Kona race report.
Ironman is an interesting event. Usually it attracts a whole mix of people and I enjoy sitting in the airport or walking around pre race looking at all shapes and sizes of the “athletes” racing. Usually you spot the weekend warriors, the tri geeks or the age grouper who trains more then the pros. It always amazes me that we are all there to do the same thing but the outcome means so many different things to so many different people.
This time it’s a little different. As I sit down on the plane I’m surrounded by clones of tanned individuals, each one looking like they have taken the skinny look a little too far as you can see every muscle and vein they have. I feel out of place (apart from the looking like a small skinny child). It’s not until the passenger next to me asks if I’m doing the race that I realise from the outside I’m the same. Had I been sat there a year ago when my whole life was focused around getting that Kona slot I would have felt part of the group but strangely now I feel like the pretender. If you read my last blog in the run up to the race you’ll know that my working life has made a habit of getting in the way of my training. In fact I hate to admit it but I had kind of lost my motivation and begun to except I was going there to complete and not compete. It was easy to do when you’re surrounded by people who think you’re crazy for training everyday let alone twice a day. You get sick of having to defend your passion, maybe Ironman racing isn’t the healthiest thing you can do for your body but compared to their hobbies of smoking, drinking or laying around on the sofa I think I’ll risk it with triathlon.
Last year when I was training at Loughborough I was surrounded by people who would push me to my limit on a daily basis. It was fun and I felt that I absorbed the positivity coming off the people I trained with. Nobody had time for your excuses, you did the training or you got left behind. These last few months that hasn’t been there, until I arrived in Kona. Suddenly there were people out on bikes or running everywhere. It was invigorating. All I wanted to do was unpack my bike and ride or run (I was still very aware there were sharks in the water so the swimming took a little more persuasion ). In fact I had to remind myself that the race was in a week and that too much panic training would only make me slower.
Over the next few days I tried to adapt to the 11 hr time difference. Working nights has made me use to adjusting my sleep patterns and I didn’t really have any issues with the jet lag. Funnily enough my whole family had decided to come out to support me. With everyone staying in the condo it felt very much like a family holiday again. There were the usual arguments over everything from what we would do each day to who got to sit in the front seat, however everyone made exceptions when it came to my training schedule or what I wanted to eat that night. I was still very much aware that this would be the only time off work I would have in 6 months so wanted to make sure I got a holiday out of it as well. We did everything from swimming with dolphins to jumping off cliffs to star gazing at the top of the worlds highest mountain. I almost forgot I was there to race and should be resting.
It’s a strange feeling being on holiday so far away from home but bumping into people you know. Whether it be riding down the road or in the supermarket there was often another GB athlete who I d met along the way. It was also nice to have the other offthatcouchfitness teammates there as well. Initially when I started triathlons a few years ago I thought I’d be on my own in Lincolnshire. Little did I know about not only the size of Lincsquad but also the depth of talent in the club. It felt good to be able to share the experience with others who had the same dreams of racing along the Queen K.
During the week we met up for a quick photo shoot along the highway. In any other setting this may have seemed a bit out of place but as I rode on afterwards I saw many an athlete posing next to the lava fields or riding behind a van with camera guys hanging out. After our brief spell of international male modeling I decided that I would continue out to the turn around at Hawi. In hind site this was both a good and bad idea. The good was that it allowed me to experience the winds on the “climb” up to Hawi. It’s more of a gentle rise that carries on for a few miles but the cross winds are something else. In fact on that ride I was struggling to hold my bike up straight and constantly being shifted into the middle of the road. I began to wonder if I would make it to the top alive as pickup trucks the size of small lorries came blaring past. Fortunately I did make it to the top however the bad side was after 3hrs riding in the wind and heat with only 2 bottles of water I resembled a shriveled prune. I started to worry how I would handle it on race day especially coming back down at high speeds. Anyway there wasn’t much I could do about it and it marked the end of serious training before the race. I only had a few more short runs to do over the next two days, the rest of the other time would be taken up by the usual Ironman rituals of registering, briefing and racking. Add in to that a bit of time to work on the tan and my week was filing up nicely. It’s also around now that I find out Gordon Ramsay is racing. I m very excited at the thought of one of my idols racing – not many of you probably know but one of my biggest passions is cooking, I’ve probably got more cook books then medical text books. My family also seem more excited at the prospect they will see Gordon and add him to their list of tracking. I know a lot of people get upset by celebrities at Kona but they do so much for advertising our sport to the masses. They also have to do the event and there are easier ones he could have picked so hats off to him.
Having done a fair few of these Ironman races by now I’m use to the routine of packing gear into bags the day before however I still get that gut churning feeling when I walk away from my bike. Still the whole process is made easier by the fact everyone has their own individual helper to hold their hand through the whole racking experience. I’m even given a step by step run through of how to get through transition. Having watched the race over the last few years it all feels slightly familiar to me.
Having excepted my less then perfect preparation for the race I feel strangely calm and passive about the whole thing. I have a perfect nights sleep and for the first time in my life wake up at 4am rearing to go. A quick breakfast of two muscle milks (quite possibly the best drink I ve ever had but somehow doesn’t actually contain milk) and two powerbars and I drop back to sleep for another half an hour – you can’t shake the student out of me that quick.
Once awake for the second time my sister Kerry drives me down to the start where I’m marked up and weighed – interestingly the women asks me if I’m happy with my weight, as if there’s a quick way to fix it pre race. After watching the sun rise the pros are off and the nerves start to kick in. I tell myself it’s nothing to worry about but actually it dawns on me I’ve swum 3 times in the last 6 weeks and yes I’m including snorkeling with dolphins as a one of those sessions. Not only that I’m about to swim out over a mile into shark infested water. The worse part is treading water for 15 mins at the start line constantly having to look below every time some one brushes past.
As soon as the cannon goes we are off and all images of sharks go out of my head as I suddenly realise I am about to drown. Everybody is fighting for position and all I seem to be able to do is swallow seawater. It stays like that pretty much till the turn around and then on the way back as if by magic everyone disappears and I’m in my own space. Now the thought of sharks come back but there’s an added distraction. I realise that there are people on surfboards lining the inside of the course. Then I realise that they are actually the most amazing Hawaiian ladies on surfboards in bikinis. My pace starts to slow as I start to sight every stroke – I need to make sure I m not swimming away from these ladies (obviously because they line the shortest route). It’s also at this point that I start to realise that my top is chaffing under my arms. In hindsight I’m not sure why I even wore it on the swim or why it’s never done that before in my wetsuit but the chaffing is starting to turn into cuts. By the time I see the welcome sight of the steps I’m certain the rest of the field is well up ahead of me. In T1 I make the mistake of putting vasaline under my arms – not a mistake in itself but it does make it hard to hold onto a set of handlebars.
The first 10 miles of the bike are through town and it’s hard to really make any headway as it’s so congested but once you hit the highway it’s long straight roads for as far as I can see. Having had such a slow swim (even slow by my standards) I can see pretty much the whole field strung out in a line in front of me. It’s like a red rag to a bull and I put my head down and start passing people. In my mind I’m only focused on catching Steve and Luke. Out to the turn around there is an amazing tail wind and I’m cruising along at 30mph till I hit the climb to Hawi. I have prepared myself for the cross winds but they never come. In fact I’m at the turnaround which is past half way in 2:20 on the bike. Even I’m a little shocked at the pace until I turn round and realise what I have to ride back into. Coming out of Hawi I spot Luke up ahead. It seems easy to catch him but it’s a lot harder to pull away and as I slow down to sort my food out he comes straight back past me. I realise I’m going to have to put in a strong effort to get away and really I need to put a good gap in before I hit the run as I’m not sure how I ll handle the heat. Riding back down the Queen K is like riding into a fan heater the only saving grace is that it’s a constant wind and not gusty. I m still passing people with relative easy. I m convinced I’m going too fast and that I’m going to blow up at some point however the longer I ride the better I feel. I think it comes down to the fact Kona s a fairly flat course which means you can ride at a constant power thus making it much easier on the legs.
Coming back into T2 I am feeling on fire, in more ways then one. I felt like I rode the course at the perfect effort for my current fitness and actually feel ready to run. Unfortunately I’m also aware that my body is seriously hot by now though I don’t feel dehydrated. I take it steady through T2 and use the opportunity to take on another few cups of water before heading out into the midday heat. Luckily by now the clouds have started to roll in and it’s actually pretty overcast. I start ticking off the first few mile along Ali drive feeling fantastic. I’m trying to hold myself back. As I approach the first turn around at 5 miles I see Steve coming the other. We share a few words of encouragement but I’m already trying to calculate the gap. I put him about 6 mins ahead of me and he looks like he’s running strong. As I also make the turn I see Luke not too far behind me, again looking like he s running well. I carry on ticking off the miles stopping only a few times for toilet stops. As we head up Palani I start to feel the tiredness seep into my legs. Out onto the highway and it’s sole destroying just running along what seems like an endless undulating road. I m still passing people slowly but it’s starting to get really hot under my cap now. I catch Steve as we make the turn to head down into the energy lab. He looks like he has slowed a lot. I pass Steve and head down the long hill longing for the turn around. It’s here where I really start to suffer. My stomachs had enough of gels and water by now and I realise that it’s not dehydration I’m suffering from but lack of salt. My legs aren’t so much tiered as just not working the way I want them to. I m beginning to get cramps in my feet and after poring so much water over myself all day they are beginning to blister. It’s like flipping a switch – I go from running strong to a crippled mess within one mile. As I reach the highway again Steve passes me like I’m standing still. I try to go with him but I’ve got nothing and what’s worse is I m beginning to not care about my finish time (it takes me back to Wales where I passed him at the start of the run only for him to come back strong later in the race. I think he does it just to toy with me). I know this is a bad sign as I’ve had it happen many a time before in races. To keep going without addressing the issues means a long walk to the finish. I’m waiting for Luke to come past me at any point now. At the next aid station I go in search of anything salty I can lay my hands on. I stuff pretzels down myself and take another gel on. I’m toeing a fine line between rectifying the mess and opening a whole new can of stomach cramps. Anyway after another few minutes of walking it seems to work and I m able to run from aid station to aid station finally reaching the turn back down Palani. I can see Steve down near the bottom and try to pick up the pace but my body just won’t respond. As I finally make it back to Ali Drive I can see him in the distance. I want to try and sprint for it but there’s nothing there and as I run past a fellow competitor who is passed out on the floor seeking medical attention I remember that I came her to finish.
I’ve never wanted to finish a race so much and the line comes as a welcome relief. As I cross the line I’m hit by a wave of sadness, not because I lost out to Steve by only 30 seconds but because it’s all over. Ever since I heard about triathlon Ironman was all I wanted to do, when I found out about Kona I knew I would race there. Last year I chased my Kona spot all over Europe and when I finally qualified it was a sense of relief. It was a great feeling all year to know you were going. It gave me a reason to go out in the wind, rain and snow over the winter and then again in the summer to ramp up the training. But as I stood there I realised the journey was at its end.
After the race it was great to be able to share it with Luke and Steve. When it comes down to the racing triathlon is a very individual sport however being part of a team or club really helps you through the tough moments. I’d like to thank Steve for including me and sorting out the sponsors this year. Having the guys at Scott Running, Metres to Miles and Zone 3 offer their support is really motivating.
Still having a few days on the island meant I could really enjoy all it has to offer. It also gave me time to think about what’s next. There’s a part of me that just wants to jump straight back into Ironman and try to get there again – I know I can do better out there. Then there’s the part of me that realises that I need to give the island the respect it deserves and that I shouldn’t come back till I have the opportunity to prepare properly. There are points in the future where I know I will be able to take more extended periods of time off work and really prepare the way I would want so before that I think next year I m going to stick to half IM and work on the speed. It won’t be long till I enter another race and set the wheels in motion for 2014. What’s for sure is that finishing Kona hasn’t laid any dreams to rest – it’s ignited a new desire.