot see a way through them until at the last minute a path opens. It is absolutely awesome! I managed to put on a final surge down the finishing chute to cross the finish line to the sound of Mike Reilly: You are an Ironman!
It has taken me a while to write this race report as I really wanted to let things sink in. The whole experience and race is something I will take with me forever, it really is just so special on so many levels. The island is magical, the event is epic and the whole experience is absolutely worth it. If you ever have the chance to go do this race, grab it with both hands and run, not looking back. You won't regret it!
A huge and heartfelt thanks must go to all those who supported me - it was completely overwhelming to know how many people were wishing me well through this experience. I was blown away after the race to hear so many stories of people staying up all night to follow me (sorry I took so long!) and to see the many messages that people had sent both during the race and after. A special thanks to my number 1 fan, Cindy: she has supported me on this whole journey and put up with years of grumpiness through training. I really am only able to do these things through her love and support. Thanks to Denise (Cindy's sister) for joining us in Kona. Thanks to my parents for their dedicated support over the years too - I really appreciate it! And finally to Claire who humored me when we first met and I said to her my goal was to get to Kona! Thanks for the support over the past few years and helping me to get to Kona!